Punta Arenas, Chile: Tuesday 3rd March – Saturday 7th March

We woke early on our last day in Ushuaia, sad to leave but ready for more adventures. We had lots of plans to make for our remaining months of travel (little did we realise we would be heading home a few weeks later), and we knew we wanted to start exploring the Andes, so we decided to head for Punta Arenas in Chile. It was a good place to spend a few days planning, as we hoped to walk the famous ‘O-Trek’ in the nearby Torres del Paine National Park and would need to sort out the logistics before setting off.

Our bus crossed the border from Argentina to Chile with relatively few problems. We both had a hatred for the border crossing after our extended stay on our bus in the opposite direction, but this time we barely got off the bus. We made the ferry port in good time, and were treated by a Feugian Red Fox that clearly knew its audience, and spent our waiting time running between cars trying to steal food! Again our ferry crossing was uneventful, and this one had the added bonus of a tiny cafe. We had made a ton of food for this trip (just in case we were stuck again at the port), and had potato wedges, but no sauce. The kind woman in the cafe gave Jay a container and pointed to a couple of bottles of sauce when he asked if he could have salsa to take away. He wasn’t sure what was in them but filled the container. We still don’t know what was in them, only that whatever else there was, they were full of very hot chillis.

We arrived in Punta Arenas that evening with no difficulties and had a 45 minute slog uphill to our Airbnb. On the way from the bus station we passed through the town and were surprised to see very recent vandalism and graffiti. It was very reminiscent of Hong Kong. While we knew there had been civil unrest in Chile, we had been monitoring the FCO advice, and there had been no indication of very recent troubles. Shop windows were smashed, slogans scrawled everywhere. We started to recognise words though, and it was soon clear that this was a strong push for the rights of women in Chile. Many slogans were about abortion rights, the epidemic of violence against women and girls in the country, and about International Women’s Day on the 8th March. Some statues of men in the town had been painted pink and adorned with spray-painted vulvae.

We arrived at the homestay just before dark, in a dilapidated area full of stray dogs and spiked fences. Every garden contained an angry snarling dog as well as the ones on the street. The woman who met us at the accommodation expressed that it was a very safe area, but could we please keep all curtains, doors and windows closed when it got dark! The place itself was comfy enough though, and would meet our needs for the next few days.

The next day we heard about a cafe that sold vegan donuts. Jay has been fully craving donuts more or less since we left the UK. Every time we pass a bakery or supermarket he has gone to check, and we have never, in the last 9 months, found any (in fact we were pretty much laughed out the door at various bakeries in China and Japan). So, this was a cause for celebration! We took the exceptionally tedious 4km walk down a long and busy main road, out to what we thought was a shopping centre at the edge of town. The houses we passed were mostly made of tin and wood, with some even having damp looking walls constructed of untreated MDF. A few were made of brick or concrete, but all were run-down. Every block had a small park with some playground and outdoor gym equipment, which looked well used by the local communities. As with many of the places we’ve visited in Argentina, many walls were covered in amazing artwork.

Eventually we arrived at an enormous industrial estate comprised of huge warehouses, which bordered a cruise ship terminal. Most of these were some form of duty free shop and we walked the whole area without any luck at finding one which looked like a vegan cafe. In the end we found that one of the unassuming looking warehouses was actually a shopping centre, and the cafe was inside. It took us another 40 minutes once inside to actually find the cafe. But joy of joys, they had donuts! We stayed for hot chocolate and burgers, deciding to take our donuts and cinnamon swirls home with us. Jay took a mouthful of hot chocolate and almost spat it out. When you haven’t had dairy for a long time, cow’s milk and cheese takes on a rancid flavour like it’s off, and that was exactly what this tasted of. Maeve tried it and had the same response, so we concluded that they’d mistakenly given us cow’s milk. Jay went to the counter but the owner showed him the carton it had come from. As it was all in Spanish, he couldn’t tell at a glance what the base ingredient was, but it clearly wasn’t dairy, and the brand was called ‘Not Milk’. A few days later, a chance encounter shed some light: we met another traveller on holiday from Santiago, who told us his girlfriend worked in the lab for the company, called ‘Not Co‘. Their aim is to engineer foods that are plant-based, but molecularly as close to meat and animal products as possible, so that they will appeal to omnivores as well as vegans/vegetarians. We realised later that we’d already had their chocolate chip ice cream in Buenos Aires, it had gone down very well with all the non-vegans at the party! On our way out of the enormous shopping centre we popped into a huge discount warehouse and discovered a boxing helmet that Maeve thinks Jay should wear permanently to prevent future concussions…

