The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
We spent most of October exploring Patagonia, but not on Moira. We left Moira safely in Cartagena, Colombia at the Club de Pesca marina.
For a discussion of the physical and political geography of Patagonia, see our page on Punta Arenas and Torres del Paine.
I have been asked why we didn’t sail Moira to Patagonia, particularly when we had already gotten as far as Ecuador, about 20% of the way down South America and going in the right direction. I didn’t sail south from Ecuador because I was afraid to, but my experience in Patagonia consolidated my prejudices about a possible trip south by small boat and confirmed my initial take on the subject. While our sail south to Ecuador was manageable and non-threatening, sailing south of Ecuador gets rougher and rougher. The seas are enormous, the winds highly variable, and the weather fickle. The cold Humboldt/Peru current is also against a sailor trying to go south.
Sailors have two sayings that summarize the experience of sailing south of Ecuador, past Peru, and into Chile and Cape Horn: “Below 40 degrees south, there is no law; below 50 degrees south, there is no God.” And: “Roaring 40’s, Furious 50’s, Screaming 60’s.” These two sayings are speaking about degrees of latitude starting at the equator at zero. Santiago, Chile is located about 35 degrees of latitude south, and the beginning of Patagonia on the Chilean coast is at about 40 degrees of latitude south. If you can get that far, the sailing in amidst the fjords of Chile looks to be magnificent. But the sayings well express the conditions to be found in the entire area. That there is no God south of 50 degrees may be ascertained by the over 800 ships and 10,000 sailors who have been lost attempting to go around Cape Horn. Whether or not the Captain is a great sailor or navigator seems not to matter. Character does not seem to matter. With no God and terrible weather, sailing in these areas seems to me a matter of luck. We saw several small craft who had made the trip successfully but both of us shuddered at the sight. While the boats looked comfortable as they passed the cruise ship <Larry: picking their way around the ice in the water>, the weather was turning bad. We felt for the cruisers and were impressed by their perseverance and fortitude.
After five days in Parque Torres del Paine, our guide and driver transported us back to Punta Arenas for an overnight stay at Hotel Isla Rey Jorgé. The next morning we produced our documents and checked our luggage with the office of Mare Australis, the cruise ship which would take us to Cape Horn.
Mare Australis carried 104 passengers in great comfort with about 35 crew members. The ship is owned and operated by a Chilean company of the same name which owns several hotels and the Via Australis, the sister ship to the Mare Australis.
Everything about the ship was excellent: the accommodations, the meals, the crew, and the logistics of moving the passengers on two excursions a day. This four-night, five-day cruise from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, Argentina was as pleasant as could be. The cruise had been recommended to us by two cruising couples we liked a lot, so we were not surprised by how pleasant and well-run the cruise was. Just about every minute of the day had a planned activity, but there was never a sense of being pushed from one activity to the next. There was such a natural progression to the activities and everything was so well done that neither of us wanted to waste a minute of our time on this ship. Such excellence was exhilarating.
We had taken the cruise to see glaciers up close and personal and to be able to see and to walk on Cape Horn. <Larry: Chart at left courtesy of Google Earth, modified with the track of Mare Australis.>
The excursions ashore in Zodiacs (large, black rubber, inflatable launches, each capable of transporting about 15 passengers) were complemented by on-board lectures on wildlife, glaciers, and the history of the area. Each trip ashore was accompanied by a naturalist guide with no more than 12 passengers. Passengers were grouped by language for the excursions ashore, the lectures, and at the dining tables.
We boarded the Mare Australis in Punta Arenas, Chile, late in the afternoon, and were welcomed with a cocktail party and dinner. While we were enjoying dinner, the ship steamed into the darkening Strait of Magellan. This strait, explored by Ferdinand Magellan, is the main natural protected passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.
Three excursions stand out for us during this trip.
Overnight, the ship steamed south from Punta Arenas across the Strait of Magellan into the Admiralty Fjord, arriving at Ainsworth Bay during the early hours. Ainsworth is a stunningly beautiful bay surrounded by the Darwin Mountain Range, a cordillera (belt or range of mountains) considered the root or the end of the Andes. The mountains were named for Charles Darwin, who traveled this area on the good ship Beagle under the command of Robert Fitz Roy.
