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Santiago – Via Australis Wild Patagonia Cruise
The Singular Patagonia – Alto Atacama
Flying LAN Business Class allows you access to the One World Club at LAX, very nice lounge with a number of different seating areas, full bar with a bartender, and a very nice variety of food that is well presented.
Upon boarding the LAN 787-800 Dreamliner I noticed the mood lighting right away as well as the fact that there are no window shades. There is a button that changes the opacity of the window from clear to dark, very cool. Business class is a 2-2-2 configuration, so if you aren’t flying with someone, I would suggest an aisle seat in the center section, that way, you don’t have to climb over someone you don’t know and vice-a-versa. Nice roomy seats with a few different storage options, and Bose noise cancelling headphones are provided. When the cabin crew came to introduce themselves and pass out the amenity kits, I noticed that they had a separate kit for men and women. Since I was traveling alone, I can’t tell you what the difference was.
After checking in and relaxing a little, we had a tour of Santiago with our guide, who is an architect. It was great to see the city through the eyes of an architect. He had a unique perspective on the current development, architecture, and history of the city. We visited the main park in the middle of the city, Parque Metroloitano, a central government center (the building is all glass to convey the idea that the people in the building have nothing to hide), and went to the top of a San Cristobal Hill where a huge statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the Santiago and we had an amazing view of the city.
The next morning we were off to Punto Arenas where we were met by our driver to begin our tour of the city. Our first stop was the Nao Victoria Museum which is basically this guy’s private yard where he has constructed full size replicas of some very famous ships from the past. There are currently three boats there, the Nao Victoria, the James Caird, and the Schooner Ancud. The HMS Beagle is currently under construction.
Next up was a visit to the main square, then a trip up to the lookout, followed by lunch. After lunch we stopped by the pier to check-in for the Via Australis. They like you to check in during the day and return at 6:00 PM for boarding, so after checking in, we continued the city tour and then went back to the pier at about 5:45 PM for boarding
The boat is very nice. It’s a great size and very easy to become familiar wi th. There are 64 cabins that are all the same size and spread over four decks, with the majority on deck 2. Most of the cabins have 2 beds, about 15 have a queen bed, and a few have fold down bunks for a third person. Cabins are on the small size compared to a traditional cruise ship, but very typical of an expedition size vessel and all of them have a nice big window to enjoy the beautiful scenery as it goes by. Very well appointed with nice amenities, a blow dryer that actually blows enough air to dry your hair, nice heavy comforters, and 220 volt power. We had one day of rain and the blow dryer proved very useful in drying my clothes.
The dining room is on deck one, reception and a small gift shop are on deck 2 The Yamana Lounge is at the front of deck three and is where morning coffee is available and the movies are shown in the evening. The Sky Lounge is at the back of deck 4. This is the main gathering spot on the ship. All lectures are held here, and this is where most of us hung out between excursions to just chat, play cards, have a drink and relax.
Dinner was served at 8:00 PM, which is actually a great time since the sun didn’t set until well after that. I had originally thought this might be too late, but the schedule onboard is very well planned to allow for all of the activities, excursions, lectures, etc., and still have plenty of time to relax, shower, and visit. We never felt rushed. There are no TVs, nor any internet, so that really frees up a lot of time. The idea is to really let the experience take over, and just absorb all of the beauty that surrounds you.
Dinner was delicious, as would be the case for all meals onboard. Dinner is served with a couple of entrée choices each night, while breakfast and lunch are buffets. Plenty of variety, and the food was consistently very good. Wine is poured at lunch and dinner, but all drinks are included the entire time you are onboard, and they are happy to bring your drink of choice during the meals, as well as throughout the day in the lounge.
The first morning we left for our first excursion at 9:00 AM. Again, the schedule is very well planned, no rushing, able to sleep in, etc. Great visit to Ainsworth Bay. At the end of the excursion, before boarding the zodiacs for the ride back, we were served hot chocolate with or without whisky. I was surprised at how good hot chocolate with whisky tastes, and we all looked forward to that little treat at the end of each excursion.
While each excursion was different, the process was the same. Load the zodiacs, about 12 per boat, go to the beach, get off of the boat, and do the excursions which are about 2 hours. We had five excursions over the 2 ½ days onboard. The only exception to this pattern was the elephant seal spotting where we stayed in the zodiac for about an hour and a half. Since there are not enough zodiacs for all of the guests, we did this excursion in two shifts. We were the second shift, which worked out very well for a couple of reasons. We could stay at breakfast longer and relax before the excursion, but more importantly, since there was nobody waiting to go after us, we actually stayed out a little longer than the first group.
