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Trip Report OAT Patagonia Tour w/ independent pre-tour in Chile

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Chile and Argentina March 2010
Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) Tour “The Wilderness Beyond”
with pretour independent travel.

A few months have passed since I returned from my last trip, so I think it’s time I put down my impressions on paper. The trip was a combination of independent travel to Chile, and an Overseas Adventure tour called “The Wilderness Beyond”, to parts of Argentina and the southern-most area of Chile and Argentina known as Patagonia. I have been interested in Chile, the “thin country” for awhile now. Having already visited Peru and Ecuador, Chile would almost complete the west coast of South America for me. Plus, I knew so little about Chile, other than that it produces some wonderful fruit! One of the reasons I chose this particular tour was that it included 4 nights in a small ship that took us as far as the storied Cape Horn, the southern-most point of South America. I knew that Ida, a friend with whom I have sometimes traveled on previous trips was also interested in this tour. When I contacted her, she said “Let’s do it!”

When I had looked this OAT tour in previous years, a pre-trip extension to other parts of Chile—Santiago, Valparaiso, and the Atacama Desert—was offered. This extension would be an important part of the trip for me, since it covered parts of Chile that were not included in the main tour, but sounded very interesting. However, this year, OAT changed the optional extension to Easter Island. We were really not that interested in Easter Island, especially considering the high cost of getting there. So, we decided to do a few days in Chile on our own. Ida has a friend who lives near Santiago, and we arranged our trip with his invaluable assistance. I must say that booking everything down there was not an easy job. Our main problem was that we could not deal with some of our chosen hotels directly, but had to go through online booking sites, which made errors ranging from failing to notify a hotel of our reservation to failing to cancel another booking. Ida’s friend, Hermann, saved us a lot of work by finding and booking a tour for us to the Atacama Desert with LAN Airlines, which included air, land transportation, hotel, and daytours. Just as we thought everything was in order, and our departure date of March 7 was approaching, an earthquake hit Chile on February 27, and we were unsure if we should go ahead with our plans. After numerous Emails to Hermann and our various hotels, we determined that we could continue our trip. The epicenter of the earthquake was in an area a couple hours south of Santiago—and there was no damage at all in northern Chile or southern Chile, where we would spend the majority of our time.

BRIEF ITINERARY March 7-March 28, 2010
Day 1 Fly from Chicago to Santiago, Chile on Delta, with a layover in Atlanta.
2 Arrive in Santiago, Chile. Travel to and tour of Valparaiso & Vina del Mar.
Dinner with Ida’s friend, Hermann. Hotel: Oceanic
3 Bus to Santiago. Meet tour guide again for ½ day tour of Santiago. After
lunch, explore the Bellavista area and visit Neruda’s home. Hotel: Orly.
4 Fly to Calama on LAN Airlines, catch shuttle to San Pedro del Atacama.
Lantour #1: Valley of the Moon. Hotel: La Casa del Don Tomas
5 Lantour #2: Altiplano Lakes/Salar/Tocanao
6 Lantour #3: El Tatio Geysers & Puritama Hot Springs.
7 Shuttle to Calama, fly back to Santiago on Lan Airlines. After 7 hr layover, fly on to Buenos Aires on Air Canada. Hotel: Amerian Buenos Aires Park.
8 Explore the Sunday markets. Meet OAT group in late afternoon for briefing and tango lesson. Welcome dinner at local restaurant.
9 City tour of Buenos Aires including Plaza de Mayo, La Boca, Caminito, and Recoleta Cemetery. Home hosted lunch. Free afternoon. Optional wine tasting & gourmet dinner at Club El Progreso.
10 Fly to Calafate on Lanchile Airlines. Orientation walk. Free afternoon. Optional folk show and dinner at local ranch. Hotel: Kosten Aike
11 Full day excursion to Los Glaciares National Park.
12 Bus 7 hrs to Torres del Paine National Park. Hike. Hotel: Rio Serrano
13 Another hike in Torres del Paine. Bus to Punta Arenas. Chilean dinner at a sheep ranch. Lodging: Estancia Ayelen (sheep ranch).
14 Free morning on ranch. Lamb BBQ lunch. Bus to Punta Arenas.
Free time to explore town. Board ship: M/V Mare Australis
15 Cruise Chilean Fjords/Tierra del Fuego. Shore excursion to Ainsworth Bay for hike & viewing of elephant seals. Zodiac to Tucker Islet to see penguin
16 Cruise Beagle Channel. Shore excursion to Pia Glacier.
Cruise Glacier Alley.
17 Cruise to Cape Horn. Shore excursion: Cape Horn National Park. Shore excursion to Wulaia Bay for hike and history.
18 Disembark at Ushuaia, Argentina. Tour of town. 4 wheel drive adventure in mountains. Lunch at local home. Free afternoon. Hotel: Las Lengas
19 Fly back to Buenos Aires on Lanchile Airline. 2 hrs free time. Farewell dinner at local restaurant. Optional tango show. Hotel: Amerian BA Park
20 Cruise Parana River Delta. Free afternoon. Fly back to U.S. on Delta.
(after becoming sick at airport, I actually spent the night in a nearby B&B)
21 Day recuperating at B&B. Flew back to U.S. on Delta that evening.
22 Arrived back home.

