Chile: hilly, Will-y, thrilly, and, uh…chilly

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I just got back from a trip to Chile with my friends! We were visiting our friend Will. After defending, he did a pretty similar trip to the one I did after defending, but the South American version instead of Southeast Asia. I believe he started in Peru, then went through Bolivia and met us in Santiago, Chile.

It worked out fairly perfectly, because I think he was reaching the same level of “travel done-ness” that I did around the same length of time I did. So I think he wanted to come back, but we also wanted to visit him down there before he left. We had also been wanting to go to Patagonia for ages (long before his trip was on the table), so it was perfect.

We flew into Santiago. I kinda expected Chile to feel similar (economically) to SEA, but it’s waaay more developed. It’s definitely a little less so than comparably big cities in the US if you look closely, but if I was dropped randomly somewhere in Santiago without knowing it and told it was LA or something, I’d probably believe it. It has a pretty nice metro system, fancy little restaurants, lots of artsy stuff going on, and some huge buildings.

We spent a day and a half in Santiago, just wandering and getting a feel for it. The weather was perfect, which it apparently is pretty much year round, and it’s surrounded by mountains. There’s cool street art everywhere, and people seem uniformly…happy? We took a funicular to the top of one of the mountains that gives a huge view of the city, and Will brought us to a great (better than Boston’s!) children’s science museum.


Oh yeah, and there are SO. MANY. DOGS throughout all of Chile, and they seem to all be friendly and mostly well fed and clean. They follow you, trotting next to you for a few blocks, before finding something more interesting.

Santiago is cool, but our main destination was Torres del Paine, the national park. Torres is Japanese or something for “towers”, but Paine is apparently the word for “blue” in a native language of Chile. I’m gonna be honest: I didn’t have a great concept of Chile’s geography before actually getting there. I knew Santiago is in the north, and TDP was roughly in the south, but it’s waaaay south:

It’s almost as close to Antarctica as you can get! We actually flew into a city of ~200k called Punta Arenas, which is farther south than it. It’s right on the coast of the Strait of Magellan, and we were immediately greeted by a rainbow over it!

You can often tell how much of a travel destination a place is by the type of the hostels it has, and PA had some pretty gritty ones. We stayed in one that felt not unlike a South American version of the Weasley’s ramshackle house. PA itself doesn’t have a ton going on, and if you wander around the town, you’ll see a ton of longshoremen/boat workers. It has a big, weird cemetery that we wandered around (I’m always interested in seeing how different countries do it), but for travelers it’s mostly a stopover town on the way to other places. That said, I kind of liked its quiet, doing its own thing vibe.

The next stop was Puerto Natales. The bus ride was through a lot of farm lands and empty plains but still very pretty. The local guy I was sitting next to could tell I was excited, so he kept bringing up pictures of animals I could see out the window on his phone, like condors, flamingos, and emus (which are apparently called ñandú). He seemed bemused by my excitement at stuff that’s probably the equivalent of seeing squirrels and seagulls for him, but cmon, how often do I see wild emus?

PN is only population ~20k, but has a very different feel to it. This is because it’s the jumping off point for getting into TDP, so there are tons of backpacking stores and hip restaurants. Dogs galore, too. I found some restaurant on wikitravel and somehow convinced my friends to go there at about 11PM. It was… interesting. It was quite dingy, and seemed like it had a single employee, I’m guessing the eponymous Andre of its name. He seemed surprised to have customers, and got us some sticky, certainly typewriter-written menus with gems like this:

Other highlights were “HOD_DOG” (including the underscore). When I opened my menu up, and earwig crawled out at me and I let out a high pitched, very masculine shriek. At one point he also locked the front door. After all that, the food was…fine. I was almost hoping for something horrific to complete the scene, but it was just… food.

The next day, we got an early bus to TDP. It brought us to a sign in place that already had some pretty incredible views:

From there we were brought to a ferry. There were even better views from it, and the water was this amazing bright greenish blue.

It took us to the Paine Grande campsite, where many people start the “W circuit” trek we were gonna do.

The W circuit is probably the most common trek people do in TDP. Here’s a map of it:

People do the trek in shorter times, but we wanted to be able to take our time (and why rush in such a pretty place?), so we did it in 6 days/5 nights. You also have to scale the times people say by whether they’re camping, and further, whether they’re bringing their own tents (we did both). Carrying a tent, sleeping bag/pad, and 6 days of food really changes what a hike feels like.

