On November 12, our first full day in Punta Arenas, Chile, we went to the docks to board a large, fast catamaran to travel to Magdalena Island out in the Straits of Magellan. Along the way, the crew pointed out some whales surfacing in the distance. I was never sure what kind of whales they were but humpbacks are regularly sighted in the Straits. I enjoyed going out on to the top deck of the fast moving boat as the sun broke through the clouds and shined on the water. As we ran across the water, the waves became bigger and the ride bumpier and Magdalena Island gradually grew in front of us.
We soon disembarked from the boat onto the island and into Los Pinguinos Natural Monument and began to see the very cute magellanic penguins waddling about the island. The magellanic penguins are medium size penguins native to the Patagonia area. They are deep diving birds who feed in the sea and lay their eggs in burrows on the island. Generally, the penguins mate for life. The island was also covered with thousands of kelp gulls. We walked the loop path, carefully designated to avoid disturbing the penguins, up to the lighthouse and back down to the boat. For some time, I watched a penguin busily gathering grass and rocks, putting them into the burrow to build the nest, looking for the right grass, picking it, and returning it to the burrow again and again. It was a bit early in the year to see young penguins, which was good since studies have shown that the presence of people causes stress in young penguins. The primary threat to the penguins is oil spills, and because of that the magellanic penguins are considered endangered.
Back in Punta Arenas, after buying lunch in the large, busy grocery store across from our guest house, several of us took a taxi out to the Museo Nao Victoria, an open air museum on the edge of town by the water with replicas of the key boats that played a role in the history of the area. Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese sailor who was commissioned by Spain and was the first European to circumnavigate the globe and sail through the Straits of Magellan. There were five ships in his fleet and we toured the replica of the Victoria, one of those ships. The boat was nearly completely constructed of wood with crew areas below deck which were too low to stand in and a larger space for cargo below. The expedition returned to Spain in 1522 but Magellan did not survive the trip.
The Beagle was the ship used in the famous voyage between 1831 and 1836 to South American, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific captained by Robert FitzRoy to continue surveying activities, using the latest instruments. The ship carried Charles Darwin as its gentleman naturalist, and he in fact spent more of that time ashore than on the boat, studying the geology, flora, fauna and indigenous peoples. Touring the boat, we found it obvious that ship building had made incredible advances in the three hundred years between the Victoria and the Beagle. There were small cabins for the officers and much more open spaces below deck. There were well-engineered iron mechanisms and fittings. Both FitzRoy and Darwin published books on the voyage and Darwin’s studies became the basis for his theory of natural selection.
We also found a replica of the James Caird, the lifeboat which Ernest Shackleton fitted for a desperate and stormy voyage through the worst stretch of ocean in the world to find rescue for his stranded crew. After much difficulty, especially with the English admiralty, Shackleton rescued his crew in August of 1916 from Elephant Island using a ship provided by Chile. Their arrival in Puntas Arenas was greeted with much celebration by the residents of the city.
We went back to the ticket office to get help with a taxi back into town but found the office empty. A women in the yard told us that the man in the office was at lunch so we walked back out to the main road to see if we could hail a taxi. Instead, an empty bus with a driver waited for us which we boarded for an inexpensive ride by ourselves to the municipal cemetery. The cemetery was lovely with long rows of severely shaped evergreens and rows of graves and mausoleums. Near the back, we found the black monument to local people who were executed and disappeared during the Pinochet era. Many were in their twenties and one was twenty years old. It was so moving that I could feel it in my chest.
We walked back into town and to the Plaza de Armas and the monument to Magellan. The town is filled with lovely parks and buildings with strong European influences but uniquely its own. From there we climbed up the hill to a view point of the town and the Straits of Magellan. For some reason, Punta Arenas felt like the edge of the world, and indeed, it is said to be one of the southernmost cities in the world, and people get on boats here to go to Antarctica. We ate dinner at a restaurant called Amar Mita where I ate a nice Guanaco bourguignon (it tasted like beef) and homemade cake.
