Chile: Following the Andes from Patagonia to the Atacama Desert
A journey along the length of Chile takes you through a mind blowing variation of climates and ecosystems. I am fortunate enough to have done it twice in both directions. For the purpose of this blog I will review the magnificent journey through this long and narrow country from Patagonia in the south all the way up to the Atacama Desert in the far north. Chile's most southern most city is that of Punta Arenas which was first established in the mid 1800s as a penal colony, but then developed as a port in the days before the Panama Canal was built. therefore benefiting from passing ships going from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice versa. Today, it is a city of over 100,000.
Southern Chile experiences a fairly stable temperature most of the year, between 4'c in their winter months of July to around 14'c in the summer months of January and February. Whilst I was there for a couple of days, it was a fairly moderate 10'c in March with nice sunny skies. I took a half day trip out of the city to a nature reserve just an hour north called Seno Otway. I got to see the cute little Magellan Penguins that are a regular species of bird in this part of the world.
I love the sky in this photo taken by a pebble beach at Seno Otway, Patagonian skies tend to have dramatic cloud formations from all the swirling jet streams and maritime air. You can just see in the foreground a couple of Magellan penguins waddling on the beach. When I turned around to face inland I got to see the penguins more closely hanging around their nests.
After enjoying a couple of days around this remote southern most part of Chile, I took a bus trip around 3 hours north to Puerto Natales. This is much smaller than Punta Arenas and was also a key port on the journey taken by ships which took the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. However this town of 20,000 became more famous for sheep farming and attracted many Europeans at the start of the 20th century. I spent only a night here in preparation to visit the jewel in the crown as far as Chilean tourism is concerned, that of the incredible national park of Torres del Paine.
As you enter this World Heritage site, your eyes are immediately drawn to those iconic granite pillars that give the national park its name. In facts, the word 'Torres' is a fairly obvious translation to the word 'towers' but the word 'Paine' actually comes from an old indigenous word for the colour blue. I decided I would spend a couple of nights in the national park at a well run 'refugio' which is like a rustic cabin for hikers. I got a boat across the gorgeous turquoise Lake Pehoe and was blessed with the ultimate picture postcard view of Torres del Paine in all it's glory. The towers of granite stretch up 9000ft into the Patagonia sky, and are the centre piece of the entire national park.
I felt such a buzz peering across the lake and really looked forward to the next couple of days hiking. Some people opt to do a week long trek, around the whole national park, known as the 'O' route. A second popular route is the 'W' which involves ducking in and out of stunning valleys. As I was on a slightly limited time frame I do a couple day hikes up two of the valleys. My favourite was the walk up the side of Lago Grey, to the foot of Glacier Grey, a gargantuan hulk of ice that is 17 miles in length and 4 miles wide.
The walk up to Glacier Grey is a tough windswept day out, but rewarded me with incredible views of the Southern Patagonian icefields, plus huge peaks beyond. Don't under estimate the hike up the side of Lago Grey to get to see the glacier, its a rocky and windswept path, but you won't be disappointed!
On my walk back from Glacier Grey to the Pehoe Refugio I was amazed to see massive icebergs the size of houses drifting down the lake. These hulks of ice had crashed off the main glacier and been blown down the Lago Grey. If you're lucky on the hike you may get to see the huge condor birds that grace the skies of the Andes mountains. They circled high above the granite peaks like graceful gliders, with 2 metre wing spans. On my return to the refugio (log cabin) I had a cosy evening with dozens of other international hikers, of all backgrounds, all here to sample the very best of Patagonia. After a solid day of hiking I retired shattered to my cosy bunk bed and slept like a baby! In addition to incredible scenery, Torres del Paine offers a great social occasion on an evening at the different refugios.
The above photo is taken 1500km further north in Chile's very own Lake District. The smoking volcano is Villarrica, which recently erupted in 2015, causing ash to rain down on the town of Pucon, filling the streets you see in the photo. There is a massive distance to travel between Patagonia in the far south of Chile and this next place of interest. Some people get a scenic boat journey through Chile's fjords all the way from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, but I flew this mammoth journey due to time constraints. If the weather is good I've heard this boat ride is really worth it, but if the weather is bad, it can be the journey of nightmares and sea sickness. At Puerto Montt, if you have time, check out the wilderness island of Chiloe. The second biggest island in Chile is apparently it's own distinct magical world of wilderness and culture, with wooden Jesuit churches and great trekking plus kayaking through it's two national parks.
This region of Chile is an absolute hidden gem, and I could have happily spent at least a week here relaxing by the lakes. I hired a car and took a day trip around a couple of the main lakes and hiked through woods. I ventured up the side of a waterfall called Tres Saltos to take in the views of the gorgeous countryside.
