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Trip Report: Chile (Santiago, Easter Island, Patagonia, Atacama) (March - April 2017)

Trip Report: Chile (Santiago, Easter Island, Patagonia, Atacama) (March - April 2017)

Old Apr 4th, 2018, 05:53 PM
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Trip Report: Chile (Santiago, Easter Island, Patagonia, Atacama) (March - April 2017)

Friday March 24: Allentown, PA to Atlanta, GA to Santiago, Chile

My spouse and I departed Lehigh Valley International Airport for Atlanta on Delta Airlines on a Friday evening in late March 2017. We had a 2.5-hour layover in Atlanta, which we spent in the Delta Sky Club in the international terminal. That lounge features a two-level space with different seating options, a large bar, showers, a quiet room, and TVs, but its best feature is an outdoor deck with a separate bar and trendy lounge seating. My spouse thought that it smelled like jet fuel out there, being perched near the runways, but I loved being able to wait outdoors instead of being cooped up inside. Our connecting flight to Santiago departed on-time. We flew business class on both the domestic and international flights. On our initial domestic connector flight, the small plane had a few rows in business class with a 1-2 configuration. Storage above the single row was minimal, but larger over the two-seat side. The equipment for the international portion was fairly comfortable, with large lie-flat seats and on-demand entertainment; however, the food was disappointing relative to other business class flights that we have taken on other airlines. (We had higher hopes for the food because the menu was designed by a renowned chef.)

Saturday March 25: Santiago

We landed in Santiago mid-morning and passed quickly through immigration and customs. After we exited the quiet calm secure zone, we entered the slightly chaotic arrivals area, with locals waiting to meet friends, hotel drivers picking up pre-arranged fares, and taxi drivers trolling for business. (Although it was noisy and busy, it pales in comparison to arriving somewhere like Delhi, India, for example.) With our luggage balanced on a complimentary rolling cart, we navigated on foot across the street to the Holiday Inn. (We would stay at this airport hotel two more times as we transited through Chile during our two-week journey.) We were able to check into our room even though the hour was early, which was possible because check-out time at this hotel is 10:00 am. We relaxed in our room for a few minutes before we ventured back to the airport when we realized that we neglected to pack the proper electrical adapter for Chile (you need one with two round prongs). We found a landside shop called Fotokinas that sold all kinds of forgotten items, and we purchased two adapters for the equivalent of $5 USD. We also used the Santander Bank ATM cash machine to withdraw some local currency (the limit is about $300 USD per day). Next, we purchased a few bottled non-alcoholic beverages at a landside convenience store to drink later in our room. (Although some landside restaurants serve bottled beer, you cannot remove it from the premises.) Finally, we ate an early lunch at Dantes restaurant, then returned to the hotel to prepare for our afternoon excursion.

We pre-booked a 3-hour afternoon city tour called “Santiago Essentials” with a company called “Private Guide Santiago” for approximately $150 per person. Our guide Jeanette was personable and interesting as she and her driver led us on a tour of Santiago’s best sights. After they picked us up at the Holiday Inn, we drove downtown to take a short walking tour of the historic area, including the “Plaza de la Ciudadania” (‘’Citizenry Square’’) within view of the giant “Bandera del Bicentenial” (Chilean “Bicentennial Flag”, which resembles the flag of Texas because a US Envoy suggested its design), “Palacio de La Moneda” ( “Palace of the Currency”, which is the presidential palace), “Plaza de la Constitucion” (“Constitution Square”, with its smaller flags and the statue of Presidente Salvador Allende), “Palacio de Tribunales de Justicia” (Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and the court martial court for the army / air force / police, with a condor standing on an open book with the word LEX [Latin for law] sculpted over the portico, with Montt Varas Square in front), and the “Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino” (in the “Palacio de la Real Aduana” [“Palace of Customs”]). Note that with our limited time, we did not enter any of the aforementioned structures; we only viewed them from the outside. We were able to pause for a bit in the “Plaza de Armas” (the “Main Square” to watch some street performers [musicians and dancers]), and we went inside the beautiful “Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago” (which took over 50 years to build and was completed in 1800). Afterwards, we walked towards our pre-arranged meeting point, passing the “Sede de Santiago del Congreso Nacional” (former “National Congress” building, where the governing body met until Salvador Allende's socialist government was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet's military coup in 1973) with its “Jardines del Recinto” (“Enclosure Garden”; because the Congress building has a cross within a square plan, it creates four courtyards, including this one), and the “El Palacio Club de Septiembre” / ”Academia Diplomatica” (“Edwards Palace” / “Diplomatic Academy”).

Although we were very pleased with our private guide Jeanette, we experienced an issue with our driver. While we walked through the downtown area with Jeanette, our driver seemed to be running an Uber-type service. He made us wait for him for nearly 45 minutes as Jeanette telephoned him repeatedly and he gave her one excuse after another. When we re-entered the car, we noticed an electronic keycard from the Singular hotel on the back seat, yet there was no card there when we initially entered the car at the Holiday Inn, leading us to believe that we waited for him because he was driving someone else instead of waiting for us. When he finally showed up, we loaded into the car and drove through the distinguished neighborhoods of Barrios Bellavista, Bellas Artes, and-Lastarria. (One neighborhood would have sufficed; after the third similar area, it grew repetitive.) We finished our tour at “Cerro Santa Lucia” (“Santa Lucia Hill”), where the city of Santiago was founded in 1541 and which contains the fort Castillo Hidalgo (from 1820). We climbed up a meandering path on the mountain (unexpectedly through the Nam food festival) and down the other side through the gorgeous “Terraza Neptuno” (“Neptune Terrace”) with its 1903 “fuente” (“fountain”) that was built in an attempt to beautify the city. The fountain includes a bronze sculpture of the god Neptune seated and holding a trident. Two parallel winding staircases lead to the arc of triumph adorned by columns and other decorative details. (Personally, we would have preferred to approach Cerro Santa Lucia from the fountain side because of its dramatic scenery rather than to end our tour there.)After our tour, our guide and driver transported us back to the Holiday Inn. For lack of alternate dinner choices (we did not want to take a taxi anywhere), we dined at Dantes at the airport again; however, our lunch meal there was more satisfactory than our dinner.

Sunday March 26: Santiago to Easter Island

Because we were flying LAN business class to Rapa Nui / Isla Pascua (Easter Island), we were able to use the special LAN business class check-in area on the fourth floor of the airport. However, it was still necessary to pass through the regular domestic security screening. (The flight to Easter Island is treated as an international flight in some respects, but as a domestic flight in other ways.) Note that the Santiago Airport does not have expedited security lines for business-class passengers (neither domestic nor international); however, some concessions are made for crew members, pregnant women, and the handicapped.The business class cabin for the LAN Dreamliner on our Santiago to Easter Island flight was far superior to the Delta business class cabin that we flew from Atlanta to Santiago. We sat in the bulkhead row on the way to Easter Island, (but not on the return flight), and we preferred the bulkhead seats because they offered additional storage on the wall in front of our seats. The duvets and pillows were better quality on LAN than on Delta. (In fact, we liked the Dreamliner so much that upon returning home, we searched online to see which airline routes use that equipment, so that we can consider that plane when we plan our next trip.) During the 6-hour flight time from Santiago to Rapa Nui, we read, listened to music, watched movies, ate, and drank.