We went ashore by Zodiac. <Larry: Each passenger was supplied with a life jacket. Each life jacket hat a red plastic tag on a clip, with the passenger’s cabin number. Just before boarding the Zodiac, you removed your tag from your life jacket and hung it on a pegboard. As you returned, you retrieved your tag from the pegboard and clipped it to your life jacket. Any tag that remained on the pegboard after the last Zodiac returned was cause for inquiry. Part of our shipboard briefing included the admonition: “Ladies, please don’t wear high-heeled shoes in the Zodiacs!” One shudders to think of the precedent that made the warning necessary.>
It was amazing to see and to hear the very large elephant seals and their pups, and to walk on the rugged, soggy steppe land, seeing the budding wild flowers: lupines, daises, roses and calafate berries (like a bitter blueberry). The bushes and forests are covered in lichen called barba del viejo (“old man's beard”).
The forests are mostly nothofagus, or “false beech,” so named by the early explorers, who thought that they looked remarkably like the European beech. We were told that some botanists now consider nothofagus to be a true beech, but the name has stuck.> The nothofagus include three different species of beech, one of which is an evergreen. They sport beautiful colors in the autumn and a beautiful deep green leaf on both the deciduous and the evergreen species, contrasting with a brownish gray bark. Few of the trees in open areas are straight and tall; rather, they tend to be bent and wind-blown, giving the landscape the harsh, rugged look of the Lord of the Rings movie, which our guides told us was filmed in Torres del Paine and in Tierra del Fuego adjacent to the Beagle Channel. <Larry: The consistent wind causes many trees to grow with limbs on only the downwind side of the trunk, which is itself bent downwind. The Spanish term is arboles banderas, “flag trees.”> The bird life in this area is varied and distinguished. I liked the ibis best, because they have migrated from further north, but the Andean geese walk proudly by the water’s edge and the condors high above us were ascending in circles, playing with the winds.
<Larry: One of the features of the walk was a visit to a beaver dam. Beavers from Canada were introduced into this territory (by the Argentines, if the Chileans are telling the story, and vice versa) in the 1800’s to seed a hoped-for business in then-fashionable beaver-fur. It turned out that the climate of Patagonia is different from the climate of Canada, and as a result, the fur grown by the ungrateful beavers was worthless. And the fashion for beaver fur passed away. So now the beavers gnaw and dam without predators. The Chileans are trying to create a fashion for beaver (“castro”) in their restaurants as a gourmet meat. The same story was repeated, squared, with rabbit. The exotic species (rabbit) became a pest, so yet another exotic species (gray fox) was introduced to combat the rabbit. But the gray fox decided that it preferred to dine upon (commercial) sheep rather than its intended target (rabbit). The Law of Unintended Consequences will not be denied.>
Proper clothing is important here. The cruise ship company had e-mailed us a cartoon of a jaunty passenger properly dressed for an excursion, from trekking shoes to wool hat. There was no excuse for improper dress but a few passengers arrived for the excursions without waterproof jackets and pants. <Larry: In blue jeans and Nike’s! Or in a white, calf-length down coat! Or with a torn-out plastic garbage bag for a poncho! It rained constantly while we were here, never hard, but persistently.> They were cold, wet, and miserable. We had some of our cross-country skiing clothes from our stash aboard Moira, so we were mostly warm and comfortable.
Mare Australis introduced us to a delightful ending they used for any excursion in the vicinity of a glacier. The same ceremony was also used by other tour guides we encountered where glaciers were the topic of the excursion. After our walk and before going back by Zodiac to the ship, we were offered liquid refreshments of lemonade, hot chocolate, or Johnny Walker whiskey in nice crystal glasses on glacial ice. <Larry: I can’t say that millennial ice improved the taste of the Johnny Walker, but then, Johnny Walker tastes perfect already, and it’s unreasonable to expect the ice to improve “perfect.”>
That night the ship steamed from the Strait of Magellan south <Larry: around the west end of Tierra del Fuego Island> to enter the west end of the Beagle Channel <Larry: which runs along the south side of Tierra del Fuego Island>. There is a section between exiting the Strait of Magellan and entering the Beagle Channel where the ship was in the open ocean, relatively unprotected by surrounding islands. They transit this section in the middle of the night to avoid disturbing passengers like me with the movement. The motion of the ship was sufficient that I got up to try to look out the window at the blackness and assess whether we were in any trouble. Had I been in a sailing boat like ours with its deep draft and low center of gravity, I told myself that I would just go back to bed. But power boats (ships) have a very high center of gravity and are not normally designed to sail in heavy winds and seas. I might emphasize “normally,” because I knew that the Mare Australis had been built to sail safely in these waters, and I already had observed the competence of the crew. <Larry: It isn’t as though they haven’t done this passage before. Go back to sleep.>
As I looked out the window into the darkness I saw the lights of another ship. Though I could not make out the lights exactly, I suspect it was a Chilean naval ship watching out for the cruise ship. Not that the cruise ship needed watching, but the Chilean Navy is very protective. This is especially true of their attention to small cruising boats. While in Chilean waters, cruisers must check in by radio with the Navy twice a day. Larry was uninterested in my struggles <Larry: If you keep me awake any longer, you’ll have bigger problems than a little rolly-poly. Go back to sleep.> so I did the smart thing and went back to sleep.
