Chile/Arg - Journey to the End of the Earth / Torres photos
Mar 4, 2005
|Patagonia, meaning 'Big Foot' in Spanish, was the name given to the first people who roamed this area, the size of their feet made larger by wrapping them with layers of animal furs. The region covers the bottom half of both Chile and Argentina, from and including the lake districts in the north and continuing south until the end of the world. Literally. It's a very large area yet has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Little wonder. Part of it is a rugged, desolate, no-man's-land exposed to wild wild winds that ravage and sculpt the landscape. But near its Andean edge is a complete contrast of scenery - pristine lakes, snow-capped mountains, huge prehistoric glaciers, and camera-draining panoramas. Patagonia ... it's wild, untamable, beautiful ... a backpackers paradise.
Torres del Paine, Chile
Torres del Paine National Park has an excellent network of hiking trails and is Chile's most popular backpacker destination. Most hikers "do the W", a 5-day trek around the main mountain peaks, but having insufficient time/gear/energy for the W, I just planned on doing a few day hikes. The park is huge (approx 250,000 hectares) and only a small part is accessible by vehicle. To see the rest you have to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail.
I booked a one-day tour to reach the park (around 2 hours from Puerto Natales) and to cover more turf in less time. I arrived around the same time that the wind started to howl, the rain started to fall, and the weather turned to total crap. I've heard that the mountain views are spectacular. I wouldn't know; I caught mere glimpses. There'd be no postcard-perfect photos taken with my camera that day. We spent the whole day huddled in the vehicle except for quick dashes to see non-existent viewpoints, and for a walk to see Grey Glacier which we couldn't actually visit close-up because the boats weren't operating on this wretched day. But I wasn't so easily thwarted; I still had plans to stay in the park overnight and hopes that the weather would miraculously improve and dawn would bring a sunny day for hiking.
There are 3 basic forms of accommodation in the park:
(1) Pitch a tent and do some good old-fashioned camping. Hey, I enjoy camping as much as the next guy as long as I have perfect weather and a strong sexy porter to carry my gear and set up camp. Rainy weather and no porter ... next.
(2) Stay at one of the fancy-schmancy US$200/night hotels. There are only a few of these within the park frequented by people who want to say they've been to the park but don't actually intend on hiking, and besides which they wouldn't be caught dead staying in the same place as a bunch of smelly backpackers. My US$200/night budget ended around the same time as my US$200/day job ... next.
(3) Stay at one of the park refugios. Strategically placed along the hiking trails are numerous hostel lodges with dormitory beds and food purchase available. Cheap, comfortable, convenient ... bring it on!
The new day had potential, it wasn't actually sunny but at least the wind wasn't blowing like a hurricane and it wasn't raining. I set off bright and early for Las Torres (The Towers), the most popular trail in the park, around 8 hours return trip. Hiking conditions for the first few hours were good, but around an hour before reaching the viewpoint and halfway point in the hike, the wind picked up and the rain started falling again. My view of The Towers was non-existent. And I now had the pleasure of hiking another 4 hours back to the refugio in what had become blasting wind and heavy rainfall. And the last straw ... I discovered that my waterproof gear really wasn't, so by the time I reached the refugio I was a freezing dripping soggy mess. Newsflash: I'm a fair-weather hiker. This crap doesn't work for me. The rain might be desperately needed to kill the forest fire that was ravaging the park for the past few weeks, but I want sunshine. And with a weather forecast of much the same for the next few days, I was quick to abandon any thoughts of staying longer and hopped a bus back to my nice warm dry hostel room in Puerto Natales.
Punta Arenas, Chile
The Patagonia region's original inhabitants were various indigenous Indian tribes. Roaming the land were herds of wild guanaco, the 'Andean camel' similar to the long-necked llama and vicuña of the northern Andes. In the 19C the region was designated for sheep herding. Thousands of sheep were imported from the Falkland Islands. English, Scottish and Croatian immigrants flocked to the region to work in the wool industry. The Indians were wiped out by European disease and warfare, and the guanaco were hunted and killed to make room for the sheep.
The Magellanes region is considered the heart of the Chilean Patagonia. Punta Arenas sits on the western shore of the Strait of Magellan. The city's opulent mansions, strangely out of place in this godforsaken land, give evidence to the region's wealth from the wool boom in the late 19C. I couldn't grasp the exact history, but the area was virtually owned by the powerful 19C Braun-Menéndez family of landowners and sheep farmers. I visited the Magallanes Regional Museum, former mansion of the Braun-Menéndez family, which was interesting with its original OTT (over the top!) furnishings and hint into the lifestyle of this period in the history of Magallanes and Patagonia.
I also visited the cemetery. I swear I've visited more churches and cemeteries while traveling that in my entire life before! But they always tell a great story. It was interesting to see the huge lavish mausoleums of the wealthy landowners (including the late great Braun-Menéndez family) standing side by side with the more modest headstones of the European immigrants and families who worked the land. Also of interest was a statue honoring the Selk'nam, an indigenous tribe wiped out during the 19C wool boom.
It's a 12-hour bus trip from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, 11 long hours of which are through some of the most bleak and boring landscape I've ever seen. Finally, when I was so bored I was considering Hari Kari again, majestic mountains appeared on the horizon.
Situated at the south of the Andes mountain chain and touching the waters of the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. Or at least it is according to the Argentines. It's a beautiful city surrounded by sea, mountains, rivers and forests. It was founded in 1884 with the purpose of asserting Argentine power, but later became a prison colony and then a key naval command.
