Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In Patagonia - Part Two

Google "Patagonia," and the first result is the website of a clothing company by the same name based in Ventura, CA, some 5800 miles from the real Patagonia's northern border. Its logo is the outline of the Fitz Roy massif near El Chaltén, Argentina. The name was well chosen, for it evokes a wild, remote, and rugged land of rock and ice ripe for exploration by well-heeled adventurers... after a spendy shopping spree at their favorite outdoor clothing brand, of course. In tourist-hungry Chile, the name is similarly bandied about by those who profit on its allure. Chilean Patagonia's definition has expanded north to Los Rios Region, and includes such urban centers as Valdivia, Puerto Varas, and Puerto Montt; businesses and tourism boards claim the appellation even further north, in Temuco and Pucón. I expect that some day there will be a sign in the Santiago Airport that says "Welcome to Patagonia!"

To me, though, Patagonia begins where the road ends, and for most travelers that is the scruffy port city of Puerto Montt (there is one lonely gravel road south, the Carretera Austral, a potholed ribbon that winds 700 miles before petering out in the tiny outpost of Villa O'Higgins). Our adventures in this Patagonia began on the morning of Friday, 30 December, when we presented ourselves at the portside offices of Naviera Magallanes S.A., better known as Navimag. They are a shipping company first and foremost, but some years ago they realized there was a good deal of money to be made in bringing along tourists on the stunning 4-day sailing from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. The spartan accommodations, frequent poor weather, bovine odors from the ship's cargo decks, and lack of amusements other than gazing at scenery and talking to fellow travelers have earned the Navimag mixed reviews from those more accustomed to luxury cruises. To Dawn and I it sounded like a fantastic adventure, and was one of our main reasons for coming on this trip.

In the Navimag offices we spied Sebastian, a German we had met on the bus to Pucón earlier that week. He had come to Puerto Montt the day before, while we had stayed 10 miles north in Puerto Varas. Sebastian introduced us to two friends he had met the previous day: Uli from Munich, and Su-Anne from near Arnhem, Netherlands. Su-Anne and Dawn hit it off immediately and were soon deep in conversation. We were taken to the ship on buses at noon, and hoisted anchor several hours early at 2PM. The weather was beautifully clear and warm as we steamed out of Puerto Montt and Mts. Orsono and Calbuco faded into the distance.

The M/V Evangelistas is a fairly compact ship at 360 feet long, and only the top three decks are used by passengers. The first of these, the boat deck, contains the majority of the sleeping accommodations. These range from first-class cabins with windows and private bathrooms to large shared dormitories and even open berths in the hallways. We opted to share a tiny, spartan 4-berth cabin; our roommates were a quiet Swiss couple that spent every waking moment on deck with field scope, binoculars, cameras, and birding guides and logs. Above the boat deck, the bridge deck contains the kitchen, cafeteria, crew quarters, and of course the bridge, which was open for passenger visits most of the time. The cafeteria served three square meals a day. We had heard that the food was fairly plain and were advised to bring plenty of snacks; most of the passengers embarked with overflowing grocery bags. In reality the cafeteria food was quite tasty, although generally of the "meat and potatoes" variety. We were usually too full to dip into our snacks.

We spent most of our spare time on the top deck - and not just because of the cozy pub with its comfy couches and communal tables. Aft of the pub is a huge open "terrace" with lines of benches, where passengers would congregate in good weather to chat, ogle the scenery, or play chess on the giant board. Forward of the pub is a windy and exposed observation deck, which overlooks the bow and was only crowded during the most scenic parts of the trip.

After unpacking and exploring the ship, we attended a lecture on Patagonian flora and fauna in the cafeteria. This was our introduction to the ship's fluently multilingual (English, Spanish, German, French, Italian) and infectiously enthusiastic naturalist. Within days almost everyone was playfully mimicking his frequent exclamation, "it's fantastic!" In this lecture he had a rather sombre announcement, however: the famous Torres del Paine National Park was burning in a massive wildfire, and was closed to visitors indefinitely. We'd heard rumors about this in Puerto Montt but this was our first confirmation. The plan had been to spend a few days trekking in Torres del Paine after our arrival in Puerto Natales; it was, along with the Navimag trip, our reason for coming to Patagonia. The closure put a hitch in our plans, but I assumed there were other worthy parts of Patagonia to see. We'd just have to play it by ear.

