It’s a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile – home to about 150,000 residents, plus the many tourists who come from all over the world to experience Patagonia. My husband, Jack, and I flew down on a Sunday morning, spent Sunday afternoon and Monday exploring in and around the city, and left on Tuesday morning for the national park, Torres Del Paine. We returned to Punta Arenas the following Saturday and returned to Santiago the next evening. It was one of the most stunning and exciting weeks we’ve spent in Chile.
Glacier Grey. Photo courtesy Margaret Brahm
Punta Arenas has a lively and pretty square just a few blocks from its port on the Straits of Magellan. An immense statue of Magellan dominates the center of the plaza. Seated beneath him (not very subtle) are figures representing the Ona indigenous people. Vendors filled the square on Saturday, less so on Sunday, selling to the tourists who disembarked from the many cruise ships that come to the area.
Spain attempted two failed settlements in the area towards the end of the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Europeans arrived in force to profit from ranching (cattle and sheep), fishing and mining. At that time, Chile sent settlers and established a penal colony to protect its possession of the area. One of the museums we visited had a fascinating display of the area’s history and the tragic story of the destruction of the indigenous people through warfare and disease, capped off by a “gold rush” that pushed them off even the paltry and poor land they had been forced onto previously.
The land on either side of the Straits is called Magallanes. Because the area is cut off by ice caps, the only ways in and out are via air, water and the Argentine border. A taxi driver explained that this is why there is little “delincuencia” in the city – there is no easy getaway.
Three adventurers (and their descendents, who intermarried) assumed prominence in the area: one from Russia, one from Portugal, and one from Spain. Two of the three museums we visited are housed in homes built by the second-generation families. The most prominent is the Palacio Sara Braun. A daughter of the Russian, she married the son of the Portuguese and commissioned her mansion in the late 19th century after her husband’s death. The neoclassical structure is now a hotel and club, but the ground-floor rooms are available for public visits.
Sara Braun is also responsible for the massive gates that mark the entrance to the old cemetery. Like Buenos Aires’ Recoleta, its streets are lined with cypress trees and elaborate mausoleums. On the boulevard outside of the cemetery are bronze statues depicting a settler with a horse, dog and sheep bent into the persistent and harsh wind.
The English came a bit later. Their presence is visible in the St. James Anglican Church and the British School. At the end of our time in the area, we attended service at St. James. The church is small and the parish community was clearly a close-knit one. The service was a guitar-playing, hand-clapping, amen-saying celebration that lasted almost 90 minutes, quite unlike any Anglican service we’d ever attended. After it ended, there were welcoming hugs and kisses. It was unfortunate that we had to get back to the hotel to check out; otherwise, we could have stayed for the universal coffee hour.
Back to the beginning of our week. Our rental car had been arranged through Budget in the United States several weeks earlier, but, alas, the reservation had not made its way through Santiago to Punta Arenas. However, the nice young man at Budget said he had an extra car and walked us out to a green Nissan diesel pickup truck – five-speed stick shift with four-wheel drive capability. And he knew what he was doing.
On Monday afternoon, we drove over rough dirt roads to visit a penguin sanctuary. These are “Magellanic penguins”; they are quite small, and it was delightful to watch them assemble on the beach in the late afternoon. After a while, the bravest of them started to make their way inland to their burrows. We followed three quite closely. Periodically, one would lie down to rest while the other two patiently waited. Then, together, they continued on their way to bring food to their young. Coming out of the sanctuary, we came across a group (herd?) of ñandú, a Chilean variation of ostrich.
We left the next morning for our drive to Torres del Paine – supposedly about five hours north of Punta Arenas, with a quick stop in Puerto Natales for gas and a few provisions. Just outside of Puerto Natales, about 90 minutes (we thought!) from the park, the paved road ended, and we jolted our way over the gravel road. The guide book (they’re hearing from me!) indicated there was a detour to see a cave, but we weren’t interested. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize the detour was also the road to the park entrance nearest to our hotel. Instead, we came in far to the northeast, adding another two hours of driving over washboard dirt roads. In retrospect, it was a good thing, as we saw a part of the park that we otherwise wouldn’t have, but at the time, we were convinced that neither our vehicle nor the human spine was intended to experience that kind of jerking, shaking and bumping.
The drive was primarily over the flat pampa until we neared the park and saw the Paine Massif’s snow-covered granite peaks looming in the distance. The “torres” (towers) for which the park is named were impressive – Rough Guide used the term “otherworldly” – and could be seen from almost everywhere we drove or hiked in the park. The Massif is separate from the Patagonian Andes off to the east. Surrounding it are shrub lands, forests, steppes and desert, all within the park.
We finally arrived at our hotel on the southern shore of Lago Grey. The hotel consisted of a main building with registration, bar and dining room and seven small single-story buildings, each with four to six rooms. Electricity was produced by generator, and everything was quite simple but comfortable.
At its northern point, the Lago Grey meets Glacier Grey, which, in turn, goes back into the Southern Ice Field, one of the largest outside of the North and South Poles. The day after our arrival, we took a small dinghy to the boat moored across the way and, with about 20 others, took the three-and-a-half-hour round trip visit to the glacier. Along the way, beautiful pieces of phosphorescent blue ice that had broken off from the glacier floated on the lake. The afternoon was mostly overcast and rainy, but an occasional burst of sun glistened on the water.
We learned over four days in the park that the weather changed constantly. Strong winds blew clouds and rain in and then pushed them on. The winds were particularly strong at night – thunderous and incessant winds that at home would have us thinking about going to the basement. We saw trees growing at right angles, buffeted by the wind.
We spent most of our time there trekking. There are a number of multi-day hikes available, but we opted for single-day walks. One day, we hiked south of Lago Gray along Río Gray over pampa, with the mountains looming in the distance. On another two days, we did hikes to the northwest of the Lago that took us up and down, with changing views of converging rivers, including the “frozen torrent” of Río Serrano, hidden waterfalls and, as always, the craggy peaks surrounding us, reminding us of castles and cathedrals. The green foliage, brown pampa, grey rock, white snow and blue sky created impressive contrasts, and we were struck by how unspoiled the park was. In Chile, we’ve seen so much trash on the roads and graffiti all over, and this truly was pristine.
The animals, protected here, were quite tranquil when we drove near them. Fortunately, with the exception of birds (including a South American eagle that hung around outside the dining room; we think it was fed by the staff to provide a point of interest for the diners) and the fox Jack saw in the parking lot, we did not encounter anything when we were hiking alone. Jack told me later that he had a plan for what we should do if we met one of the pumas, which are common: something about standing close together and making ourselves as large and intimidating as possible. I’m glad he didn’t tell me about it until later. At any rate, we saw a lot of huemuls (similar to deer) and guanacos (similar to llamas). In one part of the park, we encountered literally hundreds of guanacos congregated at the side of the road.
At the end of our stay, it was hard to leave the serenity and harsh beauty of the park. Along the way to Puerto Natales and then Punta Arenas, we stopped often to savor our final glimpses of the Torres behind us, and we wondered about the lives of those who work on the “estancias” – pristine sheep-ranching stations in the midst of endless pampa. The operators’ names, prominently displayed on signs at the gates, echo the diverse and complicated settlement of the area, and the great distances between estancias reflect the loneliness and the grandeur of life in Patagonia.