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Trip Report Chile-1,000 kilometers in a wonderful place

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We just returned from 2 weeks in Chile where we visited Torres del Paine National Park and drove 1,000 km up the Pan American Highway. We also visited the Sacred Valley of Peru and Machu Picchu on a walking tour with Vermont Bike Tours (VBT). As the Fodors forum is primarily for independent travelers, I will just say that the VBT Tour was excellent and I will be glad to answer any questions. This trip report will focus on Chile.

First of all, let me thank all the Fodorites who provided assistance to me during the planning of this trip. Eugenio of Alta Tours http://www.altatours.com arranged accommodations, rental car, private tours and the air travel within South America. Eugenio is from Chile but lives in California. He is a pleasure to work with and has good working relationships with travel professionals in Chile and Peru. I would definitely recommend him.

Here is a summary of our trip:

We flew American Airlines to Santiago, Chile and on to Punta Arenas on LAN. 1 night at the Hotel Cabos del Hornos

Transfered to Torres del Paine National Park. 4 nights at Las Torres Hotel (Hosteria Las Torres). All-inclusive

Transferred back to Punta Arenas airport and then flew LAN to Puerto Montt. Picked up our rental car (Budget) and drove to Puerto Varas. 2 nights at the Hotel Cabanas del Lago

Drove to Pucon. 2 nights at Hotel Malalhue

Drove to Chillan. 1 night at the Hotel Isabel Riquelme

Drove to the Colchagua Valley. 2 nights at the Hotel Parador de la Vina outside of Santa Cruz.

Drove the Route of the Fruit to Valparaiso. 2 nights at Hotel Acontraluz

Drove to Providencia neighborhood of Santiago. 1 night at the Hotel Orly

Flight from Santiago to Lima and Cusco

We traveled off-season and post earthquake. We encountered few other tourists except at Torres del Paine. The Chilean people are exceptionally helpful and we never felt that we were just "business" to them. The Pan American Highway is well maintained. We encountered detours in the areas affected by the quake but no real slow down in travel times. We spent about US$35 in tolls. We had some problems finding our hotels but we were able to use GoogleMaps and ask for directions when necessary. DH brought his Blackberry and was able to get voice and data everywhere except Torres del Paine. I do speak some Spanish which was very helpful (but not essential).

I will be adding the details to this trip report over the next few days as time permits. For those of you who have been thinking about Chile as a possible future travel destination, I can say that you should give it a try. We're glad that we did!

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    Yes, Huentetu, the Hotel Malalhue does have a nice breakfast and they would prepare eggs if we wanted them.

    Punta Arenas-was blustery and autumnal with the wind-carved trees changing to reds and golds. We wandered around the main plaza with its statue of Magellen. There were little sheephearder wagons around the plaza selling woolen items and other handicrafts. There is a casino down by the wharf, which didn't interest us, but it looked nice and new. The downtown area has some beautiful buildings dating back to the turn of the last century...before the Panama Canal stole much of the shipping that fueled the growth of the city. The city looks prosperous and we understand that there is a lot of mining in the area which is based in Punta Arenas. We had a delicious lamb dinner at Soltitos, near the wharf. Our hotel was Hotel Cabo de Hornos. We enjoyed our quiet room, the breakfast and the complimentary pisco sours to welcome us to Chile!

    Torres del Paine-The next morning, we climbed into an SUV driven by Marcello, our personable driver from the Hotel Las Torres. It was exciting to be so close to Tierra del Fuego although we only saw it from afar. The highway is a well-maintained 2-lane road most of the way to Torres del Paine. After 2.5 hours, we stopped for lunch at Estancia Cerro Negro, a working sheep ranch. We had incredible lamb empanadas as an appetizer, another pisco sour and then a full meal. Perla, our hostess, gave us a tour of the sheering shed and the Ovejero (sheephearder) gave us a sheering demonstration. Quite a nice introduction to the agricultural side of Patagonia! The family that owns the estancia also owns the Hotel Las Torres and they are Chilean of Croatian heritage. This was something we noticed throughout the southern portion of Chile was the strong European (non-Spanish) influence in the building styles and cuisine. We arrived at Hotel Las Torres late in the afternoon. It was a bit overcast and very windy. Only one of the two wings of the hotel was open for guests. That evening, we met Juan, our guide for the three days of trekking and other adventures. The excursions were part of our all-inclusive package. I would say that about 1/2 of the guests were on the all-inclusive plan. The others went on self-guided outings or simply drove around the park. The food and bar was always good and one night the food could even be rated gourmet. We visited the greenhouses and garden that the hotel maintains. The gardener was harvesting the last of the year's crops but we were impressed with the variety of produce.

