Puerto Natales, Chile: Patagonia’s Outdoor Ground Zero

30 12 2011

Looking east from the Puerto Natales waterfront

Today the next phase of our Patagonian odyssey begins! By tonight, we’ll be near the bottom of South America! Sunset will be after 10 p.m. We are flying from Puerto Montt, Chile, to Punte Arenas, and will drive to Puerto Natales, Chile. We’re going to the heart of Chilean fjord country! If you have thought what you’ve read about on this blog so far is amazing, well, it’s time to step it up a few more notches! The days ahead are filled with HIKING, glaciers, desert icebergs, wildlife, we’ll be right in the midst of the best of it!

The Puerto Montt airport is unexpectedly modern, as is the airport in Punte Arenas. We fly an Airbus A320 on Sky Airlines. The route takes us over the Patagonian Andes. Below, I can see the Pacific, and even where the Andes meets Argentina. You can see rivers of ice flowing into blue lakes and the desert. It’s an incredible spectacle! We’ll be starting in Puerto Natales, and each destination will take us further north, Torres del Paine National Park, then El Calafate, and then El Chalten.

After touchdown, it’s a couple of hours to Puerto Natales, which sits right on the water with endless fjords visible from its waterfront. We’re staying in a backpacker hostel, called Hostel Natales, several to a room. It’s big, and has a comfy atrium to hang out in.

Puerto Natales is the gateway to Torres del Paine and O’Higgins National Parks. It attracts so many outdoors enthusiasts that the grocery stores have stocked backpacker food!

Looking out from Puerto Natales, glacier-cloaked mountains jump right from the water. A NaviMag ferry is tied up at the waterfront. These ferries ply these fjords. It is several days ferry ride from Puerto Montt to here. Take a gander at the Navimag website to see the incredible journeys.

Even though it’s early evening, the sun fools us. It is so bright we’d think it’s mid afternoon!  We’ve heard about an interesting Patagonian/African restaurant called Afrigonia-and we are all gonna check it out.  I will disclose here and now that this restaurant deserves the 5-star rating! I had seasoned rice and ostrich, accompanied by a to-die for house Malbec. If you are in Puerto Natales you should pay this establishment a visit! Service is just as good. Do not be deterred that this place is frequented by people just like you-outdoors enthusiasts, and not so much locals. It’s too good to pass up. OK wind the clock back. Before we go out, we’ve got some time to burn so we shop at the supermarket, walk the streets, and pose for pictures.

We check out the waterfront. We stroll up and down, and marvel at the views.

We find this broken down life boat!

I’s too cool to pass up and even has working oars!

Perfect for a photo opportunity.

Since we’re going to spend more time hiking tomorrow, we ventured through the town to the grocery stores to get picnic supplies.

It is here I witness for the first time the global attraction of Patagonia! I hear Russian, French, Japanese, Italian, and some language I cannot distinguish. Portuguese? And Hebrew? All these people are dressed in hiking boots and Goretex. They are all here to do what we are to do – experience the wonders of the spectacular Patagonian outdoors! Not just backpacking – ice climbing, rock climbing, kayaking, rafting are great here.

Walking around town, I see tour operators. Some are offering multiday kayak trips…

Others, a hard to understand mix of jet skis and kayaking?

In any event, it’s clear Puerto Natales is a magnet, a hub for the outdoors activities that make this region so popular.

We are on the doorstep of  Torres del Paine National Park. That is our destination tomorrow! It is South America’s Numero Uno National Park.

We’re excited to get into the outdoors ourselves. In the morning I get out before breakfast to catch the morning light as it will be shining on the opposite side from last evening. I just love the lighting on the boats I see from the waterfront. There are fishermen using hand lines and some professional fisherman are readying their boats for a day of fishing for a living.

Puerto Montt Chile: The Cueca Dance

25 12 2011

Puerto Montt, Chile is a city at the top of Chile’s vast fjord system. From Puerto Montt you can take ferries plying a thousand miles of interconnected fjords to Punta Arenas and beyond. Like parts of Alaska, the many islands are only sparsely inhabited. There is a huge salmon farming industry here, and it’s impact on wild fish is criticized. Puerto Montt sits on the sea, with a lovely waterfront, city square, and it’s cloaked in volcanoes all around. It’s no wonder the buses have volcanoes painted on their sides.

