Puerto Natales and Chile Overall

Puerto Natales

After unentertaining Punta Arenas, we rode the bus to Puerto Natales. This town is near a fantastic park and renown Mt. Fitz Roy. We wanted to go hiking. Before we even left the station, we felt the need to inquire about bus times and costs to the park. To our dismay, no regular bus was going to the scenic park! Why!? Off season. Apparently not enough tourists make their way down south during winter to justify running a single bus per day.

This meant that we would have to commute with a tour company, steepening the cost. We didn’t think the expense was worth the experience and immediately booked our forward ticket to Argentina. If you visit southern South America, make sure to avoid off season. Things tend to close down. Not only in Chile, but also parts of Argentina. But I’ll leave the Argentina stories for later.


Chile Overall

In general Chile has various, gorgeous nature spots. Everything from serene lakes, to starry deserts, to crazy mountains. I loved pushing myself trekking up an active, snowy volcano. Also viewing a salt lake was a worthy experience.

 Trekking up a volcano at 8am.

Trekking up a volcano at 8am.

Of course I compared Chile with Ecuador and Peru, since we traveled there first. Chile is definitely more expensive. Especially the bus rides. With that extra cost, we did get cleaner seats and hostel beds. Sometimes the busses would even provide us with a snack just as a long distance flight would! We all love food. And the bus drivers drive less crazy because the cops actually use speed guns and the roads aren’t as windy. But overall I rather have the cheaper rides for the lower prices since I think the increase in quality is not equal to the increase in bills handed over. The more south we went, the higher the charges.

Something that threw me off: the right of way. In the prior two countries, cars would still drive even if a pedestrian is waiting at a cross walk. In Chile the drivers would stop for us! How odd! There were couple of times we ended up making the car stall longer because we couldn’t figure out the situation being conflicted with prior experience coupled with the desire to stay alive.

Activities I did to prolong my wallet lifespan: eating hotdogs. Hotdogs seem like the go to staple for cheap eating. Servers will drench the top of the wiener with ketchup, mayo, and other sauces, resulting in a thick top layer. The sacrifices I make. This is not my first choice, but would turn to hotdogs if other dish options weren’t lining up on my food-cost ratio.

 Villarrica Lake

Villarrica Lake

Overall Chile is worth a visit. Be sure to research costs ahead of time to make sure you are willing to pay the amount when you get there. Believe me, it’s not fun arriving at your destination realizing that you don’t want to fork out the money for the activities you planned. Especially if you plan to fly down south. We spent $157 for the flight to Punta Arenas and ended up evaluating the place subpar and then Puerto Natales was oddly shut down. You can get the flight ticket in the $50 range if you book at least 3 weeks ahead. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make up our minds and then ran into booking issues. By the time we got out tickets, the price had tripled. I hope that my blog helps you avoid the mistakes we made and provides cost estimates on a silver platter. If you’ve been in Chile, leave your tips in the comment section! My next post will line up all my budget of Chile. So until then!

 

Random facts I’ve encountered:

  • Chileans love their hotdogs
  • Everything is pricier than Peru and Ecuador
  • Chile offers many different, beautiful nature sites
  • Drivers stop for pedestrians
  • No buses go from center to south Chile without going into Argentina

Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas

Puerto Montt (July 4 - 5, 2016)

This city is said to be good only for taking a flight and not sightseeing. I agree. Even though Puerto Montt is by the South Pacific Ocean, the buildings do not reflect a good vibe and I generally had a sense of unease. In addition, the average prices of accommodation and food are higher. Originally we wanted to stop by Puerto Vallarta, which has raving reviews of beauty, but since we already purchased our plane ticket and forced to waste a day in Pucon to trek the volcano due to weather, we had to skip Puerto Vallarta. The two places are roughly 20min apart. So maybe staying in Puerto Vallarta and transporting to the airport from there would be worth the extra complication. At least we spent less than 24 hours here before we departed at the airport.


Punta Arenas (July 5 - 7, 2016)

Landing in Punta Arenas we could feel the cold. Glad I had my newly acquired gloves. This city is most southern urbanization on South America mainland; the furthest away from the equator during their winter means freezing.

