By 2006 we’d retired from our jobs, sold everything to buy a boat, said goodbye to neighbours, friends and relatives and headed straight for New Zealand. After experiencing the circle tour of various ‘must-see’ South Pacific delights, we spent our second Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. We were with friends in Nelson, New Zealand, when they presented us with an inspirational little illustrated volume entitled, “Guia Nautica de Ginger”.
Ginger plays the role of tour guide in Southern Chile – one of the greatest cruising grounds in the world. Ginger is a huge tomcat who deigned to accompany our friends Maurice and Katie Cloughley to Chile in their wooden ketch, Nanook of the North on one of their globe-encircling cruises. In the Guide, a series of photos are accompanied by appropriate charts of locations and a brief commentary of Ginger’s reaction to the place. For instance, at Isla Vittorio (photo of Ginger basking in the sunlight in a patch of tall grasses with snow-covered mountains in the distance) Ginger laments, “I wanted to retire to this Island, but they made me leave.” At Bahias Darwin and Anna Pink, he says, “Don’t go to this place; it’s awful.”
Various ‘action’ photos show Ginger participating in some of the activities that are unique to cruising in Patagonia. While on the beach of a large bay with Maurice tending a fire, Ginger says, “Here I am, on the outer spit at Santo Domingo, doing a spot of beach-combing and helping to burn some garbage.” The first of two photos taken at Bahia Wadsworth shows Ginger staring down at the bottom of a small waterfall, with Katie by his side. He says, “I helped collect fresh water … and was first up the hill, as always.” This comment is accompanied by a second photo of Ginger looking down at Maurice trudging up the hill. At Estero Vito, Ginger complains, “He always needs me to help with those stupid lines.” The photo shows the disgruntled feline lying on Maurice’s lap, while he is trying to row the dinghy and untangle the line. Somewhere along the way, Ginger says, “The crew tie the boat to a dock in the Rio Calle Calle … and I move ashore to a casita in Valdivia for the winter.”
So taking Ginger’s advice, we made our first trip to Chile and Patagonia a few months later, and decided to stay in Valdivia for the winter. We returned this year (10 years later) to the same dock we’d tied to in 2007. We didn’t have to move ashore – we were able to dock both times at the Club de Yates Valdivia, where our well-insulated boat kept us comfortable in the cold winter rains.
We were lucky to get a spectacular berth at the Club right on Rio Valdivia. There are few berths available for boats of our size, but both years, after a preliminary wait (when we were rafted outside larger boats), we were able to tie up on one of the outside docks. Our friends, Franco and Kath, aboard Caramor (a Welsh-registered vessel), fit comfortably inside the inner docks of the Club. Our neighbours on Red Max (Belgians who are now in French Polynesia) were most amiable. We’ve had fun meeting a variety of ‘world cruisers’ while waiting for the various seasons to advance. Many larger boats take advantage of some excellent facilities at the sister-club in nearby Estancilla, or at the marina run by Alwoplast – both further down-river.
The small city of Valdivia is favoured by the inhabitants (and taxi drivers) as, “the best city in Chile”. At our dock, we have the river in the foreground and snowy mountains as a backdrop. It’s a university town, so the presence of lots of students creates a feeling of energy and youth to daily life and we’ve been able to attend lectures and concerts. There’s very little crime and the population is most ‘amable’. You can choose to shop in the excellent supermarkets or at the sea-side market, ‘Feria Fluvial’, eat in various wonderful restaurants and drink tasty and inexpensive wines. The University has Schools of both Medicine and Dentistry and offer expert healthcare. Larry has given a talk (in Spanish) on cruising to Antarctica at the School of Marine Engineering. We’ve entertained some of the students and the faculty aboard our home.
As you walk around town, you are entertained by guitar or accordion players and even horses on the street. As there are not many tourists, we have found it necessary to learn Spanish. By speaking the language, it is easy to make friends, arrange boat repairs and provision. Larry was already competent in the language. He’d worked as a pilot in Guatemala, walked the Inca Trail in Peru, and sailed the coast of Spain as well as taking some university-level Spanish courses. He has continued to do all the communications with the Armada (the Chilean Navy) and a lot of the bargaining and purchasing.
