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Trip Report Trip Report Chile: A Country of Diverse and Amazing Beauty...

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....also land of tissue-thin napkins and stray dogs (friendly, well-fed ones).

My trip reports are more highlight reels where I explain some of the things we did, places we stayed, or restaurants we ate at and tell a bit about them. The portion on activities is finished so I will post that now. I'll check back to add about hotels, restaurants, and to post some photos.

We left December 26, 2011 and returned January 13, 2011

Most of the trip was planned by Alta Tours as I saw them recommended here. They did a nice job on the planning end but there were a few hitches with their Chile affiliates as far as execution. Some of that is still being worked out and I will report back when it's concluded about my overall impression of Alta and its affiliates. We go back and forth on planning our travels--some things we plan entirely ourselves (Mexico, France, Costa Rica, Guatemala, England), some trips we need help (Morocco and Tanzania). We thought we needed help because Chile is SO long and diverse and because the trip involved coordinating a number of internal flights. Glad we had the help but the jury's out on whether I recommend these companies.

The basic trip was Santiago (stayed with my aunt), Patagonia/Torres del Paine, Lake District (Puerto Varas, Huilo Huilo reserve, Pucon), Desert (San Pedro de Atacama).

Overall the trip was fantastic. Chile is unlike any other place we've been. There's a healthy middle-class population that also travels so there's plenty of tourist infrastructure. Most everything was modern and technology makes travel easy--all our hotels had wi-fi, most for free. Credit cards were widely accepted. A bit of Spanish is important though Chileans speak so fast and lazily, it was hard to understand, but we usually got the gist.

We thought it was easy to get around and there was plenty to do. We felt we could've spent the whole trip in Patagonia or the Lakes. The desert, while interesting, felt "done" after three days there.

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    About Chile (Chile About?) City tour of Santiago. We met Katalina, our guide, and Elias, our driver, outside the apartment building right on schedule. It was a private tour and she did a really great job. Katalina was very knowledgeable about Chile’s geography, economy, history and present political climate. We learned that 2010 was the bicentennial celebration for Chile, which began its fight for independence in September 1810. Independence was achieved eight years later.

    There was a lot of city driving on the tour. During that time Katalina explained the areas we would see. The apartment is in Las Condes which is now the business district and colloquially called “Sanhattan.” We drove to the old part of town.

    The old area was built up during Chile’s golden age--the period during which it was still booming as a place to mine nitrites. We saw the Moneda, which, during colonial times, was the mint and later, after independence, became the president’s palace. Now it is governmental offices.

    We also stopped at the Hippoco horse racing track and saw many trainers out with their racehorses. They were practicing for a big race after New Year’s.

    We stopped for a look at the courthouse and congress. There were many protesters outside the jail because 81 inmates were just killed in a fire in the jail.

    We walked to the Plaza de Armas, established in 154 during colonial times as the fenced area that comprised the entire city of Santiago. The plaza has been expanded and re-structured many times from enclosed area to open grassy park to it’s current incarnation as a concrete plaza, under which the subway runs.

    Around the plaza is the post office, the old jail, and the Cathedral. The Cathedral still showed some earthquake damage. We went inside and looked around.

    The last part of the tour was a drive up Santa Lucia hill, a smaller version of Cerro San Cristobal that we hiked up yesterday. From there, if it had been clear, we could have seen the tallest peak of the Andes visible from the city, El Plomo. It can be see as the highest peak throughout the Maipo valley.

    Bicicleta Verde, - bike and wine tour. The tour was terrific. They picked us up in the lobby of the apartment and we drove with seven other people to the Maipo valley to visit three wineries there, biking between them. The first winery was Cardinal. Mac, our guide told us a little bit about wine at each stop. Here we saw the plants grown in the traditional method, which is the shape of a "y."

    We biked on to the next winery, Perez Cruz. The area is really dry so it kicked up a lot of dust as we rode. When we first arrived, we stopped at the corral and saw the ranch hands practice corralling a cow. They were each on a horse and one horse went parallel alongside the cow while the other ran perpendicular to it with its head resting on the cow's back. This formed a "t" that kept the cow in place as it went forward. The rancheros were practicing in order to train the horse that was running sideways.

    In the fields here we were able to observe Carmenere grapes.

    The three wineries that we visited are all small and family-owned.

    We biked to the final winery which was where we were able to start tasting. The ride there was quick and had one portion where we were able to speed down the hill pretty fast, which was fun. The owner, Mario, served us cheese, salami, crackers, and peanuts and poured three wines for us to taste. We ate at an outdoor table, next to which was an inflatable Santa Claus riding a green bike. Just all the tasting on an empty stomach made me quite tipsy. Mario joked around a lot and seemed to really enjoy meeting people and letting them enjoy his wines. We had a great time, and laughed a lot. A good bit of the conversation was in Spanish because many people in the group were Spanish-speakers (three teachers from Chicago, and a Virginia couple on assignment in Sao Paolo visiting Chile, and Mac and the mechanic Antonio). We all made ourselves understood and enjoyed the afternoon.

