Medellin, Bogota, Lima. The predictable continuation of our tour of South America would have been Santiago and Buenos Aires. Instead, for our first impressions of Chile and Argentina we bypassed the cities. As such, this is an article contrasting these countries without the traffic, noise and graffiti. I find that when your focus shifts to nature, the border between the two countries becomes a little more arbitrary but differences shine through anyway.
Chile’s capital of Santiago was just a transit stop before we flew a further two hours south to Puerto Montt. Known as the starting point for the Chilean Lake District, for us it was the starting point of a 17-day road-trip through Patagonia.
I knew that this would be a different experience as we collected our battered and scratched pick-up truck. We named him Chuck. He was red, but he spent most of the trip looking more beige, what with the dust from gravel roads.
Our route south took us to small, remote places in Chile. We eventually crossed the land border into Argentina and drove north, circling back around to Chile and ending again in Puerto Montt. Distances weren’t long and the pace wasn’t hectic. This was a trip that offered quiet and space for reflection -sometimes on a 5-hour ferry ride, sometimes on a slow drive down a gravel road, and sometimes in wooden cabins without wifi.
With lakes and fjords, you could think that you’re in Norway. The trees and Andes mountains remind one of Bavaria. I also joked that Andrejs should post a photo of the snow-topped Villarica volcano to Facebook, caption it Mount Fuji, Japan, and then see how many people realise it’s actually in Argentina.
Regardless, when you combine nature that partially looks like Norway, Bavaria and even at times Japan, what do you get? Unsurprisingly: stunning beauty.
The breathtaking vistas and nature are to be found on both the Chilean and Argentinian sides. This region offers waterfalls, magical fairy-tale forests, beautiful ferns, giant alerce trees, and clear-blue lakes and rivers.
The bigger contrasts between Chile and Argentina are in the infrastructure and organisation around the nature. Argentinian prices are reasonable, but Chile is undeniably more expensive. It saw us pay our most expensive night on our trip so far. At almost $200, our 3-star hotel in Futaleufu was far more expensive than our 5-star Swissotel splurge in Lima. Sure, by backpacking you can do cheaper, but we heard that even a tent space can cost $28. For those wondering, the main reason to stop in Futaluefu despite the high prices is white-water rafting.
The cheaper prices of Argentina correlate with a distinct sense that the country is poorer. Where Chile is frequently considered to be South America’s most prosperous country, Argentina struggles with extraordinary levels of inflation and a much lower GDP per capita. You notice the troubled economy from the somewhat more dowdy looking towns and the encouragements to pay in USD. But you also notice in more subtle ways. Exchanging money was a difficult and time-consuming process— presumably because the country is trying to prevent everyone trading in their volatile Argentinian pesos. When paying with a card in an Argentinian store you are required to show ID every time. The store must enter your ID number. It leaves an impression that there is strong monitoring of spending, especially with foreign cards.
There was also a clear contrast between Chilean and Argentinian supermarkets. The Chilean government has introduced a prominent measure to tackle obesity, marking foods and drinks with black octagons when they fall above a certain amount of sugar, fat, calories, or sodium.
On the plus-side, this meant plentiful options of sugar free drinks, as well as low sugar cereals and yoghurts. I discovered the downside when I inspected the juice aisle. With the dreaded black octagon applied to any juice with more than 5g of sugar per 100ml, every single juice offering had just under 5g. There was literally not a single juice option sweet enough for me to use to treat hypoglycaemia. We checked every single one. So, in Chile I was left drinking normal coke (urgh!) or babyfood pouches of pureed fresh fruit. Having crossed into Argentina, I stocked up on juice with the usual 12g of sugar per 100ml!
At times you wanted to think some aspect of nature was unique to one country. We frequently spotted beautiful birds. We named one the ‘Argentinian Forest Pigeon’, only to later find out it’s called the Southern Lapwing and is also found in Chile. We tried to convince ourselves that the lapwings in Chile must be tourists from Argentina, but there were simply too many tourists...
Other amazing birds we spotted include the Austral parekeet, hummingbirds, a woodpecker, small hawk-like birds, and our favourite — the Squeaky Bird. Ok, their real name is the Black-faced Ibis, but see below video and you’ll agree ‘Squeaky Bird’ is apt. (It’s a short video because they are quite hard to capture!)
For those less interested in birds, you can also see dolphins, sea lions, lizards, and pudus (the smallest deer in the world). These are all hard to photograph well, but special to see in the wild.
I am actually writing this post from Santiago and we will in fact later make it to Buenos Aires. As such, I’ll be able to make a city comparison, too, in due course. But, for now, the overwhelming natural beauty of both Chile and Argentina that we experienced in Patagonia leaves a stronger impression than any differences between the countries.
I’ll finish with this very cool moth, as a contrast to the owl-eye butterflies we saw in Panama.