In planning this trip we plotted out month-by-month which countries we expected to be in, and it worked out that we would probably “turn the corner” at the bottom of the continent sometime in December. It occurred to the astronomer in me that it would be awesome to be as far south as we could on the December 21, the Summer Solstice. So here we are for the holidays in Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city, on the Strait of Magellan itself.
Technically our next stop – Ushuaia, Argentina – is even further south, but only by a hair. Between the two, there’s a lot more to do in Punta Arenas so we decided to spend the time here.
On the topic of “Things To Do,” this last week has been more densely packed with excursions and sightseeing than any other period of time on the trip since the Galapagos. And while we didn’t do any “trekking” (as they call it down here) some of these trips were grueling simply for the sheer amount of time and territory covered.
The plan was to alternate our sightseeing with days for rest in between, but the gods of weather and travel schedules had other ideas. We ended up with five solid days on the road, on the water, and in the air.
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Tuesday, December 18 : Chiloe Island Tour from Puerto Montt
Sunrise: 6:13 am | Alarm Clock: 7:00 am | Departure: 8:30 am | Return: 9:00 pm | Sunset: 9:24 pm
Tour Language: Chilean “Spanish.” | Intelligibility: Zero. | Confusion level: Medium-High
We went to Chiloe, the big island that forms the western side of the Gulf of Ancud, because Puerto Montt was intensely dull and we had to go somewhere. The Chiloe tour options either visit the towns and the bays down the island’s east side, or send you on long, arduous hikes through the national parks. We picked a day trip that was a little longer than others but offered both nature and civilization without a lot of exertion. It went to the towns of Chacao, Ancud, Dalcahue, and Castro and stopped at an “Ecological and Mythological Park” outside Ancud that offered a hike through a wooded area sprinkled with carved models of wizards, witches, and monsters from Chiloe folklore.
These included the Trauco, a woodland creature who lures young women with the sheer force of his sexual attraction, and the Furia who inflames the passions of men and drags them off to have her way with them. Other cultures’ mythological systems answer questions such as “How was the world created, why are there seasons, and what happens to us after we die?” Chiloe mythology, on the other hand, seems more focused on the question “Where the hell were you last night?”
It was nice to get away from Puerto Montt and the landscape of Chiloe was pleasant to look at, but there wasn’t much to see in the towns except churches, ships washed up on shore, and houses built on stilts so the tide washes under them.
Wednesday, December 19: Transit Day from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas
Alarm Clock: 5:30 am | Sunrise (Puerto Montt): 6:13 am. | Bus to Airport: 7:20 am | Flight Time: 10:50 am | Arrival at Hostel: 2:00 pm | Sunset (Punta Arenas): 10:10 pm
Change in Latitude: 12⁰ Southward | Immediate Increase in Daylight: 2 hours
Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas have this in common: their airports are a long way out of town. The flight took us over stunning glaciers and fjords that we’re going to have to come back someday to see by cruise ship. Punta Arenas is on the Brunswick Peninsula, a barren grassland where the few trees on the plain lean at a steep angle due to the nonstop 20-30 mph wind.
Our hostel is a handful of blocks from the shore and not too far a walk from the center of town if you only make the trip once. We did laps around the city several times on our first day, first to track down travel agencies and groceries, then to eat at a lousy “Chinese” restaurant, and later to walk along the beach – which turned into a trip over to the Casino and back up through the tourist sector in search of new sunglasses. No sunglasses were found, but we did catch a drum circle in full swing.
Thursday, December 20: Torres del Paine
Alarm Clock: 3:30 am | Sunrise: 5:12 am | Pickup for Tour: 5:15 am | Return to Hostel: 9:00 pm | Sunset: 10:10 pm
Tour Language: Spanish & English | Guide’s Knowledge of Geology and Glaciology: Good enough to keep up with Lea | Wind Level: Wizard of Oz
At sixteen hours, the excursion to Torres del Paine National Park is the single longest day trip Lea and I have ever taken. It’s not the most time we’ve spent in a bus without a break; that honor goes to our overnight transits back in Peru, but it was an awful lot of butt-in-seat time on unpaved roads once we got to the park itself. The park is… Holy crap, guys, just look:
Pictures can only convey half of the experience: namely, the stunning beauty. The other half? The WIND. When we stopped for our first view of Torres del Paine’s iconic skyline, I stepped out with my trusty tripod and the intention to weigh it down with a backpack full of heavy lenses to keep it from shaking. All that weight wouldn’t even stop it from blowing over. I asked our guide Manuel if the wind was going to be that bad all through the park. He gave me a look, then answered that he didn’t want to say because it could change so quickly. I understand now that that look he gave me said “Oh, you poor fool. You have no idea what you’re in for.”
Once we passed the rangers’ station, we turned west for a look at Grey Lake and its accompanying glacier. This involved walking across a suspension bridge over a river in the middle of a gale, then struggling across a sandy beach toward the lake face-first into a frigid, hurricane-level blast.
Think I’m exaggerating? The Internet tells me that gusts in Torres del Paine have been known to reach 110mph. I’m a Gulf Coast boy who once drove through a tropical storm on my way to work without even realizing it, so I’m no wimp when it comes to wind. This was nearly intolerable. My backpack acted like a sail and almost pulled me off my feet a few times. I never made it far enough to see the glacier; I had to turn back for the shelter of the van.
