A Vantage Deluxe Small Group Journey, Jan 29-Feb 11, 2020
Photographs are by the author unless otherwise credited. Special thanks to professional nature photographer Linda Hatfield and group leader Paula Rivera for enriching this post with their photos. Click upon a photo to enlarge it and read the captions, then use your arrows to scroll through each group. Feel free to comment on any section.
Both Chile and Argentina share the Patagonia region in the southern cone, and both have has long received raves in the travel literature. One recent article recommended the Chilean destination as the number one spot to visit in 2020; I had already booked. I hate cold, but January is full summer in Chile with temperatures in the 90s in Santiago, the capital. The summer temperatures in Patagonia are still chilly due to fierce winds off the South Atlantic and the Magellan strait.
I had been watching the Vantage Travel website for some time since the agency advertises no single supplement on its tours, and a maximum of 16 participants (vantagetravel.com). I booked a January 15 Patagonia tour that included an extension to distant Easter Island. Unfortunately, that tour was cancelled for low enrollment. I was able to change to the January 29 group, but the Easter Island extension was not included. Despite some head-office hassles, I assumed correctly that, once on the ground, the tour leader and local guides would deliver a great adventure.
Tues. Jan. 28: MEX to SCL
While most of the others in the group arrived from the U.S. on an overnight flight, some with missed connections, I was fortunate to find excellent air options from Mexico City and chose AeroMexico’s non-stop daytime business class-flight to Santiago, the capital. The eight-hour flight gave me time to read most of Bruce Chatwin’s Patagonia. What a huge disappointment! It’s almost entirely on Argentina’s Patagonia, barely mentions Chile, and is composed mostly of anecdotes about bizarre people he met.
I was glad to arrive a day ahead of the group flights from the U.S. I had booked a four-star hotel minutes from the airport, the Diego de Almagro, for just 80 dollars a night, and an official taxi got me there by 9 pm (7 pm in N.Y.,6 pm in Mexico). I had a decent dinner and a Chilean lager in the hotel dining room, read the evening news reports online, and was well rested for the start of the tour the next morning.
Wed. Jan. 29: Santiago to Puerto Varas
The hotel offered a free shuttle to return to the airport the next morning for my economy flight with LatAm airlines to Puerto Montt where the tour began. I met some of the group and our Tour Director, Paula Rivera, in the departure lounge; others arrived on later flights. The Santiago airport is not a pleasant experience, worse with all the Chilean travelers on summer vacation. The only ATM in the departure terminal had no money. Boarding resembled a cattle call. One pays extra for seat selection, and any refreshment in flight besides water was on a cash basis. But the two-hour flight went smoothly, the luggage arrived fairly quickly, and the ATM dispensed Chilean pesos.
While we flew into Puerto Montt, our attractive Radisson hotel was in the nearby summer resort of Puerto Varas, a smaller and more attractive city. Our rooms had spectacular views of the stunning Lake LLanquihue (yan-kee-way) and the snow-covered Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes. To our delight, while we arrived at 2 pm, an hour before normal check-in time, our rooms were ready. The all-night travelers had little time to freshen up before our 3 pm meeting with our “adventure leader” Paula Rivera. I took an immediate liking to Paula, a dynamic woman, native of Santiago, with many years of experience in the travel industry, both in the office and in the field. She has led tour groups in several parts of South America and is passionate about her native Chile. More about her later. She walked us to an attractive nearby lunch spot and got us out by 4 pm when we met our local guide Rafa for an orientation walk to the main square and nearby streets where we could find banks, pharmacies, and grocery stores.
We did have over an hour to freshen up before meeting again at 6:30 for a cocktail (pisco sours are as popular in Chile as in their home country, Peru) and welcome dinner with several choices; my local salmon was perfect.
Thurs. Jan. 30 Puerto Varas
After a nice buffet breakfast, (a daily amenity throughout the tour), the group met at 8 am for a briefing by Paula and our local guide Rafa. He has both Chilean and Italian ancestry and educational experience. He had taught philosophy in Santiago but transitioned to study natural history with a specialty in birds. He moved with his family from busy Santiago to quieter Puerto Varas to raise his two daughters. He also followed politics closely and gave an excellent explanation of the current wave of protests across Chile. As a Latin American specialist in my previous life, I had been following those events in the press and was happy to find agreement with the guide.
