We arrived at last in Santiago de Chile, the “de” being added by people in-the-know, I learned. We were exhausted and reeking of vomit, because our daughter Sofia decided to puke everywhere just as we were preparing to deplane.
It was unfortunate that Sofia decided to puke at the end of our 9-hour flight, when her parents’ reaction times were slowed by tiredness. Instead of grabbing barf bags from the seat-back pockets, we scrambled to catch the white liquid and bits of airplane pasta in our navy blue airplane blankets. When the vomiting was over, my wife and I stood there stunned, Sofia’s face a mixture of innocence and relief.
I apologized to our flight attendant, an older gentleman who had been very considerate during the flight, bringing our meals early and letting us eat standing in the galley when it became too difficult to manage three airplane meals and an almost-2 year old at our seats.
“Sorry…she did so well until the end of the flight,” I said apologetically.
“It always happens at the end,” the flight attendant shot back. “The cleaning crew will take care of it. What’s your seat number?” he asked, promising to tell the cleaning crew where to focus their efforts.
Bienvenidos a Chile.
We exited to a sea of friendly older men in the arrivals hall, saying “Taxi?” as we shuffled past with our overloaded luggage cart. Exiting to the curb, we summoned an Uber, preferring to deal in credit and a familiar interface than haggling with one of the taxi oficial drivers in a foreign currency. As I stared at my phone, a young, enterprising taxi driver approached and asked me if we needed a taxi. I told him we had already called an Uber.
“Uber es…un poco complicado,” he said.
It was technically illegal for Uber to make pickups at Santiago airport, but I didn’t know when I booked the car, and at that moment I was determined to try the app.
“If Uber takes too long, come find me and I’ll give you a good deal,” the young man said in Spanish. “Barato.” Then he walked back towards the arrivals hall.
It did end up taking some time to find our Uber driver. “Yo estoy en la salida cinco,” I said repeatedly into the phone. The driver insisted that he was also at salida cinco, but he was nowhere in sight. In the Uber app, it said to meet at a location called the “Meeting Point”, a name so generic that it seemed fake, like something generated by the app’s default code settings.
We moved across the street towards the Holiday Inn, a name I was certain I heard the driver mention a few times during our painful attempts to communicate. We descended a ramp towards a parking lot, and we were approached by a young kid with bronzed skin in camo pants and sneakers. He wore a silver bluetooth earpiece in one ear. The kid asked nicely if we needed a taxi, and when I told him we were trying to find our Uber, he offered to help. I handed him my phone (which seemed like a bad idea as soon as it left my hands), and he began texting and calling with our Uber driver, hammering out the specifics of where we would meet.
We decided to meet at a little island in the center of the parking lot directly in front of us. As we approached the island, I looked up and saw a sign—in English—that said “Meeting Point”. “Well then,” I thought. “Would it have been nice to have another sign connecting the dots between the arrivals hall and the Meeting Point? Yes. But hey, we’re in a foreign country,” I reminded myself.
Our Uber driver was a young bro in his early 20s with sunglasses, who looked like he just left the tailgate party at his frat to earn some booze money. Fortunately, he wasn’t drunk when he picked us up. We loaded our luggage into his older-model sedan. Garam sat in the backseat with Sofia lying across her lap (Car seat? Who needs a car seat?) while I rode shotgun.
We exited the parking lot pay station, and Garam asked to see my phone. I froze, realizing that I didn’t have it. Flustered, I told the driver in broken Spanish to turn around. He brought me back to a different parking lot, on the opposite side of the Holiday Inn from the Meeting Point. I sprinted across the sidewalk towards the first parking lot. Realizing that I couldn’t maintain a sprint pace the whole way, I downshifted to jogging gear as I approached the Meeting Point.
My phone was there—thank God—sitting in the upper basket of our otherwise empty luggage cart. A group of young, bronzed guys, including the one who helped us connect with our Uber driver, eyed me sideways as I grabbed the phone and sprinted back towards the other parking lot. I hopped into the front seat of the Uber and said to the driver, panting, “Cuando estoy cansado, la mente no funciona.” (When I’m tired, the mind doesn’t function.) He smiled halfheartedly.
In the backseat, Garam quietly fumed. “That could’ve been the end of the trip,” she said. Her dramatic response notwithstanding, I did feel like a huge burden was lifted once I had that hard rectangle back in my pocket.
As we cruised downtown on the airport highway, our driver flipped on the radio and tuned to a Reggaeton station, which he played at a respectful volume. Sofia liked the music, to my surprise, and started dancing in her seat. Either she liked the music, or the journey had deprived her of sleep to the point of delirium. What began as general silliness often led to desperate cries for someplace to rest. A few songs later, she passed out in Garam’s lap.
We whizzed alongside a large wash with cement banks, the banks covered in multi-colored graffiti by artists from a wide range of skill levels. Simple tags were outshined by elaborate murals depicting the passionate faces of people I ought to know.
Clusters of shantytowns near the airport gave way to the affluent neighborhood of Vitacura, where joggers and stroller-pushing couples meandered along a beautifully green, tree-lined path beside the road.
“What’s that park called?” I asked our driver, to break the long silence. He stared blankly out the window, then turned to his phone, zooming in with one hand to find the name of the parque.
“Parque de las esculturas,” (Sculpture Park) he declared proudly.
“Gracias Google,” I thought, not intending to judge the guy, but to give credit where credit is due.
We checked in at the Doubletree Vitacura hotel early, and they told us to sit tight a few minutes while they finished preparing our room. The young concierge, a stocky gentleman with reddish hair and no neck, pulled out two paper bags from one of his desk drawers and handed them to us. Inside were warm cookies, as a welcome gift. “How are they warm?” I asked Garam, imagining a special, hidden compartment in the desk drawer with an electric heating element to keep cookies warm all day.
We sat on a black leather couch in the lobby, Sofia in her stroller, and we watched the staff and guests milling around the tall glass entry doors. There seemed to be a lot of staff around wherever we went: taxis oficiales at the airport, a bellhop assigned to each hotel guest at check-in, and people in uniform generally looking for ways to be helpful.
Garam managed to get a pack-and-play crib delivered to our room, even though I read in the details of our booking that there would be no space in the room for a crib. Garam’s attitude while traveling was: “can’t hurt to ask.”
We checked into our room and promptly passed out, sleeping off the jet lag for a few hours. We woke up with just enough time to get ourselves ready to board the shuttle to the wedding venue, which was scheduled to depart at 4:30pm from the hotel.
We sat in the very last row of the shuttle bus. Sofia remained glued to Garam for most of the ride. Some friends of ours from the Bay Area sat in front of us, and we started talking about music. The bride and groom, Alba and Eduardo, had taken a modern approach to choosing the reception music, namely Spotify’s “Collaborative Playlist” feature. Just like it sounds, the collaborative playlist feature lets guests add their songs directly to what will (presumably) become the DJ’s playlist at the wedding party. I could picture this approach backfiring terrifically if the playlist were placed into the wrong hands and not monitored (cue segue from a romantic first dance into the opening line of 2Pac’s “Hit’em Up”). But if there was one thing that the couple made clear through their speeches and displays of hospitality throughout the weekend, it was that they trusted and loved their guests.
Our first stop was a tour of the winery at Viña Indomita, a whitewashed building perched proudly on a hill above the tree line, just off the highway from Santiago to Valparaiso.
The sunlight in the parking lot was fierce. Some additional light reflected off a set of massive, cylindrical steel tanks next to the building. Inside, the building was cool and humid. Our guide, a confident 30-something chileno in a white golf shirt, proudly showed us the grapes’ transition from aging in French Oak barrels to storage in large, cylindrical tanks. He poured us glasses of a special reserve directly from a tap on the side of one of the large cylindrical tanks. The straight-from-the-tank wine dripped with the same superiority draft beer lords over its bottled peers.
Meanwhile, Sofia entertained herself running up and down a cement ramp connecting the French-Oak and steel-tank rooms. A older girl of about 4 or 5 made the ramp look easy, while Sofia stumbled repeatedly, barely catching herself. I shadowed her nervously, and at last, the inevitable happened: she fell, skinning her bare knee just below the hem of her cute blue dress. Still, she wanted to continue, but Mommy and I said “enough of that game”, and fortunately the group left, heading back to the buses. We got on for a short ride down a hill to a clearing in the vineyard.
The ceremony was set up in an idyllic spot adjacent to a small pond, with a few picnic tables and a wooden playground off to the side—a perfect spot for the young kids to play while the grown-ups expounded on love and family. The playground had a wooden slide and swings, the swings’ path partially obstructed by overgrown shrubs.