We arrive about noon, and Christof and I take a good long walk to the end of town, where there’s a good seafood market.

It is Sunday, so the town is busy with people on their day off. Young couples groping were everywhere. Nobody is shy about showing physical affection in Chile or Argentina!

Along the way we walk through another open air market. It’s not very interesting to me, because what’s for sale looks mostly like souvenirs I have seen everywhere else in the world. But there are some interesting micro restaurants.

We reach the seafood market. It’s pretty busy, and you can get most everything – squid, clams, oysters, mussels, except that the salmon are all farmed!

There were some really interesting looking family micro restaurants and I wanted to return later to check some of them out. On our return, Christof and I pause for refreshment at one of the coffee and dessert micro restaurants. They did a nice job!


We planned to meet others back at our hotel for dinner, and when we got back we met up with Elwin, Angelique and Eray. We had some time to kill, and as we walked along toward the waterfront we heard some really lively music! We found it in the town square. At one corner of the square there is a gazebo and a band was practicing. People were gathering.

There were some people in costumes, and some in more formal ‘going out’ attire, and I had no idea what was about to happen. As I stood looking at the band, I realized I needed to move off to the side because some of these people were moving out onto the center of the plaza moving to the music.

And here is what we witnessed, it was free, just locals enjoying the national dance! It was such a treat! It is called the Cueca! After a bit, others, including teenagers, were doing it! Well, without further adieu, enjoy!

Here is another couple…

And one last for good measure!

I am so fortunate we just walked into this spectacle. It lasted about 45 minutes and then they disbanded…fun to watch! So what is this dance? It’s actually a representation of a rooster courting a chicken!


Over the Andes and Under Puyehue (Mount Doom)

23 12 2011

Last evening Angelique and Eray found a dance production of Evita in Bariloche. I opted to recharge myself with an early evening free of partying! I awake refreshed and replenished. Opening the window of my room, I notice things have changed. The blue sky is gone. It is replaced with a gray haze. Uh oh. Shifting winds have carried ash from the Puyehue volcano to this pretty city.

We’re driving to Chile. Saskia has us loading the bus at 7:00 a.m. because she wants us to get to the border ahead of any crush of vehicles wanting to get through passport control and customs. Little did we know how great a decision that was, but not for those reasons! Mount Doom had other plans today.

Our trip originally called for a flight from Bariloche. But Puyehue erupted massively June 4th, sending ash 30,000ft high, and has been been active ever since, closing regional airports due to airborne ash.

So our itinerary was re-arranged so that we would drive over the Andes and fly from Puerto Montt, Chile. Volcan Puyehue is legendary. It is part of a volcanic region called the Puyhue-Cordon Caulle Volcanic Complex. This is a group of four Andes volcanoes known to be dangerous. One of the volcanoes, Cordon Caulle, erupted immediately after the Valdivia Earthquake in 1960, which was the largest ever recorded.

As the volcano is no joke, we want to get across as soon as we can. Ash can cover roads, and its dust can clog auto engine intakes. We drive into the Andes, and the higher we get, evidence of the summer’s activity is everywhere.

For those whose businesses depend on tourism, the volcano is a disaster. We pass countless empty lodgings.

Where once vacationers thronged to enjoy the lovely setting, these places stand quiet under a deepening blanket of gray/white fluff.

As we drive ever higher, each passing car throws out a cloud of gray behind, making driving increasingly challenging.

Piles of ash lay like 12-foot high snow drifts on the roadside.

Beautiful alpine lakes with pretty resorts are covered in ash. It’s amazing how it looks like snow.

And it’s all from Puyehue, which was dormant for nearly a generation. Her full fury was captured by photographers early in June…

Truly Mordor's fury

We passed through the Argentine side, then headed 30 km distant to the Chilean border checkpoint. This “no man’s land” was truly an ash-mess, and we hurriedly dove to get through. Once cleared customs on the Chilean side, I looked up into the gray and saw a sinister darker cloud rising through…this turned out to be increased activity today! And they closed the border right behind us!

