It feels like just yesterday we welcomed 2018, and I can’t escape the nagging reminder that I still haven’t written about my trip to Chile. It’s been a full year since then, and lately I have been reminiscing on what was my favorite trip to date. In December of 2016 I graduated with my Masters and before starting the full-time work life, I took three weeks off to travel to my ultimate dream destination, Chile.

Glaciers at Refugio Dickson, Torres del Paine

While I thought three weeks was quite a long time, I realized how American I was when I met other young people spending three months in South America, and a couple doing a year-long around-the-world trip (with only one flight)! I can’t complain about three weeks though – it left me ample time to really soak in the beauty and diversity of the longest country in the world. The icing on the cake was the lack of stress: I was done with school yet had a job waiting for me back home. If only every vacation could be like that!

Anton drops me off at Dulles International Airport, and I’m off on my “first-ish” international solo trip.

Chile had been a long time travel goal of mine. The seeds were planted when I worked in astronomy and learned about all of the American sister telescopes located in the high plateaued deserts of a South American country I had given little thought to before. I already knew I loved the Sonoran desert, so the Atacama held a certain allure in my mind. Then I was gifted a book with the ultimate backpacking trips around the world, and discovered the Circuit (“O”) Trek in Torres del Paine. I had never backpacked before, but the only way to get around to the backside of the park was on foot, and I knew I had to see it for myself. Torres del Paine seemed like a safe start for backpacking: essentially no dangerous wild animals, designated campsites, numerous other trekkers, and trails that never stray more than a mile or two from fresh glacier water. In the fall of 2016 I bought tickets to Santiago and reserved campsites along the O-trek, and began reading as much as possible about backpacking.

Dulles train taking me to my departure gate

After months of researching the best light-weight camping gear for my trip, I destroyed all my precious planning by celebrating graduation with a nice new (and heavy!) camera and lens combo. It ended up being almost a quarter of my total pack weight. My pack ended up being heavier than I had hoped (about 40 lbs!), but to be fair, it included my gear for three full weeks abroad, from crossing snowy mountain passes to trekking around the midsummer desert to looking slightly more refined while touring wineries. Indeed, I have done much better with lightweight packing on more recent trips.

On the way to Chile I had an extended layover in Panama City, which I used to climb Ancon Hill, overlooking the city and the canal, and to finally purchase some sturdy sandals for walking around camp and warmer climates, which I couldn’t find anywhere in the states in the middle of the winter.

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Once I landed in Santiago, I had to wait about six hours for my flight to continue to Punta Arenas, the deep south of Chile. I also wasn’t able to check in until two hours before my flight – cue sleeping in a corner of the airport with about 10 other backpackers.

After traveling all day and night, I arrived in Punta Arenas around 10:00 in the morning. But it wasn’t quite the end of my journey. I still had to take a 2-hour bus ride up to Puerto Natales before I could collapse into my bed and get one last good rest before the 8-day trek. And after my time in Torres del Paine, there were penguins to see, one of the driest deserts in the world to visit, Chilean wine to sample, and culture to take in.

Chile was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Upon my return, I felt a bit lost for several months, because I no longer had an ultimate travel goal. My dream had been Chile for so long. And to this day, one year later, I still don’t have a dream country that occupies my thoughts the way Chile did. Given the opportunity, I would go back in a heartbeat.