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The lake looks totally windless when we get up. Ness opts for extra minutes in bed, I vote for huevos fritos. Then we’re off in our faithful Basher to Puerto Montt to catch our 9.50am flight to Punta Arenas. We get there on time. It’s another small airport. Our allocated seats, 21K&L, are duff (back of the plane) and I ask about better seats – the Exec Club membership pays off and we’re upgraded to big seats in business class. We doze through the flight. A TV programme about bears is shown on the flight. Views of Patagonia are revealed bit by bit as we get closer to Punta Arenas. At Punta Arenas we meet our lively transfer rep. There are around 15-20 people in total, including two Brits we strike up a conversation with, Nigel and Mhairie (that’s how she pronounces it), also from London, well, Walthamstow. We end up in a van with five Portuguese. It looks like a riot van, with a metal grille protecting the windscreen, with small hatches fitted in the centre on each side. Ness and I have a row each to ourselves in the back and make ourselves comfortable. The wide Patagonian spaces whizz by as we start our six hour journey to Torres del Paine. After two hours we make a pit stop at a café. The other van is already there and we join Nigel and Mhairie over lunch (chacarero and ave y palta sandwiches). Then the long, long drive continues, with a brief stop in Puerto Natales to pick someone else up (so now Ness and I share one row, but still very comfortable).

I spend time dozing, reading, and staring at the landscape. The views of Patagonia are <quick, hand me my list of superlatives> of wide open spaces, wide horizons. The Patagonian sky – is it my imagination or does it really look so very different here? It feels “closer to the earth” – hard to describe. It’s good to be back in Patagonia (and how many can say that?!) There are many flat bits with bushes, rocks and as we start to get away from Punta Arenas we see guanacos, birds, even two big vultures (condors, here?) Large tracts of land are fenced off into huge plots, mostly for sheep.

Eventually we reach the hotel. We have already had a view of the Torres for quite some time while driving, gradually getting closer and closer. The views and landscapes are stunning, but I can’t escape the feeling that this will be a canned experience, in the nicest possible sense. Suspicions are confirmed as we are processed at hotel check-in and take to our room, again in the nicest possible way and luxurious and scenic surroundings. Our room looks out on the back rather than over the lake and Torres view, but I do realise that we’re very “lucky” to have a place here in the first instance. It’s very plush, very sophisticated, very American, and “holistic”. There is lots of blurb about “the art of travel”. I’m beginning to get mixed feelings about this place. The views are stunning, incomparable, but this is a hotel where I expect you’ll be presented with a packaged choice of options, menus, what to do and where to do it. After unpacking we head down to the bar with a fantastic view. I get told off for smoking and now have a major sulk. I don’t like being told what I can or can’t do, now working on a strategy. The guides are going from table to table explaining the possible walks and treks for the next day. Options consist of full and half day walks and horse rides, something for everyone. We opt for the full-day walk to the Grey glacier, as do Nigel and Mhairie, the two Brits we met earlier. The plan is to do something easier the day after and then do the walk to the Torres on the last day here.

That evening there is a bit of confusion and a discussion with the guides since the number of places for the glacier trip is limited to fourteen and there are sixteen of us who want to go. A compromise is reached by getting the “ferry” across the lake to make two trips. Together with Nigel and Mhairie we’ll make the first crossing. We end up having dinner together with them. They are getting on our nerves – we’ll have to make sure we don’t end up spending the next few days together with them. After dinner (risotto), I head downstairs for a smoke and meet a group of six Dutch people travelling together and end up spending more time talking with them downstairs. Three well-heeled silver-haired (only just) couples. The Portuguese family joins later. I ended up staying downstairs longer than intended, drinking more cognac than intended, all in all a pleasant first evening in Torres del Paine.

An early start today for our first excursion, a full-day hike to the Grey glacier. As before, extra minutes sleep wins it for Ness, breakfast wins it for me. It takes too long to wait for the eggs and I have to leave just as they arrive. With Nigel and Mhairie we’re taken by boat across the glacial lake Pehoe, to the refugio at the other end. It’s still early, 7am, and I snooze through most of the boat trip (half an hour, flying at top speed). Our “equipment” consists of warm clothing and a trekking pole. At the refugio we have to wait until the boat returns with the rest of the group. It’s breakfast time at the refugio. Quite a few people are already up, or in the process, and there is a buzz about the place as the serious hikers are having breakfast and are getting dressed. The refugio itself is a small cabin with a communal eating area, staffed by a few …er… staff, with showers, toilets and upstairs a number of small rooms with simple bunkbeds. I have a coffee while we’re waiting. I can overhear a group of Belgians sat against the far wall. There is a mix of nationalities, Germans, Brits, French, Swiss.