    We went on a 12 km walk called Sendero Laguna Verde. It was quite a nice ramble taking us by 5 lakes.The Las Torres Massif
    was visible the entire walk and the skies were sunny with some clouds. We had been told that you only get clear views of the Torres and Cuernos 2-3 days a month, so we were very pleased that 2 of our 3 hiking days were clear. We saw many condors, eagles and hawks. The last 2 km were extremely steep as we climbed down to Lago del Toro. The wind was our ever-present companion, but we never encountered another hiker. The next day we did a short hike in the morning and then took the cruise of Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier. The glacier is huge and we twice saw "calving" of the ice! The third day, we walked along the wildlife viewing trail between Porteria Laguna Amarga and Porteria Largo Sarmiento. We observed guanaco, condor, rhea, armadillo, foxes and flamingos. That night, it rained and the wind howled telling us it was time to go. Our driver, Victor Hugo, took us to the Punta Arenas airport and we took off for Puerto Montt. We enjoyed Hotel Las Torres and were impressed by the excellent service (guides, drivers, waiters)that we received there. Torres del Paine National Park is a gem and I hope that the park will be able to manage the crowds that are predicted to come in the next decade. I would love to return someday.

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    Puerto Varas-Our rental car was ready at the Budget desk at the Puerto Montt airport and off we went. They gave us a good map of the country which sufficed 90% of the time. We arrived at the Hotel Cabanas del Lago in Puerto Varas late in the evening and dragged ourselves into their dining room. It turned out to be quite good and with a good wine list. The hotel caters to large tour groups, but during the off-season, it was almost deserted. Our room overlooked the lovely Lago Llanquihue. The weather was misty and cool. We took a guided fishing trip on the Petrohue river. We didn't catch many fish, but the river was beautiful and the Cordillera of the Andes was lush and steep. The town of Puerto Varas was very walkable and felt safe, although quiet during the off-season. The countryside around Lago Llanquhue is brilliantly green and dotted with dairy cattle. Lots of German restaurants and clubs reflect the heritage of the area's pioneers.

    Pucon-We had a gorgeous drive to Villarrica and Pucon....sunny day in a lovely agricultural region with volcanoes in the distance. Pucon is a resort town which is busy in the summer and winter (when there is skiing on the Villarrica volcano). We ate lunch in the downtown at an Arabian restaurant which was quite good. The owner told us that the Palestinian population in Chile is the largest outside the Arab world. A word about pharmacies in Chile...you cannot buy over-the-counter drugs in a pharmacy as we do is the US. You go to the counter and the pharmacist listens to your symptoms and picks out what he or she thinks you should have. You do not need a prescription for more potent medications, but it was a surprise that I couldn't wander the aisles and pick out my own cold medicine. Even if you just want some tylenol, you must talk to the pharmacist! Each evening, the wood-burning stoves in Pucon's homes began to smoke and it hard to breathe. I don't know if this is an isolated problem because there was no wind or if this is a constant form of pollution.
    We hiked the Sendero de los Lagos (12 km) at the Huerquehue National Park just outside of Pucon. Lots of up and down on a well-maintained trail. We saw many huge trees, bamboo and the beautiful Acaurica tree. The views of the Villaricca volcano were awesome. The 2 National Parks we visited in Chile were well run..good maps and trails, clean bathrooms, helpful rangers.
    We stayed at Hotel Malalhue in Pucon, a boutique hotel with a pleasant dining room and excellent service.

