Every journey has it’s slower moments. The entire month of February would qualify as the ‘slow moment’ in this five month journey.
While I covered a lot of ground and certainly racked up a number of new experiences, there are few very highlights of my trip that occurred in the shortest month of the year.
I had considered the lull in excitement a potential cause for declaring a National Emergency in Chile, but I guess National Emergencies just aren’t what they used to be anymore.
I began the month of February in Ushuaia. This industrial city is the furthest point to the South of Argentina, and is where 90% of people who travel to Antarctica embark from. It is smack in the middle of Tierra del Fuego, named for the sightings of the indigenous people carrying fire in their canoes.
I thought I’d try and see what a tour company could provide in Ushuaia, and they provided two worthless days of time-wasting. Luckily the third day I canceled with them and hiked to the top of Cerro Guanaco, which was a great hike. I was the first person to reach the top that day, and had time to hike to the border between Argentina and Chile, before I spent 15 hours on buses the next day back to Puerto Natales.
While the National Park is beautiful, and there are some great activities here, because the travel overhead to get to Ushuaia is so high, it not worth visiting unless you are headed on to Antarctica.
Friends Don’t Let Friends Take Cruises
I hopped a bus back to Puerto Natales, and boarded a five day ferry to get to Puerto Montt. I had heard great things about the ocean ferry, navigating through the fjords of Patagonia in a relaxed, non-cruise fashion. I had taken a ferry with college friends along the fjords of Southeast Alaska when I was just out of grad school, and had fond memories of the four days on the trip, though I do remember being ready to leave on the last day.
The very first day, I began to feel ill. I usually get 1–6 sinus infections every year, and I felt the start of one developing. I had fought two of them off in the trip already, but this one stuck. By day two I was pretty miserable, head fully stuffed and producing more green and yellow fluid than seemed possible. The weather wasn’t great, and so being outside (where I wanted to be) wasn’t an option, so I was mostly stuck in the dining hall or in my cabin, which felt like an oversized coffin on the water.
The final day, all hell broke loose in my body. The infection got much worse, and in my weakened state, I became seasick for the first time I can remember since my 20s. Then dehydration and fever set in, and I was delirious. But, then my system seemed to completely crash (and reboot itself?) and I slept the sleep of a tranquil sociopath, deep down somewhere knowing something was wrong but happy to sleep without a feverish care in the world.
Eventually after arriving in Puerto Montt, another night’s sleep, and another bus ride, I was back in Santiago, where my trip had started.
The Northern Beaches of Chile
I rented a car (a complete wreck, thanks Hertz!) and headed North with the hope of spending time running along the warm beaches along the coast of Chile. While I had been in the throes of ferry-sickness, the North of Chile had been inundated with rain, triggering massive floods and resulting in many deaths. So my plans to drive all the way to the border were off.
I stopped in Zapallar, a cute little beach town that no one seems to visit except the elderly. Next, La Serena, is no more serene than Surfer’s Paradise (Australia) is a paradise for surfers. Both are just inaccurately named, touristy beach towns that get overcrowded in the peak of Summer. La Serena should become sister cities with the Jersey Shore, several parts of Florida, and anywhere you find overcrowded beaches.
I took a detour into the desert to see Vicuña, Chile – supposedly the hippie epicenter (hepp-i-center?) of the desert. The hotel I stayed in was more of a family home with a couple of telescopes, a half-finished pool, and a very unusual family of Christian hippies who loved Jesus, art, astronomy, denying carbon dating, trance, metal, and smoking pot. I ate a vegan dinner (that they made special for me) with the entire family my first night, and thrilled in a conversation (okay, full on debate in front of the kids) about the origin of the universe entirely in Spanish.
They had told me about a concert in town my second night there, and I was excited to see the whole town of Vicuña and any visiting tourists come out to party. I arrived right about the time it was all going to start, and was confused by the sign saying this was the “2019 Coronation of the Queen.” Shortly after the start, I realized that I had come to watch a beauty pageant.
The hosts were so stereotypical, I thought I’d been transported into an episode of Univision, only lower quality. As the spokesmodel joined the 60+ year old co-host on the stage, the crowd began to chant “KISS HIM! KISS HIM!” Eventually, after some jokes about his wife being in the crowd, and some other not so subtle flirtation, she kissed him. I wondered what time machine I had stepped into, and how to get back to the 21st century. #yotambien apparently is not much of a thing here.
First came the contestant interviews, where most of the questions revolved around how to keep tourism healthy in Vicuña. Then the evening gown competition involved each one taking their turn on the catwalk, with some near crashes and at least one person who lost their place. It was NASCAR in heels.
There were musical acts (by local talent) in between the different stages. The first act sang a song in English while lots of the crowd yelled “Catalan!” (the Chileans claim they don’t speak Spanish). After a second song, this time in Spanish, the hosts asked the crowd if they wanted to hear another song. From what I saw, the crowd was really ambivalent and didn’t seem interested, but the host “surprised” the singer and told her the crowd was demanding another song! Amazingly enough, there was a song already queued up and she began to destroy the song “Rehab” note by note. My ears hurt, but they were soothed when I could express my feelings and yell, “NO NO NO” during the chorus.
After the second musical act came out in jeans shorts that someone should have held an intervention for, I had had enough. I wiggled back through the crowd, many of them surprised someone would turn their back on such a display of talent.
I felt like a hater, like an elitist pig – but I don’t like this kind of thing even when it’s higher quality. And I wasn’t really getting to see the town participate, they were mostly standing in semi-stunned silence.
The next day I visited the grave of Gabriela Mistral, one of the great poets of Chile. She is buried next to her son, who had to pose as her nephew given the puritan ethics of the time. Sadly he preceded her in death as a result of suicide. Gabriel loved the people of the desert, and she probably would have stuck it out until the end of the show, even though I’m sure she would have agreed with me about the jeans shorts.
The rest of the beaches
I cut my stay to less than 16 hours in Huasco. I still do not understand why it exists or why someone would stop there. Then I spent a long five days in Bahía Inglesa (English Bay), which I had heard from multiple sources was a wonderful little place away from the fray, but unfortunately I had booked my stay during the International Cuisine festival, which seemed to have very little to do with good food and mostly just a tourist magnet with lots of junk art for sale. My two star Airbnb was perfect for hearing the club music that lasted until 6 AM the last night of the festival.
Fleeing Bahía Inglesa, I drove to Tongoy, took one look at the place I had reserved, drove down to the crowded beach with throngs of chaotic locals, and decided to cancel my stay, eat the cost, and return to Zapallar. I found a 113 year old Germanic mansion where the owner rented rooms and had an incredibly relaxing end to a month of a Northern Chilean Mad Max. This was what I wanted.
I have seen enough desert for a lifetime, and I would highly recommend against visiting the North of Chile, unless you only visit Zapallar and get to some of the towns like Iquique and Arica (which I could not visit due to flooding).
I am very happy that I did not end my trip to South America in the beaches of Northern Chile as I had originally planned. I will get to spend March in the Amazon in Ecuador, and around Machu Picchu in Peru.
Here’s to March not being mediocre.