Today our first destination was Nueva Braunau, named after Braunau in the part of the Austro-Hungarian empire that is today the Czech Republic (not to be confused with Braunau, Austria, where Hitler was born). In the 1850s, the Chilean government gave land grants and financial subsidies to European immigrants to help populate Patagonia in order to prevent its occupation by neighboring Argentina. A descendant of one such family, Vivian Felmer, today manages a museum to local history begun by her grandfather. The Museo de Antonio Felmer houses mostly 19th and early 20th century household and farm items that provide a vivid picture of what life must have been like on the Patagonian frontier. She explained the primitive washing machines, clocks, butter churners, musical instruments, early harvesting machines, and so much more, adding interesting anecdotes about family life.
We were back on the coach in a little over an hour, and rode for about 90 minutes to Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales, a temperate rain forest on the Petrohué River. Here we hiked on excellent trails for about 40 minutes while Rafa explained the local flora. We enjoyed great views of the river’s rapids and many saltos (falls) before heading back to the coach for a short ride to the Petrohué Lodge for a hot lunch.
The lodge is popular with fly-fishing guests. It boasts a colorful small garden and a wonderful view of Lago Todos los Santos, discovered by Jesuits on All Saints Day. Later 19th-century German colonists called it Emerald Lake, and both names are used today instead of the original indigenous names. After lunch we stopped briefly at the lake shore for views of the Osorno Volcano and the mountains bordering the lake. We returned to Puerto Varas in the late afternoon.
Dinner was not included tonight but Paula invited anyone interested to join her at a popular local restaurant, El Fogon de las Buenas Brasas. The menu tempted with numerous choices but I couldn’t resist a huge centolla (king crab) salad. Walking the four blocks back to the hotel through the main square, we didn’t tarry to listen to the raucous concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of the city’s casino. The anniversary activities each night did not appear to draw large crowds, but it was nice to see locals out enjoying the moderate night-time weather.
Fri. Jan. 31. Chiloé archipelago
Having stayed up late to update my notes for the blog and move photos from the camera to the laptop, I was not pleased to learn we had to leave the hotel at 7:30 am in order to fit in all the day’s activities, most importantly an appointment for a boat ride to see aquatic birds and penguins in the Chiloé archipelago. We drove for an hour in dreary fog before the coach boarded the ferry across the strait to Playa Puñihuil in Ancuá, Chiloé. Most of the non-Spanish names are from the Mapuche native language though little remains from that culture. Both Chile and Argentina dealt with the natives in the late 19th century with what was euphemistically called “the North American solution,” or extermination.
Weather was even worse on the shore, with dense fog turning to drizzle at times. On the beach, we donned life jackets and were wheeled out to the boat so we didn’t get our feet wet. The launch sailed around small islands, the habitat of numerous aquatic birds, but especially the Humboldt and Magellanic penguins. I can’t begin to remember the names of all the birds Rafa called out: many cormorants, various gulls, and oyster catchers. Returning to the shore, the café that provided restrooms for the group featured seafood empanadas on its menu, something I had never tasted, so I bought one to go despite knowing we had a huge lunch an hour later. It was delicious, so remember that if you ever get to Restaurant Navegación, Bahía Puñihuil.
We left the bay about noon with the sun replacing the only rain in 15 days. We drove to an agritourism property owned by Maria Luisa Maldonado, who pioneered Chilean agritourism in Chiloé. A modest farmhouse was surrounded by colorful flowers. It had one room with a dirt floor where the staff had dug a huge pit lined with fire wood, then stones. When the stones were hot enough, they layered foods to roast over the stones beginning with over 600 mussels, harvested locally. On top of the mussels they layered chicken, pork, potatoes, potato dumplings, and chorizo. They covered that with rhubarb leaves, then clumps of sod, and smoked the food for 90 minutes. We were there for the uncovering, sipping pisco sours and nibbling on the smoky mussels while the harvest was moved to plates in the dining room. This wonderful local fire-pit cooking is called a curanto or a sharing, a gourmet treat for families, holiday fare, and foreign guests like our group. The dessert was flan, followed by a surprise birthday cake for Phil and Connie from Florida, a married couple who boasted the same birthday. They joked that they were fortunate enough to also share the same anniversary. A photo on the dining room wall pictures famous writer Isabel Allende and her husband with Maria Luisa at Isabel’s left. If you don’t know her novels, her first huge success was The House of Spirits, made into a movie.
