Puerto Natales – Chilean Patagonia

The flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, the gateway to Chilean Patagonia, was without incident – my favorite kind of flight. LATAM airlines does a fabulous job in accommodating their customers. The in-flight entertainment was served up via an app that you could use on your phone or pad at no cost. It worked so well, some US air carriers might want to pay attention to the quality of service that little LATAM was able to provide. Even the attention to detail with respect to snacks was better than most carriers in the United States.

Getting the rental car in Punta Arenas was uneventful as well. I reserved a Subaru Forester with all-wheel drive. The vehicle offered to me had clearly made the run from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales many, many a time. And while it was still serviceable, I could tell that it had been through some rough driving miles. It felt pretty beat up for the miles showing on the odometer. I mentally prepared myself for rough roads in my future.

We began the drive from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales using Google Maps that I downloaded to my iPhone at home before departure. In offline mode, you can keep your cell phone in airplane mode with no need for cellular service, or Wi-Fi. You still have all the functionality of Google Maps save for the turn by turn directions feature, which is completely unneeded as you stay on Ruta 9 for 229 KMs – no turns. I downloaded the maps as a precaution, expecting to have poor cell service in the expanse of Antarctic tundra separating Punta Arenas from Puerto Natales, as well as the uninhabited regions between Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park.

 

The scenery on the drive from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales was stark, flat, endless Antarctic tundra without a tree in sight to the horizon – with the occasional reassuring traffic sign reminding you that you’re on “Ruta del Fin del Mundo.” The land was suitable for grazing, because we spotted sheep and goats on the first leg of the drive. The farther north we drove, the more variation we saw in the landscape, eventually the Antarctic tundra evolved a little roll, and we could see off in the great distance some more hillier terrain. With such a flat road, and so few vehicles on it, I was able to make very good time on the drive, getting to the hotel in Puerto Natales in under 2 hours.

 

Settling in

We arrived at the hotel just before 9 PM local time, hungry from the day’s travels. The hotel itself looked like it was made out of a shipping container. It looked like they spared all possible expenses, and targeted pure functionality. Based on my research, I selected Hotel Boutique El Muelle as it was rated well on all the sites I found it, and the amenities were good for the price. There are plenty of hotels to choose from, but this is not a resort area, nor a destination catering to those seeking high levels of accommodation. It’s the sort of place people use hostels and very inexpensive accommodations for the night or two that they spend on their way to Torres del Paine National Park.

At 9 PM on arrival, it was daylight with plenty of sun in the sky, and we needed a hearty meal as we ate lightly during the traveling part of our day. We got a recommendation for a restaurant at check-in time, and we headed there immediately after tossing our luggage into the room. The meal really hit the spot, and we probably rated the restaurant better than it deserved simply because of how hungry we were. It was well after 11 PM as we walked back to the hotel from the restaurant along the waterfront. There was still plenty of light even though sunset had long come and gone.

 

Torres Del Paine National Park – Mirador Las Torres

The following day we drove directly to hotel Las Torres, which is the closest parking to the Torres Del Paine trail head leading to the Mirador Las Torres. The drive was much more varied than the previous day’s. The Antarctic tundra had more variation with what passed for trees visible in the distance, and some mountains occasionally came into view. I’m not sure about the local fauna, but the livestock was more varied with alpacas, llamas, some cattle, and lots and lots of sheep.

 

We got a late start and we didn’t arrive at the parking lot until about noon. in retrospect, we should’ve saved this portion of our Patagonia venture for another day – essentially swapping the days for the leisurely Lago Grey catamaran trip with the Mirador Las Torres hike. As it turned out, this would be a very long day. Grabbing our equipment, we left the SUV at the parking lot, and followed the sparse crowd towards the trail head. The weather was cooperating spectacularly well for the hike, with temperatures in the low 60s, with a blustery wind against a backdrop of blue sky and sunshine.

The hike started as a meandering stroll through flatlands leading to a gravel path that undulated more as it progressed. At the beginning the scenery was interesting because it was all new, but not unique – with three flights, and 4 to 5 hours of driving behind me, I was expecting some pretty cool scenery. The vistas at the beginning of the hike were not inspiring, but we knew to expect a spectacular ending. The hike was advertised as being an 11.2-mile trek over 7-8 hours for the very fit, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain.