Finally, we landed at Mataveri International Airport (sometimes called Isla de Pascua Airport) in the town of Hanga Roa on Rapa Nui / Isla de Pascua. After we claimed our luggage on the one available belt, we exited baggage claim (where there was nothing more than a set of restrooms) to find our driver from the Explora Lodge holding a sign with our names on it. He placed a flowered lei around each of our necks, grabbed our bags, and led us to the waiting van. We were slightly disappointed at the condition of the van, but what we did not yet realize was that it one of the excursion vans that we would take later that day and on subsequent days, when it would be filled with guests donning dusty shoes and boots, and that we would often be driving off-road on the island. (So in retrospect, the condition of the van was just fine!)

After a 15-minute drive from the airport to the hotel, past green fields and trees and a few houses, we arrived at the driveway to Explora, and continued down the rather bumpy road to the parking area. Even though our flight arrived 2 hours late, staff thoughtfully set up a light lunch for us on a table in the bar area. (The meal of a large sandwich with a green side salad was just what we needed.) They staff showed us to our room, where we outfitted ourselves with appropriate footwear and clothing for an afternoon excursion. (We did not think that we would be able to eat lunch or have time for an outing because of our flight delay, so we greatly appreciate the staff working overtime for us.)The afternoon excursion that the staff chose for us was called “Te Miro O One” (“Down to the Coast”). This easy partial-day, 2.5-hour outing covers 2.4 miles, but only half of that distance is traveled on foot. You can also take the van if you prefer not to make the gentle hike on marked trails/dirt road as you descend a slight slope of about 330 feet. With our guide Pepe (and guide-in-training Teata [the spelling of his name may be incorrect]), we walked through fields and farms, observed the foliage, and saw a huge herd of cows grazing (even though we have cows in PA where we are from, we don’t often get to see them up close). After our walk, we were rewarded with coastal views and the archaeological site “Ahu Akahanga”, which had a platform with a few moai that never reached their final destination. The crumbling statues at this site created excitement for what we would see on the days to come; however, if Ahu Akahanga is not one of the first sites that you visit, it is not a “must-see” in our opinion. At Akahanga, you can also step inside a small cave and see ruins of a sort of house foundation. Note that there are no restroom facilities at Akahanga, although a person is stationed at the admission gate, and a few other people watch over tables that offer souvenirs for sale. When we reached the van that would drive us back to the lodge, we found that our driver Victor had set up a lovely “sundowner” with drinks and snacks for us, which was a great ending to our first excursion.Back at the lodge, in the late afternoon, guests gather in the “guide” area (which might function as a coffee bar when the hotel is at capacity, which it was not when we visited) in order to learn about the following day’s schedule. Note that we did not truly have choices in the excursions that we took, or at which time or on which day we took them. A schedule seemed to have been pre-arranged for us, although we think that we could probably have made changes if we desired. We were extremely fortunate to have visited Rapa Nui just after the busy season, for we were the only couple on five out of six (private) excursions because the lodge was only partially full. Our guides varied based on the day and the excursion, but we enjoyed them all, including Lilly, Pepe, Jorge, Teata, and Esteban. (Esteban is a particularly conscientious and hard-working employee.)The lodge was supposed to host a speaker this evening, so we milled about the lobby/bar waiting for the presentation, but he had to postpone until the following night. Instead, we enjoyed a great dinner with delicious food and excellent service. (Special thanks to servers Marianna and Claudio, who provided excellent hospitality throughout our stay.)

Monday March 27: Easter Island

After breakfast in the Explora restaurant (you can help yourself from a cold buffet, in addition to ordering hot items from the servers), we met Lilly, our guide for the day, who walked us out to the van driven by Pedro Pablo. We took an excursion called “Ahu Te Peu-Hanga Roa” (or “Caves and Cliffs”). The partial-day excursion lasted about 3.5 hours and covered nearly 4 miles, with less than half of that on foot and the rest by van. First, we drove to “Ahu Akivi”, the only archaeological site on the island where the moai face the sea. (Ahu Akivi is one of the few sites that offers guest amenities such as restrooms and a café, in addition to an amazing platform.) Then we drove a really short distance (we could have easily walked) to begin our walk, which is categorized as “moderate”, but is a bit more difficult in our opinion. We walked through fields and tall grasses most of the way, often tripping over small stones that we could not see. Our guide walked quickly and with purpose, and we realized at the end of our journey that we had not stopped to enjoy the view often enough; we could not look around while we walked because our eyes were on our feet in order to avoid the rocks and prevent a twisted ankle. Halfway through, we stopped to investigate the “Ana Kakenga” cave, a large tubular cavern with lava tubes (which were not as impressive as we had envisioned), and we ended on a gorgeous high rocky cliff side, but again, the path seemed dicey so we did not fully appreciate the beauty of our surroundings as much as we would have liked. We had a small climb at the end of our hike at “Ahu Te Peu” to reach the van, which then transported us a short way to the platform “Ahu Tahai” near Hanga Roa town. Here, where we viewed the only moai with coral eyes, in addition to some other standing moai. You might also be able to visit the excellent Padre Sebastian Englert Anthropological Museum afterwards. (We could not visit because the museum is closed on Mondays, but we returned a few days later; although it is a small museum, it displays excellent information about the creation, transportation, and raising of the moai, as well as historical artifacts.)

Upon arrival back at the hotel, we stopped at the bar to have a drink. On our walk, our guide Lilly picked a guava for each of us to sample, but we saved one in our backpack. Our friendly and talented bartender Andy used the guava to make us a tasty guava sour –an unexpected treat! The ever-pleasant Andy always seemed to be present behind the bar, happy to craft a special cocktail for us every day.After lunch in the lodge dining room, we embarked on our afternoon excursion called “Ara O Te Moai: (“Moai Quarry”) with guides Jorge and Teata and driver Pedro Pablo. Our trip to the quarry lasted about 2.5 hours and covered 2.7 miles (mostly by van). As we drove towards the quarry, we could see a few fallen moai that were left in-situ where they dropped. As we approach the site entrance by van, we could see restrooms, a souvenir shop, and two cafes. Then, we passed through the Ranu Raraku National Park “gate” and walked on a gently sloping, well-marked dirt path (called “Ara O Te Moai”, the trail used by the Rapa Nui people to transport the statues) and up a small incline, passing moai along the way, most of which are only half exposed, with their bottom halves sunken into the grass. You can climb farther up the quarry mountain (using narrow stone stairs) to view the largest statue ever carved (called “El Gigante” or “The Giant”, a monster measuring 72 feet tall), still lying in place with its face and body looking upward towards the sky. You can also climb to the top of the quarry to look down at the “caldera” (“volcanic crater”) inside. When we heard the word “quarry”, we envisioned a rocky limestone quarry like have at home in PA, thinking that what we would be viewing would be on the inside of the crater, but this “quarry” just refers to the workplace where the statues were carved, on a lush green hillside. At this site, you can see the only moai in a kneeling position (“Moai Tukuturi”), thought to be one of the first statues carved. From this vantage point, you have an amazing view of the 15 moai of “Ahu Tongariki” off in the distance. The quarry contains over 400 moai in various stages, both on the outer rim and clustered inside the crater. More than 150 moai are unfinished, with some merely faces carved in rock. Our excursion to the quarry was one of our favorite outings; not-to-be-missed in our opinion!

