Our Bolivian adventure began at the southern La Quiaca/Villazon border, where, despite having all our documents printed and ready to go (visa application, visa application confirmation, hotel itinerary, exit flight, yellow fever card, and our bank statement, plus $160 in US cash), it still took us more than six hours to get the actual visa stamp. But we prevailed, and at last we had our 30 day visa for Bolivia.
We immediately headed for Uyuni, where we booked a tour with Discovery Colored Lagoons for a three day, two night tour of the Salt Desert. What am interesting area! On the first day of our tour, we visited the old train cemetery, where rusted locomotives that once extracted Bolivia’s mineral wealth now rest. We saw the Dakar rally monument from the years that the race passed through this part of the continent . We visited the Salt Flats, and took fun “perspectives” pictures. And that night we stayed at a hotel made of actual salt bricks.
For the next two days, we drove around the desert with our tour group, visiting several lagoons, looking for flamingos, vicuñas (wild llamas), and viscochas (wild, long-tailed rabbits). Ringed by volcanoes and mountains, the altiplano desert in Bolivia is stunning. The second night of our tour, after dinner, we soaked under the stars in a natural hot spring, while our guide pointed out the Milky Way and the Quechua constellations. Wow! A night to remember, for sure.
After our tour, we went to Potosí, home to a silver mine (Cerro Rico) that has been in constant active use for more than 500 years. This small Bolivian city once had more inhabitants than Paris or Madrid! The backbone of the Spanish empire’s mineral extraction, Potosí was home to hundreds of silversmiths. We went on a tour of the Museum de Moneda- which was really fascinating – as well as a tour of a working mine (booked through Koala Den). Well, Chris did. I only made it 20 minutes before I had to leave the mine- claustrophobia really caught up to me! In addition, being one of the highest altitude cities in the world, it was hard enough to breathe outside, let alone inside a mine deep in a mountain.
After Potosí, we took a bus to Sucre, where we spent New Year’s Eve. The day before the holiday, we went to the Parque Cretacico, home of more than 5,000 dinosaur prints preserved from 65 million years ago in limestone. It was a fun outing! On the bus ride there, we met a gal from our Facebook travel group Every Passport Stamp (for super nerdy travelers like ourselves), as well as two Kiwis that we wound up spending New Year’s Eve with. It was nice to share the holiday- and a meal at a French restaurant- with some new travel pals.
I could not face a 12 hour bus ride from Sucre to La Paz, so we found a quick flight and arrived in record time. We stayed three nights in a beautiful, 400 year old building that once housed a monastery. La Paz is… a busy, crowded, bustling city. Technically not the capital of Bolivia (constitutionally, Sucre is), La Paz is viewed as the administrative capital of the country. The best thing I can say for La Paz, and it’s sister-city El Alto, is they have a pretty cool cable car system. With 28 stations and 8 lines, it’s a fun and easy way to get around the two cities, without spending hours in traffic breathing in the fines from the trufli in front of you.
Several travelers we had met along the way had encouraged us to go to Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, which is just three hours from La Paz. We bussed out to Copacabana, at the edge of the lake, and spent one night there. The next day we took a boat to the Isla, which is considered to be the birthplace of the Inca Empire. This simple, peaceful island has no roads or cars, and only about 800 families live there. We spent the next two days hiking along the Inca Camino, visiting the Roca Sagrada, and looking at 500-year old ruins of a small Incan village. The main town of the island, Yumani, site at 4,100 meters above sea level- while the days were warm, the nights were cold! We huddled under our alpaca wool blankets at our hostel, the Palacio del Inca.
After Lake Titicaca, we were nearing our time to leave Bolivia. Our exit flight was from Santa Cruz airport, in the eastern sub-tropical part of the country. We flew there (rather than taking a 17 hour bus), and spent our last 3 days in Samaipata, a small village in the hills just outside of Santa Cruz. Peaceful, walkable, surrounded on three sides by Amboró National Park (also called the Cloud Forest due to low-lying fog), this town was a treat to relax in. The hammocks at the Andorina Hostel were the perfect place to read a book, write a blog, or take a nap. On one day we walked into the hills to visit an animal rescue park, but mainly we just… chilled out.
And then it was time to leave Bolivia. We were ready for a break from our travels, and wanted to codon friends and family in the US for a bit. In a month we’ll continue our South American adventures, probably starting with Brazil. Stay tuned!
