Patagonia was certainly a bucket list thing. We purchased hats, gloves, some thermal under-layers and we were on our merry way. Our first 2 days were somewhat rocky as we navigated Punto Arenas and Puerto Natales to get maps, explore activities, make reservations, get cash, load up on groceries and fill an extra jerry-can with fuel. Let’s just say not everything is as clear or efficient as it could be.
We set out to Torres Del Paine, via the Cueva de Milodón, where we learned about the prehistoric animals that roamed the region. One of them being the milodón off course, picture a ginormous sloth.
The kids loved the cave, and dad taught the kids his favorite trick to remember stalagmites from stalactites … monter vs. tomber … yes, a French lesson! As you set out from Punta Arenas, the landscape is so incredibly wide, vast and flat, that it’s hard to imagine you’re driving to the mountains.
But then gradually the peaks of Torres del Paine emerge in the far distance. I don’t know where to begin or how to describe Torres. We’ve seen our share of mountains, and this year alone crossed Banff, Jasper, Yellowstone and Yosemite. But these Patagonian mountains are something else. The landscape is more rugged, more remote, more spikey, more desolate.
We had prepared ourselves for very windy, possibly rainy and generally cold weather. But we were treated to the most exceptional weather – cold yes, but clear blue skies, and hardly any wind. We still were happy to have our hats, gloves and down jackets – but the thermal underwear and windbreakers stayed in our luggage. Even then, we had to shield Elyse and Matthias from the winds’ power in some areas. I can not begin to imagine what it would feel like when the winds pick up!
I regret that I didn’t do more homework on the hiking routes. I would have loved to conquer the W-trail together. If we gave ourselves enough time, it feels do-able. But we had not planned ahead to have camping, refuges or hotels arranged along the W trail. Instead, we wanted to try to hike the 3 arms of the W. But … the “middle” arm of the W trail was closed due to fallen debris (I was told at the CONAF in Puerto Natales). We had intended to also do the “left” arm of the W south to north, but the catamaran to get to the starting point was stranded with a mechanical issue (I was told at the park entrance). We then came up with a plan B to hike that “left” arm partially, from north to south and have the Lago Grey glacier boat drop us off at the refuge, hike some, and catch another boat back. Sounded like a great plan, except we’d have to pay 2 boat rides for the family, and those are not at all cheap (I was told at Lago Grey hotel). Long story short, in the end, we hiked way less than we intended to…
Still, upon arrival, we hiked to the Salto Grande, and beyond to the viewpoint. An easy, fairly flat 6K for those little legs. Along the hike, to our surprise, we met another traveling family who I had been in touch with. We had intended to meet the evening prior, but that had not worked out. We did not know we would both be hiking the same trail that day. It was the biggest coincidence that we left the car park at about the same time, that our kids started chatting on the trail etc etc. In good company, any hike is a breeze. (Hello Shanon & crew!).
The next day we then opted for the “lazy” option of boating to Glacier Grey. But what a spectacular boat ride that was! As I mentioned, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the sun made the glacier ice appear a translucent, magical blue. Just the week prior, a very large piece of ice had broken off, and that could be seen floating in front of the glacier. It’s hard to describe the scale of this particular glacier, and the pictures can not do it justice. And then to realize that only 30 years ago, the glacier extended at least another kilometer, and came up several tens of meters higher… All passengers got to drink their complimentary drink with an ice cube fresh of the glacier. I had to wonder how much that contributed to the decline 🙂 …. We still clocked 5k, walking to and from the boat, and to the viewpoint of the glacier a little further ahead. We had prepared our kids for 3 days of heavy hiking, and so they kept asking “was this it?! that was easy!!”. Those 3 little midgets were not at all sad about our change of hiking plans!
So then for day #3. Hiking up to the lake and base of the famous Torres.
