Patagonia, at the bottom of the South American continent, is subdivided between Chile and Argentina – One cannot experience full Patagonia without visiting both the countries; however, Chile has the better part of Patagonia, I think – Torres del Paine National Park and the southern fjords where explorers like Ferdinand Magellan, James Cook and Charles Darwin navigated. The other important part of Chile is the Atacama desert to the north, home to earth’s remotest space observatory and its open to public; and Valparaiso, on it’s central shores near Santiago, the birth place of Pablo Neruda. Chile is one of the most diverse countries as far as landscape is concerned that I have been.
Our entry into Chile was at Puerto Natales on the day of Christmas, perfect town to celebrate and then on wards to the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego. Finally we flew into Santiago and headed west to visit Valparaiso.
There are other itineraries that include Mendoza in Argentina for vineyards, which is about 5 hours drive each way across the Andes, heard the views are amazing on the way there; some head to north to Antofagasta to experience Atacama desert, the driest place on earth, about 2 hour flight from Santiago. Atacama desert also has space observatories, but it is closed for public during Christmas break, otherwise it would have been my first choice. Therefore our next best option was to head to Valparaiso on the coast, as I am a big fan of Pablo Neruda and the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as its called The City of Art.
THE ROUTE AND PLACES
It is cheaper to fly within Chile or within Argentina, therefore we returned our car back in El Calafate, Argentina after visiting Puerto Natales, Chile and took a 5 hr bus ride back to Punta Arenas via Puerto Natales. The saving was 600$ per person and 9 hours additional layover somewhere. But, the ride on Ruta 40 to and from Puerto Natales from El Calafate was amazing! incomparable!
We used a bus service from Santiago to Valparaiso as it was towards the end of our vacation and we had driven close to 1000 miles in Patagonia region, but I would highly recommend to rent a car and drive to Valparaiso, the roads are very safe and its a freeway throughout, because there are many vineyards on the way and am sure each ones are worth visiting.
Stop 1 – Puerto Natales (Torres del Paine)
Base to Torres del Paine, a frontier town feeling. We stayed on the coast and the mornings were amazing – low scattered clouds dotting the fjords with clear gray sky competing with the deep blue of cold ocean water. Unless you are staying inside the park, otherwise get a tour organized (Private or in group) and you will enjoy it. There are glaciers, massifs and puma hunting activities. There are numerous hiking trails in the National Park. Also a boat ride through the fjords and viewing some marine wild life.
If you are not going to Punta Arenas then Magellanic Penguin tours are also popular in Puerto Natales.
Stop 2 – Punta Arenas (Tierra del Fuego)
A bigger city than Puerto Natales; I tried to find Mapuche people and it turned out my tour organizer for King Penguins colony visit was of Mapuche ancestry; the city is on the strait of Magellan and its windy, about 80 MPH wind is common here. Most popular tours here are – Magellanic penguins, King penguins, Condor colony, etc. If time permits then visit Ushuaia (the lowest point). In the hind sight, we should have skipped King penguin colony tour and spent and extra day in Torres del Paine.
Stop 3 – Valparaiso
Flew in Santiago from Punta Arena, took a cab to central bus station from the airport and boarded a bus to Valparaiso. The city is definitely very unique with colorful homes on the hill overlooking the Pacific ocean and walls of narrow streets are painted all across the old town. One day is enough for Valparaiso. We also visited the home of Pablo Neruda after passing through the entire city and learnt a bit more about him.
Stop 4 – Santiago
Two days are enough in proper Santiago; hire a city tour company to visit various monuments, museums and churches from pre-columbian era, conquistador period to recent Pinochet’s times. I visited the Santiago central market early in the morning and it was amazing to see fresh fish from all over the pacific corridor ready to be sold. Food is great all around Santiago, especially seafood, and we spent our dinner times at El Golf and bohemian Lastarria districts.
Late in the evening on our second day in Santiago we took the overnight flight back home with amazing memories of Patagonia and fully spirited Latin American culture.