Chile with Adventures Abroad - The Maritime Explorer

Chile

Chile with Adventures Abroad

Alison and I have just returned from a phenomenal trip to Chile with our preferred tour provider Adventures Abroad which has never failed to deliver memories and newfound friendships that last a lifetime. In this post I’ll give a general overview of the trip, including the highlights, some tips on getting prepared and why we are glad we chose Adventures Abroad to show us this magnificent country. I’ve already put up one post from Chile, that being a description of what you might like to do in Santiago before joining the tour proper. In that case we hired a private guide for a day to take us to some places not included on the tour. In retrospect, I would seriously consider coming up to three days early and taking a trip to wine country with guide Chris Whatmore.

OK, let’s get started.

As with our two previous excursions to South America, Alison and I prefer to take a comprehensive tour of one country rather than include more than one with less time in each. The 21 day Chile itinerary may sound like a lot for one country, but trust me it’s not. Chile is a vast country in length – over 4,300 kms. (2,670 miles) from top to bottom and on this tour you’ll cover nearly all of that. It’s 3,260 kms. (2025 miles) from Punta Arenas at the tip of South America to the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile. Add in the 3,750 km. (2,330 mile) trip to Easter Island and back and you’ll spent a lot of time getting from place to place. All told there are eight internal flights on this itinerary, most of which are on Latam so if you are a member of the Sky Miles loyalty program you’ll rack up a lot of points. Essentially then, this trip, by necessity, flies from one highlight to another as taking a bus would be impractical if not impossible in some cases. Everything on our tour went perfectly in terms of on time departures and arrivals. Latam, while pretty bare bones on in flight service, is excellent in terms of getting you from one place to another together with your bags. Obviously that’s not a guarantee for future departures, but I can only relate our experience.

A second thing to note about this trip in relation to other Latin American destinations is that there is not a lot of history¬†vis-a-vis say Mexico, Colombia or Ecuador. You are not going to find magnificent Spanish Colonial architecture such as you would see in many Mexican cities as well as Bogota, Cartagena or Quito. Plaza de Armas in Santiago, which I described in the first post and which you will visit on this tour, is about as close as you will come to this in Chile and it’s a far cry from those other cities. Earthquakes have seen to that. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very interesting historic places visited on this trip like Valparaiso and Punta Arenas, but they are of a much newer vintage than what you find in most Latin American countries.

Chile is also a country that is not replete with archaeological sites. The Incas had barely made it to the site of Santiago when the Spaniards arrived and left them no time to create anything lasting. However, there is one site, Pukara de Quitor in the Atacama Desert that is the exception to the rule and I’ll describe that in a later post. So once again, if it’s great archaeological sites you are looking for then Mexico, Peru or Bolivia is where you should focus your attention. Note, I’m not including Easter Island as an archaeological site because it’s something beyond that, a once on earth type of place.

The Big Three

OK, now that I’ve told you what not to expect, I’ll tell you why this trip will blow your mind – it’s all about great wonders of nature, staring with the big three – Torres del Paine, the Atacama Desert and Easter Island. Frankly, any one of these places would be worth travelling half way around the world to see and the fact you can get to see all of them in one trip is simply fantastic. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock I’ll give a brief description of each.

Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine NP from Rio Serrano Hotel Grounds

Torres del Paine is a Chilean national Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site that has some of the most unique landscapes on earth including the three granite peaks that give the park its name.

Torrres del Paine, Chile
Torres del Paine

I took the top photo from the grounds of the Rio Serrano Hotel and it is not in any way photoshopped. That’s the quality of morning light you can get at Torres del Paine. Just getting to this wondrous place is an adventure as it is the final destination of the fabled End of the World Route that starts in Punta Arenas and passes through true pampas grassland before ending at Torres del Paine.

Nothing was more a pleasant surprise on this trip than the landscapes of the Atacama Desert. I knew in advance that this was the driest desert on earth, but I had no idea how beautiful it was. The header picture for this post was taken from Pukara de Quitor and reminded me more of a 19th century drawing by the likes of Alexander von Humboldt than an actual real landscape. The images from the Los Flamencos lagoon are equally otherworldly.

Los Flamencos, Atacama Desert

Add in the fact that the Atacama Desert has the largest geyser field in the Southern Hemisphere and you’ve got another must visit destination in Chile.

Geysers Everywhere, Atacama Desert, Chile
Geysers Everywhere

And then there’s Easter Island. If there is a better way to end a trip anywhere in the world than Easter Island then please let me know because I’ll be on the next plane out.

The Seven Brothers, Easter Island, Chile
The Seven Brothers

The sheer majesty of the moias has to be seen to be believed and on this trip you will count yourselves among the lucky few who have ever been to this magical place.

