Itinerary: Santiago de Chile – Valle de Casablanca – San Pedro de Atamaca – Valle de la Luna – Valle de la Muerte – Lago Miscanti & Miñiques – Salar de Atacama – Parque Nacional Villarrica – Nacional Conguillío – Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello-Nalcas – Puerto Natales – Parque Nacional Torres del Paine – Easter Island
Whether it was done deliberately, I don’t know, but Chile does look a bit like a chili pepper. The Latin American country occupies a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. On average it’s only 175 kilometers wide and no less than 4,300 kilometers long! From the driest desert in the world in the north, to the glaciers and Cape Horn in the far south. Chile was part of the Spanish colonies in South America for a long time. The country became independent in 1818, but it would take decades before the country reached its current shape and size. Today, the country has just under eighteen million inhabitants, forty percent of whom live in the capital Santiago de Chile.
The flight from the Netherlands to Santiago takes about eighteen hours, with a stopover in Buenos Aires. A long flight, but it’s not too bad; it looks like I actually slept for a while (which doesn’t happen often), because we arrive sooner than I expected. Just after 11 p.m. local time I arrive at the international airport of Santiago. The line for customs is long, but my luggage is there quickly. My hostel has arranged a transfer from the airport to the city and an hour and a half after I landed, I am dropped off at my hostel. Even though it’s been a long journey, I do go out on my first afternoon in Santiago; the Bellavista neighborhood is nearby. The sun is shining and it is no less than thirty degrees. Welcome to Chile!
Chile is a modern country, but social inequality is very high (an elite of the richest 1% of Chileans own half the wealth of the country). In October 2019, large-scale protests broke out in Santiago. The reason was the increase in the price of metro tickets, but the dissatisfaction turned out to run much deeper. It was the young generation that – tens of thousands at a time – took to the streets, the generation that has not experienced the dictatorship (under General Augusto Pinochet, from 1973 to 1989) and demands modern rights and freedoms. They also no longer accept the imbalance in income, the corruption and the use of force by the police.
The protests got completely out of hand, partly due to the violent actions of the police, which only fueled the resistance. People were killed and injured and the president declared a state of emergency. The protests have abated in intensity since then, but during my visit they are still continuing. My hostel is a stone’s throw from Plaza Italia, where demonstrations still take place every evening. And every day this leads to confrontations with the police. Walls of buildings at and near the square are covered with graffiti, bus shelters and billboards are broken.
I cross the Río Mapocho, the river that runs right through Santiago. I like cities with water, but the Río Mapocho turns out to be a mud-brown stream that runs deep down a concrete gutter. Not really attractive. There are many restaurants and bars in the Bellavista district and murals everywhere. On the north side of Bellavista is the Cerro San Cristóbal, a five hundred meter high hill, from where you have a fantastic view over Santiago. To get to the top, you can take a funicular. Apparently it’s a very popular trip on Sunday afternoons, because the queue is long. The funicular, built in 1925, takes you up in a few minutes. The view is worth the wait: the city stretches out below, all the way to the Andean mountains. While I come for the view, many local visitors come for the large statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the hill.
Once back downs I feel the consequences of the long journey and little sleep. So I call it a day and go back to my hostel. The next morning I walk down the Alameda, the wide boulevard that runs down the city from east to west. Here too, near Plaza Italia, the consequences of the months-long protests are clearly visible. Everywhere, slogans are painted on the walls, with demands ranging from a new constitution and the right to abortion to revolution and justice. At a security company, every single window is shattered and the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral has also been covered with graffiti over the full length of the building.
Along the busy Alameda old colonial buildings, such as the National Library and the building of the University of Santiago, alternate with ugly new buildings (well, not really ‘new’). I wouldn’t say this part of the city is particularly beautiful. I walk up to the Palacio La Moneda. Built at the end of the eighteenth century, this classical building was originally the mint, but now it’s the presidential palace. President Salvador Allende was killed here during the coup d’état in 1973; a statue of him now stands next to the palace. Behind the Palacio La Moneda, below the Plaza de la Ciudadanía, is an underground exhibition space, the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda, with galleries which are partly free to visit.