I think one of the reasons that it has taken me so long to write up this summary is that I have a few negatives to report. So, I’ll just get them out of the way first.

1) Upon our arrival in Santiago, there was a lot of confusion at the airport (due to the earthquake damage), our prearranged taxi did not show up, and we arranged a ride with what we thought was an official taxi. However, the driver managed to scam me out of $400 when we stopped at an ATM machine, and I was careless. On top of that, he tried to overcharge us a huge amount for the taxi ride. The good thing, though, is that my bank refunded me the money after I filed a fraud report. Also, it could have been much worse because the taxi dispatcher wanted to ride along with us as far as his office. Ida said “No”, because her friend had been robbed in a similar situation. It was not a good introduction to Santiago, but I learned a few valuable lessons. I posted a warning on Fodor's (search on my name) shortly after returning, with more details of this incident

2) Our guide in Santiago (arranged privately) took us to the local fish market so we could get lunch. We had a delicious King Crab lunch, which I understood to be fairly inexpensive, but turned out to be $150—for just my share! Most expensive lunch or dinner I’ve ever had! Of course, I’m sure our guide got a nice kickback from the place.
Another lesson learned: Convert & verify menu prices before ordering!

3) Air Canada changed the time of our flight between Santiago and Buenos Aires. So, the perfect schedule we had originally booked, with some free time in Buenos Aires in mind, turned out to involve a 7 hr layover spent sitting in a tent at the Santiago airport. It was too far from town to try to make better use of those hours. But at least we still got to BA that day.

4) At the end of the trip, just before boarding my flight back to the U.S., I suddenly felt weak and dizzy. I sat down, and then actually passed out a couple times! Delta personnel thought I shouldn’t fly, and I made the tough decision to stay back. First, they promised me that they would find me a room close by, and would get me on the flight the following day if I was well enough. So, I spent the night at a B&B owned by a very sweet retired couple, who had worked for Delta, and spoke English well. I slept for 12 hours straight, and then managed to make the flight the next day. Delta was true to their word, and got me a seat in the bulkhead row—close to the restroom, if I needed it. I’m not sure what caused my illness—but it was either food poisoning or a virus that had been going around our group while on the ship. Besides the good care I received, the other positive about this is that it didn’t happen until the trip was almost over.

Now, let’s get on to some of my favorite memories. These are just a few of the many wonderful experiences on the trip:

--The otherworldly salt flats in the Atacama area, with lagoons populated with hundreds of flamingoes.

--Swimming in the Puritama Hot Springs near Atacama—a series of deep pools cascading down a mountain side. The pool with droves of fireflies was especially magical.

--Exploring the Sunday craft market in Buenos Aires.

--Walking through the Caminito area in Buenos Aires with its flamboyant buildings, statuary and artwork. Buying a watercolor from a suave artist there who said Jay Leno was one of his good clients.

--The BBQ dinner and entertaining gauchos at a ranch near Calafate.

--The long walk along recently-constructed boardwalks to see the beautiful glacier, Perito Moreno,from many different viewpoints. Afterward, enjoying a picnic lunch on a warm, sunny beach with another view of the glacier.

--Hiking up a rather steep mountainside in Torres del Paine National Park to be rewarded with a magnificent view of the “Horns of Paine” as the sun was setting. Then seeing those same stark granite peaks arise out of the fog early the next morning.

--Everyone walking somberly out of the room, wiping their eyes, after a private viewing of the movie, “The Official Story” The story concerned the “forced disappearances” that occurred during Argentina’s Dirty War in the 1970’s.

--Our time at the sheep ranch near Punta Arenas. Watching the sheep-shearing, battling our way against the wind to the beach, enjoying the BBQ lunch, relaxing in our rustic but charming room and listening to the owner tell stories of his life there.

--The entire cruise from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia on the Mare Australis. Only a couple times did we experience rough water--and mostly while we were in bed.

--Taking the zodiacs around Tucker Islet to see the Magellanic penguin colony. It was near the end of their molting period, during which they do not enter the water to feed and are instead clustered in large groups on land. We were very lucky to arrive in time to see these comical birds still there.

--The shore excursion to Pia Glacier. The glacier was so beautiful and the light so perfect that I couldn’t stop taking photographs.

