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Chile: 1st Nov -3rd Dec

( Sue and I at Grey Glacier, [Torres del Paine National Park) waving with our respective flags!) Chile: We landed in Santiago at 0615 on 1st November after an uneventful flight with LanChile, with a touchdown at Lima, from Los Angeles (despite the heavy security: rifling thru all luggage, taking shoes off, “heavy petting” from surly security guards in LA!) Once settled into our very cosy hotel in the Plaza Brasil area of Santiago (very Bohemian, with square ringed by palms and shaded by lime and silk cotton trees) we did an initial orientation. The first thing you noticed were the mighty hills, 40-50kms away, ringing one side of the city. Yes indeed, they are the mighty Andes: Cordillera de los Andes to give them their proper name. These are indeed hills! Santiago is our first South American city and it was immediately obvious we were no longer in North America. Everything was humming like a bazaar ALL THE TIME. Santiago has a population of 5 million people and it looks like they are all out on the streets at the same time! The noise, the traffic, those horrendous yellow buses called Micros, racing along the Avenida Alameda. Is this how a training ground for motor racing? And the weather: it is about between 27 & 30 odd degrees Celcius each day. Fortunately, at this time of year, Santiago´s infamous smog is not too bad but you can see a a yellowish pall hanging over the city when you are a distance away. We noticed this in particular when we went down to the coast for a day to Valparaiso. The very name Valparaiso is redolent of past times, colonial mansions, corsairs and foreign ships in port. We took the public bus (4quick80 each for a 240km return trip, see ) to this seaside city (Chile´s legislative capital). It is built on the slopes of numerous hills with very steep access roads (far steeper than anything we saw in San Francisco and with the mad local traffic to match). There are 15 ascensores (funiculars) throughthe they city linking various levels with one another. Taking them at a cost of 10p (yes 10p) certainly saved the old legs doing needless work. And what fun they are anyway – all very ancient and clanking their way up and down. You get magnificent views of the city and bay/harbour area beneath you; whilst the hillsides are littered with tiny alleyways ) like the “closes” of Edinburgh and houses seem to be built on top of each other, some on impossible slopes and most painted a myriad of bright primary colours. Valparaiso, like San Francisco, was badly flattened by an earthquake in 1906 – not sure if it was the same one? Even “splashed” out and spent 1quid on a 30 minute boat trip around the harbour area, with again impressive views of the city seemingly rising from the sea in tiers of habitation. We also visited the house of the late Pablo Neruda – Chile´s Nobel Prize winning poet. This houses all his art and eccentric tastes he collected. “Night, snow, and sand make up the form of my thin country; all silence lies in its long line” (Pablo Neruda´s Discoverers of Chile, 1950). (In case you are wondering at the absend of the pound sign: it does not exist on my PC with Spanish keyboard and hey, why should it???) But back to Santiago first: there are many fine old buildings – Ricocco and German Gothic styles, plus enormous neolithic structures from the good old dictatorship days. Say what you like about dictatorships: they knew how to build impressive buildings and run an efficient public transport system. Perhaps that is where Britain is going wrong with its transport system? We have been using the excellent, modern and efficient Metro (32p a ticket anywhere) and the local buses which cost on average 26p for trips of upto 40 minutes in duration! Other Santiago sights: no end of stray dogs lying stretched out in the sun in roads, on pavements; and they do not budge for anybody! Popped into the Basilica del Salvador cathedral and the bishop just happened to be saying Mass (it was Sunday morning after all); the placed was packed and singing, etc reverberating inside the massive structure was quite moving. As we came outside, two mounted policemen were positioned right outside the massive wooden doors. This was an archetypal scene: the church and the military in conjunction. We also visited the smart areas of Las Condes and Providencia: this is where Santiago´s smart set live, where you see brand new cars, where houses have high walls and railings, US-style shopping centres, etc. We are