    We then went to lunch, where there were wines from the other two wineries served with our meal. We all had salads and bread and plenty of wine. My vegetarian meal was a delicious salad with avocado and cheese and tomatoes. DH ate a typical Chilean meat dish with beef and potatoes. Again, the wine led to lots of laughter and storytelling (if you take this tour, ask Mac about his time in Russia--wild stories). It was one of the best tours we have done in our travels.

    Driving Tour Within Torres del Paine - Pilar met us and we got on our transport for the day--a tourist van, unfortunately. There were about 15 people on the tour and after picking everyone up we stopped first at the Milodon Cave just outside of town. As we drove there was a beautiful rainbow over the waters and in front of the mountains. We walked around and immediately knew some people on the tour weren't going to be having a good day since they had difficulty on the stroll through the cave. On woman asked Pilar to take her back to her hotel, which Pilar refused explaining she could wait in the van during walks.

    As we approached the park there was a breathtaking view of The Towers and Lake Sarmiento. I actually gasped at how gorgeous it is. The Towers were clear and visible with only a few wisps of clouds around them. As we drove we saw guanacos and rheas.

    We entered the park at the Amarga Lagoon, which actually had two flamingos standing in it.

    Throughout the day the weather was clear and gorgeous. We saw the Paine Massif and the Paine Grande. The Paine Massif is on Lake Nordonskjold. We then drove on to Pehoe Lake, which connects with Nordonskjold and you can see their colors, turquoise and azure, mixing together.

    The next part was an adventure because we walked out to a waterfall and the winds were really high. We were glad to be able to do the walk because sometimes the winds are so high they consider it too dangerous to go. The wind dragged at us and pushed us around and DH held my hand to make sure I didn’t get pushed over! The waterfall was huge, fast, and powerful. It was breathtaking against the blue massif. A number of people in our group didn’t want to walk out to it and others turned around because the wind was so strong. I wore all my winter gear; not because it was that cold but because the wind whipped right through us otherwise.

    We ate lunch at a Sodexho in the park. The restaurant was right on Pehoe Lake and looked out at the mountains.

    After lunch we drove about 40 minutes to get to Grey Glacier. The glacier is on Gray Lake and we were able to observe it and a few icebergs from a black sandbar. The sandbar split the lake and we walked across it in really, really high wind. We were getting sprayed with water and pelted with sand and pebbles as we walked. The icebergs were turquoise and seemed incongruous with the turbulent green-gray water they were sitting in. We took a few photos although spray from the water splashed onto our camera lenses.

    Base of the Towers Hike - We were able to sleep in today because the hike today doesn’t start until 10:00 because of the New Year holiday. The hikers all met up and David got us and another couple started while Astrid waited for another family that was running a bit late. We packed up our lunches and got started. The hike was surprisingly strenuous. The first part was all uphill. The views kept improving as our altitude increased. We were able to see all the way to the Andes because it was a clear, hot day. We actually prepared to see some cold weather during the day and I had on long underwear under my hiking pants and our packs were full of cold weather gear. As it turned out we didn’t need any of it because it was so hot.

    When we got to the halfway point and our ten minute break was turning into a twenty or thirty minute break we told David that we had to make sure we were back to the hotel at 5:30 so we could meet a driver at Laguna Amarga at 6:00. He suggested that we go ahead of the group so we could go quickly. The path was very clear and well-marked so we hurried on and eventually came to the portion where we quickly gained altitude. It was pretty tough and the last part was hard because we were hiking on the morraine, which was very rocky.

    We reached the top at 2:00 and were thrilled at the beauty--there stood the three towers and a lagoon below them! We ate our lunch there at the base, appreciating the beauty of a place that was a challenge to get to. The hike back was easy terrain but hard because we were a bit tired from the trek up!

    Otway Penguin Sanctuary, Punta Arenas - After packing up and eating breakfast we got in the cab and headed out to the Otway sanctuary. We saw rabbits and falcons along the way as we drove on a bumpy, dusty gravel road throuh a completely empty area. There were plenty of penguins to see! They are the Magellan Penguins and a colony of about 4000. It was so funny to spot them because when we first saw them they were on the grassy hills rather than the beach. We saw them waddling down to the shore, divining and swimming in the water, and hiding underground in nests. We saw a mama with two chicks and many couples grooming each other. They kept making us laugh because they are so awkward on land. It was especially funny to see one waddle up to a small ditch, look down at it, then jump over it awkwardly.

    The taxi took us back and stopped for us to get a close look at three rheas standing beside the road.