¿Vale la pena? Oh, hell yes. The cloudy morning turned into a clear blue afternoon, the best possible conditions to see one of the most beautiful parks in the world. I only wish I could have held my camera still to get better pictures of the icebergs on the lake. My next chance for that is a couple of weeks away in Argentina.
Friday, December 21 – Summer Solstice! – Magellanic Penguins on Magdalena Island
Sunrise: 5:12 am | Alarm Clock: Not a chance | Check-in at Dock: 1:30 pm | Ferry Departure: 2:00 pm | Return: 5:00 pm | Sunset: 10:10 pm
Tour Language: Spanish & English | Guide Involvement: Negligible | Penguin Cuteness: Extreme
Originally we meant to take the Torres del Paine tour on the Solstice, but were persuaded to do it the day before due to the weather forecast (which was a good choice). After such a long trip we meant this for a day of rest, but the Penguin Problem wouldn’t let it be so. The penguin colony on Magdalena Island was one of our pillars – like the Nazca Lines or Machu Picchu, it was a place we absolutely had to visit. Unfortunately, getting there turned out to be harder than we were lead to believe during the planning phase.
It used to be that there was a public ferry out to the island that ran in the morning and the afternoon unless the weather was bad. All you had to do was buy your ticket and get to the dock. It seems that the company that ran that service stopped doing so – the last date listed on their website was December 3 of this year. That left the other tour companies and consolidators, and the tours were filling up quickly.
We wanted to wait until Sunday or Monday, and because the weather here tends to be worse in the morning we wanted to go in the afternoon. It turned out that we could have one or the other, but not both. The company we used for Torres del Paine had slots open for Friday afternoon, but we had to decide before 11:00 am if we wanted to go. The other company that had monopolized a lot of the tours had an opening on Sunday, but at 6:30 in the morning. After checking one or two more places and having no better options, we chose to forego our afternoon off and see the penguins immediately.
The ferry took a little over an hour to get to the island and about ten more minutes to pull up onto the beach. There was a roped path for humans to walk, but the thousands upon thousands of Magellanic penguins don’t care. There were many breeding couples with fuzzy offspring, many right next to the trail. Some of the birds gave out warning calls that tourists were approaching, but while they didn’t hang out on the walking path they didn’t run away either. The hike around the island was forty-five minutes, the first part in mild but stinging rain and the second in open sunlight.
While this was our shortest excursion we would take this week, it was also the most expensive. To get that close to penguins in the wild and be able to spend so much time around them was definitely worth it.
Saturday, December 22: Tierra del Fuego and King Penguin Park
Sunrise: 5:13 am | Alarm Clock: 6:00 am | Pickup for Tour: 7:15 8:00 am | Return to Hostel: 8:00 pm | Sunset: 10:11 pm
Tour Language: English | Guide’s English: So-So | Confusion Level: Moderate | Penguins: Kingly
For the first time in our five months in South America, the tour company we were waiting on arrived early! Unfortunately, this meant they caught us in the middle of breakfast and we had to ask them to come back after picking up the other passengers, who turned out to be an irritating herd of Italians. From Punta Arenas we took a two-hour ferry across to Tierra del Fuego Island while the guide explained some of the history of what we were going to see – mostly pertaining to the Selk’nam people, a group of Native Americans who were quite literally hunted to extinction in order to protect the local sheep farms.
The ferry across to the island only ran in the morning, so we were going to have to take the long way around to get home. About five tour groups were running the same route that day, so the operators got together and worked out who would go where in what order before disembarking the ferry. This meant our tour got rearranged slightly, giving us an early lunch before visiting the local history museum and the small Selk’nam memorial park. The main draw for this trip, and the only reason we signed up for it, was the visit to the King Penguin colony on the island.
King Penguins are the second largest species (after the Emperors in Antarctica) and are identified by the yellow and orange markings on their chest and head. According to our guide the Kings fled Torres del Paine five hundred years ago. This small colony returned to the area in 2010 and set up camp on private property, which the owners turned into a conservation park. Unlike on Magdalena Island you can’t get close to the penguins, but you can view them from two “duck blinds” set up far enough away that the penguins aren’t disturbed by the tourists.
Once again the winds were ferocious, but the birds were beautiful. We got to spend an hour watching them before the interminably long drive back.
And that’s about it for Chile. Christmas will be our last full day in the country. I want to give a shout-out to Turismo Selknam, the travel agency who took care of us in Punta Arenas, and Hostal Doña Irma, the wonderful, homey place we stayed.
We entered on October 30 and will be leaving on December 26, the most time we’ll probably spend in any one country on this trip. Having been through Chile from top to bottom, we wish that we had spent less time in the North and more in the South – and also that we’d won some lottery tickets so we could have taken that fjord cruise. In scoping out retirement possibilities, Santiago is definitely on the list of possibilities with its modern big-city atmosphere and easy access to the Lake District.
The country is so skinny that I’ve had to break the map up into sections to show any detail about our travel. My next report will be from East of the Andes.
Ciao for now, and Feliz Navidad!