Overhead, a drone circled taking video. The buzz of its propellors was distracting, until the pilot wisely backed off from the main gathering to allow the introductory speeches to be heard.
The crowd turned, and in came Alba, cruising slowly onto the grass in the backseat of Eduardo’s father’s 1960s Chevy Impala. Eduardo’s family used the same car to deliver all of the brides at all of his siblings’ weddings.
We moved to the patio in front of Viña Indomita for cocktail hour, which commanded a fine view of the vineyard and the mountains beyond. Sofia was mildly impressed. Servers came with fantastic hors d’oeuvres, including a king crab cocktail, tender beef in a blueberry sauce, and of course empanadas. Sofia wanted to eat all of the blueberries in the blueberry sauce, and that was it. For drinks, champagne made the rounds along with fresh nectars: strawberry (or frutilla, which I kept wanting to call fresa) and a yellowish fruit called cherimoya that tasted like a mix of apple, pineapple, and coconut. I encouraged Sofia to try the nectars, but she was too distracted by the unfamiliar faces and sounds. Loud conversations intermingled in the air with a whiff of sweet cigarette smoke and roasted meats.
The pace of the wedding felt relaxed. Wine tour at 5:30, ceremony at 6:30 followed by cocktail hour on the patio, dinner at 9:30, and dancing starting around midnight. The first shuttle was scheduled to head back to our hotel at 1am, with a second one at 3am.
Sofia fell asleep in her carrier during dinner, and she awoke 20 minutes before the first shuttle was scheduled to leave—in party mode. I had to pull her away from the dance floor, kicking and screaming, and coax her onto the bus. By the time we reached our hotel, which seemed to take much longer on the way home, I was exhausted.
The next morning, we scrambled to check out on-time and catch an 11am shuttle to the post-wedding gathering at Chacra Rucatemu, Eduardo’s family orchard on the outskirts of Santiago. The hotel-provided breakfast was over by the time we reached the lobby, so I ran to Wendy’s down the street and bought some chicken nuggets, empanadas, and fries to keep Sofia from snapping during the shuttle ride. A couple of friends from Boulder had arrived after missing their connection the previous day, so we chatted with them over some cheese-filled empanadas.
As we sat the lobby waiting for our shuttle, a large bus pulled up in front, and people began to congregate by the lobby doors. A stream of young athletes poured out of the bus, players from some fútbol team I had never heard of, and they made a beeline for the elevators as if they couldn’t wait to have a shower.
Our shuttle bus driver, a soft-spoken man with short-cropped hair and a long, drawn face covered in light pockmarks, helped me to load Sofia’s stroller into the small trunk space, and then we were off.
As we left the Vitacura neighborhood, the houses and businesses grew smaller. And their surroundings turned browner. The Santiago suburbs reminded me of Arizona, but more crowded.
Chacra Rucatemu was a stunning, green oasis in the middle of seemingly endless vegetation. We entered the property through a grassy side yard with a large, kidney-bean shaped pool dug directly into the grass. The pool created a beautiful contrast with the natural greens of the yard, looking almost organic.
A trellised walkway connected the main house to a small pool house with bathrooms, the trellises overgrown with bunches of tiny grapes hanging just above head level. In the middle of the walkway, a bartender served pisco sours, along with delicious Chilean nectars.
In the side yard opposite the pool, Eduardo’s family had a large stone oven for cooking empanadas. An older gentleman tended the oven, wielding a long metal tool similar to a pizza peel. Eduardo’s mother and siblings hovered around the oven and its adjacent grill doing prep work. Beyond the domed, stone structure was another cooking area for a traditional Chilean lamb roast.
The stark image of a naked lamb on a spit, ribcage-out, conjured up images of Jesus being raised on Calvary. The fire in the lamb pit was small. I shuddered to think how long it must have taken to slow roast at that temperature.
Sofia mostly stuck to an all-potato diet, refusing to partake in the delicious homemade empanadas and nectars. She even refused the pool—at first. Eventually she came around, and by the time our hosts finished roasting meats on the grill, I had to drag her out of the water, lips purple and toes pruned, to come and eat.
We feasted at tables under the shade of a large tree. Across a sunny clearing, I saw what looked like piles of nectarines on the ground, and still more hanging from the trees above. I fought the urge to run across the yard and bite into a piece of untouched fruit, deciding to try some of the plentiful fruit at the buffet instead.
After the meal, Garam and I took Sofia for a short walk through the grounds. The first tree we passed was one of the hugest fig trees I had ever seen. The figs were not ripe, so we didn’t dally long. Crossing over a small footbridge, we came to a clearing where hundreds of dates lay on a white cloth, drying in the sun. I recalled a visit to Israel, where I had tried fresh dates for the first time. It was a personal epiphany. God, I love dates.
Sofia enjoyed the party because lots of kids were running around, and the atmosphere was very family-friendly. One boy about five years old started asking the adults to swing him around in circles by his arms. Sofia immediately followed suit.
Full disclosure: I’m a worrywart. More so since becoming a father. I grabbed Sofia by the armpits at first, because I worried about her shoulder joints. I don’t know when or where I heard that you shouldn’t swing kids around by their arms too much, but when I saw her excitedly launching into the new activity, that thought immediately rushed to the surface of my mind. Seems kind of stupid, though, considering that humans evolved from monkeys.
Meanwhile, some of the older boys from Eduardo’s family set up an impromptu rectangular court in the grass using sticks and lawn chairs. They began playing a game that looked like a cross between soccer, doubles tennis, and volleyball, two teams of two players each kicking a soccer ball back and forth over a stick which divided the court into halves. Each pair of players tried to sneak one past the other team using a lot of precise ball control and headers.
Before the party ended, Eduardo—ever the consummate host—gathered everyone together to lay out the schedule for the next day. Many of the wedding guests were staying in Chile for a post-wedding Patagonia adventure organized by the newlyweds. I took a break from my Nescafé and tres leches cake to listen to Eduardo explain the group logistics. Garam, Sofia, and I would start our own kid-friendly Patagonia itinerary in the morning, with its own set of logistical challenges.
Later that evening at the hotel, we had a dilemma: Sofia needed to eat, but Mommy and I were stuffed from the Chacra party and we wanted to wash off the chlorine from the pool. Mommy had brought some microwaveable haetban (Korean rice packs), but our hotel room didn’t have a microwave, so she boiled water in the electric kettle and soaked the dry rice for a few minutes before giving it to Sofia.
Then she took Sofia into the bathroom for a quick shower, while I educated myself about the evening food and entertainment options in the area. Going out as a family of three was a tricky optimization problem. It wasn’t my style to leave much to chance. The hotel was conveniently located walking distance from Costanera Mall and Sky Costanera, the tallest building in South America at 60-something stories.
Sky Costanera could be fun, I thought, and while we were there we could grab dinner at the food court and restock Sofia’s bag with milk from the large grocery store in the same building. Another voice in my head interjected, “A mall? Really? What about sampling the local cuisines and having an authentic Chilean evening?” “Yeah, yeah, stuff it,” replied the other side of my brain. I wanted to go somewhere close, not mess around with taxis and reservations. Not to mention the fact that one couple from the Bay Area had told us they were almost mugged a few days before.
And when they said “almost mugged”, they meant it literally, not in the way terrible people say they were “almost mugged” if a dark-skinned person doesn’t smile properly at night. Some guys approached our friends and made a move to grab the woman’s purse, but at that moment a car pulled up, so the thugs kept on moving.
The entrance to Sky Costanera was hard to find. First, we approached the glass entrance doors to a large lobby, but the lobby was dark and empty, and the doors were locked. Had we worn black leotards, we might have looked like the stars of a blockbuster action film, about to break in and sneak past security to steal the Fabergé egg.
We entered the building just before 9pm through a side door, and I asked for help at the LATAM travel office. “It’s downstairs, but they close at 9 so,” one of the women said, and I felt my dreams for the night begin to deflate. Still, we went to the bottom level, which seemed like an odd place for the entrance to the attraction, and the box office was still open, with not even a hint of plans to close soon.
We rode the elevator to the second-from-the-top floor with a tall, handsome young guide. He started off speaking in Spanish. Then he asked, “English is better for you, yes?” and he seamlessly transitioned into his English spiel. I was impressed by his willingness and ability to language hop—a skill I rarely encountered in the U.S.
