Wednesday, March 22, 2022
Our idyllic stay at Tierra Chiloé restored us to a blissfully relaxed state after our stressful insurance snafu nearly torpedoed our departure for Chile. Other than missing the weekly offering of the traditional Chiloé dish of curanto (a seafood and potato stew cooked underground), we had a good introduction to Chiloé and at 8 am, loaded up for our 4 hour transfer via van and ferry to the Puerto Montt airport, where we would pick up a rental car to explore the Lake District on our own . Originally, in the pandemic-derailed December 2020 version of this trip, we planned to scout out a location from which to photograph the total solar eclipse. As it happened (little consolation), the eclipse’s visibility from Pucón was highly variable, depending on exactly where you were and the inconstant clouds.
Dropped at the curb at the small Puerto Montt Airport, we could see a Europcar kiosk across a small parking lot. We’ve rented from Europcar many times, including on our July 2019 eclipse trip. What luck! We didn’t even need to step inside the airport. We immediately hoisted on our camera backpacks and began wheeling our duffel bags toward the kiosk. The young man in the Europcar uniform outside the kiosk informed us we should have picked up our contract from the Europcar desk INSIDE the airport.
Whoops. But, not to worry, there was no need to wheel our bags back with us into the airport. The car was here and we could lock up our luggage in it before going unimpeded into the terminal to pick up the contract. We followed him to a small Citroën SVU, where he made a point of showing us the spare tire location (a first), concealed in the floor of the rear luggage compartment. Our three duffel bags, with two camera bags loaded on top, immediately buried it. He made a big show of locking the car and off we trooped into the airport to the Europcar desk. In retrospect, this seemingly innocent encounter was almost certainly where we were marked as targets.
Contract in hand, we returned to the car and minutely inspected it, circumambulating around it probably 3 times, taking pictures of scratches, before loading up and driving to the exit, where the Europcar guy had to open the gate to let us out. Negotiating the narrow lanes, Steve, who was driving, lightly skirted one of the curbs. Per Steve, the Europcar guy smirked as we left.
We drove north on Ruta 5 towards Puerto Varas, about a half hour drive away, where we had a 2 night stay booked at Casa Molino, on the shores of Lago Llanquihue. Within just a few miles, the low tire pressure light went on. As we were discussing that we’d need to check that out when we reached our destination, we hit a tollbooth, where we suddenly realized we didn’t have any Chilean currency! We’d been in the country since Sunday but having been ensconced in the comforts of all-inclusive Tierra Chiloé, had not needed any Chilean currency. Not to worry, we thought, American dollars are widely accepted in Chile and besides, we were committed. We had no choice but to advance to the booth. Steve dug a dollar out of his wallet and tried to pay with it. The toll was 900 Chilean pesos, so a dollar was more than enough. The toll collector stared uncomprehendingly at Steve, who dug out another dollar (the fiscal equivalent of speaking louder to a non-English speaker). Meanwhile, the line behind us began to build up.
Suddenly, a hand materialized from behind us and paid our toll in pesos. Thinking it was an impatient motorist who just wanted to speed us on our way, we waved thanks and drove off. It was indeed an impatient motorist, but not for the reasons we thought.
A sudden shuddering sound—kuh lunk kuh lunk— indicated unequivocably that we now had a very FLAT, not LOW, tire and a car behind us was waving us frantically over onto a side road. It was a gravel industrial road, perpendicular to the frontage road paralleling the highway. I was surprised Steve elected to follow the stranger’s lead when a sign on the frontage road indicated there was a Shell station, 7 km away.
“It’ll only take a few minutes to change the tire and we don’t want to ruin the rim!” Coming to a stop, the rear driver’s side tire was completely flat. The motorist who was signaling parked in front of us.
A slight, 40ish year old man (if I were to typecast him I would say “adjunct professor” type) who appeared to me possibly partly Asian materialized and busily insisted on helping us. We knew from Europcar that there was a spare tire under the luggage compartment. In fact, this unusual demonstration, as well as the timing of our low tire pressure signal and subsequent flat, made us later strongly suspect the Europcar guy was in on the scam. Our “Good Samaritan” swiftly began “helping” us to unload the large suitcases filling the rear compartment to uncover the spare tire. The duffle bags were stacked near the rear of the car on the passenger side. Two camera backpacks were stacked in the front seat, where I had been sitting and had left my beloved and well-travelled Tumi totebag. The passenger side doors were left open, moves carefully calculated to block our view of his accomplice, while Steve wrestled with the jack and tools to change the tire. The “Good Samaritan” handed me triangular warning reflectors to assemble, hardly needed on this rural road with little traffic.
