Trip to Chile: Extreme and In Between
Situated at the bottom of the world, is Chile, a country with extreme climates and rugged landscapes that would be a top destination for any adventurous traveller. With 15 hours of airplane travel and a 5 hour time difference from San Francisco, a 2 week vacation will give you a sampling from south to north and in between of the diversity found in the most southern part of South America. Head south for the winter and experience what summer is like in Chile.
Cascada can hook you up with local guides and help you make traveling in Chile a breeze. Fly into Santiago, stay overnight, and then head to Punta Arenas the next morning. Try to reserve a seat on the east side of the plane for a view of the mountains as you fly south.
Chilling in Patagonia
The coldest winter you’ll ever spend is a summer in Patagonia! This bottom of the world place offers some top challenges for even the most daring tourist. One of the hardest obstacles is the extreme weather conditions; it can go from sunny to brutal winds, hail, snow, and torrential rain all in one day. Be prepared to deal with what the environment throws your way by bringing lots of layers, waterproof outerwear, sturdy boots, gaiters, and hiking poles.
Because it’s a “once in a lifetime” experience, we recommend going directly to Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia’s top spot. From Punta Arenas, the van ride (provided by EcoCamp) takes about 4-5 hours to arrive in Torres del Paine National Park. You’ll make a few stops for lunch and a visit to Cueva del Milodon, the prehistoric home of the giant ground sloth.
EcoCamp your Dome Away from Home
EcoCamp is an all encompassing tour that is situated within hiking distance of the most iconic natural wonders in Torres del Paine. Your dome has a small private deck with spectacular 360 degree views. Inside your dome, is a wood burning stove to keep you warm throughout the night, a hot shower, comfy bed, and cushy chairs. EcoCamp has delicious meals which include: buffet breakfast, a DIY BYOL (bring your own lunch), snacks, cocktails, and gourmet dinners.
There is a rolling calendar of options (throughout the week) to join guides for hiking, boating, or bus tours. You’ll want to spend 4-5 days going through that list of thrilling excursions.
Getting Your Feet Wet with a Bus Tour (Day 1)
Your tour provides a good introduction to Torres del Paine’s ancient forests, massive glaciers, a hue of lakes, a landscape of fjords, roaring rivers/waterfalls, and an array of wildlife. One of the most breathtaking photo stops is Lake Pehoé. It is a glacial lake that looks like a tropical island.
Gear up for Grey Glacier
Having long legs is an asset for ascending and descending the butt-busting or quad-throbbing steep steps. The weather for us that day started off clear, and quickly changed to hard pounding hail and 60 mph winds. When we finally reached the peak, all we saw was white and our best views were clearly behind us.
Violà! the French Valley (Day 2)
A boat will take you to the other side of Pehoé Lake. From there, you will embark on (most likely) a muddy-filled, windy trail through a thicket of white barked trees. You’ll see sweeping scenic hills juxtaposed between the turquoise colored lake beneath you. This 7.5 mile hike will take longer than you think to complete because as you move from the valley, you’ll climb up a steep and narrow trail toward the French Glaciers. We had chills up our spines as we watched a blizzard swirling in front of the French Glaciers.
As we were hiking back down (the same way we came up), we were soaked to the bone from a deluge of nonstop rain. Luckily, there was a lodge near the dock in which we dried off a bit before we took the boat back to our dome.
The Power of the Towers (Day 3)
Unbeknownst to us, the prior 2 days of hiking were just a warmup for one of the most mentally and physically grueling hikes of our lifetime. The 12 mile hike started from EcoCamp, and our guide led the group up a rock-filled trail that only got rockier. As the trail narrowed, the winds whipped up with such intensity that our guide yelled “drop down to the ground,” to avoid being blown off our feet. Apparently, this is a common occurrence even in the city of Punta Arenas, where you’ll see ropes on the streets for residents to take hold.
We had a bit of respite on the trail as we headed through the dark, thick woods. We then sprung out on a path of boulders and were well rewarded by a clear, sunny view of a small glacier lake with the Towers in the background. Once again, we had to turn around and go back the same way we came in. About one third of the way back, we were hit by a barrage of blistery winds, and heavy, unrelenting rain. The rocky path become so slippery, that we were glad we had brought poles. The conditions were so extreme that one family member saw a woman fly off her feet and roll down a hill.
After a marathon of a hike (like no other), we were so happy to shed our wet, muddy clothes, take a warm shower, change into dry clothes, eat a gourmet dinner, and go to bed early!
Casual Day Exploring Laguna Azul (Day 4)
Our last day in Torres del Paine was peaceful, and we relished this 2 mile hike which gave our jello-like legs a break. Along the way, we observed the herds of Guanacos, a wild cousin of the Llamas. We meandered through the golden fields on the sunniest day of our stay in Patagonia. We picnicked by a cluster of large boulders and noticed ancient human drawings in a cave.
Patagonia is an unforgiving environment that left us with a lifetime of memories. The following day we boarded the van back to Punta Arenas and went the other extreme to the Atacama Desert.
Atacama Desert High and Dry
With its high altitudes, miles of salt flats, enormous volcanoes, gaseous geysers, sand dunes, and extreme heat, it’s hard to imagine any place on earth that is remotely similar to the Atacama Desert. It is a 2 hour flight from Santiago to Atacama and the launching point into this desert destination is the town of San Pedro.
Lodging and Food
We recommend staying about 3-5 blocks out of this loud, crowded, dusty town. There are many boutique hotels surrounding the downtown area, and we chose noi casa. With its beautifully decorated, spacious rooms, and large pool, it provided a welcome break from the piercing heat and exhausting days of touring. Our favorite place to eat was La Casona, a restaurant that is heavy on barbecued meat.