After dinner we bundled up and huddled on the forward observation deck, watching the sun dip over Chiloe Island to starboard. To our south, the iconic Volcán Corcovado reared up from the sea, its snowy summit turning pink in the sunset. We met two American brothers, Greg and Nick, and Greg's wife Torrie. In summer, Greg and Torrie are a park ranger and biologist, respectively, in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. In winter, they travel in South America for four months. This time they were being joined for two weeks by Nick and their parents. Besides this clan and ourselves, the only other apparent Americans on the boat were members of a raucous, hard-partying tour group that also included a few Brits and Aussies. The majority of the passengers were Europeans, with Germans and Swiss being particularly well-represented. There were some Chilenos and other South Americans, but they were a distinct minority. It was overall a friendly and interesting group. We met and chatted with quite a few people, and actually became good friends with several.

New Year's Eve Day dawned thinly overcast and eerily still with hardly a ripple on the mirror-like waters of the Moraleda Channel. Our surroundings had become more mountainous during the night, although the fjord was still quite wide at this point. There were absolutely no signs of civilization to be seen throughout the day, although the naturalist said there were a few fishing "villages" of two or three houses tucked into protected inlets. Su-Anne joined us on the forward deck and introduced two new friends, Fabien from Switzerland and Tanja from Frankfurt. In the afternoon, we turned into a side-channel to the west. As we neared the open South Pacific Ocean, the weather grew increasingly cloud, cold, and windy, with occasional rain showers. Dawn and I bundled up and lingered on the terrace with Su-Anne, Fabien, and Tanja. We snacked and drank wine, I taught Su-Anne American slang to supplement her excellent English, and Fabien and I swapped flying stories (he's a private pilot in Switzerland).

As we exited the fjord into open ocean, we began seeing humpback whales, or at least their spouts. Dawn proved to be rather eagle-eyed, as she was usually the first one to sing out that she saw a spout, prompting a mass stampede to her side of the ship. Later we were joined by a playful pod of dolphins. It was a nice distraction given the sudden lack of scenery and pitching motion of the ship. We had been warned to take Dramamine, as a low-pressure system off the coast was kicking up some swells. Dawn and I decided not to take it as we are not horribly susceptible to motion sickness and didn't want to be too drowsy for New Year's Eve. Su-Anne took the meds and was napping almost immediately. To pass the time Fabien and I played a few rounds of chess.

Both Dawn and I felt just fine while we stayed outside, but once it was dark we went into the pub to play cards with Fabien and Uli. It took less than an hour of being inside with my head down to get seasick; Dawn followed soon after. As midnight approached, the pub was rather subdued, with half the passengers passed out on Dramamine and the other half looking decidedly green. Only the party-hardy American tour group seemed unaffected, playing boisterous drinking games around a large table in the middle of the pub. It looked like New Year's Eve might be a bit of a bust.

About twenty minutes to midnight, Navimag crewmembers brought out champagne bottles and flutes and plastic party hats and noisemakers. The pub finally stirred to life, all shaking off seasickness and medication to ring in the new year properly. Tanja and Su-Anne reappeared, looking suddenly refreshed. A DJ set up loudspeakers and began playing dance music. I retrieved a bottle of champagne I'd squirreled away for the occasion. By midnight the dance floor was packed. Everyone counted down to the New Year in Spanish, and there were hugs and kisses and handshakes and toasts all around. Then the ship's horn began blowing, and everyone streamed outside to watch the Captain shoot celebratory red flares high into the night sky. Back inside, Fabien and Tanja and Dawn and I gathered to sing Su-Anne "Happy Birthday;" January 1st was her 30th. The ship's head steward appeared with a frosted cupcake with a candle on top. And then we went back into the pub and danced until 3AM on a packed dancefloor that was rolling 10 to 15 degrees each way. It was a rather memorable New Year's Eve. When we went to bed, we were at 47°18'S 75°18'W in the Golfo de Penas.

The mood onboard was understandably subdued in the morning. I ate breakfast with a Chilean couple in the nearly-empty cafeteria and went outside to take in our new surroundings. During the night we had sailed back into the fjords, and were now steaming down the Messier Channel. The terrain was higher and rougher-looking now. Mid-morning, we passed the derelict hulk of the Captain Leonidas, a Greek freighter that ran aground in 1968 on the only submerged rocks in the middle of a 4000' deep channel. It is now home to a multitude of cormorants and other seabirds, thousands of which swarmed aloft when our Captain blew the ship's horn.

