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Between the Montana and the Mar

sunny 68 °F

5,117 miles.

That's how far away from home we are, and it certainly feels like it!

Look on a map of the Americas and you will see that a flight to Santiago, Chile is certainly not an easy one; it is halfway down the noodle-like country and, therefore, is quite a ways south into South America.

For us, this excursion from Ohio to central Chile is long and tedious. The 24 hours of travel time drag on forever, each new airport blending into the next and seeming farther away from home than the last. During a six-hour layover in Houston, we read and people watch at our gate as four or five different flights come and go.

One neat thing about the journey was flying into Panama at night. As we approach the airport in Panama City, the plane circles out over the ocean and we catch a glimpse of about 15 boats—small freighters, cruise ships—anchored out in a cluster and illuminated by the soft golden lights on their decks. From the air, they look small and serene as they twinkle in the inky blackness of the ocean. It brings back happy memories of mooring out at Put-in-Bay during the summers, and I can't help but tear up a bit at the thought.

Finally, we arrive at the Santiago airport just as the sun is starting to rise behind the Andes. Stepping out of immigration and customs—which had confiscated my bag of Kroger almonds and Ocean Spray dried cranberries—with our massive luggage in tow, we are met by a swarm of hired drivers with name cards and taxi drivers trying to grab our attention. They all hold their cards up in unison as we walk past. We had arranged for a driver to pick us up via our hotel, but for some reason, he is not there and, after numerous attempts to call the hotel on nearby pay phones (which did not work, for some reason), we hop into one of the other taxis for a surprisingly long ride through town.

Founded in the mid-1500s by Spanish conquistadors, the huge metropolis of Santiago is a forest of dense skyscrapers, historic buildings and highways nestled at the foot of the impressively high Andes Mountains. As our taxi driver weaves in and out of traffic, through tunnels and fast, curving highways, he points out in a flurry of Spanish words various landmarks. I pick out a few words and can barely follow what he's saying. “Montana” he says, pointing toward the jagged Andes peaks. We look in awe from the back seat at how the Andes reach an indescribable altitude into the sky. Today, a thick morning haze lets us see just ghostly silhouettes of the mountain range.

More than 6 million people—nearly half of the Chilean population—lives here. Unfortunately, because of the population and the geography (which somehow traps a lot of the smog against the mountains), Santiago is notoriously one of the most polluted cities in the world, and a thick smog often engulfs the skyline and the neighboring peaks.

We eventually end up off the highway and in a labyrinth of tree-lined streets with shops, banks and restaurants. This is the neighborhood of Providencia, which is known for its elegant, spacious homes that once housed some of the area's more affluent residents.

Our driver drops us off in front of Meridiano Sur Petit Hotel, a three-story, white stucco boutique hotel surrounded by a wrought-iron gate, flowering trees and a courtyard with outdoor seating and umbrella'ed tables. It's situated on a narrow residential street with unique little eateries and barking dogs. Inside at the reception desk we meet Angelo, who I had corresponded with while researching hotels. Because it is only 8:00 in the morning, our room is not yet ready for us to check in so we relax for a few minutes in the downstairs lobby, which has a European feel to it but is also decorated with Andean touches, set against clean white walls and dark hardwood floors.

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Angelo says that we can store our luggage in a small room behind the front desk until our room is ready for check-in, which we eagerly agree to. He shows us on a map of Santiago where the good restaurants are within Providencia, as well as some of the popular destinations in the central city.

We walk down down Av. Providencia, the main street of the neighborhood, in search of a restaurant that is open this early in the morning, but most are closed. However, we can tell that many of these restaurants are pretty nice; one nicely-dressed employee waters the outside hanging plants before the restaurant opens for the day, and at another restaurant, a man in a crisp white shirt and black dress pants unfolds white linen table clothes on the outdoor tables.

We realize, as we are caught in a large, dense mass of people rushing through a crosswalk, running into each other like two opposing currents, that it is a workday here in Santiago—and rush hour, at that. People are power-walking every which way, carrying briefcases and wearing brightly colored stiletto heels. I comment to Matt that it feels like crossing Princes Street in Edinburgh, where the schools of locals and tourists alike rush across the streets in big amoeba-like masses, but really, these crowded streets in Santiago feel much different. In Edinburgh, I felt like a natural part of that amoeba, yet here, I feel like we are swept away in it, like we don't belong there and everyone knows it.

It doesn't help, I suppose, that we stop every so often to check our location on the small map we brought, or that light-complexioned Matt has his DSLR camera slung around his neck (I may have been able to pass as ambiguously Chilean, or something south of the equator), or that it seems that tourists in general are few and far between. Or, most importantly, that neither of us speaks a lick of Spanish. And the other Chileans really don't speak a lick of English. The taxi driver, the young customs officer who confiscated my fruit and nuts, even the flight attendants from Panama to Santiago—all I found myself simplifying my sentences with, attempting the only Spanish words I know (“banos,” “carne,” and, of course, “si” and “gracias”), and at times acting out what I was trying to say.

In this way, we feel starkly out of place and out of our element—yet this is what gives our excursion a sense of adventure. We wanted to see a new culture, try new things, and experience what it's like to just not know.

The not-knowing part, it turns out, is pretty easy. When we finally find a restaurant that is open and serving breakfast, we open the menu and see that everything is in Spanish. We're not surprised, exactly, but we are shocked by how much we don't know. I had taken French for five years, so a lot of words should be cognates with French or English. But nothing really looks recognizable. We do distinguish that one menu item contains pollo, but is it on a sandwich? Salad? Breakfast burrito? We literally have no idea.

We are eternally grateful that our server speaks very good English and happily lists off some of the things we may like—omelets, breakfast sandwiches, etc. Matt jumps at the ham and tomato omelet, and when I ask about sandwiches, the server goes down the menu and explains what each sandwich is. And he does the same when I say that I would like a coffee drink. Bless his heart.

I end up ordering a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, which seems to have been put in some sort of sandwich press so that all the edges are essentially welded together. Had the sandwich not been cut in half, it would have looked like a big bread ravioli. My coffee with whipped cream (real whipped cream, not Reddi-Wip), caramel and nuts is heaven on this somewhat chilly morning. Matt enjoys his espresso as well.

Though we are pretty tired from the flights, we decide to get to the outskirts of the city and try out the public transit system. Santiago actually has excellent infrastructure—a good highway network, public buses, and a subway system that links the various reaches of town. We decide to try the latter, and descend into the subway station just a couple blocks from our hotel.

The dark, crowded hallways of the subway station remind me a bit of Edinburgh's Waverley Station. In a sense, it is easier; this particular station only has two subways, one for each direction of the track. But figuring out the currency conversion and getting information when no one speaks English is a whole other monster. We do fine; we get the tickets for our intended stop from a cashier who silently slips them under a slit in the glass window. They are about 560 chilean pesos each--what this amounts to in U.S. dollars I have no idea.

The train is crowded and very efficient. We make it to the end of this particular train line in just about 10 or 15 minutes and emerge in Los Dominicos, a section of Santiago closer to the Andes. Our reason for coming here is that there is a daily market—Centro Artisanals Los Dominicos—where artisans and craftsmen sell their wares, from pottery and woodwork to paintings, Chilean rugs and alpaca products. The market is actually a series of small, historic-looking buildings turned into shops, with dirt pathways and streams weaving throughout. We duck from shop to shop, admiring the famous lapis lazuli jewelry and artworks, and talking to the craftsmen. One man carves astonishingly tiny figurines from matches. We look closer at the tiny carvings of wood and see everything from a sailor at the helm to Jesus on the cross. At another shop, a small older man is carving local Chilean scenes out of wood and painting them, making them into beautiful textured wall art.

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We browse the shops, stopping often to coo at the cats lying in doorways. We have lunch at the on-site restaurant, the Antulican, where we grab an outdoor table under an umbrella. I order a typical Chilean dish called corn pie, which is ground beef, onions, chicken, olives, and hard-boiled eggs covered in mashed corn and then baked. Matt has “the chorrillana,” which is meat, sausage, onions and a fried egg on top of French fries.

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We eat our food and watch the nearby bird menagerie, which is filled with lots of different types of birds that jump across the crick running through their cage or perch on their enclosed tree. A peacock alternates sitting on a tree branch to scream about his masculinity, and standing in front of the roosters with his plumb fanned out. He does a dance where he kicks his feet and wiggles his tail feathers, while literally vibrating his huge turquoise fan. He continues this dance almost throughout our entire meal, making 90-degree turns to show off his colors and size to the rest of the birds.

The subway ride back to Providencia is short, but it feels like an eternity. I have to fight to keep my eyes open and figure I must look drunk to everyone else around me, with my heavy, unfocused eyes. When we make it back to Meridiano, Angelo has already taken our bags to our room and takes us up to our second-floor lodging. The room is simple and comfortable; a king bed with white linens takes up most of the relatively small (by American standards) room, but we have our own bathroom and two bright windows that look out onto the beautiful flowering trees.

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We relax for a little bit, checking email before we both take a much-needed nap. At about 7, we force ourselves out of bed so we can grab some dinner, though I think we both would have been content to sleep straight through the evening into the next morning. We walk back out to Av. Providencia to check out some of the restaurants along the main drag. Even though it is 7:45, it is still light outside and people rush along the sidewalks. We check out a few menus but find that either the restaurants have pretty much all gluten products (which Matt can't have) or are full of smokers (who I can't be around). We return to the street that Meridiano is on and decide to have dinner at Ozaki, a “Peruvian-Japanese fusion.” The dining room is upstairs, with subtle wood walls and colorful abstract paintings. Again, we don't understand much of the menu, but I recognize “chow mein” in one dish and Matt sees “pollo” in another, so we order those without really knowing what the dishes are.

My dish ends up being chow mein noodles with a beef, pepper and onion stir fry, tossed in a brown sauce with an interesting South American flavor kick to it. Matt's dish is the same type of stir fry over fries, with a side of licorice rice. The licorice is in its raw form of what looks like large white corn kernels, but has an intense flavor of black licorice. Matt says it blends well with the rest of the stir fry dish.

We finish our meal with espressos, which we sip while the rest of the dining room fills up. Here, the dinner rush doesn't really start until much later than we are used to, so by 9:30 the room hums with conversations we don't understand.

The two-minute walk back to Meridiano is surreal. With dinner wine calming our nerves after a stressful few days, we walk through the darkened Santiago neighborhood and marvel that we are here in South America, in a place so unfamiliar to us that everything feels brand new.

Posted by GoWander 19:58 Archived in Chile

Bella Vistas in the Urban Jungle

sunny 75 °F

After a good night's sleep, we wake up at 8 and slowly get ready for the day. We head downstairs to the breakfast area—which is a bright sun room that looks out onto the courtyard—for a buffet-style breakfast of waffles, toast, fresh fruit, avocado, meats and cheeses.

