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Friday, January 10, 2020

Day #7 - January 10th, 2020 - Punta Arenas to Santiago, Chile

Greetings from beautiful (and, where we are, warm) Chile!

We continued our investigation into the culture of Chile today by touring the town of Punta Arenas at the southern tip of the world. How far south are we? This city is the launching point for expeditions to Antarctica. (Let's go! Who's with me? Some day!)

After a lovely breakfast, we all sadly said goodbye to our nice hotel.  Today our guide Francisco and our trusted driver Pato brought us around the city of Punta Arenas to see the sights and to stimulate the local economy. We began by driving to a lookout that offered a wide view of the city and of the Strait of Magellan (which, for a century or so, made Punta Arenas one of the shipping and trade capitals of the world; that ended with the opening of the Panama Canal):

From this vantage point, the city seemed quite colorful, with many different shades of tile roofs and a lot of bright paint. We have noticed that most cities in Chile have resident dogs; they are not strays, but are registered with the city, have names, and are well cared for as they live on the street. The students are always drawn to dogs whenever we travel, because the students (and the dogs) have such good hearts!

Our next stop was the famous Cemetery of Punta Arenas. We learned of the history and culture surrounding this historic spot, and viewed many ornately decorated memorials:

The history of Punta Arenas (and much of Chile) is written across this graveyard. The tomb below, for example, is the target of protest because that family is blamed for a genocide of indigenous people:

Others are decorated with flowers and carefully tended:

It was interesting to see how many families decorated windowed crypts with photos and mementos of the deceased. It gave you much more of a sense of who they were in life compared to a typical headstone:

We left the cemetery and walked through the city to the central square, which feature a statue of Magellan:

The locals us told us that if you rub a foot on the statue, you will return to Patagonia some day:

As we walked around the city, we saw a lot of graffiti related to the current political unrest in Chile:

Our guide explained his view of the political situation. We are sure to see more of it when we head to Santiago.

We continued our tour by visiting a variety of shops to buy chocolate, locally made crafts, etc.

By popular demand, our last stop in Punta Arenas was one of this area's famous sandwich shops:

The sandwiches were meaty and filling and a perfect coda to our time in southern Chile.

We headed to the airport for our 2:45PM domestic flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago:

It is always a challenge and a chore to shepherd to many people through an airport. But, luckily, everyone in our group is patient and kind to a fault.

We landed in Santiago and were immediately struck by the heat. Several students came prepared with summer wear. We found our new driver and tour guide Terry (not his real name, but the name he uses with Americans):

As we drove through the city, Terry explained the political situation and assured us that we were always going to be in safe areas at safe times. While on the bus, we also called ahead to arrange dinner. When Terry announced to everyone that we were NOT having fish that night, a loud and enthusiastic cheer went up!

We arrived at our rather nice hotel by 7:30PM or so:

Some students quickly ran to the pool (which is fairly small and a bit cold, but quite refreshing). We gathered for our nightly 8:30PM dinner, which this evening featured a Caesar salad (the first salad we had eaten in Chile), beef and vegetables with rice, and ice cream (flavors: caramel and raspberry) for dessert:

The conversations over dinner were loud and animated, as stories were repeated and jokes repeated themselves. It was a wonderful gathering of a group that started as individuals but have fused into a cohesive travel unit.

We all went our separate ways for the night with our plans in place for our last day in Chile tomorrow. I will do my best to update the blog before we leave the country, but once we board the flight (at 11PM local time), I will not be able to update anything until we are on the bus on our way to New Hampshire. Rest assured that everyone continues to be happy and healthy and fully embracing the spirit of this adventure.

Thank you for reading, as always! And best wishes from Santiago,

Prof. Eric Simon

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Day #6 - January 9th, 2020 - Torres del Paine to Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Chile

Greetings from Punta Arenas, near the very southern tip of South America (look it up on Google maps - it's very far away from New Hampshire!).

