November 18, 2011

A Drive to the Far End of the World.

A Drive to the Far End of the World.


“A mere glance of the landscape was enough to make me realize how entirely different this was, of all what I had ever seen until then.”

Charles Darwin “The Voyage of the Beagle”.

Our morning in Punta Arenas ended up being quite startling. The wind conditions in town were so abhorrent that there was not a soul in town except us, the two ugly Americans, checking things out. The wind gusts were like nothing I’d ever experienced. You would be in the midst of walking and all the sudden, an enormous gust of powerful, vicious wind would literally strike you and sweep you off your feet. I was shocked at how intense the wind was and finally understood why there were rows and rows of ropes and metal chains lining the sidewalks in Punta Arenas.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, there was not much at all to do or see in tiny Punta Arenas. However, we did learn a bit about this bizarre, windswept place during our stay.  The town of Punta Arenas is about twenty miles from the airport and located right on the Straits of Magellan.  It is a wind-beaten town, once known as the southernmost city in the world, awash with history but not much else.

Per Wikipedia, “Two early Spanish settlements attempted along this coast (on the Straits of Magellan), including the first (1584), called Nombre de Jesús, failed in large part due to the harsh weather and difficulty in obtaining food and water, and the enormous distances from other Spanish ports. A second colony, Rey don Felipe, was attempted at another location some 80 kilometres south of Punta Arenas. This became known later as Puerto Hambre, sometimes translated as Port Starvation or Famine Port. These Spanish settlements had been established with the intent to prevent piracy by English pirates, by controlling the Straits of Magellan. Ironically it was an English pirate captain, Thomas Cavendish who rescued the last surviving member of Puerto Hambre in 1587″.

The main industries of Punta Arenas, or “Sandy Point” are fishing, petroleum, tourism and livestock (namely cattle and sheep).  WIth a population of a little over 150,000 hearty souls, Punta Arenas’ economy is thriving and it is an amazing testament of the will of people to succeed in this extreme climate.

A little after noon, our transfer from Cascada Expedicionnes, Rodrigo, arrived. We were both taken aback when we saw him, as he was much younger than we anticipated. We shook hands and asked the burning question: How many people were coming along on the trek? Rodrigo replied, “None. You two are it for the week”. Shocked, I asked if this was unusual and Rodrigo said that it had never happened. The week before he had a big group of a dozen trekkers and this week there just happened to be only two signed up. We couldn’t believe our luck! For the next seven days, we would have our own private guide, chef and a complete staff graciously attending our uttermost needs. This was unheard of!

We had a five-hour journey to the park, with a few stops along the way. I sat up front so I could take in the view and more importantly, talk with Rodrigo about Patagonia and our trip. Most of the staff at Cascada is from Patagonia. Rodrigo grew up right in Punta Arenas and was extremely knowledgable about the region. His grandmother was a descendant from England so he spoke perfect English, which was a relief given my lack of Spanish.  There are also many descendants of Croatia, Germany and other European countries who came to work the farms.

The route to the park takes you through remote pampa, also known as Patagonian desert land, where you are rewarded at the sight of Patagonia flamingos, horses, guanacos (a type of Patagonian llama) and many species of birds, including large ones. The landscape is dramatic, windswept and wild, yet also stunningly beautiful. It is so incredibly vast and unique that you feel like you are on another planet. In the distance, if you are lucky to have a clear enough day, you can see the snow-capped peaks of the majestic Andean mountains, which reach their terminus in Patagonia.

View of our drive to Puerto Natalas:  The pampas and the glorious snow-capped Andes beckoned us.

The drive was long and tiring so we were thankful that there were stops along the way. Our most important stop was at the Cascada office in the town of Puerto Natalas, a sprawling town of 15,000 residents, mostly known as the main stepping off point for the surrounding parks.

Paul and I outside of Puerto Natalas, where we picked up our guide for the trek.

At Cascada’s small office, we met our guide for the trek, Cristian, and loaded up the van with our backpacks and the supplies for the week.  Like Rodrigo, Cristian is also from Patagonia and is a true outdoorsman.  His love and understanding of nature gave him a certain kind of intensity and zest for life that was infectious.  Although his English was not as perfect as Rodrigo’s, his ungrammatical phrases and use of words seemed to add to his charm and always made us smile.  We got along great over the week and in some ways, his personality had the same kind of mystical feel as the park itself.

Our drive from Puerto Natalas to the park was fascinating.  Cristian had studied birds for the last few years so he pointed out different species along the way.  We saw buzzard eagles, Chilean pink flamingos, nandues (ostrich), black-necked swans and on rare occasion, the magnificent Andean condors.  Throughout our trip, the condors were by far my favorite sight.  These spectacular creatures are one of the largest birds in the world, with a wingspan of up to ten feet and weight up to 33 pounds.  They are not easy to spot since they spend most of their day soaring thousands of feet above the ground thus we considered ourselves lucky every time we caught a glimpse of one or two of them.

As we approached the park, the drive became more spectacular.  There was the typical Patagonian cloud cover so we did not see the full magnitude of where we were headed, but occasionally we would get a glimpse of the majestic snow-capped mountains bursting through the clouds.  It felt like the whole park was hidden, which added to its mystique.

At 5:30 PM, we finally arrived at the entrance to the park.  After so many hours of travel, we were relieved to finally be here and were anxious about the week ahead of us.  As we drove to the Cascada camp, we were greeted by a group of grazing guanacos and we were in awe at the incredible beauty of our surroundings.  At that point, we knew that our research had clearly paid off and that we were in for a trip of a lifetime.

Entering the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine….our first sight.

Paul and I thrilled to finally arrive at the main entrance to the park.

Stay tuned…next post will feature the one and only Cascada EcoCamp…the way to travel in Patagonia!


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