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The day is beautiful. Sunny and cloudless, not too hot or too cold, much like summer on the California coast. Luckily, Santiago has had a break from sweltering 85 degree days since we arrived, so sightseeing and walking through the city won't be the sweaty, dehydrated mess it certainly could have been. We walk toward the city center (which is a few miles away), taking a detour to explore the artsy, upscale Bellavista neighborhood. Sidewalk cafes, quaint tree-lined streets and nice restaurants—from Irish-themed to barbecue—give this area a friendly, stylish feel.

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We check out a nondescript shop in the upstairs of a building, where an expansive collection of lapis lazuli jewelry and figurines are for sale at a much more affordable price than the prices in the more tourist-driven shops. Lapis lazuli is one of Chile's precious stones and is only found in the Andes region and in Afghanistan. I selected a lapis lazuli necklace charm in the shape of a four-leaf clover, which a sweet, smiling woman wraps in a soft velvety keepsake bag.

Later, on our walk through Bellavista we come across two men walking a small brown-and-white alpaca on a leash. The alpaca wears a little hat and a string of colorful tassels hanging down from either side of his neck. I start squealing about the cute alpaca and, right on cue, one of the men asks if we'd like our picture taken with the alpaca for 2000 pesos. I know that this is really just a tourist trap, but I can't help myself. We fork over the cash and pose, our arms around the sweet little alpaca's neck as if we are old friends. He's so docile that he just calmly lets us pet him and looks right at the camera.

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We stop for lunch at a Bellavista restaurant called Backstage Life, which is located in a trendy plaza of outdoor dining and shops. We grab a table on the outdoor patio, and I order a penne arrabbiata while Matt has a salmon filet with two shrimp skewers, vegetables and mushroom rice. To finish our meal, we get an espresso for Matt and a frothy cappuccino for me, which we sip in the shade and watch all different types of people pass through the sunny plaza.

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After lunch we continue to walk west until we reach the city center, cutting through several city parks where couples lay entwined the grass and children splash each other at the fountains. The architecture here is different than the surrounding neighborhoods. The neo-classical style of the older buildings is an interesting juxtaposition against the glass and steel of the new conglomerates and skyscrapers. People rush along the sidewalks, narrowly avoiding body-checking us as they walk absently by. Stray dogs sleep in the shade outside of buildings, and bicyclists weave in and out of the pedestrian traffic.

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We decide to explore the “Mercado Central,” the central market of the city where locals buy fresh fish and meat. The mercado is separated into two main areas: an expansive fish market, and a large room with various eateries and merchandise booths. We walk first through the fish market, where an immeasurable amount of fresh seafood lays out on ice to entice the passersby. Huge whole fish (some pancake flat, some impressively long, some with large teeth), eels, octopuses, and varieties of mussels and oysters give off a distinctive briny sea smell; behind the counters, men expertly remove fish heads and collect innards into plastic baggies for sale, presumably for making a fish stock.

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For me, perhaps the strangest sight in the market is a type of seafood that I've only seen on TV: live southern barnacles. These “picorocos” are removed from the water in their calcite shells, which when fused together with other barnacles look like what I can only describe as a rock or coral branch with holes in it. You can see the barnacles inside those holes and, when they move, actually look like bird beaks opening, closing, extending out from the holes, pulling back in. Or like large pinchers. I've heard that these picorocos taste somewhat like mussels or oysters, but can be sandy and not necessarily enjoyable to eat for the untrained tastebuds. I remember seeing a Travel Channel host take a bite of cooked picorocos and grimace painfully, foregoing the rest of the dish.

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The larger section of the mercado has high, wrought iron ceilings with intricate design details. People are crowded into almost every available table to feast on the fresh catch of the day or the other meats being sold by local butchers (tongues, livers, kidneys, pigs feet, and a few animal parts that we couldn't distinguish but were almost certainly some kind of organ).

Save for one older, portly fish seller who, in pretty good English, asks where we are from and tells me that I am a very beautiful woman, no one else in the market seems to speak any English. Several try to sell me their fish while I'm looking at their displays of shellfish and octopus tentacles, probably telling me that their catch was just brought in from the sea this morning and is the freshest in the market. I answer with an uncertain “Inglés?” and they shake their heads and smile apologetically in response.

When we emerge from the dark, damp fish market we walk several blocks away to the Plaza de Armas, the main square of Santiago where artists have displayed their paintings at booths and families relax on blankets in the grass. The buildings at the perimeter of the square include the central post office, a cathedral, a natural history museum, and a few others—all of which date back to approximately the late 1700s, early 1800s. People mill about the square, listening to a woman singing into a microphone and watching a street performer do his best to captivate the circle of onlookers.

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From the plaza, we continue on to Cerro Santa Lucia, a hill in the city center that has ornate stone staircases, fountains, a 17th century fort, and a mausoleum. The walkways wind through the trees to the very top of the hill, where we are treated to a 360-degree view of dense, sprawling Santiago and the mountains bordering the city. The Andes are still not fully visible through the haze, at least not enough to show up in pictures, but they emerge enough that we can see snow on the highest peaks. The sun is so warm, the breeze so refreshing and the views so inspiring that we stay at the summit for awhile and just enjoy watching the city below us.

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By the time we climb back down Cerro Santa Lucia to the street, it is nearly 5 and we are more than ready to head back to Providencia. The walk from downtown is very long and tiring. Our feet hurt, our muscles ache, and we are at the point where we just want to get back to Meridiano and relax. We first stop for an early dinner at a French restaurant in Providencia called Normandie, where I have a roast beef sandwich on a baguette and Matt has beef bourguignon (a rich beef stew with mushrooms and carrots). We sit at a table in front of the window and watch a stray Jack Russell terrier run around on the sidewalk and examine the tables for scraps after patrons leave.

When we make it back to the hotel, we climb into bed and watch TV in a sleepy daze. Because it is the austral summer here, the sky doesn't darken until 9, and we can hear people laughing and children playing outside long after night has fallen.

This bustling, quirky, fast-paced, intimidating, vibrant, sprawling city is alive on this Saturday night.

Posted by GoWander 17:16 Archived in Chile

The Navel of the World

sunny 74 °F

We wake up to a sunny morning after a sound night's sleep, and go downstairs for breakfast. Because our flight to Easter Island (or Isla de Pascua) is at 1:35 p.m., we don't really have time to do any more sightseeing this morning and instead spend a couple hours repacking our bags. We get a good laugh when we realize that the pants we wore yesterday to the Mercado Central smell distinctly of fish and decide that we better not wear those on the plane.

Our taxi driver picks us up at 11 a.m. and drops us off at the airport with two hours to spare, but we realize once we get inside the airport to check-in that this will be a long, tedious endeavor. We are directed to LAN's international queue, which snakes out far past the ropes and twists all around the enormous room. It's a total cluster. For awhile we aren't even sure if the gargantuan line would actually end up where we thought it would end up, nor were we sure why Isla de Pascua is considered an international flight since it is part of Chile.

After a grumpy hour-long wait in the slowest, sweatiest line in the world, I proclaim to Matt, “I will never, EVER complain about American airports again!” Once we are finally able to check in, however, the rest of the process is very quick; security is efficient, probably because no one has to remove their shoes, separate their liquids or pull their laptops out of their bags.

We board our plane and are taken aback by the size of this aircraft. I had imagined a small, 1 seat-aisle-2 seats type of plane, but this one is a 2 seats-3 seats-2 seats, 45 rows deep, luxurious headroom, high-tech TV screens at each seat. Matt and I aren't sitting together but we are just across the aisle from each other. His neighbor is a jolly, very giggly German woman while I sit with a quiet French couple who holds hands during the flight. And we are very excited indeed when we see that, with our in-flight meal, LAN gives complimentary glasses (emphasis on the plural) of wine! My disgruntled impatience from the insanity at the check-in line quickly vanishes with my wine and selection of new movies.

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Isla de Pascua is 5 hours west of Santiago in the middle of the Pacific and is the most remote inhabited place on Earth. There is a lot of debate about Easter Island's story (how people actually got there in the first place, what the purpose of the moai were, how they were moved and set into place, etc), though there are plenty of theories. For a long time, people believed Thor Heyerdahl's theory that the native islanders had cut down all the island's trees to use as rollers for moving the moai on their backs to their final resting locations—thereby depleting the island of most of its trees, a classic lesson on over consumption. But new theories say that the moai “walked” to their final locations, in which people would attach ropes to the moai and rock it to propel it forward. The trees died for separate reasons, a type of insect that killed the trees or a rat population or something of that sort. But again, no one really knows.

The stoic, mysterious moai are what draw travelers to Easter Island nowadays. Everyone on the plane seems just as eager to see these iconic world landmarks as we are. As the plane approaches the island, people start craning their necks to look out the windows, people in the middle section standing to peer over those with window seats. Finally, the wave-battered cliffs and grassy plains come into view, and there are the moai, though so large in real life, looking small from the air.

We exit the plane directly onto the tarmac, and feel the warm sunshine that you would expect to accompany the swaying palm trees dotting the coast. We collect our bags at baggage claim and are greeted by a young driver for our hotel, who slips homemade fuchsia flower leis over our heads in welcome. He collects the rest of the people from the flight staying at Mana Nui (three French couples) before driving us back to our hotel.

Mana Nui is located just northeast of the only town on the island, Hanga Roa. It has regular rooms as well as a couple cabinas with a prime view of the ocean and a variety of colorful plants and flowers along the paths. We are led to our cabina, which is set apart from a lot of the other rooms and cabins, and tiredly drop our heavy bags on the floor. The cabin has two rooms, one with queen bed and TV, the other with a kitchen, bathroom, dining set and smaller bed. A wood porch wraps around the front of the cabin, as do sliding glass doors that let in the Pacific breeze.

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Bicky, one of the owners of Mana Nui, checks us in and tries to explain the different sights on the island, but she doesn't speak English and we don't speak Spanish. We get a couple words here and there, at least enough to basically understand what she is saying, but boy, do I wish I did Rosetta Stone before this trip!

We walk five minutes into town, passing some moai along the coast as well as some locals grilling on the beach near the small Hanga Roa harbor. Friendly stray dogs trot alongside us, play-fight with each other, and dig and roll in the sand. Children swim in what I imagine is frigid water, since it is technically spring here. Men play a game of soccer on a worn grass field in the center of town. This is a community just like any other; they play sports, teenagers show an almost inappropriate amount of PDA, the cars that drive by have Adele remixes blaring on the speakers. This feels like a community that could be anywhere, perhaps in Hawaii or even the outskirts of Santiago.

We stop at a cafe called Club Sandwich for a quick dinner at one of their outdoor tables. I order a dish called “Papa's Club,” having no idea what it is. It ends up being French fries and sweet potato fries topped with steak strips and a cheesy queso sauce—it's very rich and tasty. Matt has a fajita filled with steak, peppers and mushrooms, topped with a spicy salsa-type of sauce.

After dinner, we walk back to the hotel to grab jackets before heading back out to watch the sunset. On our way out of the hotel grounds we meet a friendly, young Scottish couple--Jenny and Martin--and excitedly tell them about our adventures in their beautiful country. We hope to see them again at breakfast in the morning so we can not only talk to them about how much we liked Edinburgh but also because we haven't found many English-speaking people to make conversation with!