I celebrated my birthday here! Down here the prices for accommodation is shocking (expect at least $16 a night), but luckily someone gifted me the stay as a present (Thank you). The prices aren’t justified. Many luxury cruises depart here which boost up the costs. We wanted to see wild penguins, but a Chinese guy in our hostel discouraged us. He was disappointed with the small count viewable. Not penguin season. That saved us $70 each. Yay! When we get to Africa we should see some there for less money.

 Statue at the waterfront.

Statue at the waterfront.

Instead my travel companion hacked out a plan to celebrate my special day. The day started out fabulous. Got treated to a professional 1-hour massage. He had researched a great restaurant for lunch. At arrival, we got surprised by a locked door and lights out. Confused we turned to the internet. Apparently the restaurant is closes between lunch and dinner, so we assumed we hit the between stage. We’ll be back for dinner. Instead we went to a positively rated tea shop and split a meal. I loved the décor, but the food was undistinguished. High five for splitting a dish.

The reason for eating a small lunch was to chow down on cake after. Desserts around this place are weirdly flavored. We patronized a smaller bakery nearby the hostel. His cakes looked beautiful. We picked three slices and shared. Throughout Chile I kept seeing this pink jello cake thing and my curiosity has compiled over time. Couldn’t resist. Tastes just as it sounds. The other slices left desires for richer flavors as well.

 Jello cake and hot chocolate.

Jello cake and hot chocolate.

Stuffed, we walked off newly gained calories by sightseeing. The best part was the vantage point. Sitting down, we took in the scenery. Eventually our freezing butts signaled the need to move on. Uncertain on where to go, we slipped into a Swiss chocolate café. We were still full, but wanted to splurge on an expensive hot chocolate anyways. And the drink was delicious! Best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. Slowly sipping our beverage, we stalled time until dinner. We didn’t care that the service was subpar, but receiving an increased bill was frustrating. Worse that they didn’t take the charge off after our request. The extra charge wasn’t much, but the principle got us.

Trying to walk off our simmer, the lunch restaurant was still closed. According to TripAdvisor the restaurant would open in two hours. Having returned to the hostel, we bridged the time watching fun shows. When the time arrived, the place still showed no sign of life. Disappointed we attempted to hunt down the best empanada restaurant. By the time we finally located the store, they were closing up shop. We could still see the remaining empanadas through the locked, glass door.

Fortunately, during our search for the empanada restaurant, we discovered a crowded pizza place. We settled for option three. The pizzeria served awesome pizzas though. No surprise why the locals congregate here. A big ‘thank you’ to my parents who transferred money to pay for our dinner!

 Vantage Point.

Vantage Point.

Thank you to all my family and friends who thought of me on my birthday and wished me a good day. The day started perfectly, but everything went downhill from there. I feel most apologetic to my friend who put forth time, effort, and research to make my day special. I appreciate your determination! In general planning something great in a limited location is difficult. Without penguins, Punta Arenas is not worth visiting.


Cost breakdown of Puerto Montt in USD:

  • Hostel: $10.92 (1 night)
  • Transportation: $16.30 ($12.66 for initial busses to the city)
  • Food: $7.70 (3 meals)

Total: $34.92. Daily Average Cost: $34.92.


Cost breakdown of Punta Arenas in USD:

  • Transportation: $164.28
    • $157 (initial flight to the city)
    • $7.28 shuttle from airport to city center
  • Food: $3.45 (groceries)
  • Miscellaneous: $8.73 (laundry)

Total: $176.46. Daily Average Cost: $88.23.

Pucon (June 30- July 4, 2016)

Pucon is another town with gorgeous nature. Agencies offer all sorts of adventure activities. We set our minds on tackling their most famous attraction, the most active volcano in Chile. Volcano Villarrica.

This beauty erupted last year and we were about to trek it. Excluding breaks, 4 hours is the usual time to reach the top. A great first trek option for beginners, which we are. Of course one should be semi fit if one doesn’t want to stop midway. According to our guide, most people arrive at the top, except for many Brazilians/warm climate residents since they seem to have the wrong mind set, being new to snow.