glad our hotel is in the real Santiago. Oh and we saw El Presidente (Ricardo Lago) whizzing by in a motorcade as we were strolling next to the river. A motorcycle policeman heralded this convoy; he stopped in the middle of a busy intersection, blew his whistle, raised his arm an stopped all traffic from all 4 directions. Moments later the motorcade with a big Mercedes in the middle, whistled by. There you are! On the food front we have sampled a wide variety of meats in various shapes and forms, all washed down with copious ceverza´s. And the pre-meal drink of choice is of course the “pisco sour”: a type of brandy with lemon juice, dash of sugar and egg white on the top....very, very, very refreshing and tasty. Our best restaurant so far was one just around the corner from the hotel LAS VACAS GORDAS – THE FAT COW. I am sure she must have a website somewhere. If not, she deserves one. Also squeezed in a wine tour to the Concho y Toro vineyard, about 40kms south of the city. Again, got there by public transport at a total cost of ...wait for it....57p each one way. Admittedly, on the downward journed we had an aspiring stock-car driver at the wheel, but once I had unclenched by teeth and buttocks on the leaving the bus, I felt much better. And the wine helped to mellow things as well. Tomorrow (Thurs 6th Nov), we fly on south to Puerto Montt where we spend 10 days exploring that area and the island of Chiloe; then fly further south to Punta Arenas for a further 10 days: we hope to get to Tierra del Fuego from here and a possible foray into Argentina as well. The next section of our travels will follow from Terra Austral de Chileno in due course, as well as some pics from here. CHILE PART 2: Thursday 6 Nov: A 2 hour flight from warm and sunny Santiago saw us arrive in a very wet, cold, blustery and generally dreich Puerto Montt. It was just like a typical day in Scotland weatherwise! (Despite having been allocated lefthand side seats – to get the best views of the Andes – when we bought our tickets; on checking in we got righthand side seats. Ergo – we did not get those classic views after all. Hey – shit happens! We got the local bus from Puerto Montt Aeropuerto into the town centre: mobbed with people milling about everywhere, in the streets, on what passed for pavements, dogs sauntering about, minibuses scooting back and forth like angry hornets, people selling all sorts of things and foodstuffs from a variety of stalls. We soon mastered the art of using these wee buses: just stick your hand out and it stops, you pay your 250 pesetas (25pence) and you can go as far as you like or dare! We booked ourselves into the clean and comfy Hotel Montt on the waterfront; then hit the streets to see what else was on offer? No English spoken at any of the tour operators and there was not much clear into to be found either. But we booked ourselves onto a wee minibus excursion for the next day. Had supper at Club Aleman (The German Club) where we had Kassler Ribs and Bratwurst and Beer. As you do when in Puerto Montt!!! We duly went on our minibus tour (4 Swedes, 2 Germans, 3 Chileans, the 2 of us and our driver/guide Omar. He provided minimal commentary in any language so was not much use from that point of view. Due to rain all day (which got heavier as the day progressed), we saw nothing of surrounding mountainscapes or of volcanoes Orsono and Calpuco, but did see some rather splendid waterfalls (wonder where all that aqua comes from?) Drove through lovely lush countryside, with fields full of fat cattle, lots of broom and gorse lining the road verges and some very rustic but smart looking cabins for rent as self-catering options. Oh yes, and some signs advertising KUCHEN (cake) for sale! Not sure if we were in Germany, Scotland or Chile at times!!! On arrival back at Puerto Montt, we decided to try and escape this wet weather and o booked tickets on the bus for the next day to Patagonia in Argentina. Destination the town of San Carlos de Barlioche, a 7 hour journey. We celebrated this decision with a Pisco Sour and sandwich at the Café Dresden watching the rain bounce off the street outside. CHILE PART 3: Back in Puerto Montt, where needless to say the weather was its normal blustery wet self, from our first foray into Argentina; we then hired a car (nice new Peugoet 307) and drove the first section of the Camino Austral – the 1,000+km ripio (gravel) Southern Highway, which starts at Puerto Montt and finishes one thousand odd kilometers and many potholes later at the small community