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Trip Report Late trip report: Atacama, Patagonia and 2 capitals

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Trip Report Chile/Argentina
This is a brief trip report on our 2 ½ week trip that began in late December. I’m sorry for the delay in posting this. I actually wrote it soon after I returned, left some blanks to fill in, and then got side-tracked. But better late than never? Unfortunately the trip didn’t go quite as planned because of the fire in Torres del Paine Park which had us scampering for alternative accommodations.

Santiago: We arrived on Dec 30 at the Park Plaza hotel and we really enjoyed it. The hotel was on a quiet, leafy street with the subway only a short block away, very friendly staff and nice breakfasts. We only had a day and a half in town so the first thing we did was lunch at Azul (something?) , then go up the funicular to enjoy the views. When we got back to the hotel at around 6pm, there was a fax from our travel agent telling us that our hotel (explora) in Patagonia was closed because of a raging fire. We were supposed to arrive there on Jan 6. It was too late to do anything (it is now the Friday night before a long New Years Eve weekend). So we stewed a bit and tried to think of alternatives, went on the internet to try to get more information, etc. We were travelling with another couple so we had to come to a common agreement about what to do, which was waiting until the morning and try to get more information from the travel agent. Dinner that night at Eladia’s was very good.

The next day we went to the Historic District and poked around, walked to the fish market for lunch. When we got there, lots of touts were trying to get us to eat at their restaurant. We ended up at one around the center but the meal was one of the worst we had during the trip, maybe we picked the wrong spot. Travel fatigue was catching up with us and we were tense about Patagonia, so we went back to the hotel and relaxed a bit before dinner. Most nearby restaurants were either closed or already booked for dinner but the concierge found us a reservation for dinner at a nearby Hotel which was basically around the corner. Meal was OK,

The next morning we left for Atacama, staying at Tierra Atacama. It is a lovely hotel with good service, very comfortable rooms and great guides. When we arrived on New Years Day around lunchtime, there was a BBQ going on with every kind of grilled meat you could think of. I thought it was the best meal we had there in 4 nights/5 days. After lunch we went through the hotel routine of having the excursion options explained to us and selecting several for the next few days. Then we rested a bit and then went on our first excursion to the salt flats and flamingo reserve. Sunset was lovely, was a great excursion and Pamela was a wonderful guide. We didn’t arrive back at the hotel until after 9pm, so it was a very late dinner. The days flew by and our guides were all exceptionally good (Pamela, Sebastian, Max, Charley and Claudio). The food at the hotel was OK. For lunch there were usually 2-3 choices for an appetizer, 3 choices for a main course and 3 choices for dessert. For dinner, same except usually only 2 choices for a main course. The house wine was fine, no need to spend more on the premium brands. The scenery was magnificent everywhere we went. One day we did the salt pond beach in the morning and the hot springs in the afternoon (the only restful day).
By now, the fire in Torres del Paine Park was under control but much of it was still closed. Explora would not open until well after our original arrival date. We had flights arranged from Calama to Santiago, then Santiago to Punta Arenas on Jan 5. It would have been difficult to rearrange those LAN flights. Most flights were full because of the holidays (and other people we met at Tierra Atacama had been evacuated from T deP and were complaining about how difficult it was to deal with LAN). So when our travel agent found 2 rooms at Las Torres, just inside T de P, we agreed to take them even though we knew that our excursions in the park would be limited.

We arrived in Punta Arenas in the late afternoon of Jan 5 and were taken to our hotel, Jose Nogueira. We walked around town a bit, bought some sweaters (definitely did not pack enough warm clothes) and had a lovely dinner in the solarium restaurant at the hotel. In the morning, we were picked up by Las Torres for the long drive to the hotel. Halfway through, we stopped at the estancia that was established by the owners of the hotel. It was a really great break. When we arrived, a lamb was roasting on an outdoor spit - - it looked and smelled delicious. We were taken on a brief tour of the house and served a wonderful lunch. Then we went to the working part of the ranch and watched as a sheep was sheared. We were quite refreshed as we headed back to the van for another 2 ½ hours of driving to Las Torres.

