- August 17, 2012
- 8 comments
- Posted by EdGraham
- Adventures, Argentina, Chile, Destinations, South America Travel
The Southern Tip of the World
I’m an easy sell.
The phone rings. Its a friend and fellow traveler, and by the end of our short conversation I’ve agreed to clear my work schedule for the next two weeks and instead head down south. Waaay south…
Patagonia has always been low on my list: I don’t speak the language, prices are high, Americans need a visa, and you can drive there from the USA. Sure, the drive would take over a week, but there’s just something about being unable to drive home that adds to the exoticsism and thus the appeal of a place. So when I was asked to come along I quickly said yes, realizing I would never plan this trip myself.
Fast forward a week and a half. I’m about as far south as you can get, at a bar on the top floor of the tallest hotel in Punta Arenas, Chile. I’m drinking local Austral beer, looking out over the Magellan Strait, reminiscing the craziness of the preceeding week. The chilly daytime temperatures and all that wind could have fooled me, but it’s summer here and the sun just went down at well past 10pm. It’ll stay dusk for a while yet, and the sky will only be completely dark for a few hours before dawn. I plan to head to a viewpoint to catch some dusk panorama photos, then hit the city’s bars later to see what’s up. Beats working.
All said and done, in our two week trip we visited seven places in Argentina and Chile, including both capitols. Anyone headed to Patagonia from somewhere far away will need to pass through either Buenos Aires or Santiago. We made sure to spend time in each, and there were certainly some surprises:
I reeeally dislike bashing a place but it needs to be said: Buenos Aires is one of the most overrated destinations I’ve ever been. The streets are boring – every one looks like the next and the markets are cookie cutter copies of each other. There IS a nice area by the marshes; it’s lined with street food stalls that look promising, until you get close enough to realize they all have the EXACT same food. Even the styling is identical for each stall. After three days there, I felt as though you could glimpse one block and see it all.
So how about the legendary nightlife? Well, it’s what you make of it – we partied till the morning light, but the scene wasn’t particularly better than most big European cities. I would return to Buenos Aires, but only to dig a little deeper and try to understand why so many people rave on about it. I MUST have missed something, but I kind of doubt it.
I had just one night and a short day in Santaigo, and it absolutely blew Buenos Aires out of the water. The city is so much more vibrant and there is so much more to do that I would strongly suggest ignoring all the hype about Buenos Aires and instead heading straight for Santiago. The personalities are colorful and engaging, the pastel painted buildings are interesting to look at, and the markets are lively. Oh yeah, the food is great too. Its funny – every South American guide book I’ve see sings the praises of Buenos Aires and presents a take it or leave it appproach to Santiago, yet my experience was the exact opposite. Maybe its a well kept secret, but its time to get the word out!
Given that Patagonia was always low on my travel list, I hadn’t really ever bothered to research it as a destination. That was a mistake – its an adventurer’s paradise. There is so much to see with the varied landscape, and taking the bus from place to place is a big part of the experience. One hour you’ll pass prairies and grassland, the next you’ll curve your way through mountains, the hour after that you’ll be somewhere entirely different. Each place we went had its own distinct personality. There is enough in Patagonia to satisfy outdoors-loving travelers for weeks on end, and I would gladly return someday.
El Calafate and Moreno Glacier.
Beautiful. This alone was worth the trip. The lake water is glacial runoff and if you’ve never seen a glacier lake, well, to describe it with mere words it to do a disservice to the sheer brilliance of it all. You HAVE to see it for yourself. The equally impressive glacier itself is a short bus ride outside the city.
A VERY cool place! Its a small town that serves as a transfer point more than a destination, but it’d be a real shame not to spend the night here. The town is situated on a lake with mountains as a backdrop – sunset views are incredible. The town has a laid back vibe, the food is some of the best I had in Patagonia (lots of seafood dishes), and the dive bars are super laid back. Puerto Natales rocks.
Torres del Paine.
You can do it as a day trip, but adventurous types will prefer to rent camping gear in the adjecent towns and make a real trip of it. In English, Torres del Paine means “Towers of Pain”. It’s an accurate description for the uphill hike to the top, but the view is rewarding. For the best light show, sleep in the campground at the base of the towers then head to the top before sunrise – the sunlight hits the towers first and makes for a hell of a scene.
I needed to let this place marinate a bit before I really sunk my teeth in. By the end of my time there I liked it quite a bit, but initially I figured the people to be an odd bunch; lots of expressionless faces, lots of people at bars drinking alone, and an overall cold and unwelcoming feeling. But as is often the case with travel, once you spend a little more time in a place you start to appreciate it.
Give punta arenas a second chance and you’ll realize a couple things. First, if your city was cold, cloudy, and windy year round, you’d probably drink alone and walk the streets with an expressionless face too. The people are actually pretty cool once you engage them. There is a lot of maritime history and the museums are worth a visit. The city has some scenic parts too, like the panoramic lookout or the top floor of the Hotel Dreams del Estrecho. And you can use Punta Arenas as a base for exploring other areas of southern Patagonia like Tierra del Fuego and Magdalena Island.
So would I return to Patagonia? Hell yeah! I’m a huge fan of outdoors adventurers and it was a great time. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.