When we see that the rest of the group has arrived we go to meet them outside. They include: a gay couple from Atlanta, Karim and Paula from London, Knut (“Herr Two Sticks”) an elderly German and Berbl, his much younger wife (we reckon former secretary), Nigel and Mhairie, “Fred” and his wife from the US, a couple from the Midlands, a baseball-wearing Swiss and his friend/wife/business partner from the US. The guides are Cristobal (Curly), Pablo and Daniel. The walk is about 14km, to the glacier, from where we’ll be picked up by a boat for a ride along the edge of the glacier and back to the other end of Lago Grey where the vans will be waiting to take us back to the hotel.

The walk starts at a fast pace and the first part is a gradual climb. Ness finds it hard and has to slow down and stop several times, but once we have found a better rhythm the pace gets easier. It’s difficult now, a few days later (as I’m sat on the patio of our hotel in Zapallar), to recall the specifics, only impressions remain, but hopefully the few pictures we took will help to bring it all back.

Most of the walk was either gradually climbing or descending, passing through forested sections, rocky ones, wet ones, etc. To our right the mountains rose steeply, summit covered in snow. The rock below the snow line was black, not grey as you might expect. To our left was Lago Grey. The path took us through a quebrada (gorge) at first and then got closer to the lake, with great views across it. Small icebergs were floating in the lake, chunks of ice that had broken off the glacier, floating towards the other end where an iceberg graveyard had developed. Ness and I were mostly at the back of the group. A few of the group pressed on, including Nigel, Mhairie, Karim and Paula. The rest of the group was led by Curly who also kept an eye on the group in front, and Pablo brought up the rear. Daniel was further back, on his own. We hung back, both to give us a bit more space, i.e. to avoid continuously seeing a line of multi-coloured backpacks in this scenery, and to allow us to go at our own pace. The weather was freakish, spells of bright sunshine and thick heavy snowfall, real “jingle bells” weather. The snow rapidly disappeared during the sunny spells, but on the forested parts of the mountains to our right it looked as if the trees had been dusted with sugar.

Partway through the day we started to get views of the glacier in the distance. At around 2pm we reached a point overlooking the glacier from nearby and stopped for lunch. Curly and Pablo unpacked sandwiches and drinks and spread it out on a rug. We stood around, taking pictures, talking. They even had coffee and Baileys. The snow started to fall again as we finished lunch. The options now were to carry on a bit further to another mirador overlooking the glacier from above or head down to the lake shore. Some decided to carry on, including the gay American couple and Karim and Paula, the rest of us headed to the refugio – it had been a long hard walk so far and Pablo predicted that it was unlikely that they would reach the mirador in time. Even if they did, the views weren’t as good as the one we had right now, so it was an easy decision to make.

The walk had been fun, and the views spectacular. It’s impossible to do sum the experience up in a few words. The boat that picked us up was the Lago Grey tour boat, which we to be transferred to with a small separate black metal-hulled boat it had on tow. The tour boat was pretty full already but we got seats, largely because we were first off the transfer boat – everyone had been in a rush to board the transfer boat and we got on last, but this meant that we were first off the other end as they transferred from the same end we boarded! Inside the atmosphere was a bit sweaty but it was good to be warm. First we stayed inside and warmed up but when we got closer to the edge of the glacier we took it in turns to go outside and look at the glacier. Having seen Perito Moreno and Upsala last year, this one seemend unimpressive by comparison, at first. Even so we were impressed by the beauty of the scene, the deep blue colours, the fantastic shapes of the ice sculptures, the icebergs floating by. An “island” divides the glacier in two arms. Then the boat took us back. Whiskey and Pisco were served with glacier ice on the way back. I think I slept for most of the boat ride back. At the other end of the lake we saw the iceberg graveyard. From there it was a short walk, about twenty minutes, to the vans. We spotted two huemul, deer, standing close to the lake. Even when our large group passed quite close to them they didn’t run away.

The Explora vans, very comfortable Fords, took us back to the hotel. Straight up to our room to shower, change and rest! Aah, hot showers made us both feel much better. Our room is on the second, top, floor, looking out over the back, in the far corner, very five-star, with a great bed and a small but excellent bathroom, under-floor heating, no TV (good) and panoramic windows. I have already “forgiven” Explora after yesterday’s unkind thoughts, although the no-smoking policy does still irritate me a bit.

Downstairs we first find one of the guides to find out about tomorrow’s options and settle for the full-day hike to the Glacier Frances. We have dinner with Nigel, Mhairie, Karim and Paula. Karim is a young lawyer, friendly, polite, but dull, dull, dull… Paula is squeaky, mousy, but also friendly. Nigel and Mhairie are moaning minnies, but pleasant enough. After dinner (lamb), I head downstairs for a smoke and quickly run into Portugal and Holland again. My coffee is sent down. Later Ness joins me downstairs after the Boring Brits have disappeared and we spend more time in conversation with the Dutch and Portuguese. The Portuguese group consists of two middle-aged couples and the son of one of them. One of the two men is a doctor, the other a lawyer. The lawyer smokes like a chimney. The Dutch group is three couples, also middle-aged (older actually): Gerard and Katie – Gerard, medicine professor, very fit, and Katie looks much older, she has porfyria, a member of the only family in Holland who have the disease), Frits and Fieke (Frits has a great sense of humour and a moustache, Fieke is homely), and Ed and Maria (both completely nuts). They’re clearly very well to do and not short of an estate or two (one of their estates is big enough to go hunting…) I haven’t been keeping this diary up to date due to the late evenings at Explora, chatting in the smoking lounge.

