Of all the countries is South America, why would I choose Chile as the first to visit for some personal vacation time. Personal safety comes to top of mind as a motivator. Chile is safe to visit, even for those that speak no Spanish, with a low incident of crime. Chile is tourist friendly, with a young vibe, particularly in the capital city of Santiago. In fact, I’ve never traveled to any country that accepted more variety of credit cards, in more places than Chile. I eventually stopped withdrawing local currency from ATMs in favor of using my Amex card in restaurants and shops, and found nowhere it wasn’t accepted.
But the strongest motivator for Chile would be its great outdoors. Having read all about the Lakes district near Puerto Varas, mesmerized with the photos of Chilean Patagonia, and hypnotized with YouTube videos of Torres del Paine National Park, a trip to Chile was inevitable for me.
I selected the time around Christmas and New Year for the trip for 2 basic reasons. Opportunistically, I had time off from work as paid holiday and didn’t have to dip deep into vacation time. Late December, and Early January in Chile is essentially the beginning of Summer, and pretty good weather to do the outdoor activities I had in mind in South America – In particular it is a good time of the year to visit Chilean Patagonia, and Torres del Paine National Park.
Air transportation in and out of Santiago was convenient from Atlanta, my home airport, with direct flights available. Flights from Santiago to Puerto Montt in the Lakes District, and Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia were available through LATAM Airways, and surprisingly inexpensive. For example, a round trip itinerary from Santiago to Puerto Montt, Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, and finally the last leg back from Punta Arenas back to Santiago was under $200 per person. I had a very positive experience with LATAM airlines, a professionally run organization with good on-time performance, good personal service, and decent WIFI enabled entertainment onboard.
For ground transportation, rental cars were necessary in the lakes district, and in Patagonia. In the case of arrival at Puerto Montt, it’s basically a 30-minute drive to Puerto Varas, and no real options for alternate transportation like taxis. A rental car is also necessary to do a circuit of the lake, and to visit the volcanoes while in Puerto Varas. In the case of Punta Arenas, it would have been possible to take a bus to Puerto Natales, and another bus to Torres del Paine National Park, but this isn’t my style. It’s simply too inconvenient, time consuming (turn a 2 hour car drive into a 3 hour bus ride), and aggravating to deal with other people’s schedules. As it turned out, driving Ruta del Fin del Mundo was a must-have experience for me which framed part of the Patagonia experience in my mind, and couldn’t have been done without a rental car.
The basic itinerary selected was to spend 2 nights in Santiago, take an hour and 45-minute plane ride directly south to Puerto Montt, then rent a car and drive the leisurely 30 minutes to Puerto Varas. Spend 2 nights in Puerto Varas exploring the little city and its surrounding lake and volcanoes, then take the 2 hour+ flight directly to Punta Arenas. Rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle in Punta Arenas, and drive to Puerto Natales directly. Spend 4 nights in Puerto Natales, within a 2-hour drive to Torres del Paine National Park. I planned to visit 2 of the more accessible and jaw-dropping sights on the so-called W-trail in Torres del Paine National Park: Mirador del Torres at one end of the park, and the catamaran to the glaciers on Lago Grey at the other.
Other options would have been to spend some time in the Atacama high desert, but my motivation wasn’t there for a desert adventure, and the logistics would have been prohibitive as well, requiring a 2-hour plane ride from Santiago going north, while the both the Lakes District and Patagonia were several hours south, in the opposite direction, by plane. I also considered and passed on Valparaiso as a destination for this particular trip. It just didn’t fit with the “outdoor theme” as well as the Lakes District and Patagonia. Easter Island was never a consideration, although I was aware it could have been an option. Easter Island would have been a lot of time spent for little travel experience in return.
There are way too many behave-alike airfare search engines out there with little differentiation among them. For my time and effort, I find that I can’t do better than using google flights. I can’t beat it for accuracy, speed, and functionality. I searched and tracked the mainstream carrier round-trip flights to Santiago, as well as the local LATAM carrier flights from Santiago to Puerto Montt, and Punta Arenas through google flights, having made use to the tracking and notification feature to get good prices.
I find myself going to booking.com first for both hotel and apartment reservations anymore. I like their map function which displays available properties visually for easy decision making. Even better is the fact that it can filter both apartments and hotels together on the same map, giving a great comparison for availability and price across both property types. The actual decision to go with an apartment or a hotel room can be a little tricky, and on this occasion felt more comfortable with hotel rooms. Apartments for me require a higher level of independence, with no support for things like concierge service, for example. Given that this was my first vacation in South America, hotels made more sense from a support perspective.
I did not depend on cellular coverage being continuously available for navigation purposes, and it turned out to be a reasonable assumption as carrier service did drop when we got way outside the cities. However, google maps has a feature where you can download map areas to your device and use google maps while offline. This turned out to work very well, although turn-by-turn voice instructions don’t work in the offline mode, the app got the job done in getting us around Patagonia where the cell signal was the worst.
I booked a rental car in Puerto Montt, as well as Punta Arenas – both through rentalcars.com. The booking experience was ok, although it is one of those sites that require an up-front deposit to confirm the reservation, which I don’t like. The site did pose a problem on one of the rentals as it tried to charge for the entire rental at reservation time. It took 15 minutes on the phone with a customer service agent to straighten out the issue. I would prefer to book directly with a rental car company of my choice, but those operating in Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas were not on my “A” list for direct dealing, so I went with rentalcars.com which had reasonably good prices.
Tripadvisor has become an indispensable travel resource for me. The phone app is particularly useful for finding things close to your current location. The most import of which is finding a good place to eat on the spot, and in short order. When I use it for this purpose, I select near me now/restaurants and filter on “open now”. Then I sort by distance – not highest rated. When I’m hungry enough to find an unplanned restaurant, I want closest, then best. But the bottom line is that I use the food pictures posted by the reviewers to make the final decision. Pictures are equivalent to a thousand reviews, and I can quickly find something close by accommodating my needs.
An Opportunity Missed
I didn’t realize this was possible until my arrival in Punto Arenas for the flight back to Santiago. For those of us that strive to visit every continent as a bucket list item, a trip to Antarctica, however short, is on our to-dos as we travel. Having done some research on taking a cruise to Antarctica, I was uncomfortable with the heavy seas crossing the Drake Passage, uncomfortable to the point that it was no longer an option on the list. But there’s a plane-only possibility for visiting Antarctica from Punta Arenas. Unfortunately, this was something that needed to be planned and scheduled well in advance, and couldn’t be done on the spur of the moment as the thought struck me. There are no regularly scheduled flights one might be able to find through google flights, for example. So, had I to do it all over again, I would schedule a round trip plane ride from Punta Arenas to Saint George Island, Antarctica, and cross the seventh continent off my bucket list. Maybe next time.