We walk to Ahu Tahai, which is located at a bluff that is very close to Mana Nui and has a row of ancient moai resting on an ahu (a sacred platform) as well as a couple lone-standing ones. There are handfuls of visitors here, sitting on the grass and walking around taking photos. The moai themselves are huge and absolutely beautiful, silhouetted against the bright oranges and yellows of the sunset. A little ways away from the row of moai is one of the more unique of the island, with white coral eyes and a deep red stone topknot.

We take photos of the sunset and then just sit in silence in the grass, watching the moai and not quite believing that we are here at a place that we have dreamed about for years. I am almost brought to tears at the sight of the painted sky behind these ancient structures.

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When we return to our cabin, we open our sliding doors to cool down our room and are surprised when the resident outdoor cat comes trotting in and sits down, meowing at us. We decide to name him Senor Gato. This little guy has liked us from the beginning; whenever we'd walk through the garden pathways, he'd come running up to us and rub against our legs. Now, he explores our room, jumps into the sink, sniffs our bags, and then departs shortly later, probably looking for some food.

The song of insects mixes with the sound of the wind in the trees and, somewhere, Polynesian-style music probably from a nearby house. This tiny thumbprint of an island in the navel of the Pacific Ocean feels so isolated, and tomorrow, we will get to explore it.

Posted by GoWander 21:13 Archived in Chile

Man's Best Friend (Even Just for a Day)

Promptly at sunrise, we are awoken by the crowing of roosters but roll around in a sleepy daze until breakfast. The morning is clear and warm considering the strong winds overnight—we could hear the palm fronds battling each other until early morning.

We are the first ones to the breakfast area, which has rustic wood walls and large windows facing out to the ocean. Each table is set with an orange-strawberry smoothie, meat and cheese slices, a bowl of fruit in a sweet sauce, rolls, and hot pancakes. One by one, couples trickle in, greeting us in their native tongue as they walk past us.

When we've had our fill, we return to the cabin to get ready for the day. The forecast is calling for rain so we plan to just walk around Hanga Roa to buy souvenirs. As we get dressed, little Senor Gato comes into our cabin and lays down next to me on the bed, licking his paws and meowing at me. After he departs, another Mana Nui cat that I have named Socks comes in and rubs his face against our legs for a few minutes before leaving.

Pretty much as soon as we walk the 5 minutes to Hanga Roa, the rain hits with a vengeance. We duck into an artisans' market where locals are selling island jewelry, wall hangings, and mini moai carved out of wood, marble and volcanic rock. We browse for awhile, but the rain shows no sign of letting up so we put on our Gor-Tex and head back out into the rain to find a place for lunch.

A restaurant on the end of a breakwater at the harbor has good views and a tasty-looking menu, so we grab a seat on the wood patio that faces the crashing waves. I order a fettuccine carbonara and Matt orders grilled fish with a salad, and we watch the huge turquoise waves break on the rocks and a family of stray dogs—Mom, Dad and two puppies—dig holes and frolic in the sand.

Our pants are soaked through from the hard rain and chill us enough that we order hot cappuccinos before heading back to Mana Nui to wait out the rain. Thankfully, on the walk back, the rain stops and the air warms enough that we instead decide to hike to a nearby dormant volcano, Rano Kau. We quickly change our clothes and head back south through Hanga Roa toward the southwestern point of the island, where the volcano and the ancient settlement of Orongo (where the people of the birdman cult lived) is.

The walk from Mana Nui to Rano Kau is a total of 5.5 miles one way, much of which is a steep incline. By the time we walk the coastal road along a bluff, past a harbor of Chilean coast guard boats and fishing vessels, and behind the airstrip to the base of the volcano, we are already tired and hot. The trail itself leads through a farm of some sort, where cows graze among the trees on either side of the path, then sharply upward toward the lip of the mouth of the volcano. We stop several times along the way to rest our burning legs and take in the beautiful views of Hanga Roa and the western shore of the island. For some reason we both feel extremely out of shape on this hike and are panting with every step, maybe because of the humidity or the heat from the sun.

But the beauty of the hike and the scenic vistas of town don't escape us. North of us, the island is getting some mist, which adds dimension and drama to our views. By the time we reach the summit, we gasp in awe; the crater is surprisingly wide and deep, with water and vegetation forming a sort of marsh at the bottom. The sides are steep with huge rocks rising like the flat side of Half Dome from the southern lip. Beyond the crater is the ocean, with Orongo perched around the edge of the crater from where we stand and accessed by a worn dirt trail along the ridge.

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Though we want to follow the other people who make the walk up the ridge to Orongo, we decide against it because clouds have moved in over the volcano, severely reducing visibility and chilling the air. We also realize that many of those who are hiking that extra distance actually drove to the Rano Kau mirador via a dirt road, which drops vans of tourists off just steps from the crater so they can take pictures. Many of these people didn't hike the miles and miles uphill to get here, and won't have to worry about the long trek back down and into town. So, with hunger setting in and our legs yearning for a hot shower, we forgo the extra hike along the ridge and make our way back down the volcano face toward town.

Along the way, we notice a stray German Shepherd bashfully following us, staying a little distance behind us and, when we turn around, stopping and sitting to watch us. We joke that maybe we are his prey and he is just stalking us for dinner, but he becomes more and more friendly as we walk and at one point lays down next to us when we sit to rest our legs. He watches as other hikers walk past but stays at our side. When we emerge back onto the main roads, he follows dutifully, laying down to close his eyes when we stop to take pictures, staying close behind when we're moving. I name him El Capitan after the monolith in Yosemite Valley. After a day of hiking, it seems appropriate.

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The three of us make a detour along the cliffs, where brilliant blue waves smash into a rocky beach with such power that, over the years, they have sculpted a huge cave formation where ancient peoples painted their way of life on the wall—which can still be seen today. A rough twisting stairway leads down the side of the cliff to the cave entrance, where the waves send salty mist flying onto us with every crash into the rocks. We truly cannot believe the clean blueness of the water; it almost looks Photoshopped, but no amount of retouching could give these waves the same tropical blue that we see here. While we take pictures down in the rocky shore of the cave, El Capitan, despite my orders to stay at the top of the cliffs, follows us down the steps and lays down at the top of the final landing, peeking down at me every now and again.

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We spend two hours like this, with our adopted dog in tow, stopping to pat his head when he licks our hands fondly. When we make it into town, we sit down for dinner at a cafe that has outdoor seating and order white wine and pork with rice for Matt, and a pisco sour with a salami and cheese panini for me. El Capitan lays down just beyond our table, opening his eyes every once in awhile to look at me before going back to sleep. I start to get really sad when I realize that I cannot take El Capitan back to Mana Nui with me, so if he doesn't leave us on his own, I will have to break his little heart and shoo him away.

Despite the risk of really getting him attached to me, I walk out to the sidewalk and discretely feed him half of my Clif Bar that was left over from our hike. He gobbles it up hungrily and licks my hand as if in gratitude. Unfortunately, some nearby dogs see El Capitan eating something and run up to us, surrounding me in a begging, sad-puppy-eyes mass. Not sure what to do, I return to my seat at the cafe and pretend like I had nothing to do with the four dogs now sitting among the tables. The owner of the cafe runs out and shoos the dogs away, only to have to do the same thing a minute later when the dogs all return. Defeated, the dogs all turn and scatter down the sidewalk, including El Capitan. He sits on the opposite side of the street, watching me for a few minutes before walking slowly toward the center of town. I'm sad to see my new dog friend leaving, but I'm also relieved. I don't want to be the one to tell him to go away after we've bonded today.

Matt mocks me a little bit for being so attached to El Capitan, but on the road just outside Mana Nui a little German shepherd puppy clumsily runs up to us and flops down on his back, asking for a belly rub. Just like that, Matt melts into the sap that I've been all day, and rubs the puppy's tummy while baby-talking him. We both agree that, if we were back in the States and encountered these two dogs, we'd have two new members of our household.

The night is calm, the wind still and cool. After hot showers, we are more than ready to turn off the lights and get some sleep, having gotten our fill of our two favorite things: hiking and dogs.

Posted by GoWander 21:28 Archived in Chile

Fear and Magic in the Dark

sunny 74 °F

We wake up at 8 and head to the breakfast room for cereal, meats and cheeses, rolls, kiwi and papaya. We sit next to Jenny and Martin, who say that they are going to try a diving tour since yesterday was too rough to be out on the water. The idea of diving and snorkeling appeals to us for a moment, but we decide to hike along the coast and avoid the frigid Pacific water.

We head out on our hike shortly after 9 and head north, following a rugged dirt road that twists and dips along the cliffs. Just past Ahu Tahai where we enjoyed the sunset the first night on the island, we see another moai on an ahu and stop for a few photos. We've noticed during our time here that many of the moai are quite different from each other; some are short-bodied and wide, others are tall and thin. Some have topknots, others don't. This makes sense since it's believed that the moai were sculpted to represent actual people who lived on the island, but the sharp differences between them when you see them in person are still very striking.

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As we are taking photos of the moai, we look out at the ocean and see rain quickly approaching the island, forming a dark gray curtain that sweeps down across the water. Not too long after, it starts to mist and, with no shelter around us, we run along the coast looking for any kind of cave or shelter in the rocks. I find an easily accessible sea cave near the rocky tide pools of the shoreline, and luckily it is low tide so we both are able to climb in under the rock outcrop and shield ourselves from the rain. We laugh at our great idea as the rain pelts the shore outside.

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A short time later, the rain stops and the sun reappears to warm the damp earth. We continue our walk north along the coast, which gradually transforms from grassy to rocky, with volcanic chunks of all sizes covering the coastline. Horses graze among the rocks, sometimes in the road, giving us no more than a sideways glance as we pass. A black bull with horns (one horn pointed oddly right at us) stares at us as we approach, and we decide to play it safe and give him a safe distance by veering off the road for a short while.

We walk for awhile in the burgeoning heat, feeling our skin start to crisp and itch. After awhile we come across a detour off the road that leads us down near the grassy bluffs and, then almost appearing out of nowhere, is the mouth of a cave. When I say cave, I don't mean the large ones that you see in movies. This cave is so narrow that I wonder if a human being can actually fit through it. No sooner did that thought cross my mind did a man appear and shimmy his way through the mouth and back out onto the grass above, followed by his hiking companion. They tell us that it's very possible to get into the cave and make it all the way to the end, as long as we have flashlights and aren't afraid of the dark. They offer to let us use one of theirs, but we insist that the flashlight app on our iPhones will work just fine.

I follow Matt down into the cave entrance, squatting down and realizing that we would have to leave our hiking packs at the opening because there is no way we can crawl through with them on our backs. We set them on the cave floor and continue, using our phones to alternate illuminating the cave floor as well as the ceiling so we don't hit our heads. Without the lights, it is pitch black. Terrifyingly black. Matt has us turn off our lights for a moment just to see what its like, and we immediately turn them back on.

Eventually the cave opens up enough that we can stand comfortably, and we walk to the end of the cave at an opening that looks out of the side of the cliffs to the crashing waves below. It is absolutely breathtaking, being up on this little perch on the side of an enormous, ancient cliff, looking down at the deep blue water pounding on the rocks below. I wonder if ancient peoples ever lived in this cave or used it for any purpose.