The mountain is covered by snow year around, except that the altitude of where the snow starts alters by the season. At the highest point, successful trekkers can look down into the crater and potentially see lava! Unfortunately, no such luck for us. Right before descending I did get a whiff of poisonous sulfur. The agency did provide a gas mask, but the guide ensured we didn’t need the mask due to the light wind initially to the opposite direction of us. Actually, we were going to conquer this mountain the day before, but the wind strength would have made the upper mountain too dangerous to trek, sure to force us to quit midway. So we chose to hope for better weather the following day.

 At the beginning of our challenge. Faint sulfur smoke visible at the top.

At the beginning of our challenge. Faint sulfur smoke visible at the top.

The beginning to the trek was freezing. Even though I wore extra layers, I was cold, especially my toes. The group had special gear provided by the agency, shoes included. The guides warned us to be careful when setting down our items if we don’t want to permanently part from them. The snow’s surface had frozen over and became slick. That didn’t stop a Tasmanian guy from carelessly putting down his agency-provided helmet immediately after the statement. The helmet started sliding. He should have bowed down to me in gratitude for rescuing the helmet before it was too late. I’m just kidding. He was an interesting guy, whom we exchanged fun cultural and political notes with later.

There was an English speaking couple though whom I could have done without. First they were 30 minutes late, forcing the entire group to wait. The guy lost his helmet and didn’t seem to care about the loss at all. One of the three guides had to climb down to retrieve it. Poor guy. The girl had a hard time keeping pace and started falling behind. Eventually separating the couple from the group. They never made it to the top. Although a Brazilian guy in the group made the climb against the odds of the agency unscientific pool.

 View from midway break point.

View from midway break point.

The government has regulated how many people can be at the top at once, as well as set the time limit of 1pm. If the group doesn’t reach the top by 1pm, they can’t continue. Our guides did a great job setting the pace that was manageable to keep up with and got us there on time. I’m glad I’ve been walking for days. Helped me a lot. I was releaved when we would get our resting periods. On our way up, my favorite part was the end. The icy part. Yes, I had to watch my step carefully not to slip into oblivion, but there I didn’t have to deal with sinking into the snow (which takes much more energy). The pickax was definitely needed throughout the climb.

Throughout the climb I would look around taking in the glorious views. Bunch of mountains and even lakes. On regular hikes my reward for my effort is the view. But this trek rewarded me with views and something else. Sledding! Yes, I didn’t need to struggle on my way down. I can shred down.

Everybody slipped into their waterproof pants and jacket worn over the regular clothing at the top and we headed down on a piece of plastic as our sled. Little intimidating for some, who constantly used their pickax to break as instructed, but I only wanted to go faster. The more snow that is on the mountain, the further down you can sled. We didn’t have abundance in snow. Therefore, we had to sled down in single file to avoid the rocks peeping out of the white.

 Geared up to sled.

Geared up to sled.

This excursion wasn’t the easiest for me, but definitely rewarding. My first trek and first time being on a volcano. Back in town I had a random dog follow me for 30 minutes for the first time as well. When we exited the grocery store, this strange dog walked next to us to the hostel, camped outside until we came back out, trotted with us to the lake, hung around us there, and then back to the hostel, where I’m uncertain how long he waited before he left.

I’m ok with dogs, but I liked this one. He was a bigger sized dog that never barked, even when other dogs were barking at him. I named the dog Vince. Vince ran the risk of being sent home to my parents until my return, but that wouldn’t be fair towards the dog, nor economically friendly to my wallet. Vince, you shall remain in my memory forever.


Cost breakdown of Pucon in USD:

  • Hostel: $42 (4 nights)
  • Transportation: $18.92 (initial busses to the city)
  • Food: $17.30 (groceries)
  • Activity: $101.89 (Volcano trekking)
  • Miscellaneous: $18.92
    • $11.64 (gloves)
    • $7.28 (sunglasses)

Total: $199.03. Daily Average Cost: $49.76.

Pisco Elqui and Santiago

Pisco Elqui (June 26- 28, 2016)

We have been on the go constantly. Not taking many days of rest. Any days we had without activities we’ve been utilizing to plan our next destination. Therefore, we choose to go to Pisco Elqui. In addition to needing an extra stop to Santiago to avoid a 24 bus ride.