Barriga llena, corazon contento. Full belly, happy heart. Stuffed and content, we boarded the coach for an hour’s drive to the village of Chacao where we walked the boardwalk along the strait, watching sea birds including lovely black-headed swans. From the boardwalk we could see the many ferries traversing the strait.The fog had lifted earlier and now the sun had come out in full making for a splendid warm day with blue skies. Boarding the coach again, we enjoyed a 20-minute voyage back to the mainland, then another hour’s drive back to Puerto Varas, arriving at the hotel at 6 pm, tired but happy. Dinner was not included but many of us found our way to the ice cream shop on the main plaza.
Sun. Feb. 2 Punta Arenas
This was a more leisurely morning and we didn’t meet our local guide, Marcella, until 10 am. I needed a few layers under my leather jacket to offset the chilly wind for our walking tour. The attractive main square features a statue of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (Fernao de Magalhaes in Portuguese, Hernando de Magallanes in Spanish). He was the first navigator to circumnavigate the globe between 1519 and 1521. Despite leading one of the greatest feats of navigation in world history, he gets only a few lines in the textbooks. He named the Pacific Ocean and he discovered the eponymous strait that allows ships to avoid the rougher passage around Cape Horn. Wikipedia has an excellent description of his remarkable journey.
One can see by the photos below that this isn’t the most picturesque city in Chile. Marcella pointed out the homes of some of the elites who were enriched by wool and gold booms.Then we walked a few blocks to the coast where a Princess cruise ship was anchored and a wharf was covered with penguins. Then we had a tour of the regional museum in the former mansion of a wealthy family. Anyone who has been to any of the extravagant U.S. mansions in Newport or Asheville would not be too impressed, and I thought it hardly worth the time except for the presence of toilets. We finished at 12:30 and the afternoon optional tour began at 2:30 so I chose a quick lunch at the hotel instead of exploring some of the recommended restaurants.
I don’t like optional excursions and, in my own travel business, I always included anything that was worth seeing. I dislike OAT due to its practice of having many free days when they can charge more for expensive options. But as an historian, I felt I should take the “Patagonian Heritage tour.” Eight of our group boarded the van for a visit to the replicas of famous ships, Magellan’s Nao Victoria and Darwin’s Beagle. It was a bitter cold day with biting winds, reducing the pleasure of the experience despite all my layers. Next we visited the Punta Arenas cemetery, similar in style but less impressive than the Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires. We ended the afternoon with a view of the city from the heights of the Cerro de la Cruz.
Dinner was included at the hotel beginning at 7:30. The calafate (local berry) pisco sour was too sweet, the quiche starter overcooked with a hard crust, and the fillet of beef criminally overcooked without a trace of juice. The mediocre dessert did nothing to add to the dinner, and only water and soft drinks were included. Yes, I am hard to please having been spoiled on tours with Tauck and Alexander + Roberts where dinner always includes wine or beer and more choices of entrée. But we were in good company and a few out-of-pocket drinks didn’t break the bank. I’m sure it was more enjoyable for Bob from Texas who was treated to a birthday cake shared with the group. In all, this was the least enjoyable city for me, but Punta Arenas is the starting point for the drive to Torres del Paine national park, the jewel in the crown of this tour.
Mon. Feb. 3 Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales
We gathered at 10 am but our departure was delayed by 15 minutes due to a late participant. On the whole, it was a punctual and cooperative group. The hotel at our next stop in Puerto Natales sent a bus and two local guides, Jaime and Ignacio (Nacho). Both spoke decent English and we enjoyed their frequent explanations of local flora, fauna, and geography. The terrain was mostly pampas and some rolling hills, a legacy of retreating glaciers. Views of wildlife included guanacos, the American rhea, an ostrich-like bird, eagles, caracaras, black headed swans, flamingos, and ducks.
Stops to photograph the wildlife meant a two-hour wait before the rest stop, then another half hour to the Estancia Rio Penitentes, a 12-thousand hectare sheep ranch (1 hectare = 2.47 acres). The estancia is also a tourist hosteria featuring horse-back riding, fly-fishing, and other outdoor activities. A few llamas mingled with the horses. We were met by Christopher Dick, a fifth-generation owner. The founder of the estate was his great-great grandfather, a Scottish immigrant lured by the Chilean government from Malvinas (Falklands) with a land grant and subsidy to help populate Patagonia. Christopher is in charge of hotel guests and tour group visits like ours; a brother is in charge of animals, a sister lives in Santiago, and another brother is studying in Valparaiso. None are married so a sixth generation is not guaranteed.
