Tuesday 19 December 2017: Roger
Departing Auckland in the evening on a new LAN Airlines Boeing 797-900 we had a reasonably comfortable flight in their roomy, lie-flat business class seats. Landing in Santagio mid-afternoon on Tuesday we were met by a guide and a driver.
Kirstie, my youngest daughter, returned from here last Tuesday, she and her team mates having won a gold medal in the UCI track cycling World Cup team pursuit race.
As we drove the 30-odd minutes to the Hotel Luciano K the guide gave us a non stop run down on the town and surrounding areas. Situated in a basin about 120 km from the coast it is now dry and hot but not humid – the 31 degrees didn’t seem too uncomfortable. From September until March it rarely rains here. A number of severe earthquakes over the years have destroyed most of the old buildings so the architecture is quite bland; all modern buildings are built to withstand a 9 plus quake. After checking into the hotel with its colourful floors and antique concertina doors we took a stroll.
First stop was Santa Lucía, an old fort. The 69m Hill was first conquered by the Spanish in 1540 and used largely as a lookout. In 1816 a fort was built here with two castles, one facing north, the other south. With 12 guns each they gave the area good protection. It is now a nice park with lots of steep uneven steps.
It also hosted some good views over the city.
Next stop was the art gallery, which is in quite a unique building, similar in some ways to some old European railway stations.
We crossed the chocolate coloured Mapocho River, looking like one could dip a mug in, chuck it in the microwave and drink the steaming brew. A bit of research buggered that theory. It is only this colour when the river is low in the dry season: a combination of a couple of copper mines discharging waste directly and around 29% of the city’s raw sewerage being discharged directly into the river creates the colour.
Across the river there are lots of stalls and pretty basic large bars with the horrible smell of wacky backy drifting out from many of them. Graffiti in various forms lines the building walls.
Soon we came across a pretty little mall called Bella Vista full of nice shops and restaurants. We enjoyed a great fish meal at Puerto Bella Vista before returning to our hotel, the day over.
Wednesday 20 December: Sylvia
After a leisurely breakfast we were picked up and transferred to the airport for our three-hour-twenty-minute flight to Punta Arenas in the far south of Chile. Chile is the longest country in the world, bordered on one side by the Andes mountain range and on the other by the Pacific Ocean. At the bottom the country widens a bit. Apparently down south it was harder to determine the border with Argentina – further north the border is easily discernible: the Andes mountains. Down in the south the countries agreed to use rivers to define the borders. If a river flows into the Pacific all the land around it belongs to Chile, if it flows into the Atlantic then the land around it belongs to Argentina.
We landed in Punta Arenas in very high winds. I was not overly surprised, and in truth a little relieved, to receive an email on landing advising that the helicopter transfer we had arranged to our hotel had been cancelled due to weather and we would have to make the ~5-hour trip by car instead. The team from Awasi, the lodge we will be staying for the next four nights, had arranged the pick up, complete with a bagged lunch and even a little booklet pointing out some of the major sights along the way.
Our driver for the first leg to Puerto Natales picked us up and we headed off, driving past the rather rough looking Straits of Magellan and looking across at Tierra del Fuego. At a latitude of ~53’ we were a long way south and it was certainly much colder than the ~32’ we had experienced in Santiago. The first part of the journey was through very flat, vast open plains stretching to the horizon in all directions. Many of the stations we passed had cute little buildings at the end of their driveways – presumably for people to shelter in while waiting for the bus.
As we headed further north the ground developed a few more contours and we even came across some ‘forest’ – although here, as in Iceland, if you get lost in the forest all you need to do to find your way out is stand up. There are obviously strong prevailing winds here as the trees are all short, gnarled and bent over in the same direction.
We arrived at Puerto Natales and a lovely coffee shop where we were met by our driver for the last leg to Awasi. There was a great sculpture just outside the cafe that really captured our imagination.
