Steve's Chile Diary - December 1996

We flew out on 16th December. You can't fly direct from London to Chile, so we flew to Madrid in Spain and then changed planes to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (jumbo jet). We stopped there for an hour or so while a new crew got on, and then eventually (23 hours after we started), we arrived in Santiago de Chile (the capital).

The first shock was that we went straight from winter to summer. In London it was dark at 4pm, and freezing cold. In Santiago it was 80 degrees, and light until about 9.30 pm. We had booked a hotel from London so we didn't have to go looking around. Our friend Jude who has been travelling round Europe in her own was waiting for us at the airport. We checked into our hotel and then went for a bit of a wander. It was around lunchtime, so we didn't want to go to bed even though we were very tired, as we wanted to adjust to 'Chile time'.

Our hotel had a swimming pool, and we hung around by the pool for a bit and relaxed. The next day we saw a few more sights, but that was enough of Santiago. It's not a terribly attractive city - mainly due to the pollution. It is on a big plain surrounded by mountains, and the pollution just hangs in the air so you can't see the mountains most of the time.

After that we had another climatic shock. We flew down to Punta Arenas, right at the foot of South America. Boy was that different. When we got out of the airport, there was a bus waiting which would take us to where we wanted to go (Puerto Natales). We walked out into this freezing cold wind, and sleet. At this stage we still had our 'summer' clothes on. The whole point of going to Puerto Natales was to go to the Torres del Paine National Park. This is a really remote place. After the two hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, we found a room to stay in (fantastic view over the 'Last Hope Sound' (a river estuary). Then the next day it was a 5 hour bus ride into the park. There are only two types of accommodation in the park, 'Refugios' (a tin hut with no furniture, so you need to take your own sleeping bag etc), and a couple of hotels. Guess which we chose? The hotel we stayed in was right at the edge of a glacier, and it was an amazing sight when we arrived, to see blue icebergs floating in the lake by the hotel. We went for a walk in this driving, bitter cold rain, which was rather exhilarating.

The next day the weather was rather better (after all it is summer there). It wasn't hot, or even warm, but it wasn't too cold and the sun shone from time to time. The scenery was really fantastic, and really unspoiled. We walked for about 6 hours in total, and it was quite energetic. The next day we climbed up this huge hillside, which took us about 3 hours, but the view was worth it. The following day we went on a boat trip to another glacier, and on the way we saw some cormorants. The day after was Christmas Eve, and we went back to Puerto Natales. It was quite late when we got there, and it was hard to find a room. The one we eventually found was really basic - just three beds in a horrible bare room - no heating, and no hot water in the bathroom. Also you had to go through the kitchen to get to the bathroom, and the woman who lived there had her friends round, so it felt a bit awkward. Also she was supposed to provide breakfast, but when we got up, there was nothing there, and she was still asleep. We were very relieved to get out of there. Not the most comfortable start to Christmas. On Christmas day we got another bus back to Punta Arenas (in preparation for flying north), and when we got there we checked into a very warm and comfortable room. We all went for a nice run together and then had hot baths - luxury! Jude's Mum had sent her bubble bath for a present, which made it even nicer. In the afternoon we went to a Penguin colony. they are sooo cute! They really do walk along in a line, one after the other. There were also ostriches there. In the evening we went out for a nice meal and got thoroughly drunk.

The day after Christmas Day, we left the really cold part of Chile, and flew North to Puerto Montt. We had a bit of a scare on the way to the airport, as the bus was late leaving, and then it coughed and spluttered for about five miles, before breaking down completely. Luckily for us the driver managed to flag down an airline staff bus and they got us to the airport just in time.