We gathered in a huge shed that can hold 800 sheep to keep them dry prior to shearing. A retired professional shearer came from Puerto Natales to demonstrate the expert skill and strength necessary for shearing. The wool of 50 sheep is packed into bales of 250 to 300 kilograms (1 kg = 2.2. lbs). Migrant groups of 20 shearers work for a week, move on to other estancias, and sometimes even travel to another country with a different shearing season. Sheep are sheared once a year, llamas every two years. Five kilos of wool when washed yield 650 grams because lanolin and dirt are removed. The lanolin is sold to cosmetics producers. The finished wool sells for 4 to 8 dollars a kilo depending on thickness, thin being pricier.
The shearing explanation and performance was far more interesting than I had expected. When it finished, we were led to the dining room where we were welcomed by pisco sours and appetizer-sized empanadas of llama meat. Meanwhile, a four-month old lamb had been roasting in the wood-burning fireplace for five hours. It had a great smoky taste but there was no portion as pink as I prefer it. The meat was accompanied by an assortment of salads and vegetables, water, and a good carmenere wine. Dessert was typical flan followed by a birthday cake for Mike from Florida, our third participant birthday.
Next stop, Puerto Natales.
We lingered in the family home until reboarding the coach at 4:15, arriving at the Remota Natales hotel about 5:30. It is impossible to describe the strange but attractive architecture of the hotel that overlooks the beautiful Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope) fjord. At 6:30 we gathered for a tour of the buildings and a visit to the roof where a stiff chilly wind did not encourage a long stay. The bar has huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the fjord. Our generous package included all beer, wine, liquor, and soft drinks except for some top-shelf choices. At the table, we could choose any three items from the menu. Some of the choices were a bit exotic; imagine octopus with sauerkraut on a cauliflower emusion! Fortunately there were many more traditional choices. We had been warned not to expcct good internet service outside of public spaces, but I was fortunate to have a decent signal in my room, perhaps due to our continued good weather.
Tues. Feb. 4 Torres del Paine National Park, the West Side.
Today we got to see the inspiring glacier-covered peaks whose photographs grace all the travel literature on Patagonia and the primary reason most travelers come here. We had a large bus despite being just 13 guests, the tour leader, and two local guides, Jaime and Ignacio, both educated naturalists. Due to several stops to photograph wildlife, it took two hours to get to the park entrance and rest stop. Even before arriving at the park, we could see the cragged peaks where the Patagonian steppe meets the towering peaks of the Andes. “Paine” (pie-nay) means blue in the indigenous language so one can translate the place as Blue Towers. The first landmark we saw was Lago del Toro, a 202 square kilometer lake fed by the glacial Paine River, flowing out via the Serrano River, and ultimately to the Pacific.
Once inside the park, our next photo-stop was Grey Lake, fed by Grey Glacier, flowing into Grey River. Probably thanks to a brilliant sun our views were more blue than grey. When we had a sensational view of the towers, we stopped for a group photo.
After plenty of time for breath-taking photos, we arrived at Camp Pehoe, overlooking its namesake lake. This is one of many spots where camping trekkers can pitch their tents. While it was chilly and windy, at least there was no rain on any of our days in the park, or it would not have been possible for the hotel to send two staff members to prepare a hot lunch served in a lean-to type shelter, enclosed on only three sides. We were greeted by a table with salmon crostini and nuts as we chose our beverages. The staff had a huge wok-style pan over a gas flame where they sautéed pork cutlets accompanied by salads and bread, followed by delicious moist brownies. After lunch we lingered another half hour to enjoy the lake views and birding.
Our next stop at a park ranger station offered restrooms and a maqueta of the park, a mock up similar to an enlarged map. Here, our guide Ignacio presented a technical explanation of the geology of the area. We lingered so long at every stop that we did not get back to the hotel until 7 pm with little time to freshen up before cocktails and dinner. Service was so slow I skipped dessert to make time for typing notes and sorting dozens of photos while I could still remember details. The task made for a late finish to a tiring but exhilarating day.
Wed. Feb. 5. Torres del Paine National Park, the East Side.
Shortly after 9 am we were on our way back to the park, taking a route along the eastern side, ending up behind the towers we marveled at the previous day. The day took on the aspect of a wildlife safari with stops to observe and photograph scores of guanacos, a grey fox, and several ostrich-like rheas, but the highlight was a spectacular soaring condor with its fifteen-foot wingspan, perhaps larger.