Suddenly, the car which had been parked in front of us wheeled around and our “Good Samaritan” jumped into it, saying something about “la llave” (the key), momentarily bewildering me. Shouting something about his brother and going for help, the car roared off down the road.
“What the *@&#?!” I rounded our car and saw the front passenger’s seat, where two camera bags and my tote bag had been, was now empty! Greg ran after the rapidly disappearing car, a futile exercise.
We had barely registered the presence of a pedestrian, dressed like a construction worker with a hard hat and reflective vest, on the road when we parked the car. Steve thought in passing it was strange he didn’t offer to help with the tire. Evidently, he was a waiting accomplice, posted to empty out the front seat of the car, hidden by the open passenger side doors while we were distracted by changing the tire.
The next few minutes were full of curses and lamentations, much gnashing of collective teeth, with frantic discussions of our options and a quick inventory of what was missing: Greg’s laden camera bag (2 camera bodies, 8 lenses and an Insta 360, plus his passport), my camera bag (1 body and 3 lenses, filters and accessories, plus an envelope with $500 in it), my tote bag with both Steve’s and my passports, $1500 in cash, my wallet with driver’s license and credit cards and my little Fuji X100-V street camera. Steve’s wallet with credit cards was also missing. It had been in the center console, as only minutes before, he had been digging for cash for the toll booth.
So of the three of us, only Greg still had a wallet with a driver’s license and credit cards. We now had only one remaining camera bag between us, one driver’s license and no passports. The spare tire installed, we were in a furious quandary as to our next steps. We headed to the Shell station 7 km down the road. I asked the woman working inside the number and location of the nearest police station, which was nearby. Greg hit up the ATM there for Chilean currency for the inevitable toll roads. Steve and Greg thought our best chance for recovering our bags was making use of the electronic tracking devices available to us. My Iphone was in my purse. We immediately tried the Find My Phone function using Steve’s phone, with no response. This also closed off another option we considered, calling the thieves and offering a ransom for our belongings. Steve’s wallet had a Tile in it, which we guessed the thieves immediately jettisoned, as his phone showed its position on the road where we’d been stopped.
We had initially thought it was Steve’s camera bag which had been stolen (Steve and Greg have the same style bag). When we realized it was Greg’s, our hopes revived when he remembered he had hidden an Apple AirTag in a deep recess of his camera bag. On his phone, Greg got a bead on his bag’s location. It was moving back towards Puerto Montt! We decided to follow it.
Our first efforts were thwarted by a few wrong turns, being in the wrong lane and general disorientation, but eventually we were southbound to Puerto Montt, where the AirTag was beaming a signal covering a few block radius of downtown.
As we made our way closer to the heart of downtown, I saw on Steve’s Iphone an email from Citibank, asking if a charge at the department store Paris was ours. I responded with an emphatic NO and just then, I saw the store, in the several block area indicated by the AirTag. We were hot on the trail but unsure how to take it any further. We rounded the area a few times, peering suspiciously at people on the street for our assailant and eyeing the electronics stores. The AirTag wasn’t moving. I stopped a woman on the street to ask the location of the nearest police station, only a few blocks away.
Steve stayed with the car while Greg and I tried in a mixture of Spanish (me) and pointing at the AirTag locator on his phone (Greg) to communicate with the officer inside. Eventually, we made him understand. He made some calls. Two other officers arrived and motioned to us to come with them in the squad car, my second “opportunity” to ride in the back of a police squad car in a Spanish speaking country! We circled downtown several times before they parked near the Paris department store and a nearby parking garage. On foot, we followed the electronic trail, thinking it would lead us to a nearby electronics store. But no one inside looked suspicious and the AirTag didn’t narrow its focus. We passed another electronics store with the same result. We made a brief foray inside an open air mall. Just outside the mall, the AirTag signal suddenly changed from a grayed circle to a specific location dot.
We zeroed in a parked dark gray Kia on the street outside the parking garage. I peered into the back seat and had a Eureka moment of recognition: Snacks! On the seat! Which only that morning I had stashed in my purse, including a nearly empty bag of lightly salted almonds from Trader Joe’s, not available in Chile. The signal was emanating from the trunk!
I was feeling horrible during this stake out. My belly had suddenly blown up while we were at the first police station, presumably a stress reaction. It was raining insistently while we tramped the streets with the policemen and both of us had left our raincoats in the car back with Steve. I had a fleece jacket on but it was a cold rain and I was soon shivering.