The first night after dinner everyone went straight to bed, it had been a long travel day for most of us. The second night there was a movie about Patagonia and also Karaoke after dinner. The third night there was a slideshow of our trip where, in addition to the pictures the crew took, they asked the passengers to submit whatever pictures they wanted. I gave them about 40 to choose from, and they used all of them. After the slideshow they said that in about 2 weeks, we could all go online and download any or all of the pictures in the show. Very nice touch.
On our final day we visited Magdalena Island, famous for the huge colony of penguins that live there. This was the only day with an early start, and the only day we didn’t have perfect weather. It rained while we were on the island, but still a great visit. We had to be on the Zodiacs by 7 am, then breakfast once we were back onboard. Plenty of time to shower and pack after breakfast, then we had to have our bags by the door at 10 AM, and off the boat at about 11 AM.
We were met on the pier by two Singular vans and drivers. The vans are very nice, all bucket seats, and based on our timing, they had lunch and water waiting for us in the vans. We would arrive at the hotel after lunch had ended. The 3 hour transfer is included with a minimum 3 night full board stay. For anything less than that, it is $200 per person, per direction.
Singular is a beautiful property. It is a converted meat packing plant, but don’t let that fool you, it is luxury all the way. Some of the best food I have ever had at a resort, and the staff is amazing. They are so accommodating and friendly and truly seem like they want to make sure they meet your every need.
The excursion staff stayed late to help us choose our activities for the next couple of days. We broke up into two groups. The active group chose a half day hike to the Condors nest, then a bike ride to town, and horseback riding the next day, and finally a full day hike in Torres del Paine National Park to the base of the towers. The other group chose a full day navigation with a visit to an Estancia for lunch, sheep shearing, and horseback riding, and then a full day tour of the national park in the van. Everyone was so happy with their guides the first day that we all requested the same guides for the other excursions to follow. So nice, knowledgeable, friendly, etc. I have a feeling that whatever guide you get the first day, you would probably feel the same way. We had Sebastian, and I would highly recommend him.
Singular has 57 rooms that all are the same with the exception of 3 suites, one at the end of each hall. The rooms are spread over three floors, and all have views of the fjord right in front of the hotel. As I mentioned, this used to be a meat packing plant, and much of the machinery is still on display throughout the property. There is a small spa with a small indoor/outdoor pool, a steam room, and a sauna. A gym is in the planning stages.
There is one main public area that includes a very nice bar area, huge fireplace, and a restaurant spread over two floors. The wonderful buffet breakfast is served on the second floor, while lunch and dinner are served on the first floor. All areas of this room are so beautiful and well decorated, it is a great place to just relax and chat. One day at lunch, a few of us sat for over 2 ½ hours, it was a great part of the trip.
I already mentioned how great the food is, but the service is even better. Enrique is the best; he seems to be everywhere taking care of your every need, even before you knew that you wanted something. We found this to be the case with everyone we came in contact with at this beautiful property.
On our way up to the condor’s nest we passed a puma den in a cave. Following the brave (?) lead of our guide we went in and found anilmal bones and fur from the puma’s latest meal!!
At the top of the hike we were lucky enough to find eight condors circling their nest. Andean Condors have a wingspan of up to 10 feet. So cool to see these majestic birds in flight. It was so windy at the top that we had to lie down so that we were not blown off the mountain, but that did allow us to capture some great pictures of these amazing birds
On the way down, Sebastian said we should try eating the wild mushrooms that were growing on the side of a tree. He ate one first, so, of course, the rest of us had to try them too. They were actually very tasty, but I made sure to take a picture to show the ER doctors in case one of us had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night! The foliage and scenery was beautiful. And, we were lucky enough to come upon a small herd of cows, including some babies. I hope the puma is not nearby.
We had a treat the last night when we returned from our hike to the towers. They had opened the specialty restaurant, El Asador, and made the most amazing meal. The room itself is actually a highlight of this experience. It is in one of the outbuildings on the property and is dominated by the wood-burning grill along one wall. There is a huge bar that we all sat at so we could witness the preparation of all of the food, it was a great experience. This is available on specific nights, and they are in the process of expanding this restaurant to accommodate more people.