As far as Santiago has a ‘downtown’, this is it. The pedestrianized shopping streets have a modern feel and a little further north is the inevitable Plaza de Armas (no South American city or village without a Plaza de Armas). It is an attractive square, which has been here since the foundation of Santiago in 1541. In addition to a cathedral, you will also notice the statue of freedom fighter Simon Bólivar (no Plaza de Armas without a statue of Bólivar), surrounded by palm trees and benches. I walk further north, almost to the Río Mapocho, where the Mercado Central is located. This is the central market for fresh fish and besides being a nice place to stroll past the stalls, it is also a very good place to have lunch.
Continuing my tour in the city after lunch, I walk past the Museo de Bellas Artes and through the Parque Forestal. Contrary to what the name suggests, this park is not exactly woodsy, which is at least partly caused by the heavy traffic passing on both sides of the narrow park. Nevertheless, it is a great place to relax on a bench in the shade. At the end of the afternoon I go to wine bar Bocanariz in the neighborhood of Lastarria, time to taste some Chilean wines!
Although not as large as in October, protests take place again tonight at the intersection of Plaza Italia and the Alameda. Several dozen youths with their faces covered hang around the intersection and close off the Alameda. A fire is lit and some demonstrators beat stones rhythmically against steel fences and railings. It doesn’t take long for the police in armored vehicles to arrive and use water cannons to evict the protesters from the intersection. The protesters respond by throwing stones at the police vehicles.
If you don’t want to get wet, run. Because a water cannon reaches quite far, I can now tell from experience! This goes on for almost an hour, the protesters occupying the intersection, the police cleaning the intersection, after which the protesters return and the game starts all over again. With each round, the police manage to arrest a number of protesters. They are removed under loud protest from other demonstrators and the watching public. When the night starts to fall and I’m not sure how the situation is going to develop, I decide to leave the protest. But exciting it was!
Valle de Casablanca
For the next day – another warm and sunny day – I have booked a tour to the Valle de Casablanca. Between the mountains of the Cordillera de la Costa and the Pacific Ocean is a vast valley where some of Chile’s best wines are produced. I’ve booked a group tour, but it turns out I’m the only one, so it’s going to be a private tour (the same happened to me in New Zealand…). Along the way I talk extensively with guide Guillermo about Chile, the protests and of course wine.
The first stop is at Emiliana, a vineyard where organic wines are produced. After a tour (with an American and French couple) we get to taste four wines. But because it’s warm outside, we get a rosé first. And later on, if one of us isn’t too enthusiastic about the chardonnay, we get another chardonnay for comparison. So four wines become six and it’s not even noon… The blend of malbec and syrah is fantastic, by the way.
The second vineyard is Casas del Bosque. Here too I join a tour, after which a tasting follows. This time with a young American couple. The guy turns out to be of Dutch descent, which leads to a nice conversation. Here we get to taste four wines, of which the carmenere and especially the syrah are super tasty. At the third vineyard, Indomita, we only make a stop for the panoramic view over the valley. I’ve had enough wine for now.
On Wednesday morning the alarm goes off very early, at 4 a.m.. My hostel kindly provides breakfast even at this time and an hour later I’m in a taxi to Santiago airport. In two hours I fly to Calama, in the north of Chile. It takes a while before the transfer to my destination, San Pedro de Atacama, shows up, but in the end I’m on my way. This part of Chile can be described with one word: dry. Cork-dry even. The Desierto de Atacama is the driest desert in the world. Some parts have never ever seen rain! And it shows: we drive in a landscape that seems to consist only of rocks, stones and sand. Nowhere is vegetation to be seen. To the left the snowy peaks of the Andes.
After a while we drive across a low mountain range. On the other side there is a bit of rain every now and then, and it shows: there’s some low vegetation. But it is not much. At noon, however, we drive into a green oasis. The village of San Pedro de Atacama has less than 6,000 inhabitants and consists of low adobe houses and shops on unpaved streets. A greater contrast with Santiago is almost impossible. This is another world.
After I have checked in at my hostel, a bit outside the center of San Pedro, I visit the office where I have booked the tours for the next few days and then I have lunch. San Pedro is not far from the border with Bolivia. Eight years ago I was on the other side of that border, in the Salar de Uyuni. This part of Chile will turn out to be just as spectacular.
