Off The Beaten Path in Chile

Episode #1: Getting There

Journeying to Santiago: Lessons in Logistics & Culture

Our Patagonia adventure team describes the adventure before the adventure—traveling to Chile and arriving in a bustling, thriving, city. Not everything went as planned.

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We began in opposite corners of the U.S.—in Seattle, Washington and Morgantown, West Virginia—but our journeys to Patagonia share many of the same details: long plane rides, hustling to make connections, navigating a foreign language, sleep deprivation… and that’s just the beginning of it. There are the inevitable trials and tribulations but nothing beats the thrill setting off on an adventure. Here’s the path we took to the bottom of South America, including some of our less-glorious moments.

Samantha: My body is tingling with a blend of nerves and exhilaration as I wait for the Lyft to pull up to the curb outside of my house in Seattle. I wave down the car, throw my bags in the trunk, and buckle my seatbelt as we take off. As we pass the Space Needle, set against a classic Northwest dreary winter sky, I let out a sigh and feel myself start to relax. I revel in the departure: that moment where it sinks in that you’re beyond the point of preparation, and now all you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

"Where are you going?" my driver asks.

"Patagonia," I reply. Just saying the word makes a smile spread across my face.

Dylan: I clip the final buckle of three backpacks at my girlfriend’s apartment in Pittsburgh. After cinching the strap tight, I lift the bag with one arm—this will be a gear-intensive trip. A few years ago, I had traveled in Southeast Asia for nine weeks with one large backpack and a small daypack. Surely I was overdoing it for just two weeks in Chile. Duty calls, however, and our crew would need everything I was bringing.

Living in West Virginia, Pittsburgh is my hub for flying, and I’ve been fortunate to travel often in recent years. As we approach the airport, a familiar feeling washes over my body and mind—the anticipation of travel. That familiar feeling, however, is always immediately followed by an unique combination of excitement, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Samantha: It’s a long way from Seattle to Santiago. My flight is an 18.5-hour overnight voyage that includes two layovers in the United States. When I arrive in Chicago after my first flight, I make a pit stop and then hoof it past the airport’s psychedelic hallways to my gate. I make it there just as my next flight, to Houston, starting to board.

A bit of serendipity to end up in the IAH United Club Lounge, Houston, Texas.
A bit of serendipity to end up in the IAH United Club Lounge, Houston, Texas. Gabe DeWitt

Dylan: A short flight to Chicago and a transfer puts me in Houston. Our third crew member, photographer and fellow West Virginian Gabe DeWitt, has been in Houston awaiting my arrival.

Samantha: I finally meet my travel companions, Dylan and Gabe, on the plane from Houston to Santiago. We’re seated on opposite sides of the plane, so don’t have much of an opportunity to chat. Clocking in at 10 hours 25 minutes, this is the longest leg of the journey. I figure the uninterrupted time is a good opportunity to finish up on some work I need to get done before we truly head off the grid. When my computer runs out of battery, however, I plug it into the power outlet beneath my seat only to discover that the charger cord has frayed and is no longer working. I close my eyes to relieve my frustration.

It doesn’t take long for me to decide that sleep wouldn’t be such a bad alternative.

Taking in the views during Flight UA847, from IAH to Santiago (SCL).
Taking in the views during Flight UA847, from IAH to Santiago (SCL). Gabe DeWitt

Dylan: Gabe and I are seated on the right side of the plane, our window facing west over the monotonous blue expanse of the Pacific. As the sun peers around the curvature of our home planet from 40,000 feet, I crane my neck to peer out the only open window on the east-facing side. My eyes widen as row upon row of jagged, snow covered mountains jut into the thin atmosphere—the Chilean Andes. Painted in deep shades of blue and purple, the various ranges appear stacked in progressively larger rows, extending as far as our elevated point of observation allows. During trip planning, I had Googled images of Santiago and saw photos of a bustling urban landscape nestled by massive, snow covered peaks. As we descend toward the Santiago Airport, we are unable to see anything. The air thick and hazy, Gabe and I wonder if smog from industry has obscured our expected view.

Samantha: Given that it’s five in the morning back in Seattle, I feel surprisingly chipper when we arrive in Santiago. I must be excited to be here. I bolt toward immigration, wait in line, get my passport stamped—and then realize I should probably stop and wait for Dylan and Gabe.

Communicating with the cabbie outside of SCL, Santiago, Chile.
Communicating with the cabbie outside of SCL, Santiago, Chile. Gabe DeWitt

Dylan: A peppy customs agent and his equally peppy dog sniff out two of our backpacks—fruit! We quickly fess up on the alien agriculture we inadvertently smuggled into Santiago. After declaring all of our food items—oranges, apples, mixed nuts, beef jerky—we are forced to part with our fruit.