    Canyoning wit Kokayak, Puerto Varas, (video of Canyoning: We got up today and packed before our canyoning adventure. KoKayak picked us up around 8:00 and we drove to their base camp. There we were given wetsuits--vests, full suits, socks, jackets with hoods, gloves, and a helmet. We also borrowed their shoes so as not to get our own wet. We changed partly into our neoprene and felt like penguins or seals in them. Everyone looked completely ridiculous. We stopped on our way to the canyon to see if the water was too high after the rain to canyon safely. It was ok! The stop showed us the waterfall that we would rappel down at the end of the trip.

    There was a small hike to the starting point and by that time we were all wearing our full wetsuits and it was really hot. We were ready to jump into this cold water. The first slide was an easy one that we did head first. It was a blast. After each of us had gone once we went in a line, each person grabbing the ankles of the one before. After that first one we did various slides and jumps. I banged up my elbow kind of hard on the first "bad ass" slide. And one woman in our group went down that one and came up feet first, just two legs sticking straight out of the water. It was really funny. The first jump we did was 7 meters and I was nervous. We climbed up on slippery rocks, then stood on the edge and had to jump out. The second jump was even higher! It was hard to do because of my fear of heights but I would have regretted not doing it. The whole experience was bizarre. We were crawling through the water and over stones in these huge wetsuits. We joked that we felt like Gollum skulking through the stream for fish. Luckily, the wetsuits worked well and although the water was very cold, we never were. The last big jump meant we had to walk with a cable along the slippery rock wall then disconnect our caribeeners and jump. No one really told us about that jump and luckily I was last in line because I felt more comfortable having people go before me. We ended the trip with a rappel down a waterfall to the pool below. There we took off the rappelling harnesses and swam under the waterfall and looked out from behind it. Then we swam under the falls themselves, which were powerful--like a really strong back massage after all that banging around. There was a bit of a hike at the end to get back up to the van. The hike was surprisingly difficult because of the wetsuits and we were climbing uphill. At the top we took a few photos and then changed our clothes.

    We all felt pumped on the way back. At KoKayak we had a little pisco sour and some cheese and crackers, chips, and cookies.

    This was an unforgettable experience. Like the winery/bike tour it counts as one of the best things we’ve done on our travels.

    The Driving Disaster Puerto Varas to Huilo Huilo Reserve - DH and I walked back to the hotel, retrieved our lugging and mapped our route to drive to Puerto Fuy near Huilo Huilo reserve. We felt like we were going along really well but finally, after being on a desolate dirt road for a while DH asked me to double check the map and whether the road really went as close to the lake as we were getting and I gasped, "Oh my God." My heart sank as we realized the road didn't connect as we thought. The part that looked like it connected was over the seam of the map so we didn’t notice there was no road there. We turned around, totally stressed about the lost time and diminishing daylight. We stopped in a small village and double checked to confirm that there was no road there and indeed there wasn't. So we backtracked quite a ways and then got going in the right direction. The road was good almost the whole way--paved and marked. We stopped for gas to make sure we had a full tank because it got rather dark and desolate and the attendant pointed us in the right direction. I was sick to my stomach with stress about breaking down or puncturing a tire so late at night because it got to be 10:00 p.m. We drove on and came to the dirt portion of the road and, finally, Huilo Huilo park and Baobab Hotel!

    Biking, Huilo Huilo Reserve - We were able to book a mountain bike ride and got going close to 11:00. Two guides went with us, one was the guide and the student, Clemente, seemed to be along because he spoke a little English. We rode along the dirt roads in the park and had some scenic views of the rivers, the lake Pirehueico, and the nearby mountains Mocho and Choshuenco. There was some fun riding though it was a bit tough for Derek since the large gears on his bike weren’t working. We stopped in the town of Puerto Fuy to view the lake and then rode back. We arrived back at the hotel far earlier than the brochure indicated. The whole ride was only about an hour and fifteen minutes. We enjoyed it though.

    Waterfalls, Huilo Huilo Reserve - We left to drive into town to try and find some artwork but had no luck at that. Instead, we stumbled upon the last easy excursion we hadn’t done, the Huilo-Huilo and Puma waterfalls. Unfortunately, I had on heeled sandals, which made it a bit difficult to walk down the path. The falls are huge and powerful and they flow into crystal clear turquoise water. Beautiful!

    Rondonee on Mocho, Huilo Huilo Reserve - Clear weather! We ate breakfast then met Rogerio at 9:00 to go on our adventure up Mocho. We drove in our car to the entrance for the park and picked up our boots and skis and the skins that go over the skis to keep us from sliding backward as we ascend. We gave a ride to four other guides in the back of the pickup and then headed up the mountain.