of Villa O´Higgins (Puerto Yungay). Beyond here the icefields of the Campo de Hielo Sur prevent any further road building. We did the first 46km section upto the first ferry crossing at La Arena (crossed as foot passengers to Puelche on other side and back – it is free if you go as a foot passenger – the first mate was very friendly, knew all about Scotland and even invited us up onto the bridge for the crossing). Then crossed with car this time from Pargua on mainland to Chacao on the island of Chiloe where we spent the weekend. Chiloe (250km long) is famous for its small fishing villages, picturesque painted wood churches dating back to the Jesuit colonial past and for its appalling weather – i.e. wet, wet, wet. And it did not disappoint on that score! That explains the thick green forests and lush vegetation covering most of the island. We did not, however, encounter any of the legendary witches said to inhabit the island. But I did try the local speciality dish – Curanto – a meat and seafood stew: tasty despite the odd combination of ingredients. We stayed at Conchi – a very busy little harbour, which is the supply point for salmon farms as far south as Coyhaique. Fascinated, we stood watching endless trucks reversing and jostling for position onto the pier where they offloaded their cargo onto their respective waiting supply ships. Organised chaos, but it worked very well. The trucks had their own on-board cranes for off-loading, would find their ship, and start winching crates of smolts, bags of fish feed, etc onboard or take off huge deep-sea trawling nets. The cranes looked like prehistoric monsters feeding, as their jibs went up and down, loading and offloading. After Chiloe, we flew still further south to Punta Arenas (our most southerly port of call to date). This time we had breathtaking views of the Andean giants as we flew south – we got seats on the correct (left) side of the plane and the weather was clear! We were back in Southern Patagonia – a spectacular land of fragmenting glaciers and teetering icy peaks. Punta Arenas is a very European-style city – neatly laid out and bustling – also very, very windy. But that at least kept the rain away. We found a very neat and comfy B&B which offered brekkie US-style: cereal, eggs, toast, cakes, cheese and ham, lots of coffee – brilliant! Punta Arenas has a big naval base and military presence – another signal to neighbouring Argentina that this bit of Patagonia belongs to Chile and not them! Both countries appear to vie to have opposite towns down here ostensibly to keep an eye on one another. Went on an excursion on the ro-ro ferry Melinka to Isla Magdalena – 38kms north of PA across the Strait of Magellan (as used by Sir Francis Drake, Charlie Darwin, et al): 2 hr sailing each way with 1 hr on the island itself. En route the good ship Melinka was followed all the way by Southern Giant Petrels and Black-Browed Albatrosses – skimming low over the dark blue/leaden coloured icy waters – swooping over the emerald-green ship´s wake and gliding across the ship´s bows. We also spotted Antarctic Skuas, Dominican Gulls, King Cormorants and a huge Southern Fur Seal aqua-planing along next to the ship. On arrival at Isla Magdalena, the ship dropped its ramp onto the shingly beach and we all strolled ashore – aka D-Day landings! There are about 120,000 Magellanic Penguins on the island: it is nesting season so most were in their burrows keeping eggs warm, their quizzical faces staring out at us as if to say “ who are all these f…. people gawping at us again?” It was incrediably windy and cold, despite the bright sunshine and blue sky above. This trip brought back vivid memories of my year (1975/76) on Marion Island in the sub-Antarctic: the penguins, the smell of guano, the noisy braying, the wind – all of it! Marvellous. The return trip was very bumpy as we were sailing into the swell and wind: quite a few of the passengers were very green around the gills! We then travelled a bit further north ( by Bus Fernandez) to Puerto Natales where we based ourselves for 4 days: to chill out in Chile and visit Torres del Paine National Park. The bus journed to Puerto Natales was through quite arid countryside (reminded me of the Karoo region in South Africa): flat with stunted shrubs, lots of fat Merino sheep and their spring lambs with big “estancias” along the road. Puerto Natales is situated on the shores of Fjord Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope Fjord) with Balmaceda and Serrano Glaciers on Mount Balmaceda (5m) as a fabulous backdrop at the far end of the fjord. This stretch of water got its name after the unsuccessful attempt by the Spanish explorer Juan de Ladrillero who tried to find a sea route in 1557 from the Pacific to the Atlantic – it turned out to be his Last Hope! Thursday 20th Nov: we were up at the crack of dawn (literally as this happened at 0630) for our full day excursion with Comapa Turismo into the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. As we were the first to be picked up, we got prime seats right in front behind the driver. There were only 9 tourists in total in a 20-seater, so not crammed at all, accompanied by our driver Ramon and very well informed guide Christian who had a good grasp of English – which helped!! The weather was very promising with only high cloud and lots of sunshine, although windy. It is ALWAYS WINDY in this neck of the world. The park entrance gate was 150kms north of Punta Arenas along gravel roads – very good mostly but with the occasional first-gear, boulder-strewn, bone-rattling section! Our first stop was at the massive Cave Milodon: 50m wide, 200m deep and 30m high, where the prehistoric remains of the Ground-sloth were found in 1895. A plastic model of this beast in the cave does not, somehow, appear as naff as it maybe should. Coffee-stop at Villa Cerro Castilla (which is also a border post with Argentina) and we were off again, across pampas country with lots of cattle and fat sheep and some very fancy estancias (some now with cabanas, as agri-tourism is obviously a world-wide feature, due to the decline in normal farming everywhere). Saw rheas (like emus), striated caracara (raptor) and about 10 huge Condors circling over some desolate scrubland – there must have been something on the ground to awaken their interest? The Cordillera Paine was getting closer all the time – eventually totally filling the windscreen of the minibus. Passed Lago Sarmiento and entered the Parque at Laguna Amarga Porteria (gate), stopped at Lago Nordenskjold viewpoint for our first full-in-the-face view of the Paine Massif – very impressive views of the Cuernos (Horns) del Paine (2600+m) next to the main peak of Cerro Paine Gande (3050m). Unfortunately the tops of the Torres (Towers) del Paine were hidden in mist and swirling cloud, but we did see the bottom bits. The Horns were just as impressive however. (Paine comes from the Tehuelche word for the colour blue). The Torres del Paine are very, very, very impressive. Few places on earth can compete with these 1,000m vertical shafts of basalt with conical tops, sitting on steep forested slopes. They are the remains of frozen magma in ancient volcanic throats – everything else has been eroded away. And everywhere there are the brightly turquoise coloured lakes and glaciers. Also came across herds of guanacos – odd looking beasts, of the camel family, but look more like llamas. Lunch stop at Cabanas del Paine restaurant reached by walking across a wee footbridge spanning a swirling greenish-bluish river. tasty lamb meal was had by all! Last stop of the day was at Lago Grey to see the Grey Glacier and get real close to the big chunks of ice which had broken off and were driven ashore on the lakes black beach by the ever-present Patagonian gales. A very alien sight to see all these massive ice-blocks “beached” as it were. This was truly a highlight day!!! Fri/Sat 21—22 Nov: spent resting up in Puerto Natales, changed accommodation due to over-booking, even managed to find a latte (yes, a latte) accompanied by toasted banana and peanut-butter sandwich at an Englisn-run café called El Living. Very nice, also to be able to speak English with othe folk again. We certainly do miss not being able to have a proper conversation with people. Ordering meals, requesting accommodation in Spanish is all very well, but not being able to talk about everyday things is a bit wearing after a while! On Sunday, a friend of one of Sue´s Napier Univ colleagues, is coming to pick us up from neighbouring Argentina. They run an estancia near Rio Gallegos, just over the border from here. We plan to spend a couple of days with them, before heading north 300kms to Calafate on shores of Lago Argentino to explore the Los Glaciares National Park area and its massive Perito Moreno Glacier and surrounds of massive Mount Fitz Roy (3405m) – named after the Captain of Darwin´s ship, the Beagle. So, our adventures continue next on the ARGENTINA PAGE – go and have a look!! (Torres del Paine pic below)

Turbus bus service