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    Eugenio Ovalle of Alta Tours helped us with our trip to Argentina and Chile last year and we also were very pleased with his service and professionalism. Enjoying your report.

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    On our first trip to AR, we flew from Ushuaia to Puerto Arenes and were driven up to the Torres del Paine, we did not stay in the park (a mistake), but really enjoyed our day there exploring and taking the boat on Lago Grey. It is truly an amazing place.

    We also flew up to Puerto Montt, but did the lake crossing back into AR. We also enjoyed this area of Chile and hope to return to both one day!

    Enjoying your report.

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    Chillan-The topography changed as we drove northwest out of Pucon from rolling agricultural land to heavily forrested foothills. Once we crossed into the BioBio region, we encountered a series of detours on the Pan American highway and we could see the cracks along the side of the road from the February earthquake. The Chileans are making tremendous progress in repairing the highways (one proud Chilean told me that Chileans "eat earthquakes for breakfast"). We did not see any obvious building damage in Chillan (which is only 40 km from Concepcion, the heavily damaged port). Chillan is a most interesting city and one where we seemed to be the only tourists in town. It was April 30 and the day before a national holiday, so everyone was shopping at the market and stocking up for family dinners the next day. We had been told that the craft market in Chillan was the best in Chile and it was impressive, with many wooden toys, kitchen implements and the everpresent alpaca sweaters. I enjoyed the fruit and flower stands (blueberries were US$3.20 per kilo)! There were so many shops that specialized in one product like eggs or electrical parts for motors...it was fun to look around and the shopkeepers were patient with our questions. Chillan has a fabulous indoor meat market (similar to those in Europe). There is a pedestrian mall running perpendicular to the main plaza. Very nice. We wandered around the downtown looking for a restaurant and could not find anything open but street food vendors(which I would've tried but DH is more conservative). We ended up eating appetizers at our hotel bar and we enjoyed the food and the people watching. By this time, we discovered that if we couldn't find what we wanted on the menu, we would just ask for it and most restaurants would try to accommodate the request. For instance, we loved the avocado and tomato salads, and it was always available upon request.
    Hotel Isabel Riquelme is located right on the plaza. The common rooms were nice but our room was a bit dated and the bed a bit soft. The cleanliness, service and breakfast were very good. I had assumed that Chillan would just be a necessary stop in order to avoid a long day's drive, but we were delighted with Chillan and the glimpse of everyday life there. For those of you who are considering a road trip in Chile, we drove 2-4 hours per day, so we had plenty of time to look around at whatever interested us.

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    Colchagua Valley-We drove directly to Santa Cruz as I knew that I wanted to have lunch at the hotel located on the Plaza. What a surprise to find that the hotel and restaurant were closed, the Colchagua museum closed, the church destroyed, all by the earthquake. The adobe construction typical in this area did not fare well. There was a May Day celebration in the plaza with many food vendors, local musicians and families meeting and greeting each other. For dinner, we ate at the Club Social de Santa Cruz. We had a delicious fried fish and salad with local wine. We went on a wine tour the next day which took us to three unique vineyards: Montgras, Laura Hartwig and Francois Lurton (which was located in the Lolo section of the Valley...closer to the sea and a drier climate). Our bed and breakfast was the Hotel Parador de la Vina. Best breakfasts on the trip. Our room was clean, quiet and very romantic. The B&B is located in a vineyard. The carmeniere grapes were awaiting the harvest in the next few days so the deep red grapes were stunning against the gold and rust-colored leaves. Dinner the second night was energy bars, local fruit and wine...we forgot about restaurants closing on Sunday nights!

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    I have really enjoyed reading your trip report. It is so nice that you could take the time to stop and see a bit of everyday Chile. I love the Chillan market. I have a huge wooden salad bowl I bought there years ago. Yes, the hotel on the plaza ws very badly damaged, but there is a very enthusiastic group of local businessmen and vineyard owners who are planning to restore whatever they can in the original style of the valley.

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    I've enjoyed your report!
    I've stayed in several of the same places you did.
    I was also in Chile after the earthquake, drove over 2,000 miles in 14 days taking donations.

