Chile has long been on my bucket list and for a long time traveler who started hearing tales of this diverse country since childhood, it’s astonishing that it took me so long to get there. Something has always gotten in the way of me spending time in South America.
First, it was because Europe and Africa were on my first ‘must stops.’ Europe, well….because my heritage is there and I had to see if the French were really as snobby as everyone said they’d be and the Italians were as gorgeous as I’d imagined. Africa was next because somehow I feel as if I was African in a past life since the beating of the drums calls to me in the same way blueberry picking does in the Adirondacks in this life.
Southeast Asia happened first by chance since an ex-flame dragged me there with a backpack in my early twenties and two years later after countless stops with bouts with dysentery, hepatitis and numerous other third world bugs, we returned to call England home. Not getting to South America is an easy excuse when you live in Europe since it’s simply so far away and after returning to the states and setting up shop in New England, I had more excuses – there was more of Europe to do, more of Africa to do, more of New England to do. You get the point. And so, there South America was in nearly last place as a “destination continent.”
Chile, Peru and Argentina have always been my top three destinations. In other words, these were the three countries where I always wanted to break my South America virginity, not necessarily in that order. Peru has the views, the mountains, faces with unique features that left me in awe and I imagined the best photo opportunities, Argentina has more mountains, great skiing, and Buenos Aires, where I could eat scrumptious steak, tango through the streets and buy stylish leather bags and boots.
And Chile….well, I had all the stories from my childhood and those photos of sexy looking boys from my host sister’s homeroom class (we were both AFS exchange students – she went to Chile and a year after she returned, I lived with her family in South Africa). It also had Patagonia of course and was the skinniest piece of land I had ever seen on a map, one which stretches for 2,700 miles north to south. Of course, I didn’t know that Chile would have breathtaking glaciers and penguins at that time.
Having that knowledge didn’t seem to stop me from being far more ignorant about the country than I had hoped before landing on her gracious soil for the first time. Truth be told, I’m an Isabel Allende fan and have read every single one of her novels, save one.
When I heard about the opportunity to join the 4th annual Chile EXPOCOM that would gather some of the top tour operators, vendors and sellers in the world and roughly ten or so travel writers, I realized I had to say yes, even though I didn’t have time to read the fine print about where in Chile the event was going to be held or what was on the agenda. You see, it didn’t matter. After I filled out the form confirming my attendance, I looked over at my visualization mirror which had Chile and Argentina at the very top of a list of a dozen or so countries next on my list to visit.
At last, I was going to the skinny country with the warm and inviting people, stunning scenery, and diverse history.
With so little time to plan, the truth is, I didn’t plan….anything. That means, no research or pre-reading of our trip details until two days before I left, and only then did I make a few Google searches, which included two hotels, a little history on Punta Arenas (my first stop) and photos of the region which left me breathless.
Despite the fact that it was nearly 20 hours of flying time and four flights, I realized I had just signed up for pure heaven and couldn’t wait to board the first plane.
Nature once again knocked on my door and I answered.
You see, I’m a true believer that nature calls to us when we’ve abandoned her for too long. In my case, it was abandoned to technology and when I didn’t give her enough time, she decided to take it back and remind me of the important things in life.
In less than two years, I was thrown into polar bear country in Canada’s Churchill Wild, returned to Maine’s seaside in the magical New England Fall, driven through the romantic countryside of Lithuania and Estonia in Spring, escorted out to an ancient graveyard in southern Ireland on a drizzly cold day, drove through the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York where I had my best childhood memories, flew above Greenland’s icy waters, brought out to the cold and windy cliffs of Western Iceland to watch Puffins at 3 am and now, flown to the heart of Chile’s Patagonia where I’d be face-to-face with guanacos and black necked swans.
Despite my love of warmer climates and walking along a beach in a saucy colorful mini skirt barefoot on a balmy humid night, the universe seems to think I need to spend time in cold countries at the moment.
Sometimes I wonder whether it’s because California has started to make me ‘soft,’ and my New England roots doesn’t want to wait until I’m too far gone before it reclaims my soul to its rightful place.