In the evening before dinner, we listened to a local man speak about Polynesia. (This was the presentation that was postponed from the night before.) Christian is a history teacher at the local school, and he lectures guests in his spare time. The depth of his knowledge is impressive! A few takeaways that we recall: Easter Island’s 1200-year old history can be divided into three equal segments, with each lasting 400 years: from 900 to 1300, Polynesian culture flourished (remains from the earliest human civilization date back to 900). From 1300 to 1700, the islands experienced a long period of isolation, and finally, from 1700 to present day, Westernization occurred (Dutch explorers arrived in 1722). We wish that we had taken some notes from his lecture, but we remember only bits and pieces; for example, US archaeologist JP Mallory worked in the triangle between Easter Island, Hawaii, and New Zealand. Afterward the talk, we enjoyed a leisurely dinner in the resort dining room before an early bedtime.

Tuesday March 28: More Easter Island

After breakfast in the dining room, we joined our guide Gustalvo (or perhaps his name was Gonsalvo) and driver Victor for our morning excursion “Ara O Te Tangata Manu” (“Trail to the Birdman”), which lasted about 3.5 hours and covered 5.4 miles by both hiking and van. This was one of the rare excursions that involved other guests; in addition to our guide and ourselves, two other couples joined us. The van dropped the seven of us off and we began to hike up a sloping dirt trail to the top of the collapsed volcano “Rano Kau”. This outing is categorized as a “moderate” excursion, but it may be difficult for some guests; although you begin the hike on a well-maintained dirt road, as you climb in elevation, you hike along a “trampled” path and sometimes just through tall grasses. When we reached the top of the caldera, we could see the Pacific Ocean over the rocky outcroppings from one crumbling side. The crater measures a mile across and contains a lake inside that is covered by grass and greenery. We then hiked along the edge of the crater to a viewpoint on the opposite side where our van was waiting with refreshments. We drove a short distance to the ancient ceremonial village of “Orongo”. This archaeological site offers a small indoor museum, restrooms, and a small coffee bar; then you can explore outdoors. The property offers excellent water views from high atop the cliffs. The 48 oval stone houses of this ceremonial village were constructed in the late 1600s and were used by locals until 1866. The houses were occupied only during the “Birdman” ceremony honoring the god “Make-Make”. The high point of the annual event was a competition in which prominent villagers designated servants to paddle small rafts to “Motu Nui”, the largest of three islets just off the coast. The first servant to find an egg of the sooty tern (a bird that nested on the islets), would swim back with the prize tucked in a special headdress. His master would become the “tangata manu” (“birdman”) for the next year. The “tangata manu” was honored by being confined to a cave until the following year's ceremony. Dozens of petroglyphs depicting birdlike creatures cover nearby boulders along the rim of the volcano. On the return van trip to the hotel, we stopped at “Ahu Tahira”, a platform constructed similarly to those of the Incas in Peru because of its perfectly overlapping stones. This birdman outing was another of our favorite excursions; note that you can still visit Orongo village by van, even if you do not complete the hike.

This was our last full day on Easter Island, and staff offered a special surprise at lunchtime. Instead of dining at the lodge, they set up an incredible al fresco lunch by the rocky coastline, including a large tent that held the food and some tables and chairs, and pairs of chairs and umbrellas facing the coastline where couples could enjoy their meal side-by-side with a view of the water. The chef was on hand to grill whole local fish over an open fire, and the festive atmosphere set the tone for a lovely meal.

We grudgingly left our dazzling lunch spot for our afternoon excursion with Jorge and Pedro Pablo, but we were rewarded with what we felt was perhaps the single most striking sights on the island: “Mahatua Ovahe” (the “Fifteen Moai”). Our afternoon excursion lasted about 3 hours, and we traveled about 3.5 miles, almost solely by van. We had observed “Ahu Tongariki” (“the fifteen”) from afar yesterday when we visited the quarry, so it was an excellent complement to see it up close and to walk around the entire platform to view it from all sides. At 200 feet, this site contains the largest ahu (platform) on the island, with 15 intact moai perched on top. Ahu Tongariki was painstakingly restored after being destroyed by a tidal wave in 1960. The moai here, some whitened with a layer of sea salt, have holes in their extended earlobes that might once have been filled with chunks of obsidian rock. The moai face an expansive ceremonial area where you can find petroglyphs of turtles and fish, and the entrance is “guarded” by a single moai that sometimes travels the world on exhibition. If you visit from December 21 to March 21, you can see a perfect morning sunrise behind the moai at Ahu Tongariki. Next, we drove along the coast, enjoying sea views, fishing coves, and some smaller archaeological sites. We stopped at a site called “Te Pitoote Hanua” ("Navel of the World"), where a perfectly polished round rock contains high iron content, causing it to make compasses behave strangely.

Last, we drove to Anakena Beach, where Easter Island's earliest settlers are believed to have landed. Legend has it that the caves in the cliffs overlooking the beach are where the island's first ruler, “Hotu Matu'a”, lived while constructing his home. It is easy to understand why he might have selected this spot: on an island ringed by rough volcanic rock, Playa Anakena has a wide white sandy beach five moai standing on nearby “Ahu Nau Nau”. The beach area contains amenities like restrooms, showers, souvenir stands, and small open-air snack shops. We enjoyed a snack and a drink at one of the beachside shacks before we returned to the resort for drinks, dinner, and bed.

Wednesday March 29: Easter Island to Santiago

Because our flight back to the mainland did not depart until 3:30 pm, we were able to choose a morning excursion. Initially we had hoped to visit the motus by boat, or to enjoy a short fishing trip with a local fisherman, but the seas were too rough that day. Instead, we visited the archaeology museum (which we missed on Monday because it was closed) and the town of Hanga Rao. As it turned out, we were on a bit of a “fishing” expedition anyway as we searched in vain for a local bookstore that supposedly displayed a photograph that an American friend of ours had taken.The staff at Explora set our departure time for the airport, and we arrived about two hours prior to our flight (which was a bit too much time in our opinion). To enter the Mataveri / Isla de Pascua International Airport, we had to pass our belongings through an X-ray security scanner. After we retrieved our bags, LATAM had a dedicated business class check-in line set up, and we quickly turned over our luggage. The airport has a few shops and a “half-café” outside of security. (Interesting, the other half of the cafe is located inside security, so a passenger could potentially sit next to his non-flying companion separated only by glass.) We passed through the security screening, browsed in a few small shops/kiosks, and sat down in the airside cafe to enjoy some food and drinks. Although the airport has a VIP lounge, it was not accessible to business class passengers (so we are not sure who is permitted to use it). LATAM is the only airline that flies to/from Easter Island; all but one flight per week travels to Santiago de Chile (the lone other flight goes to Papeete, French Polynesia). Odds are high that everyone you see in the departure area will board your flight.When it was time to embark (we had to wait for the inbound flight from Santiago to arrive), we boarded by walking across the tarmac and up the stairs to the aircraft. About 6 hours later (approximately 10:00 pm), we arrived back in Santiago. After we claimed our luggage, we wheeled it across the street to spend the night at the Holiday Inn. We dined in their restaurant, bought a few bottled beers at their bar to enjoy in our room, and went to bed.