Sofia enjoyed the Costanera tower, but not for the sweeping views of the city or the lights stretching to the horizon. There were a handful of cylindrical stools for sitting next to the glass windows, and Sofia insisted on instructing her parents where—and how—to sit. When she discovered that the chairs were moveable, she made me drag one across the smooth floor to another nook that she liked. As I dragged the chair, I sensed the security guard’s eyes on me. “Que haces, caballero?” he was probably thinking.
Sofia grew tired of the chairs, so we took the escalator up to the very top, “open-air” floor. I expected the wind to smack me in the face at the top of the escalator, but the top floor was only “open-air” in the sense that, if you looked straight up, past some steel trusses, you could see small patches of bare sky. The rest was glass windows, bathed in a nightclub-purple lighting scheme just like the floor below. I looked up and spotted a lone star in between the trusses. “Are you sure that’s not an airplane?” Garam asked. “No, that’s definitely a star,” I replied.
On one wall, a sign proudly declared that free WiFi was available. It reminded me of a scene in a viral video: a hiker is enjoying a beautiful view at the end of a hike (soothing music playing in the background), and then the camera pans right and you see some asshole screaming into his cellphone. The thing is, there’s always gonna be some obnoxious dude, unless you’re in the middle of the woods or at the top of Everest. Although I read that Everest can get crowded these days…
More than anything else, Sofia wanted to ride up and down the escalator with Mommy ad nauseam. I followed behind with the stroller. I finished one roundtrip and got halfway through the second, when I realized, “Hey, wait a sec…I don’t have to keep riding up and down this escalator.” Sometimes it happens to me as a father: I want to be there for my daughter, so I start doing a thing because she thinks it’s fun. I’m having fun watching her have fun. But then I do the thing a few more times, expecting it to be fun, but it’s not. I tell myself that it was stupid to do the thing again when I could have been watching her do the thing, thereby double-punishing myself with guilt. Then, I react in the opposite extreme, becoming a stick-in-the-mud, determined to have no fun and make her do everything by herself. Then I loathe myself for being such a tightwad. It’s a vicious cycle.
We met friends for dinner at a Peruvian restaurant in the food court. I ordered a pasta dish with the most potent pesto sauce I ever tasted, and a cool glass of cherimoya nectar on the side. The pesto tasted like they farmed the herbs in the kitchen and threw a whole basil plant into the sauce. Garam ordered the pulpo, a favorite of ours from our DINK (double income no kids) days. We stayed out late. Too late, really, until Sofia was bleary-eyed from watching her favorite Korean cartoon Pororo on the iPad mini.
The next morning, we were off to Patagonia, departing from Santiago airport. Everyone in the post-wedding party—and the rest of Santiago—seemed to be flying with the budget Sky Airline, so the baggage-drop line extended far beyond the end of the guide ropes. I grew tired of waiting, so I approached the left-most counter marked “Priority”, where an agent was sitting alone behind her desk. I asked her in my most polite Spanish, “Si tenemos un infante, podemos pasar por aqui?” (If we have an infant, can we use this lane?) The pictograms on the Priority sign showed an elderly person, a handicapped person, and a pregnant lady, so it seemed like we were in a gray area. The agent agreed, so I grabbed my family and bags from the normal line before the agent could change her mind. I’m not usually the type to ask for special treatment, since my favorite carpenter once said “The first shall be last”. But I do weird things sometimes since my daughter was born.
I booked our flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas late through a site called eDreams which looked sketchy. Especially disconcerting was the email I got after booking the tickets, saying the site would not allow me to manage my reservation online, since that was a “premium” service. Huh? Also sketchy was the fact that eDreams charged half of what other sites were asking for similar flights. So when I handed the agent our passports at Santiago airport, I was 80% confident that we would have a reservation. Fortunately, our reservation was in the system, and our coche (stroller) flew for free—a nice family-friendly perk.
Adding to the family-friendliness of Santiago airport, there was a small, green-and-yellow, tractor-themed playground right by the gate. Sofia approached the playground cautiously, because another girl was running circles through it (up the ladder, down the slide, run back to the ladder, etc). Sofia finally worked up the courage to go down the slide once. Afterwards, she claimed the park for herself, even though the other girl wasn’t done. Sofia climbed to the platform again and contemplated the slide. The other girl—who was a little older—squeezed past and slid down ahead of her. Sofia looked at me, jerking her knees back and forth and whimpering as if to say, “But…but… that’s my slide!” The older girl ran to her mother’s side, and she returned with a stuffed animal, handing it to Sofia. That won her over. Sofia’s face lit up and she began to tag along, cycling up the ladder and down the slide at a similar pace as the older girl.
When we finally boarded the plane, Sofia passed out in Garam’s lap. Luckily the flight was not full and there was an empty seat in our row, so we could spread out a little and get some higher-quality sleep. This brings me to an important point: when you’re traveling two adults and a lap infant, it makes sense to book the window and aisle seats instead of two seats next to each other, because this discourages solo travelers from joining you in your row. The first time Garam suggested we book the window and aisle seats, leaving the middle open, I thought it was odd (“You mean you want to risk having some middle-seat-loving weirdo in between us?”). I tried flying both ways (with and without an empty seat between us), and I can confidently say that flying with an empty seat in the middle is muuuch better. It’s well worth the potential inconvenience of having to ask a solo traveler to shift over one seat. It’s win-win for everyone involved, and I feel like it should be mandatory to book an empty seat between the parents when traveling with a lap infant. The solo traveler doesn’t get stuck next to a squirmy infant, the infant’s parents can spread out to manage the kid better, and one parent (me) can have a cup of hot coffee at his tray table without worrying about the coffee being kicked into a stranger’s lap. So yeah…to the parents of infants out there: book an empty seat between you and your spouse, and make everybody’s life a little smoother.
The only hiccup with my eDreams booking was that it showed our flight as a nonstop, when in fact we landed in a town called Puerto Montt where they told continuing passengers to stay on the plane, similar to how Southwest Airlines operates on some U.S. flights. Perhaps that explained the cheaper fare.
We arrived at the cozy Punta Arenas airport and were greeted in the arrivals hall by a cadre of taxi oficial drivers, equally friendly and eager for business as the guys in Santiago. I found a nice driver with an official-looking black-and-yellow taxi to take us to our hotel along the waterfront. He asked if I wanted him to turn on the meter. I told him that the 10,000 pesos price advertised in the arrivals hall was fine, and he seemed to relax a bit. “With the meter it’s like 9,700,” he said in Spanish. I wasn’t about to squabble over 50 cents. Chile’s expensive, and we were so financially committed already that 50 cents was a drop in the bucket.
I told the driver our plans to visit Isla Magdalena to see the penguins, and he responded, “They have everything on that island now, hotels, restaurants…” Isla Magdalena was a national park preserve with no facilities, so I had no idea what he was talking about and what was lost in translation.
We stepped out of the taxi in front of Hotel Dreams del Estrecho, and the first thing I noticed was the street dogs. There are lots of street dogs in Patagonian towns. But they’re not ugly, mangy-looking creatures for the most part, which makes me think they must have an elaborate network of caretakers that the the older dogs teach to the puppies. (“Alright, listen up puppy: this restaurant dishes out free scraps on Wednesdays. That guy leaves his gate open on Fridays so you can take a drink from his pond, and the security guard down the street is good for an occasional pet…”).
Garam and I don’t particularly like dogs. We don’t hate them; we’re just not especially keen on them. Which is why, when it was time for us to get our first pet as a couple, we opted for an all-white Roomba vacuum cleaner, which we nicknamed chap ssal ddeok, Korean for “sticky rice cake”.
Not long after we checked in to our room, Mommy and Sofia passed out, so I left the hotel on a mission to book us a penguin tour for the following day. I stopped first at Turismo Comapa, the company whose website had frustrated me repeatedly in the weeks leading up to our trip. First of all, they only released the ferry schedules a week in advance. Second, when I went on the website to book tickets the week before, the site said there were zero tickets available on Tuesday morning, the only day we had in Punta Arenas. Did it sell out for a private tour? Was there some event going on? Was it a national holiday? No information on the website. I talked to a woman in person at the office, and she said there was no Tuesday morning ferry tour. “Any particular reason why there’s no tour on Tuesdays?” I asked the woman as she sat behind her computer screen. “Um, no, that’s just the schedule,” she replied. “Then do you know any other companies that offer morning tours?” I asked, and she directed me to another tour operator called Solo Expediciones.
