Three years ago, we spent two spectacular weeks in Argentina. See ColoradoMagazine

We first stopped in the delightful city of Buenos Aires before flying to Iguazu Falls, and then spent the remainder of our time in Patagonia where we visited the World Heritage marine preserve of Peninsula Valdéz (elephant seals, sea lions, penguins) and Punto Tombo, home to the largest Magellenic penguin colony in South America. From El Calafate, we visited Glaciers National Park by boat and Perito Moreno Glacier by land. In reporting on these sites, we practically exhausted our supply of superlatives. Our only disappointment was that we did not allow quite enough time to visit the Fitzroy range, considered the most spectacular in Argentina.

During that trip, we learned that there are some exceptionally scenic waterways between Argentina and Chile. We also became aware of the Torres del Paine range, considered the most spectacular in Chile. And we resolved to organize a trip to Chile when possible.

Chile is a very large country with nearly 4000 miles of Pacific coastline. As with Argentina, it was clear that we would not be able to see all the highlights. We decided to do a highly-praised scenic boat trip offered by Cruceros Australis and to see Torres del Paine, both in Patagonia. The boat trip begins in Punta Arenas, sails through the Strait of Magellan, around Cape Horn, and then up the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia in Argentina. The route takes 5 days and passengers can continue by a different route for the 3 day return voyage to Punta Arenas. We chose to do the 5 day trip and begin our return flights home from Ushuaia.

Our journey began with a flight from San Diego to Dallas, connecting to a flight to Santiago where we spent the first night. The next morning we had a 1 hour 40 minute flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt followed by a 2 hour flight to Punta Arenas. The latter flight turned out to be one of the major highlights of our trip.

Right after we took off we had a great view of Volcan Orsorno, one of the most perfectly shaped volcanoes in South America. It was an unusually clear day and we had perfect views of the Fitzroy peaks, Lake Argentina, Perito Moreno Glacier, dozens of other glaciers, and the dramatic towers of Torres del Paine.

Upon arrival in Punta Arenas, we took a shuttle into town, then caught an intercity bus to Puerto Natalas where we had booked a very comfortable B&B (Dos Lagunas) managed by the very accommodating Alejandro. Puerto Natales was smaller and more appealing than the other seacoast towns we saw in Patagonia. It was easy to find Pathagone Tours to pick up our pre-arranged vouchers for lodging and a shuttle tour of Torres del Paine and then the bus station to purchase tickets for the following morning.

The buses pick up passengers in the morning at their hotels for the 3 hour ride to the junction at Laguna Amaraga. The towers come into view about half way and continue to be visible the rest of the way. At Laguna Amaraga, you pay a $30 entrance fee and transfer to shuttles to reach the lodge and hostel about 30 minutes into the park.

There are numerous lodging locations in the park; most are very expensive. The Las Torres location has a hosteria and a refugio. Rooms at the hosteria are about $175 per night for two; breakfast is about $18 and dinner is about $40! A bed in a 6 bunk room at the refugio is $36 plus $11 for bedding per night per person. Breakfast is $8.50 and dinner is $15. The lodge at Gray Glacier is even higher, about $265 per night in the high season. It’s called supply and demand. The refugio is brand new and has one major advantage over any of the other lodging facilities in the park -- a perfect view of the towers.

We awoke early the next morning and were rewarded for all the effort it takes to get there with a spectacular view of the towers in first light. At dawn, the towers looked like glowing embers and became increasingly brilliant over the next 30 minutes before fading.

After checking out, we caught a shuttle back to Laguna Amaraga, the transition point, for an afternoon bus tour. The bus follows a very scenic route along the mountains and affords great views of the “Horns,” another notable formation in the park. The final stop was at Gray Glacier. We were surprised to find parrots in the trees on the lodge grounds.

The Patagonian terrain also supports a range of wildlife. During our two days in the park, we saw rheas, guanacos, flamingos, fox, eagles, condors, and many other species of birds.

We were back in our cozy B&B in Puerto Natales by 7pm and found a little café nearby on the waterfront for dinner. We ordered salmon and king crab – specialties in this region.

In the morning, we took a bus back to Punta Arenas. We found a café that looked like something out of an old fashioned movie where we had home made empanadas. We then checked in at the nearby Mare Australis city office and left our bags for transport to the ship. At 6 pm we were able to board the ship and enter our cabin where our bags were waiting for us.

About the Mare Australis
The vessels that we have been aboard on several prior trips were small, with 10 or 12 cabins. The Mare Australis was substantially larger, with 4 decks and 61 cabins. While “boat” would be an appropriate description for the smaller vessels, the Mare Australis was definitely a ship.

The forward portion of the third deck was the spacious forward-facing Yámana Lounge with inside and outside viewing areas. Coffee and tea were always available and cookies and snacks were laid out frequently. In the afternoon champagne and hors d'oeuvres were served. The equally-spacious fourth deck included the rear-facing Sky Lounge and bar (all drinks gratis). Most lectures were conducted here.