One of the pleasures of the Mare Australis was nearly unlimited access to the bridge, which was located on the upper deck near the bow of the ship. It was a large room, kept in darkness at night to preserve the night vision of the crew. On our first visit I was trying to keep out of the way and close to the wall. Suddenly the lights came on at full force blinding us and the crew handling the ship. They all looked at me. I had apparently brushed the light switch on the adjoining wall and accidentally turned on the lights. I quickly recovered and turned them off. The crew and captain were gracious. I returned to the bridge again but stayed away from that wall. We were interested in the range of instruments, larger than but undertaking the same functions as the instruments on Moira. This ship had no autopilot and no seat for the helmsman. <Larry: You’ve heard the phrase “standing watch”? On commercial ships, they mean it literally.> That meant that the crew who stood watch for four hours at a time had to hand steer the boat day and night. Apparently, in these restricted waters, the Captain got better performance from a crew who hand steered and had to pay close attention, than from an electronic gadget usually used by ships to cross Oceans.
On the second day, during the afternoon, Mare Australis steamed into the Pía Fjord, located in the northwest area of the Beagle Channel on the Chilean side. In Zodiacs we came ashore close to the Pía Glacier. We got an excellent chance to watch the glacier calve icebergs. Then we hiked up to the top of the adjoining hill to see the glacier from above. The amazing blue color of the ice and the roar of the calving of the icebergs stayed with me.
Once we were back on ship, later that afternoon, we steamed along the “Avenue of the Glaciers.” Toasty warm in the large enclosed upper deck bar of the ship, we watched as the ship steamed past enormous glaciers that came down to the edge of the Beagle Channel. Each of the glaciers in the “Avenue” is named for a European country which contributed to the exploration of the area in the part four hundred years. So, as we passed Francia Glacier with champagne in hand, the ship played sentimental French songs and the waiters served French cheese <Larry: and the French passengers went into an ooze of patriotic fervor.> Then we went on to Italia Glacier (Italian wine and bruschetta), Germania Glacier (beer and sausages) and España Glacier (¡¿olé!?). All of us felt very good at the end of the afternoon and were quite impressed by the romance and beauty of glaciers…at least what we could remember through the booze.
The Mare Australis is into detail and service. On the registration form we were asked our dates of birth. The night before the visit to Cape Horn, our table was serenaded by the crew, who delivered to the table a birthday cake baked and served for Larry’s birthday. I was impressed: I had not said a thing to the crew beforehand.