    We are going to the South and Bariloche next December for 3 weeks.
    I JUST LOVE MY COUNTRY! never get tired to visit it.

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    Valparaiso-The Route of the Fruit is a 2-lane road that winds to the northwest from Santa Cruz toward the port city of San Antonio. We decided to take this road in order to avoid the congestion of Santiago. The progress was slower because of all the small towns and animals on the sides of the road, but once we adjusted to that, we realized that there was a lot to see. There were vineyards everywhere as well as sheep, cattle and orchards (avocado and apple). Our road warrior confidence melted once we arrived in Valparaiso. We had neglected to get good directions to the hotel and ended up driving around the one-way streets for an eternity. Finally, we found a parking lot near the port and got out and walked. Our parking lot attendant recommended a sort of sketchy fish restaurant nearby which was good. Fried hake (I think the Spanish name is merluza)again. Streets here are poorly marked and the names change every few blocks. We were able to use Googlemaps to find our hotel, so we walked to it. Once we found it, we walked back to our car and drove it to the hotel (where it stayed until we left town). Our hotel was the Hotel Acontraluz and it is located in the charming Cerro Alegre neighborhood. Our room had a lovely balcony overlooking the harbor and the crazy-quilt streets of Valparaiso....perfect for enjoying a glass of Chilean wine and the sunset. We had wanted to go to Pasta e Vino for dinner, but discovered that we should've made reservations in advance. But our hostess, Veronica, suggested Cafe Vinilo (Cafe Vinyl) which was a couple of blocks away. This is a trendy little place which plays scratchy vinyl records of old school favorites like Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. The food was outstanding as was the service. For desert, DH had avocado ice cream and I had Cherimoya ice. The Cherimoya was a new fruit for me...it tastes like a pear and it ripens here in September. The fog was thick the next morning. Veronica recommends that we walk to La Sebastiana, which is one of Pablo Neruda's homes that has been made into a museum. Pablo Neruda was and is Chile's beloved Nobel prize winning poet who died during the 1970's. The walk to the museum was interesting as the road curved along an upper strata of the city which must've had awesome views without all the fog. The furnishings in La Sebastiana were original Neruda pieces and I almost felt like he was there. The free audioguide was quite good. For lunch, we ate at a great restaurant located two blocks from La Sebastiana. Oda Pacifica offered delicious seafood, excellent service and nice views, too. The Cerro Alegre neighborhood is typified by impromptu murals, brilliant house colors and sidewalk art. There is something eye-popping on every street. I would recommend staying at Hotel Acontraluz and certainly in this neighborhood if you visit Valparaiso.

    Santiago-The drive from Valparaiso to Santiago only took about 1.5 hours. Again, we had trouble finding our hotel in the Providencia neighborhood, but we found a parking spot quickly this time and meandered on foot toward our hotel and soaked up the cosmopolitan flavor of the city. The Hotel Orly has an underground garage. Budget Car rental company actually picked up our car there, as we had a very early morning flight out the next morning and didn't want to deal with returning the car at the airport. Hotel Orly is often recommended on Fodors, and we were very pleased with our room and the service. We had a late lunch at Del Cocinero which is about 10 meters from the front door of the Hotel Orly. The food is Italian, the chef is Australian and all is very good. As it was our last meal in Chile, we had to have seafood, of course! The metro station is only a couple of blocks from the hotel so we made a quick trip to the Plaza del Armas in downtown. The metro was easy to use although it was very busy. The Plaza del Armas provided nice people watching opportunities, but wasn't architecturally memorable like some of the plazas we had seen in the smaller cities of Chile. We had one final Pisco Sour to celebrate the incredible scenery and people of Chile.

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    Steamboatsista,
    Yes, I came directly from Santiago to Littleton 15 years ago.
    I haven't visited Steamboat yet, I know it's beautiful.
    We lived in the Western Slope also for 1 year, west of Glenwood Springs.

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    I am jealous that you saw the fall colors around Torres del Paine! In 2009 I also stayed at Las Torres for a few nights although not all inclusive. I was also impressed with staff service and attitude and found the breakfasts quite good for the remote location.

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