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Matt stays back in the cave to take some photos and I decide to head back to the surface so I can keep an eye on our packs. I head back toward the black nothingness in front of me, knowing that what feels like a big dark room now will increasingly constrict and squeeze. At this moment, my little flashlight on my iPhone, always seeming too bright and obnoxious anywhere else, feels much too dim. I can't see more than a few feet in front of me, the shadowy corners and crevices a perfect place for someone—or something—to hide and watch me. I try my hardest not to think of the movie “The Descent,” where a group of cave explorers encounter scary man-eating cave creatures that stalk them and kill them. Obviously, those weird little Gollum-looking things are not in this cave, my mind says. But my pounding heart won't listen.

I make it to the opening of the cave and our packs, safe and sound. Two Asian guys are standing at the surface, looking down at me as I crawl out. They say that they tried to enter the cave but got scared because it's so dark, so I suggest they use their phones and tell them that the sea view from the inside is very worth the effort crawling in there. They pull out their phones and make their way into the cave, hesitating just a moment before plunging into the darkness.

Matt and I continue our journey up the coast into a landscape of not much more than rocky bluffs, rock piles, rock fences, and rocky grazing land for horses and cows. We see another bout of rain quickly approaching land, literally just a couple minutes from us. We scramble among the rocks, looking for a cave to hide in again but all we see are piles and piles of rocks. Unfortunately, although we have our Gor-Tex jackets with us, our shoes are not waterproof and would make for a long, soggy walk back to Mana Nui.

But I get a great idea right at the last second. I tell Matt to find an opening in the rock piles just big enough to either block the blowing rain or, even better, to stick our legs into so at least our shoes would stay dry. We pull on our Gor-Tex jackets and rain pants and find a rock opening just big enough for me to sit on the edge and stick my feet in. Matt runs to a nearby big rock pile and, when he hunkers down as the rain comes, I no longer see him. We're about 30 yards from each other out of sight, and in our own little protective barriers.

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Just as we are in position, the rain hits. I curl my body against the rock opening as the rain spits at my covered head and back. I laugh to myself, victorious and, most importantly, dry. The rain stops several minutes later, and we peek our heads up from our rocks and smile triumphantly at each other.

With blue skies overhead again, we keep walking until we see, off the road near the bluffs, a hiking pack hanging from a lone tree. We walk over, and our assumption is correct—it's another cave. However, when we ask a man who crawls out of the cave where it goes, he explains that it comes up above ground just a short ways away. No pounding waves or rock ledges in this cave. We decide to just sit in the shade under the tree and eat our snacks, which for me is a Clif Bar and for Matt is beef jerky, dried fruit, and nuts.

We keep walking until the coastal road we have been following turns right toward the inland mountains, then turn back toward Hanga Roa. The walk back is exhausting. My feet hurt with every step and Matt's hips hurt as well. Not to mention that we are both sunburned on all exposed skin. By the time we reach town, we'd been hiking for 5 hours straight. I'm so tired that I walk about half my normal speed, trudging slowly over the dirt road.

We stop for a late lunch at a place right near Mana Nui called Miro, a cute outdoor restaurant in perfect view of the ocean and the nearby moai. I order a pizza with spicy sausage, caramelized onions, peppers, and a mango sour on the side (delicious!), while Matt has a spicy shrimp and cilantro soup with a side of rice, which he dumps into the soup. He also has two fresh mojitos. After walking so far and going without a real meal since breakfast, we eat happily and admire our beautiful view.

Even though we just want to go back to Mana Nui and take a nap, we instead decide to walk into town to buy a few souvenirs because we aren't sure that we will have time the rest of our stay on the island. We buy a few items from the artists' market and stop at the ocean's edge, watching surfers and stand-up paddleboarders riding the swells just offshore.

We relax at our cabin for a couple hours, then head out for dinner at a restaurant right on the harbor, La Taverne du Pescheur. The place is lively, even at 9:30. Matt orders baked fish with vegetables, sweet potatoes and plantains, while I just have a mixed salad with onions, tomatoes, and avocado. After dinner we walk over to the moai that are located near Mana Nui to take some pictures of them at night.

With our flashlights illuminating the ground in front of us, we venture out into the inky blackness away from town, away from Mana Nui toward the moai. The sound of our footsteps punctuate the melodic churning of the waves beyond the cliffs. The moai appear out of the blackness and I am startled, as if I just swam upon a shipwreck that suddenly appeared out of the murk. We turn off our flashlights, settle down into the grass and wait for our eyes to adjust to the sudden dark. The stars glow like diamonds on velvet, forming shapes, patterns, glowing smears of light. For this—the unadulterated view of the stars without the chalky blur of light pollution—the journey to this tiny island is entirely worth it. We set up our cameras on tripods, pointing up at the midnight sky. The shutters open to collect these pinpricks of light. Click. Click.

A couple other photographers walk over and set up their tripods alongside Matt's, and we all alternate between setting up the frame, waiting 30 seconds, then examining the results. We end up with some beautiful photographs of the night sky behind the moai, which we will treasure for years to come.

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Tired, sore, and happy with our day, we settle down for sleep before another long day on Easter Island.

Posted by GoWander 05:18 Archived in Chile

The History and Mystery of the Moai

semi-overcast 75 °F

Today we have decided we want to gain a deeper understanding of the history of Easter Island and what the civilization was like during the age of the moai. We book a private tour of the island with a guide that works with Mana Nui, Patricio, who we've heard from other guests at the hotel is very knowledgeable and thorough.

Patricio arrives promptly at 10. About 50 years old or so, he has a kind fatherly demeanor and deeply tanned skin, as you would expect from an islander. We drive up the southern side of the island, stopping at the most historically or archaeologically significant sites along the way and then curling around the northern tip to the white sandy beaches.

Patricio is a wealth of information and explains to us the societal structure of the ancient people, how they lived, the process of sculpting and transporting the moai, and how outside cultures decimated the landscape and precious artifacts.

The ancient people lived in one of 15 island tribes, which traded among each other amicably enough but also were very territorial, which led to much vengeance and animosity between the groups. However, one thing that they had in common was the obsession with using the large moai to honor their dead. The moai were set upon an “ahu,” or ceremonial alter, under which the deceased was buried. Lesser nobles were buried around the edges of the ahu. Therefore, it really isn't too much of a secret what the story behind the moai are—they are burial monuments.

All of the moai on the island were carved out of the rock at a single volcano (called Rano Raraku) and then set along the hillside in a display for those who are in the market for a moai (if a member of their royalty recently died, or if they want to pick one out for themselves). People would essentially walk through the unfinished moai along the hillside to select the one they want to transport back to their village, using food, tools, or even people as a trade.

Patricio explains that it is believed that a single tribe had control of the volcano and worked nonstop as a sort of “sculpture factory,” churning out moai after moai even if there wasn't necessarily a use for them yet. They would have procured a lot of supplies for their tribe and become wealthy because of their access to the volcano. The other theory is that all the tribes cooperatively used the quarry, but this is unlikely because of how territorial the tribes were.

We walk along the edge of the volcano among the moai that sit buried up to their shoulders, amazed by all the moai here in one place and the fact that they are so well preserved considering their age. Some have long, narrow faces and puckered lips; others have thick noses, thick bodies and thick necks—a body type that Patricio attributes to the Hawaiians or Tahitians. There is also a single female moai along the hill—her breasts and fuller lips are clearly visible—likely a special request from a queen of a tribe.

Once a moai is selected from the quarry, the long process of transportation begins. This might be surprising, but Easter Island is a huge, hilly island, so moving a 30-ton moai to the other end of the island would take months. The method used to move the moai is still being debated. According to Patricio, the islanders believe Thor Heyerdahl's theory that the moai were laid flat on logs and then pulled to their final locations at their ahu. But, Patricio says, there is no evidence of logs or rope anywhere near the moai that were abandoned during transport, so this method is not necessarily fact. When I ask about the theory that the moai were “walked” to their final locations, he says that research shows that the bottoms of the moai would have been damaged from being twisted for so long across the island, over hills, and over jagged rocks along the way. And there is no such damage. Again, this is inconclusive.

As we walk around the side of the volcano, we see immense rock faces that stretch into the sky and, when we look closer, we can see moai that were still in the middle of being carved. They all lay on their backs, their bodies carved but not yet separated from their host wall. Some are connected by just a keel, which would have been severed by swinging heavy rock chunks into it. Everywhere we look on this big rock face, we see moai staring up at the sky, laying in a sort of monolithic puzzle. We even see one nearly finished moai that is three times the size of a normal moai, about 90-100 tons, obviously a special request for a wealthy royal. Patricio says that there are about 400 moai here on this volcano, either awaiting a buyer or in the process of being sculpted.

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Once a moai had reached its ahu, it was finished by adding a red-stone topknot and sanded to form eye sockets, into which coral eyes with obsidian pupils were added. Only the moai with a topknot and coral eyes were considered the “finished” ones; the ones that I always pictured, with the skinny bodies and blank notches for eyes, were not completed at all.

The villages were centered around the ahus, with the moai along the coast, facing inland to watch over the people of their village. In front of the burial site, people built the foundation for their longboat-shaped homes and cooked over fires. They even did ritual sacrifice of children in front of the watchful eyes of their moai sculptures. We learn that in the case of the ahus with several moai (including Ahu Tongariki, which has 15 moai in a row), each member of the royal family that dies is buried next to their other family members, hence the long rows of moai on a single alter. There may have been several long ahu in a single village, spread out along the coastline.

The moai culture was prevalent until a civil war in which the enslaved “short ears” (who didn't wear adornments in their earlobes to stretch them out) rose up against the “long ears” and actually won. In defiance of their former captors, they toppled all the moai on the island. For a long time, the moai and their ahus lied in ruins, heads broken off from their bodies. Only recently did various interested individuals engage in projects to reconstruct the moai and their ahus, setting them back up where they belong and cementing their heads back onto their shoulders.

Patricio also tell us of how the island was depleted of resources by colonists and looted by greedy traders from Europe. Sacred land was parceled up into grazing fields for livestock, which stepped on the ahus and ancient homes and quickly caused their ruin. Colonists carved moai topknots into cattle troughs and used the moai for target practice, leaving large bullet holes peppering their fragile bodies. Looters stole the eyes off the moai when coral was a precious trade item. Entire moai heads were loaded onto ships and taken to far off museums. No one thought about how sacred the moai are or what they represent, that they were a way to honor the dead. No one cared.

There have been efforts to repair the damage. In addition to reconstruction of a few of the damaged moai and resetting them on their ahus, CONAF (the national park service) has considered reforestation of the island. A previous attempt at this had failed when they planted a eucalyptus forest in the center of the island, selecting eucalyptus as the tree of choice because it grows quickly. However, it also is quite damaging to the soil, so the eucalyptus planting has stopped and government moves too slowly to actually get successful reforestation underway.

