Chile and Argentina – Nov 2014

Casablanca Valley
Casablanca Valley

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Peruvian booby

Wine tasting
Wine tasting

We had been thinking for some time of a trip to Chile – birds and wine, what’s not to like?   Our usual tour companies didn’t quite go where we wanted to, so in late October 2014 we embarked on a trip on our own to central Chile, preceded by five days or so in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This page is a general overview of the trip, with just a few photos; if you want to jump right to the full collection of photos, as well as more detailed maps as to where we drove, click here.

We flew to Santiago, then planned to catch a flight to Buenos Aires within a few hours.  Except that the fine airline with whom we booked the Santiago/Buenos Aires flight, Aerolineas Argentinas, inexplicably decided to cancel our flight.   Rather than get stranded, we simply walked to another airline counter – LAN this time – and bought one-way tickets to Buenos Aires, and figured we’d go after Aerolineas later.  (Short conclusion to this story: never ever fly Aerolineas Argentinas.)

Birding Costanera Sur
Birding Costanera Sur

Despite it being spring verging on summer, Buenos Aires was mostly cold and rainy.  Recent heavy rainstorms had caused considerable flooding in some parts of the city.  But we had a beautiful, sunny first day, doing our own walking tour from our hotel in the Recoleta district (the Meliá Recoleta Plaza), including the Recoleta cemetery where Eva “Evita” Peron is entombed, and later birding the Costanera Sur wetland area with local bird guide Marcelo Gavensky of Birding Buenos Aires.

Cooking class!
Cooking class!

Our other days in BA, we enjoyed a fabulous wine tasting by Anuva Wines of Argentine wines from Mendoza and Salta, an organic market tour/cooking class by Tierra Negra, and visits to the El Ateneo bookstore (in a grand old theater) and the local natural history museum – all great experiences.  We re-joined Marcelo our last day on a full-day birding trip to Entre Rios north of BA.  Colder, windier, and rainier than we would have liked, and the dry forest parts were, frankly, inundated rather than dry, but we saw a lot of great birds (check out our photos at the photo link below).

Aerolineas Argentinas screwed us getting to BA, but our return flight tickets worked – although we didn’t really believe it until the plane was taxiing for takeoff.  We picked up a rental car in Santiago, and Robert drove while Liza navigated with multiple sources (a real map (imagine that!), a Garmin Nuvi, a printout from Google Maps, and her phone) to our hotel in the Providencia district, Hotel Diego de Velazquez.  Providencia is a lovely, older neighborhood – lots of trees and charm – but tight streets and, of course, a lot of traffic.  Still, we got there, got the car squeezed into the tight underground parking area, and decided to walk to dinner.  🙂  One thing we noticed – Santiago had a lot of outdoor seating for the restaurants, while Buenos Aires didn’t – we much preferred the outdoor seating.

La Campana
La Campana

We left Santiago the next morning, the beginning of about 10 days of birding on our own.   We had basically planned the trip using a 2011 trip report published on the Surfbirds website, and that generally worked out pretty well.  Our plan was to photograph birds as much as possible for later review, and to make a loop from Santiago northwest to Viña del Mar on the coast via Olmué and La Campana National Park; then south and into the central valley to get to Altos de Lircay National Reserve.   On the way we would try to get to national reserves and make other stops just to see what we could see.

On the whole it worked pretty well.   In Olmué we stayed at the lovely Nativo Ecolodge, in a new and spiffy little cabaña with kitchen facilities, which meant we shopped for groceries in the tiny “supermercado” in the town center.  La Campana National Park is dominated by the Cerro La Campana mountain, and is also home to one of the last palm forests of Jubaea chilensis (Chilean Palm).

Humboldt penguins
Humboldt penguins

Viña del Mar is a seaside resort, and relatively busy, but driving north along the coast yielded the most fruitful birding, including great looks at boobies, terns, gulls, and penguins.  (We wouldn’t stay in Viña next time, up the coast at Reñaca beach would be nicer, but the restaurants in Viña along Avenida San Martín were good; great seafood at Moros y Cristianos and El Rincón de Greda, but also some awesome burgers at A Mano.)

Post-penguins with a pisco sour
Post-penguins with a pisco sour

Driving south to Curicó – just touching the Casablanca Valley where we dropped in on the Casas del Bosque winery – got us into the central valley “big agriculture” area, where vineyards stretched to the horizon and we passed many big produce processing / distribution facilities.  Although it seems unassuming from the highway, the Hotel Villa el Descanso in Curicó was quite nice and had an excellent restaurant with an extensive wine list of local wines.

We ended where we started, in Santiago, but switched hotels on the back end to the spiffier, newer Las Condes district; nicer hotel, but a bit soulless, and discovered the Barrio Lastárria area near downtown was the place for restaurants.  (Easily accessed by the metro, although it was pretty jammed at “rush hour”.)  Our next to last full day was spent on a full-day tour of the Casablanca Valley courtesy of Uncorked Wine Tours, visiting three wineries (Kingston Family Vineyards, Bodegas RE, and Quintay).  The day we flew out – our flight was nearly at midnight – we spent day-tripping into the Andes, visiting Yerba Loca Nature Sanctuary, and the higher Farellones Ski Resort, where we were treated to 10-12 Andean Condors circling above us.

Poppies!
Poppies near Farellones

Things that didn’t work so well … some national reserves, as it turns out, means don’t bother trying to get there.  Bad roads, no signs … you have to really want to get there.   One promising looking lighthouse on the map – and there were even signs pointing towards it! – had about a 10-mile “road” leading to it, tortuously eroded, and when we got there after an hour THEN we find it is off limits and a naval installation.  (So why the !#$!#$! signs?  Don’t the navy guys know how to get there?)

The national parks and a few selected reserves (e.g. Altos de Lircay) were much better in terms of access, although their hours are limited (0900-1730) and can be frustrating to birders who might like to get out earlier.   The paved roads / toll roads were quite good, but the Panamerican Highway (Ruta 5) had bus stops on the highway, and people running across the highway because the pedestrian overpasses weren’t convenient, which ok makes sense for them but is a bit disconcerting for the uninitiated.   And last but not least – the older we get, the more we appreciate a well-planned tour!  We did well on our own, but some days it was downright exhausting.

But all in all, it was a great trip, jam-packed with things to do, great birds, delicious food and wine, fun activities…and we have a lot of intel for what to do next time!

Again, for the full complement of photographs, please click here.

…cycling, birding, and more