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Southern Chile


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Saturday 11 March 2000

Woke up around 0930 and hung around until lunch. One of the benefits of staying in the Globe pub (apart from the pub and the cheapness of the accommodation) was that you could have a bar lunch included instead of breakfast.

Picked up by the bus at 1315 with a load of other people, including the film crew from the 'Footsteps of Shackleton' voyage, Craig Mattocks from BAS and some English gap year kids.

The flight to Punta Arenas took about one and a half hours and was very pleasant. Customs and immigration at the airport were exceptionally slow though, the ministry of agriculture people who insisted on checking my bags for fruit, vegetables and bull's semen were particularly bad.

As a result I missed the bus into town and got a taxi instead, costing me USD10. The taxi driver took me to 'Backpackers Paradise', a pretty rough-looking hostel but comfortable enough and only USD5 per night.

I went to a supermarket for the first time in over two years, the West Store in Stanley just isn't the same. I bought some food then returned to the hostel to cook it. Spent the rest of the night watching TV (satellite TV with Spanish subtitles).

Was kept awake for a while by loud music from somewhere nearby, the coldness of the room and the rain drumming on the tin roof didn't help much either.

Sunday 12 March 2000

Got up about 0930 again and wandered off to the western side of town, which is pretty run down. Tried to find the forest park mentioned in the South American Handbook but couldn't, the Handbook was missing useful details such as a map.

In fact the whole town was pretty shabby in fact, but interesting. Rows of wooden houses clad in corrugated sheeting, a lot like Stanley.

Bought breakfast from a bakery, involving some difficult negotiations in Spanish. I later found out that the Chileans are notoriously difficult to understand, they tend to run their words together.

As I walked up the street I passed a corrugated metal fence with 'M J Pickles' daubed on it in paint, which prompted a brief moment of worry as I half expected him to leap out from somewhere.

My impression so far of the city was that it had lots of payphones and money changers, a fair few bars and that most businesses' logos involved penguins.

Due to lack of much else to do I walked along to the Cemetery (mentioned as one of the city's attractions in the Handbook). There were large sections of Scots, Italians, Germans and especially Croats; I had already noticed that quite a few of the streets in town had eastern European names. There was something strange and poignant about the headstones of people born in Lerwick who died in Punta Arenas. The whole place was very well tended though.

I walked back in to town for lunch but had quite a bit of difficulty finding a restaurant open. I eventually spotted one on Carrera Pinto and had an excellent salmon steak. It seems people eat lunch a bit later in Chile than I'm used to.

Continued wandering the streets in the afternoon, past the 'British School' with its attached Anglican church and back down to a supermarket where I bought stuff for tea. Watched a few films on satellite TV in the evening.

Monday 13 March 2000

Took a taxi collectivo through the dodgier bits of town to the Zona Franca (duty-free area), which was remarkably similar to Montevideo in having only about five shops endlessly repeated.

Bought myself a new daysack but couldn't find any mossie nets or decent fleeces. Had some lunch there: a tomato salad and a mysterious main course consisting of beans, sausage and a lump of meat in some kind of cheese sauce.

After lunch I did some shopping for the Torres del Paine trip, lots of pasta and tins of tuna. I also managed my first successful transaction in Spanish, buying a padlock in a hardware shop.

When I got back into town there was some kind of celebration of an anniversary of the return to democracy. It looked very much like the 'Fast Show', with appearances by El Presidente on a TV link.

Tuesday 14 March 2000

Woken up around 0700 by the sound of rain drumming on the metal roof and got the bus to Puerto Natales. I was quite impressed by the service; we got coffee (Nescafe of course) and biscuits as well as a film (Armageddon, not terribly good but diverting). The scenery was also very much like the Falklands, windswept but not very interesting after a while.

We arrived in Puerto Natales at midday and us tourists were immediately besieged by women with cards for B&Bs. I stayed at Casa Evelyn, which was reasonably cheap, very friendly and had Internet.

Had lunch at a pizza place, a bit of a feeble cop-out and one I regretted, as the pizza was more like tomato sauce and cheese on a bit of circular toast.

Puerto Natales was even more like Stanley than Punta Arenas in terms of architecture and lack of things to do. That part of Chile seems like a sort of useless appendix to the country that has now been turned over to tourism.

The local pop music was pretty grim too, a sort of sub Take That succession of ballads containing frequent repetitions of the word 'corazón'.

