A Shrouded City, A Colourful City
South America – at last! To escape the frigid cold of DC, my sister and I decided to make a trip to the warmer southern hemisphere. (As it turned out, it wasn’t that warm the further south we went!) We flew into Santiago from Houston, having spent a few lovely days catching up with relatives there. Clearly, I’ve been spoilt by our Asian airlines, Singapore Airlines in particular – the service on the US carrier into Santiago was horrible and the food worse. By the time we landed, we were really looking forward to a good meal. We wandered around and found the oldest restaurant in Santiago – but the food did not wow us, it just filled us up.
Santiago is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains. It was such a pity that the smog obscured the view to the point that all you could make out was only a hazy outline of what would’ve been quite an amazing view of the surrounding mountains. No photo opportunity of a dramatic vista like the pics you see on the internet. Disappointing that. The city itself didn’t quite touch any chord. We had a day here and it wasn’t one of those cities where you would go “oh I wish we had more time here”. It’s a stopover en route to more exciting destinations either north to the Atacama Desert or south to Patagonia or even an hour away to Valparaiso.
We did a walking tour of the markets, San Cristobal Hill, Plaza de Armas, La Moneda Palace, Bellavista etc. I’m sure had we spent more time, we would have found redeeming aspects to this old city. Santiago was our launchpad to discovering other parts of this rather slender country 4300kms long and 175kms wide with the Andes resting heavily on its spine.
Valparaiso, on the other hand, is a rather interesting and charming city. Just an hour away, we took a drive to ‘Valpo’ (as it is known there) stopping at a cellar door along the way to sample the local wine. This historic UNESCO-designated city is street art heaven! No challenge here for Banksy – he’d be welcome to spray paint all he wants. The murals were big, bold, colourful and adorned nearly every higgledy piggledy narrow street of this tiered city.
The city is a colourful semi-circle on the hill facing the Pacific with nearly every building in the old quarter joining in this riot of colour.
And just to make it that much more interesting and unique – the city has around 23 ancient and creaking funiculars that ply ant-like (but at a slower pace) along the tiered hills. The view of this colour-contrasted city, the ocean and the bay from the funicular is quite a sight!
We took in the scenic seaside town of Reñaca in Viña del Mar too, where we stopped to watch the sea lions basking on the rocks while gulls and pelicans flew low – a fascinating scene that had us rooted there for a while.
That evening back at our hotel in Santiago, we met a Malaysian – one of only 25 who live here in Santiago. She works in the hotel and was only too pleased to see us. So what does she miss most? – Indo Mie and sambal chilli! Who wouldn’t – especially the sambal chilli! (We sent her a care pack after we got back. Needless to say she was thrilled to bits.)
Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesus!
We flew into Puerto Montt, famed in the 1990s as the second largest exporter of salmon in the world. While it may not hold that position any longer, salmon fishing is still huge business and the main source of livelihood in this area. It was a bright and sunny day and we were exceptionally lucky for it rains 250 days a year in this region! But ‘bright and sunny’ does not mean ‘warm’ – the chilly winds cut the temperature down significantly and out came our winter wear again.
We were met by our guide, Sergio, a Cuban Chilean. We got on very well with Sergio and he was full of fact and fiction in (un)equal measure. He made it our challenge to pick out the fact from fiction, which made his commentaries rather interesting!
No one passes through Puerto Montt without a visit to the famed Angelmó market with its tightly packed fish and handicraft stalls. That was our first stop. Vibrant. Bustling.
After a whistle-stop tour of Puerto Montt, we got onto the Pan American highway, the longest highway in the world, stretching 48,000kms from Alaska to Argentina! Now that would be the ultimate road trip. There is just one point that is impassable by road: the 100km Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, which consists of “undeveloped swampland and impenetrable rainforest inhabited by indigenous tribes, Colombian guerrillas and an array of exotic wildlife”.
The ultimate road trip will have to wait, ours was a relatively short sedate drive to the oh-so beautiful and breathtaking town of Puerto Varas, the City of Roses on the banks of the Lake Llanquihue with the twin peaks of Mt Orsono and Mt Calbuco standing guard over it.
