11.16.2012 - 11.16.2012 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.
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 here and now.