PS. Ran into the Belgians, from breakfast, at some point during the day and had a friendly, no-nonsense chat with them.

PPS. At lunch I saw two vultures (condors?) dive-bombing each other over the glacier. The gay Americans had to snigger at my remark about “Condor foreplay”.

A slightly later start today, just as well because we’re both feeling a bit stiff today! We have enough time for a proper desayuno and then meet the others in the lobby. There are fourteen in today’s group, including: Herr Two-Sticks and Babs – we have concluded that she is trying to kill him off so she can inherit his fortune, Karim and Paula, a nameless dour Franco-Swiss couple whose expression never changed from a continuous sneer, the “very nice boys” from Atlanta, a lesbian power-couple from New York (she is Chinese/Asian, more at home in an expensive art gallery, the other she is a documentary producer for PBS and totes a back-to-front baseball cap), they have the large suite with Torres views opposite our room, a Spanish couple, and a silver-haired British couple. The guides are Max, leading the group, Francesca, and new girl Camilla.

Again we are ferried across Lago Pehoe to the refugio. Today’s walk will be longer but flatter, taking us to the French Glacier, a small stand-alone glacier which empties directly into a river instead of a lake. The walk is much easier than yesterday, although Ness is struggling a bit with some of the uphill bits. We stick to the rear, for same reasons as yesterday. The weather today is grey and drizzly, and it doesn’t change for the rest of the day. After a first section we reach a viewpoint over Lago Skottsberg. The walk is then around the edge of the lake, climbing and descending a bit in parts. The scenery is less spectacular than yesterday, not helped by the weather.

At some point we meet a Canadian academic with his guide. Camilla, who brings up the rear with us, ends up in conversation with him as we continue walking. The prof is full of sh*t. He is here to advise on tourism infrastructure. He praises the “world class national park you have here”, i.e. the setting and scenery (there is nothing else!) but complains that the paths are not world class. “How are you going to get a medical team with a stretcher up and down here?” He rambles on in this fashion and soon gets on my nerves. Plan A, stop to let him by, doesn’t work because Camilla has to stay at the rear and he’s happy to stay there too and continue waffling. Plan B, go faster, has no effect since they easily speed up too and keep up with us. Plan C, tell him to put a sock in it, is being considered but fortunately Camilla cottons on before its execution and carries on a bit ahead of us with the prof, then lets him go and rejoins us.

At the start of the walk we saw a group of horses being driven on by a female horse-rider (would she be a huasa?), galloping towards us over the crest of the hill. I didn’t get the camera out in time but it was a fantastic “wild west” sight seeing these horses running free. We also saw a hare, again at the start of the hike. We didn’t see any other significant wildlife and didn’t even hear many birds. Like yesterday we did see the odd vulture (condor?) now and then. We stop for refreshment after crossing the footbridge across a stream, the Rio de Frances, and then carry on up. Refreshment is a selection of teas (!), “Prince of Wales”, etc. The walk is now more a climb, with views of the French glacier to our left. We’re walking through a forest of low lenga trees. Lunch is among another group of lenga trees, with views of the glacier. The rug is spread with sandwiches, drinks, etc. Coffee and Baileys to follow.

Again there is the option of continuing a bit further up or turning back. We turn back together with the lesbian couple, Herr Two-Sticks, and the British silver-haired woman, with Francesca. The others carry on. The walk back is along the same route. I end up walking behind Two-Sticks and have a conversation with him. He already has his travel plans for the next five years worked out. I run into the Belgians again, in two separate groups, and have a pleasant chat with them.

Seeing the distance we have covered, around the lake, makes me realise how long a hike we have actually made. Pretty good going for two lazy city slickers. We arrive back at the refugio and warm up inside. Herr Two-Sticks buys everyone tea and coffee. Inside there are many hikers. The others arrive after about an hour and we board the waiting boat. Max promised us a quote by Shackleton and after handing out beers he delivers his promise:

“We were the fools who could not rest in the dull earth we left behind, but burned with passion for the south, but drunk strange frenzy of its winds, the world where the wise men sit at ease fade in front of our unregretful eyes, and thus across these uncharted seas we stagger on our own enterprise.”

Ernest Shackleton, 1916, Punta Arenas, as quoted by Max at Explora, 2002.

Back at the hotel we change and shower, then head downstairs to find a guide and have dinner. First I try to catch up on diary in the smoking lounge but plans are scuppered by Holland and Portugal, never mind. Nigel and Mhairie join us when we are talking with the guide, Anna Maria. Her nickname is Titi, and we embarrass/amuse her by explaining how that would be interpreted in English. I go for the Torres hike, Ness chooses the “photo safari” and barbecue (quincho). Nigel also goes for the Torres, and Mhairie whines about horse-riding. I borrow some gloves from her for tomorrow. We have dinner with Nigel and Mhairie, the gay couple, and two American couples. Pasta with veggies for dinner. I “retire” to the smoking room where Ness later joins me.