Torres del Paine National Park and the W trek
Together, the open grasslands of the steppe, the tall jagged peaks, the enormous aquamarine lakes and the endless southern icefields give the area around Torres del Paine National Park in Chile a definite otherworldly feel. The vast glaciers push the moisture from the nearby Pacific Ocean so that it boils up over the mountains and accelerate the winds to pound the hikers below. On November 13, we boarded a van in Punto Arenas for the drive north to Torres del Paine. After leaving the city, we drove for several hours through the barren, flat Pampa, grasslands with occasional sheep mixed in with the large land bird, the Rhea, along with other birds. After a bit of time, it became boring and a good time for a nap. When I awoke the countryside was hillier with occasional glimpses of snow-capped peaks far in the distance.
After a time, we arrived in Puerto Natales, a town located on a large body of water with snow-capped peaks on the other side of the lake. In town, we went into the tour agency offices and had a briefing on the W trek by a young woman who knew Torres del Paine very well. The W is a five day trek, shaped like a W, in the National Park. After the briefing we walked down to the beautiful water front on the Ultima Esperanza Sound, a body of water emptying into the Pacific through a system of fiords. After a nice Pizza lunch at the Guanaco restaurant, we were back in the van heading north to the Torres del Paine National Park. As we traveled, we began to see the Torres del Paine massif which was very impressive with its towers and high peaks, and near the park we began to see groups of Guanacos a wild relative of llamas in the camel family. These tall, slender animals provide a primary food source for the pumas that live in the national park. Stopping at one viewpoint above a lake, we found several interesting flowers in the brush, including small, yellow lady slipper orchids. After checking in at the park’s administrative offices, we arrived at the Refugio Las Torres. It was a hostel type refugio with bunk-bed, dormitory-style rooms and shared baths. We had four of the women and two men in our room.
On Thursday, November 15, we started our first leg of the W with a hike to a viewpoint called Mirador los Torres. This would be a seven mile hike with considerable elevation gain. We started walking on level ground through the refugio complex and past the hotel and turned northwest and started climbing on a good trail. Denise led and set a steady pace. We climbed to a highpoint where we had a nice view up the valley of the Rio Ascencio, and then from there, we descended into the lovely beech forest and down to the river. We crossed the raging, glacial river to the Refugio el Chileno where we stopped to eat snacks. Then we crossed the river again on a bridge and walked for several kilometers along but slightly above the river. Soon, when we reached an intersection with a trail to a camping area, it began to snow lightly, and we turned on the main trail and began to climb steeply. The trail became increasingly rugged with many boulders to cross. As we climbed, the forest thinned and we were soon above the tree line, climbing through a large boulder field. We climbed over a high point and down a bit to a sign for the mirador. Below the sign we found a large glacial lake, but above it we could see little because of the clouds and snow. We sat in the rocks near the sign and ate our packed lunch. After I finished my sandwich, huddled between boulders, I began to get cold, and so, got up and began to explore the area. Standing on a flat rock next to the lake, I began to see the clouds dissipating and the towers began to appear. Soon I became quite elated because I could see the towers and began to excitedly take pictures. As the towers again disappeared, we began the long trip back. Climbing down over the boulders was difficult and required some care. We were soon back in the forest which sheltered us more from the weather. As I approached Refugio el Chileno, it started to snow again. So I went into the dining hall of which was full of hikers, bought a coke and took the last remaining seat. Hiking again, the snow stopped by the time I reached the last high point. I hiked the rest of the way with Dan and we got a bit lost among the trails in the Refugio del Torres complex. I left Dan to get a beer in the main dining hall where I found Heeja. Heeja and I celebrated the completion of what we were told was the most difficult climb in the W trek, properly, over beers.