Just above the passport office!

We thanked God we left early today because nobody else was going across. Along the descent into Chile, we continually marveled out the back window at the spectacle happening above.

I had never driven through ash, let alone witnessed a volcanic eruption. Our drivers were not about to stop to let us take pictures!

As we arrived in the valleys in Chile, things settled down quite a bit. We could see Puyehue pushing her smoke into the sky behind, and yes it was good to be beyond it.

Going further and further into Chile, it’s amazing how different the environment is! Instead of so much arid climate, which starts 20 miles to the east of the Andes, Chile is lush. There is green undergrowth and overgrowth everywhere. Lots of ferns. Philodendrons.

We reach a valley and lake. Down here, Chile is characterized by green pastures peppered with cows and other livestock.

Things look good here!

We stop for a bite to eat. Saskia orders, guess what? Ham and cheese for everyone, which I decline. But there are locals having some delicious-looking meals! I see giant mussels. Our drivers get plate-sized fish and veggies/potatoes. Someone else has a fantastic looking stew. So, they have food options here! I see something irresistible, a kind of pie which is a kiwi type. I order it, and it is GOOD! Viva Chile!

Chile is truly the land of volcanoes. One we pass is particularly beautiful, it is called Osorno. It’s nearly perfectly cylindrical…

As we enter Puerto Montt, the city itself is dominated by the Calbuco volcano.

At Puerto Montt, we reach the Pacific! Yes, that’s right. When we get to Puerto Montt, we have crossed the continent!

Argentina’s Lake District: Beautiful Lake Nahuel Huapi

21 12 2011

Waking up feels unpleasant. I make my way down to the “breakfast” area, where, once again, we are only served croissants, toast, canned fruit, orange aid and coffee. Instead of the usual buffet this hostel has set out specific table servings. I wash down what’s at my seat and in my half-life state it’s not enough and I break the cardinal rule of grabbing extras from the empty place next to me. I am immediately admonished by the hostel’s maternal proprietor! She was right.

Today we are taking a boat out on the lake and then hike a beautiful water trail up to a higher altitude lake. It should be really pretty, with lots of mountains and snow everywhere cascading into the lake.

As we gather outside, someone walks raggedly down the sidewalk. It’s Mat from last night! He has not gone home yet! He is in need of getting to a bed, and it turns out he is staying in our hostel! We make quick re-acquaintances but he is in no shape to hang around. We hope run into each other sometime in the next couple of weeks.

A lengthy drive along the lake shore, past lakeside resorts and estates, leads to a port, Llao Llao, where ferries disembark for various destinations. Just behind the port lies a picturesque resort.

We wait a very long time for our ferry. It must be over an hour. We can see the ash cloud in the distance. The weather on our side of the lake is perfect, of course!

One thing worthwhile during the wait is coffee! They have this ‘electronic barista’ which makes darn good espresso! Heck we could use these in Portland!

Lake Nahuel Huapi is like a Lake Tahoe even bigger, with mountains all around, cascading into the lake. Like Tahoe, it’s over 1,400 feet deep.

Unlike Tahoe, this lake has many arms and peninsulas. So one can’t see it all from any shore. But as you can see from this map, it extends almost into Chile.

Finally we load up and depart. The ferry is a catamaran, with what looks like a space ship suspended above the two pontoons. It’s pretty fast!

Along the shore we see the lovely properties with views. Some have a sailboat moored, and docks.

The ferry picks up steam and really cruises. Although I opt to stay outside, it’s quite nice in the cabin. There are windows in the ceiling so you can see the mountains all around. And for those who want to imbibe there is a bar.

You can walk all around the perimeter of the boat, or even go up on the roof. So, it’s very nicely designed for those who want to see everything.

As we head out, we can see peaks everywhere. On our side of the lake it’s a perfect day. Very little wind, calm water, beautiful sky. Still, we can see the ash cloud and we wonder about what’s going on over on the Chilean side.

It’s so pretty, and none of my friends know about this place. None of them talk about going to Argentina! It’s kind of amazing because it’s absolutely stunning!