Along the rest of the tour, we stop at several important landmarks, including the only finished female moai on the island, a magnetic stone (“the navel of the world”) that is supposed to give you energy if you touch it, ancient cave dwellings, numerous petroglyphs, and many more ahus and moai. We spend almost 8 hours with Patricio and finish our tour with enough knowledge to say that while we might not have cracked all the mysteries of Easter Island, we certainly cracked more than a few.

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Exhausted and famished, we walk to town for dinner at Te Moana, where I order teriyaki chicken with a lime daiquiri, and Matt orders a grilled filet with shrimp and potatoes. I attempt to take a soothing bath when we return to Mana Nui, but it scorches my sunburn and causes me to cry out and clutch my burned body parts.

This is our last night on Easter Island, and we have seen so much of this island that our sunburns, blisters and aching muscles are a sort of trophy for all the hiking we accomplished. Tomorrow we will leave this surreal island and return to the fast-paced civilization of the mainland, the Santiago culture of cellphones, high heels and pollution.

There is no pollution here on Rapa Nui. It feels like the purest place on earth.

Posted by GoWander 20:02 Archived in Chile

The Edge of the World

sunny 65 °F

Thursday is a frenzy of repacking our bags, checking out of Mana Nui and then flying back to Santiago. Before our shuttle arrives to take us to the airport, Matt runs into town to get our passports stamped with a special Isla de Pascua passport stamp—one that has three moai on it, which we couldn't pass up as an addition to our stamp collection. We then sit on the front porch of Mana Nui's breakfast area, petting Socks the cat, watching the waves roll in from the horizon and chatting with a nice German couple who is also waiting for transport to the airport. It's a beautiful, warm day, a perfect day for exploring more of the island or snorkeling at Anakena Beach. But, alas, our time at Easter Island has come to an end and it's time to leave this magical island behind.

We watch a movie on the flight, drink some wine, and before we know it, we're flying into Santiago after the sun has already set and the Andes are barely visible. Because we don't get off the plane until almost 10 p.m. and we have to be back at the airport at 4 a.m. the following morning for our flight to Punta Arenas, we decide that it is really not worth all the trouble to take the shuttle to the Hilton Garden only for 4 hours of sleep, and plan to sleep in the airport for the night. We struggle to find someone at the airport shuttle counter who knows enough English to understand that we need to call the Hilton to cancel our reservation; after a few different people just give us printed off shuttle tickets or try to BOOK us a reservation at the Hilton, I try to draw a circle and slash through it over our confirmation number, as if to convey that we no longer need it. This finally does the trick, and the young man who is helping us phones the hotel desk.

Matt negotiates for awhile trying to get the cancellation fee waived, but we decide to just call corporate when we get back to the states to negotiate a refund. We wander through the noisy airport in search of a quiet place to sleep for a few hours, but the waiting area is full of people, screaming children and TVs with a loud soccer game. The person sitting next to me has a shoebox with a bunch of holes punched in it; I wonder what kind of critter he has in there. He sees me eyeballing it and tells me what it is in Spanish, so I just nod as if I understand.

We eventually decide to leave the waiting area and go to another area of the airport, where there are seats lining a wide hallway where you would walk out of baggage claim and customs. There aren't many people here, and thankfully there are no TVs. We spread out on a row of 5 seats and curl up to sleep. We manage to get a couple good hours in before it is time for us to check in and go to our gate at 3:30 a.m. The terminal is mostly empty at this hour, except for other sleeping passengers scattered about awaiting their flights. At our gate, we stretch out again and sleep for another hour or so. When I wake up, the gate waiting area is full of people and the plane is ready to be boarded.

The flight to Punta Arenas is a little over 3 hours and takes us over the Aisen region of Chile, which is mostly snow-capped mountainous islands and glaciers. When we touch down in Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost cities in the Americas, the air is noticeably cooler than up in Santiago, and the wind whips my already-messy, dirty hair into a halo around my head. We load up our rental car and head northwest up toward our hotel, which is just to the east of Torres del Paine National Park in the Magallanes region of Chile.

The drive out of Punta Arenas is fairly easy. There is only one major road north, and the land is mostly flat, bleak grazing fields for sheep and cows. It takes us about three hours to reach the next major town of Puerto Natales, which is a colorful town full of backpackers, hostels and tour companies. We briefly stop for lunch at a restaurant along the water, overlooking the snowy mountains of the north. I have a steak, cheese and avocado sandwich, and Matt has steak and fries with a tasty pepper sauce. We then walk along the promenade near the water and grab some coffees from a coffee shop before hitting the road again.

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From here, the roads become a little more confusing, and the pavement eventually gives way to dusty gravel. When we are following another car, or pass another car going the opposite way, we are blinded for a few seconds by a dense brown cloud of dust kicked up by the tires. The dust is so thick that it somehow seeps into the car through every available opening it can find; we become accustomed to the smell and taste of what I would describe as chalk-like, as if someone slammed two chalky erasers into each other. We cover the vents as best as we can, and it helps a little. When we periodically pull over to the side of the road to take photos, thin cakes of dust rise into the air from the slamming of our car doors.

The landscape becomes increasingly mountainous, though the road itself does not climb into the mountains. We wind alongside the peaks and, after six hours of driving, find the entrance to our hotel, Cerro Guido.

Cerro Guido was founded in the late 1800s as a massive sheep farm, and several of its original buildings have been transformed into lodging for guests. In addition to the Owner’s House and Administration House, which are the guest buildings, the property also has stables, a sheep shearing shed, blacksmith and carpentry workshops, a fire station, and an antique kitchen and dining room. Horses and downy white sheep graze in the surrounding fields, and various herding dogs trot around the perimeter of the livestock. This is the authentic Patagonian experience, a small slice of the local, historic lifestyle, that simply could not have been found had we stayed in a more typical hotel within the park.

The guest house is located high on the side of a mountain range, and from this vantage point we can see far across the valley below us, as well as the peaks and towers of Torres del Paine. The weather is sunny, warm and beautiful, not exactly what we expected out of Patagonia. We had prepared ourselves for the typical rain and wind, so it is a treat to arrive with such a sunny welcome.

We check in and are led to our room in the guest house, which is classy and beautifully decorated. Surrounded by fragrant flowers and trees, the house has a sitting area, a dining room and a living room, plus rooms located along two wings of the home. Fireplaces are in every room and the wood floors creak with every step.

Our room takes us by surprise. In addition to an enormous bed and wood-burning fireplace, the room has a huge en-suite bathroom and tasteful décor. It feels like home as soon as we drop our bags onto the hardwood floor.

After exploring the grounds a bit and admiring the view of Torres del Paine, we shower off the long hours in the airport and walk to the nearby restaurant for dinner. The dining room has wrap-around windows that put Torres del Paine and the neighboring mountains on prime display. Immediately after entering the restaurant, the server offers us pisco sours to start our meal, which we eagerly take. The rest of the meal is a slew of tasty, high-end dishes prepared and cooked right on site by a staff chef. We indulge in rosemary skewered beef with a rosemary polenta brûlée; fresh-baked rolls with herb butter; homemade tomato soup topped with Parmesan cheese; grilled lamb with semolina gnocchi; and rosemary crème brûlée with a caramelized sugar crisp and a chocolate and walnut brownie. Many of the ingredients in these dishes came fresh from the estancia's on-site garden, which grows a variety of vegetables and herbs. To compliment our meal, we order a bottle of 2009 Syrah from Chile.

As we are served our dessert course, the sun sets over the mountains of Patagonia, casting a glow over the entire landscape. Everyone in the restaurant with us is in awe of the mountain view and the beautiful sunset, and collectively pulls out cameras to snap a few pictures.

The chef comes out to speak with his guests and makes his rounds to the tables, greeting everyone and asking about the quality of their meals. He receives handshakes and compliments all around, and for good reason—the food was some of the best I've ever had, and many others in the restaurant agree.

When he comes to our table, we shake his hand and thank him for the amazing meal. He says that there is another special treat awaiting us in our room. When we return to our room, we find a chilled bottle of sparkling wine and a plate of chocolates sitting on our table. What a nice surprise after a long few days of flying, driving and half-sleeping in airports!

Tomorrow, weather-permitting, we hope to make the hour drive to Torres del Paine and explore this world-renowned hikers' paradise. But tonight, we will drink our complimentary wine, sleep between soft sheets, and indulge in the comforts of this home away from home.

Posted by GoWander 18:25 Archived in Chile

All Good Things are Wild and Free

sunny 60 °F

We wake up a little after 6 to a bright, sunny morning—which is rare in Patagonia. We enjoy a breakfast of meats and cheeses, baked goods, and cereal, as well as fresh orange juice and strawberry juice. Torres del Paine looks beautiful in the morning light, but we don't spend too long eating and enjoying the view. We plan to spend the day at the park and hiking to those famous granite towers.

After we gather up practically half of our packed clothes (Gor-Tex jackets and bottoms, North Face Windwall jackets, various baselayers, and hats and gloves) and other essential items, we hop in the car and take off toward the park. After winding through the hilly, twisting gravel roads through the park (and seeing some flamingos along the way) we stop at one of the park offices to check in and pay our entrance fee.

There are not many roads within the park, just a bare minimum to allow people to get to a general area so they can hike to all the highlights of the area. So to get up to Hosteria Las Torres, where we will park our car and start our 11.5-mile hike to the towers and back, we follow an odd zigzag of primitive roads that slowly curl around toward the famous cluster of mountains in the northern end of the park.

We are surprised by the warm sunshine and calm winds, because all the research I had done on Torres del Paine tell horror stories of people staying for a week and only having rain, snow, and the famous Patagonian winds that can reach gusts up to 100 mph. One blogger explained that, while hiking, one section of trail was so windy that she and her husband fell onto all fours and crawled for about 15 minutes. Even the German couple we had met at Easter Island said that they had done a few day hikes in Torres del Paine the week before, but it rained the entire time they were there. So today's mild weather is a pleasant surprise.

Many hikers come to the park to hike the 3-4 day hike—called the “W” because of the shape of the route—or the 7-8 day circuit hike, which includes the “W” but also loops around along the top of the “W.” So immediately upon starting our hike we see many hikers with loaded packs and sleeping mats, heading to the nearest refugio. That's the nice thing about hiking here; if you don't necessarily want to camp along the way, you can stay in a hostel-like refugio that serves meals and gives hikers a sense of community with each other.

Matt and I are not hiking the “W” or the circuit. Instead, we are doing a 11.5-mile day hike up into the mountains to the base of the famous towers, a hike that is known to be especially difficult for day hikers because they don't stop at the campgrounds or refugios on the way back. But we both are pretty fit, so why not give it a try?

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The trail starts out with a steep upward climb over rocks and gravel until we reach the “Valle Ascencio,” a deep valley with a startlingly steep slope off the one side of the lose gravel trail. The path eventually descends to the bottom of the valley to a refugio built alongside a blue, rushing stream. Backpackers and day hikers sit together at the picnic tables or rest in the shade of the trees, sipping water or just taking in the views. We stop briefly but move on in hopes of making it to the towers before clouds set in and hide them from view.

