PATAGONIA AND THE CHILEAN FJORDS
by Jodie and Dale Wendel
The pervasive green surrounding us suggested that the usual climate is rain. However, the brilliant Sun and crystal clear blue skies displayed the Torres del Paine in all their glory. These views, plus excellent sightings of Andean Condors were just one of the highlights of our visit to Patagonia on the Lindblad National Geographic Endeavour. This trip took us from Puerto Montt, Chile, to Ushuaia, Argentina through the twisting channels of the Patagonian fjords. We saw glaciers, soaring peaks, birds, and a few animals.
We boarded the LANChile 767 at 11:45 am and took off on time from LAX. There was good food and liquid refreshment on board. The flight arrived in Santiago around 6:15 am local time (5 hours ahead of PST) and we were in our room at the Grand Hyatt Santiago by 7:30 am.
After a nap and an included pool-side lunch we walked to a very large mall that is only a couple of blocks away. Although we were in Chile, this mall could have been any one of a number of malls in Southern California. We skipped the included city tour since we had done this same tour before.
The traditional welcome cocktail party and dinner was that evening. The cocktail was held on the lawn near the pool. The dinner was served in a nearby room and was a typical buffet with wine included.
Luggage out before we went to bed and wake up was at 6:30 the next morning. Breakfast was included; departure at 9:30 am. We found our luggage neatly arrayed at the airport. It was loaded on a cart and we joined the check-in line for LANChile. After a cursory security screening we settled in at the gate. At noon we boarded the Airbus 320 and squeezed into our 6-across seats. This was the second most uncomfortable plane I have ever flown in. (The worst was a United 737.) Fortunately it was less than 2 hours, and they did serve a sandwich and some Chilean wine.
The discomfort was mitigated by the spectacular Andes. We were fortunately seated on the left side of the plane so we had an excellent view of the chain. For once, being last in the alphabet was an advantage. We were seated far back and thus clear of the wing. We took photo after photo of spectacular soaring, snow covered volcanos; culminating in a group of three. My photos were rushed at the end since the steward told me to turn off my camera, it was an electronic device. I’m surprised that we didn’t crash since I surreptitiously turned it on a couple of times to take some more photos.
After we landed at Puerto Montt we identified our luggage which was then trucked directly to the ship. Some comfortable buses picked us up and took us on a time-killing but enjoyable tour to see, among other things, the same three volcanos from the ground. The most beautiful, a perfectly formed shield volcano, was Orosano.
We drove to Rio Petrohue national park and had a hearty lunch with wine at Petrohue Hotel by Esperto de Santo lake. There were spectacular views of Orosano and the other volcanos. Rio Petrohue drains from the lake and flows through many rock formations, making beautiful tumbling rapids. The bus stopped at Saltos del Rio Petrohue where the river was constrained by large lava formations making for many spectacular photo opportunities with the volcanos in the background. Then it was off to the Lindblad National Geographic Endeavour.
Our first stop the next day was at Castro, Chiloe Island. Of the two included tours offered, we chose the easy tour which was mostly bus riding. The other option was hiking in a national park. (All tours and activities are included in the trip cost.) We visited a couple of beautiful all-wood churches, identified as World Heritage sites. They were built by the Jesuits before they were kicked out of the country. The plans were created in Italy with the intent of being executed in cement. Wood was available so the locals used it. Both were quite beautiful but in poor condition. We first visited the Church of Santa Maria de Loreto in Achao. It was built in 1730 and looks it.
It was Sunday and there was an open air market in the small town of Dalcahue. The frequent showers and accompanying wind didn’t seem to phase the sellers. Some had tents but others just covered their goods with plastic sheets when a shower passed through. Items for sale included new locally woven and knitted clothing, tools, and a wide variety of food stuffs, including various forms of sea weed. It reminded me of a swap meet.
Our lunch was quite an adventure. The entire meal was cooked behind the restaurant in a hole in the ground. The food was layered in the preheated pit and then covered with the very large, fresh leaves of a local plant, called wild rhubarb.
This plant looks nothing like our rhubarb. It is all green, has huge leaves, and stems that are covered with prickly needles. I believe that the stems are what is eaten. I wouldn’t care to eat them but then I don’t care to eat our rhubarb either.
When the food was ready we seated ourselves at the tables. The waitress brought out a heaping platter of mussels, clams, sausage, chicken, potato bread, and a baked potato. I thought it was for the entire table however she placed it in front of one person. The heaped plates continued to come from the pit, one plate per person. With the exception of the potato bread it was all quite good. And again, the wine flowed freely.
After this sumptuous lunch we visited the Church of San Fransisco de Castro, in Castro. This church was built from 1910 to 1912 and is somewhat better condition than the previous church we visited. Both churches use foundations of local boulders. Given the persistent rain, the wood near the ground is in poor condition.
