Where To Go
My Quest For Zest...
DESTINATIONS IN CHILE
San Pedro de Atacama
Hornopiren National Park
Conguillio National Park
Torres Del Paine
MY QUEST FOR ZEST...
After nearly six months in South America backpacking through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia my will to continue further was strong but my funds were nearing zero, so I returned home for work. I spent months in the States working hard, sharing my new worldly knowledge with anyone that was willing to listen and saving as much money as I could. Another trip was quickly manifesting in my mind. It wasn't long after the new year that I returned to South America to trek through Chile and Argentina. I spent the majority of the time on this trip in a tent, moving from one trek to the next. The food wasn't as plentiful for a vegetarian, so I felt my health slip as I survived off of empanadas, white bread, peaches, and an avocado when I was lucky haha.
I flew into Santiago and spent a couple days adjusting from the flight and settling into the new cultural norms. I met up with some friends I had made on previous travels, and did a little adventuring around the city. Santiago seemed really developed and I felt lacked the authentic flare in the streets that the countries on the my last trip to South America presented so strongly. Not spending so much time here, I made my way north.
I began my trip by visiting the Atacama Desert. It offers stunning views on what feels like a whole different planet. You can book tours once you arrive to see all beautiful and varying nature in the area. Tours can feel a bit expensive, but I think it's worth the experience! I celebrated Christmas in the desert this year with new friends, and although I was missing family and traditions, it was interesting to gather stories on how people from all over the world celebrate (or not) this holiday.
After days in the desert, I made my way to La Serena. I found a hostel that I loved and decided to volunteer for several weeks, awaiting my boyfriend at the time to join me for onward backpacking and trekking. I made some great friends, worked sparingly, and laughed often. I got to brush up on my Spanish and soak up the sun on the beach. I was eating way too many empanadas and not cooking nearly as much as I should have. I did however stumble upon a food that I still dream about today, hand sushi rolls! It's brilliant and delicious. Like a veggie sushi burrito; same same but different.
From La Serena you can visit Elqui Valley. The stars are amazing and the scenery is beautiful.
Valparaiso is another city, but I enjoyed it a lot. There was beautiful street art and colors. There were food markets and view points. It was on the coast so spotting seals was a fun way to spend time. There seemed like plenty to do here to keep busy for several days.
The next week was spent camping on the beach of Bahia Mansa and exploring the neighboring beaches. It was great to stay for free in nature. Accomodation in Chile in general is more expensive than my typical backpacker's budget. Even if you camp in the backyard of a hostel, they'll still charge $7+ per person (this price is typical for a bed + breakfast in other SA countries). The sunsets were nice and the atmosphere relaxing.
From one beautiful location to the next, we ventured to Coleta Condor, a beautiful beach reached only by a bumpy boat ride. It's quite isolated and just suited for camping. The nature is authentic and hikes in the area really lovely.
Continuing further south, Puerto Natales for the Torres Del Paine Trek was the intended destination. However, what looks like a small amount of space to cover on the map turned out to be a backpacking kick in the butt. Stopping at other national parks along the journey south was favorable, but looking back I would advise to other journeyers for a different route of action (keep reading for recommendation). A few days in Pucon can be nice; there is an amazing top of the line hot springs, Termas Geometricas, that is worth a visit! There is also some good day hikes in the area. It's a bit touristy, that's for sure, but it can be enjoyed if you're willing to look past the development.
Next, we made our way to Puerto Montt. It's a great place to stock up on camping equipment and supplies. You'll definitely find things cheaper here than in Patagonia in the south. There was a quaint guest house you could pitch your tent in the back yard of, and enjoy some breakfast in the house. If you have the time, I recommend going to Hornopiren National Park for several days. You can take a hike and camp, it's not so crowded, and it offers beautiful connection with nature.