The Solo Expediciones office was dead when I arrived, except for a lone woman with short hair sitting behind a large iMac, surrounded by pictures of boats and large nautical maps. Fortunately she spoke good English, and she said it was no problem to book a tour for the following morning. “Just to let you know, though, the tour departs at 6:30am from our office,” she said, waiting intently for my response. The entire reason we came to this remote town at the end of the world was to visit Isla Magdalena and see the penguins, I thought, so I pulled out my credit card.
We tried to go for an early dinner at a touristy local fish market that promised excellent seafood, but it turned out to be more of a lunch place. All of the restaurants were just closing when we arrived around 6pm. The small restaurants were all in a row on the second floor of the building, overlooking the ocean. I approached a man at the first restaurant, where some people were finishing up their food. “Sorry, we’re closed,” he said, making the gesture of decapitating himself with his hand. Then he yelled across the building to another shop owner, “Hey, are you closed?” “Yeah.” He called out to a second person even farther away, “Are you still serving?” “No, we’re done.” “Sorry,” he said, shrugging, and we left.
We went to a pizza place called Mesita Grande with mediocre pizza. On the plus side, they offered a good, simple kids meal with crayons and some paper for Sofia to draw on. After dinner, we went for a stroll down the main drag, which was bustling until late in evening. We passed a fabulous-looking chocolate shop and stopped in to have a look. People talked loudly over chocolate con churros, and the smell of the place was intoxicating. I asked Garam if she wanted to share a drinking chocolate. She was on board, so I ordered one para llevar and we kept walking towards the nearest Unimarc grocery store. The drink I ordered turned out to be more of a hot chocolate than a drinking chocolate, so Garam was a little disappointed. Nevertheless, it was one of the best hot chocolates I ever tasted.
Unimarc was busy, so we had to wait in line for a while to pay for our snacks and Sofia-related supplies. At the checkout counter, two overweight older women sat on stools, one in uniform and the other in civilian clothes. The cashier’s face wore the dourest expression I had seen in Chile. After a few moments, I realized the woman in civilian clothes behind her was mentally-challenged. I couldn’t understand exactly what she was saying in Spanish, but I knew immediately that something was off. Her role at Unimarc was to help with the bagging, although her real function appeared to be one of emotional support. Garam and I took our things and high-tailed it out of the supermarket to get back to the hotel for a swim before it was time to put Sofia to bed.
Our hotel was well worth its premium price tag, offering a bathroom with both shower and tub (handy for simul-bathing), a central location, and an infinity pool with views of the Strait of Magellan (which we couldn’t see because it was pitch dark and 20 minutes before closing time when we finished wearing our swimsuits). Sofia loved the fact that we had the entire pool to ourselves, but she demanded even more freedom. “Go away!” she yelled, trying to writhe free of Mommy’s grip and insisting that she was ready to swim on her own. Garam looked at me mischievously and I caught her drift. I nodded my assent to what she was about to do. Garam held Sofia under the armpits, and then she did the unthinkable: she let our baby go. Just for a second—long enough for Sofia to drink a gulp of yummy chlorine water. Unfortunately, Mommy’s ploy didn’t work. Sofia continued to demand her freedom, though perhaps less vigorously than before.
Early the next morning when we arrived at the Solo Expediciones office, it was packed, a line of people wanting to book last-minute tours stretching all the way to the entrance door. We shuffled inside with Sofia’s stroller to a small side room with benches, to wait for the tour to begin. Soon it became clear that Sofia would be the only kid on the tour. Not only that, but many of the tourists wore full trekking gear, so I was worried that they knew something we didn’t (the agent told me the tour was perfectly kid-friendly the day before).
We hopped on one of the buses and drove to a private port where Solo Expediciones staff were waiting to distribute life jackets. The life jackets were high-quality, featuring two straps that went under your legs for added security. Once we were on the boat, the staff didn’t care much if we wore them unless we wanted to go outside on the deck. Sofia powered through most of the 45 minute ride to Isla Magdalena by having fun walking around on the cushy white leather seats in the boat’s interior. She also liked to stand at the stern and watch the water rushing by.
By the time we reached Monumento de los Pinguinos, Sofia was getting tired. After about 15 minutes on the island’s narrow trail between the penguin burrows, she fell asleep in her carrier with Mommy. Mommy and I then enjoyed taking loads of penguin photos along the trail, which proved very useful later as canned entertainment for Sofia.
The Magellanic penguins were molting, so some of them had shaggy fur, while others had the slick sheen of newness, like they just returned from the tuxedo shop. The penguins’ mannerisms were funny to watch. Pretty soon I had Sofia imitating the penguins’ stretching routine, sticking out her wings, stretching her neck towards the sky, and wiggling her head back and forth. It kind of looked like they were trying to take off, when they suddenly realized “Oh, that’s right…I can’t fly.”
The staff on board the ship were excellent. A younger woman gave us explanations of everything in Spanish and English. During the tour they treated us to cookies and instant coffee, made-to-order by an older gentleman from the crew. The boat made a second stop at Marta Island, where we were only permitted to dock offshore and watch from a distance. Marta Island was home to a large group of incredibly vocal sea lions, their cries easily audible from the deck of our ship hundreds of meters away. I watched them fighting on shore near the bluffs, and it made me glad to be a member of a somewhat more-civilized species. Sofia, meanwhile, continued to sleep on the lower deck, where she would stay most of the way back to Punta Arenas.
During the ride back to the port, our nice tour guide raffled off a few items, including a plush penguin with “Patagonia” inscribed on its chest, and a certificate of completion that came with a candy bar. Garam and I didn’t win anything. However, when one of the older ladies on board won a penguin, she immediately walked over and offered it to the sleeping Sofia. The tour guide also didn’t want Sofia to leave empty-handed, so she prepared an extra completion certificate with Sofia’s name on it. All around, a great experience!
By the time we returned to our hotel room it was around noon. I received a call from the front desk asking when we were planning to check out. “We’re getting ready to check out in about 5 minutes,” I promised, though it ended up taking us longer than that. At last we checked out and got our bags. We stopped for a quick, overpriced coffee in the hotel lobby on our way out. For lunch, my plan was to visit the municipal fish market that was closed the previous night when we tried to go there for dinner. This time it was open. We climbed past the fish mongers on the first floor to the second floor restaurants, and we secured a large table with a wooden high chair at the first restaurant at the top of the stairs. We ordered king crab empanadas and salmon for the adults, while Sofia mostly subsisted on french fries. The meal was cheap, greasy, and thoroughly satisfying.
After lunch, we had to hightail it to the Bus-Sur station to catch a 3pm bus to Puerto Natales. Rather than schlepping our luggage on foot, we hailed a taxi for the short ride. The fare? 1 US dollar. “That’s less than I tipped the bellhop at our hotel!” I told Garam. The bus station was closer than I thought, so we had some time to kill until they allowed us to load our bags 15 minutes prior to departure. Sofia entertained herself by repeatedly climbing up a cement ramp, then descending slowly via the adjacent stairs. When she got tired, she simply sat down on the dirty pavement. I didn’t want her to sit on the pavement, but it was one of those times in parenting where I just didn’t have the bandwidth to care.
The bus ride to Puerto Natales was pleasant and well-organized. Besides the driver there was one other staff member, a shorter man, who rode with us and occasionally came by to collect trash or make an announcement. Out the window, I got my first real glimpse of Chilean Patagonia: vast grazing pastures for cows, sheep, and horses, rolling hills of green and brown bathed in clean sunlight, and lots of short trees and shrubs, windswept and bent permanently like the Tower of Pisa.
Sofia started to get fussy, so I made a game of trying to find the grazing animals out the window. She was particularly excited about the horses. Sometimes I promised her that if she kept looking, she would see a horse. After a few minutes patiently staring out the window, she would yell, “Oh, rye dere!”, and point to something that was definitely not a horse. When a horse did appear, I could tell she had spotted it when she became quiet, all of her energies focused on absorbing the image of the horse.
We took a taxi straight from the Puerto Natales bus station to the Europcar rental agency, because I wanted to get there and make sure we had wheels before they closed at 7pm. The rental process was easy, and they gave us a nice 4WD Nissan X-Trail with less than 20k miles on it. The rental agent, a heavyset man with a shaved head and a no-nonsense demeanor, explained the conditions and gave me a thick packet of paperwork which we would need to cross the border into Argentina. “So that’s what the mandatory $150 international permit fee was for,” I thought, weighing the packet in my hands.
We drove to our lodging at Pire Mapu Cottage, a nice little house on a quiet—though not especially pretty—avenue. When we stepped out of the car, an ugly street dog approached, and Sofia demanded I pick her up and hold her. I checked in with the friendly owner and received the keys to the back gate. When we entered the property, the street dog followed us into the backyard and the owner shoed him away. I returned to the office with the owner, and he gave me a little printed map of Natales as well as two restaurant recommendations.