The remoteness of the place and the harshness of the weather didn't help to populate the place, but the boom in various industries, including tourism, has transformed it into a thriving center of 60,000. The summer season in particular brings thousands of tourists scrambling onboard cruise ships to Antarctica. Despite the US$2500 last-minute ticket price, I actually tried getting on an Antarctica cruise, but the seasons are changing, winter is just around the corner down here, and the Antarctica cruise season finished mid-March. Too late, better luck next time.
Just 12 kilometers outside of Ushuaia is Tierra del Fuego National Park, Land of Fire, the southernmost park in Argentina. Included in its 63,000 hectares are a mixture of glaciers, valleys, rivers, peat bogs and mountains. Hiking trails crisscross the park, although most trails are more suited for day hikes than multi-day trips. I hit the trail again, somewhat hesitantly after my recent Torres del Paine experience, but thankfully encountered nothing but great weather and beautiful scenery.
Our good old Canadian beaver, brought to the area in the 1940's to start a fur trade industry, has really done a number on the landscape in the far south. I want it on record that although they are Canadian beavers, it was an Argentine NOT a Canadian who introduced them to the region. Unfortunately he didn't realize that Patagonian winters aren't as cold as in Canada. The beavers didn't need nice thick winter coats down here, fur quality was low-grade, and the fur trade industry tanked. However, happy with the warmer climate and finding no predators in the area, the beaver population grew rapidly. These busy little beavers cut down trees, built dams, flooded the area, and drown out lots more tree roots. End of environmental conversion story.
Ushuaia is the type of place where you go for a few days and stay a week. That's exactly what I did. The spectacular scenery, pure fresh air, great hiking trails, outdoor activities options, friendly hostel, and fantastic fellow travelers created an atmosphere that I much enjoyed and chose to linger within.
Other than hiking in Tierra del Fuego, I went on a day trip with Annie (a new friend from the Navimag trip) which was a combo of canoeing, hiking, a visit to Harberton Ranch (the first ranch in the province, founded by an Anglican missionary), and my favorite ... a boat trip to see the penguins. I was absolutely enthralled by the penguins! They're almost awkward on land, waddling around in their cute little tuxedos, but once they hit the water they're all smooth and graceful and fast like torpedoes.
A group of us from the hostel also rented a minivan/driver one day, covering around 500kms on mostly unpaved bumpy dusty roads. We crossed over Garibaldi Pass, then visited Cabo San Pablo where a ghostly wreck of an old cargo ship sits rusting on the wide expanse of beach, then finally stopped at Yehuin Lake with flat calm waters and a beautiful peaceful setting.
How many times have you used the expression "if I can't do this or that it's not the end of the world" ... well, down here in Ushuaia it really is! And here's a piece of trivia for you ... in the Tierra del Fuego region of which Ushuaia is the capital, the Andes don't run from south to north, but from east to west.
Puerto Williams, Chile
Situated at the south of the Andes mountain chain and touching the waters of the Beagle Channel, the naval settlement of Puerto Williams is the southernmost city in the world. Or at least it is according to the Chileans! In actual fact, Puerto Williams sits on the SOUTH side of the Beagle Channel, technically making it a bit further south ... so Chile wins!
From Ushuaia I traveled south across the Beagle Channel to Navarino Island of which Puerto Williams is the main settlement. Quite honestly, I have friends who tow larger dinghies behind their sailing yachts than the 6-passenger zodiac we used to cross the channel, but other than a few saltwater splashes, it got us there in one piece so I really can't complain.
Puerto Williams is the complete opposite of Ushuaia ... it's very small (population of the whole ISLAND is 2500), and very isolated. The landscape is more rugged and barren, and our friendly Canadian beaver has worked his environmental magic here as well. There are around 3 small restaurants and the same number of shops in Puerto Williams. All goods are shipped in by boat from Punta Arenas once a week making everything in Puerto Williams very expensive. Skipping across to nearby Ushuaia to shop is not allowed, even though availability is greater and prices are cheaper there. The local population is so laid-back that the word 'lazy' comes to mind. Everything looks run-down or half-finished, no one wants to work, the "mañana principal" has taken a firm hold.
They don't seem to encourage tourism here; I believe I was THE tourist of the month. But trekkers are drawn to the Dientes de Navarino (Teeth of Navarino), a challenging 5-day circuit with some spectacular views around the island. I twice hiked the first day of the trek, but the whole circuit requires more fitness, gear and skill than I presently have.
I also visited Omora Park, the most southerly ethno-botanical park in South America, with trails highlighting regional flora and fauna. Seeing the state of things on the island I had expected the park to be cheesy and run-down, but in honesty it was one of the nicest botanical parks I've ever visited.
Puerto Williams is an official port of entry for yachts en route to Cape Horn and Antarctica. A must-do on the weekend is a night out at the Micalvi Yacht Club, whose bar just happens to be managed by my hostel owner, a retired marine and I think the only entrepreneurial soul on the island. I sat there, green with envy, as I chatted with numerous sailors just back from "sailing the Horn". You see, while I was in Ushuaia I had also tried getting on a sailing boat going around Cape Horn, but timing of available boats didn't work with my schedule. Bad timing again, strike two!
Anyway, Puerto Williams was small, quiet, very rural, but I really liked the place. The people might be laid-back, but they were all very friendly to me and genuine. 'Hardy' is also a word that comes to mind; let's face it who else would really want to live here. It's noted as being 'one of Chile's most unique towns' and from what I've seen of Chile I wholeheartedly agree.
So, after spending 5 days on Navarino Island, I flew back to Punta Arenas, took a bus to Puerto Natales, then crossed back into Argentina on a bus to El Calafate. I've now been to the "end of the world" and back ... it's time to start heading north again.