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- Visiting South America
CHILE IN WINTER
"A good traveler has no fixed plans," said Lao Tzu, a philosopher of ancient China. I wish I could travel this way but alas I am bound to squeeze my annual tours within summer vacations else I would lose all my teaching assignments.
This summer, I covered Chile. On 28th June 08, I flew from Karachi, Pakistan. With three plane changeovers at Dubai, London and Atlanta, I reached Santiago, Chile. It took me 43 hours including 29 hours of flying time causing fatigue and weakness. I had collected all useful tips through internet and proceeded accordingly once I cleared immigration and customs. I looked for a sign “TurBus” airport shuttle. On finding it, I reached its counter with a printout of my hostel reservation and a US 10-dollar bill. Looking at my dropping eye-lids, the staff was kind enough to immediately take me to a waiting mini-van. I slid down on the first available seat and dozed off. In about 30-minutes, the van driver tapped my shoulder and pointed out to a sign “ATACAMA HOSTEL”. Soon I was sleeping like a log in a comfortable room.
In layers of clothes
Later in the evening, I stepped out of my room, paid room rent @US $36 per night, fetched a city-map and went out for a long walk. The hostel was located in a fashionable area called “Providencia”. It was humming with activities. There were many bars, shopping arcades, restaurants and cafes. I sipped cappuccino in a roadside café enjoying the orderly traffic passing by. It was quite cold but I was wrapped in layers of clothes. After coffee, I continued walking just in one direction. This proved very rewarding as I passed by old churches, lively markets, shady parks and colorful street life set against a wonderful backdrop of snow capped mountains. I was in for a surprise when I saw an illuminated statue of Virgin Mary on a nearby hill. A little further, I saw well-paved canal which turned out to be a tamed river, Rio Mapocho.
Main purpose of my visit to Chile was to see Patagonia, known the world over for its spectacular snow-capped mountains, unique landscapes, untouched forests, fjords, icebergs and penguins. I had two choices: air travel or a combination of rail, bus and ferry. Since I had a lot of time, I opted for the second. To start with, I booked a berth, paying US$390, on a ferry named “Puerto Eden”, operated by Navimag Ferries. The ferry would depart on 7th July 08 from Puerto Montt, a city 1,016 km south of Santiago. I had about 6 days to reach there.
Santiago and around
- Virgin Mary Statue
The Statue amid Beautiful Terrace with views of Santiago and nearby locations.
Next day, I planned to see Statue of Virgin Mary. I sought directions from passersby whom I found very friendly. Moreover, Santiago was easy to master, as the main attractions were located in a small downtown. To reach the Statue, I went to “Baquedano” using the most efficient and clean subway. Once there, I followed the signs to the monument. Crossing Mapocho River, I entered Bellavista which was flowing with handicraft shops, cultural attractions and bars. The streets were tree-lined with wide footpaths. Road-side cafes offered soup, salad and sandwich. Soon the Santiago famous landmark, San Cristobal Hill was in sight. At the reception desk, I got a ticket for ride in a funicular rail paying about two dollars to go to the top of 1,200 feet high hill. Crowning the hilltop were beautiful tiered gardens and an impressive 15m-high statue of the Virgin Mary. I remained there for an hour enjoying the spectacular view of the city below and the winding Mapocho River in its midst.
CATCHING THE FERRY
After staying for three nights, I decided to move to Puerto Montt. Since it was far away, I broke my journey for one night at “Concepcion”, a university town like Boston in USA. Besides, I stopped about 20 km short of Puerto Montt in a highly recommended spot, Puerto Varas. It was a charming little village on the shore of Lake Llanquihue in the backdrop of a beautiful volcano with a perfect cone something like Fujiyama of Japan. The town had wood-shingled homes, a rose-encircled plaza and a colorful “Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón” clearly exhibiting German influence. Many outdoor cafés offered all manner of rich pastries, pies, and black forest cakes.
On 7th July, I reached Navimag Office at Puerto Montt. There was no activity or hustle bustle except for two passengers talking in a strange languagewith a uniformed lady. Later she turned to me introducing herself as Monica Arias Farfan and proceeded on a long-winded narrative in the same language. When I gave her a blank face, she switched over to crisp English and told me that the ship departure had been delayed by two days due to bad weather. That reminded me of the old maxim: “He who hurries loses his time.”
To while away the time, I went around the city of Puerto Montt and its surroundings. The waterfront on the Pacific Ocean offered a quick and pleasant stroll any time. I kept on moving towards the end of the city till I reached a bay known as Angelmo. It had a small fish market but a long line of Cocinerias or “Kitchen Restaurants”. I picked up one, ordered Paila Marina, a traditional Chilean seafood stew with garlic, onion and coriander leaves. I could see the whole cooking process as the entire place was just a small room filled with delicious cooking smell. It heightened my appetite and I tried to swallow the entire bowl the moment it was placed on my table.
- Navimag Ferries
Official website of the company
THE FERRY MOVES
At last, “Puerto Eden”, the cargo-cum-passenger ferry sailed on 9th July with loads of cars, trucks, horses and cows but only 25 passengers. In a peak season, it could accommodate 225 passengers in its 52 cabins and 20 berths. Though I had a booking for a berth, I was upgraded to “A-type” cabin with four bunkers, porthole and a sink. A private restroom was located outside. Besides me, there were two other passengers, Neil Copland from Scotland and Maurice Ardila from Columbia.
