"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 the span of school vacations else I would lose all the teaching assignments upon which I depend to support my travel.
My chosen destination in 2008 was Chile, that long skinny country on the west coast of South America. Mainly, I wanted to see Patagonia, known the world over as a spectacular wilderness of mountains, untouched forests, and rugged fjords. Looking forward to seeing icebergs and penguins in their natural home, I fixed my plans and collected useful tips through the Internet.
On June 28th, I flew from Karachi Pakistan, and, after three plane changes at Dubai, London, and Atlanta, I reached Santiago, Chile's capital city, 43 hours later, including 29 hours of flying time. I was tired.
Despite fatigue and jet lag I proceeded, according to plan, to clear immigration and customs and then to look for a sign "TurBus" airport shuttle. On finding it, I handed over a printout of my hostel reservation and a US ten-dollar bill. Seeing my drooping eyelids, the staff kindly led me to a waiting minivan. I slid down on the first available seat and dozed off. In about thirty minutes, the driver tapped my shoulder and pointed to a sign saying "Atacama Hostel." Soon I was sleeping like a log in a comfortable room.
Later, somewhat refreshed, I stepped out of my room, paid my rent, fetched a city map and went out for a long walk. The hostel was located near the fashionable Avenida Providencia, a street humming with many bars, shopping arcades, restaurants, and cafés.
June is winter time in that part of the world, and Id read that temperatures average 10C (50F) in Santiago at that time quite chilly for Pakistani blood. But I was wrapped in layers of clothes, and a warming cappuccino sustained me during my walk. Whenever Im in unfamiliar surroundings I always walk in one direction to avoid getting lost, so I never know exactly what Ill see. I passed by old churches, lively markets, shadowy parks, and colorful street life set against a wonderful backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Dominating the scene on a nearby hill I could see an illuminated statue of the Virgin Mary. I made a mental note to find the way up to the statue after a night's rest.
The next day, I sought directions to the Virgin Mary from passers-by whom I found very friendly. Using the efficient and clean subway, I went to Baquedano Station. From there, I followed signs that led me across the Mapocho River to Barrio Bellavista, a so-called "Bohemian" neighborhood flowing with tree-lined footpaths, handicraft shops, cafés, and bars.
Soon the famous landmark, St Christopher's Hill (Cerro San Cristóbal), came into sight. At the reception desk, I got a ticket for a ride on the funicular rail (about $2) to the top of the 1,200-foot-high hill. Crowning the hilltop were beautiful tiered gardens and the impressive statue of the Virgin Mary. I remained there for an hour enjoying the spectacular view of the city below with the winding Mapocho River in its midst.
I stayed three nights in Santiago, filling daytime hours in my usual way of strolling and observing. Santiago was easy to master as the main historic buildings and museums were located in a small downtown area wedged between the Rio Mapocho and Avenida General OHiggins (La Alameda).
Plaza de Armas is said to be the center of the city, flanked by the Museo Histórico, and the massive neoclassical Catedral. Within a ramble of nearby streets, I found Casa Colorada, a restored mansion, and the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino.
Parque Forestal, situated adjacent the Rio Mapocho, provided a green reprieve from city hubbub along with several choices for spending some culturally uplifting moments in art and archeology museums. Located within the park are the Museo Arqueológico de Santiago, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, the Museo de Artes Visuales, and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Once the main rail hub for Chile, Estación Mapocho, has been transformed into a venue for musical, theatrical, and convention events. At the eastern edge of the park, Mercado Central is a good place to find authentic fish dishes for a lunch break.
I had two choices for moving on to Patagonia: air travel or a combination of rail, bus, and ferry.
To start with, I booked a berth, paying US$390, on a ship named Puerto Eden, operated by Navimag Ferries. The ferry would depart from Puerto Montt, a city 1,016 kilometers south of Santiago. I had about six days to reach there.
I broke the journey for one night at Concepción, a university town that reminded me of Boston in the USA. I also stopped about 20 kilometers short of Puerto Montt in a highly recommended spot, Puerto Varas, a charming little village on the shore of Lago Llanquihue situated within a backdrop of a beautiful volcano, which had 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 (Church of the Sacred Heart) clearly exhibiting a German influence. Many outdoor cafés offered all manner of rich pastries, pies, and black forest cakes.
On July 7th, I reached the Navimag Office at Puerto Montt. There was no activity or hustle and bustle except for two passengers talking with a uniformed lady in a strange language that didnt sound to me like the native Spanish. Later she turned to me, introduced herself as Monica Arias Farfan, then she 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 an old maxim: "He who hurries loses his time."
To while away the delay, 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. Towards the southwest of the city, I reached a bay known as Angelmo. I remember it well for its small fish market and a long line of cocinerias or kitchen restaurants. I picked one, ordered Paila Marina, a traditional Chilean seafood stew seasoned with garlic, onion, and coriander leaves. I watched the whole cooking process as the place was nothing more than a small room. The delicious cooking smells heightened my appetite, and I nearly swallowed the entire bowlful the moment it was placed on my table.
At last, Puerto Eden, the cargo-cum-passenger ferry sailed with loads of cars, trucks, horses, and cows but only 25 passengers. In peak season, it could accommodate 225 passengers in its 52 cabins and 20 berths. Though I had a paid for a berth, I was upgraded to an "A-type" cabin with four bunks, a porthole, and a sink. A private restroom was located outside. Besides me, there were two other passengers on board, Neil Copland from Scotland and Maurice Ardila from Columbia.