Thursday March 30: Santiago to Punta Arenas

Today we were flying to Patagonia! When we were planning our trip to Chile, we did not think that we had enough time to include Patagonia, but because it was so important to us to see the wildlife in Punta Arenas and the mountain scenery of Torres del Paine, we added a few more days to our overall journey. Although we had checked in online 24 hours prior to our flight, we had to wait in line in order to check our baggage; however, the process was quick and uneventful. Seating was cramped on the 3.5-hour flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas, but drink/snack service was provided, and we passed the time reading and napping. With a half-day free upon arrival, we wanted to make the most of our time, so we booked an afternoon excursion with Far South Expeditions to see condors.Upon arrival at the Punta Arenas Airport (whose formal name is Presidente Carlos Ibanez International Airport), we deplaned via jet way into the terminal, where we passed a cafe, a few shops, a lounge, and restrooms. We followed the crowd downstairs to baggage claim, where we exited the secured area and spotted our guide Bastian holding a sign with our names.

Because it is best to take the condor excursion in the afternoon (and because our time in Punta Arenas was limited), we requested that our guide and driver pick us up at the Punta Arenas Airport when we first arrived to the city, rather than transferring to the hotel (about 20 minutes) and then re-tracing our steps back past the airport. We informed the tour agent Cecilia about the baggage we would carry, and she arranged an appropriately sized vehicle. After we introduced ourselves to Bastian, he called the van driver while we wheeled our bags out to the curb. (We were surprised that Bastian did not offer to assist us with our luggage, as other guides normally do.) Then we took a 1-hour drive northwest to “Estancia Olga Teresa” (ranch) in Rio Verde to view the condors at “Cerro Palomares” (“Dovecotes Hill”). We first met the property owner at his house, where he has outdoor but modern restroom facilities for guests. Then we drove a short distance to the main condor-viewing area, parked the car, and took a short 5-minute uphill walk to the observation area, which offered additional restrooms and benches for tour groups. On foot, we continued to walk uphill for about 10 minutes to a spot closer to the condor nests. The owner set up a high-powered Zeiss spotting telescope, and we took turns looking at two condors perched on the rocky cliffs above us. Unfortunately, although it was a lovely cool and sunny day, there were no thermal winds, so we saw very few condors. This excursion would have been better had we seen more birds, but as with all wildlife, sightings are not guaranteed. Later on our trip to Patagonia near Torres del Paine National Park, we had a chance sighting of a flock of about 50 condors flying overhead, and it was an impressive spectacle! However, it was so uncommon an encounter that even our experienced guide was amazed. If a similar observation is normal on Far South’s condor excursion, then it is definitely worthwhile to spend the time and money. (Note that there are no services [gas stations, restaurants, shops, even houses really] on the drive to and from the condors, so bring whatever you need with you.)

After our excursion, the guide and driver took us back to Punta Arenas so that we could check into the Hotel Cabo de Hornos. Next, we went out in search of a grocery store (which we found about two blocks away past the casino), then we ate dinner at La Luna restaurant before going to bed early.

Friday March 31: Penguins of Tierra del Fuego

Today was going to be an exciting day! Although someday we would like to see Emperor penguins in Antarctica, in present day, we wanted to travel as far south as we could in order to see the King penguins. (Emperor and King penguins are similar in basic appearance; however, King penguins are shorter at 3.1 feet versus 3.8 feet. Other living penguin varieties [although not in Tierra del Fuego] include Gentoo, Chinstrap, Adelie, Yellow-Eyed, Royal, Macaroni, Erect-Crested, Southern and Northern Rockhopper, Portland, Snares Island, Humboldt, Magellanic, African, Galapagos, and Little Blue.) We booked the “King Penguins of Tierra del Fuego by Air” excursion with Far South Expeditions. In our online research, very few tour companies seemed to offer this excursion, and if they did, it was by ferry rather than by air, which would have added an additional four hours onto an already long day. So we splurged with the flight.After we enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the hotel, Bastian and the driver picked us up at our hotel, and transported us to the Punta Arenas Airport. We checked in at the counter for airline Aerovias DAP, and the agent supplied us with boarding passes. We easily passed through security, for we were traveling light because it was only a day trip. We waited in the domestic “national” departures area, which is surrounded by glass walls and doors adjacent to the regular departures area (with free movement between the areas). Unfortunately, our flight was delayed due to fog; because a small prop plane is used to travel the 12-minute flight from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, it operates on visual flight rules.

When we arrived at the Porvenir Airport, our driver David picked us up and drove us to his home/guesthouse (Hostería Yendegaia) for refreshments and a restroom break before we began our drive to the penguins. (The reason for this stop seems unnecessary until you realize that the penguin preserve does not open until 11:00 am, so we were just “wasting” time; we wish that Bastian had told the reason for this stop in advance, or even given us an idea of how long we would spend at David’s, because we would have preferred to walk around the small town instead of sitting and waiting for time to pass. But pass it did, and we were soon on our way to the penguins! Note that there is nothing on the two-hour drive (each way) between Porvenir and the research facility – perhaps a few estancias, but no gas stations, no cafes, no shops, no signs of civilization other than an occasional bus stop enclosure. Because of the harsh conditions of the gravel roads (some roads nearer to Porvenir are paved, however), David’s car got a flat tire on our return journey; fortunately he travels with a full-size spare or we would have been stranded for hours. (We shudder to think what would have happened if more than one tire was flat!).

Keep in mind that you will not get too close to the penguins – you will view them across a small pond primarily through viewing holes cut in a long plywood wall. The park sets up a few rudimentary magnifying boxes near the holes that help to see the birds. About 50 penguins were onsite (which is the usual number), and we were lucky that the flock still had 5 or 6 smaller youngsters. Most chicks hatched in February and had grown to adult size (of 3.1 feet tall), so they were difficult to distinguish from their parents; however, a few late bloomers (who were already 2 feet tall) still sported their brown fuzzy feathers. The sanctuary offers restrooms (just follow the rules and do not flush the paper), a small gift shop, and a few picnic tables where we ate our box lunch. (When we saw the contents of the box lunch, we joked that it seemed like something that an 8-year old child would pack in terms of all of the junk food included. Each large shopping included a sandwich (tuna fish), an apple, and a bottle of water, but it also included a juice box, a small can of potato crisps, two granola bars, two chocolate candy bars, and a package of chocolate cookies!) In the parking lot was a bus that had been converted into a sort of cafe, but it was not open on the day that we visited; probably because it was so late in the season. Staff (researchers) live onsite in trailers.