 On our way to Pisco Elqui. Part of Valle de Elqui, which is the name of the general area.

On our way to Pisco Elqui. Part of Valle de Elqui, which is the name of the general area.

Pisco Elqui is a little town up in the mountains. We could have chosen to do activities such as hiking, horseback riding, star gazing, biking, etc. We settled on doing nothing and recharging instead. Being secluded, barely any cars and only the occasional bus drive through this quiet town. 10pm seems the time all the stores are closed and everybody stays inside. The perfect spot to relax and get a good night of sleep. If you are into wine, during season they are supposed to have delicious selection. I enjoyed kicking back while looking at the mountain range, some tops snowy white. Beautiful starry nights as well. But enough relaxing; off to the major city.


Santiago (June 28- 30, 2016)
The capital of Chile definitely has a different feel than quiet Pisco Elqui. Much more hustle and bustle and offering the typical tourist attractions most cities do. We zoomed through our interests in one day, gazing at the old and new architectural buildings surrounding us and the tons of hot dog restaurants/stands.

 Hazy view of Santiago

Hazy view of Santiago

Mapping our way to the main square, we checked out the Metropolitan Cathedral and then entered the National Museum. Cool that the entry is free, but all the signs are in Spanish, so we shelled out an entire dollar to share an English recorded guide. The displays have these crimson orbs that we pointed a lazier at with our borrowed guide to hear the story of the piece. Initially we listened to every single one until we decided that the focus of the museum wasn’t what we were interested in. The museum contains a lot of historic paintings, but often the explanations solemnly talked about the object itself and not much of the history. Only the entry plate gave a quick rundown on the story of the entire room.

Almost more entertaining was watching the zombie (kid) hoards in the museum. That day happened to have 2 class excursions. The elementary schoolers would walk to a display, look at the objects for a few seconds, and indifferently go on to the next. Museums aren’t fun when you don’t know what you are looking at. The high schoolers, on the other hand, would snap a picture of every single item. What are they going to do with all those pictures? To me they didn’t even seem to be looking at the descriptions. They will own hundreds of pictures of things they don’t even know what it is. Congratulations. But what’s the purpose of that? Human behavior cracks me up.

Escaping the hoard, we managed to find the nearby park. This park had an unexpected colonial style castle. Climbing the dangerous, steep, stone steps, we discovered a fantastic view of the city. The city has a big hill in the center that tourists conquer to get the best vantage point, but the foggy weather would have made our visit pointless. The view from the castle has satisfied our needs and given us a decent impression of the structure and build of Santiago and a hazy view of the mountain range.

 The castle and its garden.

The castle and its garden.

We then staggered to a different park. I say staggered because we couldn’t decide on the direction. Needing to cross a main street with multiple lanes and no crosswalk in sight on this curved road, we paced up and down the same small stretch a few times until we ended up jaywalking frogger style. Our confusion must have appeared strange for onlookers, they must have felt the same way I do when playing Zootycoon and trying to figure out why this stupid virtual person is walking back and forth a few times until finally moving on. What are they thinking? Circling is pointless.

Our state of being lost didn’t stop there. We were searching for a cultural museum which wanted to remain unfound. Throwing in our white flag, we returned to our hostel going along the main street to view various stands and people watch. Others have raved about Santiago. But we left a little disappointed. We aren’t into the nightlife scene. Besides that, did we miss anything? The destinations we saw were good, but seen better in previous countries. What makes this city so great? Please let me know in the comments below, because I truly feel that I accidentally skipped something. However, we did eat the best and biggest empanadas of South America in Santiago (made to order rather than premade and reheated). Anyways, at the hostel, we ended our full day by binging on a huge tube of ice cream. 3 flavors. Don’t regret any bite.


Cost breakdown of Pisco Elqui in USD:

  • Hostel: $17.47 (1 night which incl. breakfast)
  • Transportation: $29.55 (initial busses to the city)
  • Food: $10.39
    • $9.31 meals
    • $0.35 groceries
    • $0.73 snack
  • Miscellaneous: $0.58 (bathroom usage)

Total: $57.99. Daily Average Cost: $29


Cost breakdown of Santiago in USD:

  • Hostel: $21 (2 nights. 1 night incl. breakfast)
  • Transportation: $16 (initial transportation to the city)
  • Food: $11.02
    • $5.53 meals
    • $5.49 groceries
  • Activity: $0.73 (National Museum)

Total: $48.75. Daily Average Cost: $24.38

San Pedro

San Pedro de Atacama, or San Pedro for short, is a desert town. What pulled us to this remote place was their legendary observatory, starry nights and the valley of the moon. In the end we only admired the free starry nights and skipped the other two.