Our ferry comes to a small bay surrounded by snowy peaks. We stop at a dock to disembark, have lunch and then do a four hour hike up one of the cascading rivers. It’s going to be fantastic. It’s such a lovely temperature!

Once the ferry leaves we take time to have our picnic on the dock.

We’re told to meet the boat at another dock on the opposite side of the bay later on…

The trail winds amongst bamboo, some alerces trees, and the Patagonian beech trees, just gigantic, dominate everything.

It climbs away from the lake and follows a cascading river. On the climb, the trail is actually built on platforms. I get the idea that this must be really busy in the summer! We’re continually reminded that our timing is 100% perfect. Early November we experience no bugs, and few crowds. Up and up the trail winds. The sounds of the cascading river are everywhere, and there are trail extensions to view it. It’s magnificent.

We witness a duck who seems to thrive here. It’s amazing how it can dart in and out of the whitewater looking for food. It’s called a torrent duck of course!

It is simply amazing. It isn’t here by chance. This guy wants to be here, this is his favorite hunting ground! I’ve never seen anything like it.

We keep climbing, and reach a lake high above! It’s surrounded by high peaks.

I cannot help but re reminded of its resemblance to Yosemite National Park in California.

There are some other tourists there, some Swiss girls. They are really funny, they keep practicing swear words in English!

Here is a video of the mountains and lake area

Descending to the lake, we wend our way to all sorts of different flora, one of which was bamboo. There are tunnels of bamboo. It is native to this part of South America…

A towering Patagonian beech tree

On our return, the ash cloud has drifted closer to our side. It is covering one of the islands only three miles away. It still doesn’t affect us.

We’ve got one evening left in Bariloche. I’m not up for another one like last night! But Elwin is going back to that pub to try and see if Carolina shows up.

Tomorrow we will make our way over the Andes, past the Puyehue volcano and to Puerto Montt, Chile!

The Accidental Wingman: A Night In Bariloche

19 12 2011

Upon arrival in Bariloche, Argentina, we settle in to our hostel, the “La Pastorella,” and its proprietors take complete control of the situation. That is to say, if you like an Italian-esque Mama to control everything. She was quite “maternal,” to say the least! Well, they are “cute,” so to speak, but once again, nobody speaks any English, and it was quite evident that we better not do anything contrary to the rules!

The Swiss-styled chalet has outdoors-facing shutters, which come in handy as daybreak is about 5:30 a.m. Anyway we quickly settle in. Saskia gives us orders to shop and grab food for a picnic lunch. That’s because tomorrow we are to head out on to Lake Nahuel Huapi for a boat ride and then a hike! We won’t have much chance to get a restaurant lunch. Here I go again. I keep finding ham and cheese sandwiches and nothing but dry  bread to go with! On this trip, I have never seen so many ham and cheese sandwiches. These are actually served on the national airline! They are one slice ham, one slice cheese, plain, in between two dry crackly pieces of bread. I try to improve by buying my own bread and cheese and some salami…and a banana.

Elwin and I and Ivo head back to the hostel to drop of our supplies and then head down to the waterfront. Bariloche claims 100,000+ residents. It’s supposed to be kind of sort of Swiss or Austrian-looking, and indeed some of the architecture attempts the motif. But it’s not carried through to enough of the buildings – in fact there is a gaudy casino smack in the middle of the main drag. There are lots of restaurants, ice cream parlours and chocolate shops.

We arrive at the waterfront. We’ve been wondering why, after all these BLUE days, the sky to the west is cloudy? The Andes on the opposite side of the lake, some 15 miles away, were obscured. We were to find out why. What we were witnessing were not clouds. It was ash from the Puyehue volcano, awakening again as it has all summer 2011!  Will it be a problem for our trip? We are to cross the border into Chile soon!

What is that?

Tonight we are to find our own meals and entertainment. With our trip back and forth to the hostel, we lose track of Eray, Angelique and Christof. This was to be the start of an eventful evening! Right now, we are in a hunt for a good meal, and being that it’s around 8 p.m., the restaurants are deserted – nobody eats until past nine!

