Week 20 – Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas and Santiago, Chile
Hi everybody! It feels like I’ve just finished last week’s blog post and now I’m writing another – that’s what I get for being slow. This week we’ve travelled up Chile and arrived in Santiago – the bustling city is quite a change from the remote National Park!
We woke up with achey legs and mixed feelings about finishing the W trek. It had been so amazing, but our legs were glad that we had some easier days ahead. We had a leisurely breakfast and then went down to the lakeside to wait for the ferry. It was quite chilly so I had my hood and scarf pulled right up around my face!
The boat took us across the lake and dropped us off at a car park, where we waited for the bus that would take us back to Puerto Natales. It was so windy! Some of the buses had already arrived but were parked up waiting for their departure time, and they were all swaying in the wind. We took shelter behind one of them until it was time to go.
Once back in Puerto Natales, we checked back into the same hostel we’d stayed at before, and immediately both jumped in the showers. I had missed nice hot power showers, and Ben had missed any sort of shower at all. It was nice to be clean again!
In the evening, we went for a massage to reward ourselves for our hike. We’d booked it before we left, calling it our ‘motivational massage’. Now it became our ‘made-it massage’. It was so nice – even though our bags hadn’t been that heavy we’d both still managed to get sore backs and shoulders.
Today we said goodbye to Puerto Natales and caught a bus down to the furthest south place that we’ll be visiting, Punta Arenas. In fact it’s the furthest south that either of us have ever been! We were only staying overnight in order to catch our flight in the morning, so we didn’t get to see that much of it. We were surprised by how large it was though – I’d expected it to be a tiny town. We arrived in the late afternoon and had to be up at 3:30am to catch a taxi to the airport, so after buying dinner we called it a (very early) night and went straight to bed.
Having followed our standard ‘arrive at the airport two hours before our flight’ rule this morning, we ended up waiting for around half an hour before the check-in opened and we could drop off our bags. Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry. We were up in the air by 6:30am and on our way to Santiago.
Santiago is the capital of Chile and has a population of roughly 7 million. Considering that Chile’s total population is around 18 million, that’s quite an impressive proportion! Located roughly half way up Chile, Santiago is surrounded by mountains, with the Andes to the east and the Chilean Coastal Range to the west. It’s a very cool country – it’s very long but also very thin, meaning you can drive from the mountains in the east to the Pacific coast in the west in roughly 3 hours.
We are staying in an awesome Airbnb apartment in the centre of Santiago, on the 25th floor of a huge apartment block. We have a great view from our window over the city. I was a bit disappointed that the mountains in the background were quite hazy. I think the city is a bit polluted, and it was a very hot and still day, so it wasn’t really clearing.
Having arrived in warm trousers and hoodies, the first thing we did was immediately change into shorts and t-shirts. This is definitely this most dramatic weather change we’ve experienced when moving from one place to the next. Autumn is just beginning in the Southern Hemisphere but it still felt very summery to us in Santiago.
In the afternoon we went out to explore the city. We are staying very close to the Plaza de Armas, one of the central squares. We bought an ice-cream and wandered around there, then went inside the Cathedral, which was pretty. We went to see the Presidential Palace, and found it hilarious how many Chilean flags there were in the surrounding plaza. Just so there’s absolutely no doubt as to which country you’re in, I guess! Finally we wandered past the huge National Library, which was a very impressive building.
We also found an ‘artesan market’ and searched through all of the stalls until we found suitable bracelets to add to our growing collection. We’re going to have the weirdest bracelet tans when we get home and take them off!
In the evening, we got to watch the sunset from our apartment window, and then the subsequent city night scene. It was pretty awesome.
Today was going to be a day of visiting some of Santiago’s museums, but we started some admin and booking in the morning and then just got on a roll. We ended up spending most of the day inside, booking almost all of the rest of our holiday. There are just a couple of weeks left to sort and then we’ll be sorted! Ben will be delighted – holidaying is fun but booking is not.
We enjoyed having a kitchen to ourselves with decent pots and pans in the evening (cooking in hostels is ok but never the same as being in your own kitchen!), and prepared steak with roast vegetables and roast potatoes. It was so yummy.
Today was Ben’s perfect day. We went on a cycling tour of a vineyard! We were picked up by the tour company and driven for around an hour until we left the city and reached the vineyard of Santa Rita. We were given bikes and then off we went.
The vineyards were beautiful, especially with the mountains as a backdrop. Apparently this region is very warm and dry, which makes it perfect for growing the grapes for red wine. White wine needs cooler temperatures and so is made closer to the coast. We cycled on the dirt tracks between the vineyard fields, stopping at various points to be taught about wine making. For example, we learnt that they often plant roses at the end of a row of vines because insects prefer the roses over the grapes. If the rose leaves are damaged, it acts as a signal to the farmers that they need to act quickly to prevent the insects from damaging their vines. We also saw an organic vineyard where they use ladybirds as an organic pesticide (they eat smaller insects) and llamas as lawnmowers, because they don’t compress the soil or harm the roots of the grass!