Paraguay seems to be the forgotten country of South America! Nestled amongst its neighbors, it’s easy to overlook this fairly small nation. But Chris and I are nothing if not completionists, so we didn’t want to skip it. And since we were headed to Bolivia anyway, Paraguay was on the way.
After visiting Iguazu Falls on both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides, we wanted to give the Paraguayan side a chance. We crossed the border into Ciudad del Este, and got a taxi up to Itaipu Dam, on the Paraná River. The largest hydro-electric dam in the world (by some measures?), you can go on a free tour by showing up at their visitors center (get there before 4:30 pm!). The dam supplies 90% of Paraguay’s power, and 15% of Brazil’s. Impressive! We enjoyed our bus tour around the dam and seeing its inner workings. If you go at nighttime on the weekends, they put in a light show at the dam. Fun to watch!
From Ciudad del Este, busses leave several times a day to the capital of Paraguay, Asuncion. At the height of their summer season, it was hot and muggy there. We found a cute little AirBnB to stay in, and enjoyed the air conditioning, Netflix, and washing machine. Perched high in our sixth-floor apartment, we could look out over the leafy tree tops of Asunción and take in the city from above. Several bars and eateries dotted our neighborhood of Tacuari, just out of the central downtown area.
We did take a walking tour of downtown Asuncion, and our Guru guide gave us a good overview of the history of the area. Like a lot of South American cities, it’s hard to see what’s behind high brick walls and gated entries. Our guide took us inside several of the classic Spanish Colonial architecture style buildings and we got to find out what was inside them.
Probably the most important thing we did in Paraguay was learn how to drink maté there. In Argentina, they drink it with very hot water, but in Paraguay, they drink it with cold water and sugar. We found a maté seller in the park, and got a pitcher of cold (hopefully filtered) water and a cup of loose herbs ((Paraguayans also tend to use fresh herbs, while Argentinians settle for dried). Using their special maté straws, we sat in the Plaza de la Libertad and sipped the slightly bitter tea, just like the locals.
We could choose between taking a 3-times-a-week, 18 hour bus through Paraguay’s western Chaco (outback), and Bolivia’s eastern Chaco, or taking a bus south into Argentina for a quick visit, and then heading to Bolivia. We still had some Argentinian pesos to spend, and who doesn’t love one more steak dinner? So we hopped on an overnight Norte de Bis bus from Asuncion to Salta (via Resistencia), and spent a few more days in northwestern Argentina. You can read about that here. And then: Bolivia!
Have you visited Paraguay? What was your favorite part? I wish that we’d had time to visit the Jesuit ruins near Encarnacion, but by the time I read about them, we were already on the other side of the country.
As it is the world’s eighth largest country, it’s difficult get a trip through Argentina into just one blog post. And to add Uruguay in as well! But I will do my best to give the highlights and most pertinent information from our month here in this beautiful part of South America.
Our Antarctic cruise docked in Ushuaia on Thanksgiving Day, and after making it clear to us that yes, we really needed to leave the boat (or pony up a quick $4000 for the next sailing), we found our guesthouse and set about to getting our land legs back. We took a local bus to Tierra Del Fuego National Park and did some hiking out there ($15 US for the round trip bus tickets, and $10 US/ 3000 pesos for the entry to the park). The park borders the Straits of Magellan, with the snowy peaks of Chilean mountains visible just a few miles away. Later, we listened to the sounds of an entire town cheering as Argentina scored in the World Cup. We also visited the Western Union to get some cash (the “Blue Dollar” rate for USD is twice as good as the “official” ATM rate). Armed with – literally- fat stacks of cash, and nowhere to go but north, we took a night bus up to Calafate.
Calafate is the home to several of Patagonia’s national parks, including the Perito Moreno glacier. As our bus rolled through mile after mile of pampas, we saw plenty of rheas (a type of ostrich), guanacas (a type of camelid that looks like a llama), rabbits, sheep, and mara (long-legged relatives of the guinea pig). Calafate is a cute little town filled with great parrilladas (grills) and North Face clothing outfitters, there are endless opportunities in Calafate to get out and enjoy nature. From hiking, to boating, to horseback riding, the Argentinian side of Patagonia does not disappoint. And the long days in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer make it easier to fit it all in.