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From here, the trail follows through a dense forest of streams, waterfalls, and green underbrush before spitting us out on a rocky moraine in the Valle de Silencio that seems impossible to be a trail. Yet somewhere among the huge mountain of boulders stretching high into the sky, there is a path that is surprisingly well-marked, which is good because without those markers, I'm pretty sure there isn't a defined “path” at all—just endless rocks and boulders.

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At this point, our legs are fatigued and our hearts racing with the effort of continuously climbing higher when all our bodies really want to do is rest. We stop a few times to munch on snacks and rest our legs, but we keep up a fairly fast pace all the way to the crown jewel of the park, the lookout area at the towers.

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The granite torres stretch up into the afternoon sky like huge monolithic skyscrapers, gray and sturdy. We gaze awestruck at their silent power, their commanding presence over the rocky landscape below. This is a sight for the travel books. All around us, a few of the hearties hikers who have made it up the rocky ascent sit on nearby rocks, looking up at the towers and snapping pictures. We set our packs down behind some boulders where the brisk Patagonian wind is unable to reach us, and simply admire the sight before us.

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This lookout area before the towers, though an immense relief, can be quite dangerous and has claimed the lives of visitors who try to climb up toward the towers along the slopes of huge rocks. Just a few years ago the body of an Irish hiker was found up close near the towers, much farther than he really should have been climbing. Today no one is attempting to climb any further. I think everyone is tired enough that they don't want or need to continue.

After about 45 minutes in our alcove against the biting wind, we start the long descent back down the rocky slope, through the valley and back toward our car park. We are feeling good and energized up until about halfway through our return route; suddenly, it all hits us at once. Every muscle in my legs, as well as my upper back from my heavy pack and my triceps from using my trekking poles, screams and aches. Matt's right knee hurts so much that he limps a little bit. We both stop to put on our knee braces for a little extra support down the steep declines, but it really doesn't seem to help much. By the time we reach our car, we are walking so slowly and limping so pitifully that it is a chore just to make it across the parking lot. I crawl onto the passenger's seat and almost cry with relief. Matt, in the middle of removing his hiking boots (once black, now tan from being covered in dirt and dust) lays in the grass next to the car, rolls onto his back and just lies there, looking at the sky.

By the time we leave the park it is already 6:45. Matt drives like a speed demon down the gravel roads while I sleep, and we make it back to Cerro Guido at 8. We take 3-minute showers and rush, stiff-legged and famished, to the restaurant. We start the meal with pisco sours as the servers bring out beef empanadas with homemade salsa; fresh-baked bread with herb butter; a salad with grilled zucchini and hearts of palm; homemade chicken soup; and, as the main course, barbecued lamb cooked over a fire by gauchos. We had seen the gauchos cooking an entire lamb over a fire as we walked up, so we know it is fresh! A few glasses of cabernet sauvignon, a side of rosemary potatoes, as well as a dessert of cinnamon ice cream and an apple-pistachio crepe, finish off the meal.

Satisfied with a tasty dinner and relaxed from the wine, we return to our room where I take a long bath to soak my muscles. Before bed we light a fire in our wood-burning fireplace and fall asleep to the sound of the fire crackling and popping.

Eight hours and 11.5 miles of hiking through the Patagonian mountains. Sleep is a welcomed friend.

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Posted by GoWander 13:31 Archived in Chile

The Winds of Patagonia

sunny 57 °F

We sleep in until 8 and have breakfast in view of the mighty towers that we just yesterday hiked to. Our muscles still ache and our knees are sore when they bend, so we decide to take a leisurely drive through the park to see some of the other popular sights.

As we drive deeper into the park, we see a whole wide variety of different Patagonian wildlife on the hills and near the lagoons. There are herds of guanacos (which are a lot like alpacas, but seem to have shorter, lighter fur), foxes running through the bushes, flamingos along the shoreline, emus, hawks, and ducks. At one point, a family of emus, with about six or seven little babies, cross the road in front of our car to join a guanaco herd in grazing.

We stop next to Laguna Amarga to take some pictures and meet a couple from San Francisco that is also staying at Cerro Guido. They tell us that they came to Torres del Paine after a few days at Fitz Roy, Argentina and then talk about the great sailing in the Bay area, should we decide to move there. They had hiked to the towers yesterday as well and, like us, are taking an easy day just driving around the park.

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We continue on our way south along Lago Nordenskjold to Salto Grande, a famous waterfall within the park that is the emptying point from Lago Nordenskjold to Lago Pehoe. As soon as we step out of the car, the wind punches us in the face and throws dirt and gravel all over us. I wrap my arms around my body as we try to walk the path toward the waterfall. It feels as if we are in a wind tunnel, and we might be blown off our feet with every step. This is the famous Patagonia wind, and it does not disappoint.

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By the time we make it to the lookout over the waterfall, the wind is so strong that we have trouble staying upright. Around us, other visitors take wide stances and try to brace themselves but end up stumbling and holding onto each other. We can't hear a word the other says, even when just a foot apart. We burst out into hysterical laughter at this, at how a wind stronger than any we've ever felt before has reduced us to stumbling over the gravel and yelling futilely into the air.

The waterfall is beautiful, bright turquoise water that, in the wind, froths and throws mist onto the onlookers. A path leads down closer to the falls, and another jets up a small hill for what I imagine are great views of the mountain range, but we just don't feel safe trying to walk either of those. We have trouble merely staying on our feet; we are in no shape to walk down near the water or up on a hill in this kind of wind.

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Back in the car, we drive south along Lago Pehoe and are captivated by the views of the famed Cuernos del Paine behind the crystalline turquoise water of the lake, white caps curling over the waves. The landscape here is so dramatic and extreme, it literally takes our breath away.

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The road leads through the remnants of last year's devastating wildfire, which consumed more than 30,000 acres of land in the heart of the park. The grass has made a slight comeback—the colors of spring peek through what was an ashy, burnt landscape just one year ago. Most devastating, however, is the loss of the native trees, trees that will take more than 100 years to regrow. From what I’ve read, these Patagonian forests were lush and beautiful before the fire, but today they are somber, browned skeletons. This is a heartbreaking loss for the wildlife of the park as well as for the next generation of hikers—myself and Matt included—who will never see these forests in their rich beauty.

The fire had started when a young hiker carelessly burned his toilet paper in the middle of high winds and a dry spell within the park. The fire spread much quicker than authorities were able to contain it. Hikers were evacuated and the park remained closed for a long time after while the embers continued to smolder. Looking at the dead trees and destruction of so much natural habitat makes me extremely sad. I want to hate the hiker who did this to such a fragile ecosystem, but at the same time, all hikers in the park come here because they love nature and want to be immersed in it. I'm sure, as a fellow lover of the outdoors and the fabulous parks around the world, this man would be devastated by what happened and that he caused it.

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We follow the road until we reach Salto Chico waterfall, located just behind Hotel Explora, which is the most expensive hotel in the area at about $800 per night. Just for the heck of it, we walk into the lobby and check out the restaurant area, wine bar and the comfortable sitting lounge with gorgeous views of the mountains and lakes. The cushiest couches and loveseats I've ever seen line a stylish room with wraparound windows facing the park. We sink into a couch and pretend for a minute that we are rich enough to afford a hotel like this.

As the day goes on, the wind gets stronger and stronger. Our noses and foreheads turn numb when we walk around outside and it's difficult to hold our cameras steady to take pictures. On our way out of the park, we stop at the ranger station and ask how strong the winds are today. The person working the station says that on a windy day like today, winds at Salto Grande are anywhere from 60- to 75-miles-an-hour, though likely on the higher side of that today.

We make our way back out of the park and return to Cerro Guido in time for lunch. The restaurant doesn't really have anything prepared for us to eat, so the chef puts together a special meal for us. He brings out delicious homemade cream of spinach soup with pistachios, which I eat with a plate of rolls. The main course is a salad with marinated tuna steak, hearts of palm, grilled zucchini and tomatoes. We eat our food and sip pisco sours while the wind rattles the windows next to us.

After lunch we relax in the room, soaking our muscles and napping before dinner. At about 7:30 we sit down for a meal of tartare and corn cakes; salad and rolls; carrot and ginger soup; lamb shank with a chocolate sauce and roasted rosemary potatoes (for me); sirloin with ratatouille and a red wine reduction (for Matt); and layers of chocolate bark, custard, and strawberries and blueberries for dessert.

We spend some time in Cerro Guido's lobby to use the Wi-Fi then settle down in our soft bed with a warm fire. There's something about being here in Patagonia, with the wide open spaces, breathtaking mountains, and bright blue lakes that reminds us of how small we are in this big, wonderful world.

Posted by GoWander 14:00 Archived in Chile

The Highs and Lows of Chilean Travel

semi-overcast 56 °F

We wake up and have breakfast a little after 7:30. We have scheduled a two-hour horseback riding excursion through the hills and steppe of Cerro Guido with a gaucho and one of the girls who works at the front desk, who will act as our English-speaking guide.

The morning is beautiful as always, just slightly chilly but sunny and, thankfully, not windy like yesterday. We walk to the stables where we meet up with a young couple from London who will be joining us for part of our horseback tour. The four of us strap on leather leg covers that protect our pants from the knees down, as well as comfortable black riding helmets, before we head outside to the horses saddled up and standing along the fence. My horse is walked out first and I hop on with ease, as does Matt (who is riding a horse for the first time today).

When everyone is settled atop the horses, we follow along behind the gaucho in a cluster, with the horses all walking strangely right next to one another, sometimes bumping into each other or putting the riders just a few inches apart. It is not like the times when I've gone on horseback tours as a kid, where all the horses just walk in a straight line. Here, we often have to give our horses a gentle kick to tell them to go, as well as stop or turn them with the reins. Sometimes they stop to try to eat the grass and we are instructed to pull tighter on the reins so they can't keep stopping for snacks. But the horses in general are very gentle and responsive to our commands, and they pretty much just calmly walk together as if they have done it a million times (and I'm sure they have).

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The horses, we learn very quickly, have pretty bad gas today and often let them rip as they walk, sometimes with every step or while climbing up hills. It gives everyone a little chuckle whenever a horse lets off gas, as if we are all in the fifth grade and find bodily functions hilarious.

We walk our horses through streams, past herds of curious guanacos that walk closer to examine us, past cows chewing their cuds, and through forests of windblown Patagonian trees. And the dramatic snows of the Torres del Paine mountains are always visible just past the rolling hills. This is an experience neither of us will ever forget, the experience of riding horseback in Patagonia with a local gaucho.

As we walk, I periodically give my horse's neck a little pat and baby-talk to him, telling him how good he is and what a nice, beautiful horse he is. I feel silly, as I always do when I'm the only person baby-talking to animals, but I think if my horse could pick up on any of my positive energy then it will be a more pleasant ride for the both of us.

After awhile, our group splits as the gaucho and the London couple continue up to the top of the mountain range behind the estancia for a four-hour ride, while Matt and I follow the guide back down to the stables. Because they know the route back to the estancia, the horses fall into a fast trot as if they just want to get back so they can freely graze in the grassy fields.