On the night before my trip, my MacBook Pro started misbehaving again and I hadn’t yet finished packing. It was late and I was too cranky and fatigued to figure out how I was going to pack light when I had to fit warm sweaters, hats, mittens, hiking boots, long johns and a down parka into the same suitcase I used for most of my longer trips that didn’t call for such bulky items.
Cranky as I was, I wore a smile, because deep down, I knew it was the time for my South American adventures to begin. It was time for me to master Spanish and Salsa, time for me to devour Pisco Sours instead of Cabernet Sauvignon for awhile and time for me to flirt with Latin culture and all that it means. I had no doubt I would be ignited by Chile’s fire, her charm and her spirit.
Security was a breeze. Since I had to clear customs, immigration and pay a whopping $160 entry fee (the U.S. is the highest of the countries which have to still pay one upon entry, although the requirement is supposed to disappear in 2014), the transition from Santiago to the third floor where all national flights departed was long.
That said, once I did reclaim my luggage and head towards the security gates, a man in line ahead of me shook his head as I started taking my belt off. “No need,” he said with a thick accent. I then proceeded to take my MacBook Pro out of my bag and he shook his head again. “No need,” he said again. I went for my boots and as I unzipped one of them, I looked up at him and saw his nod. “No need, right?” I said with a smile. It turns out I didn’t have to dump my two water bottles or take my silver cuff off either.
He turned out to be the ever so gracious Patricio or rather Dr. Patricio, an orthodontist who happened to live in Punta Arenas, where I was due to catch my connecting flight to meet the Expo organizers. You know you have ‘arrived’ when you’ve met the local orthodontist and as you’d expect him to, he had a great set of white teeth and a warm smile. In Spanish, he said to me, “slow down, no rush.” He quickly translated into English although I somehow knew that was exactly what he said. “You’re in Chile now,” he added with another warm smile.
He had just returned from Seattle since he visits the states each year for an annual conference and it was just the dose of medicine I needed to hear. Always rushing, even when I travel, I am often reminded that traveling DOES slow me down but it often takes a few days of being on the road for me to get out of my American skin. For the most part, the rest of the world travels at a slower pace than Americans; it’s a quality I look forward to once I leave my hood.
Yes, slow down I thought and took a deep breathe. I had time – quite honestly, there was plenty of time to make it to the gate and it was time to get onto Chilean time and I don’t mean the numbers on a watch.
We chatted at the gate while he asked about my agenda which I scoured for in my black leather bag that happened to house everything a girl might need on the road, from toothpaste and napkins to a video camera, lipstick, a bottle of water and sunglasses. He scanned the document, nodding every now and then like a professor does when he’s looking at a paper he’s about to grade.
Sometimes the nod was one of approval and other times ambiguous. It went something like this: “Ahhh yes, this is beautiful,” as he pointed to a line on the page and about a specific restaurant, he’d add, “it’s okay, it used to be much better but the quality of the food has gone down. And oh yes, you are going to Torres Del Paine National Park…THIS is the most beautiful” and he gave me that warm smile again.
It was the first of many warm smiles I was going to experience in Chile. And as it shone, our flight was called to board. Since I slept through breakfast on the longest of my flights, I was starting to get hungry and so I asked the first LAN Airlines flight crew whether there was food on board. “Yes,” he said with a warm smile. “Good,” I replied, “because I’m hungry.” Soon, as I sat there quivering from the cold air blowing through the vents, Pablo showed up with a blanket three times the thickness of the ones we get on airlines in the states.
Less than thirty minutes later, there was Pablo again pouring me tea with his beaming and addictive warm smile. Then, after handing my neighbors a box each which housed our morning crackers and a cranberry chocolate cookie, he handed me two boxes, gave me a smile and then finished off with a wink. Oh, those dark eyes. Oh, that warm smile.
We hadn’t even landed in Punta Arenas yet and I knew Chile was going to steal my heart. It already had!
All photo credits: Renee Blodgett.