About our journey
Following the introduction of the crew, there was a folkloric show presented by a local college group, and then a safety orientation. Passengers were assigned to a given table for all meals. At 8 pm, we met our 7 table mates and had our first dinner aboard.

It was announced during dinner that of the 105 passengers, there were 61 Americans, 4 Canadians, 6 Australians, and 34 Europeans. Oh, and one native of Chile.

The ship departed Punta Arenas at 10 pm. Over the next 4 days, a number of excursions took place making use of rubber zodiacs. Rain gear and several layers of clothing were highly recommended (for very good reason). Life jackets were mandatory. Rubber boots were available and highly desirable for most landings.

There was also an enjoyable and informative series of lectures on Patagonian topics including flora and fauna, birds of the region, and historical overviews of the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel. An exceptional documentary (The Endurance) describing Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, an incredible tale of survival by a crew trapped in the ice, was also shown. Over the next 4 days, we developed the highest regard for the competence, versatility, and friendliness of the crew.

Patagonia is teeming with wildlife. There are many species of birds but we most frequently saw cormorants, petrels and black browed albatrosses, with a wingspan up to 7.5 feet. Sea life included elephant seals, sea lions, penguins, and Patagonia dolphins that look like miniature orcas.

With the excursions, lectures, socializing and simply watching and photographing the passing scenery and wildlife, the time passed quickly, almost too quickly. Neither of us found time to even open the novels we had brought.

Breakfasts and lunches were buffets. Dinner was served at the table. Meals were delicious and the presentation was creative. Two or three excellent Chilean wines were served at each lunch and dinner, amazingly at no extra charge.

Ainsworth Bay (Day 2)
This environmentally fragile area gave us an opportunity for up close observation of a colony of elephant seals, a species that was almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century before protection was established in some locations. These enormous mammals can weigh as much as 5000 pounds.

Tucker Island (Day 2)
The weather was stormy when the ship arrived in the vicinity of Tucker Island. After a wait of 15 or 20 minutes, several crew members were dispatched in a zodiac to evaluate conditions. They circled the island and returned with a judgment that conditions were acceptable. The sun had in fact come out and the winds had subsided. So we boarded the zodiacs for the 10 minute ride to the island. Landings are not made on the ecologically-fragile island. Rather, the zodiacs move near the cliffs and beach for up close views of the nesting grounds of Magellenic penguins, cormorants, and a variety of other birds.

As we neared the island, the weather suddenly became stormy again with driving rain and choppy water. Remember, this was Patagonia where one can experience the 4 seasons in an hour. We had to quickly stow our cameras and hold on. The pilot took us on a wild ride around the island before heading back to the ship, with waves lapping over the side, soaking anything that had escaped the rain. Despite being wet and cold, the ride was exhilarating and all agreed they wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. We learned the value of good rain gear and the meaning of waterproof gloves (ours were not but we will have them before our next zodiac ride).

Pia Glacier (Day 3)
A zodiac landing was made on the shore near this beautiful glacier, providing us with a great front seat view and listening post for the frequent and noisy calvings (where chunks of ice break off and crash into the sea).

We then climbed up a muddy trail to another great view point. When we got back down, crew members had set up tables with a steaming container of hot chocolate. Most members of the group spiced up their hot chocolate with whiskey. Others didn’t bother with the hot chocolate.

After returning from Pia Glacier, we entered the Beagle Channel, reaching the Avenue of the Glaciers (also called Glacier Alley) about 6 pm. Over the next two hours, we passed 6 impressive glaciers, each named after a European country (e.g., Italy, Holland).

Cape Horn (Day 4)
This is definitely a “weather permitting” excursion. And, as often as not, the weather does not permit a zodiac crossing of these legendarily rough waters below the tip of South America where the Atlantic meets the Pacific. Hundreds (and some claim thousands) of boats have been lost over the years.

During the night, we were advised that the winds had gusted to 110 miles per hour and were still reaching 50 mph. We had stopped and the Captain waited for about an hour to see if more favorable conditions would develop. Many of the passengers had put on several layers of clothing and their rain suits and had their life vests nearby just in case a landing could be made. But the weather did not cooperate, so we continued on toward Puerto Williams.

At least we were close enough for a clear view of the lighthouse, the Chilean flag, and an albatross sculpture. And we were a mere 500 miles from Antarctica!

Departing the Horn the weather improved enough to venture outside on the decks. It was fascinating watching the albatrosses glide so gracefully, often following the boat. Judi’s hour-long determination to get the perfect picture of an albatross in flight finally paid off.

We completed our voyage at this Argentine port, the world’s southernmost city. Ushuaia, sits above the port that serves as the home and embarkation point for many of the ships that go to Antarctica. One cannot help but feel a spirit of adventure and excitement when walking around this touristy but dynamic town. It was a special treat to discover that we had docked in front of the Explorer, the ship that we have in mind for a future trip to Antarctica.

From Ushuaia, we flew on Lan Chile to Punta Arenas, then on to Santiago, via Puerto Montt. In Santiago, we boarded our American Airlines flight to Dallas and then on to San Diego. It was a long journey home, but it gave us time to start planning a trip to another interesting part of the world.




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