The next day, we walked to Refugio Cuernos. It started as a warm, pleasant day as we walked over rolling hills. Early in the walk we came into view of Lago Nordenskjold, a large aquamarine lake, and we walked just above the lake for some time. The terrain was very open with firebrush with its bright red flowers, low calafate shrubs with berries, and many small beech trees. The views over the lake and to the mountains above us were continuous. The wind began to pick up and soon we were under siege. We were struck by powerful gusts. One hit me and I suddenly found myself sitting by the trail. Nearly everyone was knocked down and Steve lost his hat. We had to stop during gusts and brace ourselves with our hiking poles. We continued around the lake and came to Refugio Cuernos which consisted of a main building with small cabins up the hill. I shared one of the nice cabins with Denise and Dan.
I had been having trouble using my Chilean currency because no one want to change the large bills, so I had to use my credit card instead. So in the afternoon, I bought everyone drinks to use some of the currency. At the refugio, I saw an Argentinian guide who we had seen while hiking and I asked him about his mate gear which consisted of a thermos and a large cup with a metal straw. The cup was full of herbs and he poured hot water from the thermos into it. He said he made his own herb mix and liked his bitter. He said that mate was an important part of social gatherings. People would gather, not talking much, but when they drank the mate, they began talking. He let me drink a cup which tasted like herb tea and told me that few of the foreign clients drank the whole cup.
While we were at dinner in the dining hall, the staff lit fires in the woodstoves in our cabins so they became pleasantly warm. The dining hall had enormous windows with views up to the Cuernos formations above and over the lake. In the evening, the wind had died down, so I went down to the lake and took pictures. It was a beautiful evening.
On Friday, November 16, we continued walking above the lake. After a couple of hours, we reached Campamento Italian which was a tent campground with primitive rest rooms raised into the air. By the time we reached the camp, it was overcast with occasional sprinkles. From the camp, we climbed up the Valle Frances on a rugged trail above the raging Rio Frances. For some time we hiked on a narrow moraine in the forest. As we climbed, we heard the boom of an avalanche from the large Glacier Frances above us. Soon we hiked out of the forest onto a level, rocky area which was the first viewpoint. Clouds limited our views but the glacier above us was clearly visible. At the top we heard another boom and saw yet another collapse and an avalanche of ice flow down from the glacier. There was another mirador above us but we were told to turn around if there was limited visibility at this first mirador, so we descended to Campamento Italiano. From the camp, we hiked for miles above the lake through the remains of a previous forest fire. I dropped back for a while to hike alone, enjoying the views of lakes, the mountains and the very unique countryside.
Around a bend, I came to a view of large Lago Pehoe and soon spotted Refugio Grande, our destination for the day. It had a large modern building with many brightly colored tents behind it. We were supposed to stay in tents with sleeping pads, sleeping bags and pillows provided. We became quite frustrated when we found that these items would be difficult to obtain. With negotiations and threats, we finally got the pads and bags. We never got pillows. Four people got very light bags and Denise had to negotiate additional blankets for them. After this, we spent some time in the bar, and I had two calafate sours, like pisco sours but using the local berries.
On Saturday, we hiked out of Refugio Grande, up a canyon, over a pass and into open country with small lakes and views over Lago Grey. There were large chunks of ice floating in the lake. We reached mirador grey were we had grand views of enormous Greys Glacier, the lake and the surrounding mountains. There we again met two other women from Colorado and took pictures with them. We then hiked down to Refugio Grey which was a lovely building with a long front porch. As we sat on the porch eating our lunch, a red chimango caracara landed near us hoping for food. The refugio was nice with pleasant wooden furniture and photos of the national park on the walls.
Waiting for our next activity, we sat in the deck chairs on the porch in the warm sun, looking at the high jagged ridge above us and at a condor soaring high above. A bit later, we got onto a small motorboat to cross the lake to La Isla o Nunatuk in order to walk on Greys Glacier. The boat ride was bumpy with the wind blowing spray onto us. We disembarked onto the rocky island and our guide led us on a quick climb up the rugged trail to the glacier. Twice, we had to climb ladders. On the top we put on the harness and crampons we had been given and were given a helmet and ice ax. After brief instructions, we climbed onto the glacier. We visited a deep blue hole where small rocks on the surface had melted ice and we visited a number of other holes and cavities taking many pictures. We also climbed to viewpoints of the large glacier descending to the lake. Walking on the glacier was fun but the wind picked up and soon I was cold. I was glad to climb down the rocky trail to the boat. The mountains were dramatic above the glacier including a view of Paine Grande, the tallest mountain in Torres del Paine.