To say my Spanish is rusty is to presume that I even speak the language to begin with. A few years in high school and a 17-year gap left me horribly unprepared to navigate the lightspeed linguistics of Chilean Spanish. Gazing through the opaque air, wondering where those majestic mountains are, I decide to make an attempt. I tap the cabby on the shoulder, point out the window, and eek out, "fumar del fuego," meaning ‘to smoke from the fire.’ Looking at me in the rearview mirror, he furrows his brow. I repeat _‘fumar’ *twice and aggressively point out the window. One brow rises to meet the other. “_Ah, si, si*,” he says, followed by a flow of Spanish sounds. My brow furrows. Switching to broken English, he mumbles few words in a heavy accent. I’m able to decipher that there is a massive forest fire that’s been burning for well over a week, and the entire region has been enveloped in heavy smoke.

Samantha Larson resting in the hotel, Santiago, Chile.
Samantha Larson resting in the hotel, Santiago, Chile. Gabe DeWitt

Samantha: We arrive at the hotel just a few minutes away from the airport, and I immediately flop onto the bed. Suddenly all I want to do is take a nap. But then I remember the situation of my broken computer charger, and the assignments I still need to finish up and send in before I head into the wilderness. Dylan, Gabe, and I head into the city.

Entering Metro de Santiago.
Entering Metro de Santiago. Gabe DeWitt

Dylan: A quick bus ride drops us at the Terminal de buses Pajaritos. We descend into the hubbub of the Metro de Santiago, hopelessly naive to navigating its various lines. We struggle with figuring out how much it costs, how to get through the turnstile, and which line to hop on. An observant security guard, quick to see three foreigners with no idea what the hell they’re doing, offers passage through the gate and identifies our stops.

Cool underground air rushes through the open windows as the metro rushes through the guts of Santiago. Samantha and I voice our Patagonian anticipation and discuss adventure writing philosophy as Gabe snaps photos of colorful Santiagans occupied with the rutina diaria (daily grind).

Samantha: After investigating a few different electronics stores in search of the elusive charger, we finally find one of the few places that seels Apple products.

Plate of flamenquines—a local delicacy.
Plate of flamenquines—a local delicacy. Gabe DeWitt

Dylan: The stairs exiting the metro are bathed in golden afternoon sun. We ascend to our inagural view of Santiago from Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square and architectural centerpiece. It’s early afternoon and the plaza is a ghost town. A few families meander around the square against the backdrop of storefronts shielded by sliding metal doors covered in graffiti.

We grab a seat at Ristorante Marco Polo, the only restaurant that appears to be open. Gabe and Samantha order breaded pescado (fish) served over papas fritas (fries), and I order traditional flamenquines (pork roll) served over papas picante (spicy mashed potatoes). We order a 1.2 liter Cerveza Austral, a beer brewed in Punta Arenas that proudly bears the spires of Torres del Paine, Patagonia’s postcard peak, on its green and golden logo.

After struggling to figure out how many Chilean pesos we owed and how to split the bill with our Chilean waitress, we saunter into the stunning Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago. This building is the center of the Chilean archdiocese constructed in the late 18th century. Beautifully intricate carvings adorn massive stone pillars, and a geometrically-pleasing ceiling, awash in ambient light, soars above worshippers. I am not a religious man, but I felt an undeniable sense of solace seated in a pew, a collective energy present from souls and symbolism.

Samantha: Dylan and Gabe continue to explore the Plaza de Armas, but I figure I’ll have more time to see the city at the end of the trip—so, with my newly purchased charger in hand, I get on the metro to go back to the hotel, solo. Opening my ears to the people talking around me on the metro, I’m glad to feel more pieces of my college Spanish classes start to come back to me.

A crowd gathers to watch dancers perform.
A crowd gathers to watch dancers perform. Gabe DeWitt

Dylan: After traversing the plaza shooting photos of traditional dances, drum circle performers, and puppet shows, we decide we’d better head back. Gabe and I had been leaning on Samantha to speak and translate for us. Now on our own, we embark on the evening commute. We buy our tokens, figure out the correct gate, decipher the map, and identify our stops. I feel the rush of dopamine as a reward for figuring out linguistic and spatial puzzles. We even engage in some extremely basic pointing and grunting with a few Chileans who chuckle as we struggle to say even the most rudimentary phrases. We smile back, content to relish in our ignorance.