We took several 2-week Spanish immersion courses in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2008. These courses, and the Rosetta Stone computer-based course, have been very helpful. I can communicate my needs and even make a joke now and then. Of course, I got a huge laugh when, trying to to rent a horse (caballo) for my 70th birthday, I instead asked where I could rent a “caballero” (gentleman)!
In 2007, after we endured a difficult 33-day passage from New Zealand, we tied up our boat and cleared through the formalities in Valdivia. Formalities are a compulsory experience of international arrivals – and often departures – everywhere. They vary and are time-consuming, though generally pleasant. In Valdivia, the Navy asks boating questions and requests forms to be filled out. The federal police (Policia de Investigaciones or PDI), who handle immigration, request more forms and stamped passports, authorizing 90 days in the country. Finally, the Agriculture Department checked food on board, determined what is admissible into Chile and disposed of anything not allowed. All the officials were courteous and pleasant, and helpfully answered questions about procedures or ‘tramites’, as they are called in Spanish. The manager of the Yacht Club communicated with Customs officials – located some distance away in Osorno – on our behalf. By fax, they issued a permit for our boat to remain in Chile for up to one year.
All this heavy form-filling complete, we went ashore to buy groceries. We instantly discovered how much we didn’t know and could not have learned from a guide book. For instance, you need to discern which products need to be weighed and priced in the vegetable section before you go to the cashier, versus which products (such as individual peppers) are already tagged with a paper stamp and thus don’t need to be weighed. You need to know that the youngster who packs your groceries (generally a student trying to pay their rent) needs to be given a tip. You need to be able to respond when the cashier asks if you have a proprietary card for the store. If you want to use a credit card to pay, you need to know you need a RUT card and that your passport can be used instead. You’ll be asked if you would like a printed ‘factura’, for business purposes, or if a simple ‘boleta’ will do. You have to know to press the ‘sin quotas’ button on the credit card machine for a North American credit card.
There are many instances when a RUT card is requested. This is an I.D. card which all Chileans have and there are many occasions (such as when you try to buy bus tickets or concert seats online or just waiting in a line-up at the drugstore) where you’re expected to have a RUT. On official occasions, you cannot circumvent this requirement – you must show your passport.
There are a few disadvantages to life in Valdivia. One is the persistent rain in the winter (and in the spring, fall and early summer!). A second is the persistent wood smoke. Most locals heat their homes with wood. If you have allergies to smoke, you will actually begin to prefer the rainy days, as the rain keeps the smoke down. Although the marina has a washing machine, it does not have a dryer. We find getting clothes dry inside the boat takes forever, and it has been a necessity to take them to a nearby ‘lavanderia’. This is an inexpensive luxury.
Another disadvantage to living in Valdivia is that you will need to harden your heart to the many friendly, but possibly sick, stray dogs – ‘perros de calle’ (dogs of the street). They are a sad fact of life in South America and French Polynesia. If you are bitten by a stray dog, unless you have been vaccinated against rabies, you will have to undergo a series of anti-rabies injections.
The ‘perros de casa’ (dogs of the home) are kept locked in their owners’ gardens. Unlike the more docile street dogs, they are guard dogs who lunge out and can bite when the gate to their prison is opened. The ‘calle’ canines amuse themselves by taunting the more privileged ‘casa’ dogs. The ‘calles’ form an On the Road Gang, flaunting their ability to zoom around, having adventures in front of the ‘perros de casa’, who are stuck inside. This results in noisy and lengthy choruses of barking and growling.
Of course, the dogs here at the marina are wonderful. The older dog, Bella, will bark in a terrifying manner as people approach the gate, but stops quickly and starts wagging her tail as soon as she recognizes people. She is now getting quite elderly and is training little Bruma to take over in her retirement. They look alike and share the same wonderful characteristics of being wonderful guard dogs and good friends to the cruisers.
We have found that our mobile telephone service is the most frustrating service we’ve encountered anywhere in our travels. Because of our lack of a RUT, we can only add money to our telephones at the grocery store. The phone company has ‘lost’ numerous text messages. This can create real difficulties in making and keeping friends, who rarely seem to answer back when you write. While losing your text messages, the phone company takes great delight in texting you, 2-4 times a day. What is worse is their predilection to phone the instant you leave Chile … when you are in Canada, Great Britain and Argentina. Of course, if you answer these calls, roaming charges apply!
