2013 Chilean Adventures

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This is the story of our trip to Chile in the Southern Hemisphere summertime (February 2013).  The centerpiece was a cruise from Puerto Montt, in the Lake District or northern Patagonia depending on which guidebook you read, along the Chilean coast.  We concluded with a stay in Puerto Varas, a small town on Lake Llanquihue, Chile’s largest lake.

The trip began in Santiago before moving on south, for personal reasons - but we’d strongly recommend the reverse (especially if you choose the Puerto Natales option for the cruise), as it is much easier to plan the travel if you break the return with a stop in Santiago.  It’s a long overnight flight from anywhere in the US to Santiago, although as Chile is just two hours ahead of EST, adapting to the new day is relatively easy compared to a flight to Europe.  Connecting to, or from, a domestic flight in the Santiago airport is easy; all gates are in the same terminal and just a quick elevator ride away.  Remember for the return flight to the US there is excellent shopping inside the international gate area in case you didn’t find that last souvenir!

We have some photos on this page but at the bottom are links to several "photo albums" with shots from our trip.

Santiago was very warm and humid, as expected for a summer visit.  We’d hoped to see the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Santiago, only to discover it was closed for most of 2013 for remodeling.  So we visited a very attractive craft center, Los Dominicos, well worth the time (and money!), the Central Market with its incredible seafood displays, and the neighboring produce market.  The cultural center below ground at the Palacio Moneda, the Chilean White House, was a definite plus.  And we greatly enjoyed a day trip to the Concha y Torres winery.   

Then we headed for Puerto Montt and our ship.  Dick stopped here thirty years ago and remembered a small town whose fishing industry relied on sails, with horse-drawn carts collecting the catch at the end of the day.  No more!  Puerto Montt has grown exponentially since then, sadly losing most of its original character in the process.  We enjoyed a good meal at El Andén in the small Tren del Sur hotel on the hillside, and a pleasant night’s stay in the Holiday Inn Express on the waterfront – but if we returned we would definitely go to Puerto Varas instead for the overnight prior to boarding the ship.  The transfer from Puerto Varas would not take much more time, and it is smaller and more attractive.  (Boarding the ship the night before departure is also an option, but the dock is far from the center of Puerto Montt, and we concluded post-trip that one more night on the ship would not have been the best option.)

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Painting of Harbor of Angelmo, Puerto Montt in 1982 by Manuel Maldonado Barria (Manoly)

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Skorpios II in Puerto Montt before the cruise

The Skorpios II sailed from Chinchihue pier in the extensive Puerto Montt port complex.  This small ship (55 cabins) is part of a group founded by a Greek family, which is still active in its management.  The newer Skorpios III sails from Puerto Natales, much further south.   Skorpios II goes to the San Rafael Glacier, with intermediate stops at a small village where you can climb to an overlook, and at thermal baths where the Kochifas family has a summer home – and large dining hall for a gala barbecue for the ship.

On the final day the ship docked in Castro on the island of Chiloé for several hours, allowing an exploration of the town.

The landscape was not as spectacular as we’d expected, but that was due in part to bad weather; sunny days would make a big difference!  Summer in the lower half of Chile is largely distinguished from winter by rain instead of snow; several days the temperature in El Paso was about the same as that of southern Chile!  On departing the region we saw in the local press that the first two weeks of February had been exceptionally wet!  So we generally opted for walks on shore rather than the boat excursions along the fjord or glacier.  The small village, Puerto Aguirre, was testimony to the tremendous isolation of this part of Chile, only relieved slightly by the construction of the Carretera Austral, or Southern Road.  The national government is promoting web access for the schools in all these rural areas, but that in itself changes little about their physical isolation.  The only connection for most small towns along the coast is by boat, and their poverty is evident. 