In terms of the difficulty, the trails themselves are actually pretty easy IMO. The elevation gain is pretty small, and they’re mostly flat, soft paths compared to the steep New England rock scrambles I’m used to. That said, every day was between 10-20km, which isn’t nothing, and the packs made it pretty grueling.

We were dropped off by the ferry at Paine Grande (1), and did the 11km hike to Camp Grey (2). The first day was really beautiful. We went up through a valley, with the bright blue lake behind us…

then into a forested area…

and then along the edge of the glacial lake as the sun was setting.

The campsite was minimal, but at least had an indoor area. We experimented with this backpacking recipe Ben wanted to try, “ramen bombs”, where you add instant mashed potatoes to ramen. It’s definitely heartier than plain ramen and tastes good, but it’s hard for me to get past the distinct “Dickensian gruel” texture of it (especially when eating it out of a steel pot in dim lighting).

But oh LAWDY I was freezing that night. I wore every layer I had (3 on bottom, 5 on top) inside my sleeping bag, and I still spent most of the night waking up from shivering. This was the case pretty much every night, though Ben’s emergency space blanket wrapped around my legs helped.

The next day we went back from (2) to (1), so it covered the same ground, but the weather was so different it felt like a different place. The wind was the most insane I’ve ever experienced. It could literally hold you up if you leaned over at the right angle! Peoples’ stuff were blowing off their packs if they didn’t tie it down well enough.

It was intense, but I honestly kind of enjoyed the extremeness of it. Plus, we were rewarded with a crazy view of a rainbow!

The Paine Grande campsite was more built up since it’s the dropoff point. In the morning a couple of foxes were sneakily trotting around the campsite trying to find food! They seemed to be legitimately playing. One of them found a glove on the ground and kept throwing it in the air and catching it!

We wondered how much that was just for fun, as opposed to something they learned would get them food. They were pretty much the only wildlife we saw aside from a few cool birds.

The next day we went from (2) to Camp Frances (3). I’d say it was the most “plain” day, but “plain” in TDP still means beautiful peaks and landscapes all around you:

The day after that was a nice break, because we were doing the spur hike into the valley and staying at Frances again, so we could leave our tents up and just take light day packs (this confirmed that the packs were the real killer for me because it was the most elevation so far and at the end of the day I felt fine). As we gained elevation, across the valley there was a massive glacier on the mountain. We heard some loud noises before we saw it, and wondered if the glacier was cracking. A few minutes later, we actually got to see a mini avalanche!

As we went higher, there was snow on the ground and it started snowing lightly. It obscured the view a little bit, but we could still see that we were surrounded by towers, and I actually liked how the snow made it feel, and clash against the amazing fall colors:

The next day, we did the hike from Frances (3) to Central (5). This was…definitely our low point. It was a hefty hike, and it was raining pretty consistently throughout the day, so we all got soaked. The trails were in some wide open areas and there was a period of doubt about whether we were even still on the right trail. We finally made it, and then… the campsite was awful. The others were minimal but at least had indoor areas. This one had a single, small tent with two picnic tables (already being used), and a wet mud floor. I think any other day we would have toughed it out, but we really needed some way of getting dry.

Sooooo we caved. Most of the sites also had a “refugio” that’s basically a cabin you can pay way too much for to stay in a bunk bed. We shelled out ~$75 each, but got warm showers, real indoors, no tents, and the opportunity to dry our clothes.

The last day, we also got to leave our packs, because it was a spur deal again, to the torres themselves. It’s hard to say which day was my favorite, but this one had the most colorful fall trees:

and of course the Torres themselves:

We started off pretty early, which was a good call; after hanging out at the top for a bit, on our way down there was an absolute train of people coming up.


After the hike, we got a bus back to PN for the night. We had tentative plans to visit the Perito Moreno glacier with our last few days, but instead Will convinced us to check out the city of Valparaiso outside of Santiago.

And DANG I’m glad he did. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see the glacier, but Valparaiso is so cool. It’s this hilly city on the Pacific coast know for two main things: its street art and its funiculars all over the city for going up the hills.

I’ll probably do a whole post on the street art of Chile, so here are just a few samples:

Definitely touristy, but I don’t care, it feels like walking around a city sized gallery. We also stopped by Pablo Neruda’s house in Valparaiso, which had a bunch of kooky stuff in it.

With our last day, we checked out a huge flea-market type thing, and a pre-Columbian museum, a pretty low key day before our flight.

Chile was a great time. I think there’s even more to see in Santiago than we did, and Patagonia has so much more than we saw (El Chalten, Bariloche, Ushuiua, Seven Lakes, penguins, etc).

And others

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