The observatory is one of the best on this planet, but we can’t go in because the governmentally run building doesn’t allow regular peasants like us. For those who don’t know, my travel partner is mesmerized by stars and was stoked at the potential of visiting such a prestige observatory. We did contemplate about trespassing and sneaking our way into the place, but we were just at the beginning of Chile and didn’t want to be exiled from the country just yet. Some agencies do offer tours with standard telescopes, but we decided to glance and the stars for free. Very spectacular view of the milky way with the naked eye.

The other site that pulled us there, which I’ve already mentioned, was the valley of the moon. The area surface, similar to the moon but multicolor, might be the destination for a person who wants to larp (live action roleplay) a space sci-fi episode. The $50 tour price scared us away. We didn’t think the valley would be worth that judging from the pictures they had displayed. But we did discover another tour. A salt lake! This was particularly awesome since we wanted to see the renown salt lake in Bolivia, but the $240 visa fee for Americans was too much for my wallet. (This is one of the times I wish I would have taken my Swiss passport with me.)

 Freezing cold at Ojos del Salar

Freezing cold at Ojos del Salar

The salt lake (laguna) tour had three stops. Two of which had an additional entry fee. At the agency we tried to see if we could skip the first stop. At no prevail. Yes, Laguna Cejar would be cool, but not at the additional entry fee price, we reckoned. We could have even swum in the lakes, which is why the guide suggested to wear a bathing suit, but he should have said to wear 10 layers instead because the temperature was freezing out there! I wouldn’t have been surprised if the other tourists would have returned to the van with icicles on their noses. Lucky us, because of the windy, sand-in-your-face weather the park entry lady said that tourists didn’t have to pay the entry fee as long as we did not exit the bus. For those who paid, no refund. This allowed us to get a glimpse of the water and not having to pay. Just what we wanted to do originally.

The second halt was at an oasis, Ojos del Salar. The guess is that humans made a small hole to access the water, but over time hole expanded to what it is today (see picture). Interesting story, but our final stop is what I was waiting for: Laguna Tebinquiche. This bigger body of water had a walkway around a good stretch of the lake. The land was compromised of clumps of crunchy dirt that has bonded with the salt over time. The lake had salt clots nearby the shore which looked like ice. Due to the wind the water was wavy and the background mountain didn’t reflect in the lake, but the view was still marvelous. Glad I went.

 Laguna Tebinquiche

Laguna Tebinquiche

A recommendation for this town is to wear sunglasses and a bandana/face shield. The desert town had stronger winds during our visit, which meant that we got to taste plenty of sand. This made the trip little more annoying, but if you have cover, the sand shouldn’t bother you as much. Also, bus tickets are pricier than in Ecuador or Peru. So you might want to contemplate if you want to take bus out this far for the tours they have to offer. Agencies do ask for more money in comparison as well. Bellow I uploaded a standard price listing we got from an agency for various tours in the area (which might not include the entry fees, like our salt lake tour). The prices are in Chilean pesos. We cross reverenced these prices with other agencies and they seemed similar. Keep in mind that prices can change over time. The final price is written in the right column, we talked ours down a little, but that might only be possible during low season. Sorry for all the red scribbles by agency while explaining the tours. If you have questions, write me in the comment sections!

Cost breakdown of San Pedro in USD:

  • Hostel: $11.64 (1 night)
  • Transportation: $28.68 (initial transportation to the city)
  • Food: $4.66
    • $3.20 meals
    • $1.46 groceries
  • Activity: $24.75 (Laguna Salt Lake)

Daily Average Cost: $34.87

Arica (June 24, 2016)

We didn’t even spend a full day in this border city, but with all the strange occurrences, this place earned a blog post dedicated to itself.

