Punta Arenas, Chile

En route to Punta Arenas we pass by a ranch where a group of gauchos were practicing for an upcoming competition of some kind and again, no traffic so the driver just pulled to the side of the road so we could watch these marvelous horsemen.

Just as North America has its cowboys, wranglers and ranch hands handling cattle, sheep and riding at the Rodeo, Argentina has its own particular breed of men called “Gauchos” and they are regarded by ranch owners with great respect and reverence in many cases still being referred to as “Don”.

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Side Stepping

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Typical dress of a gaucho would be a poncho, a great coat for winter and Bombachas, which are baggy trousers. Above the trousers would be worn a Chiripa which is skirt-like. A Rasta is a wide belt embellished with silver coins and completes the authentic gaucho dress. The gauchos weapon is a Facon, a long knife that is considered an extension of his arm. They carry a Retenque (whip), also their lasso made of leather, whereas their America counterparts the cowboy would carry a lasso made of rope.

We watched for quite a while as the gauchos guided their horses with precision and control, sometime making the horses appear to “dance” sideways around the field. Awesome sight as they rode with great poise and grace; the beautiful horses were equally magnificent.

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Located on Isla Riesco, a visit to Estancia Fitz Roy demonstrated the ins and outs of sheep farming.   A small ferry took across the Rio Verde with views out to Tierra del Fuego’s fjords, the end of the impressive Andes mountain range, and the Otway and Skyring Sounds to the family estate of Secundino Fernández, Estancia Fitz Roy, now managed by his three daughters.

The youngest daughter greeted us and offered a brief history of the ranch before we were left to wander through her father’s acres and acres of “collectibles”. An unbelievable number and assortment of ranch memorabilia, machinery, tools and vehicles were displayed on the grounds and inside some of the out buildings. It was a museum of ranch life in Argentina through 19th and 20th centuries.

Sheepdogs skillfully rounded up the flock and we watched as a gaucho, quickly and expertly, hand-sheered a sheep with a young puppy nipping at the wool as he worked, wanting to play all the time the gaucho was sheering.

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The Gaucho

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The Facon

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After all of this it was a little difficult to then sit down to a lamb barbecue. Luckily there were many other food options from which to choose.

We continued on to Punta Arenas, a bustling port overlooking the Straits of Magellan. We couldn’t board the ship until 2 p.m. so used the time for  a short drive around town then to an observation point where we had an overview of the town and could see our ship at the edge of town.   Some braved an orientation walk in the cold, windy, rainy weather but once we were soaked to the bone we retreated to the warm hotel bar for something warm to drink until time to board.

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It didn’t take long before we were able to board the Stella Australis, our home for the next four nights and the beginning of our much anticipated cruise in the legendary waters of the Strait of Magellan around Tierra del Fuego to Cape Horn and finally to Ushuaia.

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Stella Australis on the left

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The Stella Australis is a gorgeous ship, large in comparison to what I am accustomed to, 164 passengers on board with a capacity of 200. Each deck has a large lounge with big wrap around windows with an open bar on the top deck. Our room was very comfortable with a floor to ceiling window to soak in the view although I don’t think I will be spending too much time in my cabin when I can be on deck.

 In the evening we met our ship’s captain and crew and then joined our group for a truly delicious dinner and lively conversation especially after a few glasses of marvelous Chilean wine.   As we dined the captain announced that we would be leaving 3 hours late due to a maintenance issue so 11:30 p.m. instead of 8:30 p.m.  We are all very excited about this portion of the trip for a number of reasons, the first being we can unpack for the next 5 nights, as the ship will be our hotel.

Magdalena Island

As dawn breaks this morning, we thought that we would be entering the Almirantazgo Inlet sailing into Ainsworth Bay, mooring near the 120-foot-high Marinelli Glacier instead; we were still at dock in Puenta Arenas. At 6:30 a.m. an announcement over the shipboard speaker stated that the sailing had been cancelled because of a malfunctioning generator. It all sounded so final, no sailing, no Cape Horn . . . but we have traveled so far.