We went to the first restaurant for dinner that night, a place called Raíces de Chiloé. The food was excellent, but it took a long time to come out from the kitchen, so Sofia was antsy by the time her chicken and rice arrived. I tried a delicious conger eel soup, a traditional Chilean dish. Garam and I ordered a bottle of wine to share, but we only had a half glass each. After we paid the bill, I grabbed the bottle and walked out of the restaurant, not sure if that sort of thing was allowed in Natales. I figured that Patagonians, with their pioneering spirit, would be cool with it.
On the way home from dinner, we picked up some supplies for Sofia at the Unimarc, and we purchased sandwiches for the next day at the second restaurant recommendation on the owner’s list, a place called Masay. The sandwiches were made with homemade bread, and they were absolutely massive. Two sandwiches para llevar would be more than enough food for the three of us for lunch the following day at Torres del Paine National Park. We took the sandwiches back to our room at Pire Mapu and passed out, the three of us together on a queen bed.
The next morning’s drive to Torres del Paine National Park was longer than I expected, partly because the “shortcut” route due north from Puerto Natales into the park was closed. We had to go east and loop around through the town of Cerro Castillo, where we would be staying later that night. After entering the park, we drove a long way before any signs of park civilization. Road signs kept appearing saying “Administracion”, which I interpreted as the main tourist office, but we kept going and I didn’t see anything. We reached a brown building on the upslope of a hill with a stop sign, next to which a handful of tourists had parked their cars. But it looked like no more than a small outpost, so we sat there in the car briefly, then continued straight.
The road winded alongside a beautiful blue lake with a cloudy hue, like milk was added. On a small island to our right, a building with a red roof jutted out from the shoreline. I pulled off the road into the small parking lot of Hosteria Pehoe, the first landmark along the national park road which stood out as a place we really ought to stop and spend a little time.
A narrow bridge of slightly-suspect construction connected the parking lot to the island, with a sign at its entrance that read “Capacidad maxima 4 personas”. Sofia loved walking on the rickety old wooden boards as the water rushed beneath her. I was nervous she would accidentally fall through the large gaps in the side railings. Standing exposed on the bridge, and I began to feel raindrops mixed into the strong wind. We hurried across the second half of the bridge to make room for a group that was waiting at the other end. Then we went inside the hosteria, where I asked for a map and two cups of Nescafé for Garam and me. There was a small, recessed lounge area in the lobby with large lake-facing windows, offering a fantastic view of the snow-capped mountains. Sofia squirmed on one of the leather couches so I moved her to the window sill, where she had fun staring out at the lake. An older couple across from us who had just finished their coffees seemed unenthused.
We returned to the car and kept driving for what seemed like a very long time, until at last we reached the Administracion office. A total of two other cars—and one helicopter—sat in the parking lot. Inside, a bored young woman crocheting behind her desk gave me a map and pointed to a couple of hikes that might be kid-friendly, given the windy and rainy conditions. It was already after 5pm, but she assured me that it would stay light until 9 or 10, so we would have time for a short hike. We decided to visit the glacier at Lago Grey, another 20 kilometers into the park. When we arrived at the well-marked trailhead, the weather was still overcast and rainy so we geared up in waterproof jackets and brought umbrellas just in case. Sofia wanted to walk, so we let her carry one of the umbrellas during the first stretch of the trail, which snaked along under the cover of lush green trees.
Sofia grew tired and fell asleep in the carrier with Mommy. We continued until the trail opened into a broad swath of beach. An elevated path, made from stacked pebbles, traversed the length of the large Grey Lake. At the opposite end of the pebble trail, I could make out the silhouette of a lone figure and a large, white tour boat, probably associated with the Lago Grey Hotel, also visible in the far distance.
We couldn’t see much of the Grey Glacier itself. The tips of two small icebergs floated in the water, but we couldn’t see into the valley beyond them from where we were standing. I jogged ahead to see if I could get a better view, but the view didn’t change much even when I jogged two-thirds of the way to the moored tour boat, so I turned around. As I jogged back towards Garam, wearing Sofia in the carrier on her chest, she had the gait of a pregnant woman and her facial expression said “Let’s go home.” We turned back, taking a shortcut through the sand. The only other person on the trail was a tall, balding Norwegian man traveling solo, who reminded me of one of my graduate school roommates.
We got back into the car and drove to our lodging in Cerro Castillo, Hotel del Ovejero Patagónico, which was located immediately off of the national park highway after a roundabout. The wind was so strong when we exited the car that it would slam the door shut unless I held it open. Entering the hotel was like stepping into an oven. The decor matched the temperature—very warm and cozy. We got situated in our room, which was spacious and clean. It had a large king bed, and was otherwise austere in terms of amenities (no writing desk, no TV, no closet, aside from an iron rack with a few hangers). Always looking for things to entertain Sofia, I was excited to see a beautiful brown horse standing outside our bedroom window, grazing on a leash in a rectangular pasture right next to the hotel parking lot. “Sofia look, a horse!” I said, propping her up on a chair so she could see it by herself. “Oo, rye dere!” she said, pointing. “Horsey!”
Later, while Garam showered Sofia, I tried to put my valuables in the room safe and failed miserably, locking them inside by accident so I couldn’t retrieve them. I asked for help at the front desk, and they said it happens all the time. Mm.. fix it? The hotel restaurant served a delicious multi-course meal, which Sofia also enjoyed. The meal started with bread and soup, followed by king crab casserole for me and a steak for Garam. For dessert, we tried some ice cream made with native Patagonian fruits. The exotic flavors put Sofia off at first, but she eventually got excited about the sweeter, purple flavor. After dinner we walked down the long wooden hallway to our room. I read and sang to Sofia in the middle of the bed until she zonked out with her head squished between the hotel pillows.
The next morning’s breakfast at the hotel was pretty good, especially the large mug of coffee that gave me a spark. We returned to Torres del Paine for Day 2, and this time the park greeted us with sun and excellent weather. On the way in, we met a herd of guanacos along the roadside and pulled over next to another tour group to have a look. Sofia was happy to watch the guanacos from the car, but when I suggested we get out and approach them, she said thanks, but no thanks. “Anah!” (Korean for “Hold me!”)
Continuing into the park with no set agenda (highly-recommended when traveling with kids), we took the first exit to Laguna Azul. There were some signs of civilization there, including a farm house with horses and a small café with views to the lake, which was reserved for a private party. And—most importantly of all—bathrooms. Sofia was asleep in the car seat, and moving a napping baby is a masochistic task I’m rarely willing to undertake, so Garam and I took turns using the facilities. A hiking trail departed from behind the bathrooms, passing by a small ranger station, but I decided against the hike (did I mention Sofia was asleep, peacefully, in her car seat?).
My main agenda for the day, if you can call it an agenda, was to find a good view of the famous Cuernos, or horns, of Torres del Paine. This entailed taking a dirt road through one of the more-traveled areas of the park. We stopped along a bend at the one-and-only café in the area for a quick lunch of leftovers, plus a chicken panini sandwich and coffee from the café. A narrow trail from behind the café led to a lake, where a smaller tour boat was docked. The ticket office was empty, although signs indicated the boat might be running tours later in the day. Sofia wanted to walk a little, so we took our time, strolling along the lake and taking pictures. Some tourists at a picnic table were smitten by Sofia’s cuteness—a response she received a lot during the trip.
The trail to los cuernos was easy and fun, but the only way we could convince Sofia to follow us was by baiting her with candy. “If you walk to here, you can have another jelly bean!” Garam said, jogging up ahead. When Sofia grew tired, she got back into the carrier. Garam and I kept walking until we reached a resting point where we looked at each other, facial expressions like, “Eh, that’s good enough”. The horns were really stunning and well worth the short hike. I never learned why the tips of the mountains were black and their midsections were white. “I’ll look it up on Google when we get home,” I thought. Or not. Beautiful is beautiful; sometimes I don’t need to know why.
After the cuernos, we still had some sunlight left, so we headed to Mirador Las Torres to see the park’s namesake peaks. At the base of the Torres trail, a ranger monitored vehicular access. Tourists were supposed to park and enter through a low-slung, oddly-shaped cafeteria building that was constructed aerodynamically to handle the wind. The high-tech building offered free WiFi and hands-free bathroom facilities. Once inside the cafeteria, I learned that it was the starting point for the famous multi-day “W” trek through the park.
