A Travellerspoint blog

February 2012

Torres del Paine

sunny 21 °C

Alrighty, I'm getting into seriously touristic stuff now. From Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales is a fairly short bus ride of three hours. Puerto Natales is a small, pleasant town on the Last Hope Fjord - it is called that because of Magellan's efforts to find a sea passage. Southern Chile has lots of glaciers and mountains, which have left many long stretches of water but few actual channels that pass all the way out to the sea. So the Last Hope was his last chance before giving up - of course, he then went on and found the Magellan channel anyway.

Once again I struck gold with my lodgings. The Casa Cecilia is an upmarket guesthouse within a couple of minutes from the centre of town, with a very useful (ie it had cold beer) hole in the wall convenience store across the road. The fellow running it seemed to be a mine of information about the area, so I pumped him for information about trips to Torres del Paine. I took a walk around town - it didn't take long, because it only has a couple of main streets and a very nice waterfront.


I was only here for one reason: to see something of Torres del Paine, and my man in the guesthouse had told me there are two main ways of seeing it - by bus, which will get you pretty close, or there's a boat trip which won't get you quite so close, but will be much more of an adventure than a scummy old bus. So that's what I did, which involved a fairly early start, down at the pier. First we went 54 miles up the Last Hope in a catamaran, where we saw lots and lots of mountains and several glaciers, waterfalls and the like. Very beautiful - like parts of New Zealand, but on a bigger scale. I did have photos, but they've gone (the photos on this and the next post are a little bit, um, borrowed). One surprising thing about this part of the trip was the awful food - pre-packaged, processed junk.


At the end of the catamaran trip, we had a bit of a hike to see a particular glacier, I think it might have been the Grey Glacier


then I dressed up like a bloody astronaut (it was a full body flotation suit), clambered into a zodiac and went up the fjord for another couple of hours, so that we could get a good look at Torres del Paine - these giant granite mountains. The flotation suits seemed a bit of an overkill, as there was never even the remotest bit of roughness in the water. At one stage, there was a bit of a waterfall, which we couldn't go up in the zodiac (obviously) so we had to abandon ship and trudge up and over a small hill. This wouldn't normally be a problem, but I was still dressed like an astronaut at the time, so it was less than pleasant.


In this last phase, in the zodiacs, there were only 16 of us - three groups (British, Icelandic and Japanese) plus two of us flying solo. Oddly enough, I felt most akin to the Japanese group - they were a bit older then me (apart from one weird guy who never spoke), but took such an active interest in everything and seemed like such nice people that I grew very fond of them (no English spoken, of course). I found it charming that they all got a bit freaked when the boat driver started doing wheelies, so gave them a big smile and they laughed. Their tour leader helped with my fondness - in the catamaran, I had been sitting a couple of tables away from her, and got a bit captivated by her evident character and humour. Then when she got into guide mode, she got quite peremptory - bossed me a couple of times. We finished the tour with a late lunch (roast mutton and potatoes - very kiwi) and a dusty minvan ride for 150 km back to town.

I'd had enough of the Chilean diet, so for dinner thought I'd try the African restaurant in town - turns out that there was very little African to it at all, so I had yet another dinner of salmon (this time with a nice rice curry dish). It was very good, but the thing that put me off my meal was my neighbour - he was one of those very dark, very angry Irishmen you sometimes come across, who had a litany of bitter complaint for his companion, and was pretty much rude to everything she said. Not cool.

I had half a day to kill the next day before my bus and Puerto Natales is a small place, so I had little to do but sit in the sun in the central plaza, reading Chatwin's In Patagonia. I didn't get much of a sense of the place, but of its people and their stories.

Posted by NZBarry 01:46 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Death in Punta Arenas

sunny 21 °C

Don't worry, this is not a report of my death in Punta Arenas, but it has a cemetery which features strongly as a tourist attraction, and for good reason: I have never seen one like it. I wasn't actually heading there when I found it: I was looking for some lunch, but in a very wandering sort of way. I had decided that the time had arrived for me to finally have a haircut, but didn't quite know how to go about getting one, what with my lack of Spanish and the tendency for English to be thin on the ground. I asked the fellow running my hostel (the rather brilliant Estancia) for advice about finding an English speaking hairdresser. A random hostel guest offered to teach me enough Spanish to ask for what I wanted (my response: "I'm a guy, how do I know?"), or I thought maybe someone could write down some instructions. But Alex, the hostel guy excelled on my behalf: he phoned his hairdresser and gave instructions as to what to do; the hairdresser was extremely careful, and took exacting measurements but ultimately I think I should have asked for "un poco mas" to be cut off as I still had problems seeing when the wind blows (although he did get my beard looking nice).