After spending about 2 hours at the preserve, we drove back to David’s home/guesthouse, where we relaxed for about 45 minutes. Again, we wish that Bastian or David had let us know the departure time for the airport; we would have preferred to walk around the small town, perhaps to the nearby Plaza de Armas main square, rather than sit in the living room/lounge area of his house. (Fortunately, the house displays lots of interesting handicrafts, as well as books, so there was plenty to look at while we bided our time.) We arrived at the airport for our return flight much too early. With such a small plane, it takes no time to check in, and security is literally non-existent. The airport building is new and modern, but it lacks anything to pass the time. Except for restrooms, it offers no amenities: nowhere to buy a souvenir, no television, and not even a vending machine to buy a drink or snack). We noticed a VIP lounge on the second floor of the building, but we are not sure who uses it because the tiny planes that fly to Porvenir do not offer a first-class option. Although this was a long (and expensive) day, we loved seeing the penguins – and it must be amazing to visit during peak season when the chicks are hatching. But Far South could improve this excursion by including some basic Porvenir sightseeing, such as the seafront “Parque del Recuerdo” (“Memory Park”), "Cerro Mirador” (“Lookout Hill”), and “Plaza de Armas” (“main square”). We flew back to Punta Arenas without issue, and then Bastian and the driver transported us back to our hotel. After we visited the grocery store, we dined at Pizzeria Francesco before an early bedtime.

Saturday April 1: Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine

On our last morning in Punta Arenas, we enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the hotel before Bastian and a driver picked us up at the hotel and transported us about 15 minutes to the pier at “Bahia Laredo” (“Laredo Bay”) so that we could visit “Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos” (“Penguins Monument” at Isla Magdalena) and the sea lion colony at Isla Marta. Note that this is not a public dock, and it offers no shelter, restrooms, or services; it is just a rickety wooden pier over the water, plus a bit of gravel outside on which to park; access to the pier is prevented by a chain-link fence. Most guests arrive on the excursion shuttle bus from Punta Arenas; however, if you drive yourself, look for the small wrecked boat outside of the gate (there is no sign/placard to indicate the name of the place). Neither the excursion boat nor the gangplank are handicap-accessible; you must climb up and down a regular house ladder (the type that you might use at your own home to access your roof; it was not a stepladder or a regular boat ladder), which was unsafe. Conversely, we were asked to wear life jackets, and the boat guide provided a quick safety briefing. Even though it was late in the season, our boat was filled to capacity with about 30 guests and 2 crew (the captain and the boat guide). Bastian set our pickup time to arrive at the boat dock much earlier than necessary, and although the weather was cold and misty, once we arrived, he dispatched the driver he had hired so that we had to stand out in the inclement weather for nearly 30 minutes until the boat was ready to load. For the price that we paid, we should have been permitted to wait in the vehicle until embarkation time. He also did not call the driver on our return when we were approaching the dock, causing us to wait near the dock for our car after all other customers had departed.

We took this excursion very late in the season, when most of the penguins had already migrated from Isla Magdalena to other locations. We probably saw about 50 penguins in total, primarily in two large groups scurrying over the rocks and entering the water, but we were fortunate to see a very few others (perhaps 5 in total) still in burrows around the island. After we docked at Isla Magdalena, we walked on a designated pathway (although not paved) that climbs in elevation around the perimeter of the island. Even the park rangers had departed for the season, so what we thought were portable restrooms were shuttered, as was the lighthouse. The boat captain said that we were probably one of their last tours of the year. We saw a lot of dead seabirds (and one dead penguin) strewn around the island, so be prepared for that grim (yet unavoidable) sight; however, if you visit at a busy time, you probably will not even notice. If you were to visit during prime viewing season, penguins would cross your path as you walk, which would be incredible! After walking on Isla Magdalena, the boat captain drove us to Isla Marta, where although we could not disembark, we could still view the sea lions frolicking in the surf and on the shore. The captain spun the boat slowly so that everyone had a nice view, and adventurous passengers were permitted to climb atop the roof of the enclosed boat for an unobstructed view.

On the return voyage, staff used the miniature kitchenette at the back of the boat (opposite an even tinier “head” [bathroom] that was surely for emergencies only), the crew handed out hot chocolate and cookies. The excursion to Islas Magdalena and Marta was easy enough that we could have organized it ourselves; locating the boat dock may have been a bit tricky, so an alternate solution would have been to arrange the trip directly with the provider Solo Expediciones, who offers a small group mini-bus transfer from Punta Arenas. Having our guide Bastian with us on this excursion was of absolutely no benefit whatsoever. On the trip to Magdalena Island, he spent time talking to younger (and definitely more attractive) customers and answering their questions rather than talking with us, his paying customers. He also offered his binoculars to those women, when we had none to use ourselves. We recommend this excursion, but perhaps at a more appropriate time of year and organized directly with the provider Solo Expediciones; still, we are happy to have seen a few remaining penguins and a great many sea lions.

When we returned to the Hotel Cabo de Hornos after our morning excursion to retrieve our luggage, our driver (Gustalvo or Gonsalvo) was waiting, along with a “fixer” who Awasi must have arranged. The female employee was just onsite for a few moments to introduce us to the driver (who was pleasant and helpful despite his limited English), to make sure that we were properly loaded in the car, and to give us each a sack lunch to eat along the drive.On our 2+ hour drive to Puerto Natales, we stopped for a short break at Rio Rubens, which offers a restaurant, restrooms, and guestrooms. Otherwise, the road is desolate, and you pass only one or two very tiny towns (which may or may not offer any tourist services). When we finally reached Puerto Natales, it is like an oasis or a mirage!

Our driver parked at the Kau Lodge (which offers restrooms, guestrooms, the Coffee Maker Cafe Bar, and an outfitter/gear store), where we waited to be picked up by our guide for the next three days. We immediately liked polite and pensive Patrick, who proved to be capable, thoughtful, and intelligent as he showed us the areas around and inside Torres del Paine National Park. Patrick took just the right approach with us, offering information and being either present or not, depending on where we were and what we were doing (for example, he gave us some private time while we enjoyed a sundowner or morning breakfast). He was also keenly aware of what we were doing in the backseat; for example, if we rolled down our window to take photographs, he immediately noticed and stopped the car so that we could get a better shot. Over our days with him, he shared that he has a young son, whom he can only see once per month, and it requires the 4-hour drive to Punta Arenas, then a 3-hour flight to Santiago, then another long drive; it truly made us appreciate the ease with which we can see our own families.