To the right of the cafe building, a single-track trail led 50 meters up a small hill to a plateau with a few interesting green geodesic dome structures. I suggested to Garam that we hike up there. Sofia made it halfway up the track, then made it clear to us that she had had enough, so we descended back to the cafeteria and ordered a couple of ice creams. I think we earned it. After the ice creams, we set off on the usual trail through the gift shop. The trail was wide and paved with gravel for the first few paces before turning into a dirt trail with stone borders. Sofia walked 100 meters down that trail before she turned around, determined to return to the funky-looking building with the ice cream.
On the way back to the cafe, I saw a large chunk of an overturned log in the grass with three notches cut out of it like a mini staircase. The log looked more Sofia’s speed, and sure enough, she to climb on it, starting from the low end and jumping off the other end with Mommy or Daddy’s help.
Half an hour later, she was done with the log, and we were finished with Las Torres. We drove back to Cerro Castillo and had dinner again at the hotel restaurant. The restaurant was operating on a limited menu that day, but we still got to try a new soup and two new entrees, including a lamb dish that was too big for me to finish. We went back to the room so Sofia could watch the horsey for a little while. Sleep seemed to be the furthest thing from her mind, so I suggested we go out for a little walk to burn off some calories and see if she would calm down. Garam agreed, so I went outside to the car to prepare the stroller.
The weather in Patagonia grew windier as the days went on, so by nightfall the winds were punishing. I opened the trunk, pulled out the stroller, and kicked the lever to unfold the stroller into sitting position. As I was rearranging the other items in the trunk to find the clear plastic windshield attachment for the stroller, something black—the sleeve for Garam’s umbrella—launched from the trunk of its own accord, taking off across the parking lot.
My hands were firmly on the stroller handles when my instincts kicked in. I took off at a sprint, the stroller bouncing ahead of me as I raced across the parking lot to grab the little black sleeve. It got caught on one of those orange-and-white folding construction signs at the edge of the parking lot, but when I approached the sleeve and reached down to grab it, another gust of wind picked it up and the sleeve sailed off into the air, out of the parking lot, across the sidewalk, and down a long empty street, picking up speed as it went. I watched it disappear, along with my desire to retrieve it. “That sucker is gone,” I thought. So much for being a responsible ecotourist.
Sofia got in the stroller, and Garam asked me if everything was okay. “I saw you running across the parking lot with the stroller and I was like, ‘What is he doing?’” I laughed, imagining her watching me sprint full-speed across the gravel with an empty stroller. We started walking along the dark, empty sidewalk, stopping every few paces when a strong gust of wind threatened to blow me and the stroller over sideways. Before we reached the end of the first block, Sofia, perhaps lulled by the sound of the wind, was out cold. Garam offered to take a turn at the wheel, so I stepped aside and warned her to hold on tight because the wind was really strong. Several steps later, a gust of wind came and Garam braced herself, but the left two wheels of the stroller lifted clean off the ground, so she was shaken. “Yeah, maybe you should drive,” she said, handing back the controls.
The town of Cerro Castillo was silent after 9pm. Aside from the sounds of tourists at our hotel, there was nothing going on. We walked past the small pasture where Sofia’s horsey had been, but it went home for the night. A small church building, the steeple of which was visible from our room window, looked desolate and barren, like there hadn’t been a service there in years. A couple of the houses we passed had lights on in their upstairs windows. I thought I saw the flashing of a TV through one of the blinds. We reached what appeared to be the main street. It was long, curving out of sight in both directions. Straight ahead of us was some sort of museum, the kind of place where a solitary staff member would probably be surprised to see you walk in.
We turned back to the hotel. When we arrived, Mommy and Sofia went to freshen up in the bathroom first. A few minutes later, the loud noise of Sofia breaking a soap dish in half startled me. Garam carefully placed the two pieces back together so it was still functional. Garam also managed to get us a crib from one of the couples with kids who had checked out the previous night. We were relieved to have at least one night to spread out more in the room. The hotel crib was small, though, for our big, almost-2 year old. When I went to check on her during the night, I found her head stretching against the mesh wall on one end. Garam and I talked about having a glass of wine together after Sofia went to bed, but I was too tired from driving all day, so the only thing I could imagine drinking—even after 9pm—was coffee.
While Garam was finishing up in the bathroom, I found a disturbing message in my email from our bank:
“Your account is showing insufficient funds for the following payment, set to clear at 11am EST tomorrow. Please transfer funds to your account or contact us at your earliest convenience to address this matter.”
I checked the name on the payment, and it was for our mortgage. “Shit, missing a mortgage payment cannot be good,” I thought. We had recently bought our first house. I put on my calmest face when Garam came out of the bathroom. I explained the situation, observing as I spoke how her mind immediately registered its gravity and went into overdrive. “So much for that glass of wine,” I thought. Then, to God, “You’re right, this trip was going much too smoothly.”
I had forgotten to provide a buffer in the account, taking consideration of how much cash we would withdraw during the trip. Garam and I tried everything we could think of to get money from our savings account into the insufficiently-funded checking account. I called the bank and asked them, “What’s the fastest way to transfer money into the account?” The customer service rep replied, “A wire transfer is fastest. It usually posts to your account by 2pm the same day. All depends on how many transfers are ahead of you in order.” Luckily, the bank managing our savings account didn’t charge any fees for a wire transfer, so Garam set one up immediately to be processed the next morning. There was still a good chance, however, that it would post too late for the 11am cutoff time.
I had the flicker of an idea, which I floated to Garam. I had noticed that mobile check deposits usually posted pretty quickly into our account. “What if we could make a mobile deposit to cover the difference?” I wondered aloud. The problem was, we didn’t have any paper checks with us. Out checking account had insufficient funds to begin with, so we couldn’t write ourselves a check. Perhaps we could have asked someone from the wedding party, but they were in Argentina and we wouldn’t see them until the following night, when it was too late.
Garam then had a brilliant idea. She asked her colleague to write us a check and send us pictures of the front and back of the check. Using another phone, she took pictures of the pictures and submitted those to the mobile app, on the off chance that the fake images could slip past their system. After much artistry to get the lighting and the orientation correct, Garam submitted the images to our bank. It worked, and the money posted to our checking account first thing the next morning. The wire transfer didn’t come through until well after the 11am deadline. Garam also spoke to our mortgage lender, who assured us that there was a two-week grace period for mortgage payments before the bank applies a fee. So maybe we didn’t have to stay up until 1am addressing the issue, but I was glad we saved that bounced-check fee.
The next morning, we checked out at the scheduled check-out time, even though we weren’t finished resolving the previous night’s issue or planning for the day. I sat on a big leather couch in the lobby and showed Sofia some fat coffee-table books. They featured images of native Chilean bird species, horses, and polo matches, featuring strapping young lads playing what has to be one of the most outrageous sports in the world.
We needed some gas for the long day of driving ahead, so I asked a woman at the front desk for the nearest petrol station, but she said there was no gas in Cerro Castillo. “The nearest gas station is in [some town] Argentina, about…” Please don’t say a large number, please don’t say a large number, “…50 km away.” “Thank God,” I thought, remembering that we had over 100 km left on the range meter.
We packed everything—plus Sofia—into the car, and I left the parking lot with a feeling of accomplishment. The accomplishment of successfully moving three persons, with their mental and physical baggage, out of a state of inertia. We entered the roundabout and took the third exit, arriving immediately at the white gate of the Chilean border station—about a 2-minute drive from our hotel. I read some online reviews saying that the town of Cerro Castillo is “convenient to the border” and “close to the border”, but in reality, it was the border.
I brought our passports and rental car permit inside the office. A long line of people waiting at one of the windows worried me. Fortunately, they were in the “Entrada” (Entering) line, while just a few people stood under the “Salida” (Exiting) sign. I left Garam and Sofia in the car, hoping I could submit the documents without removing Sofia from her car seat. When I reached the front of the line, the border agent was agreeable. “How many persons?” he asked. “Tres,” I answered, and when he finished stamping our passports, I proceeded to the separate “Aduana” (Customs) line. There, an agent inspected my international car permit closely and assigned someone to go out to the car to make sure we were not leaving with any prohibited articles. Our car passed the inspection, and we passed through the gate into no-man’s land between Chile and Argentina.
The road in no-man’s land was unpaved and terrible, which did not bode well for our Argentina adventure. We passed two young, tanned girls with frizzy, sun-bleached hair and large backpacks, who were holding their thumbs out to hitchhike. Sorry ladies, ain’t gonna happen with a baby in the car.
