South America independently

When my friend Nancy and I wanted to go on a bird-watching trip to Chile and Argentina, including Easter Island and Uruguay, we could find no tours going where we wanted, plus they spent too much time in the cities, so we set out to “do our own thing.” We had a great trip, Feb. 26-March 15, 2009, and I believe we saved at least $1,000 each by doing our own planning.

If you want to visit several places by plane, it’s cost-effective to fly with LAN (866/435-9526, They were very helpful over the phone, and by being flexible with our travel dates we were able to fly from Miami to Santiago, Chile, with return from Buenos Aires, Argentina, for $1,191 each.

We flew from the US to Chile on LAN and then used the “South America Airpass.” If you use LAN to fly to at least three separate domestic destinations, you save a great deal with the pass. Because we had four internal flights, it was a big advantage.

We flew round trip from Santiago to Easter Island plus Santiago-Puerto Montt and, at the end, Bariloche-Buenos Aires all for $967 each. Another flight, Punta Arenas-Puerto Montt, cost $130. The grand total of $1,097 was less than what the single Santiago-Easter Island round trip would have cost ($1,350 each).

By the time we reached Santiago, we were happy to find Britt Lewis of Austral Adventures, Ltda. (Av. Costanera 904, Ancud Casilla 432, Isla de Chiloé, Chile; phone/fax [56 65] 625 977, Britt was very helpful with hotel reservations and advice.

He had booked Hotel Diego de Almargo Santiago (Av. Libertador Bdo. O’Higgins 1485, Santiago; phone 56 2 6726002, fax 6982269 or e-mail for $135 per night, including airport transportation and breakfast, which was served at 4:30 a.m. for people with early flights. We also had an excellent dinner there ($16 each, with wine).

Easter Island was all that I had anticipated. The moai were large, intriguing and haunting. The ocean was gorgeous.

For $385 each, Britt had arranged for the hotel (with breakfast) for three nights, airport transfers, a full-day tour with barbecue lunch and two half-day tours.

We were happy with the location of the Vai Moana (Policarpo Toro w/n, Easter Island; phone, in Chile, +56 [32] 2100-626,, a 10-minute walk from town, and were satisfied with our room. It had no air-conditioning, but you may want one of the newer rooms with A/C. The temps were in the low 80s, but it cooled off at night.

On Easter Island we ate our meals at local restaurants at water’s edge in the small town. Two we liked were the Marahi Raa and Pea on the Water. Prices for meals averaged about $15 per person.

After returning to Santiago, we flew to Puerto Montt, then took a bus to Ancud, Chiloé Island, off southwestern Chile, via a small ferry. We wanted to see the Magellanic and Humboldt penguins that are on coastal islands.

Cyril, from Austral Adventures, did a great tour for us, showing us the island scenery, the penguins and hundreds of black-necked swans. We were two nights on Chiloé, but it has much history and we wished we’d had another day there.

We returned to Puerto Montt aboard the bus which boarded the ferry.

We wanted to travel through the Chilean fjords and settled on a Navimag ferry (Av. El Bosque Norte 0440, Piso 11, Las Condes, Santiago de Chile; phone [56 2] 442 31 20, fax 203 50 25,

I had read in ITN that the splurge for an AAA cabin, $1,250 each, was worthwhile (July ’08, pg. 65). We certainly agree with that. The AAA cabins had a private dining room (maximum number of people possible, 16; we had 10). We had a very congenial, fun group, with two couples from England, one from Germany, one from California and Nancy and me. The food was excellent and well served. There was fish almost every meal and wine with lunch and dinner.

While cruising on the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales for four nights, we had two overcast days with drizzle, but closer to the fjords we had some sunshine; temperatures were in the 50s. We were on open ocean for about 12 hours, which was rather rough, but it was smooth sailing the rest of the time.

The bridge was open most of the time, and there were two programs a day (lectures, videos, etc.). We saw some spectacular scenery, including the largest glacier in South America.

We used buses several times while traveling in Chile. They were very good and on time and took good care of our luggage. We generally could walk from the bus station to our destination. Prices were reasonable. The 3-hour ride from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas cost $10; we saw hundreds of flamingos in a lake on this ride.

From Punta Arenas we flew to Puerto Varas, Chile (the airport is between it and Puerto Montt), where we stayed at the Guest House Bed & Breakfast (O’Higgins 608, Casilla 535, Puerto Varas) for $80 per night for the two of us, including breakfast.

In the morning we took the “Cruce del Lago” over the mountains to Bariloche, Argentina. For $208 each, we rode a bus, catamaran, bus, boat, bus, boat and, finally, bus. It had been highly recommended (April ’08, pg. 23), but we were a bit disappointed as it was a 13-hour day with, at times, fairly long waits while luggage was being changed.

The trip was very well organized and I found it amazing that 40 people all ended up with their luggage at the end. Maybe the drizzle at the beginning of the trip and the fact that we hadn’t arrived at the hotel the night before until 9 p.m. dampened our enthusiasm.

Britt told us there is a bus from Puerto Varas to Bariloche that takes about seven hours and is much less expensive, but you probably wouldn’t see the beautiful glacial lakes on that route.

Bariloche was bigger than I’d expected and very spread out. The downtown area is still rather quaint and has the excellent Museo de la Patagonia. The city is known for its chocolates that are rather dearly priced.

We stayed at Casita Suiza (Gdor. Quaglia 342, 8400 Bariloche; phone/fax +54 2944 426111 or 423775,, conveniently located for walking around town and to the lake. It cost $92 for two, including breakfast.

From Bariloche we flew to Buenos Aires, where, before we had left the US, Ricardo and Mauricio of Clark Expediciones (P.O. Box 98, 4400 Salta, Argentina; phone/fax 54 0387 4215390, had been helpful in finding us a birding guide and hotel.

Hotel San Antonio (Paraguay 372, Buenos Aires; phone 54 11 5273 1200, was conveniently located and cost $96 per night for two, including breakfast. A long pedestrian street was three blocks away.

One day we walked to the ferry dock to go to Colonia, Uruguay, a charming small town where you can walk from the dock to the town center. The fast ferry from Buenos Aires took one hour and cost about $85 for first class, which we found worthwhile.

We had an excellent dinner at El Rincón (Misiones de los Tapes 41, Barrio Histórico, Colonia; phone 099 675202), which also was recommended (March ’09, pg. 43). The cost of a charbroiled steak with mushrooms, potatoes, very good bread, excellent dessert and a split of wine was about $25 per person, including tip.

If anyone is interested in a birding guide for Buenos Aires or Santiago, contact me at for more info. We were very pleased with both of our guides on this trip.

We found both Chile and Argentina to be very clean, with pleasant, helpful people.


Mountain Home, AR