I found an interesting little museum though, with no entry charge apart from a request to write down where you were from. Most of the information was in Spanish but it had a lot of artefacts from the original inhabitants of the area (tribes with improbable names like Aonikenk or something) and also from the time of the European settlement.

The hostel was nice and warm, although I was slightly concerned about being poisoned in the night by the ancient gas heaters. It also had the benefit of very hot showers.

I met a friendly young German couple there and ended up having a strange conversation with them, an Italian forest ranger (who only spoke Italian and Spanish) and an Argentinean fireman. There was a lot of translating going on!

Wednesday 15 March 2000

Woke up rather cold at about 0600, the heater had been turned off by Carlos (Mr Evelyn? We never quite worked it out) at about midnight and the hard mattress and thin sheets didn't seem to keep the heat in too well.

After a breakfast of coffee (instant again), jam and bread we were taken to our bus for Torres del Paine.

Couldn't see much out of the bus as the windows were steamed up and dirty. The weather got worse, raining hard and overcast. The German couple got off at Laguna Amarga along with a Canadian I had started talking to.

I then met a New Zealand couple who I would keep meeting throughout South America and Paul, an accountant from the UK who had recently been in the Falklands auditing the Falkland Islands Company.

I got off at the administration centre just as the rain stopped and wandered around for a bit, trying to find the refugio alleged to be there. When I found it I met a very helpful Chilean named Nelson who suggested I head off on the 'W' route, one which wasn't mentioned in the guidebooks.

I took his advice and set off for Refugio Pehoe, a four and a half hour walk. It was fairly hard going, a lot of going up and downhill and my shoulders started to ache after a bit but the sun came out and everything seemed much better then.

I arrived at about 1800 and started talking to an elderly American couple who had been travelling for most of their lives. This was also where I first met the crowd of young German girls (two cousins and their sisters) I would keep bumping into in the park.

Cooking was tricky as the kitchen was in use by the staff until fairly late, I didn't get off to bed until about 2300.

Thursday 16 March 2000

Got up at 0700 and had breakfast. The powdered fruit juice I had bought in Punta Arenas was surprisingly nice. The destination for the day was Refugio Grey.

I set off just after eight over lots more hills until I reached the top and saw Lake Grey, complete with icebergs! The glacier was very impressive and it was wonderful to walk through forest again.

Refugio Grey was similar to Pehoe but a little smaller. From there I followed a sign pointing to the viewing point but the path disappeared so I dropped down to the shore of the lake and took a load of photos. The lake was rather lovely, the icebergs and glacial colour being especially nice.

While I was waiting for lunch at the refugio the packhorses arrived with supplies, the only way to transport goods around the park.

By the time I returned to Pehoe I was quite tired. I had a shower and swapped my sodden, sweaty t-shirt for a thermal top. Ended up talking to an electrical engineer from Manchester now living and working in Munich and a news editor from Plymouth.

I managed to get into the kitchen by 2000 then chatted for a while and had a Pisco Sour, which tasted quite nice.

Friday 17 March 2000

Woke up in the morning with my first pisco hangover and bought breakfast, which cost me CLP2200 (a bit less than £3). Breakfast was pretty good, coffee, juice, bread and porridge.

After that I set off for the Valle Frances. The walk along the lakeside to Campamento Italiano was very pleasant with the sun shining and the mountains at my side. The pit toilet at Italiano wasn't so nice.

The next section, up to Campamento Brittanico was much harder, although it was worth it for the views of snow avalanching down Cerro Paine Grande. Met up with an American called Steve and a Scot called Robin. Steve had been working in Germany as a home shopping channel presenter and had also worked on one of the Antarctic cruise ships.

We ate lunch at Campamento Brittanico, I swapped bits of Bournville for some of their sausage, but then I had to set off back down to get back to Pehoe before dark.

At the bottom of the rocky and difficult path I met the Canadian guy from the bus and stopped for a bit of a rest and a chat before continuing. I decided then that I would treat myself to dinner and the next day's breakfast at the refugio.

Dinner was very good, soup, pasta with tuna and tinned fruit for dessert. The Canadian (called Holden, as in 'Catcher in the Rye') turned up later, with an Israeli couple he had been travelling with.

We sat and drank wine, news of the presence of recent time in Antarctica seemed to have travelled fast so I got an inquisition from all sides.

Went to my bed and was woken occasionally by loud snoring from a neighbouring bunk.

Saturday 18 March 2000

Dugly should have been arriving in Punta this afternoon, it was a shame I couldn't make it to a phone but I was sure he'd manage.