We flew back to Santiago and the next morning we had a full day tour of Valparaiso and Vina Del Mar. These two cities are adjacent to each other and about 1 hour & 45 minutes from Santiago. Valparaiso is the port city for cruises stopping in Santiago, and there is plenty to see and do here. There is a huge culture of graffiti, it is encouraged, and people even pay to have their buildings painted. This, in addition to the colorful houses of the port city made for a very interesting day, just wandering the streets, shopping, and eating.
Pablo Neruda (the famous poet) has one of his four houses here. It is now a museum overlooking the bay. We also saw his house in Santiago. We only had time to drive through Vina Del Mar, but it looked like a very quaint town as well.
Our tour ended at the airport for our overnight stay at the Holiday Inn, literally across the street from the airport. They even have a walkway that goes directly into the passenger terminal. The picture on the left is from the front door of the hotel, and that is the entrance of the airport. This is a great option for a quick turnaround, or long layover. I’m a big fan of airport hotels that allow you to walk to and from the terminal. It saves so much time when you have an early flight in the morning, or arrive very late at night.
Our morning flight to the Calama was quite interesting. The transition from seeing the peaks of the Andes, to the vast openness of the Atacama Desert in such a short time was very unique. FYI, there has been a lot in the news lately about the flowers that are now blanketing the desert for the first time in 20 years. It is important to know that these are about 500 miles from Calama. So, unless you are willing to spend an entire day driving, that is not a place most people will get to visit. Driving from the airport, the desert looks very different than the deserts at home. The main distinguishing feature is the lack of any plant life, at least for the first 45 minutes or so. As you get closer to San Pedro De Atacama, where the resorts are, there is more foliage, including trees. There is an underground water supply here which is why the city and the resorts are here.
We arrived at Alto Atacama at about noon. It was very nice to take the early flight and have time for a half day excursion the first day. We had a great lunch on the patio overlooking the beautiful grounds. There is one main building here and one restaurant. Lunch is on the patio, dinner is inside as it usually gets pretty cold once the sun goes down, and the buffet breakfast is also set up inside, but we saw people eating both inside and out.
Our first half-day excursion was about a 30 minute ride to see a local mining town and then on to the salt flats and Flamingos another 30 minutes further down the road at Los Flamencos National Reserve. The excursion ended just in time for a nice snack, (they take such good care of us here) while we watched the sunset over the salt flats.
We got back at the hotel at about 8:30 PM in time to enjoy the special BBQ that they do every Saturday night on the deck by the pools. There was a nice assortment of salads, a huge grill with all types of meat, grilled veggies, and some salmon as well. Of course there was a large selection of deserts. It gets chilly here at night (probably dropped from 80 to 50 in about 30 minutes) and they are quick to bring blankets out to keep you warm during your meal.
The property and the rooms are beautiful. Everything here is very relaxed, and the pace is slow (in a good way). After a leisurely breakfast following a good night’s sleep and later start this morning, I got some special treatment.
The manager Matias (34 and training for an Ironman) took me on a special mountain bike ride that they do not offer to the guests. It was such a great day, perfect way to see all the surrounding beauty. We got back to the resort in time for another great lunch with the group. That night we were lucky enough to have clear skies…actually not that lucky, it is clear here most of the time… so we went up to the astronomy center they have on top of a small hill. There are a number of lounge chairs mounted on rotating decks so you just lay back and enjoy the amazing view as millions of stars come into view. After a 15 minute talk pointing our various galaxies and constellations, we got a close up view through the high power telescope
One final note on the service….Monica was the best. So sweet, always smiling, and took such great care of us. As mentioned above, the staff here is amazing. Of course, they never want you to go hungry, so when we boarded the van for the ride back to the airport, we were each given a “Yummy Bag” with sandwiches, fruit, chips, water, etc. They think of everything!
I did something on this trip that I have never done before……I took a shower in the airport lounge. I have always known that showers were available, but never really thought about using them. On our last trip, one of our friends showered in the lounge and came out feeling so refreshed, I decided to give it a try.
By the time I landed in Atlanta, I had already been traveling for almost 24 hours with 5 more hours to go, so I went to the “shower suite” at the Delta Sky Club and asked for a key. It was much nicer than I expected. Very spacious, incredibly clean, and fully stocked with all of the typical hotel ammenities, plus a razor, shaving cream, toothbrush, toothpaste, and even a small deoderant! A nice stack of 4 plush towels tied with a decorative rope, it was more like being in a nice spa than at the airport. If you have the time on your next long trip, I would suggest you give this a try.
I really do try to keep these short, but there is always so much to share. I have tons more pictures, videos, and of course, information, so please ask if you have any questions or would just like some more details.