Despite these drawbacks, we quickly discovered there were many delights to living here. The city is small enough to walk nearly everywhere and there are extensive bike paths. If you need a taxi, they’re cheap, metered and easy to find. The drivers are very honest and you are not expected to tip them. You can also use the collectivos – these are shared taxis, which drive on established routes and cost as little as $1.60 to go to Corral, Niebla and Isla Mancera.
During the trip into Valdivia, you can take a side trip to see the fortifications located high up above the bay. It dates from the 17th century, during Drake’s ravages along this coast, and are presented in a historically interesting fashion. Down the street (Calle General Lagos) from the yacht club is a Martello Tower – one of two fortifications that are inside the town limits. There are many fine and beautiful old buildings in Spanish style in the centre of town.
We appreciate the cultural opportunities, including the Museo Histórico y Antropológico on Isla Teja, just across the river near the Universidad Austral de Chile. We’ve been to a number of concerts at the University, and there’s also a ‘Cine’ club that features good (and low-cost) Spanish-language movies. Appealing both to students and cost-conscious ‘Yachties’, the University area has many inexpensive and fun restaurants. Our favourite local restaurant is La Ultima Frontera, and the Lonely Planet says of it: “you’ll find one-stop traveler nirvana at this bohemian resto-bar with a vibe unmatched in the whole of Sur Chile.”
One of the most amazing taste experiences here is trying to find your favourite, amongst the huge quantity of different chocolate shops. Our favorite chocolate has a rum-infused-raisin-custard interior and chocolate exterior. You can also promote weight gain by drinking pisco sours. Pisco is the traditional Chilean liquor and is mixed with sweetened lemonade, made out of tiny brisk little lemons. The Peruvians also claim a good Pisco, but we (of course) prefer the Chilean variety.
If you need to get exercise in the cold and rainy winter months after all that chocolate and pisco, the bus taking you to the huge and beautiful Piscina Aqua leaves from one street away from the Club and returns to the front of the Club.
The supermarkets here are quite wonderful. The produce is always fresh and tasty and the meat is good. If you enjoy shopping in markets, there’s a street market every Tuesday on Baquedano, just a few streets from the marina. You can also shop for hand-made sweaters and wooden gifts at a huge market next to the Feria Fluvial. Fishermen bring their fresh catch to this location, and the pelicans and enormous sea lions wait and roar their approval at the cast-off fish leavings that are thrown into the river for them. We’ve enjoyed watching the sea lions cruise by the boat as they pass back and forth on the river. They announce themselves with huge exhalations and sneak up to scare the many youngsters learning to sail in little Optimist sailboats at our Club.
It’s easy and inexpensive to get out of town. We crossed over the mountains to Bariloche, Argentina, when we need to renew our visas (this needs to be done every 3 months). It was a very scenic trip and quite comfortable by bus. We also used the bus to visit friends out in the country and to go to a concert in Frutillar, where the Teatro del Lago Sur hosts an arts program similar to that of Banff School of Fine Arts, with musical, dance and theatre performances by internationally-renowned artists. The building is spectacular – it features some of the most beautiful woodwork I have ever seen. The setting by Lago (lake) Llanqhihue is superb, with views of several volcanoes.
The Chilean Armada (navy) are a top-quality organization in our view. We have known of a number of rescues they’ve made and they are very concerned to keep your boating experience safe. Because Patagonia is known as a very rigorous region, even for experienced captains and crews, the Armada are quite strict about the type of equipment you need and will expect you to comply with insurance, safety equipment, flares and fire extinguishers.
You need to file an exhaustive detailed plan (zarpe) before you leave on any trip, either within the country or when you leave Chile. You also have to call in to the Armada Offices when you reach various points of your trip. Twice daily you need to file a report (by email) and if you neglect to do this, you will inconvenience other yachts in the area because the Armada might call to ask if the missing vessel has been seen or initiate a search. Once this summer, we had to motor over to establish that another sailboat (and its owner) were alright. It seemed his communications were not working. On another occasion, we were asked about a large, unflagged and un-named aluminium vessel that had anchored nearby. Larry had talked to the Captain (a nice fellow to converse with), who for some reason found it inconvenient to follow the rules. We’ve also heard of boats (even in one case a Canadian boat) that left the dock without paying fees or duties that had been levied.
If you do plan to sail in Chile, prepare ahead of time to enjoy this fantastic country, it’s many beautiful anchorages and to leave a good impression behind.