We strike gold at a restaurant attached to a “Swiss” hotel. Our waitress speaks decent English and is very attentive. We order a bottle of Malbec. The food is terrific! I have a roasted chicken breast which is plump and cooked to perfection.  It has a mushroom cream sauce. Still, we miss our companions Angelique, Eray and Christof – they’d enjoy this place. Ivo has a dish of deer with another type of mushroom sauce and is in heaven. He offers me a bite, which I accept, and my oh my – this warm, sweet mellow flavor, almost like a hint of wine, caresses my tongue – Wow! The waitress says the sauce is just from the mushrooms, and I think they are chantrelles. The explosion of flavor is amazing! We order another bottle of Malbec…

There is only one other table seated, and we hear language hard to understand. Elwin is fascinated. Is it German, or Swiss German, or? Elwin is infatuated, and it is irresistable…he wanders over and talks with these guests, and it turns out three are Swiss, and one of them moved to Bariloche from Switzerland 65 years ago! So we have encountered a first generation European Argentine! Truly living history.

Having satiated ourselves with food, we want to find a pub where local people gather. But of course we don’t know the first thing about the city. We remember a pub we passed on the way down here, so we walk back that way. Looking inside, it looks pretty dead. We pass it up, and walk toward our hostel. But not a half block away I stare into a window of what kind of looks like a dive bar, and something says to me, “This has the makings of the right kind of place – casual, taps, dimly lit, and the people look like they are fun.” So I say let’s give it a try?

We go in, and while ordering our drinks run into Neil, a friendly guy who is a trail groomer at the local ski area! He talks all about grooming, the snow cat, etc. I inquire about the ski season and the conditions. He says it wasn’t a lot of dry snow this year, and believe it or not, the ash from the Puyehue sometimes made the snow grayish! We tell him about Los Alerces National Park and the whales we saw on the coast.

More and more people arrive, and Neil tells me this is a magnet for people working in the tourist or hospitality industry. Then this beautiful woman sits down at the bar. She’s got very light brown hair, parted on the side, and lovely eyes and dangley earrings. She’s so lovely I am having a hard time looking away from her. I’m just enamored, and I point her out to Elwin, and then so is he. She is very involved in conversation with a guy, who seems older than she. Another beer please…and Ivo manages to get an 18-year-old Scotch whiskey and they charge him for a regular one!

It’s not long before it is shoulder to shoulder in here! And somehow we run into two very memorable people. They are British blokes who’ve walked all the way from Buenos Aires to Bariloche (read their blog). It took them three months. Names are Mat and Rob, and Elwin calls Rob “the giant.” We talk all about where we’ve been, where we’re going and learn what it’s like to walk and sleep by the road! Ivo says a lot about his obsession with Scotch Whiskey. I keep my eye on that lovely girl. Mat and Rob bought rounds, we talk about Star Trek and Battlestar Gallactica…what it’s like to be a ski area trail groomer…then I order a round…and I look at the bar and Elwin is somehow talking face to face with the lovely woman at the bar! I marvel how this happened and remark to Mat and Rob how I completely missed it! In fact we are all so impressed, but Elwin and she are having a spirited conversation, and I am beside myself.

I don’t remember exactly how, but somehow I walked over and introduced myself, and her name is Carolina. She’s incredibly friendly, not at all put off by us. I had expected her to be totally defensive. It turns out the guy she was talking to earlier in the evening was her boss! And, he is very enamored with her, and she is not sure what to do about it. I say yes, that is a truly difficult situation. Apparently he is the jealous type.

At this point Elwin heads to the WC. Carolina tells me she thinks he is really great and hopes he will come back! We talk about Bariloche and it turns out she grew up around here. I am still taken aback how so many Argentines are European looking, and she is a fine example.

Well, Elwin returns, and I move on to allow the two of them enjoy each others company.

Elwin is by now, like me, getting pretty hammered. My “good side” wants to go home, but because he is occupied, I become the wingman. Elwin says he will need some guidance to get back. So I make it my duty to stay until the bitter end.