I have a big hike ahead today. We have breakfast together and spot the Portuguese group setting out for the Grey Glacier trip. Then I go and meet the others in the lobby. There are only eight today: another British couple, Karim and Paula, the gay couple, Nigel, and me. The guides are Rodrigo (the guy Nigel gave such a hard time on the first evening about the number of places for the Grey Glacier walk) and Pablo, from Monday’s walk. It’s a long drive, about one hour, to the start of the walk. The weather looks promising, still cloudy but warmer and no rain. I must have slept for the best part of the drive. We turn left at the guarderia, then cross a very narrow bridge, the van only just fits, with the mirrors folded in, and then drive on to the Hosteria Las Torres, where there is a group of buildings; a hosteria, a few shops, cabañas, stables, and plenty of parking.

The first part of the walk is flat, and then starts to climb, gradually at first, but then getting steeper and steeper. It’s warm and we have to take off layers. The walk is at a fast pace and before long I start to feel it. I’m getting puffed; my heart is beating loudly, and I am sweating a lot. Pablo hangs back with me. There is also another Chilean young guy, also called Pablo, who it turns out they have brought along as “chef”, I think. The climb doesn’t get easier, in fact only harder and steeper as we go up. I’m finding it difficult to find a walking pace at which I can keep going, and miss not having Ness here and find myself thinking a lot about her. I begin to realise how much strength is in the mind and not a physical attribute. Together we can take on much more than individually. I’m convinced that if we were both here we, and I, could make it and keep going. Ness would find it tougher physically than me but we would be able to support each other. Now I’m on my own and have to be honest with myself as to whether I can keep this up for a whole day. We’re not even up the first steep section yet. I can see where it ends but it looks far away. Beyond it the terrain descends and climbs in short but steep sections, and the final part will be a tough steep climb on moraine. The clouds have not lifted and there is no guarantee that they will later. I continue for a bit longer, thinking things over. I try to focus on just walking but can’t make the mental switch. Finally I make up my mind and decide to bail out. Pablo is good; he doesn’t talk me either into or out of it and helps me to think it through. He offers to walk back with me but I convince him that I’ll be fine and that he should carry on up. One of the two gay Americans also looks puffed and I can see him thinking it through too. Pablo will radio the van driver to let him know I’m on my way back.

Then I take a last look at the hill, now relieved and then turn around. It amazes me how steep the climb actually was. We have climbed much higher and walked much further than I had imagined. The path is quite clear and I can see other hikers making their way up. Orange markers here and there help to guide me. Even so there are points at which I have to decide whether to go left or right without the visual aids, no markers, no other walkers in sight, and I can’t see where I’m supposed to head for.

As the steep bit starts to flatten out I can start to walk more quickly, walking with good long strides, enjoying this bit very much. Even the “flat” bit is a long distance. Eventually I can see the footbridge we crossed earlier. I have taken a wrong turn somewhere but it doesn’t matter now since this path will also take me to the bridge. Even here there are short very steep bits but now I find it easy to focus on something else while climbing and get to the “summit” of the steep bits before I know it, walking at a fast pace without any trouble. Which tells me that I could have done it after all – I’ll never know now.

Back at the van the driver offers me a very welcome cold Imperial beer, aah! I buy a few postcards at the kiosk. While drinking the beer a group of horses laden with provisions is led out of the stables by genuine-looking huasos. Hopefully the pictures will come out. The driver takes me back to the guarderia, where two other Explora vans are waiting to meet walkers from another walk. Another Explora van stops by and goes past. Not sure whether Ness is in this one – we’ll meet at the quincho. Later another van comes by and Ness is in this one, from the photo safari. I join the van and we drive on to the quincho, stopping here and there for pictures.

Two-sticks and the lesbian couple are also on the bus. I keep looking towards the Torres, feeling disappointed with myself but not overly so and looking forward to the barbecue now. The barbecue is in a large purpose-built wooden octagonal building, with the “asado” in the middle and huaso-types preparing the meat, whole lambs (?) on vertical skewers arranged around a metal contraption in the middle. Empanadas are on a grid on one side. We can help ourselves to salad and there is a small bar where drinks are served. We’re at a table with Mhairie, the Portuguese doctor and his wife, and one of the Americans (Fred?) Lamb is very tasty but I can’t eat much. Oh, I stepped in pooh outside while having a smoke – Ed (NL) was trying to warn me (“p-p-p-pas op, ‘t is al te laat”) I ask Francesca about the possibility of joining the afternoon horse ride but decide against it later, my heart is not in it.