The 2+ hour drive from Puerto Natales to Awasi Patagonia is scenic but devoid of any civilization until you reach a small settlement (perhaps called “Cerro Guido”), which is about an hour from “camp”. (This tiny enclave is where the Awasi guides lived during the early days of the Patagonia property before staff lived onsite; however, now they live on the property, which makes their day shorter without the “commute”.) The head of guides, Cristian, checked us in and introduced us to the property and walked us to our accommodations. (Although no villa is far from the main lodge, some require hiking up or down small winding and rocky paths, which is easier in the daylight but trickier in the darkness of night. You can also walk to your villa using the better-marked road on which the vehicles travel, which may be a little farther but might be easier and safer in some cases. You can also request a ride from door-to-door if you do not want to walk.)Because it was late afternoon when we arrived, we had a “happy hour” snack and drink in the lobby before returning to our villa to unpack and relax. Later, we returned to the main lodge for dinner. Service in the dining room was good, but the evening sommelier Francisca seemed a bit overwhelmed. She was excellent at her job, but spent so much time at each table thoroughly explaining the wines and chatting about people’s days that it was difficult to flag her down when we wanted alternate choices or just a refill of what we were drinking. We had better luck during the day with Miguel, as well as with Pepe the bartender.One of the best parts of this day was walking back from the main lodge to our villa, when we were rewarded with a stunning overhead view of the most dazzling dark sky filled with millions of stars. Without any ambient light near Awasi, the conditions are fantastic for star-gazing. (Had we known that the next two nights would be cloud-covered, we would have stayed outside a bit longer to savor the awe-inspiring and truly magnificent scene.)

Sunday April 2: Torres del Paine

Today, we would get our first in-depth look at part of the Torres del Paine National Park. (FYI, “Paine” is pronounced “PIE-nay”, not “pain”.) We started off at Almarga Lake (“almarga” means “bitter” in Spanish). We drove through the park, stopping to see Lago Pehoe (where you can stay at Camping Lago Pehoe [campsite lean-tos with tents, restrooms/showers, a small general store, and a cafe] or at the Lago Pehoe Hosteria [with traditional yet rustic accommodations and services]), Lake Azul, a waterfall on the Paine River (Mirador Cuernos), Lake Toro, Lake Sarmiento (with the calcium ring), Estancia Rio Paine (a park ranger station), and the Weber Bridge. We even attempted a peek at the exterior of the Explora Patagonia lodge (which enjoys an excellent location inside the park). Good but basic restroom facilities are available in a few places in the park, such as Camping Lago Pehoe and Estancia Rio Paine. As we drove today, we observed the devastation caused by a horrendous forest fire that burned 68,000 acres in 2011. (An Israeli tourist accidentally started the blaze while cooking; he returned the following year to help plant trees and begin the regrowth.) The park has sustained other fires: one in 2005 (in which a Czech tourist damaged 60,000 acres), and an earlier fire in 1985.

But the most amazing sites of Torres del Paine included the Almirante Nieto, Frenchman’s Valley, Bader Valley, Los Cuernos (“the horns” of the South, Central, and North Towers), and the Grand Paine mountain ranges. We saw lots of wildlife, including guanacos (related to the llama, alpaca, vicuna, and camel), flamingos, sheep, horses, cows, grey foxes, red foxes, rhea (related to the ostrich and emu), and cari cari (birds), but the elusive puma evaded us on every day of our stay.Our guide/driver Patrick set up a fantastic al fresco lunch for the three of us to enjoy during our day of touring. He chose to use one of the lean-to dining structures at Camping Lago Pehoe, so we dined in comfort at a wooden picnic table with a superbly clear view of the Paine mastiff. After sundowners back at the lodge and a delicious multi-course dinner, we went to bed early.

Monday April 3: More Torres del Paine

Note that we are not hikers and also have some physical/medical limitations, so attempting one of the famous Torres del Paine treks (W, O, Q, and so on) was never part of our plan. We had optimistically hoped to participate in a full-day hike in the park to Frenchman’s Valley or the Base Torres, but after we spoke with our private guide, he (wisely) advised that we were not fit enough or experienced enough to take on the intensity and danger of a full-day, begin-in-the-dark, narrow pathway excursion. Still, from the comfort of our private vehicle, we feel that we saw a huge amount of awesome scenery, but we acknowledge that other tourists may feel that we wasted our time, money, and effort traveling there without being able to hike.

On our second full day in the park, we chose to visit Grey Glacier, which would occupy most of the day. (Note that Awasi guests are assessed an additional charge for this excursion of about $110 USD per person.) Patrick drove us approximately two hours each way to the boat launch; however, the drive is through the national park and therefore scenic the entire way. Because the tide was low when we reached Lago Grey and its lodge, we were unable to board the ferry boat from the lodge’s dock. Instead, we took at 20-minute hike (on a gravel path with some elevation increases and then across a rocky beach) to reach the boat. (The hike over the rocky beach would be very difficult for someone with mobility issues.) We enjoyed the glacial scenery for a few hours, alternately watching from inside the boat’s cabin and from outside on the upper deck. Our boat tickets included a coupon for a cocktail, and staff chipped some actual glacier ice into glasses before pouring a pisco sour-like drink on top - very cool! Before we embarked, Patrick provided us each with a brown-bag lunch to eat on the boat. Although this excursion was not included in the Awasi program, we felt that we could not travel to Patagonia and not see a glacier, so it was a worthwhile outing for us. On our drive back to the lodge, Patrick stopped beside a river and set up a surprise sundown for us (wine, cheese, crackers), distracting us from his preparations by telling us to walk to a nearby river to see the salmon.

As with previous evenings, after happy hour drinks and dinner at the lodge, we retired early, but not before enjoying a nightcap in front of one of the blazing fireplaces in the living room area.

Tuesday April 4: Torres del Paine to Santiago

Because we had a late flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago, we were able to enjoy a morning excursion on our last day. We chose to visit an area adjacent to the lodge and on private land (Baguales); this excursion is available to Awasi guests only, not to guests of other hotels. We drove through some private farmlands, which required Patrick to jump in and out of the vehicle in order to open and close gates that fenced in farms and animals. He once again surprised us by setting up an al fresco continental breakfast of fresh fruit, pastries, and coffee in a location where we could admire the landscape. This was the first day when the weather turned incredibly cold; fortunately, Patrick had an extra coat in the car (and we had some light gloves and hats) for us to keep warm; it gave us a small taste of how brutal and unforgiving the climate can be in the cold season.

After a last lunch in the main lodge’s dining room, Patrick drove us 2+ hours back to the Kau Lodge in Puerto Natales, where the same driver from our outbound journey was waiting to drive us the 2+ hours to the Punta Arenas Airport. This time, we could not stop for a quick restroom break because the roadside restaurant Rio Rubens had already closed for the day. When we arrived at the airport, we were too early to check in for our flight, so we ate the sack lunch snack that Awasi had packed for us (however, make a mental note that salmon and cream cheese on a long roll is meant to be eaten sooner rather than later!). When the airline counter opened, we checked our bags and easily passed through security. We had a drink at the airside cafe (which has an adjacent portion landside outside of security, so that you can potentially sit next to your non-traveling friends separated only by a pane of glass). Our flight from Punta Arenas was uneventful but cramped, because all the seats are economy without any extra legroom. We landed quite late (after midnight), and after we claimed our luggage and walked across the street to the Holiday Inn, we caught a few precious hours of sleep.

