Puerto Natales is a small town that is essentially the gateway for getting to Torres del Paine. Everyone I knew that had been to Torres del Paine told me that I really needed to go. So, I arrived in Puerto Natales after a 5 hour bus ride from El Calafate, not really sure if I’d be able to give Torres del Paine the time that it really deserved. I booked 3 nights at small hostel, hoping that I could do some type of day trek and see at least some of the greatness that Torres del Paine has to offer….. at least from afar.
I first located the tourism office down near the water and was informed that there were day trips up to Torres del Paine, but that a real excursion through the park would require anywhere from 2 to 7 days of trekking. I wasn’t equipped for camping, nor did I have reservations for one of the hostels that were already booked. I easily found a tour company in the center of town that assured me that I’d see the sights that I wanted to see. I signed up not realizing that instead of a day of hiking, I instead would be driven around in a van with other people, making 14 stops along the way for some light hiking, photo-ops, and an occasional snack. I’ll admit that initially, I was frustrated and a bit disappointed at myself for the lack of planning on my part and the limited exposure I would have with Torres del Paine. But dealing with cold weather and extremely strong winds all day long left me exhausted and somewhat happy that everything worked out the way that it did.
It also gave me the time to relax and enjoy myself in the sleepy town of Puerto Natales. Some of the highlights of my stay in Puerto Natales included having a beer at Baguales, a local brewpub in town. I also came across a small vegetarian soup and sandwich shop called El Living. While I’m not a vegetarian by nature, I was happy with the healthy food served and the availability of mate. And with a small bookcase filled with old magazines (both in English and Spanish), I did not lack for any reading material, which was nice considering I haven’t read much since my Nook got stolen in Buenos Aires.
If you’re looking to visit the southern most, accessible city in South America so that you can brag about being at “The End of the World”, then you’d likely visit Ushuaia. But, if you want to visit the southernmost city in South America of respectable size, then you’d visit Punta Arenas. I was disappointed that my planning had left me unable to visit Ushuaia, but was still happy to be far enough south to be in the Magallanes region of South America. I needed to go through Punta Arenas so that I could catch a flight to Santiago, Chile. Initially, I didn’t have much interest in Punta Arenas and was only planning a night or two. Instead, I recognized the need for some down time and scheduled 3 nights there. Punta Arenas turned out to be a much more pleasant experience than I had expected.
I first checked into my hostel, Patagonia House, a house that has been re-configured to be a hostel. A family lives there while guests from all over the world stay in the other available rooms. While relaxing in your room upstairs, it’s not uncommon to hear some the kids playing Gears of War or Grand Theft Auto on their video game system right outside your door. It’s never too loud and the place has a comfy, feeling like staying with your family. I quickly made friends with two of my room-mates from Portland, Oregon (two of the few travelers I’d come across from the US), Brian and Blake, and decided to head out for some dinner.
The next morning, having nothing on my agenda, I hopped a ferry to Isla Magdelena to see a colony of Penguins. Upon arrival, you walk off the ferry and are surrounded by a multitude of penguins running around, burrowing in their holes, procreating, or taking a dump right in front of you. It’s an episode of National Geographic right in your face. I was having the time of my life. But the bonus for me was the lighthouse that was located there. After returning to town, I met up with Brian and Blake to explore the cemetery which very closely resembled the Recoleta Museum found in Buenos Aires (but much smaller).
I spent my last day in Punta Arenas checking out the town and relaxing in coffee shops. The next day, I’d be off to Santiago, Chile.