    We realized when we got to the sandy soil that the rental truck doesn’t have four-wheel drive even though iit was supposed to. So we waited and the hotel send a four wheel drive van to take us to the top of the mountain.

    From the place where the snow started we took a sled-funicular up the steepest part. There, we put on our skis and moved along in a lunging motion to go up to the summit. We enjoyed chatting with Rogerio. He had a great, laid back attitude and never got frustrated when things went a bit wrong. His good spirits made the day great.

    Going up the mountain was really difficult. I got really winded. Poor DH, meanwhile, had snow and ice getting packed into his boots and rubbing off the skin. He soldiered on, though, and we very slowly went up the steep part of the ascent. Eventually it was too slippery for skis and we took them off and climbed in the ski boots. As we walked we saw huge crevasses in the glacier that we were skiing across. They were pretty scary!

    We arrived at the summit about two hours later and there was no one else there. We had the whole clear, panoramic view to ourselves and it was outstanding. We could see three lakes and eight volcanoes, including Villarrica, Osorno, and, which is shared by both Chile and Argentina.

    It was windy on top but we sat on the exposed volcanic rocks and ate our lunch. Rogerio offered me his cheese sandwich with his mom’s homemade bread because the meal provided was a beef and cheese sandwich. It was so nice of him to do that for me. DH took off his boots as we ate and we saw that he had ice packed around his shins and his socks were soaked.

    We descended quickly since it was easier to go down although I still slipped once and when DH caught me his leg ended up in a small crevass. We got down to where our skis were and it was still too steep to ski. DH carried his and I tried to ski then Rogerio carried mine until we got to a more gentle slope. Here, I put on my skis and DH walked until it got flat. He skiied across the flat area but was in such pain that it took a long time. Rogerio called a snowmobile to come pick him up to go the rest of the way down. He said the snowmobile ride was scarier than skiing because the driver took them straight down the mountain. I skiied down which was a lot of fun.

    It was an excellent excursion and DH made it back without any serious injuries. The worst was that his skin got a bit chafed and some of his leg hair ripped out.

    Sunset in Pucon -We stepped out of dinner to an amazing sunset! Bright yellow sky reflected off the steaming Villarica and in another direction two halves of a rainbow were visible. The sky eventually turned pink on the volcano and we enjoyed this amazing view. It was a great way to end the day! And it was the only view we had of Vlcano Villarrica which remained cloud covered for our other days.

    Los Pozones Thermal Pools - We drove to the geothermal springs, Los Pozones. They are about 30 KM out of town and pretty rustic. The pools are built right next to the river and have gravel bottoms and rocks for sides. All the pools were really hot. There was only one that was really comfortable to sit in for a while so we did that. I thought I could take a dip in the river to cool off and then get back in the hot water but the river was really too cold for me. I only made it in up to my knees. This excursion would be better in cold weather or at night (the pools are open 24 hours).

    Kayaking Lake Villaricca, Pucon - Aguaaventura rented us the kayaks, life jackets, etc. and a trolley to help us wheel them down to the beach. We had a little trouble getting them down there because there were stairs on the road to the lake (should’ve turned toward the parking lot and walked along the road). We finally got situated though and locked up the trolley to a pole. The beach is entirely black "sand" because it is volcanic. Really, it is more like gravel. There are areas roped off for swimming and it appeared one could do whatever else in the water outside those areas. So we launched our kayaks and paddled toward a little green area. It wasn't really as relaxing and pleasant as we'd hoped. There are huge black flies around this time of year and they followed us all the way out on the water and along our route. Also, the water was a bit choppier than we expected, which made it difficult to paddle. The volcano also wasn't visible today because of clouds. If it were, it would have been great to view it from the lake. We made it to the green beachy area and landed and had our lunch but it was unpleasant to swat the flies away as we ate. As we paddled back, DH lost his sunglasses when one of the flies bit the back of his head and his glasses flew off into the water.

    Salt Flats and Lagoons, San Pedro de Atacama, - Around 8:30 Frank from Layana picked us up and we got on the tour van for our excursions.

    He showed us the route for the day and also told us a little about the desert. The area received only 3-5 cm of rain each year. The Andes mountains have snow melt that keeps the area supplied with fresh water. Otherwise the water is too mineral rich for consumption and filled with salt, potassium, arsenic, copper, iron, etc. We passed the Licancabur volcano which had some steam coming off the top of it.

    We arrived in the village of Toconao and viewed the church and bell tower there. It’s a tiny village with people who are mainly herders. We walked near the creek of fresh water and saw an example of a typical house built of the volcanic rock. It was cool inside even though the outside temperature was heating up. The house is rock with wooden beams to support the bamboo thatch that is also held in place with mud and leather strings. Near the house there were some small caves in the rocks where people used to store supplies or spend the nights when they were a more nomadic people.