It’s nearly the same price for the public bus to the Perito Moreno National Park as it is for a tour shuttle, so we opted for Caltour to pick us up, take us the 80km to the glacier, and return us to town four hours later ($25 USD for the bus, and about $13 entry/4000 pesos). While out at the park, visitors can walk along boardwalks that face the huge glacier, waiting for a loud crack! and a chance to film the ice calving, and they can opt for a boat that gets up and close (but not too close) to the glacier at the waterline.
From Calafate we faced a choice. We could take a 24 hour bus ride along “Route 40” to the picturesque town of Bariloche, in Argentina’s Lake District, and then another 21 hour bus to Buenos Aires… or we could take a 3 hour flight. We decided on the flight.
Buenos Aires is a lively city, that barely seems to sleep. It has a very European feeling to it, in large part due to the huge numbers of Italians who migrated there during the early part of last century. The Italian heritage of the city can be felt in the high percentage of bookshops, coffee culture, pizza, and ice cream.
We wound up spending eight days in Buenos Ares and were able to experience a few different neighborhoods. We visited Boca, home to BA’s most famous soccer team, and the nearby Plaza Dorrega for a milonga (an outdoor tango show). We had a walk through the Mercado San Telmo, eating a delicious choripan (chorizo sausage on bread, with a chimichurri sauce). We took a walking tour around the Palermo area and Recoleta, and saw Eva Peron’s grave, and another walking tour that taught us about different street art movements.
For a couple of nights, we stayed in a private room at the Viajero Hostel, which was a really fun place to stay. We met some other travelers, took an empanada-making class, a tango lesson, sang in a karaoke night, and enjoyed a pizza tour of the city. Nearby, we visited the Ataneo Grand Splendid Bookstore, voted “most beautiful bookstore in the world” by National Geographic (and by me).
It’s easy to take a ferry ride to Uruguay, so when we were ready to leave Buenos Aires, we booked tickets with Bosquebus ferry ($100 USD by credit card online, or half that if paying the blue dollar rate in cash). We had time to visit the Puerto Madero nature reserve while waiting for our ferry, and then we were off to Colonia, Uruguay!
You can visit the small historic city of Colonia in just one day from Buenos Aires, but we stayed two nights and enjoyed strolling around the cobblestone streets, rhododendrons exploding everywhere, and trying out their “national” dish of chivito (a thinly cooked steak, with mozzarella, ham, tomatoes, mayonnaise and black or green olives, and commonly also bacon and fried or hard-boiled eggs, served as a sandwich in a bun). Colonia is definitely high on my list of places to see, a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires.
From Colonia we took a bus to Montevideo, where we stayed for four days. You can also take a Bosquebus straight from BA to Montevideo, but it takes longer, and if you have to choose, I suggest Colonia. The bus between the two takes about 3 hours with stops, 2 of you catch an express. We arrived at Tres Cruces bus terminal, found our hotel (it felt strange to deal with credit cards again after using cash in Argentina), and signed up for a GuruWalk walking tour.
Most of Uruguay’s 3.5 million residents live in Montevideo, but it is still not a super crowded capital city. There is plenty of shopping, the city is lined with beaches (on the Rio de la Plata, not the ocean), and there is a cute little historic center. They claim to have south Americas oldest working theater. I particularly liked their indoor port market, constructed from an old iron London train station. Our favorite experience there was when we happened upon a huge Candombe parade, featuring 25 local groups practicing their Carnival routines with drums, flags, dancers, and more. Wow! It was breathtaking.
From Montevideo, we took a six hour bus north to Salto, to visit the hot springs. Pro tip: take the public shuttle bus from Salto to Hot Springs Daymán, not a taxi! It leaves every half hour and takes just 15 minutes, and costs 50 pesos each person. We were mainly using Salto as a place to break our long journey north, but I did really like the town, and the hotel owners were incredibly kind and let us stay for a very late check out, as we had a night bus. We soaked in the thermal waters as long as we could. We crossed the border back into Argentina at Salto/Concordia, and took a night bus from Concordia north to Puerto Iguazu (13 hours, 15,000 pesos or $50 USD).
Arriving in Puerto Iguazu, the most northern city in Argentina, it was noticeable hotter and more humid than anywhere else we’d been so far. Luckily, we got a hotel with a pool, and were able to cool off in the water. The public bus runs to the Iguazu Falks National Park every thirty minutes, so it was easy to catch a bus and visit the park on our own (entry 4000 pesos/ $12 USD at the Blue Dollar rate). And… wow. It is impressive. The sheer magnitude of water forming the falls, 3 km wide and 80 meters tall, is astounding.