The length of no-man’s land between two countries seems to depend on the size of those countries. Garam and I once crossed the border between Jordan and Israel—while Sofia was in the womb—and the Israeli immigration office was about a block away from the Jordanian side. The Israeli guards could easily see us coming on foot in the scorching midday sunlight.
At the border between Chile and Argentina, we drove over rolling hills for what seemed like kilometers before seeing any signs of civilization on the Argentinian side. We finally arrived at the Argentinian customs office, and it was housed in a tired old farmhouse-like structure which had fallen into disrepair. We asked an agent if there were bathrooms, and she said, “No. Well there are bathrooms, but there’s no running water, so no.” The customs office layout was similar to the Chilean side, with separate immigrations and Aduana lines, but on the Argentinian side the immigrations line handled both entradas and salidas.
We waited patiently with the other particulars, meaning “individuals”. I quickly learned the significance of that designation when a long line of Japanese tourists walked into the office. They lined up behind an unattractive, chubby woman who looked like a mix of Japanese and some non-Asian race. She spoke with authority, using words that sounded neither Japanese nor Spanish.
Tour groups like hers had a smart system. Rather than waiting all together at the customs office, the tourists waited on the bus until the group leader got to the front of the line, and then they all came inside just long enough for the customs officer to match their faces to their passports. This system was frustrating to us particulars. At least Garam and Sofia had the option to wait in the car while I stood in line. Garam—always thinking ahead—moved our car closer to the gate as I neared the front of the Aduana line. One of the uniformed officers had already inspected and cleared the car by the time I walked out of the office. “They took the wine,” Garam said with a look a disappointment, as I climbed back into the driver’s seat.
We continued into Argentina. It was a lot like Chilean Patagonia, except browner and more deserted. From time to time, I saw guanacos in the distance, or a small pack of ñandús scurrying across a field. I turned left at a fork, following a sign to El Calafate, when Garam stopped me and said, “I think you passed the gas station back there.” The station had no signs, just a single small pump attended by a portly man in a golf shirt and jeans. Behind the pump was a small shop with an adjacent garage, its rusted car parts strewn about like the remnants of various hurried projects which were never cleaned up. I didn’t have any Argentinian pesos, but the attendant accepted Chilean pesos, US dollars, or Euros (for a premium), so I handed over my Chilean pesos and bought a bottle of water to replenish our supplies. I did the calculation after we left, and it worked out to about 70 US dollars to fill the tank completo.
Following signs to El Calafate, the road became rough and the traffic—already sparse—became nonexistent. A sign read “El Calafate 120km”. I wondered aloud if the road would stay rough the whole way, fearing deep down that it might. Sure enough, the earthen, pothole-ridden, stone-covered road went on for 100 km. Both of my hands stayed on the wheel, and my heart remained in my throat pretty much the whole way. I was no stranger to long stretches of highway, but I missed the familiar roadside artifacts which I took for granted in America: the occasional mile marker, arrows reminding you to slow down into a sharp curve, and steel barriers to prevent you from careening off the side. The only other vehicles on the road were a few groups of motorcycles headed in the opposite direction, their bikes roaring past like the outlaws in Mad Max.
We finally merged with a paved road, and what a relief it was for my nerves. The remaining approach to El Calafate was straightforward, except for two official-looking, yet unmanned guard booths, which begged the question: to stop, or not to stop? I glided past slowly, for fear of incriminating my family.
We drove along the beautiful Lago Argentino and turned onto a small gravel road towards our lodging at Cabañas de Nene apartments, conveniently located one block from the lake. Our host Guillermo was excellent, with a peripatetic sort of energy that I only ever witnessed in one other person. He was an older bachelor who spoke minimal English, so he was very difficult to understand at first. After I introduced myself, he showed me through the meticulously landscaped gardens and opened our room door, asking me if everything looked OK inside. “Si,” I said. Then Guillermo followed me back to my car, in his words,“so I can introduce myself to your señora”. He gave Garam the double-kiss on both cheeks, a harmless cultural gesture which will probably bother me until the day I die, no matter how much I travel the world. Garam smiled nonchalantly.
Famished from the long drive, we turned to Yelp for a lunch recommendation, and it pointed us to a little café along the water that seemed very friendly with tourists and families. In the side yard there was a small playground, so I took Sofia outside and pushed her on the swing a little to give Mommy a break while our food was being prepared. The town of El Calafate, at least what little I had seen of it, looked like the product of a chronically-underfunded government, or what would happen if you fired all the urban planners and let things develop “organically”. Very few signs or sidewalks, a patchwork of paved and unpaved roads, and little that gave any semblance of cohesion.
The main drag Avenida Libertador through the center of town was different. Lots of neatly-aligned restaurants and high-end shops gave the impression of high-class adventure. We needed to change our remaining Chilean pesos to Argentinian pesos, so Guillermo directed me to the Western Union casa de cambio. It had a line out the door and seemed sketchy, but the couple in front of me was brandishing US dollars, and they calmed my nerves. I finally reached the counter at the end of a short corridor, and the woman behind the glass seemed incredibly bored with her job. I took my wad of Argentinian cash from her and jumped back into the car, which was parked on the street illegally. We drove to the Nimez lagoon, a bird sanctuary I had read about online which seemed like a nice place for an afternoon walk with Sofia.
The entrance fee to Nimez was a bit steep at 200 pesos per adult, especially considering that half of the loop trail was closed due to rising water levels. I asked the young college-aged girl at the front desk if the rising water levels were due to global warming, and she said, “It’s..not clear. A more further study is necessary to determine the causes, but it’s possible that it is from the rising temperatures, yes.” I didn’t expect such a noncommittal answer.
Sofia really enjoyed walking along the trail through the tall grass. She liked when I pointed to some “quack quacks” in the water, so I moved her to my shoulders for a better view. She reached her limit after walking two-thirds of the trail. Garam offered to walk back slowly with her so I could finish the trail and catch up with them later. I spotted a couple more interesting birds along the way, including a kestrel that was tearing a rodent to pieces in the tall grass.
When we arrived back at the apartment, Guillermo was waiting anxiously for me. The night before, Eduardo had asked us to make a restaurant reservation for the whole post-wedding party of 36 people, since we would all be converging in El Calafate that night. Guillermo had promised to help me book the restaurant reservation, and he felt that it was getting too late. I went with Guillermo to his office and he helped me to contact the manager at a restaurant called Don Pichon. To Guillermo’s surprise, the manager readily agreed to host our group.
The dinner was the final big-group gathering of the Patagonia trip, as smaller groups would break off to start their own itineraries the following day. This worked out well for us, as it meant that seats would open up on the big group’s charter bus, so we could return our rental car in Puerto Natales and hitch a ride back to Punta Arenas airport for our return flight to Santiago.
Don Pichon, a large restaurant with sweeping views of Lago Argentino, was the perfect spot for a gathering of 36. Sofia had plenty of space to run around. She was particularly interested in four lambs arranged in a circle behind glass, roasting over a fire pit on traditional, angled spits. I touched the warm glass and said, “Ah, ddeugeo!” (Korean for “hot”), and Sofia immediately followed my lead, pressing her tiny palm against the thick glass and grinning at me.
I normally don’t order steak, but I thought I should try it at Don Pichon and I’m glad I did, because it was the tenderest, juiciest steak I ever tasted. Chileans and Argentinians are the Masters of Meat, the CEOs of Carne, the Sultans of Steak…
Meanwhile, Eduardo went around thanking each person or couple who had come on the trip one-by-one, adding a tidbit of information about each person. His tidbits often made the others laugh. He thanked me and Garam for coming on the trip with Sofia, which he said was “very unique”. I looked around the room, and he was right—no other babies. I ordered the homemade ñoquis for Sofia, which were delicious, but she wasn’t very interested in food since it had been a long day.
Eduardo told the story of some drama that the bigger group experienced on their second or third day, when they were crossing the border from Chile into Argentina. One member of the group had a rental car, but his international permit was for the wrong dates, so he couldn’t bring the car into Argentina. Not only that, there was no more space on the big bus, so that person had to stay behind. At first, the customs agent claimed that the car could be labeled as stolen, and the renter could be fined for the full value of the car, put in jail, or other such nonsense. But Eduardo cut a deal to return the car to the Chilean side, while the rest of the group continued across the border. It was a bummer.
It was dark when we left the restaurant and street dogs roamed the parking lot, so Sofia demanded I hold her again. On our way back to our lodging, we dropped off a couple of friends from Arizona who were staying a little farther away. They had been hiking from 6am that morning so they were totally wiped. When we arrived at our room, I ate one of the tasty croissants Guillermo left out for us as an afternoon snack.