Our second welcome dinner was the Captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner, our second night on the ship.
Our next stop, the next day, was at Chaitén to visit Pumalin Park
Pumalin Park was given to the country of Chile by the founder of clothing company North Face, Douglas Tompkin, and his wife, Kris McDivitt. This park is the home of a few of the remaining Alerce trees. These giant trees are a relative of the California Sequoia trees. We were offered two hikes in the park; one a difficult walk and one a shorter walk. We chose the shorter one. There was intermittent rain as we started the hour long drive to the park on a gravel road in a motley assortment of local vans which were the only group transportation available. Our vehicle was a 15-passenger mini-bus with seat spacing suitable only for small children. Adults would fit into the seats by assuming a fetal position. Our outer garments became wet on the zodiac ride in from the ship to a dry landing. The bus windows became quite fogged over and the bus seemed to have no defrost capability; the driver wiped his windows with a towel. We saw nothing on our way into the park.
Once we reached the trail head we set off on a well-built trail with wooden walk-ways over wet areas, wooden stairways, and a swinging suspension bridge. It was an easy loop trail. Eventually we reached a stand of the Alerce trees. They are truly huge with thick red bark reminiscent of California redwood bark. The whole rain forest was dense and dripping wet. The rain abated during the course of the hike.
On the way out, the bus made a rest stop. Much to my surprise there were flush toilets in the middle of the wilderness.
Our slow driver made our bus the last vehicle to return to Chaitén where we stopped at the visitor center. We enjoyed home-made cookies and hot chocolate. Jodie bought some souvenirs, and we returned to the ship for a very late lunch.
We cruised south down the Golfo de Corcovado for the remainder of the afternoon, looking for sea birds and animals but few were spotted.
The next day we were at Cinco Hermonos.
The ship cruised up to an island and anchored. We were offered the choice of kayaking or going for a zodiac ride. Inflatable, very stable kayaks are available on the Endeavour. As a safety precaution in addition to the life preservers, all kayakers wear an r-f signaling device that is activated if immersed in water. The rescue zodiac has a receiver and swoops to the rescue if needed. This never happened during the cruise.
We chose the zodiac. There was almost no wildlife other that a few birds plus a profusion of mussels on the rocks along the shore. Zodiac driver, and expedition leader, Bud Lehnhausen decided to cross the strait to visit a salmon farm. As we approached we found several hot springs, one on land and a couple more welling up under the sea.
The farm was quite large, as were most of the salmon farms we saw. There was a large building on a barge at one end of the farm attached by hoses to the extensive field of net-walled pens. The tops of the pens were covered with netting to keep the birds out. Each pen sported a feeding device that was fed through the hoses from the barge. Some of the workers came out as we approached. From them we learned that the farm produces 2,500 tons of fish a year. There were 7 workers.
As we returned to the ship we stopped to pick up two passengers who had gone ashore to fly fish. They caught nothing but saw a beautiful king fisher and a sea otter.
Our next adventure was at Estero Slight, named for Scottish engineer George Slight. In 1910 he designed the lighthouse at the end of Taitao Peninsula and also the 60 cm gage railroad that transported the building materials for the lighthouse. The seas were too rough land the materials at the site so they were unloaded in the protected bay. Sadly, the railroad has been destroyed and the lighthouse is now supplied by a very rough road that parallels the railroad route. Resupply and crew change occur every 6 months.
We were offered a variety of hikes on the road. The death march was to cross the island, reported to take two hours each way. The more moderate hike was to be an hour out and an hour back. We chose the more moderate hike. Several of the death march hikers reached the lighthouse and were welcomed by the lonely staff.
The road cut through a dense, dense temperate rain forest. Since there is almost constant rain the road is heavily eroded with many, many large rocks comprising the surface. In several places the road became a bustling stream. We saw a few of the local birds and heard more. The best sighting was of a Magellanic Woodpecker. Fortunately there was no rain.
The day at Seno Eyre dawned with bright sunlight and amazingly clear blue skies, quite a contrast from the trip so far. We spent most of the morning on deck enjoying the vistas. Around 10 am we arrived at Ventisquero Pio XI glacier, a tidewater glacier, and spent a hour or so cruising along its face. Periodically the glacier would calve, sometimes a slight amount but occasionally a large section would crash into the sea creating a wave that rocked the zodiac.
After lunch we went ashore on one side of the glacier and hiked along the clear section which until recently had been covered by the glacier. The tall spires of almost pure aqua were flanked by the dirty blocks of snow at the margins. We were actually hiking on the lateral moraine. Our clear blue skies gave way to the more usual low grey clouds. Just as we were boarding zodiacs to return to the ship there was a very large calving that caused quite a wave. The zodiac drivers got very wet as they were in the water holding the zodiacs for boarding.
