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!

From the Atlantic to the Andes, and Esquel (via Arizona)

11 12 2011

The adventure turns west. We leave the Atlantic behind, and will continue to make our way over the Andes mountains, to the Pacific. Of course, we’ll not be doing this in a day! We’ll be stopping in Esquel, a small ski town, then Bariloche, Argentina’s ski mecca, and then stop in Puerto Montt, Chile, which sits at the top of Chile’s vast fjord system.

Let's not have a breakdown out here!

Today we have a lot of territory to cover. Leaving Puerto Madryn, we’ll spend hours crossing the Argentinian steppe, a vast flat area said to be the 7th largest desert in the world, with flora like Central Oregon. Crossing this region, you sometimes imagine hills, when there are none. And it’s empty – which is normal in Patagonia!

At long last we do see hills.

Arizona? Nope. Argentina!

The road takes us into a region completely overlooked by Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. It has areas resembling Arizona, or the John Day River!

Where's Clint Eastwood?

Or Oregon’s Painted Hills! Only more of them.

It takes us a couple of hours to pass through this fascinating area.

I was really surprised it isn’t mention, and it’s totally unpopulated.

Activate your zoom to find the guanaco to the right of the summit!

We pass through a valley and we can see painted hills everywhere.

I’m thinking they are like the ones in Oregon – they are ash deposits from distant volcanoes – in this case they are Andes volcanoes.

I am very excited to witness the Andes for real! I wonder if they will look anything like the Himalayas.

After spending so much time in the steppe, all of us are looking forward to seeing mountains all around.

And then we round a bend, and there they are!

Lonely highway with Andes! We are there at last!

It’s not long before snowy, craggy peaks stretch from south to north horizon to horizon – and we are quite far away. I must be looking 70 miles in each direction. And then, what’s this? Something not supposed to be here. But there it (they) are! Pink flamingos all hanging out in this pond way up here?

Flamingos out of nowhere!

It doesn’t take long for me to get used to seeing mountains all around. As they loom closer, I can see lots of snow up above. We are told it will melt and by summer, except for the glaciers, it will all be gone. The mountains look like they must be above 10,000 feet, yet Saskia says they are no more than 6,000.

Toward 5 p.m. we arrive in Esquel, a small ski town, with the La Hoya resort sitting above. It’s late spring, so it’s pretty quiet. But everywhere there are signs of alpine tourism. Esquel is the gateway to Los Alerces National Park.

There are chocolate shops, ski shops, rental shops and tour guides.

There are lots and lots of restaurants, and we are HUNGRY!

But we are in Argentina. We must remember that restaurants won’t be open until 8:00 at the earliest!

So we bide our time, talking in the hotel lobby and then walking around.

This young lady walks into the hotel looking very tired, and a bit sad. She sits down on the couch, across the coffee table from me. I ask what has she seen today? She turns out to be from Spain, and was part of a Spanish version of the reality show “Survivor!” She just got voted off! They had spent three weeks being shuttled around blind in the back of a truck from one “survivor venue” to another. They had practically nothing to eat. She had gotten very close to her teammates! She was pretty bummed, and was going home shortly. But she was glad for the experience.

Well, it was getting near “dinner time,” so we wended our way through Esquel’s streets in search of a meal. We dug up one spot with a likely menu – one that actually had fresh salads! We poked our heads inside, and nobody spoke English. Christof, our universal translator, stepped in and somehow worked everything out. They were not open yet but they took us. Then we got some beer while they got the table ready. And when it came time to read the un-readable menu Christof was there to help out and order, and make diplomatic amends with our server, who turned out to be super cute.

This was one memorable meal full of giggles and laughs, the conversation degenerated on both the female and male sides to less-than formal, more like stories of early life encounters with the opposite sex, and preferences, and such! Soon another bottle of wine was on the table, and we began to wonder what the other people in the restaurant thought of us.

And that was only the beginning. Afterward we ran into Yap and Patricia and all of us went on a pub crawl, winding up at this totally cool old style bar with all kinds of Patagonian mementos hanging from the walls. We succeeded in persuading the proprietors to play dance music and went on from there!

On the way home I saw the Southern Cross for the first time! Or so I thought. What I saw was what turns out to be a “false” Southern Cross!” No matter. I would continue to search for it!

Looking forward to hiking in Los Alerces National Park tomorrow!