We made another photo-stop at Lake Sarmiento, (86 km2) named after Spanish explorer Pedro Sarmiento. Unlike the other lakes fed by glacial rivers, this one is completely closed and rain fed. Huge deposits of calcium carbonate give the lake its intense blue color, reflecting the peaks of the Paine massif. It’s amazing what stunning scenery and profusion of wildlife we enjoyed even before entering the park.
Once inside the park, we stopped to photograph the Cascadas Paine or Paine Waterfalls, formed by drops in the Paine River. The beautiful view was surpassed shortly after when we arrived at the Salto Grande mirador (overlook). To get there required a walk of 20 minutes, passing scores of grazing guanacos. The impressive falls fell ten meters, over 30 feet, and in the background we marveled at the stunning Andean peaks of Paine Grande (over 8500 feet) and Los Cuernos, (the Horns) jagged peaks all over 6000 feet.
I was surprised to see an excursion here from a cruise ship anchored at Punta Arenas. Ship passenger escorts told me they took a charter flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, then a bus tour through some of the highlights of the national park. I was so glad to be on our land trek and not a 1200 dollar shore excursion.
Our lunch stop today was a small hostal in a pleasant valley. The owners served salmon crostini and beverages while they sautéed (for too long) chicken breasts in a wok like the previous day’s cookout. The lunch included tasty salads and beverages, including beer and wine. A small grey fox darted in and out from under the structure, looking for scraps no doubt.
Before leaving the park, we made a last stop at the “Blue Masif” with another view of the Andean cordillera. I thought it was our last view of the majestic torres and their adjacent cuernos, but the tour included a totally unanticipated perspective of the region the next day. We didn’t get back to the hotel until 7:40 and a late dinner at 8:30. I’d recommend cutting ten minutes off each of our lengthy stops to get back a bit earlier.
Thurs. Feb. 6 Ultima Esperanza Fjord
Just when I thought we had seen the most spectacular parts of the region, today featured a catamaran ride on the Last Hope Fjord, departing from a dock five minutes from the hotel. There is no exclusive offering here so we were packed into the main lounge with about 100 other passengers. But once the briefing and safety instructions ended and the ship got underway, most passengers moved out to the port and aft decks and the roof-top for great viewing and photography. The wind was fierce at times and very chilly despite the brilliant sunshine. It was a thrilling six-hour round-trip excursion to the where the Balmaceda glacier feeds the fjord.
We saw lots of aquatic birds including an enormous colony of cormorants. At one point we could see the towers of Torres del Paine in the background. The ship stopped briefly so passengers could photograph a scenic waterfall, the Salta del Condor. Shortly after we came to Puerto Toro where glacier melt forms a short river that flows into the fjord.
We debarked there into Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, the largest protected area in the region at over 8.7 million acres. It’s named after revolutionary hero and first leader of the independent Republic of Chile. Towering over the water is Mount Balmaceda (6677 feet), its white peaks graced by the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers. Here one could walk half an hour each way through the subpolar forest to where the glacier melts into the lagoon and then the fjord. Or one can take a five-minute walk from the park entrance to the shore of the lagoon with its splendid views of the mountain and glacier, and blue icebergs floating near shore. The reflections of the glacier and icebergs in the water are stunning.
Viewing this latter scene, I was surprised to watch a member of the ship’s crew take off his shoes and socks and roll up his trousers to wade in the icy lagoon. He snatched a small iceberg and began breaking it into smaller chunks with a large pick. I asked another crew member what he was doing and she said, “getting ice for your whisky.” I thought she was joking, but back aboard ship, the crew served glasses of scotch with ice from the glacier.” What a hoot.
After a little over an hour ashore, we reboarded the catamaran and headed back to Puerto Natales. The ship’s bar had food and beverages for sale, but Ignacio and Jaime had brought ice chests aboard, stocked with great box lunches packed by the hotel kitchen. They even offered a whisky-sour cocktail from a thermos, then passed around beer, wine, and water. Then the ship staff passed out the iceberg-chilled glasses of scotch. We arrived back at the dock at 2:45 for the short ride back to the hotel. Paula offered to take anyone interested into the nearby town of Puerto Natales an hour later. I skipped in favor of a siesta and work on my notes and photos before happy hour and dinner.