Today our trip took a turn from the wilderness to focusing on Chilean culture. We had our usual breakfast at the hotel, then gathered to load our trusty purple bus and head out on the road by 9AM. Our hearts were all a bit heavy as we slowly rumbled out of Torres del Paine National Park, the beautiful heartland of Patagonia. We stopped along the way to take in the views one final time:

This was our last chance to be kissed by the persistent and tenacious Patagonian wind, which left its marks on all our faces:

With somewhat heavy hearts, we boarded the bus for our journey southward, away from the natural beauty of the park, but toward anticipated encounters with Chilean culture.

Everyone settled in for a total of about 6 hours on the bus today:

Along the way, we stopped to view a wide variety of wildlife:

Did you know that there are flamingos in Patagonia? I didn't!

We also stopped to watch, with considerable interest, Patagonian gauchos and their dogs (about a dozen in total) driving cattle across the plains:

After about 3 hours, we stopped in the town of Puerto Natales (where we stayed during our journey northward). Our purpose was clear: to take a break, and to stimulate the local Chilean economy! We split into groups and walked through town, visiting souvenir shops:

This area specializes in wool textiles, copper, and the mineral lapis lazuli.  Some of us stopped to sample the famous Chilean sandwiches, known for their plentiful and high-quality roasted meats:

Speaking of plentiful meat, lunch was at a traditional Chilean BBQ, where meats (most often lamb) are cooked over coals and then coarsely chopped:

In an unexpected twist, they served us salmon! It's been a bit of a running joke during this trip how often we are served salmon. Farmed salmon is very common in Chile and is the most frequent protein offered during meals; interestingly, fowl (chicken, etc.) is very rare.

After enjoying our lunch, we walked across town to a homemade gelato shop so that Prof. Simon could once again treat the class:

The gelato was great, and featured some interesting flavors (such as rose, shown above).

We climbed back into our bus for a 3 hour drive south to Punta Areas, the city where we started our adventure (and where we will be flying out tomorrow). Along the way, we learned that our hotel reservation had a problem, so our tour company rebooked us into an upgraded hotel. This turned out to be a real bonus, as we were booked into Punta Arena's swankiest hotel, called Dreams:

The students were assigned into doubles and triples (we mix up roommates at every hotel). Several of us gathered at the pool, which featured amazing views of the Strait of Magellan:

We also enjoyed the top floor lounge which featured nice views of the city:

We all met for 8:30PM dinner. Given the quality of the hotel, we were all quite excited for the meal!

The appetizer featured seared tuna, smoked salmon, and prosciutto, all in a most lovely presentation. When the entree arrived, we all had to laugh:

Apparently, when in Chile, there is no escaping the salmon! It was very well made and we all enjoyed it, despite the frequency with which we've had this fish during this trip.

Dinner was over by about 10:30PM. This far south, it is still light at this time:

This was a fun day, despite all the time in the bus. We have all come to know each other quite well and everyone gets along wonderfully. Our guides have commented upon how friendly and welcoming our group is, and I couldn't agree more.

The students have been hard at work on their travel essays, which serve as the final exam in this course. They each certainly have plenty of source material.

Everyone is happy and healthy and enjoying our trip. We look forward to our last full day in Chile tomorrow.

Thanks for reading!

Prof. Eric Simon

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Day #5 January 8th, 2020 - Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

Greetings from beautiful Patagonia! Today was an active day with over 8 miles of hiking, which included the equivalent of climbing 120+ flights of stairs and 23,000+ steps.  But through it all were too many beautiful sites to list.

Our day began with our usual 7-8AM breakfast. One of the interesting things about travel is that you notice the little things that are different from home. The breakfast buffet is largely familiar (although far lighter than a typical American hotel breakfast buffet), but I have no idea what to do with the bark and twigs found in the box next to the tea service:

The standard drinks for breakfast include orange juice and, less familiarly, raspberry juice:

It's good, mind you, just different! Dinner service also runs pretty late, which is why we always start dinner around 8:30PM. That's fine because it means we don't have to rush our way through the park.