During the night in Refugio Grey, I awoke to find it pitch black in our rooms. All the lights were off in the building. I had kicked my headlamp onto the floor and could not find it to go to the toilet. I left the room but could not find the bathroom but finding my way back to our room with my hands, I did manage to guess which door was ours.
On Sunday, we hiked back on the same route to Refugio Grande. I got up early and started the hike before the main group to give myself plenty of time, as did a few others. Back at Refugio Grande after snacks and coffee, we got on a catamaran for the half hour ride across Lago Pehoe to where we met our van for the ride to El Chalten. With this, we completed the 44 mile W trek in Torres del Paine.
Los Glaciares National Park and Monte Fitzroy
From Torres del Paine, our driver was Raoul, and Raoul drove slowly. We did not ride far before we crossed the border into Argentina where we had to stop and go in an office to show our passports. We went into a nearby store and restaurant to exchange our remaining Chilean currency for Argentinian Pesos. After driving across the Pampas, we started down a beautiful incline into the valley of the Rio Santa Cruz with views out to Lago Argentino in the direction towards El Calafate. Descending, Raoul pulled off the road to look under the hood after getting an engine warning light. He talked about going into El Calafate for assistance but since it was Sunday evening, we persuaded him to turn north and continue to our destination, El Chalten. It was a beautiful drive around the large lake. We arrived at our hotel in El Chalten around 9:00 pm. The hotel was nice with high ceilings and large rooms and a pleasant common area in which to sit. El Chalten is a small mountain town and gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. In 1985 Chile and Argentina settled a border dispute by agreeing that this area was in Argentina, and the country began encouraging the development of the town as a tourism center. We ate at a restaurant called La Tapera which had fabulous food. I had trout with a cheese sauce and a vegetable pastry.
Monday was rainy and windy in El Chalten and the guide said this was the best hiking day to skip. So I stayed in town and did not go on the group hike. I took laundry to be done and Vaune, Dan and I walked to the pharmacy so Dan could get medicine for his bronchitis and Vaune could get a brace for her sore knee. Dan went back to the hotel and Vaune and I went to an outdoor shop, a gift shop and a bookstore. We went into a new café and had coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice and delicious lemon meringue pie. The coffee had not been good in the refugios, so it was wonderful drinking great coffee. We then walked to the park headquarters and got a briefing on the trails and leave-no-trace practices from a ranger. In the afternoon, I rested, read the Post and listened to music. For dinner, we went back to La Tapera and I had one of the best steaks I have ever eaten. The great food was not expensive.
On Tuesday, I hiked directly out of El Chalten to Lago Torre. It rained for the whole hike. Pablo, our guide, was a young, intelligent Argentinian from Buenos Aires who was very knowledgeable about the plants, geology and glaciers. We started through open steppe country and stopped to photograph beautiful yellow orchids. We hiked through the forest over one glacial moraine after another. After a couple of hours, we entered an area with a climax forest with very large lenga beech trees. We stopped for lunch at a backcountry camping area and then hiked on to Lago Torre, a moderately sized lake around which we could see large, snow-covered mountains. The lake was surrounded by a terminal moraine with only a few pioneer plants. The glacier had only recently retreated from those moraines. Pablo pointed up at a 45 degree angle to a flat spot on the shoulder of a mountain above us and told us that would be our destination tomorrow. At the far end of the lake, we saw the large Glacier Grande intersecting with the smaller Glacier Torre. Because of the clouds and rain, we could not see the higher peaks above us. We were quite soaked by the time we got to the lake, and I was quite cold. We climbed over the moraine and began our hike back to town. Pablo and Denise talked about food the whole time which made me quite hungry.