Fri. Feb.7 Puerto Natales to Santiago
We had a fairly leisurely breakfast with time to pack before we checked out of the Remota Lodge and boarded our bus for Punta Arenas at 9:30 am. The three-hour drive went quickly with interesting commentary by Paula. Jaime and Ignacio passed out a plentiful box lunch and bottles of water for us to dine at our leisure. I saved mine to eat in the small Punta Arenas airport while waiting to board our flight to Santiago. Again, Paula had efficiently printed the boarding passes and the three-hour flight went smoothly. The capital’s airport, however, is rather chaotic with a long hike to baggage retrieval. It took some time to gather everyone’s luggage, use the restrooms, and motor to the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Santiago, arriving just after 7 pm. Dinner was not included but Paula invited us to join her at 8 pm for a short walk to one of her favorite casual restaurants, a relaxed ending to a long day.
Sat. Feb. 8 Santiago Chile
While cold and windy at times in Patagonia, the capital basked in full summer sunshine with temperatures hitting the 90s F. After the buffet breakfast, we boarded the bus at 9:30 for a city tour led by local guide, Pamela. We stopped first to view the Moneda Palace, seat of the president, but we didn’t tour the inside. The statue of Salvador Allende honors the democratically-elected socialist president who was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military coup in 1973. Then we walked through tranquil pedestrian streets to the National Pre-Columbian Museum where we spent an insufficient hour. We did not have the earbuds that another group had, so we had to follow Pamela as she talked her way through a half hour in the native Chilean collection, rather primitive compared to the magnificent works of high cultures of later periods in the upstairs salons. I marveled at fantastic pieces from Mesoamerica, including some ceramics and stellae from Mayan, Olmec, and Colima cultures. Some of these pieces are more spectacular than some works I have seen in Mexico’s world-class museums. This is a part of the sad story of wealthy collectors in the 19th century who paid thieves armed with chisels to break apart Mayan stellae and rob Olmec graves of stunning ceramics. With thousands of pre-Columbian sites in Mexico and Central America, the impoverished governments were incapable of protecting their heritage. Fortunately, some of these works found their way from private collections back to museums for all to enjoy, but many works are still hidden away in the palaces of the collectors’ selfish heirs.
From the museum we walked to the Plaza de Armas, the center of colonial government. The beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral, often damaged or destroyed by Chile’s frequent earthquakes, has been rebuilt many times. The belle-epoch post office (correos) sits adjacent to the cathedral with the city government offices just down the block. We spent just 25 minutes here before boarding the bus for a short ride to the Central Market (Mercado Central).
The market’s iron framing is alleged to have been designed by Gustav Eiffel, likely true since I have been to other markets in the Americas that boast his designs. The market is famous for its fresh fish and seafood from Chile’s long coast. But before inspecting the stalls, we went straight to lunch on the upper floor at Restaurant el Galeón. The lunch offerings included many kinds of fish and seafood accompanied by a choice of sides, a pisco sour, beer, wine, and water. I drooled over the scene at a neighboring table where a waiter was serving an enormous centolla, king crab, but I didn’t get a chance for a return visit. After a walk around the stalls we should have done on our own instead of as a group, we were back on the bus and returned to the hotel at 3 pm. After the big lunch with beer or wine on a hot day, I don’t think anyone had the energy to return to the museum or other sites. There were no other plans for the day. I enjoyed a long siesta before working on my blog notes and photos before going out to carouse a bit and a get a bite to eat.
Sun. Feb. 9 Santiago toValparaiso & Viña del Mar.
Today’s schedule called for an excursion from the capital to the southern coastal cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. Years ago I had explored Santiago thinking to add it to my Argentina tour, but I decided the extra airfare would add too much expense to the package. But I took a local agency’s excursion to these cities and was rather disappointed. I changed my mind several times about going again but finally opted to go since it was the last group activity. We gathered at 8:30 am and met our local guide Francisco. His English was the least fluent of any of the local guides and he had an annoying habit of saying “okay” two or three times in every sentence, but he knew Valparaiso well. After two hours with one rest stop we arrived at the former home of Nobel-prize winning poet Pablo Neruda. We didn’t enter the house but used the public restrooms at the site and enjoyed the small garden with its view of the harbor.
Francisco took us on an hour-long walking tour of the artsy Concepción neighborhood where many homes and businesses are covered with colorful murals. The municipal museum had an interesting garden exhibit of fish sculptures one didn’t need to pay the entrance fee to see. Eventually we took a funicular from the upper city down to the main square where we reboarded the bus.