After standing around the vehicle for a while, during which multiple calls were made, eventually the policemen motioned us back into the squad car. A decision was made: a plain clothes officer would be posted at the car, waiting for the thieves to return. In the meantime, we were taken in the police car to a different station where multiple officers interviewed us, mostly in Spanish, also my second time to repeatedly recount in Spanish a tale of being robbed, the last time being in 2015 in Cuba.
After some hours, we asked the officers to call the station where we had left Steve. I had his phone and Greg had his, so we had no way to update him ourselves. Later, we later learned Steve was being “entertained” by a young officer at the first station with videos of his sporting exploits, from skydiving to skiing, including castrating a pig. He also offered him a hard-boiled egg and showed him how stolen items are quickly posted for sale on Instagram, but our gear didn’t appear. As the afternoon gave way to evening, we asked that they give Steve the GPS coordinates of the second station so he could join us there. I saw him looking for the number while paused across the street and flagged him down. He had already made 3 circuits on one-way streets of the block looking for the station, with the GPS leading him to a performing arts center and then cutting out. The captain explained that the stake-out would be conducted “until a reasonable hour” and if the thieves failed to show up, the police would open the trunk and hopefully, find our gear.
We left and drove north to Casa Molino in Puerto Varas. As we were checking in and recounting the events of the afternoon, the phone at reception rang-it was the police, asking us to return.
Back at the station on Guillermo Gallardo Street, we were led into a large room with tables. A man and a woman, who did not resemble our description of our assailant, had been arrested and a trunk-full of goods recovered. On one was a pile of stuff, including a camera store worth of gear and our two camera bags, keeping company with cellophane-encased boxes of perfume, athletic shoes, duffle bags with clothes, a toiletry bag and a whole bunch of junk of no interest to us, presumably the spoils of a shopping spree with our credit cards. Pointedly not present was my tote bag, containing our passports, my wallet and most of the cash we had with us. We inventoried the recovered items. Greg regained almost all of his camera gear, except for an orange Solis mobile Wifi device and the Arsenal, a camera assist device with which both he and Steve were experimenting this trip. We think the thieves took them for tracking devices and promptly ditched them.
I recovered everything that was in my camera bag, namely my Fujifilm X-T4 body and 3 lenses, plus a host of filters, chargers and accessories. Strangely, although my tote bag wasn’t there, some of the more valuable things that had been in there were in the recovered haul, including my back-up camera, the little Fuji X100-V I use for street photography. A small zippered pouch with cosmetics was in the bounty, but not the woven one from Helsinki I used as a wallet, with my driver’s license, credit cards and recently renewed medical license. Of course, the envelopes of cash and Steve’s wallet were not there. Surprisingly, my Bose noise cancellation headphones were present. I caught a little break in not losing my darkening prescription glasses, which were around my neck.
The police were so pleased with this outcome that they asked to take pictures together with the recovered goods.
I might have preferred to have recovered my passport to my gear if it had been a choice (upgrade opportunity?). When we initially thought they had made off with Steve’s camera bag and mine, we were already thinking Greg had enough gear that we could still shoot in Patagonia (Greg and Steve have the same style of bag, distinguished only by the luggage tags). The 4 tripods on the trip were safely stashed in our large rolling duffel bags.
Back at Casa Molina later that evening, we consoled ourselves with Pisco Sours and a late dinner, starting with albacore for Greg and a large salad shared by Steve and me. Both Greg and I were overwhelmed by the richness of the stone crab gratin. Steve had a breaded flattened chicken, schnitzel style, with crispy salted roasted potatoes. It had been a nightmarish, exhausting and unforgettable day. Adding to the misery was that we had no running water until the following day (not a hotel issue, but regional ).
Thursday, March 23, 2022
Today was devoted to life reconstruction, namely marshaling documents to obtain new passports. The water was back on and freshly showered, we were ready to tackle the mountain of tasks awaiting. The night before, we had stayed up cancelling credit cards and sending the police a screen capture of the successful charges made with our cards. The chief at the police station had told us that attempted charges would only result in a misdemeanor charge but successful ones would be grounds for a felony charge.
Julio and the team at Casa Molino was very helpful, printing out passport applications and photocopies of our passports we emailed to them. Julio also accompanied us into town to have the tire repaired and to have photos taken for new passports. Julio led us to a residential section of town, crawling past a crowd of parents queued up to walk their children home from school.