The Chilean fjords are more like the Alaskan Inside Passage than the Norwegian fjords. Rather than the narrowness and sheer vertical walls of the later they are more open and spread out. Like Alaska, there are many islands with snow-capped mountains. The soaring granite walls are frequently ribboned with waterfalls. Given the great height of the walls the waterfalls appear quite small until they near the water where their true volume becomes apparent.
The next day’s activities were dictated by the need to transit White Narrow at slack tide. The ship drove hard all night to be in position to reach the narrows at the proper time. When it was close enough we stopped and had a zodiac ride from a wide fjord into a very narrow fjord. For some reason it was decided to send out only four zodiacs so the 100 and 300 decks went before lunch while the 200 deck went afterwards. While the first group were out, the ship moved on up the main fjord and then back to the pick-up point. It was raining steadily during the whole time. The first group returned to the ship quite wet but verbose in their enjoyment of the trip.
We went out after lunch, putting on layers of clothes topped by our waterproofs. Shortly after we left the ship the rain slackened and the Sun peeped out through holes in the clouds. We were greatly overdressed. When the first zodiac attempted to enter the smaller fjord it found that the falling tide left insufficient depth to enter so we cruised up and down the main channel. We had several nice views of kelp geese, ashy headed geese, Magellanic terns, and others that I don’t remember.
Ian Bullock, a naturalist and the driver, showed us a huge midden pile of mussel shells at a spot that would have been an ideal camping site for the early residents. These residents are now extinct. The presence of a wooden tent frame indicates that the location is still used seasonally.
When we returned to the ship it was time to approach the White Narrows. All were on deck for the event and to watch for wildlife. As we were about to enter the narrows Ian spotted a condor perched on a distant ridge. It passively observed our passage. Shortly thereafter, naturalist Richard White found two adults and a juvenile also watching us pass by.
The narrows are constricted by several small islands. The ship put down a zodiac to pass through ahead of us with the dual purpose of verifying that the tide was slack and also to video tape our passage. Bud was in the crow’s nest with a second video camera for the same purpose.
After the uneventful passage we traveled on to Puerto Natal where we tied up for the night. This town of 18,000 people is the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park, our destination for tomorrow. Last year 80 cruise ships visited here, including the Queen Mary II, twice.
After dinner we were free to explore the town. Jodie needed to get additional aspirin for her abscessed tooth which was being treated free of charge with antibiotics from the ship’s doctor. We also wanted to get a map of Patagonia. We wandered around until we found someone to direct us to a pharmacy where we got aspirin and generic Tylenol. When we went to the map store across the street she found that she had left her wallet at the pharmacy. We quickly returned just as they were closing and they met her at the door with smiles and her wallet.
A 7 am start was required the next morning since it was a two-hour drive to the park. The passengers boarded one of three large, comfortable busses for the trip. There was a midway stop at a restaurant/souvenir store for a potty break and some shopping. We stopped again at the entrance station so the guides could pay our fees and for another potty opportunity. We also stopped to see some rheas (an ostrich-like bird endemic to the area) and a flock of gunacos. It turned out that gunacos are all over the park. During our stop Ian found a group of juvenile condors sitting on a nearby ridge. As we watched and photographed they took off and began soaring. Then we discovered nearly a dozen soaring in the distance in front of the towers.
The spiked towers are granite intrusions that squeezed up through upthrust sedentary rock formations. The erosion of the sedimentary rock has left these spectacular grey needles thrusting into the sky. The north tower is 2,850 m. tall; the center tower is 2,900 m.; the south is 2,600 m. Although the area is noted for bad weather we had beautiful sunny skies with a few puffy clouds.
We had a delightful lunch at Posada Rio Serrano, one of the lodges in the park. The only problem was that it was stiflingly hot, as was our nonairconditioned bus. (This usually isn’t a problem in this area, given the typical cool, rainy weather.) After lunch there was a short hike to a small waterfall where we were cooled by a very strong wind. On the way out of the park we stopped at a pond to view 6 flamingos. The busses arrived back at the ship at 8 pm and we had a very late dinner after a great day of spectacular views in bright sunshine!
The highlight of the next day was the return through the narrows. As the ship approached she slowed to allow passengers to board zodiacs so they could view the passage from a different perspective. The tides were not running on schedule so the zodiac trip became much longer than expected.
The benefit of this extended zodiac trip was that there were good sighting of wildlife. We viewed a condor close up, a Chilean black dolphin, rock shag rookery, sea lion, and the big, big ship.