We were allowed to taste some of the wine grapes. They were very small and quite dark, and I was expecting them to taste bitter but actually they were really sweet. They are preferred for winemaking because they have lower water content and so their flavour is more concentrated.
We went inside one of their warehouses and were shown all of the wine in huge vats, fermenting. We were also shown the wine maturing in barrels of oak. Some were in concrete containers; apparently you do this is you want to avoid the oaky flavour of the barrels.
We learnt that this vineyard is famous for growing a type of grape called Carménère. In the 19th Century, a plague of an insect called phylloxera wiped out this vine across the world. It was thought that it was entirely extinct, until in 1994 the wine growers at this vineyard realised that some of their crop of Merlot didn’t match the rest. Experts were brought in to analyse this strange vine and they concluded that it was Carménère. It had been protected from the plague that had affected the rest of the world because of Chile’s borders; the Atacama Desert in the north, the Andes in the east, the Antarctic in the south and the Pacific ocean to the west. As our guide said, all of these are very difficult conditions for the insects to cross, meaning Chile was isolated and so protected.
We got back on our bikes and cycled through more of the vineyard until we reached a small hill with a beautiful shady pergola. We were given our first wine to taste. I was pleased that it was a white wine as generally that’s what I prefer. It was nice to be given a taster in such a great setting!
We cycled back to the vineyard’s main buildings, where we were taken into a wine cellar for another wine tasting. I have no expertise when it comes to wine at all, so when they were describing the flavours and aromas I was a bit clueless. I could taste the citrusy note of the white wine we tried though, the fruitiness of the first red and then the smokiness of the final red wine. The final smoky one was made with Carménère grapes which was quite cool, considering the history of the vineyard. It was both of our favourite out of the four which we tried today.
At the end of the tour we were given our wineglasses to keep. We have very little hopes of them surviving the journey back home, especially considering that they have to survive a lot of upcoming bus and plane journeys in the next two months, but we’re going to try.
Getting back onto the bus, I promptly fell asleep for the whole journey home. Wine does that to me! We must have only had around a glass and a half of wine in total, but it was all before lunch time. That’s my excuse.
Today we visited the coastal town of Valparaíso (valley of paradise). It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its “exceptional testimony to the early phase of globalisation in the late 19th century”. Valparaíso was an important port for boats passing from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Before the Panama canal opened, ships had to pass around the bottom of South America, and they would stop at Valparaíso before or after navigating the Strait of Magellan. It was a hugely significant and wealthy port. Once the Panama Canal opened in 1914, it lost most of this trade. Today, it is famous for its port and its steep hills covered in colourful buildings.
We had read a bit about Valparaíso, and it had been recommended by friends and a number of blogs, but we hadn’t really planned how to fill our day there. When we got off the bus we didn’t even know which direction the historical centre was! Fortunately there was a tourist information, which although it was closed had a handy map in its window. We got our bearings and headed towards the area with the most tourist sights.
Valparaíso is very hilly, and so it has a lot of steps and furnicular railways. We climbed up some stairs to an area called Cerro Concepción. It was a small neighbourhood with narrow streets. All of the buildings were colourful, or covered in artistic graffiti. We found our way out to a balcony overlooking the port, and enjoyed our first proper view over Valparaíso. It was very pretty from this angle, with colourful houses precariously balanced on the surrounding hills.
We weren’t really sure where to go next, but luckily we bumped into a free walking tour group. They were around halfway through their tour, but we joined anyway in the hopes of learning a bit more about the city. This turned out to be a great call. The guide was really interesting and showed us a lot of places that we wouldn’t have otherwise known to visit. These included a beautiful view point over the city on another hill, and the inside of an old building which was apparently the first stock exchange in South America. He also took us down to the port. On the way we passed a plaque on the floor that noted the ‘original coastline’ in 1692, and then a further one to denote the level of the coast in 1858. Apparently a lot of land was reclaimed from the sea to create the flat downtown and port area.
After a lunch of empanadas, we weren’t really sure what to do with ourselves. We went back to one of the view points and got a drink in a cafe. We intended to go on from there to an art museum, but the sun and the view ended up being too enticing. We stayed there for almost two and a half hours, until it was time to head back and catch our bus. Probably not the most thorough exploration of the city, but it was very lovely! While we were walking back to the bus station we saw some of the furnicular railways running up and down the hill, which was cool.
Next week I’ll be writing about our exciting adventures in the Atacama, before we move onto Bolivia. Time flies when you’re having fun!
P.S. Check out this hilarious llama-dragon statue we saw!