First off, the border crossing. On the Peruvian side, we took a bus right to the border. The Chilean side, there were no taxies nor busses in sight when we cleared immigration. Instead we had a lovely view of a mine field. With no clear instruction where to go, we just followed the crowd down the only street to nowhere. With a 30-minute walk on a paved road through the desert, we finally hit the point where taxies were allowed to wait. By the cabs, there was a row of a few dozen parked semi-trucks, that seemed like they will never move from their spot again. During the stroll, I contemplated about all mines to the left and right of me, wondering when they got buried. Also, I was happy to be here in the morning daylight, since no street lights were installed and from the border we couldn’t tell how far we would have had to walk with only desert in view.

Arriving at the bus terminal, we missed the morning bus to our next destination and had to wait for the evening bus. A full day to kill in a city we had done no research on. The terminal ATM didn’t accept foreign credit cards, so hunting down a bank was first on our list. Having exchanged our remaining Peruvian soles with the cab driver, we had little Argentinian pesos in our pockets for potential emergencies.

 Bird-view of Arica. Picture from Dona Matilda Hostel webpage.

Bird-view of Arica. Picture from Dona Matilda Hostel webpage.

Lunch time came, having more money, we went on a hunt for food. Food and transportation costs are more expensive in Chile. With the initial price shock settling, we picked a restaurant. Did I tell you that my travel buddy is vegetarian? Well, he is. We’ve encountered multiple subtle pushbacks on a continent where eating meat seems vital. All the restaurant dishes in this town seemed to contain meat, so we asked the male staff if there was a vegetarian dish. Not knowing the dish which he suggested, we asked to explain the dish, neither of us heard any type of meat in the Spanish description. When the plate came out, the biggest piece of chicken was served with a little salad…. This is not unusual that vegetarian in South America means no “carne” (cow or pork meat), but still allows for chicken or fish. If you are a vegetarian, be sure to triple check every single time, or the same might happen to you.

From the restaurant we headed to the beach. A view surfers were doing their thing, but other than that the area was quiet. We walked a long stretch and treated ourselves to delicious ice cream. Doing more circles, smelling weed every once in a while, dinner time has arrived. Walking around town, we already knew where we wanted to go and had an easy time with the vegetarian order.

Luckily we headed to the restaurant and the perfect timing. Three boys were setting up a romantic table surrounded with candles at the beach close to the restaurant. One of them was dressed nicer and his nervousness was obviously visible when he walked past us. Two boys finished setting up as the other was getting his girl. We assumed he was going to propose, even though we saw the two sit at the table, we didn’t stay long enough to watch their evening unfold.

 Big waves at the beach. Sorry, this is the only picture I took in Arica. I snapped this photo to send to my mom on that day.

Big waves at the beach. Sorry, this is the only picture I took in Arica. I snapped this photo to send to my mom on that day.

Instead we decided to head back to the station to ensure to catch our bus in time. The station was packed with people everywhere when arrived an hour early. So we decided to wait outside instead, where we saw a shady gathering. A male figure got to the park, and many other males who’ve been waiting at the park excitingly rushed to the other guy. Everybody was crowding around a laptop. A person left, and grabbed something hidden inside a park art piece, and returned. The item was a DVD. From our observations, we jumped to a conclusion what we believed the item was. As soon as the guy left, everybody else left in different directions as well.

We went back inside the station, but got and ugly surprise when we tried to board. There was an hour time difference between the two border towns and we missed our bus! We didn’t think that there would be a time change and our cellphones didn’t adjust to the new time either. There was another bus that was going to our destination that evening, so we could still depart, but we lost $25, which for us is a days’ worth of travel money. Learning the hard way, we now ask people about the time when we get to a new destination.

Our first impression of Chile sure has been a strange one and we hoped that the rest of the country wouldn’t follow suit. Next stop is San Pedro, a desert town. There we will view beautiful salt lakes, but that’s for my next post. Stay tuned.


Cost breakdown of Arica in USD:

  • Transportation: $30.68
    • $5.06 (initial transportation to the city incl. bus and taxi)
    • $25.62 (missed bus)
  • Food: $9.35
  • Miscellaneous: $0.44 (bathroom usage)

Daily Average Cost: $40.47