At Tongariki, Easter Island, Chile
At Tongariki

Almost as Good

So those are the big three, but just like in a TV commercial selling something you don’t need – There’s more!

Only marginally below the big three is the day trip by boat to the San Rafael Glacier where you will see and hear the sounds of a glacier calving into the sea. It’s a wondrous experience and you might even sea a leopard seal as we did.

Glacial Reflections, San Rafael Glacier, Chile
Glacial Reflections

As an added bonus, on the way back from the glacier we got to sip scotch with ice that was maybe 10,000 years old and absolutely pure.

Scotch on the Glacial Rocks

An afternoon walking around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Valparaiso is not something you’ll soon forget. The murals alone make this a worthwhile day trip from Santiago.

On the Streets of Valparaiso, Chile
On the Streets of Valparaiso

Of course no visit to Chile would be complete without a visit to wine country and we accomplished that during a visit to the Santa Rita winery in the Maipo Valley where we sampled some the wines that have made Chile a must visit destination for oenophiles from around the world.

Wines We Tasted at Santa Rita

As an aside, if you enjoy wine as much as we do, this trip is a great choice because the Chilean wines, especially the cabernet sauvignons and our favourite, carmenere are available at every meal at very reasonable prices.

One place I did not expect to like as much as I did was Punta Arenas. Being at the very tip of South America I had the idea that it might be like one of our far north communities in Canada. Instead I found a vibrant and colourful small city with an interesting past that of course included Ferdinand Magellan and later Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott. It is a great base for day trips to see some of the sub-antarctic species that live nearby including the only colony of King Penguins outside of Antarctica. Maybe a future itinerary might include an extra day in Punta Arenas to visit them.

In Punta Arenas, Chile
In Punta Arenas

The one item on the itinerary that was a bit of a disappointment was the boat trip on Todos los Santos in the lake district of northern Patagonia and that was only because of the weather. This is a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by volcanoes that unfortunately we really couldn’t see. This photo taken from Puerto Varas was the closest I came to seeing Mount Osorno.

Osorno Volcano

On the other hand the very German influenced town of Puerto Varas was a very pleasant place to walk around.

Puerto Varas Beach, Chile
Puerto Varas Beach

Wildlife in Chile

So those are some of the things you can expect to see or not in the case of Todos los Santos, on this trip. Are there any other reasons to put Chile high on your bucket list? Definitely, starting with the wildlife, especially for birders. Here’s a gallery of some of the species you should see on this tour. For me, most of them were first timers. Double click to open a photo and double click again to enlarge.

One thing as a birder I had never seen before was flamingoes swimming and acting like dabbling ducks rather than doing there feeding while standing in shallow water.

Dabbling Flamingos, Atacama, Chile
Dabbling Flamingos

We also saw Darwin’s rheas, but I never got a good photograph. Here’s what this species also known as the lesser rhea looks like. You will probably see some on the drive from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine.

Darwin’s Rhea by Guerin Nicolas

You can also expect to see the two species of wild camelids native to South America, the guanaco at lower elevations and the vicuna on the high Andean grasslands. Expect to see vicunas when you visit the geysers at Atacama.

Vicuna Herd

Guanacos are much more common and will be seen at multiple locations on the trip.

Guanacos

As mentioned we also had a very curious leopard seal approach the boat as we neared the San Rafael glacier. I never knew these voracious penguin eaters existed outside of Antarctica so it was a real surprise to add this creature to my life list. Unfortunately he played peek a boo when I tried to photograph him and this was the best I could do.

Leopard Seal

So Chile will certainly deliver for birders and other animal enthusiasts, even if it’s just to see cute llamas.

Llama

The Food in Chile

So what about the food? Well first, both food and drinking water are safe everywhere in Chile. With so much coastline Chile is awash with seafood, but here’s the rub – they overcook the fish. At first I thought it was just a one off, but after numerous meals of dried out tuna steak or salmon I realized that that’s how they like it. Something like we were in North America fifty years ago. One way around it is to add a good splash of balsamic vinegar to the fish. Another is not to let them cook it in the first place. I could eat ceviche every day in South America and the Chilean versions are just fine. On Easter Island it comes as poke. The carpaccio is also a great choice.

In terms of meat, again expect it to be cooked more than you might like, although that wasn’t always the case. I had some great medium rare beef in Puerto Varas. There will be one wonderful meal of flame cooked lamb while in Patagonia that is really worth looking forward to.

Lamb Roast in Patagonia

The selection of vegetables and fruits was about the same as you would find in Canada. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary. I wouldn’t call Chile a vegan’s paradise, but if you are one you won’t starve. Desserts were always good, especially the kuchen in the German areas of upper Patagonia. Likewise the breakfast buffets.

One final note on the food; the portions are enormous. If you hate to waste food as I do, consider sticking just to a main course or if a couple, even sharing one. You probably won’t remember this advice, but after a few meals in Chile you’ll adapt.