    Although the area is barren people do grow crops in the few oases. Since there are no pollinating insects, all the pollination is done by the wind and sand that blows through the area.

    The village itself was small and empty feeling. We saw the church and bell tower that were built separate from each other. They are usually attached but in order to entice the local indigenous people to worship and convert the Spanish made it more in keeping with local beliefs about the earth and male and female. The tower being male and the female being the church. Both are built from cactus wood and adobe and have lasted since they were built in 1750.

    We drove along the road, which are made from a mixture of salt and rocks left from mining, and arrived in Sector Soncar, a salt area. Here we saw Chaxa lagoon, which is a salt lagoon that has three types of flamingos: James, Chilean, and Andean.

    We drove on to view the altiplanic lagoons. The earth became more red with all the iron and magnetite. Sergio stopped the bus and Frank explained that there was so much magnetic energy, the bus would be pulled uphill by it--it was! We were amazed. The engine was off and the bus was pulled in reverse UPHILL. It was so cool.

    As we drove we saw a fox right near the side of the road.

    We went into the park of the Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques. These are bright blue salt lagoons in the middle of the mountains. They are gorgeous. There we saw guanacos and vicunas, flamingos, and some birds.

    We returned on the route we came from and saw some nandu. We stopped for a terrific lunch then headed back to town.

    Puritana Hot Springs - Today we are taking a relaxing day. A short walk and then a trip to the hot springs. Our transport showed at 9:00 and we picked up another couple and headed out toward our excursion. Our driver didn't speak any English except for a few words. The other couple that we picked up was actually on our tour with us yesterday. They are really nice and seemed to like taking pictures as much as we did.

    We took a walk for about an hour and a half through a beautiful little fresh stream called the Rio Purifica. There were cactus all around and we scrambled across a rocky path to get to some pretty waterfalls. The guide picked some rico-rico herb for us to smell. We took the walk really slowly because of the altitude and I did notice that I was getting winded even though the trail was very easy. There were lots of dragonflies all around us hovering over the water which was quite pretty.

    After our walk we drove to Puritana Hot springs. DH was worried that it would be too hot for him to get in like at Los Pozones but this was a totally different experience. It is more like river that flows down a canyons and has been dammed in a few spots to make pools. The four of us had a pool to ourselves and we were able to jump right in because the water was about body temperature. It was clear and refreshing and we splashed around in it and took photos and relaxed. There was a little waterfall there that felt like a massage. The driver brought down a cooler of snack with juice, cookies, chips, and tea so we got out to enjoy those. Getting out was really chilly, though, so after the snack, DH and I didn't get back into the water. We stayed out in the sun and relaxed until it was time to leave.

    Museum, San Pedro de Atacama - We decided to go to the San Pedro de Atacama museum at 3:30 for the English-speaking tour was. As it turned out, we didn't take the tour because we didn't have enough cash and we didn't regret it--the museum was small and the items in exhibition we well-labeled so we got the gist of everything. It wasn't a particularly spectacular museum but it was a pleasant way to spend about 45 minutes.

    Valle de la Luna, Valle de la Muerte - We got back to the hotel at 4:00 and a tourist bus was parking out front. Since we weren't expecting to be picked up until 4:30 we didn't think it was for us so I went to the room and DHsaid he'd be in in a few minutes. I thought he was asking a question at the front desk but he went back into town to check on something in a store so when the reception told us that the van waiting there was for us, I couldn't find him. The bus waited a few minutes then left, and luckily, Val called and said she'd send another vehicle. DH got back and we anxiously waited for another vehicle to get us. It did and then drove to catch us up to the bus. We got caught at a roadwork area and I was worried we might not make it but luckily the bus was stopped at an overlook and we hopped on.

    We drove on to the Valley de la Muerte, supposedly named so because the founder of San Pedro de Atacama likened it to Mars but, being French, couldn't say "Mars" and it got transformed to "Muerte." Here we could see the stratification of the rocks and some really beautiful formations in the rocks.

    Our next quick stop was at a formation called the Three Marys which were a group of three rocks coming up out of the ground. Next to it was another rock formation that looked like a dinosaur head. The guide, whose name we never caught, then took us down into a little cave that was once used for salt mining. The salt was cheap to extract but too expensive to ship which is why salt mining never took off.

    Next we drove on to take a walk in the Valle de la Luna. We walked through a canyon, which thousands of years ago was the bottom of the large lake that formed the region. It was a nice easy walk. We then drove on to the main event, an overlook to enjoy the sunset from--the tallest dune in the Atacama desert. The climb to the top was essay because there was a path and then DH and I walked along a ridge to an overlook while we waited for the sunset--we were there about an hour early. We walked back across the ridge line that went in the other direction in order to have a nice vantage point for the sunset. It was amazing to watch the desert beauty as night fell. The rocks that had seemed brown or gray grew white and the rocks grew to a blazing orange. Finally, as the sun set the Andes were reflected with pink, blue, purple and green. There was no way to capture it on film but we tried anyway.