The following day, we took a bus over to the Brazilian side. And if I had been impressed the day before? Wow. Seeing the “Devil’s Throat” from the Brazilian side was incredible.
And with that, we’d gone from the southern-most city in Argentina to the northern-most. There’s no way to see all of this great country, but we tried our best. Now it’s on to Paraguay, and then Bolivia. Stay tuned!
(Edited 12/20 to add Salta). We wound up taking a night bus from Asuncion, Paraguay, and re-entering Argentina for a few days more days en-route to Bolivia. We arrived in Salta and spent a couple of days exploring this medium-sized city. We joined a walking tour that meets every night (Mon-Fri) at 6 pm in front of the cathedral and that helped us get oriented. Our guide also suggested dinner at El Charrua, which was probably the best steak dinner we had in Argentina. While we were in town, Salta had a free museum night, and we visited three of them. The most interesting, to me, was the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, which features three of the child sacrifices from the Incas. Both creepy and fascinating, from a sociological and archaeological perspective!
The next day was the final game of the World Cup, and of course Argentina was playing. What a game! We needed to take a bus towards Bolivia, so we watched with our bus mates and we all cheered as Argentina won. Champions of the world!! When we arrived in Humahuaca, our final city in Argentina, the entire town was gathering to celebrate.
The next day we spent a quiet day in Humahuaca. From the old town you can see the Andes mountains, and an area called “The Hills of 14 Colors”. The cobblestone streets and small buildings, along with the dark eyes and dark hair of the inhabitants were an indication that Bolivia was just a few miles away. The next day, we took a two hour bus, and arrived at the Bolivian border.
When Chris and I (Deah) set out on our year-long South American journey, we hoped that a visit to Antarctica would be in our near future. I set about to researching how to make that happen, and two months later, we were on a boat heading to our seventh continent. Here’s the most frequent eight questions I’ve heard from friends and travelers on how to score the very best deals to go to Antarctica.
1. What is the best time of year to visit Antarctica?
Aside from getting a paid or volunteer job at a research station, your only options for cruising to Antarctica are going to be in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months- namely, November through February. This is the only time that the pack ice breaks up enough, and storms calm enough, to get ships in and out across the Drake Passage and to the continent. At the beginning of those months you will see more seals and more fantastic snow and ice, while in later months you will see more newly-hatched penguins born towards the end of summer. Cruises do tend to get more expensive as the summer goes on, although there are always last-minute cancellations.
2. What are the best sources for gathering information about trips to Antarctica?
I start my searches online for recent travel blogs so that I can read first-hand accounts of people who have recently taken similar adventures. Add keywords like “travel blog” and “backpacking” to rule out news articles and marketing sites for cruise lines (although those can have good info as well). Since travel has changed a lot post-Covid, add in “2022” to your search to get the most updated information. The website Cruisemapper has a wealth of good info as well.
The single best place I got information for this trip was by joining a private group on Facebook, the Antarctic Travel Group. By reading through the past several months’ of posts for that group, I was able to get a great overview of Antarctic travel: do’s and dont’s, what to pack, reviews of various cruise companies, and what to do in town before and after a cruise if you have extra time.
3. Should I just go to Ushuaia and wait at the dock?
It used to be that you could show up at the Ushuaia (Argentina’s most southern city) airport and get an empty seat on a resupply flight to Antarctica (not anymore). You can also get to Ushuaia and walk through the small town and talk to various cruise operators and look for a last minute deal. People get ill, miss a flight, or have other emergencies, and can’t make their cruise. Of course the cruise line still wants to fill that cabin, and may offer a serious last-minute discount.
However, you can essentially do the same thing by establishing a dialogue with cruise travel agencies online. I reached out to Intrepid, Hurtigruten, and Quark, and got standard email replies. However, I had best results by starting a WhatsApp conversation with Freestyle Adventure and Epic Polar travel agencies. By letting them know what places you’re interested in getting to, the size of boat you want, and the rough dates you can be available- and by touching base with them frequently- you can be first in line when they get an awesome new deal or a last-minute discount. We had all those text conversations while we were traveling around Chile, ready to take a quick flight or bus, rather than sitting around Ushuaia waiting.
