Magellan and the kings

From Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas I took a flight to meet up with Benno, a friend of mine from Germany, who is joining me for about three weeks. Punta Arenas is located in the south of Chile, in a province called Magellanes Region, named after the famous explorer, who discovered the navigational channel between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, known as the Strait of Magellan.

Punta Arenas is located at the Strait of Magellan

It’s the southernmost city in continental South America and for sure has a climate that suits penguins. Just outside the city is Magdalena Island, which is inhabited by thousands of these little animals. However, I had already seen quite a few of them not too long ago on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, so I opted for something different: A day trip to Tierra del Fuego with a visit to its king penguin colony.

Heading to Tierra del Fuego with lots of other tourist busses

After two hours of ferry ride we reached Porvenir a small harbor town on Tierra del Fuego. Here, we learned a bit about the Selknam, the indigenous group of about 4000 people that used to live here before the European settlers came in and killed most of them for pastures and through diseases, to which they had no natural resistance. In 1967 the last one of them died, and with her a proud tribe of people, who were tall, generally good looking and had managed to live with the strong winds of the area like nobody had before.

The museum in Porvenir has a little exposition on the Selknam people

From there we continued to the eastern end of “Bahia Inutil” (Useless Bay), which was only useless to the explorers, because it was too shallow for anchoring their ships. For the king penguins it’s just the right location for their colony, as the shallower water protects them from orcas, their predators. As excavations have shown, they’ve been living here for hundreds of years, but gave it up at some point only to rediscover it in 2007. Back then there used to be just a few of them, now their number has grown up to 150, about 50 of them were present when we visited them.

The main attraction for us was the king penguin colony

The royal inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego

On our way back to the mainland, we passed through the tiny town of Cerro Sombrero, which was built for the servicing of the oil and gas fields in the area. Unfortunately we could not have a look inside the oldest cinema in Chile, because it was closed due to the heavy winds. This meant, that we’d have to be lucky for the ferry back to the mainland, which doesn’t operate, if the waves are too high. But after about ten minutes of waiting we were able to enter the boat, bringing us safely to the other side.

Cerro Sombrero is all about servicing the oil and gas industry

Unfortunately it was raining too much to get a better look at this ship wreck

The next day we had nothing planned, because we wanted to take a bus to El Calafate (Argentina), but we only managed to get tickets for the day after. In the morning it was rainy and we didn’t do a lot, but in the afternoon it cleared up and we went for the Nao Victoria museum. The “Nao Victoria” was one of ships of Magellan’s fleet, which was sponsored by the Spanish king in hope for a new trading route to India. The Portuguese king did not believe in his mission and had denied him the funds for the expedition. The “Nao Victoria” is also the only one Magellan’s ships that completed the sail around the world and proved the theory of the globe. It even returned with enough goods that it paid off all the bills for the expedition.

A life-size model of Magellan’s “Nao Victoria”

On board of the “Nao Victoria”

Other life-size ship models in the museum include a ship to colonize southern Chile from the north, the “HMS Beagle”, which was Darwin’s ship for his expeditions, and the “James Caird”. This is the dinghy that played a key role in one of the mayor Antarctica expeditions, because it was improvised with a refit to suit sailing the rough oceans to get help after the main ship had been stuck and sunk in the antarctic ice. The rescue mission was successful and all men were rescued.

Darwin’s “HMS Beagle” seems to be the newest addition to the museum

The “James Caird” was a dinghy before its refit

Trees, trunks and timber

As I was stuck in Chaiten for two days, I was looking for some ideas of what to do. When I woke up in the morning it was gray and rainy and I was not in any mood of climbing a volcano, which was a trip offered by Nicholas, the friendly local who is attending the bus station next to organizing day trips in the area. Around noon I left my bed&breakfast to find a place for doing my laundry. After an unsuccessful search, I passed by the bus station again to find Nicholas with a group of people. They had not gone to the volcano, but instead were planning a trip to some hot springs in the  neighboring valley. That sounded like a great idea, just the right kind of activity for this weather!

Visiting the hot springs was just the right thing to do on a rainy day

The next day the weather had improved substantially. With Philipp, whom I had met the day before on the trip to the hot springs, I decided to join a full day trip to Pumalin Park, offered by Nicholas . The park was established by “The North Face”-founder Douglas Tompkins in the 1990s and has been a nature reserve ever since. It’s one of the largest private nature reserve in the world and includes the Chaiten volcano, a dense temperate rainforest and some waterfalls.

