Southern Patagonia

Chile is a very long, narrow country. You probably already knew that. However, I’d just like to add that traveling through Chile is basically moving along one long line from north to south, with little side trips to the east and west. It’s like a trail.

So far we’ve been in the north heading by bus down to Santiago. Now we’re flying from Santiago all the way down near the southern tip, to a town called Punta Arenas. Deep into the southern hemisphere.

As the plane descends towards the runway we look out the window at the dark blue water, covered in a flurry of whitecaps. It’s a very windy area, and the old ships that used to navigate their way around cape horn needed to carry a lot of weight just to keep from flipping over in the notoriously heavy seas. To be honest I feel a bit intimidated seeing that ocean churn.

Making our way through the town of Punta Arenas we realize that the prices for accommodation have nearly tripled: the consequence of this entire section of Chile being a heavy tourist attraction while at the same time cut off from the north by hundreds of miles of impassible ice fields. We’re essentially on another landlocked island.

After visiting every hostel in town in search of a reasonable price, we finally decide to stay at Hospedaje Magallanes, run by a german man and his chilean wife. Awesome people. We get to know them during the evening at one of their regular open barbecues. Old friends of the owner start to show up, and soon there is a good group of pals from all over the world who share many years of history in this town. We are drinking and swapping stories among friends. It feels like home, however temporary.

The following day we head to the port to meet my parents, as they are meant to arrive here after spending a few days on a boat exploring cape horn and the fjords around Ushuaia.

Suddenly, in the parking lot of the port I see my father approaching quickly waving his hands, encouraging us to get in the slick van that has apparently been waiting to take us to the Explora Lodge and was about to leave us behind.

Alright, then…new rhythm. Time for family vacation!

The Explora Lodge is an upscale establishment located in the famous patagonian Torres del Paine park. It’s about a five hour drive from Punta Arenas. Along the way we see long expanses of fields, with increasing numbers of guanaco (like llamas) and rheas (like ostriches).

Suddenly we see the famous rock towers that give the name to the Torres del Paine park, and as we get closer we start to see amazing lakes in different shades of glacial blue and turquoise. We pull up to the lodge, and find out that it has a most excellent location next to a waterfall, with an incredible view of the mountains.

The lodge is designed for tourists of all ages and abilities. They believe in the luxury of the essential combined with constant outdoor adventures. Basically this means fine dining, superbly comfy accommodations, extremely attentive staff, and a daily meeting where the young and energetic guides take you through a menu of excursions. You simply choose what you want to do the next day, and they ask you what you want on your sandwiches. They organize everything.

The first day we did a full day hike that brought us through a forest, up a glacial valley, then finally on a boat to the foot of the Glaciar Grey.

A very fun hike…we return to the lodge and indulge in the luxury of the essential, by walking down to their lakeside spa for a dip in the outdoor hot tubs and freezing lake water.

On the second day it’s just the four of us with a guide walking through rolling hills with binoculars, checking out the local wildlife of foxes, rheas, guanacos, and hoping to catch a glimpse of a puma.

There are guanacos everywhere, with sentinels posted on each hilltop. You are always being watched. This is their land.

We didn’t get to see a puma today, but we know they’re around.

They eat the babies

In the afternoon we go to a local gaucho camp for an incredible lamb barbacue. Each of them wields a long knife on their belt, and a cool beret-like hat. The lamb is delicious!

After lunch we head over to our afternoon activity of horseback riding. I am not the biggest fan of horses, as I find them to be very tense creatures, and my gut just doesn’t like something so big and powerful to be domesticated. Also I was bucked off a horse when I was twelve, and that really sucked. I thought Léa shared this general feeling, but she’s really excited to ride a horse through Patagonia. So off we go.

It was enjoyable, especially after getting some confidence and realizing I really had to kick mine hard to get it to pick up speed. Léa had a blast. Her horse’s name was Tequila. Of course it was.

On the way back to the lodge the driver suddenly pulls over, and we get to see a Puma! Do I have a picture of it? No.

On our third day we decide to climb to the base of those majestic towers to get a closer look at the park’s namesake. So far we’ve had unprecedentedly excellent weather. Clear. Not too windy.

Right, so wind. I forgot to mention that Patagonia is home to a very strong wind. Like, knock you off your feet and onto your ass strong. The staff are constantly referring to the wind, which is the only reason they cancel these day trips. But so far we’ve not experienced the wind. Until today.

The hike is a steep climb up to a small lake that sits just below the towers. We finally arrive, after battling gravity and the wind for a few hours. Unfortunately, visibility is pretty low so we can’t actually see the towers once we arrive at the top, even though we’re just below them.

Two of the people in our group decide to head back down immediately without warning, so the guide goes after them and we follow in suit. It would have been nice to stay just twenty minutes longer, because that epic wind from earlier finally cleared the fog and opened up a window of blue sky around those towers. But we had already descended quite a bit at this point. Too far to get a good look. We curse these annoying guests for all of their complaining, which was initially just an earsore but has now cost us our one opportunity to see the main attraction of the whole park up close.

But I’m not mad. I am not mad…

Back at the lodge we are planning our final day, suddenly realizing that we’ll be sliding out of this lap of luxury back onto our improvised route through Chile.

But where do we go from here, considering that there are hundreds of miles of ice between us and the rest of Chile?

One of the guides at the lodge pulls up next to us at the bar, and asks us to kindly treat him to a piscola. He proceeds to spend an hour describing in incredible detail how we can make our way north on buses, through Argentina, and cross the border back to Chile on foot through trails around glacial lakes, all the way to the southern tip of the Carretera Austral. We leave the conversation with a newfound confidence, and three pages of notes. We’re set!

On the fourth and final day Léa decides to go on another horse ride, and I spend some time with my parents exploring a lake that hosts a very basic lifeform that creates coral-like calcium deposits and is supposedly the origin of life on earth. It only exists in lakes with the right salt and pH levels, and this lake happens to be one of them. Neat, right?

We say goodbye to the lodge and return to Punta Arenas for a goodbye dinner and breakfast with my parents.


Categories: Posts in English

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