Saturday, 17/11/2001 through Sunday, 18/11/2001
Our flight landed around 8:00 in the morning on Saturday at the Santiago International Airport. We queued up for the usual wait through the customs and immigration processing when the true nature of a packaged tour made itself known. Our trip with Clipper Cruises began when we boarded the flight down, and we were under their care, and just as we entered the customs queue their official land representatives appeared and moved all of us from the back of the queue to the front of the queue. It was apparent that some sort of private deal was struck between the customs officials and the tour operators, and looking at the faces of all of the native people and locals who had just been bumped to the back of the queue en masse, we felt ashamed, and knew we looked (and behaved) like the typical ugly Americans that the rest of the world justifiably loathed. Virtually as a group we decided that this was the last queue we'd skip, and for the rest of the trip we waited in all queues just like everybody else, no matter how frustrated our tour representatives became.
The drive into Santiago itself took us through a thick band of extreme poverty, where much of the population had set up homes in shanty houses constructed in quilt-work fashion from whatever castoff material that was available. The streets were dirt, and their were basic facilities such as potable water or sewer systems (let alone electricity) available except at stations set up to serve these people. And yet life went on here like most places in the world: laundry was hung out to dry, people walked or road bicycles to and from work, children played, and small market areas did a brisk business.
The city itself was beautiful and felt much like any other large city in more developed country. We found our hotel rooms (at the Hyatt Regency -- posh as they all were, we found it disappointing that all of our land accommodations would be in such sterile globalized places as this, which lent no local character to any of its decor), splashed water onto our faces, and then raced down to the lobby to meet up with the tour guide that we Audubon members had hired for a birding trip up into the Andes.
As our mini bus began the long climb up into the Andes I was amazed at how much like southern California the region resembled. A somewhat arid climate punctuated with oases of tropical green, but unlike a road trip in California, we kept rising higher and higher. Mercifully we stopped regularly to look for (and at) birds along the way, but our final stop was at a ski resort at over 10,000 feet in elevation! We bagged quite a few species of birds, practically all of them first time species for most of us, and at some of the stops we were able to hike about, enjoying the flora, fauna and magnificent geography as we trekked about in the ever thinning air. Among the highlights was observing Andean condors, which has one of the largest wingspans of any bird at 3 meters, soaring gracefully overhead.
Even at this high altitude we continued to find new bird species, and although we could feel the thinness of the air that we breathed, we were still able to hike and climb about the rocks and snow fields without any difficulty. Montana can rightly boast about its big skies with pride, but up in the Andes the enormity of the sky will leave you breathless. All around us were expansive views into rocky valleys that lead sharply up to high passes and craggy ridges and peaks. We spent a long time just drinking in the stark beauty of the place, and marveled that there was not only a road in good condition that lead there, but a very large ski resort as well. In fact, the road ran farther on and farther up, taking people to even higher and more remote lodges.
As it began to get dark we pulled ourselves away from the magnificent views and started the journey back to Santiago. Back in town we ate a quiet dinner and discussed all that we had already seen on our vacation, and what tomorrow might hold in store. In the morning we'd be off on a flight further east, and of course further south: to the Falklands.