Chile was the first trip we took after taking up residence in EG some 4.5 years ago. It seemed to come out of left field when the husband first suggested it. I mean, I did want to go South America, but I had thought we would perhaps start our travels with a closer jaunt – somewhere in Europe perhaps? In addition, I had generally contemplated that a trip to South America would be a longer exploration of various countries – would we really fly across the globe to spend a mere three weeks in one country when it would be so easy (?) to cross the border into a neighbouring one?
The draw of Chile was predominately its southern region of Patagonia, and after showing me pictures of the impressive, jagged, snow-tipped mountains, the husband tentatively suggested that we do a multi-day trek of the Torres del Paine. Initially apprehensive – were we fit enough (we hadn’t really done anything more serious than day hikes before) were we really the outdoorsy hiker types, would people recognize me as an imposter hiker? but after confirming that we wouldn’t have to carry our own tents (there is accommodation along the way for the W Trek at least) I agreed. After all, hiking is just walking!
There are two main options for hiking the Torres del Paine. Of course, one doesn’t have to do a multi-day trek – our first accommodation location was overflowing with larger groups, many of the baby-boomer generation, who were clearly not there to partake in gruelling walks through the wild. Some of them, may however, have braved the single day trek to view the Torres before walking back down to stay in the comfort of the hotel. That part of the hike is steep, and there is a lot of scree – hiking poles recommended for those not quite as surefooted. The multi-day trek (option 1) chosen by the husband and I is what is known as the W Trek – given the name as a result of the shape of the trek. It basically takes you from Torres del Paine west to Grey Glacier or vice versa. We went east to west due to accommodation limitations.
From those that are more hardcore, the O Trek (option 2) may take your fancy. The O Trek (yes, in the shape of an O) includes the main highlights of the W Trek but continues into the back country where there is no accommodation or refuges, and you will be required to camp (and therefore carry your own tent). Not being quite prepared to camp self-sufficiently, we opted for the W Trek and stayed in a mix of accommodations, hotel, hut and refuge. There are also campsites for those that want to do it more cheaply, and the option of refuge in place of hotel at the Torres end but given I’m past the point of hostel type sleepovers, I convinced the husband to start us off in the more luxurious hotel with the rest of the old people.
There are multiple activities in the Torres del Paine National Park for those that like nature and stunning scenery. Wanting to immerse ourselves within the dramatic landscape, prior to the W trek we also went on a 3 day kayak trip on the glacial lakes, which took us past incredible mountains and even ice-blue glaciers. Again, being someone that had never kayaked before I was apprehensive, but anyone with a decent level of fitness could join such a trip. Yes, you are tired, yes you will be sore from using muscles that you normally wouldn’t, but for the most part the water is fairly flat/calm – plus you can drink it! How convenient to be able to fill your water bottle by holding it over the side of your kayak as you paddle, with ice cold, pure glacier water. The hardest part is battling against the wild winds that whip up through the mountains. I recommend going in a double kayak particularly if you are inexperienced, single kayaks call for fearlessness as well as fitness – and you don’t want the guide to constantly be forced to bail you out!
A little bit of Spanish goes a long way in Chile, although they say that the further south you go, the more difficult it can be to understand – especially for those that are used to Spain or Mexico’s Spanish. You won’t find it so difficult in the tourist areas such as Patagonia, but for those such as the husband and myself, who rented a car and drove around Chile’s lake district venturing into locals-only tourist areas, a basic understanding is essential. If only to decipher the menu or communicate with the hotel staff.
If you do decide to drive, you will find that many roads which look like they should be relatively major according to the map, may in fact be only gravel. The husband was forced to break his rule of not driving hire cars off-road on various occasions simply so we could get to where we wanted to go. And don’t be alarmed when you see the car in front of you jamming on its hazard lights – it’s a common tactic to let you know they have stopped or are breaking or passing – just to warn you they are there really!
Chile can be tricky to navigate for the international tourist – particularly those that are used to getting on the road early, or doing anything early for that matter. In many cases (particularly outside the larger cities) breakfast does not start until 8.30am. And even if it says it does, if you show up at 8.30am, you may find that either a) no food has yet been laid out and the breakfast room is otherwise deserted or b) the server or waiter/waitress looking at you quizzically like shouldn’t you be still in bed? The same applies for dinner hours, the husband and I have never been good with “Spanish” time – waiting until 9pm to eat dinner is a struggle, as we (read: I) am usually ready for bed, or have had one too many drinks as we prolonged Happy Hour in a bid to attend dinner on locals time. You may find that some restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7.30pm or 7.00pm if you’re lucky. So anyone seeking a geriatric 5 or 6pm dinner… best to go back to the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail.
Toilets are always a source of fascination when travelling, whether it’s the presence of squat toilets (always fun trying to avoid overbalancing therefore dropping your handbag in your own wee) or the Japanese all-in-one inclusive of butt-cleaning bidet complete with “modesty” music. Toilets in Chile are pretty stock standard, but for one important quirk, which is that you don’t flush your used toilet paper. Instead, a teeny, tiny little bin is provided (usually with lid) for you to deposit your used papers into. Yet another glamourous part of working in hotel housekeeping – being required to change the poo bin on a daily basis. The husband and I (and I imagine most people) quickly became adept at ensuring our used papers were placed in the bin poo-side down, so as to save the next person the horror of having to view the remnants of another’s prior trip to the bathroom. One thing that concerned me was the possibility of a bad food experience and the contemplation of those tiny bins overflowing with poo paper. Luckily, it didn’t happen, or perhaps it did and I’ve just blocked it from my mind…
We spent 3 weeks total in Chile – and although you might think that’s a lot of time – the country while skinny, is long. We definitely didn’t see the entire country – there are things that I would still love to explore such as the Atacama Desert and middle-Chile/wine country. Patagonia is nothing short of spectacular – which was definitely a reason which encouraged us to travel to the same area in Argentina last year – and the husband has also found himself a favourite location to which we must return within the Chilean lakes district.
Top Tips for Travel in Chile
- If you only visit one place in Chile, make it Patagonia
- Brush up on your Spanish – at least the restaurant variety
- Take it easy, don’t rush – alter your eating style to fit in with the rest of the country.
- Don’t be afraid to use your hazards
- The poo-bin is a way of life (and don’t worry, somehow it doesn’t smell)