Cape Horn Island is one of the smaller islands in this area, the most southerly island in the group, and a turning point for ship’s captains as they navigated between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. <Larry: “Cape Horn” refers both to Isla de Hornos (the island) and the actual Cape, which is a point on the south side of the island. We were able to land on Cape Horn (the Island), but not to walk on Cape Horn (the point of land).>
<Larry: There is a “Cabo Falso,” a point of land about 30-odd miles to the northwest of the real Cape Horn. In the old chart of the Strait of Magellan on the previous page, it is the southward-pointing spit of land just northeast of the “C” in “Cape Horn.” An eastbound ship normally carried on eastward or turned to the east-northeast after rounding Cape Horn. In the days of square sails and navigation by sextant, a ship that mistook the False Cape Horn for the real one would sail into a perfect, inescapable deathtrap. Just looking at the chart makes me shudder.>
It was not guaranteed that we would land on Cape Horn. Landings take place only if the winds are below 30 knots and the ocean swell is mild enough for a surf landing in inflatables. <Larry: We were told that about 30% of the time, conditions do not permit landing.> The ship arrived in early morning at the famous Cape Horn. Our excursion was set for 7AM, subject to the Captain’s final approval of weather conditions. By 6:30AM, life-jacketed passengers were gathering at the departure points awaiting the word. Crew were sent in Zodiacs to the landing point at the island to assure that passengers could manage the surf landing and could mount the 160 steps to the top of the hillside. The Captain was concerned with how slippery the steps and walkways were, as it was snowing that morning. The word came to proceed with the excursion. I was jubilant! Larry and I had looked over the landing area from the ship and agreed that surf conditions at the landing point were such that, had we been there in Moira, we felt that Loose End (our dinghy) could make the landing, perhaps assisted by a Panga Pivot. The evening before, there had been winds of 50 knots, but this morning conditions were relatively calm and quiet.
It seemed that we were landing early to allow for a quick escape, before the wind came up later in the afternoon, but for now the site of the landing looked good and off we went.
A Chilean military family lives on Cape Horn. The man is a Naval officer, and his lovely wife runs the small tourist store in their home and raises their 6 year old son. The Navy assigns an officer to the island for eighteen months at a time, guarding the area, showing the Chilean flag, and maintaining the navigation aids on the island. The house was small but pleasant and had a very large satellite tower on the roof. A small chapel was nearby, simply decorated with a candle, a wooden cross, and hand-made pews.
After we visited the house and adjacent lighthouse, and admired the substantial radio antenna-farm, we carefully made our way along the slippery, snow-covered wooden walkway to the seamen’s memorial, a memorial to the 10,000 sailors who have perished in the 800+ vessels sunk in the vicinity of Cape Horn. The seamen’s memorial is the third to be built on the island. The previous two (one of concrete and one of steel) were blown down by the wind! <Larry: The memorial is a huge figure-and-ground cutout of an albatross, just visible through the snow in the lower photo, which also shows the landing area. Nearby on a marble plaque is a poem in Spanish by Sara Vial, which translates as:
I am the albatross that awaits you
At the end of the world.
I am the forgotten souls of dead mariners
Who passed Cape Horn
From all the oceans of the world.
But they did not die
In the furious waves.
Today they sail on my wings
In the last crack
The Mare Australis left Chilean waters and arrived in Ushuaia (pronounced “oo-shWHY-ah”), Argentina early in the morning the day after our landing on Cape Horn.
<Larry: The afternoon after Cape Horn, there was an excursion ashore to the Chilean island of Navarino. During the following night, the ship steamed around the corner of Isla Navarino and anchored off tiny Puerto Santa Rosa, just across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia. A Chilean immigration officer there apparently keeps accommodating hours for cruise ships. Immigration formalities (exiting from Chile) were taken care of without disturbing the passengers. The ship then raised anchor and steamed the few miles to Ushuaia, docking while the passengers slept. Immigration formalities (entry into Argentina) were silently completed before we rose for breakfast. We received our stamped passports as we checked out of the ship. Would that formalities proceeded so smoothly for those traveling by cruising sailboat!>
Ushuaia is in a beautiful setting, surrounded by the Andes, on the south side of Tierra del Fuego Island. The buildings are colorfully painted. Many of the newer building have a “Swiss chalet” motif, underscoring the tourist-based economy. At 55 degrees latitude, Ushuaia is closer to the South Pole (2480 miles) than it is to Argentina’s border with Bolivia (2540 miles). The city’s motto (“The end of the world – the beginning of everything”) is prominently painted in large letters on a retaining wall opposite the wharf. <Larry: There was a mooring field/anchorage near the commercial wharf, with maybe 100 yachts and other small craft.>
In Ushuaia we had arranged to stay at a B&B called Posada Fin del Mundo, located in the hills above the city. It was simple but warm, with a living/sitting/dining room on the third floor that had a good view of the city.
