by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
The first person I ever knew who went to Patagonia was Charles Darwin. Well, I didn’t actually know him, but when I read his passages in The Voyage of the Beagle about the remote Chilean channels, fjords, glacier-crowned landscapes and wild natives, I knew I wanted to go there. There is something in my soul that craves discovery–going to places that are still below the mass tourism radar, places that are distant, exotic, beautiful. And Patagonia, at the bottom of the world, was high on my list.
My husband and I booked a one-week trip on the Mare Australis, a spanking-new, high-end expedition ship. I had no idea what an “expedition ship” meant, but what seduced me in the brochure was the casual style and the exclusivity: the ship only holds 129 passengers, and it visits islands and makes stops where no other tourists go. No formal attire is required; au contraire, the emphasis is on comfort. You pack binoculars and hiking shoes instead of tuxes and evening gowns.
The seasons are the reverse of ours in Patagonia, so when snowflakes fall Stateside, it’s summer way down in Chile. Summer means sweaters, sweatshirts, fleece, woolen socks and colorful knitted caps; after all, short of hopping on an iceberg, Patagonia is as far south as you can go.
We flew on Lan Chile airlines to Punta Arenas, where we boarded the waiting vessel. I sipped a frothy pisco sour–the national drink– and as I perused the daily activities sheet, I began to understand what an expedition ship is. Cultural lectures. Talks by naturalists. Briefings about what flora and fauna we would find on different islands. Waterproof boots available for the asking. Canary-yellow rubber pants and jackets for outings. Panoramic windows in all the cabins. A library with books on birding and rock formations. No slick shows, crooners or costume parties at night. And only one seating for meals. I knew at once that this would be the antithesis of a floating-city experience on a cruise ship.
On our first visit to the spacious dining room, we were asked which language we preferred to speak while we ate. There were English tables, Spanish tables, French tables, Italian tables; actually, there were eighteen different nationalities on board and almost everyone we met was smart, worldly, and, most important, friendly. We could be anchored at our English-language table, but still float around the room while crowing “bon appetit” and “hola! amigo!” whenever we wished. We had eaten better food on luxurious cruise ships, but the expedition-style meals were copious, varied, and the wine flowed freely. The conversation was the real sauce, and we were often the last table of diners because we were engrossed in exchanges about art, theatre, books, politics and the meaning of money. Sometimes the talk continued in one of the ship’s lounges, where the free open bar (yes, all drinks are complementary) enhanced the already-passionate discourse.
Every morning, we awoke, ate, layered-up, slathered ourselves in sunscreen (a nod to the huge hole in the ozone layer), and waddled to our debarkation points where we were assigned to motorized rubber zodiac boats according to our language preferences. Each zodiac held about a dozen of us, plus our cameras. We were whisked off to islands shared by elephant seals and cormorants. We were led on nature hikes where we sampled “Indian bread” (a large, spongy, tasteless, nutritious fungus that grows on trees and nourished the Indians) and learned about nothofagus trees, calafate berries and black-chested buzzard eagles. There were advanced hikes, which often went uphill, medium walks, which were for most people, and easy treks, which often involved little more than getting out of a zodiac, strolling around a beach, and sipping hot chocolate or Johnnie Walker on glacier ice. The ships’ passengers ranged in age from mid-twenties to late seventies, and everyone found a way to walk that suited his or her comfort level.
The day we sailed to Magdalena island, we were briefed about the inhabitants: 60,000 couples of Magellan penguins. It was their nesting season, and we learned never to come between a penguin and the ocean, never to stick an appendage in a nest, not to use flash close to a penguin. The nests were dug into the ground, and they were everywhere, giving the island a pock-marked, almost lunar aspect. Little penguin heads popped out of subterranean houses. Penguins strutted down to the ocean, hung out in twos and in small groups, looked at us with bemusement, and disappeared into their nests. They were so close, so unafraid, that each of us felt as though we were having a relationship to the black and white Patagonian inhabitants.
When we left the ship and zipped to a glacier in our zodiacs, the naturalists told us that the huge, ancient frozen river of ice could calve at any moment. We sang opera, we bellowed, we tried our best to coax the glacier to calve. We were all giddy and loopy from our failed attempt to influence Nature, who clearly has a mind of her own. Our consolation was that we had gone nose-to-ice with a powerful glacier, and we had learned a great deal about glaciers and glacial geology.
Before we stopped at Port William, the southernmost town on the continent, we attended lectures about the natives, and, on shore, we had a choice of cultural tours, nature-oriented tours, or a helicopter ride. When we visited an Indian village, where some of the remaining Yamanas live, the impact was heightened by the knowledge of how rich the culture once was, and how the Indians were decimated by contact with European diseases and, alas, the Europeans themselves. We were taken to an archeological site where the Yamanas brought their canoes ashore in foul weather. They lived in temporary huts, ate mussels, and tossed the shells outside. Today, there are six to twelve foot high midden heaps, formed from discarded mussels and covered with grass.