Puerto Varas has a really interesting history – it was founded in 1853 by German immigrants who settled on the shores of Lake Llanquihue as part of a government-sponsored colonisation programme. German influence is apparent in the architecture of the place. After WWII, more Germans (or as Sergio put it “the bad Germans”) fled to this region. Interestingly, the persecuted Jews found their way here too.
Sergio told us of the sacrifice of Licarayan (Flower of Fire) to appease the mountain spirits. Her lover, the chief Quitralpique, had to carry out the sacrifice. According to the legend she lay down in a field of flowers and went to sleep. He cut out her heart, covered it with a branch of the sacred canelo tree. Then a condor flew down, ate the heart and took the branch to the summit. The mountain appeased, Quitralpique killed himself to join Licarayan in the afterlife. (Sigh …)
We were quite thrilled when we found the church and the view that inspired my sister to want to come to Chile! That was quite literally how we decided to come to Chile. She saw a picture of this beautiful church with a lake and mountain in the background and decided she just had to go there (I am easily persuaded to go anywhere I have not been to before) so really we came in search of this church (but found so much more besides).
This wooden church is called Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón de Jesus (Sacred Heart of Jesus Church) built in 1918 in German architectural style. We spent some time up in the old church. It had an ethereal interior that reminded me of some of the churches I saw in northern Sweden.
We explained to Sergio that we wanted to go to the very spot where the church could be viewed against the backdrop of the lake and the mountain and he said the picture must have been photoshopped (Fact or fiction?) Anyway, to our utter delight, our driver, Catin, is a photographer himself so he raised his eyebrow at Sergio and drove us to the spot. It was away from the usual tourists routes (it was on a hillside residential area) and my sister had her wish fulfilled. The view was breathtaking!
We drove around to see some of the old German houses. The architecture was quite distinct. The houses were made using alerce wood and built in typical German style.
Our room at the hotel had a spectacular view of Lake Llanquihue (which is the size of Luxembourg) and the twin peaks of snow-capped Volcán Orsono and Volcán Calbuco. We couldn’t stop sighing with delight every time we looked out of our balcony. We decided to adopt Orsono as “our mountain”.
We had the evening to ourselves which we spent exploring the small town. The views from anywhere were tremendous – of the twin peaks and the lake in the foreground. What a place!
The hike this morning up the ‘Three Valley Pass’ over a stream and through a forest and up a mountain was breathtaking – in both a literal and figurative sense. We battled relentless chilly winds and fought hard not to be blown off the edge. I am not exaggerating. Eduardo showed us the technique of hiking against the wind, which basically involved a sure foot and leaning into the wind.
The winds here are so strong, it is called “Escoba de Dios” (God’s Broom). God must have been doing some serious spring cleaning this morning! And this was a ‘low difficulty’ climb, just to get us acclimatised!
We got to the top in this bent over fashion and exclaimed at the sweeping vista before us. Mother Nature I bow to thee. How do I even begin to describe the exhilaration? This was just our first peek (pun intended;-)) into the beauty of this amazing remote place.
When the winds died down for a bit we stood up and stared (we did a lot of that throughout) and watched as the condors flew by. (And thus the title of this entry. It was not intended as a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song but indeed a literal reference to what it means in Spanish – the condor passes.)
It is said that when the female condor dies, its heart-broken male commits suicide. Apparently the female condor (sensibly) does no such thing. The Incas believed the condors to be immortal. It is said that when a condor is old, it will commit suicide by simply folding its wings and falling to its death on the mountainside, only to be born again. They are magnificent creatures – they don’t fly, they glide.
It was cold and blustery and we sought shelter in a thick wooded area. To our pleasant surprise, Eduardo brought in his backpack, chicken soup, coffee, biscuits – the absolutely delectable alfajores etc. So we picnic-ed and rested and chatted while the wind swirled wildly outside our wooded shelter.
We saw a skeleton (of a sheep) on our hike down. Eduardo said it was probably killed by a puma. Puma?? We were instantly vigilant!
We encountered a friendly ‘overjaro‘ (like a sheep farmer) who found one of his sheep killed…probably by a puma. Pumas are common. We were advised that if we encounter a puma, we shouldn’t run, but stay as still as possible. I later looked it up and one site states “Do not run from a mountain lion, running may stimulate an instinct to chase. Instead, stand and face the animal.” Ya, right.