One of the bigger waterfalls at Pumalin Park
We had to cross several wooden bridges to access the Alerce forest

We started off with the base of the volcano, with an explanation of different kinds of volcanic rocks. When looking up, we noticed that most trees in the area were dead and had only their trunks remaining. This is a result of the eruption of the Chaiten volcano in 2008, where the winds in the vicinity of the eruption were so strong, that it snapped most trees with a large crown as they had too much wind resistance.

Nicholas explains the different kinds of volcanic rocks
During the volcanic eruption, many trees in the area lost their tree top

A little further down the road we visited an ancient forest with Alerce trees. They grow up to 60-70 m and have a lifespan of several hundred to thousands of years. Their bark was used for fixing wooden ships, as it expands when coming in contact with water. Now they’re under special protection and their bark is covered with different kinds of mosses, from an almost transparent one to an umbrella moss, which unfolds with high humidity to absorb water.

One of the massive Alerce trees…
… is home to many different types of mosses, like the umbrella moss, which unfolds with high humidity

On our way back Philipp and I dropped out of the tour at the base of the volcano. The weather was even better now and we wanted to get a look into the crater. After a bit more than an hours hike we reached the rim, where we got a good view of the mountain of rubble and ashes, which was formed in the crater and which is still emitting smoke.

Visiting the crater of the Chaiten volcano with Philipp

After getting a lift from other hikers back to Chaiten, we visited the part of town that was left as it was after the eruption. Since there was no record or oral tradition of a previous eruption of Mount Chaiten, the eruption came quite unexpected. Nevertheless they managed to evacuate everyone, but did not clear the riverbed. Here, dead trees and the ashes in the water blocked the riverbed, which lead to an inundation of the town, where the ground-floor of some houses was covered by up to 1.5 m of mud.

The destruction of the mud-flow is still visible in parts of the town
We finished the day with dinner at the sea during a volcanic-like sunset

In the end my prolonged stay in Chaiten turned out to be pretty interesting. With Philipp and two other guys he had met before, I set over to Isla de Chiloe. And while they were exploring the national parks of the island, I had only limited amount of time and went straight to Castro, the biggest town on the island. In Castro I visited Daniela, a friend of a friend of a friend. Unfortunately she had only a little bit of time, but she still showed me parts of the town, including the church of San Francisco, which is one of thirteen timber churches on the island that are part of the world heritage.

The San Francisco church in Castro, the main town on the Isla de Chiloe…
… is made of timber and was declared a world heritage

A camel ride through the Andes

But camels don’t live in South America!? That’s true, but everything is possible in Chile, a country which is more far than wide. To get to Chile I just needed to cross the border, which is not far from Bariloche. I wanted to do more hitchhiking, so I was prepared for a full day on the road, even if Puerto Varas, my first destination in Chile, was only 300 km away. The first problem was getting out of Argentina, which involved a lot of waiting in line for few stamps in the passport and from customs.

Lining up to get out of Argentina

Then there was the barrier of the Andes, but there is a fairly good road which leads across one of the lower mountain passes. And, guess what? The same procedure of lining up for stamps was necessary to enter Chile. And an additional stamp was necessary, because you need to declare all food you’re bringing into the country. By now it was getting late and the race against the fading daylight had begun. Thanks to two nice bus drivers – both taking me for free – I managed to get to my hostel by nightfall, after more than 11 hours of waiting, lining up and being on the road.

When entering Chile they even check all the luggage
Hitchhiking with an empty bus, which is being cleaned

In Puerto Varas I decided to stay another night, before heading to the Isla de Chiloe. I used the extra day for some organizational stuff and to visit my favorite city so far, at least by name: Frutillar. But the whole city wasn’t only about strawberries (frutillas), it was more about fruits in general and had many places where you could get smoothies, jams and German style fruit pies. The latter one has a lot to do with the German heritage of the area, as about 30000 Germans settled here during the mid 19th century.

Frutillar has a lot of places where you can get smoothies
The German colonial museum in Frutillar

The German heritage can be experienced in the German colonial museum of Frutillar, which has several buildings of that time on display, including a water mill, a round shed, a blacksmith’s workplace and house, as well as a wealthy farm house. It’s all nicely furnished, with good explanations in Spanish, English and German. And without clouds you’d have an excellent view over the Llanquihue Lake and the volcanos around it.

The house of the blacksmith
A wealthy farm house

My next destination would be Isla de Chiloe. On a map I had seen a nice road, the carreterra austral, which leads along the coastline as part of the carreterra autral, taking several ferries to get to Chaiten. From there you can take another ferry to the island. Early the next morning I went to Puerto Montt, where my camel to Chaiten was leaving from – the kemelbus! And I should have known better than to take a camel into territory, which it is unfamiliar with.