Wednesday April 5: Santiago to Atacama

We took an early LATAM flight from Santiago to Calama to begin the desert portion of our trip. The Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth (some areas have not received a single drop of rain in hundreds of years), has been inhabited for over 10,000 years. Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro was first led to the Atacama Desert by tales of gold somewhere south of the Inca Empire. The origin of the name “Atacama” either refers to the black-and-white-coated Tacama duck (an indigenous species of both Chile and Peru), or might refer to the word "Atchamar" (which means “head of the country” in the indigenous Kunza language).Mari, our guide from Awasi Atacama, picked us up from the El Loa Airport in Calama. Mari would be our guide for our entire stay at Awasi Atacama, and except for the airport pickup and drop-off, we would also have a driver.

After a 1-hour drive from the airport to San Pedro de Atacama, we reached Awasi Atacama. General Manager Barbara checked us in and informed us that we had been upgraded to a larger round room instead of the rectangular room that we had booked. What luck! We relaxed in our room before we ate a delicious lunch in the semi-al fresco restaurant.

Next, we met Mari to plan our itinerary for the next few days, then we were off on our first excursion to the “Valle de la Luna” (“Moon Valley”).Valle de la Luna is located about 8 miles west of the town of San Pedro de Atacama in the “Cordillera de la Sal” (“Salt Mountains”). The area is part of the “Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos” (“Flamingo National Reserve”) and was declared a nature sanctuary in 1982. It is notable for its strange yet natural lunar landscape of sand and stone formations caused by the effects of wind and water on rocks and minerals. You see impressive textures and colors, similar to the surface of the moon and other planets, hence the name. In fact, scientists tested a prototype for a Mars rover there because of the valley's dry and forbidding terrain. You can also see dry lakes where salt composition forms a white layer over the ground. Saline outcrops appear like man-made sculptures, and you can climb through many twisting and turning caverns to appreciate the geology. Our driver transported us through this site, stopping at three different locations so that we could get out with Mari and explore. We visited the “Canon de Sal” (“Salt Canyon”), “Gran Duna” (“Great Dune”), and “Tres Marias” (“Three Marys”). Note that there are formal restrooms at a sort of ranger/welcome station when you enter the Moon Valley site, as well as more rustic facilities at one location inside.We ended our day at “Mirador de Valle de la Muerte” (“Death Valley Lookout”; however, “Valle de la Muerte” is also sometimes called “Mars Valley”), where vanloads of tourists perched on a rocky cliff side to enjoy sundowners with a view. Dozens of viewers walk along the bluff in search of the perfect location for their cameras to record the moment. As the sun sinks over the multi-hued cliffs, it provides a beautiful panorama as the colors in the sky change from pink to purple and finally to black. Our recommendation is to be mindful and present as the sun (called “inti” by the locals) begins to set, because it happens quickly and then it is gone. Savor every moment, and take a mental photograph rather than a digital one! Mari and our driver produced a lovely sundowner of cheese, crackers, nuts, fruit, and all types of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Although there was a small rustic restroom facility on the nearby cliff side, it was closed by the time the sun set.

After we returned to the hotel, we enjoyed dinner before an early bedtime. Although we are not normally guests who call out staff names as compliments, we had such great service on this trip, particularly at Awasi Atacama, that we want to mention a few by name, including Brian, Felipe, and Carlos (bartenders), Barbara (general manager), Cristobal (restaurant manager/assistant manager), Macarena, Josie, Jaime, and Florencia (servers), and Sebastian and Roberto (drivers).

Thursday April 6: Atacama Desert

As we drove today on the way from San Pedro de Atacama to the Altiplanic Lagoons, we increased in altitude from 7,900 feet to 10,600 feet to a maximum height of 14,100 feet; fortunately, we did not experience any effects from the altitude. First, we drove about 24 miles from San Pedro de Atacama to the town of Toconao, which is famous for its buildings made of liparite volcanic stone. We visited the town's small church, viewed the facade of its historic bell tower, and used its public restrooms (for a fee/donation). Next, we stopped at the roadside sign/marker/cross for the Tropic of Capricorn. Afterwards, we made a short roadside stop at the town on Socaire, where we viewed the town and church from the roadside. We also noticed quinoa growing on stalks in nearby fields/gardens; the first time we had seen it "in the wild". Then, we continued to the Tuyajtu and Aguas Calientes salt flats, with their turquoise-colored ponds inhabited by wild ducks and flamingos. (We were disappointed by the lack of flamingos that we saw, but that's nature!)

In desert climates where the rate of water evaporation exceeds the rate of precipitation, the evaporation of a pond or lake forms a salt pan. If the water is unable to drain into the Earth, it remains on the surface until it can evaporate, leaving behind minerals precipitated from salt ions dissolved in the water. The minerals (salts) accumulate on the surface over thousands of years and reflect the sun’s rays, often appearing as white expanses. Normally, Awasi guests enjoy lunch at these salt flats, but we requested an alternate dining spot that had access to a restroom facility. Mari happily obliged, finding a location near the Miscanti and Minique Ponds, part of the enormous Los Flamencos National Reserve. Here, we observed some intensely blue ponds, with snow-capped mountains and volcanos (like Licancabur, Mount Domyenko, and the Andes) out on the horizon. Mari and our driver found an excellent spot within a view of one of the ponds to spread out our well-stocked cold lunch (rolls and meat for sandwiches, leafy green salad, carrot salad, and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages). Afterwards, we enjoyed a leisurely drive back to San Pedro de Atacama, descending in elevation the entire way. In the evening, dinner at the hotel was a special event, with a sort of “barbecue” at the hotel. Guests still dined in the regular semi-al fresco dining room and at our usual tables, but instead of ordering from a menu, we received a family-style grilled feast of meats and vegetables. An unexpected treat!

Friday April 7: More Atacama Desert

Today, we visited El Tatio Geysers, which required a very early departure time in the darkness of night. When we walked out the front gate to meet Mari, we learned that she was sick and that we would have a substitute guide. (Although Mari exhibited no signs of illness the day prior, she actually ended up being quite ill, first seeing a doctor in San Pedro de Atacama, and finally travelling to Calama for a more in-depth exam and bloodwork.) During our drive, we asked our guide to stop the vehicle so that we could do some spontaneous amateur star-gazing. (We had hoped to take an actual star-gazing excursion while in San Pedro, but we did not visiting during an optimal time of the month.) We were pleased to see the Southern Cross, a grouping of stars that is only visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

The drive to the Tatio Geysers was mostly in the dark. When we arrived, the ranger station/welcome center offered restrooms, although another facility (which also offered locker rooms) was available deeper in the park near the natural hot springs where some of the more adventurous tourists were bathing despite the absolutely frigid air. After we walked through the site, avoiding bubbling calderas, we met our van at the opposite end, where our driver and guide prepared a nice breakfast (including scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, and yogurt) as we (and hundreds of our closest friends from other hotels) awaited the sunrise. We learned a bit about the geysers during our walks and waits: when soils are rich in volcanic ash and clay, hot water that rises to the surface often maintains a viscous slurry that fills bubbling mud pots that sometimes splatter. Also, colorful mounds (brightly tinted in green, blue, or orange hues) may form near natural springs as the geothermal waters spill, cool, and the dissolved minerals in the water precipitate. Sometimes geothermal water erupts from the ground as a geyser, a fountain of steam and hot water that bursts from the Earth’s surface periodically from a vent in the ground. On our return drive to San Pedro de Atacama, we stopped briefly to observe some local fauna and flora, as well as to observe the small town of Machuca from the roadside.