Around noon we passed through the English Narrows, an odd-looking chain of low wooded hills draped across the channel with only a tight winding passage through them. Shortly thereafter, we sailed into view of Puerto Eden, the first civilization we'd seen since leaving Puerto Montt two days prior. Puerto Eden is a small fishing village of 176 souls, almost all Kawésquar (the nearly-extinct seafaring tribe that originally settled these fjords). Their only link with the rest of Chile is the once-a-week Navimag, which takes their fish to market, and brand-new cell phone service that began the week after our visit. Once the Evangelistas anchored off the port, we donned life jackets and transferred to wooden fishing boats, which took us to the town's small docks. We had an hour to walk around the town's wooden boardwalks (there are no roads), viewing the ramshackle houses and unique plants and flowers and greeting the villagers with "Feliz Año Nuevo!" We climbed a hill for a panoramic view of the village's wild environs. And then we headed back to the ship, which was soon steaming south through increasingly wild-looking terrain scrubbed of all but the hardiest vegetation.

The day was cloudy but pleasant, and nearly all the passengers were gathered on deck relaxing, drinking, and socializing. An hour south of Puerto Eden we turned east, then north into the Seno Eyre. We soon began seeing glimpses of the enormous Southern Patagonian Ice Field high in the mountains to our east, with large tidewater glaciers snaking down to side inlets. At the head of the sound, we saw a long, thin ribbon of ice, the destination for this side-trip: the Pio XI glacier. It grew and grew as we approached until it seemed impossibly immense; at this point the naturalist announced that we were two kilometers away! The passengers positively buzzed with excited energy as they crowded the forward deck and climbed the pub roof for a better view of the immense wall of blue ice that loomed over us as we approached ever closer through a sea teeming with floating bergs. The Pio XI is one of the few glaciers in the region that are advancing rather than retreating, although most of this advancing ice breaks off and floats away in the Seno Eyre. A chunk of ice the size of an apartment building tore away from the 150' high face and splashed into the aqua water with a resounding boom; the resulting wave noticeably rocked our 360' long ship. The Captain wisely backed off a bit as the passengers continued snapping pictures and exchanging hushed exclamations.

Too soon, we turned around and left the glacier in our wake. It was a fantastic experience, a highlight of the voyage and our New Year's Day. That night, we stayed up late chatting with our new friends in the pub and joining in Bingo Night in the cafeteria. After complaining of initial poor luck, Fabien won twice in a row, netting himself a nice Chardonnay and a fifth of Johnny Walker Red.

The last day of our voyage dawned cold and raw with dramatically angry grey skies, random bursts of rain, and wild gales of wind interspersed with calm interludes. The scenery fit the weather, for everywhere you looked were foreboding cliffs and mountains of bare rock worn into unnatural shapes by millennia of exposure to constant rain and wind. Occasionally the clouds would part just enough to spy a tongue of ice running down from even higher unseen peaks. The lack of vegetation rendered the scene in dramatic, photogenic monochrome. We stood on the foredeck in our windproof, waterproof jackets, snapping photos. I took care to watch the williwaws streaking across the water, not wanting to be caught unprepared by the frequent 60+ mph gusts.

In late morning we maneuvered through the White Narrows, a 80-meter crease in the rocks flung across an already-narrow fjord. We stood by the closed bridge door watching the Captain and the helmsman expertly guide our vessel through the passage; the quiet, alert professionalism of the crew reminded me of the atmosphere on a flight deck during a Cat II approach to minimums. Once out of the narrows, we were in the Seno Ultima Esperanza (Sound of Last Hope), the grim-sounding final segment of our passage. We ate one last lunch with our new friends, making plans to get together that night for dinner in Puerto Natales. The naturalist announced over the loudspeaker that now that we were within cell phone coverage, he'd been informed that the fire in Torres del Paine was mostly out but the park would likely remain closed for a few days yet. I'd already decided that we would cross the Argentinean border to El Chaltén and do our hiking in Los Glaciares National Park, under the famed Fitz Roy Mountain.

We packed our backpacks in our cramped little room and joined the others on deck to watch our approach to Puerto Natales. The sun came out a little but the raw, cold wind and apparent lack of vegetation on shore gave the place a forlorn, dismal look. Like so many places I've traveled, it was nothing like how I imagined it'd be. Nevertheless, I was eager to begin the next phase of our adventures in Patagonia.