In the morning, Guillermo arrived with our breakfast at the previously agreed-upon time of 8am. It was a tasty spread that included a few pieces of a homemade crumble pastry made by the señora who helped him at the hotel. After breakfast, we hurried to squeeze in some time at the famous Perito Moreno Glacier.
I read online that taking a boat tour into the lake offered a unique perspective of the glacier, different from las pasarelas (the walkways), but we were on a tight schedule so I wasn’t sure if we could do the boat tour. I had to return our rental car to the agency in Puerto Natales before they closed at 7pm, and it would take five hours of driving—plus the X-factor of a border crossing—to get there. The bigger group had a boat tour scheduled for 11:45, but that seemed too late for us. Another boat was supposed to depart every hour on the hour from a different port, so we drove there instead. When we arrived at the port at 10:30, I could see the boat pulling away from the dock. The woman at the entrance said that they departed every hour on the half hour. Pasarelas it is then.
I also read in the guidebooks that Glaciers National Park only accepts cash, but I didn’t really believe it. We arrived at the park entrance, and a nice young guy approached the driver’s side window from the street, carrying a small tablet device. I was relieved to see the tablet, thinking, “Great, they’ve finally caught up with the times.” He greeted me in Spanish, but my hesitation must have been obvious, because he immediately language-hopped. “English is better? Okay, welcome to the park, the entrance fee is 500 pesos per adult and we only accept payment in cash, in Argentinian pesos.” Ugh, I thought, giving myself a mental smack. The ranger told me to park off to the side, and he said the only option was to try my luck asking around inside the information office to see if anyone would exchange money for us.
I parked and prepared to get out of the car. By the time I opened the door, the ranger had gone inside and reappeared with a tour bus driver who was willing to exchange Argentinian pesos for dollars. He made me an offer (at a slightly unfair exchange rate) and I accepted. Argentina may be technologically out of date, but at least the people were helpful.
The pasarelas was made of steel and stroller-accessible for the most part, except that the elevator was out of service, making it impossible to traverse one of the larger staircases. A ranger kindly offered to let us store our stroller behind the elevator’s out-of-order fence, and we continued a bit farther down the boardwalk. Sofia was more interested in the staircases than anything else. The problem with Perito Moreno glacier is that it’s simply too massive to wrap your head around. Even from the closest viewpoint on the pasarelas, it looks like a postcard.
The glacier filled the entire space between a handful of snow-capped mountain peaks, stretching all the way to the horizon for something like 20-30km. The strangest part—and the one thing that grabbed Sofia’s attention—was the occasional groaning and cracking sounds of the ice. The first time I heard a thunderous noise, I spun around expecting to see an ice shelf crack off the front face of the glacier. Then I overheard someone say, “Yeah, the ice could be cracking somewhere deep in the middle of the glacier.”
We sat on a bench to feed Sofia a snack, and I spotted the same solo-traveling Norwegian guy from our Lago Grey hike. He stood at the railing in front of us, wearing the same clothes that he wore two days earlier. Otherwise, I might not have recognized him. In fact, I saw multiple people that I recognized from other locations during our trip. It made sense, considering the sparsity of tourist attractions in the region. Only one reasonable itinerary existed on a given day for a sane person.
We said goodbye to the glacier one last time and returned to the car. The 100-km stretch of dirt road was much more manageable on the way back to Puerto Natales for two reasons: (1) I was expecting it, and (2) there was a truck in front of me most of the way, showing me which potholes to avoid. Even after we merged back onto the paved highway, there were potholes, as well as many well-positioned signs announcing their presence. Dear Argentinian government: Mm…Just fix the damn pothole?
The Argentinian border station was less crowded than it had been the previous day, so we sailed through without problems. However, we arrived to an ugly scene on the Chilean side. People loitered all around the outside of the building and sat on the floors inside, as though they were getting reading to board an overbooked flight. I approached the Entrada window, and the agent simply handed me a slip of paper with a hand-scribbled number on it: 17. It was obviously my position in line, and I knew we were going to be there for a while, considering that many of the people carrying lower numbers looked like tour operators.
Power to the building had gone out, which completely shut down the immigration operation. No computers, no fancy baggage scanner, nothing was working. Two nights before in our Cerro Castillo hotel, they had told us they were running on generator power, so the hotel shut the power off from 12:30-6:30am every night. But this was the middle of the afternoon. Prime border-crossing time.
The power finally came back, and there was a mad scramble to stand and line up. To my surprise, everybody honored the numbering system. One older motorcyclist took the initiative, and he walked down the line calling out one number at a time. Then he waved the person with that number into his or her rightful place. It was an encouraging display of civility and cooperation, and it made it much easier for me to stand patiently in line without seething at some jerk who cut to the front.
By the time we finally crossed the border, it was unclear whether we would make it to the rental car agency before they closed for the day at 7pm. I sped a little to gain back some time. When we pulled onto a side street and into Europcar’s driveway, the black iron gate was still open and I breathed a sigh of relief. I hopped out of the car and jogged to the entrance, pulling on the front door, but it was locked and the office was dark. Dammit. It was still a minute or two before 7pm, so I was angry. I sat in the car with Garam, brainstorming what to do next. Should we just leave the car here? There’s no drop box for the keys. Should I drop Garam off at our lodging with Sofia and the bags? Maybe, but what if somebody shows up while I’m gone?
As Garam and I sat brainstorming, she saw someone inside the office. So I ran back to the front door, and a younger-looking guy let me in. I thanked him profusely and sat down in front of his desk. He pointed to a plastic bag on the desk and said, “I went out to buy some groceries so I wasn’t in the office. I usually wait for people 30 minutes after closing time.” I was relieved to talk to him, though I also wanted to grab his collar and yell “Where the hell were you? You freaked us out!” I asked him if I could have an extra 5 minutes to drop Garam and Sofia at our lodging around the corner, and he agreed. I returned the car, and everything checked out fine. Then I walked back to our lodging, a cozy little bed and breakfast called Casa Cecilia.
We went for dinner that night at Masay with the newlyweds and Alba’s family. Our family of three shared a large ham and cheese pizza, which was interesting for the fact that they put the ham under the cheese. Sofia didn’t want the ham of course (“No meat!”), stubbornly sticking to her all-carb diet. I helped her remove the meat and eat her pizza, while Mommy ran to Unimarc to pick up some essentials.
As were walking home from the restaurant, I saw a convenience store across the street that was still open, so I went to grab an ice cream for Sofia. The place was empty inside. Then an old fossil of a woman walked out from a dark room in the back. I asked her for two Sahne-nuss cones. I placed the money on the counter but I misheard the total amount, so the woman called to me sternly as I began to leave. I returned to the counter to pay her the rest. Back at Casa Cecilia, Sofia sat on a chair in her diaper and devoured her ice cream, getting upset when either Mommy or Daddy tried to take a bite.
We rode the charter bus to Punta Arenas airport with the bigger group the following morning. During the ride, we got a little taste of their Patagonia experience. Eduardo stood up and opened a topic for conversation. Soon people all over the bus were chiming in with their opinions. The bus ride was lively as friends chatted and passed leftover food items around. Some of the passengers slept.
When we arrived at Punta Arenas airport, I used the Sofia trick again to get us access to the Priority lane. This gave us extra time to visit the airport lounge and ride the escalators up and down for fun. Sofia rode an escalator with me for five roundtrips. The sixth time, when I counted “1, 2, 3, jump!” as we approached the bottom, she froze, tripping over the lip and nearly falling back into the escalator’s teeth. I caught her, and that was the end of that game.
The journey back to San Francisco was long and tiresome, but it’s always easier than the trip out. We left baggage claim and went out to the curb to meet our driver from Swift Cars, a service I booked online which we were trying for the first time. One major problem was clear from the get-go: our driver showed up with no car seat, even though I specifically requested one in the online reservation. “I’m sorry, there was a glitch in our system,” was the response I got from customer service. “We can send somebody else out in 45-60 minutes, and we’ll only charge you 60% of the fare.”
I consulted with Garam, and we told the driver to buzz off. Garam called a Lyft instead, but she handed me the phone because she said the driver was speaking in Spanish and she couldn’t understand him. As I tried to communicate with him in Spanish, I started thinking, “Wait a minute, didn’t we just leave South America?” It was rough going. The Lyft driver arrived, and he let a passenger off right in front of us. He didn’t have a car seat either, but he was from Brazil and he didn’t care. I was desperate to get Sofia home quickly, so we took our chances with the Lyft.