So after that, I just set off on a general walk, looking for something interesting to eat and noting buildings which caught my interest


and there I am at the cemetery. Space must be short, because they've built it up so that it looks for all the world like a miniaturised motel complex


So, this is one way to end up, in a space not much bigger than a deep drawer filing cabinet, with hundreds of neighbours. I found it quite depressing


But it certainly wasn't all bad - the space had some nice trees


and there were some rather luxurious spots


On my last day in Punta Arenas, I woke to a disconcerting sight: four half naked, gorgeous German women getting their day started. Funnily enough, we ended up in adjacent seats on a ferry later in the day, but they showed no signs of recognition. The ferry was across the Magellan Straight to a wee port town on Tierra del Fuego called Porvenir, a sadly run down spot - I described it as sad to Alex back at the hostel, but he insisted the right word is melancholic. The food places were looking so damaged and neglected that I only ate some bread from a panaderia. The one bright spot was the police: I was walking in to town from the ferry and they were kind enough to pick me up. They even said that if I went up the hill, I'd get some photos but, well, I went up the hill and things didn't look much better from there.

On the way back, I shared a taxi with an older German guy: I don't think he enjoyed his trip very much - his only words to me were about the expense of the taxi (he actually harrumped as he climbed out) and he was clearly not happy to be served instant coffee in the cafe. I took the safe option and drank beer.

Posted by NZBarry 04:01 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

To Punta Arenas (Chile)

sunny 20 °C

Most of the buses leave at a stupid time from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas (and by stupid I mean 5:00 in the morning) and then take around 12 hours to get there. It is only about 250 km as the crow flies, and there is even a road that gets close to being direct, but public transport won't take it. Instead, you have to head north west through Rio Grande and then make a big loop around to the East into Chile and out to the coast. It is about 500 km. I couldn't face doing the trip all in one hit, so caught a minibus up to Rio Grande (noting the distance to Buenos Aires as we left Ushuaia was 3000 km), stayed in a ratty old hospedaje and discovered why Rio Grande has such a bad reputation. It was windy, dirty, covered in graffiti and generally very unpleasant. So after another hamburger at Tante Sara, it was back to the hospedaje - the TV had two channels in English, but they both seemed to confine their showings to Friends, Seinfeld, House and Two and a Half Men. All in all, I was pretty pleased to be out of there the next morning.

People think of Latin American buses as being death traps full of chickens, pigs and about 600 passengers but Argentinian buses are possibly the best in the world (Chilean buses give them a run for their money) with seating better than that found in airplanes, waiter service (some even have wine, but I was never lucky enough) so that travelling around in Argentina is generally very comfortable and fast. I actually took quite a few pictures of the buses at one point but, thanks to a story I'll share later, I no longer have them. Here's a sample I stole from someone else's blog:


As for what you see as you travel around Argentina by bus, here's a fair representation of about 90%:


Every so often you'll see an estancia


or a tiny wee town, comprised mainly of a service station, a tyre repairer, a food place, some houses - most were in some sort of indeterminate state of being half built or half falling down.

Before getting to Punta Arenas, we had to leave Argentina, a fairly painless process, and then leave Tierra del Fuego, which involved a bit of a wait in a very rustic looking cafe where the locals were tucking into very large and tasty looking meals. Since I didn't know how long I had, I just had a beer.