At the small shop, the diagnosis was quickly made and the weapon found-a hollow pointed metal spike, forming a hole on the INSIDE of the tire, in a position which we could not have picked up on the road or seen during our careful inspection of the vehicle at the car rental agency, effectively proof positive that we were set up. In fact, the low air pressure light had come on before we hit the toll booth, only a few miles from the airport. At the shop, we also learned from a big burly muscular chileno there that HE had carjacked by 4 guys with guns only the week before. Somehow, all of us felt, to variable degrees, somewhat better after our trip to the vulcanization shop that there was not much we could have done to avoid this incident.
Puerto Varas is a charming town, heavily inflected with a Germanic heritage, with a town square surrounded by blocks of curio and outdoor gear shops, with many restaurants. After our passport photos were taken, Greg found some new sunglasses at the Kuhl store, while Steve discovered (via his Apple watch) that we weren’t totally bereft of credit cards to pay for a nice lightweight sweater he found at the same store. We had a pleasant early dinner on the terrace at La Vinoteca, where we provisioned from the adjacent wine store afterwards. We dispatched our last purchase from La Vinoteca on the flight home to the US, terrific jamon serrano (spoiler alert: we did make it back home!), which enhanced our airplane breakfast quiche considerably.
Friday, March 24, 2022
We said goodbye to Julio and Casa Molino and headed to Pucón, where we had 4 nights booked to explore the Lake District. By this time, we’d cancelled credit cards and conferred back and forth with Nick at the South America Specialists in London, our travel agent for this trip. It was clear by now there was no avoiding a trip to Santiago for replacement passports. Instead of 4 nights at Hotel Atumalal in Pucón exploring the Lake District, we’d have to settle for a taste of the area and cut our stay down to 2 nights, flying to Santiago on Sunday before (hopefully) obtaining new passports at the embassy on Monday, enabling us to fly as planned to Patagonia the following day. The hitch was that the embassy’s first offer of an appointment was for Wednesday, which would cut our time in Patagonia down to 2 travel days and one full day there-not worth it. Although not all that hopeful, I wrote back and asked if Monday was possible, mentioning this time our plans for Patagonia. Later that day, to our delight, we received the desired Monday morning appointments. Nick swung into action in the UK, booking us seats to fly from a closer Lake District airport, Temuco, to Santiago, 2 nights in a Santiago hotel near the embassy and seats on a flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt, which would enable us to connect with the flight we already had from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, the closer of the 2 airports that service Patagonia. Now, we just had to hope all would go smoothly on Monday at the embassy in Santiago and that we’d have new passports by the end of the day. We also had to hope we could board our flight from Temuco to Santiago to get those new passports, armed only with passport photocopies and a police report.
We began our 4 hour drive from Puerto Varas to Pucón with a stop in town to pick up our new passport photos.
We had a late lunch at 4 pm at Hotel Atumalal on their terrace with a panoramic view of the lake, before heading out on a rough dirt road (rough enough to foil several would be off-roaders in cars along the way) towards the Mirador de Crateres. It was late enough we couldn’t really do much hiking, but we felt even the climb from the parking lot towards the trailhead.
Our exercise on this leg of the trip was provided by our 2-bedroom Lake Chalet accommodation, a steep stone step climb up and down from the main lodge, a stylish mid-century property with spectacular views of Lago Villarica.
Gloria at Hotel Atumalal was a huge help to us, printing documents we emailed to her. Hotel Atumalal also helped take some of the financial sting out of this debacle, allowing us to cancel our last two nights, effectively paying for our unexpected 2 nights in Santiago. Amazingly, our additional tariff for 2 last minute additional flights was $275 each.
Saturday, March 26, 2022
We stayed up late the night before watching Licorice Pizza, which Greg and I had started watching on the drive from Chiloé to Puerto Montt, but had to interrupt when the roughness of the road and winding curves made both of us suddenly feel queazy. We had planned to wake up early enough to assess the sunrise shooting possibilities but looking out the window in the morning, there was a heavy cloud cover and no color. It also was cool, with bird songs accentuated over the lake. It seemed as though the seasons had changed overnight, as it had been remarkably warm on our arrival the afternoon before.
The day before, we’d decided on a river float trip in the afternoon on the Rio Trancura to see birds and scenery. Presumably because of the cool, cloudy conditions, our departure time was moved up from 4 pm to 3 pm. Gonsalvo and Fernando (of Puconbirds and Puconphoto on Instagram) picked us up. It was chilly and cloudy but comfortable bundled up.
The river corridor was a peaceful and pretty riparian environment, remarkably pristine. We floated leisurely past occasional picnickers and fly fishermen pursuing king salmon.