Anyway, we had a pleasant meeting with the overjaro, we smiled and he smiled and he was quite amenable to our taking photos of him, his horse, his dogs and his dead sheep.
It was such an amazing hike as we really went off the beaten track and beat our own path. Eduardo, who has been up here many times, says it is never the same each time. As he too is a photography enthusiast, he brought his camera along too. It is remarkable that even the locals never tire of their surrounding beauty and see the landscape with new eyes each time.
After a late lunch, we set out on what Eduardo assured us was another ‘low difficulty’ climb. Well, his idea of low difficulty clearly differed from ours. The mountain face was so steep it was almost a vertical climb! We took many short rests and made it eventually to a high enough vantage point to see the magnificent Lake Sofia. It is in places like this that half-remembered lines of poetry enter your head and inspire you even more.
We made our way down through an easier route (‘easier’ being relative of course) through what seemed like an ancient forest. It felt like ents more than trees … really.
Tomorrow – the incredible Torres del Paine!
Heaven on Earth
A place like Patagonia reaffirms your belief in a Higher Power (if you believe in a Higher Power i.e.) and makes you marvel open-mouthed at Nature. It is impossible to come away unmoved. The sheer beauty of this magnificent place is alluring and intimidating at the same time. The sweeping vistas, the mighty mountains, the impossibly turquoise lakes, glistening glaciers, deep dark forests all combine to make it a dizzying landscape that simply hypnotises you. I do not know how else to describe the pristine and spectacular beauty we witnessed.
The Torres del Paine National Park is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna and UNESCO has designated it a World Biosphere Reserve. The main attraction of the park is hiking and camping. You may have heard of the hiking routes – the “W” which takes 4-5 days and the “Circuit” which takes 7-10 days to complete. Clearly, you need to be super-fit to embark on those.
We did a combination of driving and hiking and I’ll just call our route the “U”, roughly following our route on the map. Starting at the incredible Laguna Azul – Cascade Paine – Nordenskjöld Lookout – Salto Grande- Lake Pehoé – Lake Toro and ending at the Grey Glacier.
We were fortunate that we had a clear day and so had an unobstructed view the mountains. Most come to see the Torres – the 3 granite towers that give this park its name. How impressive it was. But then the whole range was impressive. I’ve never seen a range so jagged – it looked like a graph against the sky.
We expected to eat on the go but the guys (Johnny and Eduardo) surprised us with a lovely picnic complete with table cloth, wine, a cooked meal and even desert at a campsite by the Lake Pehoe! They had asked us to go for a walk and explore the area and to be back in 20 mins. They set everything up and cooked a wonderful meal in that time. That was a nice touch. There couldn’t have been a more scenic spot too (but then again maybe there could!). We got some of our best views from here.
It is hard to imagine that in 2005, 10% of the park was burnt down by a careless camper who used a stove in windy conditions. What a tragedy. We saw these vast burnt areas – the ground is still charred and the trees have not regrown.
The remaining 90% however was one unbelievable, outstanding, stunning view after another! Every beautiful description of the Patagonia region and of the Torres del Paine Park is true and does not disappoint. The panoramas were unbelievable. The clouds hung so low as if the heavens could not resist coming down to touch these amazing mountains. Indeed it seemed like heaven on earth.
Última Esperanza (Last Hope)
Puerto Natales, Patagonia
Puerto Natales is a picturesque little town, on the edge of the Sound of Last Hope. This channel was given its name by a Spanish explorer who was looking for the western passage of the Straits of Magellan. He finds a narrow passage but unfortunately, he discovers it is only an inlet and in defeat he named it Seno de Última Esperanza – Sound of Last Hope. How I admire the grit and courage of those early explorers.
Our days here were nothing short of amazing. Where we stayed, the Remota, is located by the Sound of Last Hope with mountains as a backdrop. Just sitting in the hotel or taking a walk outside, you had an incredible view. The architecture of the hotel too is worthy of mention – it is “eco” or “sustainable” and blends in nicely with the environment. We had a wonderful stay and the staff were incredibly helpful and friendly.
So much of this region and indeed this country has left an indelible mark on our memories. We met some of the loveliest young people on this trip. I know not why Chile was not on my top 5 countries to visit – it is now on my top 5 countries to re-visit!
Hasta mañana till we meet again … don’t know when …