4. What should I pack?
Layers. Layers. Layers. The cruises to Antarctica do go in the “summer” months, but it is still cold and windy at the lower latitudes. You will want a base layer (thermal leggings, long johns, or fleece-lined tights), t shirts, long sleeved shirts such as microfleece, and of course hat and gloves. Most boats require that you bring water-proof pants, to keep you dry while out in the zodiacs. We were already traveling when we booked our cruise, and were able to purchase rain pants in a hiking town in Patagonia. Our ship had a (free) launderette on board, so even though we went on a 17-day sailing, we only needed one set of everything.
Most boats (but not all- check with your travel agent or whoever you purchase from) will provide you with waterproof “muck boots” for the wet landings, and will provide a branded parka that you can keep after the cruise. Ours were 3-in-1 jackets, so they had a warm down layer and a waterproof Gortex outer layer. Don’t bother wasting room in your carry-on if you don’t need to!
5. What camera should I take?
In general, you want to take a camera that you’re already comfortable with. That being said, if there’s one place in the world where you might want something nicer than a cell phone camera or a simple point-and-shoot, it’s Antarctica. Many people on the boat- but not all- will have special lenses for long-distance, close-up photography. You can also rent one if you like to try one out. For us, Chris captured our best shots with his Canon 70D, while I used our iPhone 12 to create short videos, panoramas, slow-motion, and time-lapse shots.
Some cruises have an additional photography course “add on”, typically an extra $1000, which gets you invited to lectures and small group landings with an expert photographer. Our ship, the SH Vega, had award-winning photographer Renato Granieri. He gave several photography lectures to any interested guests, as well as a link to his photo album of the cruise when we disembarked.
6. Are all cruises pretty much the same?
Not really. Ships can vary in size, from about 100 passengers up to 2000 or more. They can vary in the level of luxury- the MV Ushuaia is a former NOAA research vessel, very basic, while we traveled in the Swan Hellenic Vega, which was pretty much five-star (not our usual scene!). I researched other cruises that had add-ons such as arctic camping, kayaking, snow-shoeing, and photography. Some cruises are “classic” Antarctica, meaning they essentially leave Ushuaia, cross the Drake Passage, visit the South Shetland islands, and attempt to reach the Antarctic peninsula. Other ships, such as ours, leave from Buenos Aires, and ours included stops in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and South Georgia islands. With all ships, there is no guarantee that wind and weather will allow for a landing on the continent- but do check ahead of time that your ship has applied for and secured permits to at least try. Every ship that goes to the Antarctic is a part of IAATO, and they coordinate all the permits and ensure that Antarctica stays as pristine as possible.
7. What do you do while you’re on board?
It can easily be two or three days’ sailing between Buenos Aires, Falklands, South Georgia, Shetland islands, and Ushuaia, so there will be days at sea with no landings. Some ships have a sauna, gym, spa, and pool, as well as a beauty salon and massage room. Ships have both “formal” and “informal” dining. Even the formal dining, an amazing five-course dinner, is less “formal-wear”- our ship specifically asked us not to wear high heels on board. And there are several lounges, a science lab, and a library. Did I mention wine tastings and cocktail parties with caviar? That too.
In between landings, on most ships, various expedition leaders and experts will give talks or lectures, which may be video-recorded and viewable from your stateroom. We had a lecture on the Falklands Conflict, photography workshops from Renato, tales of PolarAJ’s North Pole trek, and history lessons about Ernest Shackleton and other polar explorers. We also had Citizen Science opportunities to identify bird species, whales, seaweed, and clouds.
If all that’s not enough, we had a selection of movies on our tv (similar to the kind on airplanes), and we had free WiFi for the duration of the sailing. I know that some other ships have a WiFi package that costs extra. Or you can choose to disconnect and spend your time editing your 8000 penguin pictures!
8. Do you need insurance?
Yes. You really do. Because we have trip insurance through our United Explorer credit card, and are extremely flexible with our travel style, we rarely opt for extra travel insurance. However, most Antarctic cruises will require that you get an additional medical and evacuation insurance that covers up to $500,000 per person. Read these carefully- they can be quite sneaky in the wording and not “actually” cover Antarctica. I used insuremytrip to get a baseline idea of policies, but based on a tip from my ATG Facebook group, found a very reasonable policy via our USAA banking/insurance company. For less than $200, we were able to insure our trip against medical complications.