Got up and had breakfast. My heels were looking bad after all the unaccustomed walking, burst blisters and a bit of a horrible mess.

Caught the 1030 ferry across the lake to Podeto. "Our Lady of the Snows", a fast modern catamaran whisked me across the lake in the company of a young Australian called Lee and two older Australian women.

The refugio at Podeto was extremely basic but I hung around there for a while watching the rain, listening to the birds and cleaning out my blisters. In the end I met Mark, a former F16 pilot in the Australian air force who now works for Cathay Pacific, and got the bus round to Hosteria Las Torres.

During the bus trip we passed quite a bit of wildlife. Guanacos dotted the sides of the road and we even saw a condor flying quite low near the bus. I had a pet theory for a while that every bus was preceded by a truck dropping off animals and followed by another one collecting them up again.

On the long uphill walk to Refugio Chileno I met the German girls again (I was greeted by shrieks of 'Kevin!'). The refugio was very nice and in a beautiful setting, with the Torres just visible, but the staff were a bit strange.

Had a really good meal of homemade soup with lots of vegetables, chicken and rice followed by the usual tinned peaches. Drank two boxes of red wine between us. The staff seemed more interested in trying to impress the German girls than anything else, like light a proper fire.

Sunday 19 March 2000

Got up around 0730 and had breakfast, not as good as at Pehoe, no porridge this time. After breakfast Mark and I set off up to the Torres, which were obscured by cloud when we left the refugio.

As we walked up the cloud cleared, although once we were there it kept briefly drifting back again. Took loads of photos of the Torres and met an American girl who had been on the bus the day before and an English woman who had been travelling for the last eleven years, living off the rent from a flat.

Mark had to rush down again to catch a bus; I just dawdled down a bit later.

Radioed a message for Dugly down to the Hosteria Las Torres, to be passed on to the rangers' office at the entrance.

In the afternoon I just sat around the refugio and watched as a load of tourists appeared on horses. Two of the horses had some kind of disagreement and ended up in a tangled heap on the ground but weren't injured.

The other new arrivals were the New Zealand couple, Karen and Phil, and the German couple from Puerto Natales. Karen is a vet, working in London, and Phil doesn't often seem to get a word in edgeways.

Monday 20 March 2000

The cold I've had for the last few days doesn't seem to be getting any worse, or better. I'm hoping a day of inactivity and basking in the sunshine might shake it off.

It remains to be seen whether Dugly will get the message this afternoon (when he should be arriving) and whether he can make it up here before sunset.

It was very cold in the refugio in the morning, with frost on the ground outside. Decided to start moving north pretty soon, following the sun to warmer climes.

Las Torres were looking good from the refugio, thought about getting up early to catch them at sunrise but it's too much effort. While I was thinking about it I spent a few hours lying in the sunshine, listening to the birdsong and watching the occasional condor glide overhead.

Returned to the refugio to cook lunch (pasta in onion soup). The sun had started disappearing behind clouds anyway. If it had stayed out for a while I might have gone for a short walk.

Wandered back out into the valley, there was a slight cold wind but it was pleasant enough when the sun wasn't obscured by cloud. Lots of people were hiking past, sweaty and out of breath after the long climb up from the bottom.

The countryside at the lower end of the valley reminded me a lot of Scotland, if you swapped the guanacos for deer, possibly a slight twinge of homesickness.

Dugly turned up around 1730, he had got a version of my message translated into Spanish and addressed to 'Adriana Woodrossi'. The only intelligible parts were 'Kevin' and 'Chileno'. We chatted for a while, had tea, and got through a box of wine.

Dugly decided to camp outside (USD4 instead of USD16), I didn't envy him a cold night in a bivvy bag.

Tuesday 21 March 2000

Woke up at about 0730 and had breakfast before going out to wake Dugly. We decided not to drag everything up to the Campamento Las Torres but just day-tripped up.

The Torres were pretty cloud covered but we got a few glimpses of them, one at a time. Wound Dugly up by describing my last trip up there.

Walked back down to the campsite for lunch and then onto Campamento Japonés, intending to go up to the Valle del Silencio but my feet were getting very sore so I took a seat and waited for Dugly.

On our return trip the Torres looked much clearer but we were both too tired to climb back up to them.

Cooked tea, pasta with ham, sweetcorn and tomato and had another box of wine. The staff (Eric, Gordo and Milan) had a bit of a musical evening and I got a free hardboiled egg while I was cooking.