George had awakened during the night and noted that he could still see the light of Punta Arenas. I on the other hand slept straight through and awoke to the announcement that our voyage to the southern end of South America was “cancelled”.   To say we were disappointed is a colossal understatement. We wandered down to the lounge for coffee and to gather our wits about us.

The rest of our group began to appear; we were all a bit stunned by the news, not yet completely grasping what had happened but slowly it began to sink in; the disappointment was evident on everyone’s face.  There was much conjecture about exactly what went wrong, was this lack of maintenance or was this just an unavoidable mechanical failure it was as though we needed someone to blame for this upsetting turn of events. The discussion and speculation continued at breakfast until Eduardo appeared looking very tired and then the Captain announced that indeed the ship would not sail but that we were welcome to use it as a hotel for the next four days, they would continue to wine, dine and provide all regular serve to those who wished to stay.

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Eduardo talked to each person to see what they would like to do; a couple were so disheartened they just wanted to go home, some of us wanted to continue with the rest of the trip and extension to Iguaçu Falls. He would try to accommodate everyone’s wishes and that meant changing flights for 22 people, moving up hotel reservations, and moving up the flights, hotel and transportation for the Iguaçu extension for 8 of us what a nightmare! It would take time for all of these changes to be made but we definitely wanted to continue on to Iguaçu.

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Later in the morning the Captain announced that the shipping company had arranged for a boat to take all those interested to Isla Magdalena for the afternoon. The island is a nesting site for the Magellanic penguins about 2 hours NE of Punta Arenas in the Straits of Magellan. Sign me up!

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This is a real treat, Magdalena Island is one of Chile’s largest and most important Magellanic penguin breeding sites with a population of up to 65,000 breeding pairs.

As we walk off the ship penguins are everywhere. A path to a lighthouse has been roped off to minimize actual contact with the nesting penguins but they do occasionally cross the path.

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The distinctive white bands that loop over the eye, down the side of the neck and meet at the throat can identify this species of penguin. A thick black band also runs adjacent to the border of the breast and belly, extending down the flanks to the thighs

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Nesting

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The Magellanic penguin produces a loud, mournful call, similar to that of a donkey bray, most commonly used by the males when seeking a mate or territorial disputes.

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Antarctic Terns

Puerto Natales

I really hate to leave the Rio Serrano Hotel, it is such a beautiful setting and waking up to the spectacular, unobstructed view of the mountains in the morning is a dream. The image will remain etched in my mind forever.   So this is the downside of group travel . . . when with a group you move with the group otherwise I could find reasons to linger here a bit longer.

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We continue south toward Puerto Natales, Chile this morning with a few stops along the way, first one not far from the Rio Serrano. We drive alongside a large waterway, not sure of its name as this part of Patagonia is made up of countless lakes and rivers that seemingly all flow into one another but I think it is Lago el Toro. Whatever the name the color of the water is a stunning, so blue and connected to the shore by a pedestrian bridge a small islet upon which sits the Hostería Pehoé, a hotel. Now I wouldn’t mind staying there for a few days either.

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Today those beautiful high mountain peaks are shrouded in clouds making for an eerie, almost dreamlike picture as the clouds swirl around the tops allowing us only brief glimpses.

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We pull off the main road at a waterfall and give those wanting a closer look the opportunity to once again brace against the cold winds and walk to the small cascade – it was really cold, really wet and really windy almost impossible to hold the camera still enough to get a photo but we gave it our best shot. Most stayed in the vehicle and the rest of us kept the visit short.

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A small herd of guanaco were spotted grazing in a field along the main road and the driver stops; there is no traffic so he pulls to the side and we spill out into the field. The guanaco were very tame, a little curious but mostly uninterested in us as we walk among the herd, they are more interested in eating and continue to graze.

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Guanaco

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Our guides Eduardo and Kris

Eduardo takes the opportunity to do a little more filming with his GoPro while Kris soaks in the scenery.