    Hierbas Buenas Petroglyphs - We stopped for a view of a number of volcanoes in the Domeco and Andean ranges. Felipe pointed out about seven or eight volcanoes visible on the horizon,. The area was once a lake formed between these two main ranges of volcanoes. The salt flats in the area formed because the volcanic ash and debris brought down minerals and the water then separates them out.

    There is a new ranger station at Hierbas Buenas because the local people are trying to protect the area from vandals and badly behaved toursists. We had the petroglyphs to ourselves and Felipe showed us a number of interesting ones. We saw shapes of llamas, ibis, humans, fox, shamans, pumas, flamingos, a monkey (which represented knowledge and showed that there was long distance trade since there are no monkeys in Chile), a two-headed dragon that reminded us of the Mayan feather serpent, and a crazy dog. Felipe had a theory that the dog, which seemed to have a leash, might have been a rabid dog drawn about the time the Spanish arrived and may have used mad dogs to intimidate the indigenous people who had no experience with rabies. We could also see the original llama corrals made of stacked stones. Felipe was also good at spotting interesting stones and bits of pottery, which he would pick up and show us.

    We looked also at a new area of preservation that Felipe had not been to. It was really fun to explore it and try to spot the animals and shapes. We saw a huge llama, a leopard, a monster-like animal with a head like a turtle, a wall full of shamans, an andean cat, and the desert ostrich depicted.

    We finished the tour at a wall that had been used many many times for many different types of petroglyphs. It was a good tour and we really enjoyed Felipes company, too. He thanked us for being good and attentive tourists, too.

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    Wow, thanks so much for your detailed report. We leave in a couple weeks for Chile. I am also using Alta tours for parts of the trip. is there anything u can share re Alta that we need to be aware of b4 we leave or while we're down there? Perhaps we can avoid some of the issues u allude to. Appreciate anything u can tell me.

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    Hi yestravel:
    I am hesitant to share without having the resolution to share also. I will say that Eugene was wonderful and every aspect of the planning part was great; it's the Chilean counterpart executing the plan that presented problems.

    My advice would be "confirm, confirm, confirm" as far as meeting times and addresses for the trip. The Chilean counterpart is "Cocha" and then there's more subcontracting from there so it's really important to check and re-check everything.

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    Actually, yestravel, I will be glad to email you privately about the issues we had since you are actually booked with them. That way you can decide for yourself how to handle things. It was nothing trip-ruining BTW.

    Email me if you'd like at my junk email: junk at blueridgeparkers dot com (no spaces, regular email punctuation)

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    We also used Alta Tours for Argentina and Chile. We had a problem in Chile ( theft of carry on luggage, passports,medicines,car broken into) and the whole Chilean portion had to be rebooked on the spot. Eugenio's contact in Santiago was incredible and worked very hard on our behalf. It was Concha, near the US Embassy, and the agent was a woman was named Paz.I do not hold anything against Chile and we had a great trip there too.

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    HappyTrvlr, Cocha was the ground operator for us, too. Glad they came through for you.
    Yestravel - you've got mail, back. =)

    The continued report:
    No big complaints on our hotels. All our reservations included buffet breakfasts and they were all fine. All the hotels had free wi-fi except Hotel Baobab which charged 5000 pesos a day for access and it was only accessible in the lobby/dining area, not in one's room.

    Hotel Charles Darwin, Puerto Natales - Well-located hotel in Puerto Natales. We were about a block from the water and several blocks from the town center. The room was clean and quiet.

    Las Torres, Torres del Paine National Park. A van has to come get us from the hotel because there is a very narrow bridge (barely wide enough for the van, actually) to go to that area of the park. The hotel is beautiful and sits right below Monte Almirante Nieto, the mountain that is closest in view to the Towers. There are horses all around and big windows for views of the mountain. They offer excursions throughout the park. We used them to do the “Base of the Towers” hike and they provided guides and a box lunch.

    Hotel Rey don Felipe, Punta Arenas - Really nice hotel and a big comfy room. The hotel’s location is great; right near the main part of town. We actually ate lunch in their restaurant while here because everything else was closed because it was a Sunday. Lunch was mediocre and overpriced (so, a typical hotel meal). The hotel desk service was wonderfully helpful--the clerk helped us arrange to go to the Otway Penguin Sanctuary on rather short notice (he tried to get us there as cheaply as possible and then called a cab when we had to resort to that).

