Our Really Big Adventure    
Arriving in South America

Chile Travelogues

>>Mail this article to a friend
>>Links and Search

>>Mail Us

Chile Links

If you would like this page to link to your site then please link to this page and email us


Before leaving home, we’d pored over guidebooks and websites for India and Nepal, our first destinations, acquainting ourselves with some cultural understanding and garnering ideas about where to go. We’d already visited South East Asia a few times, and felt we had some idea of what to expect. But our preconceptions regarding South America were vague at best. It seemed like such a long time before we’d get to South America that there was no point researching it in advance, and once on the road we were too focussed on the present to worry about what was ahead of us.

We touched down in Santiago Airport and whizzed towards the city in a fuzzy headed cocoon of jetlag, exhaustion and International Date Line confusion, paying little heed to the rundown barrios on the outskirts, the salsatecas, chocolaterias and boutiques of the cosmopolitan and lively inner suburbs, or the imposing colonial architecture of the city centre. What little of the city penetrated our hazy minds felt like Madrid, not exotic, remote Santiago.

Our taxi driver chatted away amiably to us, seemingly unphased by our lack of engagement. The little Spanish we had learned in New Zealand had left us woefully unprepared for our first real Spanish conversations. We’d acquired a small but workable vocabulary, bolstered by an awareness of whole classes of English words that were likely to be substantially unchanged in Spanish. Knowing that words ending in “ion” or “ical” would change little allowed us to frame probing questions like “What is your opinion of the political situation in Argentina right now?” But we struggled to make sense of the driver’s basic enquiries about where we were staying or how long we planned to stay in Santiago.

In fact, our stay in Santiago was very brief. The next morning, we flew 2000kms down the crazy length of the country to the southern Patagonian town of Punta Arenas. Before we landed, we knew we’d left the balmy evenings and pavement café culture of Santiago far behind us. The winds buffeting our plane brought forth screams from the more nervous passengers, and a round of applause as we touched down safely. The plane disgorged slowly, and as we waited our turn we could feel the aircraft rocking like a ship. The reason for the slow disembarkation became obvious as we reached the door - the winds were so strong that two burly Lan Chile guys were frogmarching each passenger down the steps to prevent them from blowing away entirely.

This introduction to Punta Arenas was appropriate. Flat, grey, rundown and windswept, it’s not a town that overwhelms the visitor with its charm. We walked down to the sea, to stand at the edge of the evocative Magellan Strait and gaze across at Tierra del Fuego. Battling our way past legions of territorial dogs down increasingly unloved and unpaved streets we eventually made it to the shore. To our right lay the port, quite recently the main jumping off point for Antarctic expeditions but now eclipsed by Ushuaia. To our left lay very little that we could see, and ahead of us lay Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire.

It was to Tierra del Fuego that we were headed, to meet the Hot Rock truck in Ushuaia. The guidebooks’ descriptions of Ushuaia were less than complimentary, though, so we decided to spend a few days in Punta Arenas before making the 12-hour journey. Many tourists visit Punta Arenas, but there isn’t a vast amount for them to do there. The most popular excursion is to the nearby Magellanes penguin colony.

Patagonia is huge and sparsely populated, and the 70km drive to the penguin colony gave us our first taste of its rural landscape. As far as the eye can see, the land is flat and tussocky. Grey-green-yellow marsh grass spreads for miles in every direction, punctuated occasionally by sheep, fences and a rare dirt track. The sky overhead is huge, and aside from the sheep and lambs running away from the approaching vehicle, the only source of variety or entertainment in the unchanging landscape.

We reached the penguin colony at 5pm, in time to see the penguins returning for the evening after a day at sea. Rather like humans, it seems that penguins like to hang out with their colleagues chewing the fat before heading home after a hard day’s work, so our first port of call was the beach where the penguins lazed about after emerging from the sea.

In case you’ve never noticed, penguins are very cute, especially when they’re waddling along towards their nests. They were quite oblivious to our presence as we strolled alongside on our fenced off walkway. October is mating season, and the air was filled with the hooting of the penguins’ mating calls. We stopped to watch two penguins standing near the path, for all the world like a couple about to get together in a nightclub. The female looked slightly bored, but not altogether unwilling, as the male shuffled a bit closer and put his wing around her. Afraid he might seem too keen, he moved off a short distance and did a little personal grooming, before returning to her with a lunge. I’ll draw a discreet veil over the show itself (as did the penguins, who ducked behind a bush), but suffice to say they were soon to be seen enjoying a cigarette.

With our knowledge of penguin habits expanded and the addition of “pingüino” to our puny Spanish vocabulary, we felt we’d more or less exhausted what Punta Arenas had to offer. It was time to head to Argentina and look for the big red truck. In our four days in Chile we hadn’t exactly done the country justice, but we knew we’d be back many times as the truck wound its way north from Ushuaia.

Articles - click to enlarge
Photograph of courting penguins in Punta Arenas - Chile travelogues
Photograph of Magellanes penguin in Punta Arenas - Chile travelogues
Penguin love
Penguin on the beach

Picture of Magellanes penguin - Chile travelogues
Picture penguins on the beach - Chile travelogues
Another penguin

Lots of penguins


Picture Punta Arenas penguins - Chile travelogues
Photograph of Caelen in Punta Arenas - Chile travelogues
Penguin movie - you need Quicktime
After seeing the penguins, we left