As we headed towards Awasi we left the sealed roads behind and came across some stunning vistas with great massifs and lakes interspersed with wide valleys and rolling hills. The steppes are sparsely dotted with sheep, cows and horses – it can’t be particularly fertile land – as well as small groups of guanaco and nandu (lesser rhea). There were a lot of wild flowers and low shrubs and in some parts large swathes of lupins, similar to what I would see in the McKenzie country in New Zealand.
Awasi is nestled under a cliff with 14 chalets, each with magnificent views over the Torres del Paine National Park. On a good day you can see the towers the park is famous for, but all we could see on arrival was cloud.
We settled in and met Catalina, who will be our guide for the next three days. She explained a number of different excursion options and we settled on a few good walks before enjoying a magnificent meal in the restaurant and heading to bed. It had been a long day of travelling and we had agreed to a 5am departure in the morning to go looking for puma.
Thursday 21 December 2017: Roger
It is snowing heavily at 0500hrs as we board the Hylux. Catalina our guide is full of enthusiasm as we head down the hill into the plains. The early start is to allow us time to try and spot a puma on the way to our walk start point. We wind our way across the land taking a short cut through the Rio de las Chinas (Chinese woman’s river)
We stop at Bitter Lagoon scanning the surrounding hills for puma. Guanacos are looking relaxed grazing on the lush feed meaning there are no pumas near by.
A stop up the hill in the national park gave us a good view down the valley. A family of long-tailed meadowlarks picked their way through the grass. A scale-throated earthcreeper sat on a bush nearby. A rufous-tailed plantcutter snuggled into a bush.
Around 8am we parked up and began our stroll up the valley to visit the Torres del Paine, the three towers this park is famous for. Passing a hotel on the flats the track then wound its way up the side of a picturesque valley covered in part by miniature beech trees.
A bit over an hour into the journey we passed a campground with tents pitched on wooden platforms amongst the trees.
The track is a bit up and down as it makes its way up alongside the cold, ice-fed, boulder-filled stream. Rising about 400m over 10kms, then another 400m over the last km, the track zigzags up to the lake by the towers.
Arriving at the lake it’s snowing and a bit nippy. The towers are hidden in mist. Finding the best bit of shelter we could, we waited, hoping the mist would clear. Catalina produced hot lentil soup and vegetarian wraps while we waited.
After an hour of waiting, as the mist nearly cleared and then came back in several times, never fully revealing the towers, and with the temperature dropping, we headed back down the hill. Thirty or so minutes down the track we looked back up through the bush to see one of the towers the mist having cleared.
There were some good views up to the glaciers that seem to hang on the side of these hills.
A torrent duck sits by the stream as we cross on a swing bridge.
Bare patches of rock face revealed what looked like a multi-layered sponge cake, probably baked at a much higher temperature than the kitchen oven.
We pass a pack horse team heading up with provisions for the campground and its cafe. We have a good view over the surrounding rolling countryside with its lakes and tarns as we head down to the last (max 2 persons) swing bridge.
It is as we approach the Hylux that we get the best views of the towers,
Back at Awasi Lodge we again get a view of the towers from our chalet. The lodge is made up of 14 roomy chalets, spread out amongst the trees, each with a view over the plains to the mountains.
A short stroll away is the dining hall, lounge and reception. We sit down for dinner and immediately a different waitress arrived at the table with two jugs; without asking she pours sparkling water for Sylvia and still for me. The service here is brilliant, the food amazing and the wine selection outstanding.
Marina the maitre’d, works here with her boyfriend of nine years, Enrico. They are both civil engineers by profession, originally from Barcelona, but now working in lodges to see the world. They both worked in NZ,Narina as a Civil engineer for a roading company for a while. They also have a travel blog site: http://www.viajedemarinayenrique.blogspot.com
Friday 22 December: Sylvia
It was nice to have a later start this morning. We enjoyed breakfast in the restaurant and met Catalina at 9am. Today we had decided to head to Baguales, a large Estancia to the east of Awasi. The hour-and-a-half drive there took us through some stunning vistas and we stopped frequently to take photos. Large massifs appear randomly, breaking up the otherwise rolling countryside with their jagged peaks and crags. We also spotted some great wildlife including plenty of guanacos and nandus (lesser rheas) and even a grey fox. In several places condors soared overhead, rising on the thermals.