We departed by bus around 8:30AM and drove about an hour into the park, with several stops along the way to view the beautiful mountains from different vantage points:

We parked at a trailhead and received an orientation from our guide Francisco. We were excited to see guanacos, a large llama-like mammal native to the area. But we were warned that where there are guanacos, there may be pumas. Our guide explained the precautions we had to take, but assured us that pumas are rarely seen in this area:

Did you read the sign so that you know how to act in this area? Good! We did see many signs of guanacos interacting with pumas. Or, at least, the remains of such interactions:

Luckily, we also some some live guanacos, mostly in the distance. They are large (a bit larger than deer), graceful, and (being unused to humans) calm around us.

We walked along a trail through open terrain. The hike was relatively easy, although there was a fair bit of up-and-down hiking. At times the trail was packed dirt, other times it was grass, and sometimes it was somewhat soft and muddy, almost swamp-like. The weather was fairly pleasant. It was sunny, but the incessant wind causes frequent temperature changes. One minute, I'd be wishing that I had shorts on. Then, a few minutes later, I had on a wool cap with 3 layers. The wind is continuous, but not entirely unpleasant; it isn't a biting wind like we have during New England winters.

The views were wide and vast, with countless wildflowers:

After about an hour, we hiked up a steep hill toward a rocky outcropping:

At the top was an overhang that formed a shelter. Ancient people had occupied this shelter and left behind 6,000-year-old rock paintings of people, animals, and hands. You can see them painted in red in the upper right of this photo:

Having reached the top of our world, we paused for water, snacks, and to take in our surroundings. Our guide led us through some meditation, where we listened to the wind (a constant presence in Patagonia). We spent 30 minutes or so enjoying the view and taking in the spirit of the park:

Fortified with the spirit of the Patagonian wind, we hiked back down and continued along the trail. After a bit, one student spotted something on a hill:

Do you see it? Here is a closer look:

Yes, that is a pack of pumas (a mother and 3 youngsters) watching us form the high ground. We were fascinated and excited to see them, but our guide hustled us away from the area to prevent disturbing them (or to deny them easy prey, I suppose!). That encounter was a highlight for many of the people on the trip! When I asked over dinner, every student said that they were excited to see the pumas, not afraid at all. But we all noticed that our guide seemed far more concerned! That's why he's in charge.

We continued along the trail for another few miles, surrounded by constantly shifting and consistently beautiful views:

At the end of the trail, our bus driver Pato was waiting for us. This hike totaled 5.2 miles, and it was fairly tiring (for me, anyway!).

We drove to a picnic spot overlooking rapids to eat our box lunches:

The spot overlooked a set of rapids framed by the peaks behind:

What do you think, is that enough beauty for one day? But wait, there's more!

After lunch we drove to a second trailhead and set out on our second hike of the day:

This one promised views of the famous 3 towers of Patagonia, which we reached after about an hour of hiking:

This spot represented, for several of us, what we had come for. The iconic peaks of Patagonia affirmed our adventurous spirit and declared our openness to new experiences and adventure.

As we walked on, we crested a hill, and were greeted by a large pack (about 50) of guanacos. We had been hoping to view them up close since we arrived in Torres del Paine, and finally here was our chance to have our very own guanaco moment!

It was not just the professor of biology who was intrigued; every student enjoyed watching the babies stay with their mothers while the males jousted in the background.

We continued on through wide-open spaces faced by the 3 towers. The terrain gave way to massive wildflower fields filled with daisies:

We boarded our big purple bus with mixed feelings. We were thrilled for the day we had and exhilarated by all we had experienced. But our moods couldn't help but be tinged with the realization that we had completed our last hike in Torres del Paine, the beautiful heart of Patagonia. We do have several days remaining to our trip, but none will be filled with the vistas we have seen in the last few days. 

Everyone is a bit sun- and wind-burned, and more than a bit tired. But this is appropriate for what we've experienced, and no one is truly worse for wear. Every student is participating fully, with clear heads and open hearts. Every one of us -- professors and students alike -- are grateful for this time together in the bottom of the world.

Please comment to let me know if you're enjoying the blog. I am happy to pass along any messages you care to leave.

Thanks for reading, and thank you to New England College for creating this immersion experience and to Holbrook Travel for making it a reality!

Best wishes from Patagonia,

Prof. Eric Simon