When at Torres Del Paine, you can’t leave without having seen the magical towers up close. The hike to and from the base is a 11k up and 11k back endeavor. We knew that that would be too much for Elyse. We heard about an option to conquer the first (and the last) 5k on horseback. Perfect! The horseback ride was a calm and easy chugging up. I felt like such a cheater as our “colonne” of 6 horses passed by hordes of hikers. The horses took us up to refugio Chileno, and waited there for us while we hiked the rest of the way up. (The signs said another 4k, my Nike app 5k. We went with 5k). The first 3-4k were easy enough, but then the final stretch is a very strenuous climb, mostly over boulders and through a stream. We fell into 2 groups. Me up front with Matthias and Vincent, and Steven stayed behind with Elyse. The boys almost quit, more than a couple of times. We did not see many kids on the trail that day (I counted 3), and a lot of hikers encouraged the boys. That certainly helped, and we made it all the way! (OK, full disclosure – some hikers grumbled that we were too slow and creating a traffic jam. Too bad. So sad.) I did not expect for Steven and Elyse to get to the top, as Steven could not possibly carry Elyse on this type of trail. But lo and behold … just when we started to make our way back down, Elyse triumphantly turned the corner. She had made it to the top, 99% by her own effort. Being strong-willed and determined can be a blessing!!
The way back down is always easier, but we still had a hard time making it back to the refugio. We took for-e-ver. But I guess that does not matter. From the refugio we headed down the mountain on horseback again. Down is a tad scarier than up, but the horses were great, and the kids too.
We had to keep Elyse awake as she was ready to doze off, rocking back and forth on her Blacky. Again an adventure and memory to cherish. We found the section we did on horseback the most beautiful, with expansive views over the valley. If I had to do it over, I would hike up to refugio Chileno on foot, and skip the climb to the base all together. The lake and the towers are impressive without a doubt, and ideally you do it all, but if forced to choose…
Our kids loved, loved the horseback riding. (And frankly, so did I). A relief, as we had another horseback ride scheduled for the next day (spoiled, I know). It wasn’t supposed to be back to back at all, but it so happened. The ride with Pingo Salvaje at Lake Sofia was even better than the day before. Their team was warm and welcoming, and they dispatched 4 guides to accompany us, so that Matthias and Elyse each had a guide attending to them. That gave them confidence, and they even got to trot. Elyse loved every second of it, and would urge her guide Ida with a “Vamonos!” to trot some more. The horses were well-fed and healthy. As we got back to the stables, the group of about 50 horses was just released for the night, and we watched in awe as they galloped into the wide fields.
We had one more activity to look forward to in Patagonia. On our last afternoon, we would take a boat to walk Isla Margarita. At Isla Margarita, a larger colony of penguins nests (supposedly hundreds of thousands of penguins). But the tour had to cancel due to very heavy winds. Heavy winds indeed! We could barely keep ourselves standing. We now know why there are ropes tied in the streets of Punta Arenas … to hold onto! We were sad that we would not be able to visit the island after all, but quickly shifted gears and spent an excellent hour at Museo Nao de Victoria. It’s an outdoor, private little museum, showcasing a 1:1 replica of Magellan’s expedition vessel, as well as some other boats. Very appropriately located right on the Street of Magellan. While there, we huddled around the stove with hot coco, and I read the adventure of Shackleton to the kids …
“MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.
As Europe became engulfed in the bloodshed and carnage of the First World War, 7000 miles to the south, the explorer Ernest Shackleton was engaged in an expedition gone awry that would log the greatest feat of survival in maritime history. …”
With a heavy heart we left Patagonia and headed back to Santiago for two days. We had hit the apartment jackpot before, but not on this one. Not so great neighborhood, not so clean apartment, not so comfy beds. You get the picture. We made the best of it. We focused on schoolwork (as we had a bit of catching up to do!), and discovered a unique, quaint, vintage arcade park nearby. Steven and the kids spent most of a day there, and had a blast. On our final day in Santiago we had another great meet-up with friends of friends. They had invited us to an exclusive athletic club in the heart of the city. We chatted for hours and hours while our kids were running around. We then had the opportunity to use the pool. OMG. Villasport amplified! Claudia, Christian and Camille – it was such a pleasure spending time together!! Our door is open wherever we are in the world!
Our final days in Chile were spent on the island of Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island. What does the Island have to do with Easter? The Dutch exploration that first set foot on the island in 1722 arrived on … Easter day. Rapa Nui is so incredibly isolated, one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth – more than 2,000 miles from the nearest population centers of Chile and Tahiti. You have really have to be “in the neighborhood” to make a visit worthwhile. Our stay was simply perfect. Jean, our host, went out of her way to make us feel welcome. We stayed at the small, simple cabana in her backyard and she took us on a tour of the little town to show us where the store, the bank, the bakery and the good coffee shop was. We off course also were welcomed with a mandatory flower chain upon arrival, and a shell necklace for good luck when we left.