It is partly cloudy and warm, around thirty degrees, when in the afternoon I join a tour to the Valle de la Luna. Here the Desierto de Atacama is not only dry, but also very beautiful. We walk up a high dune, from where you have a spectacular view over the Valle de la Luna. The eroded rocks look massive, but beneath the reddish-brown outer layer they contain salt and gypsum, making them fragile. The subterranean tectonic plates interact here, pushing up the crust, creating spectacular scenery, with the perfectly conical volcano Licancábur (almost 6,000 meters high) with its snow-capped peak in the background.
In the nearby Valle de la Muerte (which name is a mistake, the valley was originally called Valle de Marte, after the planet Mars, not death…) you walk between strange rock formations, with red-brown pointed rocks. Here it seems as if you’re walking on another planet (hence the name Mars Valley). At the end of the tour, we watch the sunset from a high spot with expansive views. Unfortunately a lot of visitors do that, which makes it quite touristy. But apart from that, the Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte are well worth seeing.
The next day I have to get up early again for the tour to the altiplano, the high plateau. It’s a remote area. There is no mobile coverage and apart from the vans with tourists you only come across a few vicuñas every now and then. It’s a landscape of mainly grey-brown rocks, the shape of which makes it clear that the earth’s crust has been in motion here for millions of years. And it still is; the colliding tectonic plates cause earthquakes in Chile every day. Most of them you don’t feel (too weak and too deep underground), but with some regularity there are also more serious earthquakes. Above those grey-brown rocks rise the snowy peaks of volcanoes, one after the other: the Lascar, the Lejía, the Chiliques, the Miscanti. Nowhere else have I seen so many volcanoes in one place. Chile is said to have as many as 2,600!
At 4,200 meters above sea level, we stop at Laguna Miscanti, a beautiful lake with azure water, caused by the clear melt water of the adjacent volcano of the same name. In the distance, a few flamingos wade through the water. The nearby Laguna Miñiques is also very beautifully situated, with a background of snow-capped volcanoes. We also see a few flamingos here. Once Miscanti and Miñiques were one lake, but the lava from an eruption of the Miscanti volcano has separated them.
Next we drive to the Salar de Atacama, a large salt flat. Laguna Chaxa looks alien. Due to the high salinity, the water is milky white, with colored deposits of minerals along the banks. Chaxa is also beautifully situated, with mountains in the background. We also stop at Laguna Tuyaito, also very photogenic. The way back leads down wide valleys, dry and barren, with some grazing vicuñas against the backdrop of moon-like gray mountains. On the way we cross the Tropic of Capricorn, at 45 degrees south latitude. At the end of the afternoon we are back in San Pedro de Atacama.
Friday morning I spend in the courtyard of my hostel. I have a few hours to relax before being picked up to go back to Calama airport. With a transfer in Santiago I fly to Araucanía airport near Temuco. That transfer is only half an hour, so I’m glad that both me and my luggage make the connection. From the airport it is still more than an hour’s drive to Pucón, where I arrive just after 11 p.m.. I immediately go to bed before I start the third leg of this journey.
Pucón is a not too big village, and it is almost entirely focused on tourism. The center is a succession of restaurants, hostels, bars and hotels. For Chileans it is the last weekend of the summer holiday and the weather is beautiful, so it is not surprising that Pucón is buzzing. The nearly three thousand meter high Volcán Villarrica towers over Pucón. With its conical shape, snow-capped peak and small plume of smoke, not only does it look very photogenic, it also reminds the inhabitants of Pucón of the permanent danger that comes with living in a volcanic area.
The central part of Chile is completely different from the north: instead of dry and barren, the environment here is very green. In this region I will visit a number of national parks (29% of Chile consists of protected natural areas), starting with Parque Nacional Villarrica. For my visit to this park, I drive to El Cerduo, just east of Pucón, following the advice of someone at my hostel. A dirt road leads along the rivers Correntoso and Turbio into a quiet part of the park. At the end of the bumpy road you can take two short walks down a truly beautiful valley. You walk on black lava sand and rocks of solidified lava of the Villarrica, with great views. Plus: there is hardly anyone else. One walk runs through forest and ends at a beautiful waterfall. The other leads to a group of smaller waterfalls and pools. It’s a beautiful environment.