    Hotel Puerto Chico, Puerto Varas - Great little hotel! Friendly staff and clean wood floors. The room was very tiny but clean and comfortable. Although it’s a bit out of town they offer bikes to borrow with helmets and locks so we took advantage of that and enjoyed biking into town. Free wi-fi. There’s a lounge on the end of the 3rd floor hall that gives a nice view of the lake. Their breakfast room is full of windows and very pleasant.

    Hotel Baobab, Huilo Huilo reserve- The hotel is fantastic. Beautiful wood everywhere, a spiral ramp that has all the rooms on it, a stream running through the floor and pretty views out of huge windows. We are in the lap of luxury in the middle of nowhere. We went up to the hotel’s roof to get the panoramic view of the area. It’s really stunning with the two snow peaked volcanoes in the distance. There’s been wonderful attention to detail in making the hotel look very natural. It’s not “perfect”--you see a few cracks in the windows repaired by covering with branches and some insulation sticking out here and there --but on the whole it’s wonderful. It also seems to be under construction throughout the grounds, but the main hotel and pool are complete. The pools are great--one indoor and heated, one outdoor and two hot whirlpools. The whole atmosphere is very relaxing. We also booked two excursions with the hotel and had an excellent time on each--both were private. This was the only hotel we stayed in that charged for Wi-Fi, though.

    Hotel Malalhue, Pucon - The only letdown hotel of the trip. It was nice enough, though far from the town center but we had a room on the ground floor and it was noisy. The parking lot was right outside our windows but more noisy was that we could hear everything in the dining room--from late night diners to early buffet-breakfast eaters. The place was nice, friendly, and clean and had free wi-fi. The distance to town is a bit of a drawback, too. Even though we had a car it is hard to park in Pucon so it was a hassle to drive into town. Their heated pool is nice. Wi-fi was free but accessible only in the lounge area.

    Tur Bus Overnight luxury bus to Temuco - Not a hotel but it might as well have been! This was one luxurious bus. The seats fold entirely into beds, complete with mattress, blanet, pillow, eyeshade, socks, earphones, and a snack. Why can't the U.S. get on board with this kind of busing?!

    Hosteria San Pedro, San Pedro de Atacama - Lovely hotel in this charming desert village. The town is very tourism-oriented and easy to walk around and enjoy. The hotel has a refreshing pool and lovely adobe buildings. The front desk staff was helpful (though not with a service-with-a-smile attitude, more of a just-doing-my-job attitude).

    Holiday Inn, Santiago Airport - Surprisingly nice hotel just across the street from the airport. Since we had an early morning flight it was bliss to just walk out the door across the street for our flight. Nice buffet breakfast, too!

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    Nice photos! Looks like a lovely trip.
    I seem to remember the Malalhue has a good breakfast buffet. Parking in Pucón in summer is always a nightmare. Sometimes it is easier and cheaper to just take a taxi and leave the car behind at the hotel. It never costs more than 1000-2000 pesos.

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    Just a couple restaurant recs for places that stood out for us.

    Pachamama, Pucon The food was terrific. I ate a zucchini spinach quesadilla and an Indian tofu crepe. DH had a gigantic bowl of soup with shrimp and chicken and then a rice dish with fish and veggies and chicken. I also drank peach juice that was just like drinking a crushed peach. It was a fantastic meal but the waitress told us we couldn’t pay with a credit card. By this time it has become clear that this is a scam restaurants use to try and get people to pay cash (this was the third time it happened). Even though their window had stickers indicating that we could use a credit card, they claimed the machine was down. We started asking before sitting down in a restaurant if the machine was working.

    Trawen, Pucon - a health food type place. I ate a grilled veggie sandwich and DH had a baked spinach and cheese empanada. We also each had a fresh juice, raspberry for me, peach for DH. The fresh juice everywhere in Pucon is terrific.

    Adobe, San Pedro de Atacama - San Pedro de Atacama desert. We were drawn in by their evening fire pit and went back again the next night. Just as we were finishing up a band came in and played for a few songs. They were terrific--really upbeat and fun. It was traditional style music with flutes and drums and stringed instruments. We bought their CD to remind us of our trip. Good quesadillas, salads and soups, though pricey.

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    Just wanted to let everyone know the conclusion of the problems I alluded to above:

    So as I said, the problems were not trip-ruining. Rather, for me, it was that the whole reason we used a trip planner was to ensure that everything went as smoothly as possible on the ground and we had a contact if things went wrong. Cocha is the on-ground operator in Chile. I felt like we didn't get the "safety net" I was looking for and, really, because we were able to figure out solutions as we went along, I didn't waste precious vacation time on the phone with Cocha demanding immediate compensation. Also, I wanted a record of my issues so I communicated via email, usually the day after the problem arose. For us, this was a very expensive trip and I have high expectations if I spend that much money.