 

Undulating paths gave way to scree, boulder fields, and dry riverbeds. There were some rough parts of the trail. We came across multiple foot bridges to cross the creeks along the way. And we crossed some creeks by following boulder paths where the water levels permitted. The hike was demanding as we didn’t train specifically for this activity. Our typical travel adventures include plenty of discovery walking, where we log somewhere between 10 and 20 miles per day, depending on the day. But this was different for us, and we took rest stops along the way to acknowledge the rigor of the hike.

Finally, after 2 hours of hiking we hit the halfway point at Refugio Chileno. A refugio is like a hostel in the middle of the wilderness. Indoor, bunkbed style accommodations are available for a select few. Camping is possible, and they do sell some provisions. You can even grab a meal if you come at the right time of the day. We stopped at the refugio, had a bite to eat, quenched our thirst with the remainder of the water we were carrying, then refilled our bottles. The 30-minute break was heavenly. Chit-chatting with the folks working at the refugio, we got the sense that the second half of the trek starts pleasantly as a walk through the woods, and ends up at the toughest part of the hike with the ascent to the Mirador.

 

As we set off from the refugio, we did indeed have a stroll-through-the-woods start to the hike. And as we made our way farther from the refugio, closer to the vista, the trail – where there was one – did get much more rigorous and physically demanding, with more elevation gained. More scree, dry river beds, and boulder fields, but this time with much more elevation gain. At one point, we stopped, took a look at each other, needing to take stock of ourselves and decide whether we were going to do this thing. We decided that we needed to do it, simply because we had come so much of the way, we just had to see the Mirador at the end of the hike.

 

We could see glimpses of the towers as we made progress through the switchback, but because of the steepness of the climb towards the end, the Mirador was not visible at all. It wasn’t until we worked our way around an enormous boulder, making the switchback that we first saw the full view: The three towers standing majestically overlooking a turquoise, glacier fed lake. As we walked closer to the lake we could simultaneously see the towers and their reflection in the water at the same time. Wow! We ascended to the Mirador by 4:30 PM, and sat just breathless for a few minutes. The scene was inspirational, and so worth every step we took to get there. We arrived to the Mirador so late that the crowds were thin – even void for a few minutes. We had the Mirador practically to ourselves, and we took some very cool photos. We had a very pleasant 20 minutes bathing in the success of it all, and then started the trek back down.

 

Because the trail – where there was one – was so undulating, it wasn’t downhill all the way back to the parking lot. There was down, and back up, and down, and back up. We descended to the Refugio and realized that it was possible to take a horseback ride to the trailhead. Unfortunately, we had just missed the cut off by an hour or so because we had a late start to the hike. Had we arrived in time, I would have jumped on the opportunity to ride down – price would not have been a consideration.

We managed with some difficulty to climb all the way down to the trailhead, and find our way to the parking lot. We had our share of challenges because of the rigors of the hike, and the trail conditions, but we made it to the SUV by 9 PM – a total of 9 hours elapsed. 7 to 8 hours for the very fit, 9 hours for the rest of us. Not too bad considering we didn’t train for this sort of thing.

Sitting in the SUV as we prepared for the 2-hour drive back to Puerto Natales, we heard a knock on the window from a pair of wayward Connecticut hikers. They explained that they were staying just outside the park, which was 5 more miles of hiking from the parking area. The 2 young dudes were in dire need of a ride, and were happy to find that we spoke English. We agreed to give them a lift, but didn’t realize until halfway to the park entrance that they had a service dog with them, which somehow got into the vehicle without either myself or my wife taking note. We had a pleasant conversation with the Connecticut hikers. As it turned out, they jumped the gun on the W circuit, having set aside several days to do the whole thing. They wanted to get a feel for it and set off to hike it for a short stretch, and instead ended up covering more than half of it in a single day, exhausting themselves in the process. I related well to the exhaustion part.

By 11 PM, I was relaxing at the hotel, sipping on some Pisco, and unwinding from the rigors of the day. We were both surprised to find no fanfare at the midnight hour as New Year’s Day was welcomed relatively quietly in Puerto Natales – the locals were not party animals.

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Feliz año nuevo

 

Discovery Trek

We had our discovery walk around Puerto Natales on New Year’s Day. We found a little place to get some coffee and breakfast to get us started as we walked along the waterfront. We hit all of the tourist attractions, and there weren’t many. There were some shops, restaurants, and a park. That aside, we just strolled where our feet led us. We explored all around town as we searched for a particular restaurant recommended to us by a local, through the course of our walk, but it was closed for the holiday. We had lunch instead at a restaurant found through the Tripadvisor app, where we had some very nice local seafood to highlight the day.