That evening we went to Estancia Madsen for dinner. Andreas Madsen was a Danish man who arrived in Argentina in 1901. He eventually established his ranch, Estancia Cerro Fitz Roy, on the Rio de las Vueltas where he raised sheep and a family. Madsen was influential in various ways in the area and helped establish the national park. His house was small with small rooms and was constructed from a variety of scraps and materials, whatever was available. In the dining room, we sampled Argentinian wine and liquor and had a nice stew for dinner. In the rooms, there were pictures of Madsen and his friends and family. One set of pictures showed the pumas he killed to protect his sheep.
On Wednesday, November 22, I went on a world-class day hike to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado. We started at the National Park Center where we saw a condor soaring above us. We hiked with Pablo up through the open steppe and again saw yellow orchids. We hiked on through flat, wet meadows and through beautiful forest composed of the lenga beech trees. There were views of the dramatic peak of Monte Fitzroy along the trail. Pablo showed us the pan de indio (indian bread) which is an edible mushroom growing like fruit on the trees. I ate one of the mushrooms. It didn’t have much flavor but was definitely edible. As we climbed the trees became shorter, and soon, we were above tree line climbing into the open, glacial terrain of the alpine area and walking through shallow, wet snow with bright sunshine. There were only small ground-cover plants on the ground. We had views of Fitzroy as we climbed and soon reached a large, level area where the views were astounding, with the Lago Torre below, where we had been the day before. Fitzroy towered above us but Cerro Torre was covered in clouds. We also had great views down to enormous Lago Viedma. We stopped for lunch shielded from the wind by large boulders, and a caracara, interested in our food, hovered above us in the wind. After lunch, the walk down was warm and pleasant with many views of Fitzroy. I added this hike to my list of the great day hikes in the world.
We had dinner at a tiny family restaurant and I had a nice, very creamy pumpkin soup and gnocchi. For desert, I had crepes with a rich dulce de leche sauce. After dinner, we were back in a van driving again through the insanely open pampas with views of Lago Viedma and a gorgeous sunset. I listened to music and dozed and got quite high on the beautiful landscape. We arrived late at our nice hotel in Calafate, our last town in Patagonia.
Perito Moreno Glacier
On Thanksgiving day, we took a boat ride to see Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park. Flying from Santiago to Puntos Arenas we had seen the enormous extent of the ice fields in the area from the plane. We boarded a large, fast boat on a dock outside of El Calafate and began traveling on Lago Argentina. The boat sped across the lake for over an hour to a stopping point where we walked a short distance over a black sand beach and into a dense, temperate rain forest. The trees were enormous including the Abuelo (grandfather) tree, a particularly large beech tree. The forest was dense at this location with a heavy understory because of the proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the prevailing winds which brought moisture from the ocean. Walking a bit through the forest, we reached a beautiful waterfall in a number of sections starting far above us.
The lake was enormous and we traveled up a large finger of the lake with high snowcapped mountains above. It was fiord-like with vertical, forest-covered walls. At our second stop, we walked for a half an hour to an open area where we admired the glacier high above us and pointed Mayo Peak across the lake. We ate lunch in the open area by a creek, enjoying the scenery.
Back on the boat, taking pictures from the deck, after another half hour, we began to see the large Perito Moreno glacier ahead. Close to the glacier, the pilot turned the boat to travel along of the 70 meter high front of the glacier. The front was jagged and broken with deep blue crevices. Several times while we were watching, large chunks of ice broke away, falling in a cascade into the water making a booming sound and a large splash. There were remnants of the glacier floating in front of the wall and out into the lake. As we moved toward the disembarkation dock on the side of the lake, a condor flew across the cliffs above us and made a beautiful turn to land on the side of the cliff. It landed near where another condor was already perched.