Because we began our day seemingly in the dark of night, we returned to Awasi by lunchtime. After lunch at the lodge, we explored the town of San Pedro. We had hoped to visit the museum, but we learned that it has been closed for some time. We peeked in a few of the shops in town, then we tried to enjoy drinks on the patio at a hotel/restaurant overlooking the main square, but the waiter would not serve us because we wanted only drinks and not food. Instead, we purchased some self-serve non-alcoholic drinks at a coffee bar/café across the plaza and sat on their small porch to people-watch. Next, we returned to the hotel for a few hours of relaxation poolside. After a delicious dinner, we went to bed early, ending our last full day in Atacama and in Chile itself.

Saturday April 8: Atacama to Santiago to Atlanta

Because our LATAM flight from Calama (Atacama Desert) to Santiago did not depart until 1:55 pm, we initially planned to take a short morning excursion to visit the Pukara Quitor, but when we awoke that day, we decided that we would rather have a leisurely morning, so we cancelled our excursion and relaxed at the hotel. We enjoyed a larger breakfast than we ate on previous days, each ordering a hot egg-based entrée instead of our usual cold breakfast of meats, cheeses, and bread.

At 11:30 am, we departed the hotel; driver Antonio transported us from Awasi Atacama on the 1-hour drive to the El Loa Airport in Calama. The drive was uneventful, without much to look at except upon our initial departure when we passed the Valle de la Luna, and near the end when we passed through a wind farm with hundreds of turbines. When we arrived at the airport, Antonio parked the car in the parking lot and loaded our luggage onto a rolling cart, which he then turned over to us to steer into the terminal, when we parted ways and he went to pay his parking fee. The LATAM counter was already open because there are several regularly spaced flights per day from Calama to Santiago. An agent at a kiosk helped us to enter our flight information in order to print out luggage tags, and he tagged our bags before directing us into a line where we could actually drop the bags. Landside (outside of security), the airport offers a coffee shop, restrooms, and a parking pay station. We used an elevator to reach the second story and the security checkpoint. Upstairs, landside on the second floor, a cafe space is positioned adjacent to an identical cafe airside (inside the secure area). Guests in both areas can see each other, but cannot move between the spaces. We passed through security, where we did not need to show our ID or boarding passes, nor did we need to remove our shoes or liquids (in fact, we carried full bottles of water through with us); however, we did remove our laptop. Airside, we found a Britt Shop (souvenirs, snacks, and other sundry items), two additional souvenir/handicraft shops, a commercial Sunglass Hut, two sets of restrooms, and an executive lounge (Pacific VIP), which is accessible to passengers with airline status or Priority Pass; the lounge looked small and a bit claustrophobic, so we spent our time waiting at the cafe instead.We boarded our domestic flight through a jet way, with status customers boarding before the general public. (The plane contained no first-class cabin, but some passengers still had priority frequent flyer status that permitted advance boarding.) We were fortunate that no passenger was seated between us, which afforded us more room in our cramped row.

Upon arrival in Santiago, we deplaned via jet way, even though we did not board there using one. (Instead, we boarded from a bus that transported us to the tarmac, where the back half of the seats boarded through the rear exit door). We arrived on the second level of the domestic side of the terminal, but we claimed our bags on the first/ground level. We used a luggage cart to transport our bags outside of the secured area so that we could re-check them for our international flight. Because Delta did not begin to staff its check-in desks until about 3 hours prior to the flight, we had about 1 hour to wait before we could deposit our luggage, so we ordered some food and drinks at Restaurant La Pausa landside on the third level of the airport. When it was time to check-in, we consulted the monitors to determine the number of the Delta check-in desks, and we were fortunate that we could join a dedicated line for business-class customers. After we checked our bags, we entered the international security line (where there was not a special priority lane unless you were a crew member, pregnant woman, or handicapped) to produce our passports and immigration cards. Next, we passed through the security scanner, where we were asked to remove laptops but not shoes or liquids (however, no full water bottles were permitted). Inside of security, the international departures area offers many more shops, restaurants, and bars than in the domestic terminal. We spent some time in the cozy Delta lounge before we boarded our aircraft. Note that you will undergo a secondary security screening on the jet way before you board the plane.

Sunday April 9: Atlanta to Allentown, PA

After our aircraft touched down in Atlanta, we deplaned, passed through immigration, claimed our checked baggage, breezed through customs (we have Global Entry), and rechecked our bags for our domestic connecting flight. (Oh, how we wish that American airports had transit lounges so we would not have to claim and recheck at the first point of entry!) We used the airport train to transfer to the correct domestic terminal, and we spent our layover time in the small Delta lounge there.

Conclusion

We had an awesome trip to Chile, a place that we had talked about visiting for years. To us, Patagonia was an absolute must-see, from the penguins in Tierra del Fuego to the condors in Punta Arenas to the awe-inspiring majesty of the mountains and glaciers in Torres del Paine. Seeing the moai on Easter Island was a bucket list item, and the tropical splendor of the island and the mystery of the civilization were intriguing. Finally, our time in the Atacama Desert was fascinating as well, with its snow-capped volcanoes, lunar landscape, salt lakes, and erupting geysers. What we experienced on our journey was only a small portion of the things that Chile has to offer. It is the longest country in the world at 2,647 miles (in fact, the origin of the country’s name means “where the land ends” in the Mapuche indigenous language), with so much more to see and do, including its active wine region (with over 100 wineries), its Lake District, and its ski resorts. Hopefully we can return someday!
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Old Apr 4th, 2018, 06:20 PM
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Great report fluffnfold! Quite informative and the day-by-day accounts make reading it an easy pleasure. You certainly covered a lot of ground within the time that you had. Muchas gracias!
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Old Apr 5th, 2018, 03:16 AM
  #3  
 
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Oh dear..it sounds like Far South is still inflicting Sebastian Saiter on their customers. We had him two years ago, and he was just as horrible. As was the kiddies lunch. Sorry you also had to pay big bucks for THAT experience. In my Tripadvisor review
" I do not recommend using this company unless you are guaranteed a different guide."

https://www.tripadvisor.com.ar/ShowU...es_Region.html

Last edited by mlgb; Apr 5th, 2018 at 03:19 AM.
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Old Apr 7th, 2018, 07:20 AM
  #4  
 
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Thanks for writing such a detailed trip report.
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