Patagonia Part II: Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas
November 28, 2013
It was a beautiful two hour drive through the countryside from Torres del Paine to the nearest town, Puerto Natales. We passed more guanaco, thousands of sheep, cowboys on horseback with dogs herding cattle down the slope, windswept plains, glacial lakes, and jagged mountains. Soon the landscape graded into rolling grassy hills with scattered farmsteads every few miles. We reached Puerto Natales, which is a tiny town sprawled along the Chilean fjords. There were rusty ships in the pass, broken down piers here and there, and large, graceful swans, white with a black head and neck, with little grey signets paddling along behind. The fjords are framed by the tall, snowy mountains, an ever present backdrop in this region.
Soon I was dropped off at the EcoCamp office, where Fernanda was there to assist me with whatever I needed. Since I abandoned all my plans and am in a town I know nothing about, I asked her to just book me at a nice hotel. When I got there, it was the strangest thing. The hotel was made out of concrete and was cut into the slope above the fjord, and covered in grass, like a military bunker. I checked in anyway and was led down the dark corridor to my room, believe it or not, number 13. The inside of the room was all concrete as well, with the bed on a cement platform and shelving made of concrete. The saving grace was the picture window that opened up to the grassy fields and beautiful fjord.
The next day I got the heck out of that place and decided to splurge and stay at the nicest hotel in town since I was still not feeling well. Here I rested for two more nights, ate well, skyped with my dog, and got a facial and a chocolate body scrub while the wind howled outside and the rain came down in droves. On Thanksgiving Day, still smelling of chocolate, I boarded the bus for my final destination, Punta Arenas. I set out for a walk to pick up food for Thanksgiving dinner. It was quite an adventure, and somehow I ended up with an orange, something resembling a doughnut, and a brown block I thought might be bread pudding, but have now rendered inedible. But I have returned safely to my room, am feeling much better, and am thankful for all...
Patagonia Part I: El Calafate and Torres del Paine
November 26, 2013
I arrived in El Calafate, Argentina still dizzy from seasick patch withdrawl. I canceled my trek to the Perito Merino glacier and eventually was able to take a short walk outside my hotel, which sits on an open marsh with an ice blue lake behind it, and high, snow-covered mountains in the distance. The next day I was picked up for my private transfer into Chile. My driver Juan picked up some bread from the bakery for the border police, and we drove for hours into the icy, windy altiplano and down into the wide open steppe. We passed thousands and thousands of sheep plodding along over the brown, windswept plain. We had no trouble at the border because of our gift of bread, and once inside Chile I was handed off to a new driver who spoke no English. From there, it was a scenic 1 ½ hours to Torres del Paine National Park, passing fluffy rheas (like a small ostrich), huge herds of guanaco (something like a llama) even on the road, and an occasional condor gliding overhead like an ominous giant watching over us from the clouds. We passed trickling rivers and choppy lakes, and soon the famous towers came into view, three granite monoliths amidst the snowcapped mountains in the distance.
After some confusion as to where I should be dropped off, we reached EcoCamp, a compound of dome shelters nestled next to a cattle ranch at the foot of the mountains. I was shown to my “room,” which is a two-person dome tent made of layers of insulated fabric stretched over a metal frame, meant to withstand the high winds that the region is famous for. These domes are connected by wooden walkways and situated around the bathroom area, which is a larger dome with composting toilets, showers, and sinks. The community domes are further down the slope, where there is a bar, dining room, and lounge area. The rest of my trekking group finally arrived and we were served a very fancy dinner and briefed on our plans for the coming days. The treks involved 7-8 hours of hiking per day, much of it uphill, as well as multiple boat rides and sleeping in a refugio for one night. Since I still was not well, I opted to stay at the camp and recover, and possibly meet up with my group later for...
We are at sea again, crossing the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia. Since I have nothing exciting to report, I’ll tell you about life on board the Plancius. She is a Dutch research vessel that has been outfitted for passengers. There are 109 of us, plus deckhands, cooks, housekeepers, and expedition leaders with various specialties. The captain is a big Russian and the main expedition leader is Scottish. English is the language spoken on board, although it’s a very diverse group, from all over the world, and many people don’t speak it well. My roommate is Tatjiana from Switzerland and we have been getting along nicely. Surprisingly, there are no children on board; most people are in their 30s and 40s or older, and there are quite a few solo travelers like me.
The expedition I’m on is called Basecamp Plancius, because the ship anchors at various places and is used as a basecamp from which you can depart for activities on/near shore, like mountaineering, kayaking, photo workshops, etc. The ship is very basic, so there are no luxuries, like a gym or spa. My room is tiny, with two narrow beds, a small desk, a closet, and a tiny bathroom. Everything is bolted or tied down so it doesn’t get thrown around during rough seas. We do have a nice big window in our cabin, as opposed to the small portholes that others have. The dining room opens three times a day for an hour each time, and breakfast and lunch are usually buffet style, unless the ship is rocking too much, then we get served while seated. For dinner there is an appetizer and dessert, and three options for a main dish, usually meat, seafood, or vegetarian.The food has been okay so far; nothing special, although there is always soup and fresh baked bread at lunch, which has been nice. And this is a very eco-friendly ship; for instance they convert sea water for all of our potable water.
When we are on board, several lectures are offered throughout the day. One of the expedition leaders is a historian, one a geologist, one a marine biologist, one a photography expert, so they do powerpoint presentations on various topics. Before dinner they always do a “recap,” where they talk about what was done that day, what wildlife was spotted, and what the plans are for the next...
We made our last landings in the South Shetlands, at Half Moon Island and Aitcho Island. Half Moon is a rocky, narrow crescent covered in soft snow, so we had to use snowshoes to walk around. The island is the home of chinstrap penguins, who waddle or slide to the shore to pick up a pebble and then bring it back up the slope to place it at the feet of a prospective mate. Two large weddel seals were lounging on the beach as well.