I can tell you that the day we left port, two other ships had to return home early due to medical emergencies on board. They were in the Drake Passage and could not get a helicopter evacuation. Once they returned to port, passengers scrambled to get a different flight home, hotel stays, or an alternative sailing. Also on our sailing, we had a passenger with a medical emergency while in the Falkland Islands, who needed hospitalization and a flight back to South America. And, tragically, another ship on our sailing route had a terrible zodiac accident resulting in two deaths. They immediately headed back to Ushuaia. All of this is to say that you may be the person on board needing medical attention, or you may have your travel arrangements affected by external factors. Antarctic travel is very precarious- and passengers tend to skew toward the mid-elderly- so be prepared and protect your trip.
Going to Antarctica was a dream come true for us. I was incredibly happy to finally make it happen, after thinking about it for YEARS. Best of all, we were able to purchase last-minute tickets at less than HALF the price listed on the ship’s website. By doing our research, reaching out to agencies, and being super flexible, Antarctica was finally within our reach.
Questions about visiting Antarctica? Drop them below and I would be happy to answer. Let’s get you that fantastic deal to the White Continent!
Chris and I (Deah) have spent the last four weeks exploring Chile, and believe me, it’s still not enough time. This country is quite big! From top to bottom, Chile is 2,700 miles long- not including the part of Antarctica that Chile claims. Since we started in Santiago and headed south, we still haven’t visited the northern part of Chile including the Atacama desert- we hope to access it from the Bolivian side later in the year. But we were able to see quite a lot of this beautiful country, including the Santiago/Central area, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chiloe Islands, and the southern area of Patagonia.
In the central Chile area, we spent time in Santiago, Valparaiso, and Concón. In both Santiago and Valparaiso we took a walking tour with GuruWalk to get a sense of the history and the politics of the area. That’s one of our favorite ways to orient ourselves in a new city or country. One of the suggestions our guide gave us in Santiago was to go to the park on San Cristobal hill, one of the major greenspaces in the city. We took a funicular to the top of the hill, and then a cable car across the tops of the hills, to get a wonderful view of the city. We also visited two museums, including the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (free, open daily Tuesday through Sunday 10 am to 6 pm) and the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (8000 pesos, open same times- be aware that currently, only one level of this museum has exhibits, the rest is closed). Santiago is an easy city to get around in, with a comprehensive metro system. At our walking tour guide’s suggestions, we tried two specialties of the city: a “completo“, which is basically a hot dog slathered in several condiments (Chilenos REALLY love hot dogs) and a drink called a “terremoto” (earthquake), featuring pineapple juice, ice cream, and white wine. Interesting!
From Santiago, we took a three hour bus to the city of Valparaiso. Founded in 1536, Valparaiso has a history of conquistadores, pirates, earthquakes, fires, and, pre-Suez Canal, ships circumnavigating the continent in order to reach California for the gold rush. Most ships would stop in Valparaiso and pick up ice from the Andes mountains, fruits, and vegetables, and deliver them to the west coast of the American continent- a lucrative business. For that reason, Valparaiso itself is full of old manors and Victorian mansions built in the 19th century. Most have been turned into hotels and museums now, and make for a quirky bit of Europe in this South American city.
Near Valparaiso is the small surf town of Concón, featuring several surf competitions at their LaBoca beach. We took a local bus (500 pesos) up the seaside highway, getting off at LaBoca, and had a delicious seafood lunch. We watched the surfers and the fishermen, then found the Concón sand dunes, and trudged our way to the top of the vast sands that overlook the ocean. At the top you can rent sandboards and ride down, or just sit and enjoy the view. From there, it’s easy to hop on the bus heading south and return to Viña del Mar or Valparaiso.
Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
From the moment we started planning our South America adventure, we knew we wanted to visit Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, as it is also known. Due to Covid, it has been closed to tourism for over two years. However, as of August 2022, it is open again, and you can access it via a flight on Latam Airlines, or various cruise lines. For specifics on getting to Rapa Nui, please see this guide to getting there. We spent four days, three nights on the island, which was just enough time to see almost everything if you plan your activities carefully and have good weather. From the moai statues on platforms, complete with pukao, to the volcanic quarry where the moai were carved, it was a fascinating look at this sea-faring Polynesian culture. Currently (as of fall 2022), Rapa Nui requires visitors to have a guide with them to visit the 15 or so national park sites ($80 USD for a park pass to all sites), and actually we found the guide very helpful in learning about the history of the island, its people, and their customs. Although the trip out to the island was a bit of an investment, we were not disappointed and would absolutely recommend anyone visiting Chile to take the additional steps to see Easter Island.