Archaeological Tour and Getting Salty in Atacama (Day 1)
Hard to believe that the Atacama Desert has an 8,000 year old history? The Atacameños (people of the desert) from the 12th century, the Incas, and the Spanish from the 16th century all once occupied this remote part of South America. We visited Quitor Fortress, Tulor village, and the Archaeological Museum of San Pedro. The highlight of the day was floating in Laguna Cejas, a small lake, where it is so salty that you float on top.
From Dry to Fertile (Day 2)
We stopped off at Toconao, a tiny Andean village to marvel at the oasis of the water channels which nourish the fruits, vegetables, and the field of Quinoa. We visited another kind of oasis suitable only for Chilean and Andean Flamingos at the Laguna Chaxa. We observed the Flamingos dunking their heads into the bright, turquoise, blue lagoon with the miles of stark, white salt flats in the background. We went to the semi-secluded Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons, where we were awestruck by their blueish-green color and the massive volcanoes shadowing this serene landscape.
Swishing Down the Dunes
We topped off the day with an exhausting yet exhilarating evening of sand-boarding. After signing up in the town of San Pedro, we were driven to the dunes. It was an intense 15 minute workout hiking up a hill of deep sand, then a few minute ride of swishing down the dune.
Look what’s Springing up High (Day 3)
Our most challenging day was a very early morning drive up to the high altitudes and low temperatures of El Tatio Geysers. Sleeping on the way up, we were a bit light-headed when we got out of the car at nearly 14,000 feet. Our guide explained that we ascended 6,000 feet from a 2 hour drive. The bone-chilling weather was our wake-up call, and we were wearing much of our warm clothing from Patagonia. We wandered around the gaseous, spouting geysers and had to stay alert while walking around.
Afterwards, we refueled on skewered Llama meat and empanadas at the tiny, scenic village of Machuca. As we headed down toward San Pedro, the temperatures were rising rapidly. We pulled off to the side of the road and walked amongst towering Cardon Cacti.
Out of this World: Valley of the Moon/Death Valley (still Day 3)
Biking along the roads leading to the Valley of the Moon, you notice how the terrain gets drier, sandier, and rockier. Mother nature has spent eons carving out rocks with the skill-set of a fine sculptor. Take a detour off the bike, and slither through the cave at Cuervas de Sal. Then, scramble up the rocks after you exit. This moon-like landscape deepens in reddish color as you pedal toward the dunes. We got off our bikes as the sun was going down and hiked to the peak to observe a breathtaking sunset.
One Last Ride through Atacama (Day 4)
Before we boarded a flight to Santiago, we took a bike ride from San Pedro to and through the narrow trail of Diablo Canyon (Devil’s Throat). When you see a resort-like hotel on your left, then you are approaching Diablo Canyon. What a memorable way to end our travels in the high and dry desert of Atacama.
Temperate Places In-Between the Extremes
Surrounded by the seismic Andes Mountains, lies Santiago, a clean and sprawling city.
Pedaling around Santiago with a City Bike Tour
To get a grasp of the sites and sounds of Santiago, we booked a cycling tour. The tour started at Parque Bustamante, and we cruised through the Mapocho River, the central market, the cultural center, barrios, cafes, and ended at the Museo de la Memoria.
Along the way, the father/daughter guides pridefully shared how radically Chile has transformed in a few decades from an oppressive dictatorship to a peaceful democracy. The guides know the ins/outs of Santiago and are eager to offer some local assistance with restaurant recommendations, activities, and other sites to see!
A Slow Food Culinary Tour
Slow Travel is a full gastronomical, interactive day that eats at all your senses. The chefs take you to an enormous, semi-open air market filled with fresh, inexpensive, delectable fruits and vegetables. There are not enough hours in the day to get through this market. We followed our “top chef” as he introduced us to an array of produce, pastries and breads, local delicacies, butchers, and fish vendors. Our arms were weighed down with baskets of fresh edibles.
Once we returned to our culinary guide’s apartment, he put us to work as his amateur “sous chefs” and instructed us on the proper way to peel, chop, dice, mince, and whisk. We whipped up a 6 course feast which we washed down with some homemade Pisco Sour, local beer and wine! Slow Travel also provides a potpourri of tours throughout South America.
One Stop Souvenir Shopping
Sometimes the hardest chore can be finding those traveling treasures to bring home for loved ones. Pueblito Los Dominicos has plenty of gift options with its handcrafted art, jewelry, and clothing. Make sure you have ample space in your suitcase for all the fine souvenirs!
Mestizo Restaurant is a bit out of the way but worth the trek. The creatively designed architectural interior is matched only by the view of the modern-style, landscape of Parque Bicentenario. Besides our culinary tour, this was our favorite dining experience because it had a fusion of South American flavors. We recommend making a reservation ahead of time.
Along the highway toward Valparaiso, you’ll spot many wineries. From Santiago, it takes about an hour and half’s drive to reach this bustling port city. As you begin driving up the steep, narrow streets, you’ll capture a view of the multi-colored homes and buildings. It is a manically constructed city that has hidden staircases, murals, street art, European style cafes, and an antiquated Funicular. Visit the home of legendary and eccentric writer, Pablo Neruda in La Sebastiana for a look at his whimsical collection of art, furnishings, and a stunning view of the bay.
We found a top of the world vacation at the bottom of the world. As adrenaline junkies, we were pushed, pulled from the extreme and in-between. Chile is both the coolest and hottest place on the planet earth!
–Written by Debbie Sultan, Photos by Ariel Sultan