Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Into the Heart of Chilean Patagonia. Puerto Natales.

Standing on the shores of the Señoret Channel which leads to La Ultima Esperanza and the Chilean fjords.

Puerto Natales is the closest town to Torres del Paine National Park.  When I was planning this trip, I looked into staying inside the park itself but those places are incredibly expensive.  After quite a bit of research, I decided it would not only be more economical to stay in Puerto Natales and take a day trip into the park but also being in the city would give us the opportunity to do other things.  So that was the original intent behind our coming to Puerto Natales.  I've only been here a few hours but as far as I'm concerned, I made the right call.
 

Flashback to early this morning.  I had bought us tickets from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales on Sur-Bus, scheduled to leave at  8:30a.  We knew exactly where the bus station is located and from our apartment, it would be about a 10 minute walk to get there. 

View of the sunrise and the Strait of Magellan from our bathroom window in Punta Arenas.

I had set the alarm for  7:00a but I was up well before then. Of course, we had plenty of time to have a leisurely breakfast and do our last minute packing i.e., we had to pack up the refrigerated food to take with us.  As has happened on previous trips, we tend to carry more and more food with us the trip progresses :-)

I was the first out the door.  I took the keys from Bro and headed downstairs to the front entrance.       I unlocked the front door to the building, propped it open with my suitcase and then ran back upstairs to hand the keys back to Bro.  I then went back downstairs and waited for what seemed like an eternity before he showed up.  I have a feeling he knew I was worried about us missing the bus and he was deliberately dilly dallying to the last minute just to drive me crazy.  Grrr......

Per agreement with Carlos, Bro just left the keys on the dining table and close the door behind him.   The moment he showed up, I made like a bunny and scooted down the sidewalk towards the bus station.  Of course, he was teasing me, wondering why I was in such a rush.  Grrr.....

Our bus was already parked when we arrived.


I don't think waited for more than 5 minutes before boarding began. I had bought our tickets, online, several months ago.  The Bus-Sur site allows you to select your seats before hand because I had bought the tickets so far in advance, all the seats were available to me.  So I picked the first row of seats by the door so we could see out the front windshield.


Pretty much on the dot, the bus pulled out of the station and headed down the same road that we had been on when we arrived into the city from the airport - I recognized a lot of the landmarks.


The terrain is very flat here but the bent trees were also signs of how windy it can be here.



After a while, the scenery didn't change much and so it was time to occupy ourselves doing other things.  In my case, that would playing games on my iPad - I had a jigsaw puzzle that I wanted to put together.

Flash forward 3 hours and we had arrived into the bus station in Puerto Natales.  I had deliberately booked an Airbnb apartment that was in easy walking distance from the bus station.  Our hostess, Andrea, had included walking directions from the bus station but for me, they were not easy to understand (things had gotten lost in translation from Spanish to English).  So, I fired up Google Maps, entered in the destination and off we went.  At first glance, Puerto Natales looks and feels like a smaller, quieter version of Punta Arenas.  It also sits alongside a body of water and is filled with single story, siding clad homes topped with tin roofs.


As often happens, Google Maps took us on a slightly circuitous route but in the end, we made it to our destination.  I knocked on the front door of the apartment address and a very friendly, cheerful woman opened up the door and greeted us.  It was Andrea.  We had arrived before the check in time and the last guests had literally just pulled out of her driveway as we were walking up.  So, of course, the place was not ready for us.  Andrea allowed us to keep our suitcases with her until we return for check in.  In the meantime, Andrea pointed us in the direction of downtown Puerto Natales - about a 5 minute walk from her house.  Bro and I would explore a bit of the town and grab a bite to eat before coming back.

It was lunchtime so the first order of the day was to find a place to eat.  As we walked through downtown, it was obvious that like Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales may cater to tourists but it does not really go out of its way.  So, there are barely any souvenir shops and not all that many restaurants.  We have both come to the conclusion that dining out in Chile is relatively expensive so we are constantly on the hunt for reasonably priced, local eateries.  But, when we least expected it, we did stumble upon a tourist restaurant that also seemed to be popular with the locals.  We decided to give La Picada de Carlitos a try.


The outside of the restaurant belies the lively, yet homey interior.  As we entered the front door, the sight of a whole lamb being roasted stopped us in our tracks.  This is Patagonia and it's known for lamb.  At some point, we'll have to have some but today, we didn't got for meat!


I felt comfortable the moment I walked in.  The place was crowded with diners but luckily, there was an empty table.


The menu was filled with Chilean classics.  I suggested to Bro that he have the iconic Congrio a la Pobre, a very traditional dish of batter fried conger eel topped with fried egg and served with sauteed onions and French fries.  It's a very hearty dish and I figured it would fill Bro up!


I ordered paila marina, a traditional Chilean seafood stew usually served in a paila (earthenware bowl).  Bro's congrio was quite good - fish was incredibly fresh.  My paila marina was really good.  The bowl was filled with tons of seafood - fish, mussels, clams, squid, abalone, barnacles and small bits of piure (sea squirt).  The broth was rich and full of seafood flavor.  I left nothing in the bowl - it was that good.  I decided that if we come back here for another meal, I am having another bowl.


While we waited for our meal to arrive, I had Googled to look for a seafood market in town.  I figure if we are eating in tonight, we might as well treat ourselves to more seafood.  As I told Bro, there will be plenty of opportunity to eat meat when we are in Argentina and Uruguay.  While in Chile, we should just stuff our faces full of seafood.  As luck would have it, I found a place just around the corner from the apartment!