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Rheas next to the road

Arriving in Puerto Natales late in the afternoon we checked into our hotel and in spite of the wind, rain and cold we decided to go out for a short walk around town . . . it is not a large town and we needed a little exercise. Once a modest fishing port on Seno Ùltima Esperanza (Sound of Last Hope), Puerto Natales is the gateway to Patagonia’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.  Boutique beer and wine tastings have overtaken teatime and outdoor gear shops abound.  Small corrugated-tin houses are strung shoulder to shoulder along with cozy granny-style lodgings and flowers grow up like weeds through the fences.

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George had lost the wrist strap for his camera and we thought we might find one here. We were told there was no camera shop in town but we thought we might find something that would work. Walking against the wind was a challenge so we hugged the buildings for what little protection they might offer and in a few blocks we found a hardware store and went in. No English spoken so we fumbled around with charades trying to get across what we were looking for.  The proprietor had no idea what we were after but a young man came to our rescue, he didn’t speak English either but understood camera and was able to figure out what we were looking for . . . some kind of camera strap. We understood him to say there was a camera store in the next block. Apparently we still looked confused so he was kind enough to lead us to the shop, come in with us and explain what he thought we wanted. A lot of effort and still no camera straps . . . it looks like the extra bootlaces George packed will be repurposed for the rest of the trip.

Our hotel was very nice, right on the waterfront.  There were a number of smaller, cozy little rooms off the large lobby where one could sit and visit, read, enjoy a drink or light meal from the bar; a map room displayed nautical maps of the area for those interested in orienting themselves or tracing their journey through the waterways.

Our hotel room was a large corner room overlooking the water; we thought it was quite nice until we saw the room of a fellow traveler who was holding an open house of sorts at the other end of the hotel. Their room was in the turreted end of the building, a suite actually complete with a separate living room area, wrap around windows looking to the water and a spiral staircase that led to a second level lookout room; it was quite spectacular.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

We awoke at first light, hoping for a spectacular sunrise; muted colors framed the massive peaks I wouldn’t describe it as spectacular sunrise but it was lovely and worth getting up to see. Outside our window the horses were grazing and a frisky colt was kicking up its heels, what fun.

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After breakfast we had a choice of horseback riding or hiking, we chose to hike as my back was a little wonky but we did walk over to see the riders off on their adventure.

 

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Once they left we walked from the hotel down to the river and along the shore, the river is running very high after the recent rains combined with the spring snow melt. It felt good to be walking and I think everything is back in alignment for now.  Some of the horses were out in the pasture as we walked by, these gorgeous animals are definitely hardy stock, able to live in harsh conditions and withstand the severe Patagonian winters.

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After our walk we had little lunch at the hotel and then headed out for an afternoon hike around Lago Grey, about a 30-minute drive from the hotel. Did I mention the weather was not wonderful? It was cold, windy and raining so we bundled up and donned our rain gear. The hike begins by crossing a suspension bridge, never one of my favorite things to do but once across we hiked through the forest emerging onto the shores of the lake.

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A gravel spit spread across to an island where we thought we might get a glimpse of Grey Glacier. The lake held numerous icebergs and bergy bits of different sizes. We trudged across the gravel and to the end of the island but clouds hung low and never did reveal the glacier at the end of the lake. Still in spite of the weather it was a nice hike.

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Eduardo invited us to join him in the bar after dinner to cheer for Chile in a soccer game against Columbia. There was quite a crowd gathered when we got there and while we stayed and watched about half the game none of us could make it to the end . . . too tired. It ended in a tie, neither Eduardo nor Kris nor very happy about that.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

We have a long overland ride today, 8 hours or more depending on how many stops we make along the way; we will take some of this time to learn about the landscapes and natural features of Patagonia, there will be time for lunch some hiking and of course bathroom breaks.

 

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Guanacos against the sky

After crossing the border into Chile we stop at a border outpost for lunch; the building also has a gift shop, a bit of a surprise out here in the middle of nowhere.

Argentine-Chile Border

Stepping off the bus we were nearly blown over by the fierce winds and crossing the street became an ordeal. We have been reading and hearing about the Patagonian winds and thought we were prepared but until I stepped out into it I really did not understand what 50-70 mph winds meant and I do not know how strong it was on this day but it could easily knock you off your feet. Yikes!