We drove to a residential area where Paula’s friends had reserved colectivos (group taxis) to take us up the hill to their home for lunch. The family visit with lunch was not part of the original agenda but we contributed gladly to compensate the family for hosting us with just one day’s notice. The home has a wonderful view of Valparaiso harbor and Viña del Mar. The visit with this affectionate family was the highlight of the day trip. They had prepared a hot lunch with chicken, salads, water, and soft drinks. Paula encouraged them to talk about local issues like taxes, grocery access, public transportation, and the like, and we learned things about local family life one doesn’t normally learn on a bus tour. We lingered so long that there was little time left in the agenda to see Viña del Mar, the neighboring beach city, where thousands of vacationers were spending their Sunday. A short drive through the hotel zone and a photo stop on a hill overlooking the city was sufficiently satisfying. With one rest stop, we were back at the hotel in Santiago before 6 pm.
Our group gathered in a salon at 7:30 for a chat with Paula about the tour, sharing comments, and viewing some of her photos. Then we moved to a private dining room for our farewell dinner with wine. I was pleased that we were divided into two groups of seven at round tables instead of the usual one long table where conversation is more difficult. The merluza (hake) was excellent and the quiet of a private dining room was nicer than being in a crowded restaurant. We broke up before 10 pm.
Mon. Feb. 10 The end of the adventure.
Almost everyone in the group had night-time flights from Santiago home, so there was no formal activity today. A few people booked private tours, and Paula invited anyone who wanted to go to a nearby shopping town to share expenses. I wanted to go to the Museum of Memory that records the evil of the Pinochet dictatorship, but museums are closed on Monday. Paula arranged a late 2 pm checkout for the group, but even that would have meant arriving at the airport for my 11:15 redeye to Mexico tired and sticky. I’m so glad I negotiated a 7 pm checkout for an additional fee. I could relax in the suite, work online, and go out for a great lunch. I was pleasantly surprised to see in the LatAm flight magazine an ad for Happening, a branch of the Argentine steak house I took my clients to on two tours of Buenos Aires. The menu was just what I had hoped for and the service was impeccable, so I finally got a thick, red, juicy steak with a half bottle of Malbec. Then I walked to a huge commercial mall nearby but didn’t buy a thing other than an ice cream cone. I had a great siesta, packed, showered again at 6 pm, read some U.S. papers, checked out at 7 pm, met my airport driver, and got to the airport by 7:30. I had to wait 25 minutes before the AeroMexico desk opened, but checked in quickly thanks to business class but with a warning that the gate was a 25-minute walk from the lobby. The airport was mobbed with summer vacationers, and the line for passport control was about 80 yards long, but it moved quickly because there were so many immigration agents. I had a light supper in the VIP lounge, then trudged the long way to the gate ten minutes before boarding the beautiful Boeing Dreamliner. I declined the menu for dinner at midnight in favor of a scotch and sleep which I did on and off until awakened for a 3 am breakfast.
Tues. Feb. 11 Home Sweet Home
We landed in Mexico City at 4:15 am, half an hour early. I was the first one off the plane (a seat closest to the exit), picked the Mexican immigration line instead of the foreign one thanks to my resident status, waited some time for the dogs to finish sniffing the luggage, and found my driver waiting punctually. He had me home in an hour and 15 minutes, ready for a siesta and an overdue trip to the gym. The end of a really wonderful travel adventure.
COMMENTS ON THE TOUR
Almost all travel literature acknowledges that the tour leader makes all the difference in the quality of a tour. Good local guides are also crucial. I never had a complaint on Tauck tours although the group leader in the Canyonlands was not well-read on some areas we passed through. Alexander+Roberts’ tour leader in Russia had little personality but was very efficient. A+R’s tour leader in Morocco really knew his country but couldn’t say a sentence without including “you know” two or three times.
I was fortunate on my first trip with Vantage to have Paula Rivera as our “adventure leader.” She is one of the most competent professionals I have ever had the pleasure to travel with. She has years of experience with groups, knows her country’s history and culture, and has a passion for sharing her knowledge. She engaged the group with personal emails and excellent tips even before departure. Her command of the English language is superb, and she has no annoying habits when she speaks. Paula’s energy is incredible. When many group leaders might want to rest after a long day’s excursion, she continually offered to take participants to meals or places not on the agenda. She smiled patiently through some questions that would make my eyes glaze over. Her concern for the happiness of everyone in the group was exemplary. I hope Vantage realizes what a treasure she is in their organization.