Leaving the port, the ferry sailed between Chiloé Island and the mainland. I went up to the top deck to watch as we passed through a narrow channel, and I could see the shoreline on both sides. I spotted many flamingos, sea-lions, ducks, turtles, and dolphins. Except for the flamingos, the scenery was reminiscent of the Inside Passage route to Alaska, which I did a few years ago.
About two days into the voyage, the ship entered an open sea known as Golfo de Penas where the sailing became rough. The ferry went into a pitching and rolling spree for about 10 to 12 hours before entering the narrow Messier Channel and once again calm prevailed, much to the relief of passengers prone to motion sickness. The route became increasingly scenic as the channel narrowed and the snow peaks loomed closer.
The ferry arrived at its final port of call, Puerto Natales, on July 12th, 2008. The town seemed completely deserted, I supposed because of the extreme cold, but flamingos, swans, and seagulls greeted the visitors.
I dragged my carry-on to a nearby guesthouse (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 Torres del Paine National Park and paid US$36 in advance.
Early the next morning, I stepped inside a waiting minivan and was pleased to find Neil, one of the fellows I had met on board the Puerto Eden. That felt like a good omen, and I was glad to have his company. The drive to the park was about 112 kilometers over a decent if rather bumpy road.
The van stopped briefly at Cueva del Milodón, a cave where bones of a giant sloth and other prehistoric inhabitants have been found. We saw a variety of wildlife, specifically red and gray foxes, llama-like guanacos, several species of deer, and giant condors.
The final destination was Torres del Paine National Park comprised of mountains, glaciers, rivers and lakes. Among the park's most famous sights are its three 3,000-meter-high granite towers, said to be among the most-difficult to climb. I had just a glimpse of them from various look outs. I wish I could have gone near to them but the approach was difficult and compounded by freezing winds. Nevertheless, I saw many intrepid youngsters, loaded with heavy backpacks full of food and camping gear, hiking towards the peaks, intent on making a circuit around the Towers. Clearly marked paths and basic shelters (refugios) accommodated visitors making four to ten-day treks.
At one spot, the van stopped and the visitors were given two hours to explore the area. I, along with Neil, headed towards Lago Grey (Lake Grey). Crossing a river, we entered a small valley and came near the base of a large glacier. Just a little ahead was a lake dotted with icebergs 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. A good track led to the top and a perfect look-out for enjoying the awesome terrain of mingled mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes. Wooden benches were provided, and it was a treat to sit with Neil munching biscuits and sipping hot coffee he had fished out of his mini-pack.
The landscape on the return trip was equally pleasant as the park was adorned with bushes and trees in striking shapes and colors.
On the last leg of my tour, I left for Punta Arenas by bus. This was the coldest place being the southernmost city in Chile, roughly about 1,400km from the coast of Antarctica.
Once again, I got a very decent hostel for about US$32per night including a sumptuous breakfast and 24-hour access to the Internet. I had a longer than expected stay here as lethargy had got in the way of booking my return flight, and, when I got around to it, the earliest I could get a seat was six days away.
Wondering what to do with myself in this town perched at the edge of the Strait of Magellan, I hit the Internet and contacted the Thorn Tree Forum on lonelyplanet.com and asked for suggestions. Lo and behold, I received, in about an hour, as many as ten emails with recommendations: a mini-zoo, Zona Franca (duty free zone), an 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 60km away.
I went to all these places besides taking walks in the city full of old mansions, tree-lined boulevards, and well-kept gardens with huge araucaria trees (monkey puzzle trees). It was a nice surprise to find I had the good luck to be there during Winter Carnival when the town was festive with street musicians, dancing girls, and a fireworks display launched from the Strait of Magellan promenade.
On July 20th, I boarded the flight for Puerto Montt, but, due to bad weather, it was diverted to a nearby town of Valdivia, which was a blessing in disguise as I had landed in an interesting city of five rivers. I spent the two days browsing river-side markets and taking boat cruises.
The next destination was Pucón, a small town located at the foot of the live Volcano Villarrica. It offered good food plus opportunities for mountaineering, horse riding, fly-fishing, and cultural tours. My main interest was a hot spring thermal bath. For US$22, the hostel arranged a tour that took me and other tourists to a spot with five small pools with temperatures ranging between 35° and 42° C (95-108 F). Aaah, how very pleasurable it was to dip in the hot pools one after another.
I returned to Santiago by sleeper bus (US$115), which proved very comfortable. I still had three days before leaving for home, so that gave me time to visit to Valparaiso (Paradise Valley), a port city about 120km northwest of Santiago. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund declared Valparaíso's unusual funicular system a historical treasure. I took a ride in one old train that climbed the steep hillside and gave a panoramic view of the sea.
I saw a lot of Chile in one month, but I didnt rush even Lao Tzu might have approved of my pace and I boarded my homebound flight with many sweet memories, even if the winter weather was a bit chilly for my Pakistani blood.
Patagonia encompasses the southernmost region of South America shared by Chile and Argentina. The landscape features the Andes mountains to the west and south, plateaux and low plains to the east. The Argentinian portion of Patagonia encompasses 786,983 square kilometers and the Chilean portion covers 256,093 square kilometers.
The name Patagonia is said to derive from the word patagón, which an Italian survivor and chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan's 16th century expedition used to describe the native people encountered in this region. With the possible translation to "bigfoot," the word supposedly referred to their "giant stature." According to Antonio Pigafetta's account: "He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned..." (Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo, Antonio Pigafetta,1524). Probably, the Patagons were actually Tehuelches whose average height of 1.80 meters (511") compared to the 1.55 meters (51") average for 16th century Europeans.