Patagonia Bound

When I decided on South America as stage one of my travels I had never been on any particularly long trips before. Sixteen days was the longest period of time I had spent abroad, and that was work related. I initially earmarked three months to explore Peru and Chile, but before my flight to Lima even boarded, it was clear that wasn't going to cut it. In the roughest of pre-trip outlines my final adventure was going to be hiking the world renowned 'O'-Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park. Then I would head back to Santiago and continue onward to my next destination. In reality my pre-booked campsite reservations (the only premeditated activity upon embarking, out of necessity) eventually turned my leisurely stroll through Peru and Bolivia into an all out sprint down to Southern Patagonia. Here I stand in central Chile, with five days to cover about 2500 km.

Making my best flat stone impression I skipped along the Chilean lakes district, stopping in the agricultural hub of Temuco just long enough to catch a bus onward to Valdivia. Though time was tight, Valdivia is the beer capital of Chile; not stopping to grab a pint would have been against my moral code. Home to Kunstmann, the largest craft brewer and flagship of German influence in the country, a wide variety of smaller and pretty decent microbreweries have popped up in town. The quaint waterfront city has a rather rare Latin-Bavarian hybrid thing going on, and beer culture is wrapped up in the middle of it. It's coastal area is dotted with Spanish imperial era forts, and for the first time in over two months I saw a salt containing body of water. Quenched, I returned to the bus station to keep things moving.

Cannons stand guard, lest any seals get out of control: Fuerte de Nebila, Valdivia

My next bus docked in Puerto Montt with just enough time to lug my bag to a hostel and catch sunset over the bay. The city, fairly large for this region, sits at the edge of 'mainland' Chile and beyond it's horseshoe perimeter highway lies the great Patagonian frontier. Only three days remained in my sprint to the South so the time spent here was a food prep blitz for the trek. A nutritious and calorie dense menu consisting primarily of cuscus and ramen was artfully crafted and provisions were acquired at the last major shopping hub I would encounter. There was however enough time to scout out a local fishing dock on the outskirts of town and I finally had a face to face with the famed Chilean Chinook Salmon. A huge, fresh off the boat fish can be as cheap as 3,500 CLP/kg about $5.75/kg for these gigantic whole fish! Cleaned and cut fillets run closer to 6,000 CLP/kg ($10.00) which is still the bargain of the century for such high quality water creature. If the fishmongers couldn’t see the saliva dripping upon my arrival, discovering the ceviche vendors out back certainly made it clear I was crazed. I paced up and down the isle of vendors frantically, in a complete panic about this toughest of decisions. Ceviche cups of salmon, king crab, conch, sea urchin, octopus, and more lined every table. Each vendor offered a unique set of toppings ranging from a simple lemon and salt spread, to elaborate salsas, hot sauce, and herb buffets. I opted for the urchin as the price bracket this delicacy resides in back in New York made it a rare treat, and I think I’m now unied out for life. I bought the smallest fillet of salmon they would sell me, which still came in at over 500g but it was pretty easy to find friends back at the hostel once I offered to cook up a salmon feast if they tossed in a couple of dollars. I dined with new friends, caught some zees in a comfy bed, and bright and early set off.

Urchin ceviche, oh so tasty

I had covered about half the distance by land, but the remainder required flying or a lot of time. The only real option is to overshoot Torres del Paine by about 350km and backtrack to the park from what is basically the edge of settled Earth. Landing in Punta Arenas, the remoteness is palatable. I stood on the bank of the Strait of Magellan for sunset, a body of water I remember reading about as a child in school. Across sits Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost city in the world: Ushuaia, Argentina, and ultimately the Drake Passage. From Punta Arenas it’s a shorter trip to Antarctica then back to Santiago, though the treacherous water and guarantee of weather beyond imagination or nightmare makes onward travel only for those with a substantial bank roll; perhaps another time. The following day Abi arrived, we hopped on a bus from the airport, and our tandem journey reconvened in route to Puerto Natales. With one day to spare I acquired the last few necessities for eight days in the wilderness, gorged on cakes (eight days of hiking means no hard feelings about that second, or third, slice) and braced myself as I was on the brink of beginning my true Patagonia experience.

A calm evening on the Strait of Magellan; Punta Arenas, Chile