Chile (and Argentina) – Jan 2020

January 2020 we returned to Chile, part of the deal Liza made with Robert for her 60th birthday (party or trip? trip!). We wanted to return to the lakes district and stay in Puerto Varas, where we had finished a cycling tour in 2017. Building on that idea we also wanted to go birding and do some wine tasting. Our itinerary took us from central Chile to southern Patagonia, and over the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina.

Note: click any photo for a larger version. Click here to skip the narrative and go straight to the photo galleries (including birds, nature, and Buddy Bison!). Also, if you’re interested in Liza’s food blog, click here.

We started out in Puerto Varas, renting an AirBNB for a week that was a short walk from the center. We had a beautiful view of Osorno volcano across Lake Llanquihue … the first day. The rest of the week it was off and on rain, so the plan of renting bicycles was abandoned. Instead we focused on birds and nature. In our little stick-shift rental car (yay, no repeat of behemoth vehicle as in the UK) we toured the area.

We first returned to the spectacular Saltos del Río Petrohué, beautiful ice-blue waterfalls, where we happened to run into a local birding guide that we would see at a few other places the remainder of the week. The next day we visited wetlands at Llanquihue, continuing on to Frutillar Baja on the western edge of Lake Llanquihue, and then onto the restaurant Espantapájaros near Puerto Octay. Espantapájaros is on the German Settlers’ Route; we’d been there in 2017 and enjoyed the German-Chilote cuisine, and looked forward to returning. It didn’t disappoint!

On subsequent days we birded along the Río Petrohué and Playa Pelluco, ferried over to Chiloe Island, and drove part way up Osorno – yikes steep even in a car, hats off again to those on our cycling trip who cycled up. The coffee shop we remembered there was closed, and we bailed on driving up to the ski station, returning down to the lakeshore and Puerto Varas instead.

From Puerto Varas it was on to Punta Arenas in southern Patagonia, on the Strait of Magellan. We had a day to ourselves before starting our guided birding tour. Our hotel that first night we found was in the Croatian quarter; there’s a sizable Croatian population in Chile and many have been in Punta Arenas for generations. Liza spied a doctor’s office bearing a surname she recognized from growing up in San Pedro, CA, and Robert noticed the owner of the Cafe Inmigrante said his grandparents came from Brač – where Liza’s grandparents came from. Small world!

Punta Arenas looked fairly dead when we arrived, and we struggled to find an ATM that wasn’t locked up. (We finally did.) Not too many people walking about and many businesses were closed – on a Saturday. Seemed odd. Nevertheless we found a nice cafe for coffee, and a terrific restaurant called Manifiesto for dinner. The restaurant had no signs on it whatsoever, just a door with a small beer sign hanging above it -but inside it was quite charming. That seemed to describe Punta Arenas; it may not look like much at first but there were many hidden treasures.

The next day – Robert’s birthday! – we met up with Rodrigo Reyes of Birdwatching Chile and embarked on our birding tour of southern Patagonia. We birded in and around Punta Arenas, had lunch downtown – which was suddenly lively as a cruise ship had come in – and in the afternoon took a ferry across the Strait of Magellan to Porvenir in Tierra del Fuego. (TdF is an archepelago, the main island is La Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.)

Windswept doesn’t even begin to describe the landscape in southern Patagonia. Watching the grass ripple across the Patagonian steppe can be mesmerizing…and cold. But the birds (including the spectacular king penguin), animals (guanaco, fox), and the plant life seem to thrive. A highlight day was the day we saw the king penguins, as in a short space of time we also saw Chilean flamingos, Andean condor, and a northern royal albatross (from shore). Not too many places in the world where you get that variety so close together.

Moving on from Tierra del Fuego, on the “end of the world route”, we drove up to Torres del Paine National Park, overnighting in Puerto Natales en route. While Tierra del Fuego could best be described as windswept and mesmerizing, Torres del Paine is simply drop-dead gorgeous with snow-capped peaks, glaciers, lakes, and forests. While we didn’t quite get a totally clear look at the iconic granite towers, we had plenty of spectacular views, seemingly around every turn in the road. There was some pretty stiff wind there too, and one day it seemed we had most everything on that we’d brought 🙂 but it was well worth it. (Although the following morning when there was just a light breeze, Liza heard a woman leaving a viewpoint complain it was too windy; she laughed and said you should have been here yesterday. The woman did not appear amused. )

One thing pretty nice about Torres del Paine … it was high season, but the park didn’t feel overrun. At a couple of viewpoints there were some small tour buses disgorging passengers for photo ops, but it wasn’t onerous, and in many other places we almost felt we had the park to ourselves. It might be that more tourists are visiting the park from the Argentine side and were in other areas.