The vans take us back to the hotel in the afternoon. We relax a bit in our room and then go for a walk around the hotel, on the wooden walkways. I only realise that Ness has packed our swimsuits as we’re walking to the building with the pool. [Comment from Ness in the margin: “Liar, you gave me your trunks!”] We spend some time sat in jacuzzi pool by the lake with a bottle of bubbly, perfect! The water is very hot and gives me a headache but the air is warm enough to simply sit on the edge of the pool with feet in the water. Lots of midges and mosquitoes though. To cool down we go for a swim in the pool. A great end to the day, relaxing and unwinding. I even get to make my mark in the lake on the way back to the hotel.

It would be good to have our last dinner here to ourselves, with a romantic table for two overlooking the Torres as the sun is setting. We go downstairs early, have a drink in the smoking room and I try to book a table for 8.30pm. The waitress tells me to simply leave my fleece over one of the chairs. We go to the restaurant a bit too early, 8.15pm. Apparently they don’t start dinner until 8.30 but it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Lacking a bit in atmosphere without other diners around. I guess I was a bit too keen. Partway through dinner the restaurant livens up though and I’m glad we did get our table early.

Afterwards we go downstairs, smoke for me, and Ness heads up to our room. As I’m sat downstairs Curly comes in and starts preparing for a slideshow. I call Ness to let her know and she comes down a few minutes later. It works out quite nicely because now we also have “front row” seats for the slide show. The room soon fills up, with the Dutch contingent near us. Ed makes me laugh when he says “let’s see how many we can smoke out of here!” Curly’s slides are stunning although his commentary is a bit limited. Ed keeps saying “schitturund”, not being totally sincere I suspect but it’s hard to tell. “Die kerel is gewoon begaafd joh”. He makes me laugh again when he says “die gaan we eens mooi een veer in z’n kont steken” and I have to translate for Ness. [Literal translation: “we’re going to stick a nice feather in his arse”, meaning “we’re going congratulate him”] That reminds me, after I asked Maria whether they had seen any pumas she answered that they had found some “mooie pumadrollen” (puma pooh). Ness must now be convinced that pooh is a Dutch national obsession. We stay on, having more drinks after the slide show. Ed and Maria play jenga. A group of arrogant Brits (city traders) are sent packing with tails between their legs, and we have a rather late and boozy evening all in all. Ness went up a bit before me and by the time I make it to bed everything is already packed for tomorrow.

An early start to what will be a long day travelling south, then north, to our final destination in Chile before heading home. We have breakfast (with fried eggs!) sat round the table in our room. Our luggage is collected from our room, and we already checked out last night, so all we have to do is walk to the van waiting to take us to Punta Arenas. We’re hoping that the company on the bus will be quiet so we can snooze through the long trip and simply watch the last views of Torres del Paine and Patagonia (for this visit at least!) We’re in luck; the only others already on the bus are the dour Franco-Swiss couple who don’t say a word to anyone, not even to each other. An older German-Canadian couple joins after us, which luckily doesn’t leave room for anyone else, or rather for just two but then it’s full. Nigel and Mhairie are just behind and go for the other bus, looking a bit disappointed at not being able to join us. There is no conversation in the bus for the first part of the journey, just Ness and I exchanging the odd word with each other. We take it in turns to cuddle up with each other. We remembered the fluffy pillowcase which is now providing good service [just stuff anything soft, e.g. fleece, in it, definitely on our packing list for the world trip!] We get good views of the Torres del Paine as we drive further and further away from them.

After a few hours we pull in at the café where we stopped on the way to Explora. The other van is right behind us. Nigel and Mhairie come over to our table and we have sandwich and coffee together. It turns out they have the British traders in their bus and are now rather miserable. The traders stayed up drinking till late and didn’t get out of bed on time for the van so they had to wait for them. Back in the van we strike up conversation with the German-Canadian lady behind us (her husband is riding shotgun). She’s got a funny face, perfectly suited for gurning, but very friendly and looks are deceiving. [Actually, I had her down as a Downs Syndrome sufferer, but was totally wrong]

Again we drift off to sleep or just stare out of the window, now with views of wide open Patagonian landscape. There is nothing to be seen apart from some low bushes and grasses, with slowly rising or falling plains, and hills far, far in the distance. I must have read quite a bit of Bommel on the trip.

At Punta Arenas the Explora lady joined us for coffee while we were waiting for our plane. We’re the first at the check-in queue (from our van), not by design, just as it happened. The queue rapidly built up behind us. It pays off though as we get row 1 on the place. We get our last views of Patagonia as the plane takes off. A dog is walking around near the front of the plane, on the tarmac, without any indication of an owner or tag and by the look of the ground crew it seems obvious that it’s a stray, but no-one does anything about it.

From the plane we get some great views of the campo de hielo sur, the gigantic snow and ice flow which branches out into the various glaciers we have seen in Chile as well as Argentina last year. We stop at Puerto Montt. It amuses me when one of the British traders tries to get one of the seats on row 1 vacated by passengers getting off here but is told the plane will be full with the new passengers being collected at Puerto Montt and to resume his seat. Great views, now unobstructed by clouds, of Volcan Osorno. On the flight to Santiago we also get great views of Volcan Villarica. Typical!