Why does the kemelbus have a horse as its logo?
The long ferry leaves from the small town of Huemuil

But the ride itself was very nice and scenic, as it leads through fjord-like valleys of the chilenian coastline. The weather was nice and I could enjoy the sunshine on deck of the long ferry ride while watching rocky and sometimes even snow-capped mountains passing by. In the evening we had reached Chaiten, which is not to be confused with El Chalten, a town in southern Argentina. An Asian couple was very disappointed when the bus stopped and I told them that their desired destination was still more than 1000 km away.

A ride with the navigator

I was quite happy with today’s destination, as I had reached my goal. However, I was a bit disappointed to find out that the only ferry service from Chaiten to the Isla de Chiloe is Tuesdays and Saturdays. This shortened my time on the island to about one day before heading back to Puerto Montt for my flight to Punta Arenas. Maybe it was meant to be, as I had to catch up with some sleep. And as I had no expectations of this place, I was wondering if it had anything to offer for two days and a forecast of rain.

At least the scenery in Chaiten is quite spectacular

The German and the Jews

In the north of Argentina I had encountered mostly French tourists. Here, in Bariloche, it was different. Most people I met here were Israelis. Remember that not all Israelis are Jewish, but the ones I spent most time with were. The first one was Eduardo. For most of the year he lives in Buenos Aires, but for the summer months he is renting a cabin at the lakeside, where he also takes in couchsurfers. He’s learning Hebrew to rediscover his Jewish roots, so it was perfect that he had enough space for another couchsurfer, Dan.

The bus from Buenos Aires to Bariloche takes long, but is quite scenic

Dan is Jewish and comes from Israel. He is traveling South America now, after finishing his military service back in Israel. We spent the next day on bikes, discovering “Circuito Chico”, a loop road at the end of town. The road is very scenic, going through thick forests, passing by beautiful lakes and some hills with excellent views over the landscape.

Biking the “Circuito Chico” with Dan
View of the luxury hotel “Llao Llao”

Compared to the rest of my trip it was quite cold here, so I was happy for all the warm clothing I got in my Christmas package from home (thanks again!). Luckily the forests protected us from most of the heavy winds, which were blowing that day. Not so protected is the luxury hotel “Llao Llao”, which towers on top of a hill amidst the surrounding lakes like a fortress. Next to it stands a picturesque old wooden church, but unfortunately it was closed when we passed by.

The wooden chapel is coincidentally named “San Eduardo”

In the evening we decided to organize a two day trip to Mt. Tronador for the next day. Dan and his two Jewish Israeli friends, who were staying at a hostel, had planned to do it anyways and I was able to join them. We had a lot of hustle getting a tent and the bus tickets, as well as shopping for food and packing our bags. In the end we managed to get everything, except for enough sleep, and were ready for our next adventure.

Hiking around Mt. Tronador

The over-priced bus took us to “Pampa Linda”, the starting point for various hikes in the valleys around Mt. Tronador. The fact that we arrived here around midday didn’t keep us from adding another short hike (>300 m of altitude and around 2.5 km one way) to a viewpoint over the valley, because we had the rest of the day to reach the “Otto Meilinger Refugio”, where we were allowed to set up our camp.

The viewpoint over “Pampa Linda” – hiking with Nadav, Dor and Dan

I consider myself quite fit and experienced in hiking in the mountains, but Dan, Dor and Nadav showed me a new level. There might be other reasons, but I think it has mostly to do with their age (22) and the fact that they just finished their three years service in the Israelian military. This also had an effect on our diet during those two days, which consisted mostly of canned tuna and lentils as well as cookies. It was not my usual trail food, but it worked quite well and was weight effective.

The impressive glacier of Mt. Tronador

Even if I was slower than the others, we managed to pitch our tent and cook our dinner before the sunset. Afterwards it cooled down pretty quickly, as the hut is located right at the foot of the massive glacier that covers Mt. Tronador. In the end it was crowded, but probably warmer in our 3-person-tent, which had been rented to us as a 4-person-tent.

The proximity to the glacier promises a cold night
The camping at the “Otto Meiling Refugio” is for free
Amazing colors during the sunset over the Andes

The way back down was easier and allowed us for a little detour to the bottom of the waterfalls, which we had seen from the top the day before. In the afternoon the bus picked us up again in “Pampa Linda” and brought us back to Bariloche. And we were back in town just in time to go to Beit Chabat, a place where Jewish people get together for different occasions. Every Friday the Beit Chabats around the world offer the possibility for traveling Jews, or those without a family in the area, to celebrate the beginning of the Sabbath. I was curious how it would be, so I came along. First, the men pray and sing together, then they join the women at the tables for a story of one of the rabbis and in the end everyone shares a big dinner. As everything was in Hebrew, I didn’t understand most of it, but it was still a nice experience! (Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures, because it wasn’t allowed and didn’t feel appropriate.)