We return to the hotel and meet Sam for dinner, discussing plans for the following day’s travel to Balmaceda. While we shared an equal appreciation for Plaza de Armas, we were equally antsy to get the hell out of the city and make our way toward Patagonia.

*Samantha: *After dinner, I squeeze in a FaceTime call with my mom and then my boyfriend to let them know I made it to Chile, and then scramble to finish up and send off my work while I still have wifi. By the time I’m done, it’s past 1 a.m. so I head up to the room, and try not to think about how I’m going to have to wake up and head back to the airport only a few hours later.

Dylan Jones and Samantha Larson loading up the airport shuttle at the hotel.
Dylan Jones and Samantha Larson loading up the airport shuttle at the hotel. Gabe DeWitt

Dylan: The dreaded sound of an early morning alarm sparks my consciousness. It’s 5 a.m., and we have a 7:30 a.m. flight to Balmaceda. I toss on the clothes I had laid out the previous evening and brush my teeth with one eye closed. Gravity is stronger before 6 a.m. and I grimace as I awkwardly shoulder my three bags. A quick desayuno continental *(free breakfast) *and 6 a.m. shuttle to the airport should give us plenty of time to check in for our domestic flight—or so we thought.

Samantha: Given that it’s a domestic flight from Santiago to Balmaceda (the town from which we’ll begin the drive along the Carretera Austral down to Parque Patagonia), I feel fairly casual about our next flight, so we don’t arrive back at the airport with a huge time buffer before our plane is scheduled to leave. But once we’re there, the first self-service computer crashes midway through the check-in process. I try a few more times—then Dylan a few times—then we each try a couple of other computers a few times. At this point, it’s almost time to board… and we still haven’t checked in. My casual calm suddenly turns into panic.

Dylan: I utter a few choice words as the kiosk denies my passport a third time. Sam and I grab our bags and run to a service counter. We’re sent to another service counter, which attempts to send us back to the first service counter. It’s too early to dodge the cinta roja (red tape) and we make an urgent case based on timeliness. The agent looks at us, shrugs her shoulders, and makes the executive decision to accept our bags and print our boarding passes. Simultaneously disgruntled with the run-around and ecstatic to make progress, we high step it to the terminal. We board just as the gates are closing, exhaling a collective sigh of relief and embracing the early morning shot of adrenaline.** **

Samantha Larson boards the flight from SCL to Balmaceda (BBA).
Samantha Larson boards the flight from SCL to Balmaceda (BBA). Gabe DeWitt

Samantha: Once on board, I feel my whole body loosen up. It doesn’t take long for me to fall asleep.

Dylan: My nerves settle as I sit down between two Chileans, a young man with dreadlocks and tattoos to my left and an elderly man with a weathered face and a thick, white, mustache to my right. They both give off the aura that they’ve seen some things, and I feel the excitement inherent to immersion in a new culture.

The young man to my left has the window seat, and the shade is shut. He seems antsy and uncomfortable. I tap his forearm, gesturing him to open the window. He reluctantly obliges, covering his eyes in an effort to communicate that the light is too bright.

I suddenly have an idea. Gabe had suggested I download the Google Translate app on my smartphone and set it to its offline mode. I set the dialogue box for English to Spanish and type a message to my companion: "Thank you for opening the window". I’m excited to see the mountains. It has been a lifelong dream of mine to see the Andes.

He smiles and nods, grabs my phone, and switches it to translate Spanish. He offers a simple response: "No worries".

The exchange sparked a deep conversation with Marcello, 23, from Coyhaique, that lasted the entirety of the two-hour flight. Not a word was uttered, but much was said. As the plane soared over craggy peaks, deep river valleys, and crevassed glaciers, we shared our backgrounds, interests, musical preferences, and life philosophies. I tend to get caught up in chastising technology, claiming it removes us from connection with the world around us. Here, five miles above the largest continental mountain range in the world, that technology facilitated a connection that would have otherwise been impossible.

Samantha: I’m groggy as the plane lands in Balmaceda. We head to pick up our bags, and then I rent the car, gesticulating along with my very basic Spanish. When I walk out the airport door, a gust of wind hits me. And with it, a resurgence of energy: we’ve made it to Patagonia.

Dylan: Incessant winds swirl around the car as we throw on layers and load up the rental. My puffy jacket attempts to escape as I put it on. Gabe lets out a whoop and holler as his hat flies off his head. Arid foothills and exposed rock lie in the distance. We’re finally here, about to embark on the Carretera Austral—one of the world’s greatest road trips.


Up Next

Episode #2: The Long Road to Adventure

Driving Chile’s Rugged and Remote Southern Highway