We arrive on time in Santiago. At the baggage reclaim we briefly say goodbye to Nigel and Mhairie, then find our transfer rep, Maria (can’t actually remember her name) She and a driver will take us to Zapallar, a 2½ hour drive. We head north on the Panam, with intermittent conversation and commentary from Maria. The landscape is drier than the south but still very green, although most of the grass is a dry yellow. We drive past many farms and agricultural places. Maria tells us about chirimoyas, a kind of fruit we haven’t seen before, green in colour. We react incredulously when she tells us that Chile exports flowers to Holland! It stays light for a long time. En route we stop at a stall selling fruit and vegetables and buy a small cherimoya and drinks. Maria is impressed by my Spanish. We turn off the Panam road to head towards the coast. The clouds are dark and hang low above the hills. With the fading sunlight it makes the mood foreboding. We can just about make out the sea in the distance. Maria and the driver aren’t exactly sure about the location of our hotel. We turn into the centre of Zapallar, then back out and continue on the coastal road.

Our hotel is a bit further along the coastal road, set on the rocky wooded slopes overlooking the Pacific. It’s smart but uncomplicated, slightly dated. Before going to our room I ask for Maria’s help to find out about local rodeos. On the way we passed a banner announcing a rodeo at Puchuncavi. Apparently there is one on Saturday, like every weekend during this time of year, so all we need is the transport to get there. Our room overlooks the Pacific, below us is the hotel garden and swimming pool. The beach is a short walk away. I had been expecting something more “beach resort” style but, happily, this is more private and stylish. We have drink in the small wood-panelled bar, then go for dinner in the high-ceilinged but comfortable dining room with black and white diagonal tiles. It feel very “Riviera”. Dinner is excellent fish (crab and salmon for Ness, clams and bass for me) There are just a few others eating, including a British/Scottish couple we meet briefly in the bar later on (shut by then…) The woman nearly has a heart attack when I introduce myself and offer to shake hands! “Huuh huh huuh”, and she extends her hand as if it is the first time she has ever done so. They are planning to leave again in the morning on account of all the works going on outside the hotel and along the beach. See what tomorrow brings.

(Written while sat on the beach at Zapallar, the sun slowly setting, on our last evening in Chile, idyllic)

(Typed up while sat on the Coventry-to-Euston train at the end of the day, glorious clear autumn weather outside, 4 Oct 2004)

(Transferred from FrontPage to Joomla while sat in my hotel room at the Marriott in Swansea, 16 Aug 2010)

We’re planning to have a few lazy days in Zapallar, on the beach and by the pool. After a late breakfast we first take up a spot on the terrace to catch up on diaries; we’re now several days behind. The weather is overcast, not the hot sunny beach weather we had hoped for. We figure it will clear up later; someone Ness was talking to last night said it usually does. It’s nearly 3pm by the time we’re done! We also thought of buying some souvenirs and presents while here. Where can we get a proper poncho? I had enquired at reception who told us the nearby town of La Ligua would be good and I mentioned we’d probably take a taxi around 4pm-ish. The hotel had taken this as a definite intent and already booked a car for us.

Our taxi (grandpa in a clapped out van) takes us to a proper tabarteria in La Ligua where we provide the shopkeeper with some turista entertainment. The shop is the real deal, not a tourist outlet, and is full of ponchos, manchas, whips, spurs, saddles, sombreros and various other bits associated with huaso life and horsemanship. We leave with $93,000 worth of “honest pruck” [Footnote: Brian Kenan, in Between Extremes]; poncho for Ness, mancha, sombrero and mean-looking spurs are my acquisitions, and a picture with the owner. I feel like a real turista-fool but happy that we have found some authentic stuff. As a bonus we manage to do a Bernie in the square, which is crowded with groups of schoolchildren in uniforms being led by their teachers, something to do with the national “Teleton”. Then we drive back to the hotel. On the way up grandpa had given a lift to a younger woman (she was already in the van when he picked us up) dropping her off at the outskirts of La Ligua. It made us laugh that grandpa stopped at the railway crossing to look both ways – the track showed no signs of use for a very long time.

The sun has come out now and it actually feels warm. Back at the hotel we change into swimsuits and head for the pool. There are a few other guests scattered around the pool on sun loungers, but no-one is actually swimming in the pool. We’re undaunted and jump in, well, Ness does, I gradually wade in. The water feels cold at first but gets better once actually in. It’s a grown-ups pool but I still play “submarine” while Ness tries to do lengths. We dry off in the sunshie and have beers and picadas. After changing and showering we go for a walk along the shore and beach, aiming for the town centre. Zapallar feels very exclusive and rich. Big smart houses are dotted along the shore, set among trees and abundant colourful flowers. We pass an older man who is sat looking out over the sea. He catches up with us while we’re taking some pictures. He takes a few of us together with a shaky hand, and then we stroll on for a bit together. “There are no restaurants in Zapallar, apart from that one”, he says pointing to a building at the other end of the beach. “But you could try this one”, he says handing us a crumpled card from the L’Ermitage, a restaurant which is a short drive of town with a French owner. He tells us there are no taxis. We can tell he is thinking about something, some way to help us out, but it isn’t clear what. We take the card, thank him and walk on while he waits for his wife at another bench. We haven’t gone much further when he beckons us back. “My wife has bought a bíííg fish and I don’t like it, so why don’t you come to our home for dinner?” Just then his wife, with her friend from Buenos Aires, comes round the corner. Her English is better than his and we exchange courtesies, then I try to decline in a polite manner, which I think I managed. Afterwards we concluded that the husband was hoping to have some company while his wife and her friend chatted away over dinner.