From Central Chile (either Santiago or Valparaiso) there are several buses heading south, as far as Puerto Montt. We overnight bussed there and then took a ferry onto Chiloe Island, the largest island in South America. We spent a week exploring the archipelago , the food, and the local culture. The few towns on the islands are small, with lots of fishing boats, ferries between islands, and cociñieria (small family-owned restaurants in a common building, which serve tea and seafood soups to fishermen, tourists, and locals). The cuisine of this area is unique and you will definitely eat a lot of fish and shellfish while you are there! One local dish we particularly liked was the chupe de jaibo, which is a kind of crab casserole (usually about 9000 pesos, or about $9). On the island you can also find plenty of places that offer curanto, similar to a hangi in New Zealand- hot coals are placed in a hole in the ground, then a layer of mussels, pork, chicken, sausage, and potatoes, then covered with turf and leaves, and left to cook for several hours.
Another feature of the Chiloe Islands is the local mythology, a blend of legends, myths, and religious stories that are a result of the Spanish Catholics trying to “Christianize” the local Mapuche natives. Nearly every town offers up their own tales of witches, phantom ships, traucos, and mermaids. To combat these beliefs, the Spanish built churches in practically every corner of the islands- more than 150 small wooden churches. Several of these still exist and around 15 of them have been given a UNESCO heritage status.
If you want to learn more about either Valparaiso or Chiloe Islands, and you enjoy reading historical fiction, definitely pick up some books by Isabel Allende. Perhaps Chile’s most well-known author, and winner of Chile’s National Literature Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she includes so much of Chilean culture in her books, such as Daughter of Fortune, The House of Spirits, and Maya’s Notebook.
Finally, we found the bottom of Chile, a vast area called Patagonia. In certain times of the year, you can take busses or roads to Patagonia via a shared road with Argentina, but at other times of the year you can only get here on the Chilean side via boat (try Navimag ferry or Hurtigruten cruise line) or plane (Latam or Sky). In Patagonia, we visited the Torres del Paine National Park, home to glaciers, mountains, fjords, and wildlife. From one day hikes to five days trekking the “W”, horseback trails, or a boat, visitors can find just the right fit for visiting this beautiful park. Be advised that the weather in this park is very fickle, and can suddenly and un-seasonally turn from sunny to sleeting rain in just a few moments, so dress accordingly. We booked our visit using the Las Torres website, and were able to book a dorm room at a refugio with meals, but you can also camp with your own stuff, rent camping equipment, or stay in a hotel in the park. If you are only planning a one or two day stay you can probably do it without much advance planning- but if you are wanting to do the longer W or O Circuit, you really do need to book weeks or even months in advance, as it is a confusing system of three different entities that own different facilities inside the park along the circuit. I can say that if you enjoy hiking- and don’t mind paying fairly hefty sums for the experience- that it is a beautiful and unique experience. For us, the weather turned bad, so we took very few pictures, but from what I did see and from what I’ve seen online, it is stunning.
In addition to basing ourselves out of Puerto Natales before and after the Torres del Paine visit, we also went to Punta Arenas, which is essentially Chile’s most southern city. It is a small town and there is not a whole lot to do there, but many people fly into Punto Arenas on their way to the national park or to Ushuaia, the southern-most city in Argentina. In Punta Arenas you can visit a nearby penguin colony, take a boat or ferry to the town of Porvenir, which is actually on the island of Tierra del Fuego. For us, we spent a day taking a bus tour which went south, following the Strait of Magellan, to the very tiny Fort Bulnes– the first Patagonian settlement. The tour was in Spanish, but as we’ve been diligently practicing every day in our Duolingo app, we were able to get the gist of it.
And now, after countless lunches of fish, mussels, crab, and potatoes (more than 150 varieties in Chile), as well as trying out all the Chilean wines and Austral beers we could, it’s time to head to Argentina. We got a super hot, last minute deal on a cruise to Antarctica, so check back soon for details on how we managed that, what it’s like there, and what we get up to later all over Argentina. Subscribe below to get our updates straight to your inbox!