The glacial waterfall seen from the bottom

The next day, Dan and I went back to Eduardo’s place to pick up the rest of our luggage, which we had deposited there for our trip (thanks for that again!). As the weather was quite nice, we decided to do the short hike up to “Cerro Campanario”, which offers an even better view over the area than the “Circuito Chico”. And in the evening we met up with Dor and Nadav at “El Boliche del Alberto” to celebrate the end of a great week with one of the best steaks I’ve ever had.

Hiking “Cerro Campanario” with Eduardo and Dan
Picture perfect panorama of the lakes surrounding Bariloche
The grill of “El Boliche de Alberto” is located in the middle of the restaurant

The Paris of South America

Before I started my trip, I had already heard that Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America. However, I didn’t put an expectation behind it, I was just curious what it meant. And as with any big city, it’s best if you know locals, especially when Christmas and New Year’s Eve are around the corner. Here is where my friend Michael helped me out again and gave me the address of his parents, Ernesto and Elisabeth. I contacted them and they had no problem with having me for Christmas, which saved me from spending it in an overcrowded hostel, where it feels even less like Christmas. (It’s quite strange to be in summer during December when you grew up in the northern hemisphere.)

Unfortunately Michael could only join us in 2D

On Christmas eve, more of the family came over to celebrate with us. We started off with a big dinner at 9:30 pm, where everyone contributed a little bit, but in the end we still had a lot of leftovers. At midnight we switched the plates for a glass of homemade punch to watch the neighbor’s fireworks from the garden. It didn’t last for very long, because the fireworks are very expensive and people want to save them for New Year’s Eve. After that it was time for dessert. Now everyone was ready for some presents and I was chosen to be Santa Claus, picking the presents out of a big bag and giving them to the right person, which is kind of difficult when you have just met most of them for the first time a few hours ago and don’t remember all the names.

Christmas dinner with the extended family
Everyone got a little riddle on who gave the present

In Argentina the 26th is not a holiday, so most people have to go back to work, especially if you want to save your holidays, because 10 days per year is not a lot! So I was quite happy, when Brice and Elise arrived in Buenos Aires and were ready to explore the city with me. And it didn’t take long to realize, why this is called the Paris of South America: Wide streets with trees, old and tall buildings and a great atmosphere.

Wide streets with alleys…
… and old and tall buildings were reminding me of Paris
Old and new next to each other

With two French people in Paris I didn’t need to worry, they had it all figured out. During the following three days we walked from the Japanese Garden to the planetarium and from the old zoo to the National Museum of Fine Arts. In La Boca we ventured through the streets with colorful Victorian style houses to its famous stadium “La Bomboneira”, which is home to one of the most popular soccer teams of Buenos Aires.

Visiting the Japanese Garden
Even the cabs seemed to be in yellow and blue, supporting “La Boca”

From there we made our way to San Telmo, another neighborhood with old and small houses. It has a lot of bars and restaurants, but also antique shops and an indoor market for antiquities, fruits and vegetables. Almost next door is the “Avenida 9 de Julio”, a boulevard like the “Champs d’Elysee” in Paris, with a tall obelisk in the centre and grand buildings, like the Colon theatre, on each side.

The streets of San Telmo
The obelisk is located in the middle of the “Avandia 9 de Julio”

Being impressed by the displays of tango in La Boca, Elise had to get some dancing shoes for herself before flying back to France. It was a nice and fancy shoe store that had only one room, which was empty except for a big mirror on one side. Being the only customer, she still managed to keep the shop owner, her assistant and two little girls busy – or rather everyone was trying to do some work, as there was not much else to do.

Women ready for a tango picture in La Boca
Elise getting tango shoes herself

After Elise and Brice had left, there was still one big event waiting for me in Buenos Aires – New Year’s Eve. I spent the day with Ernesto and Elisabeth discovering some parts of the city that I hadn’t visited before, like Puerto Madero, an old harbor area that has been revitalized with apartment buildings and offices like the HafenCity in Hamburg. In the evening we went over to Elisabeth’s brother and had another big dinner with family and friends, before watching some more fireworks.

Strolling through Puerto Madero with Ernesto and Elisabeth
The grave of San Martin, the liberator of Argentina is guarded heavily
New Year’s Eve was celebrated with an even bigger part of the family