The next morning (Sunday) I get up on time and drive to Parque Nacional Huerquehue. The first part is still just a paved road, but after that you have to go up the mountain on a dirt road. Don’t do that if it has been raining! In the protected nature reserve, which was formed in 1912, you can walk a trail to three mountain lakes. But they are not called mountain lakes for nothing; to get there you have to go up. The path itself is doable, but you do need to be in good shape, because it is quite a climb. You walk through forest, with araucanias and bamboos, and all you hear are birds and small salamanders constantly darting away.
I’m early so it’s very quiet. I almost have the park to myself. After almost two hours of climbing I arrive at the first lake, Laguna Chico. From there it’s half an hour walk to Laguna Toro. This lake is really beautifully situated, between the mountains covered with araucaria. The sun is high in a clear blue sky, the water is lapping and it is dead quiet. A beautiful place. A little further is Laguna Verde, the last mountain lake. Just as beautiful as Laguna Toro and a good place sit down and have lunch.
In two hours I walk back down. Along the way I meet many people who are walking up the trail, panting. I know how they must feel. After my strenuous walk I still have a long way to drive. From Huerquehue back along Pucón, past Temuco to the north and then to the east again. Quite a detour, but there is simply no direct road to my next overnight stay, just past the village of Curacautin. I arrive here early in the evening. The reason I drove alle the way over here is that there are two natural areas here that I want to visit: Parque Nacional Conguillío and Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello-Nalcas.
The next morning I am visiting Conguillío first. I enter the park via a dirt road. The road winds through forest for a while, until you come to an open area, with lava sand and boulders and the cause of this landscape: the more than three thousand meters high Volcan Llaima, one of the most active volcanoes in Chile. The top of the volcano is shrouded in clouds, but it is nevertheless an impressive view. You don’t want to be in this place when the volcano erupts…
I drive further into the park, on the dirt road winding through forest. Many araucarias grow here. At Playa Linda is the start of the Sendero Sierra Nevada, a hiking trail up the mountain to a number of viewpoints. I walk part of the route over the densely vegetated mountainside, up to the Mirador los Condores. Here you have a great view over Lago Conguillío and the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada behind it.
My last day in the middle of Chile I go to the Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello-Nalcas, a half hour drive. The star of Malalcahuello is Volcan Lonquimay. You reach it via a dirt road that leads through a surreal landscape. A desert of ash-gray sand and stones that lie like rolling dunes in the area around the volcano. The weather is clear and the Lonquimay stands out beautifully against the blue sky. If it were not for the fact that gravity keeps my car on the dirt road, the scenery would make you think you’re on Mars.
After a while you come to the Mirador los Volcanes, a high point where you have a fantastic panoramic view over a wide valley where the lava flow from the most recent eruption of Lonquimay is clearly visible. And in that view you can see no fewer than three volcanoes: the reddish brown Lonquimay, the snowy Tolhuaca and in the distance the Callaqui. What a place!
The lava flow in the valley is from the 1988 eruption, and that eruption did not come from the top of Lonquimay, but from a new crater on the northeast side of the volcano. And that crater, called Crater Navidad, you can see up close. To do this you have to walk for thirty or forty minutes, first down a wide valley of gray lava sand, which shows no sign of life, and then up the steep slope of the new crater. It is a difficult climb, because you walk over a mix of lava sand and volcanic stones, which you keep sinking into. And it is quite steep. But the view is great and once at the top you are right on the rim of the deep crater. A truly beautiful place and well worth the climb!
In the afternoon I drive back to Araucanía Airport, where I return my rental car. In the evening, I fly in 2.5 hours to Punta Arenas, in the region of Chilean Patagonia in the south of Chile, for the fourth leg of this journey. The flight is delayed by an hour, so I don’t ring the bell at my hostel in Punta Arenas until after midnight. I’m glad someone opens the door at this hour. Tired I go to bed.