 

Notice all of the houses built out of corrugated aluminum – lightweight, easy to ship, compact because it’s stackable.

 

Food Scene

Restaurant El Bote

This was the place recommended to us by our hotel upon our late arrival after a full day of multi-modal travel. The food was basic, but good – although I think I was so hungry, anything would have been rated well.

 

La Burbuja

We happened by this restaurant via Tripadvisor on our New Year’s Day walkabout after we couldn’t find the highly recommended place by the rare English-speaking local we bumped into on our trek.

 

Provincia Ultima Esperanza

We were on a seafood theme throughout our stay in Puerto Natales. This place was a real find for seafood variety, including cuttlefish.

 

Torres Del Paine National Park – Lago Grey Catamaran

The second adventure we had in Chilean Patagonia in Torres del Paine National Park was the catamaran trip on Lago Grey. We drove a couple of hours on a slightly different track to get to hotel Lago Grey. It was necessary to park the car and walk a couple hundred yards to get to the hotel. We purchased our tickets, but were quite a bit early to the catamaran ride, so we ended up getting some coffee and enjoying the views from the glassed-in hotel observation lounge. Tree covered hills were visible from the hotel, the mountains and glaciers didn’t come into view until the catamaran was under way.

 

The most rigorous part of this day was a 1 mile hike across a spit of sand to get to the catamaran boarding area. The weather once again was very cooperative. While cool and a bit foggy early in the morning, the day eventually turned to blue sky and sunny. But it never really warmed up, and as the wind kicked in hard on the lake, it was necessary to put on the winter down jacket and a warm hat. Once the catamaran was underway, it was like a sightseeing tour. The catamaran made multiple stops and either dropped off hikers, picked them up, or both. Eventually we got to the top of the lake which was the purpose of the ride. This was where all they eye candy was on display, this is where most of the pictures were taken, and this is the spot where we saw the small icebergs adrift.

 

We met an interesting couple of hikers that happened to be sitting at our table in the catamaran, Greg and Heather from Vancouver, British Columbia. They were picked up at one of the stops as we made our way to the top of the lake, as they finished their W circuit over a period of 4 days. They looked in pretty good shape for spending 4 days in the wilderness, completing hikes like the one we did to the Mirador. We offered Greg and Heather a lift back to Puerto Natales to avoid waiting a few hours on their bus ride. This time there was no surprise service dog, I checked. And we had a long chat about travel, future destinations, and the kinds of things that pass the time on a two-hour trip across mostly nondescript lunar landscape.

 

Comprehensive Map

The map shows all of the places we discovered and the photos taken along the way, there and back. To use the map to its potential, click the rectangle in the top right corner of the map to open it in a new tab. set your browser to full screen mode so that you can see as much of the map as possible. Browse the map sections by selecting or deselecting the check boxes on the left side of the map. A good example in exploring the map would be to select only “Lago Grey Catamaran Sights and Scenery” and “Route to Lago Grey”. Then zoom in as tight as you like to inspect very specific parts of the route, and the photos taken there. I’d love to hear feedback on this use of Google maps to provide the ability to interact with content in this way. Enjoy!

 

Epilogue

The return trip home consisted of a total of 16 hours of transit time – 14 by air, and 2 by road, with the customary layovers in between. This gave me plenty of time to reflect on the epic nature of our Puerto Natales adventure. The great outdoors of Chilean Patagonia took center stage, but it was not exclusively about that. The question is, should it be the next time. I would love a next time focused on completing the W circuit in Torres del Paine, including preparation and conditioning to a level where we would be confident in our capabilities, and better enjoy the hiking. And while I’m at it – the next time I would definitely schedule a flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island, Antarctica, knocking it off the bucket list. Definitely a next time.

Related Trips

Related Destinations

Chile Travel Planning – Santiago, The Lakes District and Patagonia

Chile travel planning

Motivation – Chile Travel Planning

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.

 

Logistics -Chile Travel Planning

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.

 

Itinerary -Chile Travel Planning

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.

 

Resources -Chile Travel Planning

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.

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Click for visual trip details

 

 

Related Destinations –Chile Travel Planning