    Here's how I explained the problems to Eugene. I was refunded the Hertz charge and heard, "sorry, we'll look into it and make sure it doesn't happen again" on the others. There were also some issues with the local tour operator that Cocha booked us with in San Pedro de Atacama (timing issues) but we were able to deal directly with them on it since the tours were with them--that's why I say "confirm, confirm, confirm."

    1. We had a major problem with our pickup by Comapa in Torres del Paine. When we arrived to Punta Arenas on Dec. 30, 2010 we were clearly told that our pickup on Jan. 1, 2011 at Laguna Amarga was to be at 6:00 pm with Julio. This was the same day we hiked the Base of the Towers. We split off from the hiking group in order to move quickly on the hike in order to be back to Las Torres in time to get to Laguna Amarga at 6:00 pm. After that significant exertion and careful timing on our part we got to Laguna Amarga and waited for two hours with no transportation. You have to take a shuttle to even get to Laguna Amarga. There is no phone there, there is no cell phone signal, and therefore we felt entirely stranded. About five minutes before 8:00 p.m. a different Comapa transport arrived who knew nothing about us and agreed to get us to Puerto Natales to sort out the problem so we went with him. We finally arrived in Puerto Natales much later and Julio picked us up there and took us on to Punta Arenas. Comapa paid for our dinner in Puerto Natales at their hotel but frankly, this wasn't satisfactory because it was a set menu (which no one told us) and I am a vegetarian and therefore couldn't eat it. By this time is was very late at night and we were exhausted. We arrived at Punta Arenas at 3:00 a.m., a significant difference than arriving at 11:00 p.m. as we would have if we were picked up at 6 p.m. from Laguna Amarga. We spent a day quite exhausted as a result of such a late night and didn't have a chance to look into excursions or anything ahead of time as we planned. Julio explained that apparently Las Torres called Comapa and told them 8 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. This makes no sense as no one had communicated with us at all about this.

    There are a number of things that were upsetting here: a. We felt stranded in a place where there was no means of communication. b. We wasted time sitting around and driving more than necessary (the alternative Comapa transport had to drop off other passengers before going to Puerto Natales). c. We made a significant effort to finish the hike quickly and be on time for our pickup. d. We spent a day exhausted because we did not sleep well in the vehicle and arrived to the hotel so early in the morning.

    2. We were charged Chilean Pesos $77,900 Jan. 2, at the airport when we picked up the vehicle. This was a charge for dropping off in a different place than picking up. This charge was not indicated on our schedule. I understood the vehicle to be entirely paid for but Hertz insisted we pay it before we took the vehicle. Since there was nothing to indicate that we should expect to pay this expense, it was out of our very careful budget. Cocha refunded this to us.

    3. The address Cocha provided to us to drop off the car was incorrect. The sheet they sent to Hotel Malhalhue (which I still have) says "The address of Hertz rent a Car is: Andres Bello St. #792 - Temuco." Although there was a Hertz at that location, it was completely closed, shuttered and locked. Since we had carefully mapped our trip before we left this was stressful to try and reorganize on the spot. We had to figure out how to get to the Hertz airport location to drop off the car yesterday. That address was not on the letter from Cocha. Cocha's response was that if we had dropped off the car at 20:00 that location would have been open. Ok, but nothing on their letter gave a drop off time.

    That's all. We were safe the whole time and they didn't swindle us or cause us to miss out on anything. It was a matter of not meeting my expectations for price paid. As I thought about writing my trip report I was thinking, "I probably won't recommend this company but if someone's booked with them I wouldn't tell them to change plans."

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    schlegal1, thanks for closing the loop on this. Thanks to your report we have double checked all our bookings/arrangements thru Alta and finally got electronic copies of all the vouchers that were supposed to be issued.

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    Thinking of doing 2 weeks Xmas onwards this year with my two daughters (3 years and 6 years) and hubby. We have done Spain, Sweden and Iceland with the girls and never used a travel company. Usually book our own hotels/AirBnb and then rent a car for flexibility in travel. Do you think that is not possible in Chile? Is a tour operator a must? Any insight would be helpful!

    Thank you for this wonderful and informative trip report. I am going to use this to plan our big trip now.

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    I'll look and see if you started a new thread but I think that if you are experienced travelers you could book all this yourselves. Chile was remarkably easy to get around. I just felt out of my element because we tried to traverse so much of the country. If we went back I would self-plan in a heartbeat.

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    Like schlegel we used a TA for a portion of our trip to Chile because we were covering a lot of ground and had a lot of connections to make. We normally book everything on our own. If we went back I would definitely DIY. As she said, its easy to get around and people are very helpful.
    Have a great trip!

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    Hi schlegal1! - lovely to me you and Mr schlegal1 in DC.

    Agree with above that Chile is easy to book on your own. (and really easy to navigate - it's 90 kilometres across - how can you get lost?)

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