Our third wine tasting session was at 5 pm. Max Morales, a Chilean wine expert, came on board with 26 cases of Chilean wine. The first session was devoted to 4 Sauvignon Blancs, the second to 4 Carmenéres, and this third session to Pinot Noirs. I have found that in spite of all the good wine I have consumed and enjoyed for the past 40+ years, I have no talent for critical tasting. I see very little difference in colors; I cannot discern the various nuances or characteristics of aromas or taste. To paraphrase the oft stated art critique; “I may not know wine but I know what I like.”
The ship turned into the Straits of Magellan at the start of dinner. The seas became rather choppy until we turned so that we had following seas.
We were offered a zodiac ride at the Tucker Islands the next morning, however we elected to stay on the ship. In the afternoon we traveled to Bahia Ainsworth where we went ashore to visit some elephant seals. They had hauled out on a moraine or alluvial fan. There were three juveniles who had been weaned but not yet gone to sea, a female, and a small male. Small is a relative term; he was quite large but given the size of his nose he was young. He kept trying to either mate with or crush the youngest. The little one voiced his displeasure with loud squeals.
There were also some oyster catchers, ashy headed geese, and kelp geese. Other passengers found some beaver works. When we first arrived it was sunny and warm. By the time we were ready to return to the ship it was sleeting.
Garibaldi Fjord, at last, a fjord that looks like those in Norway. Its steep sides were frequently laced with briskly flowing water falls. We reached Garibaldi Glacier conveniently located at the end. Since it has receded it has become 2 or 3 glaciers separated by the rock it was unable to grind into submission. Although it was quite windy and spitting sleet and rain we went for an hour’s zodiac ride.
The next day we rounded Cape Horn! (Actually we circled it.) The mixed weather continued. We were offered the chance to land and climb up to the lighthouse. The description of the 134 wooden stairs as steep, slippery, and with no hand rails discouraged Jodie. The 60 mph wind discouraged me. We later learned that the stairs were new and had hand rails. We also later learned that the wind on top was so strong that some people were blown off of the walkway and injured. Those who persevered and reached the lighthouse met the family of three living there. The purser took all of our passports ashore and had them stamped.
Throughout the day we continued into and out of snow squalls. In the afternoon we were offered a zodiac ride in a sheltered cove. We packed instead.
At around 2 am the ship stopped at Puerto Williams to check out of Chile.
We arrived around 6 am at Ushuaia, Argentina, a town covered with new snow with more falling, although it was Spring here. We quickly removed some of the warmer clothes that we had packed and put the bags out at 6:30 am to be taken immediately to the airport.
We were off the ship at 8 for a tour of the town and a visit to the former prison now a museum. It was somewhat interesting with a mix of prison stuff and random Antarctic displays. By this time the snow had abated and, although the Sun sometimes appeared, it was still very cool and windy. We were happy to have those warmer clothes.
We had 40 minutes to shop downtown before the buses took us to a very nice restaurant on a mountain side above the town. After lunch we went to the airport, passed through immigration and security and settled down to wait for the charter flight. Our bags would be loaded onto the plane when it arrived; we didn’t see our bags until Santiago.
The four hour flight on the cramped LANChile Airbus was very uncomfortable. We were, however, served a light lunch which included a little wine.
When we arrived in Santiago we found that, contrary to what the LAN attendants had told us, we would have to clear immigration and customs, thus entering Chile, to claim our luggage and check-in for the flight home. This led to a lot of hassle but eventually we cleared, found our luggage which had to be x-rayed to verify that we weren’t bringing in bugs, and made our way to the LAN check-in. Before we checked in Jodie repacked the warm clothing we had hastily unpacked in Ushuaia. After check-in we passed back through immigration control and security. We were officially in Chile this time for less than 2 hours.
After a 4-hour wait we boarded the LANChile flight to LAX which departed at 10:40 pm, close to on time. We found that by taking some sea sick pills (called ocean motion potion by Bud) we were able to sleep a bit during the 14-hour flight. It landed on time at 7 am. By 7:45 we were on the curb waiting for our son to pick us up.
This was another great trip on a Lindblad ship. There was the usual knowledgeable staff of naturalists who not only presented informative, well illustrated lectures but also informally taught on hikes and zodiac rides.
The formal lectures are presented in the recently renovated lounge. The lectures were supported by PowerPoint slides. (35 mm slide shows seem to be a thing of the past.) Four large flat-screen TVs enable viewing the supporting illustrations from anywhere in the lounge, a magnificent improvement.
In addition to the aforementioned kayaks, the Endeavour also carries an ROV which allows views of the underwater environment without the necessity of donning SCUBA gear. This was a real boon since the glacially-cooled water temperature was barely above freezing.
The ship also carries a video microscope that may be viewed on the TV monitors in the lounge. We viewed some of the plankton from these water by this means.
Full-time, paid, Internet access is now available. In addition to three terminals located just outside of the library, wireless access in available in the library and the lounge. This allows the same kind of high-speed Internet access many people enjoy at home.