El Calafate, Argentina
An excellent, varied day. The pick-up from our hotel in El Calafate was prompt and efficient; the initial cruise up Lake Argentino was a pleasure with the sun beginning to strike the surrounding mountains; the close-up view of the glacier and the huge blue iceberg 'calves' was breath-taking; and the visit to the Estancia was efficiently organised so that there was never many visitors doing the same thing. We opted for the walk up the valley to the waterfall. Our guide was a friendly and engaging young man who spoke impeccable English. The views across to the expanse of the glacier and back down the valley to the estancia and lake were a great reward. The tour of the estancia was conducted by another guide who spoke perfect English, was most informative about the history, geography and economics of the place and had an engagingly wry style that was perfectly suited to the group.
The tour delivers exactly what it says: spending a day in Valparaiso like a local (albeit one who had a day off and was determined to remind themselves of everything that Valparaiso had to offer). Our guide, who arrived at our hotel in Santiago promptly, was a very personable and knowledgeable young philosophy teacher, acting as a tour guide in his spare time. On the way to Valparaiso we stopped to sample some sweet local pastries at a road-side café and then some interesting wine at a bodega in the Casablanca valley (and no-one said:"..of all the bodegas in all the valleys in all the world and you had to walk into mine"). In the city, we had an hour to visit the house that belonged to Pablo Neruda with its stunning views over the city and the harbour and its collection of quirky artefacts: the place reverberated with poetry. Then we toured the streets and alleyways on foot, taking in the English and German quarters, a funicular ride, a stop at what could only be described as a confectionery speak-easy (our guide knocked a door and a woman appeared bearing dulce de leche sandwich cakes) and then another stop at a cool local café for refreshing fruit smoothies. Back in the lower part of the city, we took a tram ride, then strolled back through the streets and squares to an excellent retro restaurant, reminiscent of 1950s Paris with its long bar and sepia décor, for lunch, preceded, inevitably, by pisco sours. Then it was back on another rickety funicular and a wander through more of the colourful alleyways and cobbled back streets before a cruise around the harbour to take in the sweeping views of the city from the water. It was a long day but an immensely enjoyable and rewarding one.
We chose to do this on the day after we landed in Santiago, partly in order to clear our heads of jet-lag, jet noise and the 'plane-stupidity' induced by a long-haul flight. It did this admirably - and much, much more. Fran, our guide, picked us up bright and early from our city centre hotel and whisked us out through the suburbs to the El Morado National Park, north of Santiago. It was a perfect late summer morning and an utter joy to make our way up the long but steady incline of the valley in warm sunshine (we had just escaped a very , miserable English winter) with the snow-topped Andes in front of us. We had a snack break at the lake and then pressed on up the somewhat steeper but perfectly do-able section to the edge of the glacier. Throughout, Fran was the perfect hiking companion: friendly, intelligent, personable, with good conversation in impeccable English and who was anxious for us to go at our own pace and enjoy the experience. We returned to the lake for a simple but delicious picnic lunch (food always tastes good on a mountain doesn't it?) that Fran had provided. Suitably refreshed, we ambled peacefully back down the valley, now with the surrounding green, purple and russet mountains bathed in afternoon sunshine. By the time we reached the park entrance, Santiago and his partner had arrived for their Sunday afternoon outing - and yet on the walk we had hardly seen a soul. It was blissful day that was the perfect introduction to the beauty of Chile and which would give a lot of pleasure to anyone who enjoys the sort of hiking that captures the senses, stretches the muscles and fills the lungs but does not bust a gut. And who knows when it is sensible to wear sunblock and a hat.
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