Too soon we had to make the long drive back to Punta Arenas (kudos to Rodrigo’s driver). A stop en route was at the Cueva del Milodón, where in 1895 remains of giant ground sloth were discovered. We enjoyed a last dinner in the city and the next morning flew back to Santiago. There we picked up our rental car (another little stick-shift) and made our way to the coast, to our AirBNB at Reñaca beach near Viña del Mar. Suddenly, summer! To this point of the trip, our idea of escaping winter at home and enjoying summer in the southern hemisphere was dashed by winter-like weather. Now it was properly hot, inland at least, and we could wear our warm-weather clothes.

We just had a few days there, and of course spent most of it birding. The first day we rejoined Rodrigo on a pelagic (open ocean) birding morning out of Quintero to the Humboldt current. Not quite as “birdy” as it was for us in 2017, but still we saw many albatross, shearwaters, petrels, storm-petrels and the like.

Subsequent days we revisited the rocky shoreline at Reñaca near the marine sciences institute (maybe a half hour walk from our AirBNB), and the nearby Parque Ecológico La Isla in Concón. We also went inland via Olmué to La Campana National Park, to the Cajon Grande sector, a nice canyon with a lot of columnar cactus. That particular day we finished with the Viña del Mar Botanical Garden.

To this point on the trip we’d basically been enjoying local beer, particularly Austral beer from Punta Arenas. We finally remedied that with a drive out to Casablanca valley and Kingston Family Vineyards for a wine-pairing lunch. It was a splurge but well worth it, enjoying a fine meal and exquisite wines in a beautiful setting.

The last few days of the trip we returned to Santiago and took a short flight over the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina. Again in an AirBNB, but this time without a car, we relied on the Bus Vitivinicola to do a half-day drive into wine country, stopping at two wineries: Zola/Tapiz and Terrazas de los Andes. At each winery we had a tour and a generous tasting, focusing on Malbec and Torrontés. Originally we wanted to do the full-day tour that would have included lunch, but it’s really a good thing we only had the half day, as any more than two wineries and we would have been on the floor. Our other full day in Mendoza we did a walking tour, seeing many of the beautiful plazas sprinkled throughout the core of the city.

All in all, quite a successful trip. Remaining idle thoughts…

  • Many great birds, enjoyable meals.
  • The AirBNBs worked out very well, probably helps that each of our three were hosted by so-called “super hosts” with very good reviews.
  • Driving in Chile was an adventure; it might be that this was our last rental car kind of trip, it’s a two person job to drive and navigate. (Certainly driving in the lakes district was a lot easier than around Santiago.) At least this time Avis/Budget didn’t ding us for phantom tire damage as they did in Scotland.
  • Uber worked fine in Mendoza. We tried to use the presumably preferred EasyTaxi/Cabify but the app choked (despite Liza having set it up ahead of time and configured payment options). We used a regular taxi (“remis”) from the airport, as we’d read that was the only option on arrival, but did see an Uber sign outside … unclear whether they can pick up people there now or it is only drop off.
  • Liza’s Spanish still stinks. Sigh.

Hotels etc.

  • Holiday Inn Santiago Airport, Santiago
  • AirBNB: Calle Alfonso Brintrup 1515, Condominio Alfonso Brintrup , Puerto Varas
  • Hostal Patagonia Mistica, Punta Arenas
  • Hotel España, Porvenir
  • Hotel Hallef, Puerto Natales
  • Hotel del Paine, Río Serrano (outside Torres del Paine NP)
  • Hotel Rey Don Felipe, Punta Arenas
  • AirBNB: 1737 Avenida Edmundo Eluchans (Reñaca Mar 2), Viña del Mar
  • AirBNB: Don Bosco 65, Mendoza

Again, for more photos (including birds, nature, and Buddy Bison!), click here. If you’re interested in Liza’s food blog, click here.