The drive took as through several Estancias and Roger stopped to explore an old wool shed. Once steam powered, it is now run on diesel.
Roger seemed to enjoy leaping in and out of the car to open the gates as we passed through the different stations – an opportunity to prove his manliness perhaps. Eventually we arrived at Baguales. This Estancia has provided exclusive access for Awasi guests and it was nice to have the opportunity to wander on our own without even any paths.
Having been fine and almost sunny during the drive, it started snowing as we headed out to explore the valley. We meandered along the river then slightly up onto the rolling hills, enjoying the many wild flowers and expansive views. Reaching turn-around time we spotted a large herd of guanaco and Roger was keen to get some great of photographs so split up to go around either side of them. They make a weird whistling sound when scared but we were able to get pretty close.
Arriving back at Awasi about 3pm we enjoyed our private hot tub, which had been heated up by fire while we were away. It was great to soak our muscles and warm up thoroughly – Roger took the opportunity also to enjoy a cigar and some chardonnay.
A massage each rounded out the afternoon before we met Catalina for drinks and dinner at 7:30pm. Catalina has been a fantastic guide, one of the best we have encountered anywhere. She trained as a speech therapist and then moved here with a friend. She is knowledgeable and friendly and we really enjoyed getting to know here even better over dinner.
Saturday 23 December 2017: Roger
At 7 am Catalina picks us up and we head across the plain passing the local Estancia (farm). The Gaucho (cowboy) has a large number of horses corralled in the yards. Like many farms worldwide they have branched out into the tourist world, this one specialising in horse riding and accommodation.
We again wind our way through the short cut heading to the lagoon hoping to spot a puma.
We see a group of people looking through a spotting scope. Pulling over we scan the distant hill and soon Catalina spots a puma, then two. They are about a 1km away. We drove back up the road and parked as the pumas headed down and crossed the road. Known as the Jackson Five, these boys hunt in a pack but are seldom seen. I was able to stand on the door sill and get a good view as the five of them crossed the road and disappeared into the black bush.
We arrived at Lake Pehoe just in time to catch the 9am ferry to the start of our stroll up Frenchman’s Valley.
Exiting the ferry we followed the track up the valley between two mountain ridges. The mountains on the east side are quite dramatic, revealing orange granite where the sides have slipped or been eroded away over millions of years.
The stroll was a little easier than Thursday’s, rising about 450m over 12 kilometres with only a short steep bit at the end. There is a camp site at the half way mark accessed by a rather rickety, one-person-at-a-time swing bridge.
Arriving at the top we hear loud, crashing bangs as ice carves from one of the many glassiers hanging on the hill. The wind is horrendous, gusting to a point it is hard to stand up. The views though are well worth the effort.
We headed another ten minutes up the track to a sheltered spot where Catalina produced tomato soup, wraps and brownies for lunch before we began the downward journey. We were about 15 minutes into the journey when we started passing other people from the ferry still heading up, Catalina has set a brisk but comfortable pace on the way up as she does on the way down.
Arriving back at the Refugio Paine Grande where we had left the boat, we enjoyed a beer, coffee for me, and hot chocolate for the girls, while we waited for the ferry for the return journey.
There are a variety of interesting but simple plant names in this part of the world; black bush, blue bush, fire bush. There seems to be only one bush with thorns and yellow flowers but it’s not called thorny or yellow bush but mother-in-law bush!! I can’t quite figure that one out.
As we passed the estancia on the way back to Awasi, the gauchos were letting the hundred or so horses back out to pasture for the night.