So overall the food in Chile was very good and you certainly won’t be hungry on this trip.

Other Considerations

One thing every potential visitor to a new country wants to know is whether or not there are any personal safety concerns, be they of the criminal variety or health related. The Global Peace Index is a method for determining a countries overall level of safety taking into account crime, government stability, food security and other factors. Under this scoring system which is becoming more accepted as a genuine measure, Chile falls into the second tier, below countries like Canada, Japan or Switzerland, but believe it or not, higher than France, Greece or Cyprus, the latter of which is where Alison and I are headed next. In terms of crime the only place on this trip it might be a concern is in the area around the Plaza de Armas in Santiago where pickpockets and petty thieves are sometimes at work. However, there are plenty of police in the area and you will be with both a local guide and your AA guide. On two visits to the area I had no concerns, but did stay vigilant.

Outside of this one area, the rest of Chile is as safe or more so than walking around major U.S. and Canadian cities.

In terms of health risks the biggest concern is sun burn and altitude sickness. In this trip you will reach altitudes above 14,000 feet in the Atacama Desert and this may cause some people breathing difficulties. However, on this trip nobody that I was aware of had any issues. These high altitudes also bring intense solar radiation so putting on spf 50+ is a necessity if you are to avoid sunburn. At the lowest elevations in Atacama the heat is intense and the temptation will be to wear less, but the more your skin is protected the better off you’ll be. The reward is a wonderful outdoor shower attached to your room awaiting for you afterwards at the Cumbres Hotel where you stay in San Pedro de Atacama.

Outdoor Shower, Cumbres Hotel

Which brings me to the accommodations. Having travelled with Adventures Abroad for over 25 years I have seen a definite upgrade in the quality of accommodations provided on their tours. When Alison and I started in the 1990’s most would be three star rated, but for the past decade or so the average is more like four stars and sometimes even five. On this Chile trip there were some truly outstanding hotels like the above mentioned Cumbres in Atacama and the Rio Serrano in Torres del Paine.

Rio Serrano Hotel, Torres del Paine, Chile
Rio Serrano Hotel

Also well above average were the hotels in Puerto Varas and Puerto Chacabuco as well as the Pullman in Santiago. The only exception to this rule were the accommodations in Easter Island. There are no chain hotels on the island with all the accommodations being locally owned. Most resemble motel units more than hotels. They are a bit dated, but overall nothing to complain about except the lack of hot water. This is an issue on the island, so don’t be surprised if your morning shower is on the cool side. I got used to it very quickly and trust me this is a pretty small price to pay for visiting this unique place.

This brings me to the final issue on this post, the guides. AA makes sure to hire local guides at every location to enhance your experience by having people who actually live there introduce you to their city or attraction. They inevitably have a sense of pride of place and go out of their way to make sure you see the best of what they have to offer. This Chile trip was no different with a wide variety of guides of all ages and experience. They all spoke decent English and were knowledgable about their area of expertise. I’ll be going into more detail about them in future posts, but they were a major part of making this trip an unqualified success.

Now I come to the most important reason this trip was so memorable, our Adventures Abroad guide, Chris Tripodi.

With Chris Tripodi on Easter Island

Chris has worked for AA for at least fifteen years and is one of their veteran guides. He is a true nomad who has no home base, but goes from one trip to another, staying with his mother or other relatives when there’s downtime. He had done this trip a number of times before so he had a list of favourite restaurants, empanada joints and other little things that a first time guide would not.

To take an analogy from James Brown, I would say Chris is the hardest working tour guide in the business. He does a few things that require extra time on his part. For example, rather than everyone lining up to pay their bar bills individually after a meal, Chris pays and then hands around a tab book for us to enter what we had to drink. Each week or so he collects the tabs. He says he’s never been stiffed doing this. I’m willing to bet that over the course of this trip we saved at least three or four hours that were better used doing almost anything else than trying to figure out why the damn credit card isn’t working or being charged for someone else’s drinks.

Another example, rather than arrive at a restaurant and everyone spending a half an hour reading the menu, asking interminable questions about it and finally deciding what to have, Chris gives us a number of options in advance and has us pick one. On arrival or just before, he places the orders and voila, just like that meal time is shortened considerably with no loss of the overall experience. Once again the time usually wasted is available for better things.

This was our first trip with Chris and it sure won’t be our last. He made this trip one of the best we have ever had and that’s saying a lot.

So if you are considering a trip to Chile, and you should be, give serious consideration to having Adventures Abroad show you the way.

BTW in case you are wondering, AA does not pay me to do these posts, they are my own uncensored opinions about each and every tour.

In the next post we’ll kick things off with a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Valparaiso. Hope you’ll co,me along.


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