Most people do not know that 300,000 square mile Patagonia is divided between Chile and Argentina. When we docked in Ushuaia, Argentina, we were given a briefing and offered a myriad of onshore options. We chose a dramatic horseback ride in the hills, looking down at the turbulent sea, the dark mountains outlined against the clear blue sky, the glaciers that have seen the centuries come and go. We visited a remarkable prison, where life-size statues recall some of the most infamous prisoners and the anarchists who were incarcerated there. And we ate at Moustacchio restaurant, where the specialty is local lamb roasted on a spit and accompanied by dozens of hot and cold dishes spread out in a lavish buffet. Because of the crash of the Argentinian economy, the meal came to slightly more than five dollars a person, including several glasses of Carmenere wine.
Some of the most memorable excursions were on remote islands visited only by our ship. Besides the other passengers, who could easily be spotted by their yellow rubber attire, we never saw any other tourists. They only showed up in the few towns where we docked. Our island mates were beavers, skuas, gulls and seals.
Some days, the ship would sail for many hours without any zodiac excursions. Passengers stayed in their rooms and read or slept, or else they wandered into a lounge, flopped down on leather seats, and looked out the window at the ice fields and snow-capped peaks, or marveled that they were sailing through the Strait of Magellan or the Beagle Channel.
Throughout the sailing, there was a palpable excitement about going around Cape Horn. When the early European explorers set out for the spice islands, they needed to somehow get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Many a ship sank or was dashed to pieces by hostile seas and cruel winds as it tried to navigate around Cape Horn, at the southernmost tip of Chile. In the Mare Australis’s lounge, we stared, mesmerized, at a map of all the sunken ships. Would we make it?
When the day of Cape Horn arrived, we hounded the captain: “Tell us, will we circle the Cape? Do you think we can do it?” The urbane, charming, Chilean captain replied: “That is the million dollar question. But I won’t know until we get there.” “C’mon, Captain, can’t you just give us a hint?” “Ahh,” he said, “no one can predict that.”
It turned out that we couldn’t sail around the Cape because the winds were too capricious and violent. But we did something that was, to my mind, better: we landed at Cape Horn. Our new expedition ship is the only one that is equipped to do this. Bundled up and braced against the wind, we climbed up 120 creaky wooden steps, and there we were, at the top of the bottom of the world. On one side, we saw the Atlantic, and on the other side, the Pacific. A memorial to all the sailors who died attempting passage around the Cape made us realize how fortunate we were to have arrived there, with such ease. I paused a minute to acknowledge all the sailors who had been less fortunate than we were. The winds howled, but I felt an inner calm, an inner peace. For me, it was a personal accomplishment just to be standing there.
By the last day on the ship, the passengers were exchanging addresses and hugging each other good-bye. In the dining room, people ate calafate jam, because local legend says that if you eat calafate berries, you will return to Patagonia again.
When we debarked at Punta Arenas, I walked off the Mare Australis feeling richer, more satisfied and nurtured than I had in a long time. It had, indeed, been an expedition of the heart and soul. I knew I would miss the mysteries of the sea, the reckless wind, the majestic peaks, the barren beauty of the landscape, the vast expanses of ice, the pristine sky, the gentle rolling of the ship when I went to sleep at night.
“But you’ll always have a piece of Patagonia with you, inside of you, ” my husband said. “And in case you ever need a reminder, here’s a little gift for you.”
He handed me a small white bag that was bulging oddly. I opened it carefully, and inside was a little jar of calafate jam. If the legend is true, one day I will go back to Patagonia again.
IF YOU GO:
Recommended airline: LanChile www.LanChile.com
For general information about Patagonia:www.Patagonia-chile.com
Information on the Mare Australis expedition sailings: www.australis.com
Tour operator with great information and bargains: www.comapa.com
In Ushuaia, and easily accessible by foot, is the Presidio de Ushuaia prison (firstname.lastname@example.org). Also recommended are Fin Del Mundo horseback rides (actually, walks) for a spectacular view of Patagonian peaks and waterways. Moustacchio restaurant is at av. San Martin 298. The Museo Mundo Yamana is at 56 Rivadavia Street. Detailed information is available on cruise ships and at the information center, dockside, in Ushuaia.
For specific tours and activities in Ushuaia: 1) Tolkeyen Avenida los Nires 2205 – Ushuaia Phone : (54-2901) – 445955 / (54-2901) – 445954 Fax : (54-2901) – 2901 – 445956
2) Rumbo Sur San Martin 350 CP – Ushuaia Phone : (54-2901) – 422275 / 422441 / 421139 Fax : (54-2901) – 430699 / 434788
Before or after your cruise (which lasts anywhere from three to seven days), it is highly recommended to visit windy but magnificent Torres Del Paine national park. Trips can be booked through cruise lines, in Punta Arenas, or at Porto Natales, which is a few hours from Punta Arenas by bus ($5 one way). Besides glacier, mountain and waterfall viewing, there is trekking, kayaking, and chance meetings with guanacos (lamas) and arrieros (gauchos). Do not miss a visit to the cave where the preshistoric milodon (giant sloth) was found. It takes little imagination to visualize the ancient hunters and beasts who inhabited the vast cave, which was carved out in a post-glacial period.
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