I had vague memories of Punta Arenas as a city of quite grand buildings, and my memory proved to be correct, particularly around the central plaza:



This town was a vital trading port back in the day, had its gold rush and was a focal point for large scale sheep farmers, including the Braun and family. Sara married well and was left a fortune, which she used in part to finish off the family palace, right in the middle of town, which is now a museum. I spent quite a while wandering around, marvelling at the opulence of this place


It is decades since anyone lived here and yet there is still some of the wine collection to be seen


It is a bit drab from the back


Everyone seemed to be raving about a particular restaurant, La Luna, so I thought I'd check it out. It certainly had quite a spectacular bar area


That ladder was used by the waiter to scurry up and down to get wine - it looked decidedly precarious and was quite a mission to get down with a bottle of wine in hand. On the ceiling, there were some suspended diners


but, all in all, I was not that impressed with it. The food was average, the service was random. I had a far better experience the night before, when I saw a burger restaurant which was absolutely packed - for once, there was no ham in the hamburger. Best of all, however, was a restaurant I found up above a very faded looking shopping mall, a typical local place (I wish I could remember its name) with great food, and on Friday nights they have a special dish called Curantos. I tried to get the waitress to explain it to me, she said something about fish, chicken, pork, shellfish but I couldn't make any sense of what she was talking about. I asked back at the hostel and really wish I'd had it. It is basically a kind of hangi, with smoked pork, chicken and shellfish making up the main ingredients but the thing that got to me was the ceremony in which it was developed. On Chiloe Island (half way up the Chilean coast), they don't have many houses so when people want to move, they take their houses with them - put them up on logs as rollers, use bullocks to pull them. It takes a village to move a house and the curantos is the thanks the house-owner gives - they make it into a big party, one day of party for each day of house moving. Of course, the restaurant version would be different, but it did still sound wonderful.

Posted by NZBarry 02:54 Archived in Chile Comments (1)


sunny 20 °C

The big gastronomic treats I had promised myself in Argentina were red wine and beef, specifically beef cooked on the parilla, the grill used to have an asado (barbecue). Unfortunately, one thing I hadn't figured on was just how late this meant I would have to eat - after a fairly long day and grazing on various bits and pieces, I wasn't really ready to hang about until after 9:00 for dinner. So my first dinner turned out to be a hamburger (they charmingly translate this so authentically here that hamburgers are actually made with ham) and a tasty local artisanal beer at a local institution, Tante Sara - the place was absolutely packed, which is always a good sign.

I did end up having a parilla the next day, after watching my food cook very slowly:


The place I picked had an enormous salad bar, but no sign of any meat at all - turns out I had to get that from the man tending the parilla - I took as much as I dared, then piled up various things from the salad bar. Of course, I had way too much for one man to eat in one meal, but did my best. I'm not quite sure how it happened, because I was aware that this wasn't the healthiest option for eating, but I managed to line up a couple of days later for another lunch-time asado. I picked a busy looking place, thinking that would mean it was good, but most of the people were on some sort of bus trip, eating there against their will.

Another big tourist thing to do in Ushuaia is to walk about 7 km out of town up the hills that encircle it, then take the chair-lift to catch the views back over the Beagle Channel. I certainly enjoyed the views:


What I absolutely hated was the chair-lift:


Intuitively, I knew that it must be fairly safe, but my right amygdalae were working overtime in producing fear and anxiety - I was glued to the seat and wouldn't even move my head. Then the whole chair-lift apparatus would pause for a bit, which didn't help. So I walked back down and vowed never to get in one of these contraptions again, even if the life of the love of my life depended upon it (luckily, I can't imagine how those circumstances might arise).

I knew this was going to be bad for me, so had deliberately dawdled in the tea shop, had a big breakfast (of lemon meringue pie)


admired the shop


and the view from the window


My other touristy thing was to explore the old prison


This was first mooted in 1873, with two objectives - the first was to operate it on the relatively liberal, reformist, principles which underpinned the prison in Port Arthur, Tasmania (backed up by the reality that the terrain was so hostile, it would kill anyone who escaped). The second was political: President Roca wanted to establish some sort of official foothold in the area - it means that Ushuaia started its life as a penal colony (there were aboriginal inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, but they hadn't really established a settlement here). The prison opened in 1897 and had to be closed in 1947, as there was too much uncontrollable abuse. It is now the Museo Maritimo de Ushuaia, and includes an art gallery along with a substantial number of cells in their original condition.


I really liked this image of a man coming out of the wall


and this painting that was in the art gallery wing


Less appealing:


Posted by NZBarry 00:57 Archived in Argentina Comments (2)

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