<Larry: Ushuaia supports its tourists well: the tourism office near city hall was well-staffed and capable of handling the linguistically-challenged. We thoroughly enjoyed a couple of the city’s upscale restaurants in the hills above the town, but the parilla restaurants on main street don’t know the meaning of “medium rare.” Try ordering your meat azul (blue), and maybe you’ll have better luck than we did.>
The two restaurants we particularly liked were Kaupé, a few blocks from our B&B, and Chez Manú, about a $5 US cab ride out of town toward the Martial Glacier. Both restaurants had spectacular views of the city and excellent food. We went to Kaupé twice. The first time, the restaurant was empty when we arrived. The second time, the restaurant was half full because we went at 8:30PM rather than our usual hour of 7PM. We cannot seem to shake our gringo habits about dining, so we are often alone in the restaurant. These restaurants have been in business for a number of years. Not only are they excellent restaurants, but Ushuaia has a good customer-base in its tourists and prosperous residents and businesses.
This would be a pleasant place to live, but for the weather. I might point out that the weather settles down in the winter when the wind abates and the snow comes. We were told that the temperature seldom falls below zero degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, residents and many tourists enjoy sports like cross-country skiing, dog sled races, and some downhill skiing (the mountains are not high enough for big-time downhill skiing).
Most of the public buildings and the infrastructure of Ushuaia were built by the prisoners brought here starting in the early 1900’s, to help populate the Argentine share of Patagonia. The prison was closed down in 1937, but the buildings still stand and of course we toured them. Any prisoner shipped there today would shape up fast! Prisoners “in good standing” were given opportunities to work cutting wood for construction and heating, constructing buildings in the town, and working on the railroad being built to bring cut wood into the town for building and heating. Prisoners who worked outside the prison were fed better and got a break from the cold dampness and boredom of the prison cells. The prison railroad built years ago was recently reconstructed and has been turned into a tourist attraction, taking tourists from outside Ushuaia to the entrance to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The train <Larry: now billed as “the train at the end of the world,” tren fin del mundo> is propelled by a steam engine and has small carriages with large windows. The carriages were built for tourists, not the prisoners, who rode on the same open flatcars used to transport the logs!
At the end of its route, the tren fin del mundo dropped us off at a tiny station where our tour bus was waiting to take us in to the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. Most of the island of Tierra del Fuego is protected in the National Park. The Park is a “nothofagus forest,” receiving a large amount of rain, which gives rise to a brilliant green canopy and forest base. Many areas of the Park are peat bog, walking on which feels like walking on a wet sponge. Water oozed from our footsteps and the ground tried to suck off our shoes. Not recommended: you might lose your shoes, and it feels ecologically damaging. It was early spring here but it felt more like a rainy cold day in autumn in Vermont or Maine. The sky was bright when the sun came out in between the sleet, rain, and cold springtime austral winds. The summer winds had not really started yet but we’ve been told that, in season, they can easily work up to 100 knots (60mph). It was light and bright until 8:30PM or so. In summer there is an 18 hour day, but in winter, daylight shrinks to 7 hours.
We saw many beautiful birds, seagulls, imperial cormorants, and various ducks, including the "steamer ducks." <Larry: So called because the propel themselves through the water by a rotary paddling motion with their wings, like a sidewheel riverboat. The photo at left is a different species.> In the forest we could hear and see the male giant woodpecker, with his black body and red crest. The kingfisher with its bluish chest and black head waited for fish, perched on his usual branch, staring at the current, judging the best time to strike. We were able to stare at him. A flock of ibis went over us in flight from the north. Condors were ever-present in the sky. <Larry: And yes, beaver dams.>
Flowers were further along here than at Torres del Paine. Fuchsia, lupine and daises were beginning to bloom. The calafate bushes were flowering, and some had the blue calafate berry on them: the legend is that if a visitor eats the calafate berry, he must come back to Patagonia. We ate and felt good: this is a stunningly beautiful place. Many branches of the trees were covered with a lichen known here as “old man’s beard” that make the trees look ethereal and mystical. We also saw the bright greenish parasite “Chinese lantern” (false mistletoe) that looks like a bird’s nest.
Ushuaia (Argentina) and Puerto Williams (Chile) lie on opposite sides of the Beagle Channel, with Puerto Williams about 15 miles up the Channel to the east of Ushuaia. <Larry: At night, one can just see the lights of Puerto Williams from the waterfront of Ushuaia.> Ushuaia advertises itself as the “southernmost city in the world.” Ushuaia prospers on tourism and the Argentine military presence. Puerto Williams (Chile) is actually slightly further south than Ushuaia (Argentina), but Puerto Williams is really not much more than a military outpost.