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When we return to the stables, I say goodbye to my horse and we walk back down toward the guest house to prepare for a drive south to Puerto Natales, 110 kilometers away (where the nearest gas station is). On the walk to the guest house we pass the San Francisco couple and find out that they have a flat tire that they need to either get patched or replaced. They are supposed to be driving down to Punta Arenas today but aren't sure if or when they will actually be on their way. We give them our sympathy and best of luck, then continue on to our room to change.

We leave for Puerto Natales at about noon and see that the San Francisco couple is ahead of us, driving slowly on a small gimpy spare tire. They wave us ahead and we all exchange smiles through the windows as we pass them. We continue along the dusty unpaved road for awhile when Matt suddenly pulls along the side of the road and gets out, looking at the wheels and making a face at me. Somehow the Americans have all the bad luck while driving on these gravel roads because we, too, have a flat on one of our rear tires.

Thankfully, Matt has changed many a tire and quickly installs the spare. We are worried at this point because we don't know where we can go to get a tire repaired, we don't have the phone number of our rental company, and we don't speak any Spanish. We decide to continue to Puerto Natales as planned and see if we can somehow convey to someone in town that we need a tire repair.

We get back on the road and slowly make our way toward town, but since we are way past due for lunch and the drive is so long, we both get sleepy and pull of the side of the road for a power nap. After about 10 minutes I sit back up just in time to see the San Francisco couple on the road passing us, slowing just a bit too see if we are having problems with our car. We head back out to the road and end up right behind them, following them into town until we pull off at a shoulder and explain what happened with our tire. Stacy and Arthur say that they are going to stop at a gas station and see if the attendant can point them toward a tire repair shop, so we follow them to the gas station and on to a tire shop called El Gringo.

The two cars drive through the streets of Puerto Natales in search of this shop and finally find it because of the pile of dusty used tires lying in a heap alongside the road and seeming to spill out from a tiny workshop door. The four of us jump out and walk into the shop, and realize that the repairman is out to lunch. We stand amongst the pile of tires, laughing at how “South American” this shop looks with the tires just strewn about and how a group of gringos are trying to get help at a shop called El Gringo.

We make small talk for a long time about sailing, our lives back home, our Patagonian vacations, our jobs, and skiing. Finally, the repairman (who actually looks quite a lot like a gringo but doesn't speak any English) returns and, after taking a quick look at the holes in each of our flat tires, rolls them into the shop while Matt and Arthur follow along. Stacy and Arthur's tire is patched within minutes and costs them only $6. But Matt's and my tire is completely ruined because somehow, our tire is punctured on the side, not on the tread. The repairman walks Matt through piles of tires inside the building and points to one, conveying that that one should fit our car. He installs it for us and only charges us $40.

The four of us are immensely relieved, having thought that we may be stuck in town the rest of the day or not be able to have a fix at all. We say goodbye to Arthur and Stacy there between the piles of tires, exchanging emails and phone numbers in case we make it out to San Francisco.

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By the time we find a parking spot in town, it is already 3:30 and we are absolutely famished. We grab a table in a nicely decorated restaurant called Afrigonia, which is described as African cuisine in the heart of Patagonia. I order a chicken breast stuffed with spinach and peanuts topped with an eggplant curry sauce, with a side of crispy potatoes flavored with lemon and spices. Matt has a salmon filet with shrimp and coconut cream sauce, with a side of the same potatoes that I ordered. The food is delicious and flavorful, and we eat happily now that we can breathe a little easier. Because we need it, Matt has a glass of wine and I have Cerveza Austral, the local beer from the southernmost brewery in the world.

After lunch we look around a few stores in town before grabbing coffees to go. We drive carefully back to Cerro Guido and are ready for dinner at 7:30. We have cheese empanadas and cheek of fish in a savory sauce; chick pea soup; salad and rolls; beef filet with fresh mashed potatoes; and a frozen raspberry custard. And, of course, a bottle of wine to relax after a somewhat stressful day.

The air is chilly tonight. Happy to have made it successfully back to Cerro Guido after our mishap, we will fall asleep again to the heat of a wood fire, in our cozy room in the dark Patagonian hills.

Posted by GoWander 14:14 Archived in Chile

Fire and Ice

semi-overcast 61 °F

After a late breakfast, we drive back to Torres del Paine one last time so we can explore a section of park that we haven't made it to yet. Once again, the weather is beautiful—sunny with just a slight wind, but nothing like the wind we experienced a few days ago. I am amazed by the beautiful weather we have had during our time in Patagonia, considering how everything I read about visiting this region cautioned travelers to expect every season in one day.

Especially in the park, weather can switch from foggy to rainy to snowy to sunny, all within a day. For many other unfortunate travelers, they may spend an entire week at the park and have rain the entire time. Oftentimes visitors may never see the towers or the “cuernos” through the clouds. The German couple we met at Easter Island had spent a few days at Torres del Paine had hiked in torrential rain and fog the entire time. They said that it was still great, even though they couldn't see any of the mountains. To me, I can't imagine coming all the way to the park and not being able to see the beautiful, dramatic peaks. It would really be a tragedy.

We wind through the park for about an hour and a half on rough gravel roads that continue to become more bumpy the farther into the park we go. Finally, after driving 60 miles, we arrive at the end of the road on the far west side of the park, in the park's glacier region. We put on hats and multiple layers and head out on a relatively short walk out to a rock beach on Lago Grey, where we see enormous bright blue icebergs near the shore. These icebergs have split off from the famous Glacier Grey at the north end of the lake, which is visible from the beach.

The icebergs have smooth caves and crevices, sculpted by the touch of waves over an unfathomable number of years. We walk along the water's edge and hear the tinkling of small ice chunks bumping into one another along the shoreline, like ice cubes in a glass of scotch. Larger ice chunks float just out of reach, so we pull them in closer with sticks and hold them with our bare hands, the ice perfectly clear and clean. We give them a little taste before floating them back out into the water.

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On Lago Grey, the wind sweeps across the glacial ice and hits the visitors on the beach with such force that we lean into the wind just to keep our balance. It is not quite as forceful as the wind we felt at Salto Grande, but it is close. We follow a rough cliff trail along the edge of the lake to the end of a high, narrow plateau that juts into the lake like a tongue. There are blue icebergs on both sides of us, groaning and creaking as pieces of the ice occasionally splash into the water. The glacier is far in the distance, but we are too far away to see the enormous blue wall of ice. From here it just looks like a distant shore covered with snow.

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Back at our car we have a hikers' lunch of beef jerky, dried fruit and Clif Bars before driving back through the park. We keep a sharp eye out for the flamingos that we saw on our first day, wanting to take a few pictures, but we aren't able to find them today. We do see some condors and a trio of young guanacos playing together—nipping at each others' necks and legs, jumping on one another, even knocking each other down a few times.

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On the road outside Cerro Guido, we look back at Torres del Paine and see, as we've seen almost every day we've been here, a cluster of clouds stuck directly over the park. It's an interesting phenomenon how weather hovers over the park—which I'm assuming accounts for all the rain and volatile weather on the days unlike today—while the surrounding steppe is sunny and warm. Torres del Paine truly does have its own weather, and luckily it decided to take it easy on us.

We go to dinner at about 6:30 and make small talk with a couple from Switzerland while sipping our drinks. Our meal consists of ceviche in a marinade of lemon juice, peppers and onions; salad and rolls; spinach soup; and beef filet with quinoa and vegetables (for me) and a white fish with potatoes au gratin (for Matt). Outside, the cold, rainy weather has blown in from the mountains and spits sleet onto the windows. We are warm and cozy at our table by the window, satisfied not only with the delicious food but also with the amount of sightseeing we were able to do during our beautiful weather.

Back in our room, we settle down in front of our fire and reflect on what an adventure our Patagonian experience has been. Tomorrow we will leave Cerro Guido and make the long drive back to Punta Arenas. We have come to feel very much at home here on the estancia. The delicious gourmet dinners at the restaurant, the view of Torres del Paine and the surrounding plains, the warmth of the fire as we fall asleep—all are things that I will miss dearly.

The world is simple here. It is the gaucho on his horse, riding across the grassy hills. It is the crackling of electric blue icebergs in Lago Grey. It is the wind and the dust and the unique weather patterns that dominate this region. There is no cell phone service, no Facebook, no Twitter, no polluted haze, no business suits, no traffic jams. Quiet, rustic Patagonia has helped to realign our view of the world and the things that matter.

Posted by GoWander 15:55 Archived in Chile

Los Pingüinos

all seasons in one day 40 °F

We wake up to a cloudy, chilly day, the first we've had since arriving at Cerro Guido. The walk to the restaurant for breakfast is brutal and windy; the hills just above the guest house have a layer of snow and Torres del Paine isn't even visible because of the clouds and precipitation. This must be what it is like for many of the visitors who come to the park hoping for good hiking and good views, but end up with frigid weather and zero visibility.

Looking out at the snow pinging against the windows, we can't help but be appreciative of the great weather we've had during our stay in Patagonia. During the week ahead the weather will drop down to the low-40s with clouds and snow; the week before our stay was all rain. For us to have had sunny, mild weather every day is a miracle.

We start our long drive south toward Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, making our way through periods of heavy snow, rain and sunshine. We stop briefly in Puerto Natales for gas and coffee before heading back onto the road. Just north of Punta Arenas, we make a detour west toward Otway Sound, where a colony of Magellanic penguins set up their nests and waddle through the grassy fields to the ocean, much to the delight of the visiting tourists.

We drive for what feels like forever along a winding gravel road until we reach the entrance of the colony. Following wood boardwalks through the fields, we crane our necks trying to spot a penguin walking among the burrows or making its way along the penguin-trampled paths toward the beach, but for a long time we don't see a thing. This could be a grassland back in Ohio, for all we know.

The boardwalk turns toward the beach, and then we suddenly see a pair of penguins about 10 feet away, slowly walking over tufts of long grass and across a shallow crick toward the ocean. They give us a quick glance but continue their clumsy waddle without giving us a second thought. We walk alongside them as we take pictures of their stroll toward the water, then see that the beach at the end of the boardwalk is full of penguins—sleeping on the rocks, standing just where the waves touch the shore, swimming out in deeper water.

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We watch these funny little creatures for awhile, but another bout of snow and wind sets in and we crouch behind the peekaboo wall trying to keep warm. Though we'd like to watch the penguins a little longer and continue to walk the rest of the boardwalk loop, it is simply too cold and wet to be outside in this weather. We rush back to the car and drive toward the main highway to Punta Arenas. Just a few minutes after returning to the car, the weather clears again and sunny skies reappear. Typical Patagonia, I suppose.

At about 4, we locate our hotel in the center of town near the Plaza de Armas. Hotel Plaza is a historic hotel located on the upper floors of a block of shops. Our room is basic but affordable, which is fine since we are only staying one night. We drop off our bags and head back out into the cold to find a late lunch/early dinner. As we walk, it starts to snow even though there really aren't any clouds in the sky and the sun is shining; after a few minutes it stops, then starts again a little later. While we had thought that the weather at Torres del Paine is notoriously volatile, the weather here in Punta Arenas seems to be just as unpredictable, if not more so.

