Hola! Bienvenidos a Chile!

Chile is massive country. There was no way we were going to be able to do a cross-country drive in two weeks unless we spent the bulk of the time in the car. We needed to narrow down our regions of interest. Seeing the penguins was top of our list (and one of the motivating factors for choosing Chile in the first place). This meant we would be in the chilly south, no-pun intended. The mid-region is known to be the wine region which would have been a natural second, however, we decided to go for the opposite extreme and visit the desert in the north. You can imagine just how interesting packing for this trip was. We were in Chile in early December 2007.

Map of Chile Arica Putre and Lauca National Park Iquique San Pedro de Atacama Torres del Paine National Park Puerto Natales Punta Arenas

After 24 hours of travel (which included connecting flights in Miami and Santiago), we finally arrived in Punta Arenas. It is pretty much as far south as you can get in Chile. I think we had read that it is actually the southernmost city in the world! There are tours that will take you to the south pole from Punta Arenas, but that is a little too hard core for us. If you are interested and have 60 days to spare, you could participate in an unsupported group expedition. That would be a major conquer.

It is from this town that you would catch the 2-hour ferry ride to Isla Magdelana, home to 120,000 magellanic penguins. If you are planning a trip to the island, ensure you check the schedule as there are designated days. This is because the National Forestry Corporation do not want visitors to constantly disturb these comical birds. The journey to the island was a remarkable experience. As the ferry arrived, we could see hundreds of penguins right by the dock. It was as if they were flocking to greet us. What made this one of the most fascinating wildlife experiences was the fact that it was unguided and it was in an open, natural habitat. You are given one hour to explore the small island. There are no fences or gates. There is a single, winding path (that leads up to a lighthouse) and along the path there is a thin rope to keep you on the path, but this does not stop the penguins from waddling across. All this is to say, you could really get up-close and personal with a penguin. As penguins mate for life, we noticed that most penguins stood, walked and rested in pairs. We also noticed that for such small creatures, they are capable of making big noises.

Another very amusing memory of Punta Arenas involved a large pack of stray and domestic dogs. It was early morning and once in our car, this "gang" of 20 dogs (with more running from the park across the street to check out the commotion) surrounded our car and would not stop barking, nor would they move. As soon as we finally broke free, the dogs' natural instincts led them to chase us half a block as we sped away. I wish someone had filmed that event, or taken a picture. Just imagine a quiet morning with 25 or so excited dogs chasing a single car down an empty street!

  • Friendly penguin greeting as we arrive at Isla Magdalena
  • Arrival at Isla Magdalena
  • Jaime and the magellanic penguins
  • Traveling penguins
  • Possible mating call?

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Another highlight of the trip. No, not the city itself, but what is within - Torres del Paine National Park. It was a gruelling 8-9 hour round-trip hike, and cold at some parts of the journey, but the reward is worth it. Check out our photos below and you will understand. Note that the park is huge so if you enjoy longer hikes and camping, you could spend a long time exploring the area. We stuck to the day hike, but explored other parts of the park by car. If you do not wish to rent a car, there is infrequent bus service within the park.

Lake Pehoe, also within the park looked almost unreal. The colour of the water was such a brilliant shade of blue against the rolling green hills and the mountains in the background. This lake was en route to Lago Grey, a lake fed by a glacier. We were both going to sign up for the boat ride out to see the glaciers up close, however, the choppy waters delayed the trip by a couple of hours and by that point, Jaime did not feel she could stomach the ride. Nelson, with his stomach of steel, made the trip and took a lot of pictures. The photos do not really capture the sheer size of the glaciers. It is difficult to get an accurate perspective when you are on a boat with nothing but water and glaciers surrounding you.

  • Us in Hotel Costaustralis
  • Hotly debated national drink- Pisco Sour
  • Kissing wild guanacos
  • Us in front of hotel - Hosteria Las Torres
  • Early on in the hike to the torres
  • Hiking to the torres
  • Final stretch to the torres
  • Nelson photographing the torres
  • The torres
  • Lake Pehoe
  • Lago Grey - to the Glacier
  • Glacier

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From the southernmost tip, we flew into Arica, the northernmost city in Chile, 19km south of the Peruvian border. We packed away our winter wear and slathered on the sunscreen. The north is what you would expect of a desert - it's dry, dusty and hot. We did manage to find an oasis, Lluta Valley, in the middle of all the desert sands. Not much grows in the desert, except cactus. The scenery in the south is definitely a lot more interesting.

On our long drive, we happened to drive into a small (really tiny) town named Socorama. The place seemed deserted. We could not figure out where everyone was. The only person we saw was a lone sheppard hearding his flock of sheep and a donkey (a common sight).

  • Arica
  • Statue is of El Cristo de la paz
  • Arica by night
  • Rental car in desert
  • Cactus
  • If skelator were a bird
  • Herd of sheep in Socarama

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Our next destination was Lauca National Park, close to the town of Putre. This was the first time Nelson has ever experienced the effects of altitude (3500m), but he adjusted quickly. Putre is another tiny town, but somehow we were not able to easily find our accommodations. We stopped and asked several people, including military, but language was an issue.

Below I have included a picture of a small building with a big, crocked sign that says "Fuel Here". We could not figure out where the pumps were and finally, after asking around, we were directed to a local inn around the corner from the supposed gas station. They told us to knock on the door of the station. We followed the instructions but nobody answered. As we were turning away, the door opens a crack. We explain that we need fuel. The guy opens the door further and the smell of gasoline hits you. All we could think was, he better not light a cigarette in there! He is vague. We tell him what we're after and name a price. He disappears back into his gas-house. Minutes later he appears with a plastic jug of gasoline and a cut garden hose. The next thing I see, the guy has one end of the hose in his mouth to start it up!

Once fueled up, we were on our way to Lauca National Park where we found wildlife and the famous Parinacota Volcano.

  • Putre's "gas station"
  • Full service gas
  • On our way to Lauca National Park
  • The famous Parinacota Volcano in Lauca National Park

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To be quite honest, there was not a whole lot in Iquique, nor do we have any photos, and it's 2:02AM and I'm still up writing. If you want more information on this location, please click here

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This was one of our favourite towns in northern Chile as it was full of young travelers and plenty of restaurants. There was an English-speaking tour operator in town and we signed up for the El Tatio Geyser tour. At 4300m, this is the highest geothermal field in the world. You will never experience anything like this in North America due to liability. Here, you could stand on top of an active geyser steam vent! Later that morning, we had a chance to take a dip in one of the hot springs near the great geyser.

  • El Tatio Geysers before sunrise
  • Dip in the hot springs
  • Hearty dinner in San Pedro

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If you have any questions for us about our Chilean experience, or want more information contact us.