In Patagonia

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Monday, February 6, 2006

To get to Punta Arenas we take a Lan Chile flight that lands in Puerto Montt half way to drop off and pick up passengers. The flight takes about three hours in total, and on the second leg we have a sense of deja vu as we are fed the same in-flight meal for a second time. Unfortunately it wasn´t that good the first time round, so the second helping is a bit of a let down.

During the flight, we sit on the right side of the aeroplane and so miss all the views of the Andes on the left, except for a tantalising glimpse past a fat tourist´s head now and then. As we are coming into Punta Arenas I can see that the landscape is pretty flat - I was expecting mountains, so I am already dissapointed and we haven´t even landed. We get out and the wind blows fiercly and cold across the runway. The Patagonian summer feels like it might be similar to summer in the outer hebrides of Scotland.

We jump on a bus (1,300 Pesos or GBP1.50) that takes us into the town which is about 20km from the airport. At the drop off point a friendly hostel owner gets our attention and tries to persuade us to stay at his new place which has just opened up. We decline, telling him that we want to use the tent - we´ve brought it this far, so we reckon we may as well use it if we can. We walk about a kilometre to the only hostel in town that offers camping. It transpires there is just one dirty little muddy patch outside the hostel which is already crowded with tents, and the owner shows us a little space where we can park ours. Without much hesitation, we walk back into town to find the friendly hostel where we declined to stay earlier.

The town has a strange mixture of run down squalor, and elegant graceful mansions. As the wind is blowing and an occasional shower stings our faces we only see the squalid side at first and Rachel is wondering where on earth I´ve brought her. Back at Indomita del Sur hostel we claim a couple of bunk beds for 3,000 Pesos each (about GBP3.00 each), and the new hostel owner warns us that they are still in the middle of construction. We take a look around and realise that we probably should have spent more money on going somewhere nicer. Although new, the hostel has some obvious design flaws - like no doors on the dorms so you can hear everything in the noisy reception area, no sink in the dirty kitchen, four showers with curtains but no cubicles so no privacy for the ladies showering, blocked ladies toilets, the common area above the dorms having the thinest floor imaginable so that every footstep is heard below, and no lightswitches in the dorms. Rachel is later horrified to discover that the bedsheets are not changed between guests. The owners try to make up for the problems by being as nice as possible and insisting that the place will become the best back-packer place in town given time. I don´t think so.

The remainder of the day and the whole of the next day we try to find out more information about how we can get to Tierra del Fuego - the wild and mountainous southern tip of South America. There are a number of options which lead us on a wild goose chase that every other traveller to these parts seems to have to endure.

The first option is to take a scheduled ferry (50,000 Pesos, or GBP50) to Puerto Williams, the most southerly town in the world. The boat trip takes two days and goes past spectacular sub-antartic forests, mountains, and glaciers. After much effort we eventually find out that its fully booked for the next month.

The second option is to take a charter cruise around Tierra del Fuego. We turn up at one travel agents and find out that there is a cruise leaving the next day which has spaces available. We decide to see if we can get a big discount to make it worthwile - but the most they will knock off is 10% bring the price down to a steep USD$1000, which is a lot for three days on a ship with just a couple of excursions on land.

The third option is to get a place on one of the Chilean Navy boats that take three days to get down to the base in Puerto Williams. The cost is reputed to be only around 20,000 Pesos (GBP20), but we just cannot find the right person to talk to and are passed from pillar to post as we try to find out more about this option. Eventually we give up.

The fourth option is to take the bus down to Ushuaia, in Argentina, and explore the area from there. However, we´ve heard that Ushuaia is full of people wishing they were in Puerto Williams on the Chilean side. Also the bus, although cheap, takes 12 hours and we hear from some other travellers staying in the hostel that it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience with tightly cramped seats, bumpy roads, and inadequate meal stops. Getting from Ushuaia in Argentina to nearby Puerto Williams in Chile is also a difficult connection to make, and tourists are usually ripped off to the tune of USD$100 for the short boat trip.

The fifth option is to forget about Tierra del Fuego and instead go to Antartica. We find that there is only one way to do that from Punta Arenas in our timescale which is to fly with DAP - but the price: USD$2000 for just 4 hours in Antartica. We quickly discard that option.

Option number 6. We have also heard many stories about cruise ships docking in Ushuaia and backpackers getting on a multi-day Antartic cruise for less than USD$1000. However, from talking to other backpackers who have tried and failed, it sounds a very hit-and-mostly-miss affair, and we decide to do something more definite instead.

And so we decide on Option 7. Fly to Puerto Williams with DAP for around USD$140 return each and when we are there tackle a 5-day walk through the remote and isolated Dientes De Navarino. After a nailbiting overnight wait the friendly sales assistant in the DAP office tells us that there are two standby seats left on the 3pm plane leaving the next day.

After reading an exciting account of the proposed hike on the internet, we realise that we need to spend the rest of our time in Punta Arenas in preparation. Firstly we need to find a map, and secondly we need to stock up on camping food at the supermarket, as we hear there are unlikely to be any significant supplies available in Puerto Williams.

That night we eat in a cozy little restaurant called La Luna, just next to our hostel, which according to lonely planet has the best food in town. Unfortunately the fish is really greasy and overcooked, although the ambience inside the restaurant makes up in part for the poor food.

Finding the map of Navarino turns out to be one of the biggest wild-goose-chases of the entire trip so far. We go around all the tourist information sites, all the book shops, all the souvenir shops, the library, and after about 4 hours of hunting I eventually end up at Bienes Nacionales (a government office) where the lady on duty gives me a single A4 copy of copy of a map, which is at least something, although the countour lines are barely visible. Back at the DAP office, the familiar friendly sales assistant telephones a contact in Puerto Williams who confirms that I can photocopy a route description when we get to the town.

We go shopping in the supermarket and find the selection of camping food somewhat limited. However we manage to get porridge oats, pasta dishes, rice dishes, instant potato, salami sausages, and loads of chocolate, nuts, and dried fruit. We pack up two backpacks for the trip to Puerto Williams trying to keep the weight as low as possible as there is a slim 10kg luggage limit on the flight.

In the evening we finally relax, but we can´t find any of the other Lonely Planet recommended restaurants to eat at. I guess they must have all closed down. Eventually we go to ´Restaurant Irlandes´, which must be the first specifically Irish Restaurant I´ve ever eaten in. Inside it doesn´t seem to be particularly Irish and I opt for a ´humburger completo´, which turns out to be the biggest, fattest, burger I´ve ever had. I wonder if the green avocado inside is an attempt to make it a more Irish experience.

That night we are too tired to change hostels so we endure another night of noise and interrupted sleep for the benefit of a cheap night. In the morning we take the remainder of our stuff over to Hostel Mejicana for when we return from Puerto Williams. It is run by friendly owner Gloria, a cosy and tidy place, costing 12,000 Pesos (about GBP12) for a double room.

Rachel is pleased that we are getting out of Punta Arenas and comments that the place looks a bit like Stranraer on a cold showery spring day - somewhat bleak with an end-of-the-world feel, but with one or two nice buildings and friendly people to cheer it up bit.

Its her birthday, so I hope she enjoys the flight to the Southern tip of the Americas, and the new experiences that await us there.
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