COMPARING VANTAGE WITH A FEW OTHER TRAVEL AGENCIES I LIKE:
In an evaluation of Vantage Travel, it is worth comparing with my two favorites; I am not including companies so mediocre I wouldn’t travel with them again. Vantage advertises no single supplement, a welcome feature for someone like me. That said, this was an expensive tour (prices quoted on vantagetravel.com). This package was labeled deluxe, which it was except for the hotel in Punta Arenas, although that was more than adequate. I have been rather spoiled traveling with Tauck Tours and Alexander + Roberts, some of whose tours are described elsewhere on this blog. Both stay in the best hotels and dine in restaurants better than those on this trip. Of course, the remoteness of Patagonia may affect choices and I can’t compare what amenities Vantage might provide in places like Morocco, Moscow, or Dublin. Tauck and A+R include wine or beer with all meals, Vantage did most of the time and it included a generous all-inclusive package for four nights in the Remota Lodge in Puerto Natales. The welcome and farewell dinner quality is about the same for all three agencies, although Tauck usually includes a choice of spirits in addition to wine, A +R does not. Alexander + Roberts also limits its group size to 16, and like Vantage, often departs without a full roster. Tauck is still my favorite. but their small groups have 24 pax and must be booked well in advance. Tauck’s large groups have become too large for my taste, with 42 in central Europe and 44 in the Canyonlands; that’s getting greedy. The tour leaders for such large groups are unlikely to complain since it means they earn far more in tips. In justice to Tauck, the large size allows them to offer sensational amenities like four exclusive concerts in Warsaw, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, including a 12-piece orchestra and 12 ballet dancers in Vienna with a champagne intermission. On a Taste of the Pacific Northwest, when other groups took buses to Vancouver, Tauck contracted sea planes to land below the Butchart Gardens and fly us to Vancouver with a spectacular landing in the bay near our hotel. Trade offs.
Alexander + Roberts seems more likely to operate a tour well-below its 16 maximum. I met a couple who went to Egypt with just three persons and nothing was cut. We had just seven in our group in Russia and 11 in Morocco. I don’t know how many were enrolled in the Vantage January 15 Patagonia tour when it was cancelled. But I find it somewhat unethical to bill and take final payment when a trip is going to be cancelled. One couple on this Patagonia tour were the only two enrolled in a South Africa trip. Vantage took their final payment surely knowing the trip would be cancelled. For my aborted Jan. 15 Patagoina tour, I had to cancel two flights and one hotel reservation, pay airline penalties, and rebook all of it again for the later date. Vantage offered to reimburse me for the penalties but it took weeks and a dozen email complaints before they sent me only a partial reimbursement. Tauck tours are so popular, especially the small groups, that any cancellation over enrollment issues is unlikely. A+R conveniently lists many of its tours with a “guaranteed” label online which gives one confidence in booking.
That said, I am quite happy with Vantage’s Patagonia tour and would highly recommend it but only if the agency can give you a guaranteed departure. I am undecided regarding a future tour or cruise with Vantage. The hotels, meals, and other amenities provided real value for cost. I especially appreciate the catamaran ride on the fjord and the all-inclusive Remota Lodge at Puerto Natales. As the photos above illustrate, the region cannot be described in anything but superlatives. And Paula Rivera’s superb leadership made this one of my best travel experiences.
As a bonus, I want to share a delighful poem I enjoyed fifty years ago that I was lucky to find again thanks to google:
Behold how from her lair the youthful llama
Llopes forth and llightly scans the llandscape o’er.
With llusty heart she llooks upon llife’s drama,
Relying on her llate-llearnt worldly llore.
But llo! Some llad, armed with a yoke infama
Soon llures her into llowly llabor’s cause;
Her wool is llopped to weave into pajama,
And llanguidly she llearns her Gees and Haws.
My children, heed this llesson from all llanguishing young lllamas,
If you would lllive with lllatitude, avoid each llluring lllay;
And do not lllightly lllleave, I beg, your llllonesome, lllloving mammas,
And llllast of allll, don’t spelllll your name in such a silllllly way.
— Burges Johnson, Everybody’s Magazine, August 1907
Happy travels to all my readers.
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