The most interesting feature of Puerto Williams seems to be (we didn’t go there) what is reputed to be a good bar (the “Club de Yates Micalvi, the southernmost bar in the world”) located on the upper deck of the Micalvi, a half-sunken ship in the harbor. The bar is a landmark destination for the hardy cruisers who make it this far. <Larry: While we were on Mare Australis, one of the guides, a sailor from Puerto Williams, showed us a cruising guide to the Patagonia/Cape Horn region, which recorded that in recent years over 50 yachts per year had transited between the oceans through the Strait of Magellan, through the Beagle Channel, or around the Horn.> We talked with a fellow guest at our B&B in Ushuaia who wanted to get over to Puerto Williams to “have a beer at that legendary bar” (Club de Yates Micalvi). He talked with many in the tourist business about how to “get from here to here.” While it was possible to arrange a very expensive airplane flight, plus the corresponding immigration matters, he was not able to engineer a passage to Puerto Williams. He finally gave up trying. His difficulties may suggest simmering hostility between Chile and Argentina. Certainly the immigration and customs procedures could be laborious for a traveler exploring without the backing of Mare Australis.
We took a day trip from Ushuaia by boat up the Beagle Channel, past Puerto Williams, to the Harberton estancia (ranch) which represents the colonial history of Argentina. In the 1800’s, the government of Argentina was trying to secure its territorial claim to this part of Patagonia by populating it with Argentine citizens. The government of Argentina gave 50,000 coastal and mountain acres to Thomas Harberton, now considered by some the “father of Tierra del Fuego.” Thomas was an Anglican missionary who settled in Patagonia and learned enough of the language of the indigenous Yamaná population to prepare a dictionary of the language. He had rare rapport with the Yamaná and tried in his way to respect them and Christianize them. His reward was this enormous land holding which is still farmed by his descendants. Today, the Harberton estancia is run by Thomas Goodal (the great-grandson of Thomas Bridges) and his wife Natalie, a scientist and author with many articles to her credit in National Geographic.
The original “cash crop” of the estancia system was raising sheep, primarily for wool, but the estancias have come under competitive pressure as other areas in the world breed sheep that produce better (longer-fiber) wool, and synthetic fibers have gained acceptance. <Larry: In any case, the raw climate plays a part. We were told that estancias in northern Chile can support 16 sheep per hectare, while Patagonian estancias can support less than one sheep per hectare.> Cattle farming is taking the place of the sheep here. If there is anything that the Argentines can agree upon it is that they produce delicious red meat! <Larry: At Estancia Cerro Negro in Chile (see our page on Torres del Paine), our hostess was planning to replace her flock with a different sub-species that produced wool that she hoped would command a higher price. There was no word on whether those being outsourced would be given retraining opportunities or job-search counseling. Of course, some estancias shear tourists when they can. >
We had an opportunity to see more Magellanic Penguins on two islands in the Beagle Channel before we reached Harberton ranch. The Magellanic penguins have two black feather “necklaces” around their necks and mate for life. Other islands were covered with Imperial cormorants or seals. They were fascinating creatures to watch in many different places around Patagonia.
Within Argentina, it was easy to fly from place to place on Aerolinas Argentina. So off we went one morning to our last stop in Patagonia. El Calafate, founded in 1927, looks and feels like a boom town. It is the center for tourism in this area because of its close proximity to Glacier Perito Moreno. Between 2001 and 2005 the town grew from 4,000 to 15,000 residents and its still growing. This is T-shirt paradise intermixed with lots of good tour companies and an assortment of pleasant hotels and restaurants. <Larry: This is an Aspen wannabe. Where Punta Arenas was “tacky but charming,” El Calafate was simply tacky.> The summer months are the high season, particularly between December through February <Larry: remember, the seasons are reversed from North America>, though Easter break (two weeks in many Spanish countries) is also very popular.