The restaurant served a delicious soup, so perfect to warm us after the chilly walk from our vehicle. Two wood burning stoves attracted and warmed all cold newcomers and did a nice job of heating the building. I wondered where they got the wood, haven’t seen many trees. After lunch there was time to shop, of course, and there was actually a very nice selection of Patagonian tee shirts, sweaters, hats, gloves, ear warmers in case you didn’t heed the warnings to bring warm clothes. They also had a large selection of nice books and maps on the region albeit at inflated prices. Okay, time to bundle up and make our way back across the street without being blown away by the wind.

Restaurant Interior

Restaurant Interior

The landscape here is rich combining several distinct ecosystems, from the wind-bent grasses of the plains to the sheer, frozen cliffs of the Andes in the distance.

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Wide Open Spaces

Estancia

An Estancia (Ranch)

We soon turn onto a very well maintained gravel road for our first picture postcard look at the great Paine Massif across a lake. It is stunning, granite mountains that emerge suddenly from the plains of the Patagonian steppes and one of the most recognizable mountain profiles in the world. This granite intrusion was formed about twelve million years ago, making the Paine Massif quite young geologically. Sedimentary rock and magma collided violently and were thrust high into the air. After the Ice Age, when the ice fields covering the base of the massif began to melt, water and wind carved the rock into huge towers of varying shapes, with heights up to 9,000 feet. Some of these are covered in permanent ice. The crushed rock and sediment colors the lakes in the park from a milky gray to yellows and greens and the dramatic blue caused by blue algae.

 

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The Blue Massif

The Blue Massif

Our destination is Torres del Paine National Park, declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978 and renowned as one of the most remote, beautiful, and unspoiled places in the world.

The glaciers here are in rapid retreat, up to 56 feet a year over the last 90 years. The vegetation ranges from grassland to southern beech forests and many parts of the park are so remote that they still exist in their pristine state. More than 40 mammals call this park their home, including the guanaco, puma, and Patagonian gray fox and some of the world’s endangered birds – the Andean condor, the crested cara cara, and the black vulture among them.

“When alone in the calmness and warmth of my home, I let my spirit wander astray among the memory of so many images and adventures, the peaks of Patagonia appear before me so unreal, so fabulously shaped, that I believe that these images have come out of some mad dream.” Lionnel Terray member of the first part to scale Mount Fitzroy, February 2, 1952.

We continued to drive toward the large granite massif and finally pulled into a parking area, time to go back out into the wind for a 2-hour hike. Again, wind warnings and instructions on how to stay upright when hit by high wind gusts, hiking poles are necessary as are hats, gloves and rain gear even though it is a gorgeous sunny day, the weather here can change in a heartbeat. So, dressed like the Pillsbury doughboys we step out into the elements and immediately have to plant our poles to brace against the wind. Once we get the hang how to plant the poles while walking we move on towards the mountains, it is so incredibly beautiful that it is easy to forgive the wind and appreciate the sculpting it has done over time. Reaching the edge of a lake we stop just to marvel at the shear majesty of these peaks. AWESOME!

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Monte Fitzroy

Monte Fitzroy

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We take a side trail on the way back to a beautiful icy blue waterfall spilling over the rocks and out into a blue-green lake, the colors of the water remind me of tropical waters but the cold wind tells me otherwise.

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“This is how it is in Patagonia; the unexpected is the norm.” Ramon Lista – A Journey to the Southern Andes (1893)

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Leaving this grandeur behind we move on toward our hotel stopping one more time for another view back to the mountains. Camera in hand I am totally snap happy.

As we turn off the main road we can see the hotel in a small settlement of hotels and cabins but what we don’t catch on first glimpse is the view. As we walk into the beautiful hotel lobby we gathered in a lounge area where floor to ceiling windows frame the mountains that we had just left, a green pasture and beautiful horses in the foreground, unbelievably beautiful, I’ve never seen such a gorgeous scene. I could just sit here for two days staring out the window.

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When Eduardo said that our group had been upgraded so that everyone had a view room I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

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