It was not an auspicious arrival. Las Torres is located right on a trail for campers. When we pulled up in the van, there were lots of backpackers sprawled across the front steps and hanging around drinking and smoking. We were shown to our rooms, which really did look like motel rooms. Very spare but there was a large window (although we were on the “wrong” side for the mountain view). The bathroom was spacious and there was lots of closet space. But there were stains all over the carpets in the hallways, absolutely no outdoor spaces to sit and read so you had to be inside. The heaters in the common spaces were going full blast, it must have been 90 degrees and very stuffy all over the hotel. If this were an inexpensive place, we would understand and some of these drawbacks, but we were paying almost $1000US per night. We were told to be in the lobby at 7pm to select our excursions for the next day. When we arrived, it was complete chaos. Two or three employees trying to cope with dozens of people trying to get an explanation of what was available and sign up for the excursions. There was no queuing, no system to put things in order. We finally got the next day taken care of and went for dinner. The dinners at Las Torres are buffet style: several types of cold salads and usually 3 different main courses, a meat, a pasta and chicken or fish. The quality was adequate. Desserts were quite good. There was a special wine list for the all inclusive guests and there were some really good wines that we enjoyed quite a bit over the next few days.

After the first few hours at Las Torres, I went on-line to try to find alternative places to stay. A branch of Tierra had just opened outside the park and I tried to find out if there was availability. But we had paid in full in advance so I decided just to sleep on it. It got better after that first night or maybe we just got used to the routine. The guides were very good (not as good as Tierra overall but very likeable). We especially liked Eduardo, who was outstanding. So we did the excursions that were available. We couldn’t go very deep into the park so everything we did was close to the Sarmiento Lake. I went on 2 horseback rides (first time for this) as the hotel is oriented this way, with lots of horses (many of them were being used in the rescue operations).

We were happy to leave Las Torres on Jan 10 (our travel partners were subsequently charged more than $2000US erroneously and still trying to get it resolved) and were driven to El Calafate. We stayed at the lovely Posada los Alamos, a couple of blocks off the main street in town. We really loved the hotel. Very friendly staff, great internet service, good breakfast at the restaurant on the other side of the street. We wandered around town in the late afternoon, and then had an excellent dinner in town at Casimiro. The next morning we were picked up for a private tour to Perito Moreno glacier, which was certainly one of the highlights of the trip. We did the boat trip to the glacier as well as the walkway. We arranged this through Patagonia Extrema. The guide and driver were excellent. Dinner at Don Pichon that evening was really wonderful.

The next morning (Jan 12) we got a late morning flight to Buenos Aires (every flight we took on this trip was late) which arrived at the domestic airport, close to the center of the city. We stayed for 4 nights at Casa Sur Art Hotel. This was a great hotel that I highly recommend. It has only 3 rooms per floor (one smallish room, one room with a balcony and one suite). We were given the option for an upgrade to a suite but decided to stay in our balcony room because it was on a high floor and filled with light…the suite was quiet but dark because it was on the interior. The service was really outstanding here and we liked being in Recoleta. The hotel was a couple of blocks away from the cemetery.

We had a fabulous dinner at Juana M our first night. It was one of the very best meals of the trip. Especially great salad bar but wonderful parilla also. The next morning we spent with Ernesto who does Jewish tours. We could hardly tear ourselves away from him, he was just outstanding. But we had to be back at the hotel for a city tour, which took us to all the expected spots. That night we had dinner at a Peruvian-Asian fusion restaurant (Sipan), there were some very good dishes. Next morning a tour of Teatro Colon (such an amazing opera house), then walking through Galleria Pacifica (not worth the trip, I didn’t find very interesting shopping there). We rested back at the hotel a bit and then walked to the Feria by the church near the hotel (open on the weekends). Very cute stuff. That night we went to Casa Felix, one of the closed door restaurants. Food was good, small portions, we all felt way overpriced (210 peso for food plus 85 per wine per person). Sunday we went to San Telmo, it was quite a scene. Sunday night was a tango show at Esquina Carlos Gardel . If I had to do it over, I would not go to a touristy tango show, I would try to be a fly on the wall at a dance hall. There was a movie about the history of tango that you couldn’t hear because it was so noisy with everyone eating (a really lousy dinner, I might add) which lasted for over an hour. Then the dancing, which was good, as was the music, was only for about an hour and 15 minutes. So for $140 USD per person, it was a tourist rip off, we should have known better.
Monday, we walked around Palermo Soho, had a nice lunch, did some shopping and got ready for our departure. Good thing we got to the airport 4 hours ahead of departure time. We were on lines for 2 ½ hours before we got to the gate. First class seats on American turned into full beds and I got 6+ hours solid sleep.

This was our first trip to South America. We enjoyed our time there , especially because of the amazing scenery. All four of us agreed that Atacama was the highlight of the trip. We had some wonderful meals and had fun absorbing some city life. I’ll be happy to answer any questions. Thanks everyone for your help when I was planning this trip last year.

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