We took a day-long trip on Lago Argentina to the Glacier Upsala, with lunch at the Estancia Christina at the far end of one arm of the lake. What was special about the tour was the absence of others: Larry and I were the only passengers on a small ship, the Cruz del Sur, able to hold over a hundred passengers. Once we were settled in the boat, our guide came to say good morning and that, as we were the only passengers for the day, we were going to leave the dock immediately. It appears that this was only the second day this particular tour had been offered for the season, and the tourist interest had not caught up the size of the boat. We suspected that their concession with the Argentine National Park Service required them to operate the trip regardless of the passenger load. We were told that a little later in the season the boat was usually full.
Off we went in the hands of a charming guide, captain and crew, all for us. We spent most of the time talking with the captain and the guide in the ship’s bridge. We did in fact get close to these gigantic icebergs, the sun was out, so we had a bright beautiful sky and deep blue icebergs all around the boat.
After visiting the glacier, we stopped for lunch at Estancia Christina on Onelli Bay, a beautiful site with a rugged landscape that may resemble the Scottish moors. <Larry: The founder of the estancia was John Percival Masters, an Englishman.> We were served a delicious asada with red wine in a restaurant operated by the estancia for boat tours. Again, we were the only guests. After lunch we walked across the marsh lands to the wreck of a wooden boat about 40 feet long, also called the Christina, long ago careened on the beach and abandoned. <Larry: The estancia has converted from cattle raising to tourism, and acts as an endpoint for major mountain-climbing expeditions into this part of the Andes.>
We arranged this tour through a small tour company in El Calafate. During our initial telephone call to reserve our seats, we were told that we must come to the tour office to pay for and pick up the tickets. We did so the evening before the tour and found that the tour company’s credit-card processing was broken and they were—uncharacteristically for this region—unprepared to take cash. We thought that the tour would not be available to us, but the manager of the tour group said “Just take the tickets and come pay me in the next couple of days.” We were astonished. She knew where were staying, of course, because the company would sent a tour bus in the morning to get us to the boat dock. But this type of casual hospitality and trust was not so unusual in Argentina. We always felt so welcomed by the Argentines, both here and in Buenos Aires.
Tourists come to see the Perito Merino Glacier, about 80 kilometers from El Calafate, and reachable by a paved road directly to the national park that protects this beautiful glacier. The glacier comes to the edge of Lago Argentina where it ends in a translucent blue wall 165 feet high and 2 miles wide. A short boat trip is required to get up close to the glacier.
We took a tour with a special treat. Not only did we get to see the glacier up close and calving, but we landed on the shore and got to walk on the glacier itself. A very clever tour operator, Hielo & Aventura (“ice and adventure”), takes reasonably healthy tourists like us to walk (“mini-trekking”) on the glacier for several hours with crampons on their feet.
Larry took to crampons like the athlete he is but I must admit that the things on my feet gave me the impression that I was about to fall off the glacier and never be seen again. I was the star student only because one of the guides held on to my arm the entire time and saw that I was the one in front setting a pace that most likely frustrated the rest of the group. But thanks to the guide, I am not still on that damned glacier. Actually, it was interesting. I saw more of the brilliant blue of the glacier in the tunnels and crevasses in the ice, but decided that I would never try mountain climbing. The crampons must have weighed 8 pound each. <Larry: Not!> My feet still hurt when I think about the trip.
<Larry: One leg of the trip we did not make reservations for was the leg from El Calafate, Argentina to Punta Arenas, Chile. There is a scheduled air service from El Calafate, but it only runs a couple of times a week, and the plane has a very low weight limit for baggage. It was impossible to tell from reading the tour books whether one could make it by bus in one day from El Calafate to Punta Arenas, but we decided to give it a shot. At worst, we might have to spend the night in Puerto Natales, a mid-sized town at about the halfway point. As it turned out, provided that one takes a reasonably early bus out of El Calafate, one can change busses in Puerto Natales and easily make it to Punta Arenas by dinner time.
The most interesting event of the trip involved the border crossing from Argentina back into Chile. Several backpackers on the bus had “forgotten” to declare apples and other food in their backpacks, and were raked over the coals and threatened with fines by the agriculture inspector at the crossing point. The food was confiscated. Having seen the damage caused by exotic species, I guess I can understand their sensitivity to such matters.>
We had spent almost a month in stunningly beautiful Patagonia, and were ready to return via Santiago to Cartagena to resume our cruising toward Panama. Before taking off once again, we have several boat jobs to do, a haul-out for painting the bottom, and a Christmas visit to the States to see family. Then we’ll head back the San Blas islands of Panama.
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