The Santiago City with a good local guide is far more interesting than the guide books lead you to believe. Orly Hotel is a small, friendly hotel where the staff do everything to make your stay comfortable. On our free time we took the new metro to Los Dominicos where there is a craft village and a historic church.
After our 2 night stay in Santiago we flew north to Calama then an hour’s drive through the “lunar” landscape to San Pedro. We stayed at the Noi Casa Atacama Hotel very near the centre of this little oasis of green. It was a hub of activity with surprisingly many interesting places to visit. The Moon Valley was a great place to start and we trekked up to see the sand dunes, volcanoes and the valley itself with strange geological features and then on to Mars Valley to have sundowners and a great sunset.
The following day we visited the historical site of Tulor which dated back to 500-800 BC. This was the first village to be settled by the Nomadic people in this area. Our next stop was Pukara de Quitor, a pre Inca hillside fortress which was captured by the Spanish in 1540. It was a steep climb but the view was well worth it. We were rewarded for our climbing efforts by dinner at the Bendito Restaurant back in San Pedro. If we thought the day was over, NO, we headed off again at 5pm to the Atacama Salt Flats to see one of the oasis lakes found in this area. It is very strange to find flamingos and other birds in the middle of a desert. To top off the day we had another picnic and sundowners watching another glorious sunset over the lake and mountains.
A rude awakening at 5am for the tour to Tatio Geysers at an altitude of 4320 metres. We were concerned about altitude sickness but providing you take it steady it was fine. It was still completely dark, no earthly light pollution so we could see the stars and the Milky Way standing out brilliantly.
The geysers have to be seen as the whole valley is covered in the steam coming from a multitude of outlets. For the brave who don’t mind being a bit cold there is a thermal pool!
Then it was time for an outdoor breakfast with tea and coffee and toast cooked on a little stove. The water boils at a much lower temperature up here. On our way back we saw 2 Andean foxes, a vizcacha (like a huge rabbit), feral donkeys, and many vicunas (a member of the camel family found at high altitudes) and visited the highest village in Chile, Muchuca. We tried out a kebab of llama meat which I thought was vicuna meat and it was delicious.
As we had started out so early we still had the afternoon to ourselves and we discovered that there was a food and music festival going on in the main square in San Pedro so we went and tried out some local dishes.
About 10 months ago I had booked a free tour of the ALMA observatory, again at altitude. The tickets go quickly so you have to book early to guarantee getting in as it is only offered on Saturdays and Sundays. The main satellite dishes are located on a plateau at 5000 metres above sea level and any workers have to undergo vigorous checks before they are allowed to travel up there so obviously this was not part of the tour.
It was time to travel half way down Chile via 2 flights to Puerto Montt in the Lake District. On the flight we passed by not one but two erupting volcanoes. There are 2000 volcanoes in Chile of which 95 are active. On arrival we were whisked off to visit the local fish market and it turned out to be far more exciting than it sounds.
This region is heavily into salmon farming so the stalls were loaded with shellfish, king crabs, hake, salmon and a large selection of local vegetables. Outside the market are many craft stalls but the highlight for us were 3 large sea lions laying on the pavement and several more in the water below. They are HUGE and can be aggressive although a very plucky dog was having a lovely time teasing them.
We did a quick circuit of Puerto Montt before carrying on to Puerto Varas to find our hotel, Cabana del Lago. The view of the bay from our bedroom was pretty spectacular by day and by night.
By the 2nd of April we were used to getting up early and off! The program today was a visit to the National Park of Vicente Perez Rosales to see the stunning Petrohue Fall and then on a boat trip to the tiny village of Peulla. The falls were in a gorge with high cliffs, woodland walks and gushing, emerald water coloured by the minerals from the glacial melt.
The trip to Peulla which is almost on the Argentine border, took one hour and three quarters across the beautiful Todos Los Santos Lake and the same on the way back. We were surrounded by mountains and volcanoes all the way and the scenery was special and similar to that of the Norwegian fjords. If we are honest we would probably have preferred just a 30-45 minute boat trip up to the main volcano and back but other people might feel differently.
3rd April. Today we took the ferry to Chiloe Island with the intention of walking the beaches, viewing a traditional house, an ancient church, small villages, a craft market but best of all we were thrilled to find one solitary penguin waddling around. It had got left behind as it had a broken wing but now seemed fully recovered as it swam out to sea while we watched.
4th April. This was my personal favourite part of the trip although the weather was extremely windy for 2 days and involved a whole day’s travelling down to Punta Arenas (nearly as far south as you can get) and then 4 and a half hours to the edge of the Torres del Paine Park.
We stayed in luxury yurts at the Camp Patagonia overlooking the Horn/Knives mountains. A really lovely, friendly camp with brilliant staff and although the weather wasn’t great we managed a blustery walk in the Pingo Valley and a trip into the Cueva del Milodon. The Milodon was a large, extinct mammal resembling a giant sloth.
The sun finally shone for our 7km walk to the famous towers known as Torres del Paine and our guide, Felipe, spotted a puma in the distance. To our delight and amazement it came down the mountainside and leapt over the fence to come within a few metres of our group. It totally ignored us and carried on down and settled in the grass to soak up the sunshine.
We saw 6500 year old cave paintings, herds of guanacos and a fox ambling by. Lunch was at the aptly named Blue Lake before travelling on to the Towers which had been slightly overshadowed by the PUMA!
We said goodbye to Camp Patagonia and Hello to Valparaiso, the city built on many hills with bright coloured houses and even more brightly coloured streets. Our hotel was a grand old mansion ideal for our last stop. We walked up and down streets and steps and travelled on many of the city’s funicular railways.
We returned to Santiago, travelling through the many vineyards to catch our flight home.
We have had a wonderful, varied and exciting holiday and we couldn’t fault the tour agency, the drivers and all the guides. Thank you Fiona for another outstanding trip.