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Patagonia, Chile 72-Hour Vacation

Cruise at the End of the World
Exploring Patagonia's Majestic Glaciers and Fjords
by Andre Gayot


If you walk further, you fall off this world, wrote Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet. South of the beautiful Lake District, a barrier of the Cordillera de los Andes and fjords topped by ice fields (one the largest freshwater field reserves in the world) separate Santiago (in the center of Chile) from its most austral part, Patagonia. This almost virgin land, shared by 150,000 humans, two million sheep and 500,000 penguins, is named Patagonia—“Land of the big feet”—because the European discoverers were impressed by the size of the footprints they saw on the sandy beaches. They were believed to belong to giants, but in fact were only the mark of the feet of the then-residents, the tall Indians named Tehuelches (now extinct) who wrapped their feet in animal skins. At its extremity, the Tierra del Fuego island, shared between Chile and Argentina, owes its name to the many fires lit by the Indian Yamanas tribe to keep warm in the icy winter.

Spectacular "towers" of Torres del Paine National Park
Spectacular "towers" of Torres del Paine National Park
Punta Arenas ("The Sandy Point"), camped on the Strait of Magellan, is the turntable of Patagonia and its gateway to many destinations like the Torres del Paine National Park, so rich with natural marvels that it has been proclaimed a world biosphere reserve. Around the spectacular “towers” of granite, it harbors 250 kilometers of hiking paths. Nature lovers, hikers and horseback riders have a choice between eco-camps and luxurious lodges. The Patagonian Channels, meandering among fjords, glaciers and wild islands, are another spectacular excursion. Punta Arenas was created in 1805 as a penitentiary because, in those days, it was unreachable and far from everything. To survive in this desolation, the guardians had no other choice than to join forces with the prisoners. But some prosperity, apparent in the façades of a few mansions, came in the 19th century thanks to the sheep farms.  The Magellan Memorial represents the great Portuguese navigator who, in 1520, discovered the passage between the two oceans. A popular trip can easily be taken to Magdalena Island, which is 35 kilometers away and where, in season, up to 144,000 couples of Patagonian penguins can be seen. For our purpose, Punta Arenas is also the port of call for the local cruise ships.


DAY 1

Docked in the small harbor facing the Strait of Magellan and anchored among the trawlers, our boat, the Mare Australis, prepares for her weekly rotation to Cape Horn. Recently built (in 2002 & 2005), two small cruise ships, the Mare Australis and the Via Australis, are tailored for sailing these straits. They are able to closely navigate the shores for the enjoyment of the passengers. The number of passengers is limited to 130. A higher number would not be conducive to shuffling passengers on and off the boat to be brought ashore in Zodiacs (inflatable flat and keel-less rubber boats). On the panoramic deck and trough, or through the large windows of the cabins, one can see and photograph the no-where-else-to-be-seen scenery that passes by. Cabins on three decks are reasonably spacious and comfortable, but not luxurious. Mind you this is more an expedition than a cruise. A waterproof parka, a warm sweater, gloves, waterproof trousers and trekking boots are de rigueur.

The Patagonian forest turns green in summer and red in fall
The Patagonian forest turns green in summer and red in fall
Deprived of this paraphernalia you can feel miserable. The cuisine served onboard is unpretentious and rather healthy, with Chilean wines to help pleasantly wash it all down. Cooking demonstrations take place between excursions

The Mare Australis sails southward Saturday nights after a cocktail reception and dinner. A night of slow navigation brings us to the first visit: Ainsworth Bay. We are invited to don our expedition attire and to board the Zodiacs in small groups. The fast boats speed around floating ice to the shore where elephant seals are resting.  In the distance, glittering under the sun, we take our first look at a glacier: Marinelli Glacier. Will our grandchildren be able to enjoy such a beautiful vision? This glacier has receded by six kilometers in ten years and continues to melt. When will it disappear completely? Do the sea elephants sprawling on the beach know? Will they survive and continue to give birth to their babies on this beach? In this apparently barren environment, we hike in the Patagonian forest. Life clings to plants that look like minerals. But every austral spring, this austere world resurrects. Plants, animals and humans have learned to surmount the adversity of an infertile nature. Evergreens grow on the southern beaches, and in fall, the forests turn red. Naturalists have observed the mysterious symbiosis existing between algae, moss, lichens, and fungi that sustain each other to survive. Strange orchids have the shape of testicles, and the calafate berries are the base of Patagonian delicacy: the calafate jam. A hot chocolate and a whiskey, mixed with ice from the glacier, make the conclusion of this excursion very special.

The Patagonian penguins abound on Magdalena Island
The Patagonian penguins abound on Magdalena Island

Returning onboard for lunch, we cast off for Tucker Island, which we reach in the late afternoon. The Zodiacs streak the surface of the dark water, leaving a white scar behind them while circling around the cliffs of this small islet, sinister under the low clouds and the gloomy sky. The cliffs are punctured with gaps resembling holes made by canon balls, and offering an opportunity to the many cormorants to nestle in these spaces. On the other side on a steep beach, bashful penguins briefly show up. We are not authorized to set foot on the island as a precaution to preserve its fragile soil. Onboard, a cocktail is a welcome pick-me-up.

Continue to Day 2

MORE PATAGONIA INFORMATION

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Travel Guide Chile


* Photos courtesy of www.patagonia-chile.com and www.australis.com

PSF060107
(Updated: 06/04/08 HC)

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