The next day we got up very early to take part in a local beach clean-up that had been advertised on airbnb. We wandered down to the seafront in the icy grey morning, and met the organiser, a Canadian woman who runs a local outdoor touring company with her Welsh-Patagonian husband. She knew loads about the area, and we spent an informative few hours collecting over 20kg of litter from the beach together. We sat after and chatted until mid afternoon, watching a pod of dolphins playing just off shore, oblivious that the sun had come out and we were getting pretty sunburned.

We walked back to our temporary home via a cemetery in the heart of Punta Arenas, famous all over the world for its architecture. The rows and rows of mausoleums and tombs were fascinating, even though some contained creepy zombie Jesus!

That night we spent in agitation trying to plan our trek through the Torres del Paine national park. The logistical problems were extensive. The multi-day hikes are heavily regulated to protect the environment. You can only walk the route if you have pre-booked accommodation for each night at the designated campsites or fancy ‘refuges’. The sites are run by three different companies with different booking systems, and different levels of availability. So you might find the first and second campsites are available on consecutive nights, but the third site is unavailable on the night after. Confused? So were we. Some bookings had to be made by email, which nobody replied to (we still haven’t had any replies). On top of all that the park would cost us £50 to enter, and it would cost £40 per night just to pitch our own tent at a campsite. At a minimum of 5-nights for the shorter ‘W-Trek’ it was going to be extortionate. Eventually we decided to cut our losses. Just over the border in Argentina was the Los Glaciares National Park, with free entrance and plenty of excellent hiking from the town of El Calafate, on quieter trails than in Torres del Paine. Unfortunately the cognitive load of all the planning triggered Jay’s brain injury symptoms, so we took it easy for the rest of the weekend.

For our last night in Punta Arenas we opted to move to a hostel in the centre of town, to make it easier to catch our early bus to El Calafate the following day. We seriously regretted this decision! The hostel was awful, a delapidated building with ‘rooms’ screened off the corridor by sheets of plywood that didn’t reach the ceiling. Extension cables daisy-chained through the property into each sleeping area. And since the rooms weren’t enclosed, there was no respite from the noise of the 20 year olds partying in the common area. The less said about the bathroom and kitchen the better.

Desperate to get out of the miserable and bleak hostel, we took a taxi to the Reserva Magallenas out of town. We got there only a couple of hours before it closed, but were able to get in a pretty spectacular walk. Half-way to a look out post which towered above the trees and hills, with spectacular views over the town and bay beyond, Jay went off for a run. The forest that the trail traversed was made of Magallenic beech and lenga trees, and signs at the visitor centre warned of puma. Sadly neither of us saw one, although Jay, in a remote trail section, was uncomfortably aware that he was small and running, and would easily make good prey for a puma. He sang the whole time to avoid startling one, and instead scared some other hikers who presumably did not expect a tiny orange-clad English man to come running from the shrubbery loudly shouting made-up songs in terrible Spanish.

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The next morning we escaped the hostel as quickly as we could, opting to brush our teeth and make sandwiches at the bus station where at least there was soap in the bathrooms. We briefly chatted to a guy who had just arrived from 18 months in Antarctica working for the British Antarctic Survey. He was struggling a bit with the number of people having been mostly isolated from all but a small number of other scientists. Before we knew it, our bus arrived and our short stay in Chile was over. We would move up through Argentina, and come back to Chile later in the month to go to Santiago and the Atacama desert. Or at least that was what we thought at the time. So we stowed our luggage, grabbed our passports, and prepared to cross the border once again.

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