This turns out to almost be my undoing. I go round after round with Rob and Mat. My gut is so full of beer and my head is beginning to spin! At least the pub is so crowded I can lean on others to keep me up. Carolina walks to the other end of the room and sits with some friends. I go over there, and this fat guy tells me to “FLY”!!! I surmise the situation is that he is some kind of “protector” for Carolina, and he doesn’t know she and I are acquainted. Rather than cause a commotion, I just let things flow, though I am tempted to ask Carolina to tell him to go take a “flying leap.”

I guess one beer later Elwin decides it’s time to head home, so we bid our good-byes and I get contact information from Rob and Mat. Outside, we encounter folks lined up to get inside. I don’t know how or why, but we get into this conversation with this punk who is trying to score some pot. He thinks he has smoked the best pot in the world. Elwin has something to tell him…for God’s sakes, in Holland, they have the world’s global pot/hash capital in Amsterdam! This guy needs to go there to find out the real “holy grail” of pot!

Uggh. We make it back to the hotel, and I’m thoroughly awash in beer…ugly…tomorrow’s going to be a challenge!

Andes Lakes and Fjords: Los Alerces National Park

15 12 2011

Into the Andes

I awake early to try and catch a sunrise picture of the Andes before breakfast! Guess what? It’s clear again! Wow! I walk all over Esquel, but can’t get a worthy shot. There are always trees or a building in the way! Where I have a good view of a mountain, it is only partly sunlit as it’s so early. Not photo worthy. Defeated, I head back to the hotel for breakfast. We’re going to Los Alerces National Park today. Everyone’s excited to see lakes, fjords, snow capped mountains and to get out and hike!

Off we go. The road winds and climbs through spectacular valleys with ranches, surrounded with white peaks. Along a bend in the road, we pass a gaucho with his sheep dogs. Some views remind me of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

A gaucho, but without a herd...

When we get to the park entrance, it turns out to be closed for winter – we are here early. It opens in a couple of weeks. Although facilities are not open yet we can still enjoy the park’s trails and lake shores. Los Alerces National Park was established to protect a tree of national significance, the Alerces tree, a giant of the cypress family. It can grow to 220 feet high and live 2,500 years. The slow-growing trees were prized for building materials, and thus most were logged. This national park protects one of the last stands.

We had the park to ourselves. It covers 500,000 acres, and there are several fjord-like lakes that seem to stretch forever. It’s beautiful!


We stop at several beaches to take in the spectacular scenery! Popular with fishermen, for its rainbow and brown trout, the area is also a magnet for backpackers, mountain bikers and swimmers.

Other flora includes the Patagonian Beech and bamboo. The Patagonian Beech towers over everything in the forest!

Most of the park is untouched, because there are only roads in the east. The ecosystem is best described as a temperate rainforest.

The beaches have lifeguard towers, which are now empty but signal that the area must be popular in summer.

The highlight of the day is a hike! After so much road time, I’m happy the trip is going to include a lot of hiking from now on. I love to be out on the trail!

So, we hit the trail, and it’s not long before we reach a suspension bridge over a river which connects two of these big lakes.

It’s so picturesque! And looking down I can see 20 trout.

I have never been to New Zealand, but I continue to wonder if this looks like parts of New Zealand’s South Island? I’ll just have to go there to find out.

Well, I didn’t know the name of the exact spot in this video, but it was on the trail in the park! Very pretty.

The clarity of the water and its blue green color was incredible!

Just another gorgeous day!

Our walk winds up and down, along the rivers – it’s a big circuit taking a couple of hours.

We’ll have lunch on the lake, and then it’ll be on to our end-of-day destination, Bariloche, capital of Argentina’s Lake District.

We continue on to El Bolson, where we stop for a break. I mail some post cards, and we also get some of that yummy Argentine ice cream.

The empty road crests at the outskirts of Bariloche, and we can look above to see the ski area – the Lake District is happening in winter with several ski areas around, plus it sits on the mega huge Lago Nahuel Huapi. When we can see from this crest, a distinct change in the weather is obvious! We can see a haze in the distance. Is it changing weather? Nope. In fact it is a cloud of volcanic ash! I had heard there was a volcano in Chile that was erupting since June, and we have arrived in its domain. This is the infamous Puyehue Volcano, which has cancelled flights all summer! We’ll be directly dealing with this pesky villain in the next couple of days!