Wednesday 22 March 2000

Got up pretty late, around 0900 and ate breakfast while watching the rain pouring down outside. Tinned peaches and powdered fruit juice made a reasonably good start to the day.

Paid my bill of CLP51100 (USD160) and had to remind the staff of how many meals, nights, boxes of wine, etc I had had. In the end he didn't bother including any of the beers or coffees.

Left the refugio at 1000 and hiked down to Hosteria Las Torres. We had a brief pause for a chocolate bar and then continued our walk across to Laguna Amarga and the entrance gate.

After several hours waiting for the bus we ended up with more people than seats, causing confusion and a seriously delayed departure. Saw some rheas at the side of the road along the way. We eventually made it back to Puerto Natales and went back to Casa Evelyn.

Dugly and I had a very enjoyable meal at El Marítimo, a seafood restaurant on the shores of Seno Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope Sound). I had grilled conger eel, which was delicious, and we drank a very nice bottle of wine. There was one scary moment as the waiter turned on a gas heater and then took several minutes to light it; I was half expecting to be exploded in the middle of my meal.

Thursday 23 March 2000

Got up late and had breakfast before going shopping. We bought loads of snacks for the ferry and some stuff for lunch (including Dulce de Leche). Bought some postcards and checked our mail.

We went to a restaurant called 'Cristal' for tea, very good food and big portions. I had a hamburger 'completo' with lettuce, cheese, avocado and tomato but unfortunately the coffee was still Nescafe.

We picked up our bags from Casa Evelyn then walked down to the Navimag waiting room, two portacabins full of people and packs.

Shortly after 2200 we boarded the ferry, were herded onto the lorry lift and allocated cabins. Cabin 112 had four berths but no pillowcases, towels, lifejackets or insulation on the wiring to my bedside light. I was sharing with an American called Scott and a Canadian couple who've been cycling around South America (see my links page.

The ship was quite Bransfield-like but comfortable enough, with most of the cabins in a bolted-on module. Dugly got put into cabin R with a load of truck drivers, right behind the bridge.

Friday 24 March 2000

Dragged myself out of bed in time to watch as we sailed from Puerto Natales, with an accompaniment provided by the cows, sheep and horses carried on the open deck.

The channel out from Puerto Natales is very scenic and in places only just wider than the ship. Sea lions were sighted off several of the small islands, pointed out to us over the PA by the entertainments officer.

We had a safety briefing at 1100, not quite up to British standards, mostly in Spanish or very poor English but with a pretty funny safety video.

The purser warned us in advance about possible rough weather the next day, when we were due to reach the Pacific. Just after this the weather deteriorated, the wind rising and the rain worsening.

Food on board wasn't bad, fish for lunch and pork for tea. I ended up having a three-hour nap in the afternoon for lack of anything else to do. I also went down below for a look at 'clase económica', I was glad I had paid the extra for a cabin. The idea of being stacked three high in the bowels of the ship didn't have much appeal.

After tea I played cards with the two Australian ladies I had met on Lake Pehoe (Beth and Margaret) and an elderly Texan called Charlie, it was a game I hadn't encountered before called 500.

At 2130 the music started for the disco and our entertainment officer appeared in a very short dress instead of her usual tight uniform jumper. After a while we finished the card game and I stayed on to talk to Dugly, Lee and Paul and have a few beers and some rum.

Saturday 25 March 2000

We were all awoken at about 0700 by an announcement (the entertainment officer again) that we would shortly be passing through the Angostura Inglés (English Narrows). I stayed in bed but got up in time for breakfast.

I went out on deck a couple of times, to see the wreck of the Captain Leonidas grounded just off the channel and to watch the steep forested hills go past.

Puerto Eden turns out to be Finnish-built and ice-strengthened to the same class as the Branny was.

The seas started to get rougher around 1400 as we left the shelter of the channel for the open ocean. I retired to my bunk and stayed there apart from a very quick tea.

Sunday 26 March 2000

The sea calmed down around two in the morning so I waited until a more civilised hour (around 0900) and had a shower. Lots of hungry people were hanging around waiting for lunch and (coincidentally) the bar started selling empañadas. They were excellent, full of beef, onions, egg and olives.

With lunch we got ice cream as a special treat. During the day there were various announcements while I sat discussing travel plans with Paul and Lee. Out on deck there was some excitement when whales were sighted, although they didn't hang around long.

Bingo was the evening's entertainment, with the entertainment officer being almost unnaturally cheerful, as usual.

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