We disembarked and climbed up a series of carefully engineered walkways ascending the cliffs. Along the way and at the top we looked down on the incredibly vast top of the glacier. At the top, we boarded a van for the very scenic drive back to El Calafate. Along the way, the driver pointed out a very distant view of the Torres in Chile. Back in town, on this Thanksgiving Day, I had a very nice dinner with a salad containing soft-boiled eggs, a pork shoulder with a delicious sauce, and mashed sweet potatoes.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, a few of us flew to Buenos Aires where I had a full day layover on Saturday. Vaune, Heeja, Martin and I took a shuttle from the airport to downtown Buenos Aires where we stayed in an older hotel. The hotel was a bit rundown, but the room Martin and I shared was surprisingly quiet given its location in the busiest part of the downtown. From the front of our hotel, located on Avenida 9 de Julio, we were close to El Obelisco, the tall obelisk commemorating the founding of the city. At the end of our block was Calle Levalle, a pedestrian-only street with many restaurants, shops and entertainment venues, some a bit sleazy and some nicer. Heeja and I stopped in one of the small empanada shops for a snack. We walked around the area looking for the new Pacific Gallery mall. I suppose we looked lost because a local man stopped us and asked if we needed assistance and told us how to get to the mall and about other places and neighborhoods to visit.
We found the mall and entered the portion of it that was an art gallery and performance center. We came to an open balcony where body painting was on exhibit with women, wearing only thongs, painted in intricate and colorful artistic designs while people took pictures. This was above the elegant and very new retail mall below. We toured the galleries around the balcony, displaying local artists in a range of styles including fantastic and surreal paintings. The mall is in a Beaux Arts building constructed in the 1890s. The interior has been reconstructed in an historical manner with large, domed spaces and frescos.
From there, we walked towards the Atlantic Ocean and came to a large redevelopment area along canals which had once been a shipping, warehouse and industrial area. The redevelopers kept the large cranes which were on display along with an old sailing ship in the canal. We ate in an upscale restaurant in a former warehouse building. I ate a steak with a fried egg on it.
On a beautiful, pleasant Saturday morning, we went to the Plaza Lavalle by the Teatro Colon, the large historic opera house, to participate in one of the free walking tours. Our guide, Juan, turned out to be a young urban design instructor and a concert violinist. He was very erudite, and I was surprised and pleased to be going on an urban planning tour. Juan explained that Buenos Aires always prided itself on being city in the European style, although he said it was a city characterized along most streets by a mix of buildings including the old and the new and the elegant and the ugly. There were many neoclassical style buildings, since the city was purposely rebuilt during the 1880s and 1890s when Argentina was at the peak of its economic success based on the export of beef. Juan told us that older buildings have frequently been demolished and redeveloped with the modern and the economically expedient. We walked through a number of lovely small and large parks with enormous fig trees, palm trees and jacaranda trees, including Plaza San Martin with its statue of San Martin, the great hero of Argentinian independence. We were very fortunate to be in the city when the jacarandas were in bloom with their beautiful purple flowers. We talked about a jarring and controversial art-deco skyscraper from the 1920s which I actually liked. For a break we crowded into a small empanada shop and ate empanadas on the grassy slope of the large park across the street. We visited a small memorial park, which was where the Israeli embassy had been destroyed in a terrorist attack. We finished our tour at Plaza Francia with its large Saturday craft market.
After walking through the market with its fine crafts, we wandered into an old church and then into an energetic teen festival in a large complex with wild colors, electronic art attractions and a bandstand with live music and teens dancing. From there we visited the famous Recoleta Cemetery and found the grave of Eva Peron. We walked further and stopped to rest in the nice outdoor area of a restaurant adjacent to a park with a table full of drinks, snacks, salads, sandwiches and ice cream for desert. It was a beautiful day, pleasantly warm, and we enjoyed relaxing in the cool shade. Walking back to our hotel, the streets were empty and the shops were closed because of the final game of a South American soccer tournament with two Argentinian teams playing.
In the evening we went to a tango show that we had found in the Borges art center in the Pacific Gallery. It included a great four piece tango band with accordion, piano, stand up bass, and violin. They played wonderful music with two fine singers, male and female, and eight dancers, dancing passionately with extravagantly athletic moves. It was a great finish to my Buenos Aires experience.
In all, I experienced another world in the far southern parts of South America, vaguely familiar like a dream, but with its own unique beauty.