On Rapa Nui, we started our mornings with an hour or so of schoolwork, and then explored the island with our mini-tuut. We hiked to the crater of Rano Raraku, which was essentially a moai factory. The statues were carved there out of volcanic tuff, as still is visible on the mountain sides. There are literally hundreds of moai scattered around the volcano, some finished, some barely started. Some above ground, some covered. Later that afternoon, we spent time at the beach at Anakena, playing in the surf, with a couple moai lined up behind us. We finished the day with a nice, local fish dinner watching the sun set over the ocean. Such days are precious.
While there is not that much fauna or flora on the island left, the moai (the well known stone statues) are very impressive in fact. These giants are surreal, as they lay around the island, silent witnesses of times past. Did you know each moai is different? They’re big, small, fat, thin, … Like caricatures. It is assumed they are depictions of ancestors, casting a watchful eye over each small village. In the 1970’s a number of them was lined up at Tongariki, and we had good fun making up stories about each of them :).
We also hiked to a small cave at Ana Kakenga. It’s a 30 minute hike, with no other people around. We then finally found this unassuming hole in the ground. And we asked yourself: Is this it? We crawled in. Pitch black. The kids freaked out. But yes, this was the cave. As you progress into the lava tube, all of 50 meters long, light is quickly visible at the end of the tunnel (no pun intended). The cave ends in the steep cliff wall over the ocean, and it’s a spectacular view from up there. I think the kids will be talking about this adventure for a long time! Equally impressive was the spiritual and ceremonial village of Orongo, where we learned about petroglyphs, and the ancient annual “egg hunt” tradition where village heads contended to bring the first sooty tern egg back undamaged from the nearby islet of Motu Nui. (Sooty terns are migratory birds who would nest on the islet.)
That must have been quite a spectacular race, our kids agreed, as hunters had to climb steep cliff faces, cross the water, and bring an egg back unharmed. Your prize? King of the island for a year, and forced to spend the year in absolute solitude :-o. These are the types of visits I cherish, and the kids drank it all in. To complete the “lesson”, we watched related you-tube videos such as one on the ancient Polynesian way-finders, and one on how the moai were likely transported.
Needless to say we had a truly fantastic time. Memories, memories.
And next, onto Tahiti! We were all so excited for a stint of “vacation”! We dreamed of sandy white beaches, palm-trees, snorkeling and surfing … …. …. Boy, were we wrong! Stay tuned …
Where we Stayed:
- Punta Arenas: Hostel Fernando de Magalhaes. Super friendly owner and very nice rooms.
- Puerto Natales: Hostel Big Bang Patagonia. Clean rooms, central heating.
- Torres del Paine: Refugio Laguna Amarga. Just outside of the park’s east entrance. Spectacular view of the Torres peaks. Not cheap, but cheap for the park, and basic. They do have a campsite, and 1 reasonably priced cabana. The family rooms are great. Warm water, and central heating. The food was good and plentifull (they serve dinner too). Make sure you can pay cash!
- Torres del Paine: Lago Grey hotel. Well, we did not stay here ourselves (too pricey), but had coffee instead. Fantastic location with views of Glacier Grey and very nice decor. We wish we could have stayed here :).
- Rapa Nui / Easter Island: Cabanas Pumakari with Jean
Where we Ate:
- Punta Arenas: La Luna – fantastic décor, check out the world maps on the first floor with pins of visitors from all over the world.
- Puerto Natales:
- Santiago: La Diana for fans of an eclectic atmosphere, and if you love pinballs and vintage arcades … this is heaven!
- Easter Island:
- Haka Honu – we had a meal here, overlooking the sea and the sunset. Granted, at the end of an amazing family day, playing games at the table, nothing much could be wrong.
- I have to mention Te Moana as it comes highly recommended on most sites I peaked at. The views of the sunset are spectacular, but we found the food poor. Be warned!
- We ate at 2 more places that we loved, but I can’t find them on online or on Tripadvisor… We spent a very nice morning at a coffee place on the main street, and had lunch at one of the shacks overlooking the water. Fantastic fish/ceviche!
Where we Played:
- Santiago: Diana – quaint, fun, vintage; good for a couple hours of family fun.
- Puerto Natales: Pingo Salvaje at Laguna Sofia for horseback riding. They have sleeping accomodations, and I have to expect the service to be as great.
- Torres Del Paine national park and its many hikes. I’ll provide specific links for the 2 activities we booked:
- Easter Island: all around the island… We’d advise to buy your tickets to the park at the airport, it saves you some running around.