We stop at a diner-style restaurant, where I have a steak, tomato, avocado and mayo sandwich, and Matt has a steak and fries. Exhausted from the long drive from Cerro Guido, we return to our hotel after dinner to relax for the remainder of the night.

The poet John Masefield once said, “Off Cape Horn there are but two kinds of weather, neither one of them a pleasant kind.” Having been caught rain and snow multiple times today, I know what he means.

Posted by GoWander 15:48 Archived in Chile

Adios to the Magallanes

overcast 52 °F

We wake up to a bright sunny, morning—realizing that it's only 5 a.m. The longer days of the austral summer are in full effect here at the end of South America.

We have a continental breakfast and check out of our room at 9, hoping to do a little sightseeing before our 5 p.m. flight. By the time we load up our car, the weather turns cloudy and cold again just as we would expect from the Patagonia weather.

Punta Arenas is a windy, colorful frontier town. It's nestled against the Strait of Magellan at this southern tip of the world, and I'm reminded of tales my dad used to tell me when I was a little girl about the treacherous weather of the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn--how countless ships and sailors were lost in storms before the Panama Canal was built. I grew up somewhat afraid of this area, having envisioned for years sleet-streaked wind and black, merciless waves. The funny thing is, this is not an exaggeration. Though there are plenty of times when we have had glimpses of the sun while here in Punta Arenas, we also have suffered the cold rain and staggering winds. To have been a sailor in the 16th or 17th centuries, navigating this inhospitable environment would have been terrifying.

It is a tradition that visitors to Punta Arenas rub the toe of a statue in the main square, so we walk a few blocks to the plaza where the statue is located. The monument is actually in celebration of Magellan and has a majestic bronze statue of him on the very top; the good luck statue, however, is one of the native peoples of the Strait of Magellan seated along the side. The toe has been rubbed so many times that it is a bright gold in color, and we give it a little touch ourselves before exploring the nearby artisans' tables stacked high with bright sweaters, alpaca hats, and other products.

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We drive just outside the town center along the coast in search of an 18th century shipwreck pushed up on the beach. The Lord Lonsdale allegedly had run aground in the Strait of Magellan, and the hull, ribs and bowsprit are now a major photo opportunity for photographers and tourists alike. We find the ship fairly easily as it is quite visible from the road. Though signs tell us not to, we climb down a steep slope onto the beach just below where the Lord Lonsdale lies on her belly in the surf.

A lot of the ship is gone, and what is left is rusting and graffitied, but it is a beautiful slice of history that serves as an example of how treacherous the Strait of Magellan was for sailors and tradesmen. Chains hang down from her bow and are buried beneath the rocks of the beach, and the bowsprit remains fully intact. We wander around the beach below the wreck, taking pictures and marveling at how beautiful yet eerie the remains of the ship are.

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After visiting the wreck, we visit some of the other sights in town to kill time before our flight. We climb up to the Cerro La Cruz lookout, which gives us amazing views of the entire city, the Strait of Magellan, and the Tierra del Fuego in the distance. We then walk through the municipal cemetery, admiring the different kinds of burial plots (from ornate family mausoleums to small, simple plots with a sort of glass lock boxes in which families put pictures of the deceased, flowers, toys, etc) and the beautiful landscaping.

We head to the airport a little early after run out of things to do in Punta Arenas. We arrive a little before 1, expecting a 5:30 flight, but we find out at check-in that our flight was pushed up to 3:40—which thankfully means that we don't have to spend four hours sitting in uncomfortable airport seats.

The three-hour flight feels much longer than it actually is. By the time we touch down in Santiago and catch a shuttle to the Hilton Garden, we are exhausted and hungry. We have dinner at the Hilton's restaurant, where I order a gnocchi dish and Matt has lamb, shrimp and vegetables. We spend the rest of the evening relaxing to prepare for a full-day tour of wine country.

This is our last night in a hotel; we fly home late tomorrow night. I can't believe how quickly our vacation is coming to an end, yet it does feel like we've been gone for a very long time. A trip through wine country is just what we need as a relaxing end to what has been a whirlwind vacation.

Posted by GoWander 18:16 Archived in Chile

Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Carmenere

sunny 80 °F

We wake up early to have a quick continental breakfast before our private tour of Chile's wine country. Our tour guide from Santiago Adventures—Chris—picks us up promptly at 9 and takes us an hour northeast of Santiago to the Aconcagua Valley.

Chris is an interesting guy. He has an accent unlike any other we've ever heard, and we find out that it's a mix of the typical sloppy Spanish of Chile and a London accent. So imagine how interesting a Spanish speaker would sound with an English accent. He talks to us not only about Chilean wine but also about their culture and values. Like many, many other Chileans, he asks us about what we think about Obama's reelection and gives us some insight into how Chileans felt about it. He also tells us about the American music that is popular in Chile and how ingrained American pop culture is in Chilean culture. I'm surprised, that this far away from the United States in a country where only 20% of residents speak English, America is still supremely influential in their everyday lives.

The drive out of the city takes us away from the smoggy haze and into a semi-arid region with dry rolling hills blanketed in vineyards and avocado trees. Mt. Aconcagua lies at the eastern edge of the Aconcagua Valley and plays a major role in the production of the wine. Its snow melt in the summer helps to irrigate the vineyards below, which would be bone-dry otherwise. The topography of the valley varies dramatically, from 160 feet in the west to 3,300 feet in the east. The winds from the Humboldt Current sweep across the valley and cool the vines to the perfect temperature for producing syrahs, cabernet sauvignons, and carmeneres—which are pretty much the three main wines that we taste at each of the three wineries.

Our first stop on our tour is a small boutique winery, Vina San Esteban, where a young woman walks us through the picturesque vineyard, the bottling room, and the cask room where the wine ages before bottling and distribution. After the tour, we have generous tastes of four different wines (during which I realize that I simply cannot drink all the wine I am poured, even though I hate to waste the delicious wine! Matt, on the other hand, resolves to drink all of his pours). We munch on nuts and homemade dried fruit in between tastings to bring out flavors and aromas.

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We meet up with Chris and drive about an hour to the next vineyard, another boutique winery called Vina Von Siebenthal. This winery was founded by a Swiss lawyer who aims to produce wines in the likeness of smooth French wines, and of the winery's six labels, four have scored over 90 points. A kindly middle-aged woman walks us through the vineyards and the production process, translated by Chris since she only speaks Spanish. After our tour we sit in the main tasting room for tastes of two of Von Siebenthal's reds, and we end up buying a bottle of carmenere to take home with us.

Right next door is Errazuriz Winery, where we sit on a shaded veranda overlooking beautiful landscaping, fountains and the rolling green vineyards on the hills. We are served one of the most delicious meals we've ever had—an appetizer of shrimp ceviche with a cilantro and citrus sauce; smoked salmon and shrimp served with a small dome of avocado-quinoa-onion-citrus salad; a tender cut of beef with a side of mashed potatoes; and a chilled sliver of cheesecake with fruit. And, of course, with every dish that comes out, we are served a different kind of wine to pair with the flavors of the dish. It is truly heaven, sitting outside on the most gorgeous day, looking out at a beautiful vineyard, tasting delicious wines and gourmet food.

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Our Errazuriz guide, Pedro, meets us after our lunch and takes us on an in-depth tour of the winery, giving us a great overview of the planning and engineering that goes into making wine. Every detail, from the amount of sun the grapes receive and what kind of wood is used for the cask to how many bushels are permitted to grow in one area, will affect the ultimate product. We walk a pathway up one of the hills that overlooks the entire winery, taking in the views of the rows upon rows of green vines that stretch as far as the eye can see.

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Errazuriz is one of the oldest wineries in all of Chile and was founded by a family that is sort of the Chilean equivalent of the Kennedy's. It has been passed down through the generations and has become one of the largest and most renowned in the entire country. The winery boasts numerous awards and has the top two wines in Chile, according to a respected wine publication.

Pedro explains everything from the differences in leaves between the various grapes to how the geography of the valley has produced flavorful, high-quality grapes. Like Chris, Pedro has an interesting accent that I can't quite place. We find out that it's mostly an Australian accent with just a touch of Chilean—pretty interesting mix!

We return to the historic main building of the property, which once was a bottling room and has been converted to a beautifully decorated tasting room and restaurant. Heavy wood beams and original wood floors maintain the rustic character of the building, but modern lighting and tasteful décor give the room some warmth. There Pedro, pours us four tastes and, as a special treat, throws in additional tastes of two of Errazuriz's premium wines, which are priced at about $80 per bottle. He also gives us a set of Errazuriz tasting glasses to take home with us.

When we hop into the car to head back to Santiago, we are relaxed and pretty tipsy from the wine. What a great way to conclude an exciting, adventure-filled vacation. After driving through Patagonia, sleeping in airports, fixing flat tires and walking until our legs refuse to walk anymore, it is a treat to be taken care of and to not worry about figuring out directions and road signs. The vineyards are a perfect place to unwind and experience the more refined side of Chile.

Our tour ends at about 6 p.m. and we relax in our hotel lobby until our flight back to the United States at 2 a.m. We have been away from home for 16 days. Although we are looking forward to relaxing at home, we are also sad to leave Chile and its surreal landscapes behind.

It seems like just yesterday—yet also like a lifetime ago—that we were exploring Easter Island and the iconic moai. Though we didn't crack all of its mysteries, we found answers to many—the way of life of the local people, the purpose of the moai, and why the high civilization fell. No place on Earth, I believe, is as magical and fairytale-like as Easter Island. It is a place that we all hear about or come across at some point in pop culture, but most are never able to experience it for themselves. I can't adequately describe how small you feel while on that tiny island in the middle of a big, endless ocean, so far away from the rest of civilization and so unsure of the civilization that once lived there. The feeling of standing on the shore, watching a rain storm wash toward you across the ocean; the sense of awe as you gaze at the brightest stars in the darkest sky in the world—these are the simple, less talked about sentiments of Easter Island that make a lasting impact on anyone who is fortunate enough to visit.

And Patagonia—the region of big sky and dramatic landscapes. It will always hold a place in our hearts. It was here that we pushed our bodies to the limit and saw some of the most extreme landscapes and wildlife all in one place. Snow-capped mountains, rocky hills, woodlands, icebergs, waterfalls, steppe, and the big, inspiring trio of granite towers—put this together with the guanacos, emus, flamingos and sheep. This is a tough windblown landscape filled with resilient people who love their little tip of the country and are eager to share it with you. Our adventures in Patagonia ran the gamut, from riding horses with gauchos and driving on a gimpy spare tire with our new friends, to tasting icebergs and nearly being blown over by the Patagonian wind. And I know that for years to come, I will miss falling asleep to the crackling of a wood fire.

This is a country that is not to be missed by adventurers-at-heart. If you yearn for the new and unexpected, or if you want your eyes to tear up at breathtaking, indescribable beauty, perhaps you will find what you are looking for in Chile.

I know we did.

Posted by GoWander 18:37 Archived in Chile

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