Chile and Argentina: a first-timer’s impressions
Journalist Lesley Bolton shares highlights from her and her husband Roger’s 25-day Audley trip to Chile and Argentina. From spotting condors in Torres del Paine National Park to visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier, their first experiences of South America didn’t disappoint.
Some 12 months ago, we were receiving the most amazing photographs from our daughter Lizzie. She was taking a career break with her husband to tour South America. That was the inspiration for my own and my husband Roger’s trip to a continent we had never visited before.
We weren’t, however, going to rent a bright camper van (in Lizzie’s case one adorned by a painting of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un). We needed more comfort and to know where we were going and staying every day. And this is why we chose to travel with Audley.
Roger and Lesley Bolton in Santiago, Chile
After a three-night pit stop in Santiago, (with thanks to our excellent walking-tour guide Christian), we flew down to Temuco. Here, we picked up a hire car to enjoy the freedom of the road for ten days in Chile’s Lake District, crossing over into Argentina for four nights. We’re experienced drivers abroad but driving in South America is quite different.
The landscape alternates from the verdant Chilean side of the Andes to the more arid, Argentinian side, with fewer paved roads. We loved the independence and the feeling of getting under the skin of a place. Winding mountain roads took us over the border, past volcanoes and a forest of native monkey puzzle trees, to an area of lakes and mountain backdrops.
Our Audley specialist Chloe, knowing we liked kayaking, had set up a guided day trip once we were back in Chile and staying in the Awa hotel, overlooking the Osorno Volcano, outside Puerto Varas. Paz, a former member of the Chilean national team, took Roger and I, plus one other keen kayaker, to the shores of Patagonia’s northern most fjord in Ralun Bay.
After around two hours of paddling, we moored up in a small cove. A short walk across the green meadows took us to Señora Yolanda’s home, where her family has been living for many generations.
She now welcomes intrepid rowers with a rustic lunch, and a chance to experience a Chilean rural existence. We expressed our gratitude by buying something from her collection of hand knitted items and visiting her quaint ‘museo’.
Could our experience so far, we wondered, be matched by what was to come in the second half of our trip? In Chile and Argentina, that’s a definite yes. A few days later we were being driven up the Ruta del Fin Del Mundo (‘end of the world’ road) from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine National Park.
Sunrise in Torres del Paine, Chile
We’d seen the park feature in the South American episode of David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet series, so were full of anticipation to experience it for ourselves. After a four-hour drive across the Patagonian steppe, the rocky ‘towers’ of Torres del Paine rise dramatically from the ground.
Staying at the Explora Patagonia meant we didn’t have to leave the park for four days. With beautiful weather, we could absorb the spectacular scenery and make the most of the excursions laid on by the hotel, including horse riding with the gauchos. It also meant we were there to see the sunrise on the towers, which turns them beautiful shades of pink in the mornings.
We saw condors, flamingos, rheas, guanacos and much more flora and fauna, although the famed pumas kept out of sight. We were prepared for the famous Patagonia winds, whose gusts can knock you over, but the weather was so calm that we didn’t have to worry. We were well equipped though, having invested in some high-quality outdoor gear for this trip.
The park gave us our first sightings of glaciers and icebergs. But more were to come. We crossed the border into Argentina for the last time, travelling by bus up to El Calafate, a small town on the side of the turquoise Argentina Lake. This was the stopping off point for visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the few ‘stable’ glaciers in the world.
Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
The vast glacier creaks and thunders, and visitors hold their breath to watch for large chunks crashing into the glacial waters, creating small tsunamis. We waited in one spot, video camera poised, to catch these moments. We saw a few small crumblings, but typically as we turned our back to return to our coach, a huge side collapsed from the wall, crashing into the water below.
Like a delicious sandwich, our trip to Chile and Argentina, which began with the city of Santiago, finished with the city of Buenos Aires. We’d had a fantastic filling of the most memorable landscapes, topped up with the urban vibe of the Palermo district of the Argentinian capital. It was a trip of a lifetime.