The next morning I walk down the somewhat uninspiring center of Punta Arenas to pick up my rental car. The drive to Puerto Natales takes 3.5 hours. Ruta 9, a two-lane road, first runs along the Strait of Magelhaes, the strait between Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, discovered in 1520 by the Portuguese explorer after whom the straight is named. The rest of the long ride goes through a slightly sloping landscape with some vegetation here and there and nothing else. Sun and clouds alternate and the wind blows hard. This region of Chile refers to itself as ‘Fin del mundo’, the end of the world, and that’s a fitting name considering the atmosphere here. You are literally and figuratively far away from the rest of the world. And from the rest of Chile: Chilean Patagonia can only be reached from the rest of Chile by boat or by plane, not by road.
Early in the afternoon I arrive in Puerto Natales. I check in at my hostel, do my shopping and take a walk down what used to be a fishing village, but is now dominated by tourism. Puerto Natales also has the atmosphere of a remote village at the end of the world. Simple houses dominate the streets, plus many hostels.
As you drive north from Puerto Natales, the mountains of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine soon start to loom in the distance. Those mountains are the reason to travel all the way to this remote part of the world. Yet it is still quite a drive to the border of the park, more than a hundred kilometers, on a partly paved, partly unpaved road, down a wide valley with azure blue lakes and ever higher mountains.
I park my car at the Salto Grande (which contrary to what the name suggests, is a not so big waterfall), and from there follow the path to the Mirador Cuernos. The day started gray, but in the course of the morning the sun breaks through the clouds, and the wind is blowing hard today. I walk along the southern part of Lago Nordenskjöld with the impressive Cuernos del Paine in front of me. There are few people, but I do come across a few grazing guanacos. The view of the Cuernos del Paine is fantastic. The trail’s end point is right in front of these impressive mountains, on the other side of the water from Lago Nordenskjöld. All three about 2,500 meters high. And on the left the massive Cerro Paine Grande. A really beautiful place! I take the time to enjoy the view and (apart from the wind) the tranquility.
The easy hike to the Cuernos del Paine is a warming-up for the long hike I take the next day. The walk to the viewpoint that everyone who comes here wants to see: Mirador las Torres. It is still dark when I drive towards the starting point of the trail. But when I get to Lago Sarmiento, the sun has just risen and you can see the impressive Torres on the other side of the water, some distance away, in the early morning light. Magnificent! I park my car at the Las Torres hotel, where the starting point is. It is just after 8 a.m. when I start the walk. The walk to Mirador las Torres is eighteen kilometers (round trip) and on the way you bridge a height difference of 900 meters. Not exactly a Sunday stroll…
The first part you gradually climb up a mountain slope. Now and then it is a bit of a steep climb, then the path is flat again or it goes down a bit, and then you walk up again. It is reasonably doable and the view is great, especially the part where you walk down the Valle de Ascencio. The second part of the walk starts from Refugio Chileno, in the shelter of the forest you gradually walk further up. After this relatively easy part you are still one kilometer away from the end point. But that one kilometer does go up steeply and the path gives way to a tricky climb over rocks. It’s for a reason that a sign indicates that the last kilometer will take you 45 minutes…
I had prepared for the worst, but the hike up is actually not that bad. The climb is quite manageable (or maybe my physical condition is better than I expected). They say it takes 4 to 4.5 hours for the way there, but I’m already at the top after three hours. And there I am rewarded with a fantastic view of the almost three thousand meter high Torres del Paine. Three narrow, pointed rocks, with a clear green mountain lake in front of it. The iconic image. Menacing clouds hang above and behind the mountains, but fortunately the icons of Chilean Patagonia are clearly visible.
I stay at the top for an hour to enjoy the view, rest, eat and take pictures of other visitors on request. The walk back follows the same route. Because the way up sometimes also went down, the way back sometimes also goes up. Also the fatigue kicks in. The way out went well, but because you also have to go all the way back, it is all together quite tough. But after more than seven hours (including the hour above) I’m back where I started. Tired, but very satisfied.
On my last day in Torres del Paine I was supposed to take a boat trip to Glaciar Grey, but due to high winds the boat doesn’t sail. So I have a day off. Time to read, update my travelogue and walk about Puerto Natales. On Sunday morning I drive back to the airport of Punta Arenas and return my rental car. In the afternoon I fly back to Santiago, where I spend the night near the airport. The next morning I have to be at the airport again anyway. For the last leg of my journey, I fly no less than 3,700 kilometers west, across the Pacific Ocean, to Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island.