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Boats in Puerto Aguirre at low tide

The Skorpios passengers were quite congenial.  Most were from Chile, with a smattering of other countries (16 in all).  As evident gringos we were assigned to the “English” table, which had an Australian couple, an English couple, a Swiss (German-speaking) couple, and a Dutch-Spanish couple who’ve lived in Brazil for many years.  Elsewhere were a French couple, two more Americans, a Mexican, etc.  By the end of the cruise we were all on first-name terms and exchanging emails.  Our waiter, Marcelo, was a real sweetheart, never out of sorts regardless of what he was asked to do.  

And the food he brought!  The Chilean idea of breakfast seems to consist of lots of left-over pie, tarts, and other sweets, with a side of ham and cheese.  Juice freshly squeezed every day.  Following a morning excursion lunch would be served at 1, and none of this sandwich or soup nonsense, a full meal – and full bottles of wine.  As one emptied another replaced it.  Strict discipline was required to keep track of how much wine you’d consumed.  Perhaps the crew hoped that everyone would take an afternoon nap!  Just in case you didn’t have enough lunch, tea was served at 5, with plenty of cookies.  Following that the bars would be in full swing, with little appetizers to accompany the pisco sours.  Then dinner at 8:30 or 8:45….and, yes, more wine to go with another full meal.  It would be interesting to see where they kept all the provisions for six days of this for a hundred passengers!

The final night on the ship was the Captain’s dinner, tuxedo not required but at least something along the lines of a nice dress or jacket.  Lots of photos were taken with the captain and with each waiter.   The hardier stayed up dancing, but as wake-up was early the next day we went off to bed.  (And I really mean wake-up, every morning over the speakers in each cabin wakeup began with bird calls, followed by “wakey wakey” in both English and Spanish.  Impossible to ignore!) 

We transferred from the ship to Puerto Varas, on Lake Llanquehue, Chile’s largest lake at 330 square miles, nearly 40 miles across.  Looming over the lakefront, when you can see it, is the Osorno volcano, a winter ski destination.  Puerto Varas is a pleasant town, settled largely by German immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.   Many of the old shingled homes have been preserved,  and it is quite walkable.  There are many more good restaurants than you might expect in a town of this size, thanks to its extensive tourist season.  We also explored further along the lake and dined at Latitude 42, (not really at latitude 42 but at kilometer 42) one of the best restaurants in the area.  

Our principal excursion here was to Chiloé Island, bypassing Castro except for lunch on shore, as we’d already been there!   Chiloé is huge, larger than Puerto Rico, but sparsely settled, with about 200,000 inhabitants.  This year LAN Chile instituted a few flights each week to Santiago.  Other travel has to be by a 30-minute ferry ride “to the continent.”  We meandered about the island, beginning in Ancud, where we visited the local market – and saw some extraordinary produce, including cochayuyo, a giant seaweed, which is apparently used to quiet teething babies, due to its somewhat narcotic properties.  The museum in Ancud is quite good, with newly refurbished exhibits (the opening of which was attended by the president and several cabinet members) – but only labeled in Spanish, suggesting they don’t expect many visitors who can’t at least read Spanish.   We also visited an interpretive center for the island’s remarkable wooden churches – there are dozens of them, all built centuries ago when there was literally no metal on the island, hence no nails could be used.  We saw several of them as we drove about (or rather were driven, with an accompanying bilingual guide who is in fact a composer and musician generally resident in Santiago).  

The other excursion was the lakeside drive to Latitude 42, another time when we could not see the volcano!  It did appear just before we prepared to leave – and is indeed quite dramatic. See photo.  The remainder of the time was spent just walking about the town and exploring its craft shops and fairs.  Each town or airport seems to have a different selection, but almost all feature items of lapis lazuli or malachite, both produced in Chile, and of course the iconic copper, plus wool in many forms – even skeins of knitting wool in a rainbow of colors.  We acquired our share, including a carved penguin and a knitted penguin along with some beautiful jewelry.  But the best souvenirs are the photos – and the memories of interesting places and people.

Below are links to photos of the trip.


 

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Richard W. Tripp, Jr.