Hello again! After leaving Chiloe, we boarded ourselves and our little white car onto the ferry Evangelistas, a former gas transport ship now converted to accommodate 240 passengers in more or less comfort, depending on what type of berth one purchased. The ship was gaily painted using all the primary colors, so it was nothing if not cheery!
We treated ourselves to the AAA cabin, which entitled us to a private cabin which contained a set of bunk beds (I claimed the bottom one immediately), a small desk, a locker, a window seat (actually, a porthole seat) and a spacious private bathroom with shower, all in the space of a cell at the Canon City Federal Penitentiary (can’t personally vouch for the comparison….). Our cabin status entitled us to meal service in the captain´s mess, and that was the ultimate benefit, as the remaining 220 poor sods in ¨steerage¨ had to line up for their meals in a cafeteria. We shared the captain´s dining room with 5 couples from Brittany, a couple from Holland and a couple from Switzerland. It was all very cordial and they fed us copious amounts of decent food, including, much to our surprise, fresh fruit and salad at each meal, and truly excellent mashed potatoes (the hands down favorite!).
The 1500 kilometre inside passage from Puerto Montt really was spectacular. Virtually the whole way we were within sight of an endless jigsaw puzzle of rocky islands, all covered summit to shoreline in trees. These islands, whether small or large, are inhospitable and uninhabited. Yet from a distance they look green and alluring. Apart from the occasional petrel and one or two pods of Peale´s dolphins who briefly swam with the ship the second day, the entire area seemed nearly devoid of life. The sea itself was calm, being protected from the Pacific by the island masses. At certain points on our way south, we navigated between islands that were no more than 80 meters apart. And the captain even made a brief detour to bring us to within spitting distance of an immense rugged turquoise-blue glacier, on the northern end of the Southern Ice Field, The drop in temperature as we got closer to that vast ice cube was impressive.
The only tenuous part of the 3.5 day passage was when the boat had to forsake the calm of the sheltered interior for the wilder waters of the Pacific when we crossed the Golfo de Penas. Our luck held as we made the 14-hour crossing of the gulf without incident,i.e., without seasickness, in winds of about 25 knots and fairly moderate swells.
While on board, the crew did their best to entertain us, as the space for us 240 souls was truly limited and the threat of going stir crazy or simply over-drinking was severe. When you think of this boat, think ¨tanker¨¨ not ¨Princess Cruises!¨ We watched movies, walked up and down the stairs numerous times and I even convinced Bernard to play Bingo. Of course, he won!!!
On disembarking at Puerto Natales, we were delighted to recover our car and drive around the surprisingly spruce little town. As the jumping off point for some of the local glacier cruises as well as for the climbing community, Pto. Natales was actually much more bright and bushy tailed than other towns we´ve been through. And, the Banff Climbing Film Festival, which was playing in British Columbia when we were there skiing last month, had just finished a weekend run in Puerto Natales. Small world…..
Being all excited to finally reach Torres del Paine, we only stayed the night and headed off early the next morning for the park. The landscape approaching the park is mostly pampas, which we found resemble nothing so much as Colorado. We even saw a gaucho moving a small herd of Herefords (got the picture to prove it!). So both the landscape and the livestock here are adapted to the sort of climate and geography we see around us in North Park.
Torres del Paine itself is, well, it´s hard to do justice only with words. Massive pale grey granite spires that have been faceted by glaciers, soar over the pampas. In some places, the glaciers could only gouge a hairpin-shaped channel, since the granite is so hard. Glaciers melt into lakes of the purest aquamarine or deep emerald green from which rushing rivers surge onto the plains. The pampas are actually just a few hundred feet above sea level, from which the towers themselves rise to a level that would equal the rise of Everest from the Everest base camp.
This park has a lot of guanacos, which are quite unafraid of camera-toting humans. Picture the body and legs of a llama sandwiched between the head and toes of a camel. This is one cute animal, and let’s not even begin to talk about their young! And those eyelashes…. We like guanacos.
Patagonia is famous for wind, and we have a lot of that right now. But it´s a warm wind, and we are well-trained, so it´s no big deal for us. On our first horseback ride we rode some very familiar looking quarter horses. None of those fancy highstrung Criollos here. Over the next couple of days, I did some of the most spectacular riding of my life, including one 30 kilometer ride to an overlook above the Grey Glacier, which is the terminus of the Southern Ice Field. This is truly great riding country and the horses I¨ve ridden have been superb. Bernard hiked a long way to get to the foot of the Paine towers, also a memorable one’day trek.
Fishing Alert: As we rode along one of the glacier rivers, we noticed a few fly fishermen. Turns out it’s the season for the spawning salmon to return from the Pacific. Apparently they reach 33 kilos in size. Multiply that by 2.2 pounds and you´ve got a whole lot of salmon!! We are heading out with fishing rods tomorrow (Tuesday, Feb. 26) morning.
Stay tuned for the next bulletin, for a report on the catch of the day!