On the way, Fernando showed us on his phone some of the local birds we might see, including the spectacled duck and the kingfisher. We startled a spectacled duck at close range, but had better advance warning for a family of four spotted from afar.
Dinner commenced with salmon and tuna ceviche. We’d enjoyed the blue cheese, prosciutto and grilled peach salad so much the prior day that we ordered it again, but had to send it back when it arrived without the delicious blue cheese. Greg and I both enjoyed the venison, while Steve elected the mini-hamburgers. Our after dinner entertainment was Steve’s selection, a film called Permanent. I enjoyed this comedy about a family with hair (and other) issues but it sent Greg into a coma.13-year old Aurelie (Kira McLean) lobbies her parents for a permanent, thinking that will help her fit in better with her classmates. It goes wrong when her financially strapped parents take her to a beauty school. Her toupee-wearing father (Rainn Wilson, Dwight from The Office) has his own issues with self-image.
Sunday, March 27, 2022
Today we took leave of lovely Hotel Atumalal, leaving at 11 am for the airport at Temuco, 1.5 hours away, on our quest to replace our passports in Santiago. Checking in our luggage and obtaining boarding passes was easy, as was passing through security. We encountered more scrutiny gaining access to the Priority Pass lounge, the Pacific Club, than we did boarding our plane! We held our breath with anxiety boarding our flight, armed with our photocopied documents and the police report, but were waved on without much scrutiny. Whew!
Landing in Santiago, it was a relief to be met at the airport and to allow ourselves to relax a little the vigilance that had become our defensive armor. Our driver and guide pointed out the nearby American embassy on our drive to the Hotel El Bosque, as well as an adjacent street lined with restaurants. After checking through our document dossiers line by line, making sure every i was dotted and t crossed and there were no cross-outs or errors, we walked over to an Italian place recommended by the front desk, Le Due Torri (The Two Towers). We gorged on pisco sours, pulpo starters (Greg), gnocchi bolognese and sauteed mushrooms (Steve) and osso buco stuffed pasta with a berry and mushroom sauce (me) and creamed spinach.
Monday, March 28, 2022
The rest of our trip hinged on this day. We were the first in line at 9 am at the controlled entry. We’d left our cell phones and computers at the hotel and arrived with only our paperwork, money and photos. One by one, we were called up to the window to submit our paperwork and to another window for payment ($165). Another couple who had been robbed “of everything” was behind us in line, but we didn’t have a chance to hear their story.
A cheerful and friendly American who had formerly lived in Chicago and worked in the juvenile justice system interviewed us and let us know our passports would be ready at 3 pm that afternoon. Relief! She called Greg up first and looking through his details, asked where he lived in Chicago. He responded with his address in a wooden Name, Rank and Serial Number fashion, then relaxed when she laughed and said: “No, what neighborhood do you live in?”
For lunch, we walked to a sandwich lunch on the terrace at Fuente Alemana.
Promptly at 3 pm, we re-presented ourselves at the Embassy’s entrance, armed with the receipts we’d stored in the hotel rooms’ safes. Our new passports were thin, only valid for 3 months and the pictures had transformed us into elongated, Modiliani versions of ourselves. Our next stop was again the hotel, to lock up these precious sheaves of paper in the safe.
I had made a 6 pm reservation for dinner for us at a wine bar Steve and I had enjoyed on our last passage through Santiago: Bocanáriz (Mouth-Nose).
We walked over a leisurely hour and change the 3 miles to the restaurant, paralleling the river and a string of verdant parks, in which couples embraced and cyclists zipped.
We had a high-top table outside. Like other cities during the pandemic, restaurants without terraces were allowed in Santiago to expand their footprints outside. It was a lively scene in Lastarria, especially given it was a Monday night. We were warned by the hostess not to leave our phones on the table.
We had an excellent meal, starting with pisco sours for me and Steve and a Negroni for Greg and moving on to a meal pairing. We had a trio of appetizers paired with 3 different wines, an oyster, a blue cheese and marmalade topped toast and a savory meat-stuffed empanada. Steve and I elected the pumpkin risotto with goat cheese and Greg had a nice rockfish main course. The miniature chocolate volcano was well paired with a dessert wine.
We lucked out finding a cab immediately down the street. The waiter’s estimate of a fare of 5000-6000 Chilean pesos was right on the money.
We were on our way to Patagonia! Although we hadn’t intentionally included any time in Santiago this trip, we did make the best of this passport-forced excursion, but it was a relief to have regained control (to some degree) over our lives and to resume our longed for return to Patagonia, which we explored together in 2015.