--Cruising through glacier alley. Each glacier was named after a country, and the crew served appropriate snacks as we passed by each one. For example, beer and German sausages were brought out as we went by Germany Glacier, pizza and red wine for Italy Glacier, etc.

--Climbing up the cliff (on a stairway) that marked Cape Horn—the southernmost point of the Americas—and recalling all the history that took place and lives that were lost as explorers attempted to round the Horn. Many times, landing here is impossible due to rough water, so again we were very lucky.

--The wild 4-wheel drive excursion in the mountains above Ushuaia, and the breathtaking views over the Beagle Channel.

--Our home hosted meals: dinner with Ida’s friend Hermann and his family in Vina del Mar, Chile, the lunch with a middle-aged couple in their Buenos Aires condo, and another lunch at the very interesting home of a young family in Ushuaia. These were possibly the best home-hosted visits I have had on any of my tours.

Although I actually knew this from my pre-trip reading, I was still surprised that there were virtually no indigenous people in Chile or Argentina. I had expected to see the Inca descendants that are so numerous in Peru and Ecuador. However, the indigenous tribes in these parts were wiped out by disease or firearms brought by European settlers. Although many European nationalities were represented, Spanish and Italians were the most prevalent in Argentina, and Spanish, Germans, and Croatians in Chile.

Our guide was Pedro Porqueras. Getting off to a good start, he emailed us a couple weeks before our tour to give us tips on what to bring and to answer our questions. He was extremely knowledgeable, competent and had a great sense of humor. There was a very touchy problem, which he handled well--actually sending home one person on the tour who was just not physically up to the trip. He was very forthcoming about the violent history of both countries and their current problems, but he also enthusiastically shared his love of them.

For some reason, OAT has a limit of 24 on this small ship tour, rather than the 16 person limit on most of their land tours. I was afraid this would be too large a group for my liking, but it didn’t turn out to be a problem, and, with the exception of one person, I really enjoyed everyone in the group. It consisted of 8 men and 16 women, 8 couples and 8 singles. As usual, women greatly outnumbered the men. Age range: around 50 to 91. This was the age of the nice old gentleman who was sent home before reaching Patagonia because of weak legs and bad balance. Pedro said there were few medical facilities in Patagonia, and, after he had fallen already just getting off the airport bus, he couldn’t take a chance. His female partner stayed on, but she was in her late 80’s and also had some problems along the way. I do wish people would realize their physical limitations before signing up for strenuous travel.

Our small ship, the M/V Mare Australis, was outstanding. The staterooms were comfortable (we had paid the cheapest cabin rate, but were upgraded to a higher deck with the best port-side views), the crew was accommodating, the food was delicious (and they ensured that my food was gluten-free), and all drinks, including alcoholic drinks, were free, which was a nice change from the cruise ship experience. While the ship holds 129 passengers and was originally booked to capacity, after the cancellations due to the earthquake, there were only about 76 on board. That was good for us passengers, but I felt badly for the crew and ship owner.

All our hotels were good midrange hotels, and almost all were very well located in interesting areas. I can’t really select a favorite, but the most unusual, and one we all enjoyed, was the overnight at the sheep ranch. My least favorite was Las Langas in Ushuai, Argentina. The hotel was quite new, and had a stunning view and free computers. However, the service was not up to par. Lack of help in the dining room made it impossible for me to get a glass of wine that evening. They were not able to easily provide (they finally rounded one up) a convertor for their non-standard wall outlets so that I could recharge my camera batteries. And the location wasn’t ideal, since it was a pretty long hike to town.

The food was generally very good, with lots of fresh vegetables, fruit, and BBQ’d meats. Argentina is known for its steaks, but be forewarned that they don’t breed their cattle for tender beef—but for flavorful beef. I enjoyed it, even if it was a little tough. The wine in both countries was wonderful. Chile’s specialty was Carmenere, and Argentina’s was Malbec, but there were many other varieties.

It was wonderful! One of the reasons we booked in March was that it and November are said to be the best months for good weather, and we weren’t disappointed. Patagonia is famous for its wind and rain. We got just a taste of the fierce wind walking across the tarmac to the terminal at the Calafate Airport and at the sheep ranch. And some drizzle in Ushuaia. Otherwise the weather was good—cool but bright and sunny. Pedro said it was the best he had experienced in several years, and implored us not to tell future travelers about it, because they might expect the same thing. Sorry, Pedro.

I would especially recommend this trip for someone looking for scenery, because it was truly spectacular.

By the way, if any of you are considering this or another OAT trip as a new customer, OAT is currently offering a $250 PP discount (if booked by 9/30) if you give them my customer number upon booking.

If you are interested in receiving my detailed trip report when I get around to writing it, would like a link to my photos, my OAT customer number, or have any questions, please feel free to contact me at [email protected]

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