After our meal, we headed back to check with Andrea.  By now the apartment was ready for us.  With our luggage in hand, we followed Andrea out of her house and walked around the corner to what looked like a shed, attached to her property.  We're staying in a shed! 😁

Our Airbnb apartment that we would eventually nickname, The Green Shed.  We loved it!

She opened up the door into a small but very cute, cheery, and cozy space.  There was a fully functional kitchen; all the appliances looked very new.


There was a bedroom in the back along with a bathroom.


There was also a bed in the main room where the kitchen is.  I chose that for me as I thought the larger room would be cooler of the two rooms and I prefer to sleep in a cool space.

Before she left us, Andrea showed us how to fire up the stove (which requires a match to ignite the gas burners) and to turn on the radiator if we needed heat in the night.



After Andrea left, we took a few minutes to settle in before heading back out.  First destination was the small seafood market located nearby.  I had expected to see a full blown seafood market housed in a warehouse sized building but instead, Pescaderia Dipromar turned out to be a small extension of someone's private home.  I didn't have high hopes.  Indeed, the fish offerings turned out to all be frozen packaged stuff which, after having eaten the fresh merluzza austral in Punta Arenas, held absolutely no interest for us.  There were several metal bins contain shellfish.  I didn't realize it before coming here and seeing all the varieties of mussels but apparently, Chile is the sea of mussels.  In the US, we only have (that I know of) one kind of mussel. Here, there are various kinds of mussels - choros (regular size), choritos (smaller) and choros zapatos (enormous).  They also have a ribbed shell mussel which is what the woman had for sale today.  They come from the waters just down the street.


The clams and mussels looked good and were reasonably priced so I decided we could get a few of them and have them over pasta.  I've bought enough clams and mussels in my lifetime to know how to pick out the live ones.  The clams are known as *almeja* and the mussels, which have ribbed shells and were enormous (as long as my hand at least several inches wide) are known as *cholga*



After dropping off the seafood at the apartment aka The Little Green Shed, we headed to our favorite supermarket in Patagonia - Unimarc.  Yes, there is one in town and it's about a 20 minute walk away.   There's really not much to see in downtown Puerto Natales though I did manage to get in some *window shopping* e.g., at this little kiosk which sold, of all things, dried seafood.


Ta da!  We have arrived!  As with Unimarc in Punta Arenas, the produce selection here was pretty paltry but I managed to pick up a few items for dinner and for breakfast for the next three mornings.


One more trip back to the Shed to drop off food and then it was a walk down to the water.  It was chilly, the wind blowing slightly but the view of the water and mountains was very pretty.  In fact, I think it's a pretty view than in Punta Arenas.


Grasses and flowers growing on the shoreline and small fishing boats bobbing in the water added a nice pop of color to the otherwise brown landscape.   Summer is a nice time to be visiting this part of Patagonia.



Bro takes few photos.  A pretty plant always makes into his camera roll :-)





There was a very modern looking building located at the water's edge.  It looked to be what I would say was a Vistor's Center but the doors were locked.  Too bad as I would have liked to have picked up some tourist information.



Two days from now, I have booked us on another denomades.com tour - a boat ride to two glaciers.  The meeting point was indicated on the voucher but it wasn't exactly clear to me where we had to go but it was somewhere near the water so I suggested to Bro that we try and find the place.  We walked on and I spotted the sign for the Empresa Terminal which was located across the street from the wharf.  Bro wasn't feeling it but I had done the research and was certain it was correct.  Go ask we didn't just walk inside and find out for sure.  I have no clue why we didn't just do that.  In any case, we'll just get here early and we'll figure it out.  Worse case is I call the local tour company for info.


In any case, we walked over to the pier and enjoyed the wonderful view.



In the distance, you can see the gap in the mountains.  The water there is the Última Esperanza (Sound of Last Hope) which leads up the Chilean fjords which is where we will be cruising in two days.


From here, we took a walk through town to get back to the Shed.   We stopped at a small market to pick up some corn.  I needed another veggie to add to the one zucchini that I managed to pick up at Unimarc.  Good veggies are hard to come by here!

We also stopped to check out the plants for sale at this truck that appears to be permanently parked on the street about a block away from our apartment.  The man offers quite a large selection of plants and he's incredibly popular with the locals - there's a constant stream of people buying from him!


The Shed is located on a very quiet neighborhood street.  I have quickly developed a soft spot for this little green structure. :-)



Back inside, Bro confessed his senior moments today - he lost 3 items, in less than a hour and he has no idea how he lost them.  He lost a 500 peso coin which he swears he had. He was going to use it to pay for the corn but he couldn't find it in his wallet.  He lost the splint on his left pinky finger.  How do you lose a splint?  He lost the small cloth bag that I had handed to him, when we were walking down by the water, to collect seeds in.  Considering he has pockets in his jacket, how did he lose the bag?  He's getting old!

Bro is rarely one to sit still so while I was ready to just kick back and enjoy a cup of tea, he decided he wanted to head back down to the wharf and confirm our meeting place for our boat cruise.  So off he went and when he came back, he delivered the news that we are to meet where I said we would be meeting.  Hah!  I am rarely wrong, especially after all the extensive planning I do!

When it was time for dinner, I nuked the almejas and the cholgas in the microwave to open up the shellfish.  We then took the meat out, chopped it up and made it into a cream sauce to go over some pasta.  We could've done with a bit more shellfish. That with the veggies was our simple dinner.  We don't eat fancy when we travel but we do try to sample whatever is local to the area.


Tomorrow we are off to Torres del Paine National Park, Chile's premier national park.  We'll be on another denomades.com organized tour.  We know the pickup routine very well by now so we'll be ready, out front, at 8:30a!

Goodnight from Puerto Natales!