After the snowshoe hike, it was my turn to kayak. I made the mistake of admitting that I have a lot of kayaking experience, so I was put in a group of expert kayakers, set to go out in the roughest conditions.We had to make an unscheduled landing on the beach, and my feet immediately got wet between my dry suit and booties, and they were freezing the entire time. Our group consisted of three single kayaks and three double, with our guide Pete in the lead, and two zodiacs following behind in case we run into trouble. I was in a single kayak and got myself out past the shorebreak pretty easily, but then had a hard time keeping up with the rest of the group in the 15 knot winds. We paddled around the shore of Half Moon Island, then crossed a sea of little icebergs to Livingston Island, where we jumped back on to the zodiacs and made for the ship. I was completely exhausted and freezing, but it was an incredible experience.
Our last stop of the expedition was Aitcho Island, which is inhabited by thousands of gentoo and chinstrap penguins and one weddel seal. I hiked around for two hours before heading back to the ship, which is now headed back to Ushuaia. It’s rough seas again in the Drake Passage, and they have announced several times that whales are near the ship, but it’s so rocky I can’t get out of bed without getting sick. Two days of this and we’ll be back.
The winds picked up to 37 knots this morning, so we headed back north in search of a safe anchorage. In the early evening we made an unscheduled stop at Deception Island, one of the only places in the world where you can sail into an active volcano. The island is shaped like a donut, with a narrow passage, called Neptune’s Bellows, used to enter the interior. Within the island we are protected from the 15 meter swells outside, but it is still windy and snowing.
Inside the island, the sea ice had built up to form a sheet over the ocean, and groups of crabeater seals could be seen frolicking at the edge and diving beneath it. Our icebreaker ship was able to push through and lodge itself within the ice, and we got a big surprise when they let us disembark to walk on the sheet of sea ice. It was a pure white magical landscape, with some dark mountains looming in the distance, barely visible through the snow storm. I didn’t stay out too long, as the ice could crack at any moment, and I am now safely back on board the ship. We will try to make a final landing in the South Shetland Islands tomorrow if the weather is good, and then we will head back across the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia.
So…today was an interesting day. In the morning we went ashore at Cuverville Island, which is full of penguins and surrounded by icebergs of all shapes and sizes. I went off alone and sat still by a penguin colony and some of them came up close to check me out. On the way back to the ship, we had a zodiac tour around the icebergs, which were absolutely breathtaking, in all shades of blue and turquoise. We moved to Danco Island in the afternoon and I went for another walk on shore. Here we could watch a “penguin highway,” a path that all the Gentoo take from the beach to go high up on the snow covered slope above. There were weddell seals lying around on the ice or swimming near the rocky beach.
But the interesting thing is that about 30 passengers decided to do the polar plunge, and jump into the freezing ocean. And about half of them did it buck naked. I did not partake in this madness, but had a grand time watching the spectacle from the beach. I’m back on the ship now and we are moving to another location because the ice is closing in. I was supposed to camp on shore tonight but opted to stay warm and dry on the ship instead. It’s been very, very cold, especially with the snowfall that usually comes every afternoon and evening. It’s evening now and the weather has just taken a turn for the worse and another rough crossing of the Drake is likely in store for us.
The weather turned bad again, but we did make our anchorage at Paradise Harbor (which is not really a harbor) so we could go ashore. On the way, a pod of orcas (killer whales) was spotted off the port bow, so we took some time to watch them. There were at least 5 of them, maybe more, and they came so close to the boat that we could hear them breathing each time they surfaced.
It was my turn to go mountaineering this morning so I got my harness and ice axe then set off on the zodiac to a steep little mountain covered in ice. We all tied up to one another and headed up in the falling snow.About half way up it was determined that the conditions were too dangerous and we could not continue safely. Instead, we did an exercise simulating various scenarios of falling and sliding down the mountain- with all gear, with ice axe only, and with nothing at all. It was incredible to slide down the steep slope and be able to stop myself, even at high speed. While we were up there it continued to snow, and we heard the thunderous crack and splash of a calving glacier somewhere nearby, but it was too foggy to see it.
We made it back to the ship for a late lunch and set out for our next destination, an Argentinian research base. I’ve decided to stay on board instead of going ashore, as it was pretty damn cold and it’s still snowing. We will stay here tonight and then continue south in the morning.
I’ve been on the ship for four days now and am finally settling in. Crossing the Drake Passage was rough, the ship rocking back and forth violently all day and all night.Meal times were the worst, as plates and cups and utensils would continually slide away if not held down. The seasick patch worked pretty well for me, although I did stay in bed as long as possible and not eat much. This morning things finally quieted down as we made our way through a beautiful channel full of sparkling icebergs and majestic glaciers on both sides. Here and there we would see crabeater seals lounging on an iceberg, penguins shooting up out of the sea like torpedoes, or huge whales surfacing right next to the ship.
Upon reaching Port Lockroy, a research station composed of a few small structures, we laid anchor and boarded zodiacs to go ashore. Gentoo penguins were everywhere, waddling around, sliding on the ice, or screaming their mating calls. I sat quietly on a rock and watched them go about their business like I wasn’t there. After that I stopped at the research station, which has a little store and place to mail letters. BBC was there filming a new show called “Penguin Post Office.”
We were taken back to the ship for dinner and I went up on deck around 10PM to see the sunset. The play of pink and orange light off the towering peaks was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. We will stay anchored here tonight then continue south in the morning. I signed up for kayaking, snowshoeing, mountaineering, and camping, so I may get to do some of those tomorrow if the weather holds out. Some people in the group are actually going scuba diving!