Easter Island, Chile
From the tranquillity of the Everglades to the tranquillity of Easter Island, Chile. The journey not so tranquil. Three flights. Miami to Lima to Santiago first. Rice and chicken three times. Around the World in 80 Days three times (not worth seeing the first time and, anyway, am doing it in 62!). Lose my tickets - all of them. Panic for 30 minutes and pay 50 dollars to have them reissued (it creates two minutes work).
Scramble on the Santiago plane to Easter Island to hear the captain say the journey will take five-and-a-half hours. Had not realised is the most remote land mass in world. The closest land is Pitcairn (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) and that is 2000 kilometres away.
Easter Island (or Rapa Nui) is a special territory of Chile in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. The Chileans annexed it in 1888, at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle in Oceania. Though the Polynesian inhabitants (The Rapa Nui people) didn't get Chilean citizenship until 1966. Though there weren't many of them left after emigration, European diseases, and Peruvian slave raiding expeditions in the 1860s had taken their toll.
The name "Easter Island" was given by the island's first recorded European visitor, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who arrived there on Easter Sunday in 1722. He was actually searching for "Davis Land", which had been spotted by a pirate of that name, but turned out not to exist.
The Iconic Moai
It's definitely worth the journey. The hotel has great views across the ocean but, as Lonely Planet says, 'could use some maintenance'. There are so many ants in my en suite I have to use a glass to bail them out of the bathwater before I can get in.
But Easter Island is most famous for its nearly 1,000 "extant monumental statues", called moai, created by the early Rapa Nui people from roughly 1100 to 1600 (according to carbon dating). In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with much of the island protected within Rapa Nui National Park.
Only a quarter of the statues were properly installed. Nearly half are still in the quarry at Rano Raraku where they were carved, and the rest just didn't quite make it to their intended destination (the ceremonial sites are called ahu). The largest moai is known as "Paro". weighs 82 tonnes and is nearly 10 metres long. No-one is quite sure how the statues were moved around, but archeologists have had fun recreating different scenarios over the years.
Some of the moai are wearing giant cylindrical 'hats' or pukao. They represent topknots - hair, tied up like a ball on top of the head. The pukaos are made of red volcanic rock called scoria, while the moai heads are carved from volcanic tuff.
The iconic moai statues are huge and enigmatic, hillsides strewn with heads emerging from the ground, like a huddle of fathers at the beach. The children have got bored and need entertaining, so they've buried them in the sand. I have three days to see the various sites, with statues of different shapes and sizes - mostly staring out to sea in idyllic locations.
Exploring Easter Island
The moai are not the only attraction on Easter Island. It is also riddled with caves (in their turn riddled with myths). Many of these were used as fortifications, - there are narrowed entrances and crawl spaces with ambush points. There are also ruined villages to explore. There's a great view round very corner- either out to sea or across magnificent crater lakes. And there are gorgeous palm fringed beaches. though these are a little too breezy for comfort.
The plane back to the mainland is delayed. Normally, there are three flights a week, but today there is an additional flight. This is too much for Air Traffic Control to cope with. They make us wait three hours. We reckon they have been bribed by the owners of the airport bar.
Santiago, the Capital of Chile
Santiago won't win prizes for most exciting city in the world. I meet my travel companions for the next two weeks. Ten pleasant people, except for my room mate who snores relentlessly, sets the alarm for ungodly hours, chirping “I’m an early bird,” and then ignores it when it goes off. She isn’t amused when I accidentally knock down the shower rail, gouging huge lumps from the bath enamel. Dismayed by the prospect of two plugholes in the bath, I distract her with the challenge of deciding whether the water goes down clockwise or anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere.
Duncan, the group leader is quite cute and is eminently teasable after a few pisco sours. But then everyone looks cute after a few pisco sours. The Chileans are reserved and have impeccable manners. After a few pisco sours, they smile too.
Valparaiso, the main port of Chile, has a pretty, historic centre as far as I can see, pressing my nose to the bus window. There are eye wateringly steep funiculars and colourful, timbered houses uptop. in La Sebastiana, It's a cosmopolitan city. During the nineteenth century, an influx of European immigrants left their mark on the city’s architecture and cultural institutions, The traffic is too bad to spare time to get out and look at these. Or the many plate glass restaurants, or the vineyards for which Chile is now famous.
Things get more exciting when we move on.. Volcanoes steam in blue haze, like a watercolour painting, as we fly south to Patagonia. The word refers to the geographical region that encompasses the southern end of South America, so it covers the bottom end of both Argentina and Chile, below the Colorado and Barrancas rivers. And also, sometimes. the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. Patagonia comprises the southern section of the Andes Mountains, lakes, fjords, and glaciers in the west and deserts, tablelands and steppes to the east. It is bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and many bodies of water that connect them, such as the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel, and the Drake Passage
Surprisingly Patagonia is named after the word patagón (big feet), as Magellan decided that the local tribes were giants, when he arrived. in 1520. When the Spanish came, Patagonia was inhabited by multiple indigenous tribes. both (minority) agricultural and hunter-gatherers In colonial times, some of these indigenous peoples adopted the colonial horseriding lifestyle.
Once independent, Chile and Argentina completely reversed the Spanish protectionist policy and encouraged settlement, over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thousands of Europeans (German, Croat, Italian, English, Scot, and Welsh) settled in Patagonia, whilst Argentines and Chileans came south. The indigenous populations, however, went into decline, their lives and habitats disrupted.
Today, eastern Patagonia thrives on sheep farming and oil and gas extraction, whilst in western Patagonia fishing, fish farming and tourism are the backbone of the economy.
Patagonia is stunning. One of my favourite places in the world.
Torres del Paine
First to the national park at Torres Del Paine where it rains all day and I am frozen. Pissed on, and pissed off in Patagonia. But then the sun comes out. Several glorious days walking through fabulous valleys and along the edges of glaciers. Pin cushions of startling bright flowers, guanacos, condors, foxes (zorro culpeo), and nandus (or rheas). The Cordillera del Paine is the centrepiece of the park. Torres del Paine means Blue Towers in the local language and the three main granite peaks of the Paine range or Paine Massif. are known as Torres d'Agostini, Torres Central and Torres Monzino respectively. They are 2,500 metres high and extraordinarily beautiful.
The Grey Glacier is one of Torres del Paine's most spectacular glaciers, tumbling into the serene Lago Grey. It is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and at its peak is 30 metres high and around six kilometres wide. You can trek there- it takes day, or you can go via the sea. So I'm on a red and white boat, 'feeling the Patagonian wind on my face'. Huge glistening ice bergs bobbing in the bay, iridescent blue peaks, whilst nuggets of ice crash into the water creating mini tsunamis. We are supplied with hot pisco to keep us warm, One of our group starts to doze, with her mug in her hand.
Seno Otway is a waterway on the road south to Punta Arenas. and it's home to a colony of cute Magellan penguins, lounging on the beach,
Punta Arenas, The Bottom of Chile
Colourful but sedate, Punta Arenas, the southern most town in Chile. It began life as a penal colony and is now the largest city south of the 46th parallel. It was an important, British-influenced trading centre before the opening of the Panama Canal rendered it peaceful , struggling to survive on sheep nowadays, as prices soar.
And over the (watery) border to Argentina.
(Read more about Chile here).