I just loved the rolling forested hills in between all the lakes, and I was blessed with blue skies for the couple of days I visited. It was about a 7 hour bus journey from here up to Chile's capital of Santiago. I must say that the buses in Chile are among the best I've be used anywhere in the world. I guess it's because the country is so long and narrow that it lends itself to very long overland journeys and the bus companies realise travellers need a little creature comfort on board. The roads are pretty empty and smooth running outside of the major towns and cities.
Here is the main Metropolitan cathedral in Santiago's Plaza de Armas. The city of 5.5 million inhabitants makes up almost one third of Chile's entire population of 18 million people. It's a bit of a culture shock arriving in this sprawling city after ten days in the wilderness of Patagonia and the Lake District. Santiago is a friendly city and easy to get around on their underground metro system. Indeed, a couple of the main sites are all within walking distance of the centre. I highly recommend hiking up two hills to get great views over the city. The first hill is the relatively small called Cerro Santa Lucia, and has a pleasant park near the top.
From the top of Cerro Santa Lucia, you get a view across to the next hill which is really worth a visit called Cerro San Cristobal. This hill is a full 300 metres above the rest of Santiago so if you're not feeling so fit then you can get a funicular train to the summit, which has a huge 22 metre statue of the Virgin Mary at the top.
I always maintain that in order to get your bearings or simply to get a good view of a city, get up as high as possible. The view from Cerro San Cristobal could not get any better, especially if you get a sunny clear day. Santiago's skyline is getting pretty hi-tech over the years. This photo was back in 2002, and since then the massive Costanera or Gran Torre (Grand Tower) has sprung up and now dominates the skyline at over 300 metres. I'd say Santiago is a very 'liveable' city for somewhere so big. It has many nice parks and I particularly enjoyed the climate which is very Mediterranean thanks to the convenient latitude of Santiago at 33' south of the equator, and nestled up close to the Andes mountains nearby. You can certainly see why Chile is a major wine producer with the perfect conditions for vineyards to flourish.
Once leaving Santiago, I took a mammoth 24 hour bus journey to Calama, on the edge of the Atacama desert. This photo shows what used to be the biggest open pit mine in the entire world. It still produces 5% of the copper in the world, but at one time allegedly produced up to 20%. I was blown away the enormity of this excavation. To put some scale on it, you can just about see some trucks in the bottom of the mine on the left of the photo. The day I visited, there were protests by the mine workers taking place which gave a real edgy atmosphere to the place.
This mammoth mine featured in one of my favourite films of all time - Motorcycle Diaries - which follows the incredible journey taken by the revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guavara and his close friend Alberto Granado. In 1952 these two took a journey motorcycle trip from their native city of Buenos Aires across the Andes to Chile and all the way north to Venezuela. I highly recommend you watch this film, as it takes in the story of one of the most talked about men of the 20th century. In addition, the cinematography really shows of the breathtaking beauty and ruggedness of South America. Finally, the film highlights what 'Che' discovered on his journey, the injustices of the indigenous people of the continent and how they were exploited by the richer elites who've settled here. Please watch this masterpiece of a film!
A couple of hours further east from Calama is the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, in the world's driest desert. As this great desert up close to the Bolivia border is at an altitude of 8000ft, it doesn't get particularly hot but you can sense the dry air which in some parts of the region means it has not actually rained in living memory! On my first visit to Chile in 1996, my friends and I took a memorable walk north of San Pedro and found some ancient pre-Inca ruins in one of the bone dry valleys. San Pedro offers trips high into the Andes where you can see the highest thermal reserve on planet earth at 15,000ft above sea level, known as El Tatio.
The thermal reserve of El Tatio is actually very dangerous as the crust of the earth is so unstable. It has not been unknown for the geysers here to erupt very suddenly and cause serious injury and even death to some visitors. I recommend keeping your distance from these amazing fumeroles, which give off dangerous gases, which smell of poisonous sulphur. Also be warned you will feel shortness of breath and be very light headed from the sheer altitude here, so you may be off your guard and feeling less steady on your feet.
Whilst high in the Andes at El Tatio you can enjoy a soothing thermal bath in a giant pool. I'd say this side trip was the highlight of my trip to the Atacama Desert, and worth getting up at 3am for! Another interesting side trip you can take is an organised 4x4 journey to see native flamingos. The Atacama region is definitely worth spending 2 or 3 days. The town of San Pedro has a big choice of guest houses and hotels, catering for gringos of all budgets.
This image is of Arica, which is Chile's northern most city. There isn't much to do here other than enjoy a nice beach by the Pacific Ocean, but it offers you a gateway into Southern Peru. Alternatively you can stick around Calama, further south and take the weekly train over the Andes into Bolivia. I will review this incredible train journey as part of next week's blog on Bolivia. It was pretty epic!
Thanks for taking the time to read about my journeys through the beautiful contrasting country of Chile. If you wish to see more photos from my travels through South America, please click here.