When we arrived in Puerto Montt, we started looking round for tours to the island of Chiloe, which was said to be very beautiful. In the end, they all seemed a bit pricey, so we decided just to catch a bus, and 'do our own thing'. After checking into not a particularly nice room, we went out to get something to eat, and were pestered by this man in a minibus who must have seen us looking at the tour company prices. He tried to sell us a tour for the same price (14,000 pesos), but we just ignored him. After we finished our meal, he was still hanging around, and he then started reducing his prices to 12,000 and then 10,000. Eventually we said "We're going on the bus so we don't want a tour". He then said "OK I'll do it for 5,000". Considering the bus was 7,000 we decided to accept. He made us promise not to tell the other passengers what we were paying, as they were all on the 14,000 rate. Anyway, it turned out he was a genuinely nice guy, and he took us to lots of interesting places, which we couldn't have got to on a scheduled bus. Chiloe was very pretty, and they have some rather unique old wooden houses built on stilts, to keep them from falling into the lake. We tried their speciality dish called Curanto, which is part soup part stew, and contains chicken, pork, sausage, seafood, fish, potatoes and dumplings. Filling!

The next day the same guy was doing a different tour, so we decided to go with him again (even at the normal prices). This took us to some interesting waterfalls, and into the southern lake district. He even took us to a better place to stay, which was cheaper and nicer. It was run by this sweet old lady of about 65, who had just started studying English after retirement. She was really excited to have 'real' English people (as opposed to those dreadful Americans, I suppose). The food in Chile was really good if you like fish (which I do). Also, I know they are a pretty ordinary food, but the potatoes there were just wonderful. Even plain boiled potatoes were so tasty. On our last day in Puerto Montt, we mostly hung around, but we took a 'ferry' to this little island just 400 yards away. The 'ferry' was a man in a rowing boat, and he seemed to be doing a great trade, as it was the only way the people who live there can go shopping!

After Puerto Montt, we flew north again, to a place called Villarica. This was wonderful. For a start, we had real summer weather at last, but we were also lucky to find a nice hostel called Torre Suiza run by a Swiss couple who had settled there after cycling round the world. In fact they had only been open about three weeks. It was very friendly, and you could use their kitchen, which cheered Jude up because her money was getting tight. New Year's Eve was memorable - the Swiss couple invited everybody staying there (about 10) to a barbecue. They had also bought the most incredible amount of wine and beer. We all ended up dancing like lunatics, before getting to bed around 2am. You probably think that was very early, but we had to be up at 6am because we had booked a place to climb a volcano. (Volcan Villarica).

When I say volcano, this was a real, live, active volcano, mostly covered in snow and ice. Climbing it required a guide, and special equipment (eg. mountain boots - horrible hard uncomfortable things, and ice axes). As I suffer from vertigo, and coupled with the slippery surface, this was a recipe for terror. I had to concentrate on looking straight down, at the ground in front of me. A couple of times, I looked round and started swaying uncontrollably when I saw the icy slopes behind me. It was a tough climb, and it took 5 hours to get up to the top. At the top, it was a little disconcerting to smell the sulphur, and to hear the volcano rumbling every few minutes. It's only 10 years since it last erupted, so one day a group of tourists is going to go home covered in lava. I was very nervous about coming down again, but I needn't have worried, as the guide showed us how to toboggan down on our backsides. It was very exhilarating, and not at all scary. We got down in 2 hours. The other thing I forgot to mention was that Jude had a terrible hangover (I wasn't too bad), and it was a relief to find someone else who looked worse than I felt.

After that tough day, we did a 10 miles walk into the hills the next day. Amazingly we all felt fine. We saw some fantasic sights, and drank from mountain streams. We could have swum in the 'Lago Verde', but it looked a bit cold. On the way back, we went to some thermal baths. There was a wooden hut to change in, but otherwise it was exactly as nature had created it. There were two rocky pools, each holding about 15 people I suppose, but after about 10 minutes we had the place to ourselves. It was lovely just to lie back and look at the sky. As an example of how unspoiled this place was, they still use oxen to pull carts. It was literally in the middle of nowhere. This was the only day we hired a car. We couldn't have got there otherwise.

And that was the holiday in Chile. Very nice, but you can't help thinking how much like Scotland it is, but very much further away.