We continue walking, up to the restaurant (which is empty) and then up the path behind the restaurant, up the hill and past very smart houses, hoping to find the town centre. It eludes us (actually, there is no “centre”), but we do find a Mercado and buy a torch to replace the one we lost – we’ll need it on the way back. Some general hilarity in the mercado when I enquire about the whereabouts of Zapallar Bernie – it turns out this is a non-Bernie town! The beachfront restaurant will have to do for dinner. Aahh… what a great spot to spend one of our last evenings in Chile. On the terrace, table pour deux, candle-lit, the beach no more than five feet away from our table, the sound of the Pacific waves breaking as background music (and jazz/Charleston and “I did it my way”) Dinner is good – congrio for Ness, razor clams and sea bass for me. We even have room for dessert (the Spanish “postre” for “dessert” has been translated into English as “prostrate” on the menu, which I can’t help explaining to Daniel, the waiter) It’s one of those evenings neither of us wants to end, but eventually we head back along the beach. The torch comes in handy. I’m a bit wary of getting mugged on the way back but have to remind myself that this is a peaceful seaside exclusive retreat, not a busy town. With full bellies and slightly sozzled heads the climb up to the hotel is quite tough but we make it into the wood-panelled bar for a final drink before crashing out. Aahh… wonderful evening.

Today is rodeo-day! We wake up late and have a lazy breakfast. It feels like a Sunday on a weekend city-break, great. At reception we enquire about “the rodeo, you know” and are met with blank stares but soon reach understanding and a taxi is ordered, grandpa and his van again. There is no rodeo at Puchuncavi it turns out. We only learned about this because someone the receptionist or grandpa or the cook spoke with knew this, but we are told there is one at Catapilco, about the same distance. Last day for the trekking pants.

Half an hour’s drive away and we’re in a different world, of Chilean farms, horses, fiestas. The rodeo is at a small venue off a road at Catapilco. We arrive at about 11am. There are a few huasos stood around and there is covered area for the fiesta, and an enclosure for the actual rodeo, with seating around it. We are very clearly a novelty, the only turistas, and by a long way. The rodeo doesn’t actually start until 2.30pm. We haven’t got anything else to do or anywhere to go so decide to wait, grandpa is happy to do so. We have a wander round and chat with some of the huasos in the “bar”. We don’t have enough small change so one of the huasos buys us a drink. One of the señoritas who is serving promises to teach me the cueca later on. There isn’t all that much to see besides the few huasos, the rodeo enclosure and the pens holding the cows. We stroll back to the van after a while and go to sleep. Bit by bit more huasos arrive, the sound system is tested, “ola, ola, ola, uno, dos, tres”, and cueca music is played.

At about 2pm we go back to the bar, I have a beer [How did we pay for it?] and we wait at a little table, not making any conversation with the farmers and huasos other than polite and friendly buenos diases. A table in the bar acts as the registration desk for rodeo participants. Most are older men, with a few young lads. All are donned very smartly in sombrero (straw or felt), mancha (various colours), leather “gaiters” and spurs which clink-clink as they walk. Finally they are called up to take their places in the rodeo enclosure and we follow the few spectators to get a grandstand seat. Entry is $500 (I kept the ticket somewhere). The pictures will tell the story of the spectacle.

The game is pretty straightforward: two riders play in pairs and have to keep the cow under control and lead/drive it round the semi-circular arena, pressing it against the cushioned sections with their horses at either end of the semi-circle. Depending on where they press the cow they get points. I think belly scored highest. We’re fascinated by the spectacle and rapidly pick up on the basis rules. It’s tempting to stay for the whole day and take part in the fiesta later but two hours is more than enough.

My would-be cueca teacher twirls her white handkerchief at me when I go to get a beer at the bar. Hmm… does she know what challenge she has set herself, teaching me to dance? If it wasn’t our last evening in Chile I would have been tempted to stay on, but a romantic table for two at the beach is more appealing and we decide to head back to the hotel around 4.30pm. This leaves us with enough time to have another stab at finding the elusive centre of Zapallar for gift shopping. We do manage to find it this time but apart from a few mercados scattered here and there, and a green landscaped but deserted “plaza”, there is no real town as such, only a collection of smart houses.