From here, we continued to move south with a lot of stress. Buses run sparingly and there's no straight shot to Patagonia. Transportation isn't as cheap as you want it to be and they don't offer meals or blankets like I found in other countries of South America. Hitch hiking becomes hard, and you'll compete for rides with a lot of other 'stranded' backpackers. It was if you'd arrive somewhere that you didn't necessarily want to go, to find out the next bus to where you wanted to go was two days prior, and the only step forward was to go to another place that you didn't intend to go. And this pattern went for days. We did however make it to an intended stop along the route, Conguillio National Park, which offered great camping and nature. I would recommend going but also advise to skip it, and the journey south by bus in whole, taking a flight from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. By continuing with bus you have to cross over into Argentina and then back into Chile again to reach Puerto Natales, there is no straight route.
I can't hardly remember all the cities we passed through on the way south. We would arrive late to a place, sleep the night, and continue on the next morning. One evening we arrived to find every accommodation we came across was full for the night. Walking with our packs from one guest house to the next in the rain with the dark approaching fast. Finally, a kind woman, even though fully booked, let us sleep on a mattress she drug into the kitchen area for the night so we wouldn't have to continue our tiring search. This was beyond appreciated hospitality.
Another memory of the trying journey was arriving to a random park in the rain. All our belongings got soaking wet as we pitched our tent. The next day, we arrived into another nameless town where we didn't intend to be. Places were filling up fast and you could watch all the backpackers on the streets being turned away guest house after guesthouse. The lucky few were able to hitch a ride further. By a miracle we were led to a free room. That day we probably paid $30 worth in laundry, because it was all the clothes I owned and they based the price off of weight when they were wet, ugh. We splurged on dinner paying way to much for a plate of mediocre vegetables but I needed something warm. Times were tough.
The long journey made arriving into Puerto Natales all the more satisfying. This is the town in which you take transport to start the Torres Del Paine Trek. You can gather all the equiptment you need here, attend speakings on tips and advice, and obtain snacks and food for the trip. (Note: you have to book your TDP camping accommodation long in advance, especially if you plan to camp at the free sites. This can be a tricky art because (unless they've updated it by now) you had to book through three different companies for different camp grounds along the circuit.)
There is the W trek which can be done in either direction, there is the O circuit trek and the Q trek. The Circuit is an 8 day trip and well worth it! You get days of 'solitude' in wide open spaces before you meet up with the W trek which is highly crowded with people moving in both directions. In the O trek you also make a pass over the John Gardner Pass, which is a temperamental spot on Earth. Its located right before an ice field that creates weather of its own. It can be calm and tranquil or raging with power and winds. Typical, the day of my crossing it was snowing and hailing during the morning hours walk. Nearing the glacier the flurries stopped but the winds picked up ten fold. My sleeping mat attached to my bag was torn loose and later a trail friend said they saw it floating through the air 30ft high (this was unfortunate for the many more cold nights to come). Every step took all my effort. Crossing the pass that day was something I'll never forget. The energy was powerful, strong, and overwhelming. I would burst into tears and not know why. Grown men were being knocked down to the ground. I fought with all my power to not fall, scared of where I would be blown to or if I'd be able to stand back up with my pack. Mother Nature was a huge surprise, and when I made it over the peak and the 60km winds began to die down, a rainbow over the ice fields was shining bright....
Torres Del Paine has incredible views and nature. However, I was taken aback by the crowds and the fact that you don't have to camp but can stay in luxury accommodation along the trek. It didn't feel meaningful to me that one could watch TV and drink in a bar and the next day walk to another space of comfort. TDP in its natural state is raw and organic, and I feel should be experienced in that essence. It is hard, the walks long, rain often, cold nights, but its connection and commitment.
After the trek we relaxed a few days again in Puerto Natales and then made our way even further south to Punta Arenas. There is whale watching which was a first to me! I was grateful for the adventure, boat ride, and up close views of the glacier.
It's a long and narrow country, but there's a lot to do and see within it!