Rapa Nui / Easter Island has been part of Chile since 1888, but it is actually a Polynesian island. Since 2007, it has been a ‘territoria especial’ within Chile, which at least partly recognizes the different culture and history of Easter Island. The remote island (which has about eight thousand inhabitants) roughly has the shape of a triangle and is 24 kilometers long and 12 kilometers wide at its widest point. The island has one village, Hanga Roa, where you will find a variety of hotels, restaurants, car rental companies and tour operators.
The rest of the island is green and hilly, with mainly grassland and some farms and horses and cows everywhere. Except for the main road, which crosses the island from southwest to northeast, the roads are in a sorry state; the road surface is full of potholes. The island itself is not particularly beautiful, but it is the special archaeological sites that you come to Rapa Nui for. These have been housed in a national park since 1935, for which as a visitor you pay an entrance fee of no less than 54,000 pesos (60 euros).
It is estimated that sometime between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, inhabitants of other Polynesian islands settled on Rapa Nui and developed their own culture there. Characteristic of the Rapa Nui (the name of both the people and the island) were the ‘ahu’, a kind of altars or ceremonial platforms, with ‘moai’, man-sized solid stone statues placed on top. As far as is known, the Rapa Nui have made at least 887 moai. Of these, 288 ended up on an ahu, the rest are elsewhere on the island.
To this day it remains a mystery how the quarry’s very heavy moai were transported to their destination. According to experts, this was not done lying down, but upright. But still: how? A ‘pukao’ has been placed on the head of some moai, a (usually) round stone that kind of resembles a hat, but possibly symbolizes a kind of hairstyle. In contrast to the dark gray stone of the moai, the pukao are made of a dark red volcanic stone from the volcano Puna Pau.
At the height of the Rapa Nui culture, in the seventeenth century, there were probably about 15,000 people living on the island. Europeans had never been to the island. By the time they set foot there, the Rapa Nui culture had already perished. There are various theories as to what exactly caused it, from tribal wars to natural disasters, but overpopulation combined with depletion of scarce natural resources seems most likely.
On my first day on Rapa Nui I visit Ahu Akahanga and what are the two highlights: Ahu Tongariki and Rano Raraku. Ahu Akahanga is one of the most important ahus on Rapa Nui, because the first king is said to have been buried here. The site has not been restored and the moai lie flat on the ground. Remains of houses and underground ovens can also be seen.
Ahu Tongariki is the largest ahu ever built. Here is an impressive row of no less than fifteen moai. It couldn’t be more photogenic! The statues originally looked out on a village, of which only remnants can now be seen. Impressive to come face to face with these iconic and mysterious images on this remote island.
After Ahu Tongariki, Rano Raraku turns out to be maybe even more photogenic. The volcano Rano Raraku is where the moai were made. The statues were carved into the rock of the volcano. In one of the quarries in the mountainside you can see the contours of a moai that was still ‘work in progress’. More than twenty moai stand and lie on the slope of the volcano. Some nearly finished, some not yet, others half buried. It seems as if people are still busy working on the moai every day.
The next (overcast) day I first drive past Ahu Tahai, on the north side of Hanga Roa. Here are two solitary moai and an ahu with five moai. At Ahu Akivi there are seven moai in a row. These too looked out over a village, but they are the only moai on Rapa Nui that face the ocean; all the other moai are standing with their backs to the ocean. On the north side of the island is Playa Anakena, a small beach surrounded by palm trees. At the head of the beach is Ahu Nau Nau, with seven moai. Ahu Ature Huki, a little further, has only one moai.
Finally, I visit the volcano Rano Kau, a few kilometers south of Hanga Roa. On top of the crater rim you have a nice view over the large crater lake. Between the crater rim and the steep cliff at the edge of the ocean are the remains of the village of Orongo. The restored houses are built of flat stones with small entrances and grassy roofs, so that the houses are kind of integrated into the environment.
I spend my last day on Rapa Nui relaxing, while the occasional tropical shower passes. My journey is almost over. An amazing journey that consisted of five stages, five regions of Chile, five completely different environments, and many beautiful places. On Thursday it is time to fly back to Santiago, the place where this journey started, and on Friday I’m flying back home.