We have a late lunch at a twee restaurant, empanadas, and then settle on the beach, watching the sun and sea. At a beach-front villa a group of older Chileans are having cocktails on the balcony. On the beach a few people are lying around and kids are playing. I dip toes in the water and get trousers soaked. It’s a great way to spend our last afternoon in Chile. When the sun has set we move to the restaurant, the same as yesterday, and have a couple of drinks followed by dinner, another candle-lit dinner by the Pacific with the sound of the waves and jazz in the background.

Beginning to feel a bit melancholy because it is our last evening, and we start to reflect on the many new places and things we have seen or done over the past month. We walk back aided by the torch, startle a few groups of teenagers who are playing around on the rocks and beaches along the path.

A lazy lie-in. We’re not in a hurry. All we have to do today is get to Santiago, fly halfway across the world, and get home… A transfer will pick us up at 3pm, although for some reason I am convinced it is 4pm. We’re not bothered about last-minute sightseeing, walking or shopping. It has been a long month of experiences and sights and now it’s time to go home. After breakfast we pack our stuff. That is to say, Ness packs everything while I “help” by staying out of the way. We leave the bags in the room and park ourselves on the sun-loungers by the pool, writing diaries, reading and playing cards. A bit before 3pm we check out. By 3.10 the transfer hasn’t arrived and we ask the receptionist to call ADSMundo to check. They left Santiago at 12pm and it should only be a 2 hour drive. We’re not worried yet but it does eat into our available shopping time. I hope we can stop somewhere along the way at an artesiana but it will probably have to be the airport for gifts now. Our transfer arrives at 3.20; Luis and Riccardo. Luis keeps our minds occupied with chat, mostly factual stuff about Chile, while Riccardo drives and sticks to the speed limit (grrr).

The last views of the rocky coast with small beaches and smart houses slip by and then we turn inland towards the Panam. At the coast it was cloudy again but inland the sun is shining and even with air-con we can feel that it is very hot outside. The landscape along the Panam looks dry, mostly yellow grass. We don’t stop along the way. I had asked Luis whether there would be anywhere for gift shopping but that didn’t look hopeful and Nessie’s “no!” convinced Luis we should drive directly to the airport. Probably just as well. Luis helps us with the check-in, finding the right desk. Although our tickets advertise an Iberia flight, the flight is actually operated by Lan Chile, yippee! Between Luis and flashing the BA Exec Club card we manage to get what we hope will be decent seats for the long-haul flight. Final thing to do before going through to the departure gates is to post the postcards. Correo is closed so I can’t buy a stamp for the last card home to Mama, but the others are all, finally, posted. Last minute in true Ness and Stef style. A few boutiques provide the gift shopping opportunity, leaving us with just enough time for a final chacarero, pisco sour and pre-flight smokes.

We board the Airbus 340, get decent-ish seats (two by the window, just on the front-edge of the wing so we have a bit of a view). Small screens in the seats in front of us, with a selection of films on demand, including Reign of Fire, Spiderman and The Bourne Identity. Wonderful views of the snow-capped mountains of the Andes, lit up in pink-orange in the setting sun. The sky quickly turns to night darkness as the day is shortened by our flight eastward. There is some turbulence as we fly into the night. This happens as I’m watching Reign of Fire, lending an extra quality to the film (it needs it!) I can follow the progress of our flight as I look at the in-flight “air show” an another passenger’s screen, a Chilean grandpa. We are still only over Brazil! It feels like we have been flying for ages and we’re still over South America. The film is rubbish so I follow up with Spiderman, then nod off; Ness is already asleep. When I wake up we’re flying somewhere along the North African coast, with only about an hour and a half to go to Madrid. Just enough time to watch another film? Ness switches to Spiderman, I select the Bourne Identity, breakfast is served as we are watching. We land in Madrid before the films end. There is a short wait before our flight, giving us time to change, freshen up, and have coffee and a smoke. The Madrid-London flight is operated by Iberia, back to “European” service. Good seats (row 11) on this flight too. The flight progresses uneventfully, apart from some turbulence just outside Madrid. Ness saw a woman one row forward doing a quick Hail Mary.

It is still light when we land at Heathrow, but fading rapidly and street and car lights are already on. By the time we have gone through arrivals it is dark and only then I realise my watch is still on Madrid time and that it’s not even 5pm yet! Cabbie is dour and doesn’t say a word the whole journey. It’s a long and expensive ride home through London rush-hour traffic. Emotions and thoughts are all over the place and we don’t speak much on the way.

When we reach home I’m relieved to see our house and Bruiser in good health. The lights are on inside the house – Nessie’s parents must have put lights on timer switches. But not just any lights…! Inside our house is “tastefully” decorated with Christmas decorations!! This includes an inflatable Christmas tree with fake snow inside and multi-coloured flashing Merry Christmas lights!! We both call home to make sure our parents are ok and to let them know we are. Then we go to the Builders Arms for a drink and dinner (pie, bangers, mash), now we’re definitely back home.

Our month-long trip through Chile has come to an end. It has been a fantastic experience, one that I’m sure we will look back on many times in the future. We have seen so much, uncovered new places, now no longer anonymous dots on a map but places with real memories for us. Will we ever go back?