Leaving the port, the ferry sailed between Chiloe Island and the mainland. I went up to the top deck. The ferry was passing through a narrow channel and I could see the shoreline on both sides. I spotted many flamingos, sea-lions, ducks, penguins, turtles and dolphins. It was a reminiscent of “Inside Passage” of Alaska which I did about three years ago.
About two days after, the ship entered the open sea known as Golfo de Penas. The sail became rough when the ferry went into a pitching and rolling spree. Passengers prone to motion sickness were advised to take medication. It lasted for 10 to 12 hours, after which the ferry re-entered a narrow Messier Channel and once again calm prevailed. The route became increasingly scenic, the channel became narrower and the snow peaks got closer.
The ferry arrived at its final port of call, Puerto Natales on 12th July 08. Due to extreme cold, the town was completely deserted but flamingos, swans and seagulls greeted the visitors.
I dragged my carryon to a nearby guesthouse, known as hospedaje, and got a room with breakfast for only US$ 15 per day. I asked the manager, a charming lady to book me on the next day trip to the national park and paid US$36 in advance.
Early in the next morning, when I stepped inside a minivan, I was glad to find Neil, a fellow I met in Navimag Ferry. This was good omen. The van moved towards the National Park, about 112 km away. The road was decent but bumpy. The van stopped briefly at a pre-historic cave, a handicraft store and at many places to watch the wildlife specially red & gray foxes, guanacos, various types of deer like huemul, pudu and giant condors.
The final destination was Tores del Paine National Park comprising mountains, glaciers, rivers and lakes. It housed three 3,000-meter high granite towers, said to be one of the most-difficult to climb. I had just a glimpse of them from various look outs. I wish I could go right to the base but the approach was difficult compounded by freezing winds. Nevertheless, many enterprising young men were seen hiking towards the peaks with heavy backpacks loaded with food and camping gears. One could go on 6-day circuit around the Towers.
At one spot, the van stopped and the visitors were given two hours to explore the area. I along with Neil headed towards Lake Grey. Crossing a river, we entered a small valley and came near base of a large glacier. Just a little ahead was a lake, Lago Grey, dotted with ice-bergs of different colors: blue, grey and golden. Moving along the edge of the lake we stepped on black sand and pebbles to reach a small hill. There was a good track leading to its top which served as a perfect look-up for enjoying an awesome terrain where mountains, forests and lakes mingled with each other. The lookout had good wooden benches and it was treat to munch biscuits and crackers with hot coffee Neil had fished out of his mini-pack.
The return was equally pleasant as the park was adorned with bushes and trees in striking shapes and color. There were clearly marked paths and basic shelters, “Refugios” inviting the visitors for 4 to 10 days trekking.
On the last leg of my tour, I left for Punta Arenas on bus. This was the coldest place being the furthermost human settlement on earth, quite near to Antarctica. Once again, I got a very decent hostel for about 32 dollars per night with a sumptuous breakfast and a 24-hour access to internet. But I became worried about my return flight as I had been advised to book it as early as possible. My lethargy came in the way and, when I approached various airlines, the earliest I could get a seat was six days away. Naturally, I got worried about spending the time in the little town. To solve it, I hit the internet and contacted Thorn Tree Forum of www.lonelyplanet.com asking for suggestions. Lo and behold, I received, in about an hour, as many as ten emails recommending a mini-zoo, Zona Franca (duty free zone), a historical cemetery with most imposing mausoleums built by wealthy families, a nice Museum with fine marble floors and frescoes, and “Fuerte Bulnes” - a Chilean Fort located about 60 km away over a rocky hill.
I went to all these places besides having endless walks in the city full of old mansions, tree-lined boulevards, well-kept gardens with huge araucaria
trees (monkey puzzle trees). A real surprise was launching of fireworks from the Strait of Magellan promenade and a Winter Carnival with street musicians and dancing girls having scanty dresses and colorful headgears.
ON THE WAY BACK TO SANTIAGO
On 20th July, I took the flight for Puerto Montt but due to bad weather, it was diverted to a nearby town of Valdivia. It was a blessing in disguise as I had landed in a city of five rivers. My next two days were well-spent in browsing river-side markets and boat cruises.
Next destination was Pucan, a small town located at the foot of a live Volcano, Villarrica. It offered good food plus opportunities for mountaineering, horse riding, fly-fishing and cultural tours. It reminded me of Jackson Hole of Wyoming in USA in its earlier days. My main interest was a hot spring thermal bath. For US $ 22, the hostel arranged a tour which took me and other fellows to a spot with 5 small pools with temperatures ranging between 35° and 42°degrees. It was very refreshing and thrilling to dip in the hot pools one after another.
I returned to Santiago by a sleeping bus which though expensive (US $115) proved very comfortable. I still had three days to leave for home. I went to a city, Valparaiso, about 120 km away and said to be second biggest city in Chile. There were nice cafes with the view onto the sea. Also, it offers a ride in an old cabin train which climbed up the steep hillside offering a panoramic view of the sea.
Finally on 29th July, I left for home with sweet memories.