Between fire and ice
An ice field, volcanoes, geysers, beaches, lakes, fjords, forests and rivers. Kate Turkington goes to the end of the world – Fin del Mundo – in Patagonia
You have certainly heard of Brazil’s Rio Carnival, the famous ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru and Argentina’s beautiful capital city, Buenos Aires. But Chile? What do you know about Chile? Well, probably not very much. Neither did I, until I travelled there recently and immediately decided to make Chile my favourite South American destination.
Chile, with its long, long coastline, stretches down the western side of South America and lies between the Pacific Ocean and the mighty Andes mountains. It’s home to a wondrously diverse landscape – the world’s driest desert, the world’s second-largest ice field, volcanoes, geysers, beaches, lakes, fjords, forests and rivers.
But let me tell you, in particular, about some of the volcanoes, the glaciers and fjords.
Puerto Varas, about halfway down Chile’s coastline, is a pretty little town on the shores of lovely Lake Llanquihue (lank-ee-hway). You could be in Switzerland, except, on the opposite side of the lake facing the town, loom two snowcapped volcanoes. The Osorno volcano looks exactly like Mount Fuji in Japan.
It’s a bitterly cold but sunny morning when a small group of South African friends and I ride the ski lift up the active but quiet Osorno volcano with its spectacular views over other volcanoes and the lake.
Think two thermal vests, a sweater, thermal leggings, tracksuit pants, thick socks, boots, a padded weatherproof jacket, gloves, scarf, a beanie and sunglasses. By the time we get halfway up the volcano, we’re starting to feel really cold. After a quick round of snowballs, we decide it’s too cold to go further, so we get back on the ski lift and, after disembarking, drink hot chocolate laced with Cognac in a little Alpine inn.
As we gaze at Calbuco, the volcano right next door, our guide tells us: “It suddenly woke up.” On April 23 this year, for the first time in more than 50 years, Calbuco erupted, spewing flames, lava and smoke several kilometres into the sky, with jagged shafts of lightning adding to the inferno.
Both volcanoes are quiet now, but everywhere for kilometres around, thick volcanic ash still coats everything.
When we hike in the nearby national park, we walk ankle-deep in ash.
FIN DEL MUNDE Days later, we find ourselves at the end of the world – Fin del Mundo – at the tip of Patagonia. This is a land like no other – desolate, bleak, almost uninhabited. We drive for nearly five hours from the airport at Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine National Park.
Apart from one little town where we stop to refuel on coffee and Pisco Sours (the national drink – think margaritas on steroids), all we see are bare plains dotted with scrub, emu-like rheas, guanacos (animals resembling llamas) that are as plentiful as impalas, Suffolk sheep and not a tree or building in sight. The wind whistles from the Pacific, rain sleets down and night begins to fall.
Stars blaze over snowcapped mountains as we eventually reach our camp and feel our way along boardwalks to our comfortable yurts (Mongolian tents). Next morning we awake to a fabulous landscape of turquoise lakes, towering peaks and bright sunshine. But this is a fierce, uncompromising land. The jagged mountains are menacing, the steep hillsides unforgiving. It’s an untamed wilderness. A condor (the largest bird of prey in South America) scavenges among huge boulders as a Patagonian skunk busies itself among the pebbles at the base.
The park, all 227 298 hectares of it, was created in 1959 to preserve this wilderness. The spires and peaks of the Paine massif are composed of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks – unique in the world – and today it’s a Unesco biosphere reserve. It’s also been designated the fifth most beautiful place in the world by National Geographic.
The weather is notoriously unpredictable in Patagonia with rain, sleet, wind, snow and sunshine.
Today, the storm clouds sweeping over the mountains are still in the distance. The wind is cold, but as we begin making our way along the trail up the arid Patagonian Steppe, a notice warns us: Plan your trip with your physical capacity in mind. But hey, we’re from South Africa, so we bravely set off armed with walking poles and biltong to scale the mountain and see the famous rock paintings at the top. We all make it – just – to find indigenous prehistoric paintings very like our own San rock paintings.
The images were painted with a mix of iron dust and animal blood, and apparently served as a message to hunters that there were predators in the area. An ancient imprint of a human hand signifies “I was here”.
Today, the Aonikenk painter and his people are extinct (most native tribes perished with the settlement of Europeans in the late 1880s).
We have a fantastically lucky sighting of a huemul (hwaymul), one of the world’s rarest antelopes. Only 3 000 are left in the world and only 44 live in this park.
GRAND GLACIERS But the highlight of the trip is still to come when, a day later, we take a boat ride through the silent fjords to seven giant glaciers.
We have trudged along a stony beach for an hour to board our boat. There’s a couple of Americans, a few women from Hong Kong, some Germans and us. They all look much bigger and stronger than us, but we’ve scaled and survived the rock-painting trail, so we are confident.
It’s a small rust bucket of a boat. Our life jackets don’t fit and if we fell into the subzero water, we would die instantly. No thoughts of this enter our minds as we gaze in awe at the majestic beauty all around us and chug along Grey Lake in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the biggest contiguous expanse in the world after Antarctica and the North Pole.
No cruise ships can enter these narrow straits. There are no other people, no birds sing, and nothing lives in the mineral-rich waters. It is absolutely still. Only the chugging of our boat, an occasional chunk of ice falling into the water, and the ominous cracking sound in the depths of the glaciers disturbs the silence. We have all fallen silent too. The beauty is overpowering.
We’re deeply saddened to be told by our guide that these majestic glaciers are melting at the rate of 100 metres a year because of global warming.
Of course, Chile is much more than untamed wilderness. It’s the fifth-largest exporter of wine in the world and at a generations-old wine farm we sample some of the best on offer. It’s also the second-biggest exporter of salmon (after Norway) and a 4kg fish only costs R100.
The most charming town is the historic port of Valparaíso, once South America’s busiest Pacific port. But it’s fast losing that position with the shipping activity in the Panama Canal.
A city of steep hills still served by little rickety funicular railways, vivid, striking street art adorns every wall as packs of friendly street dogs roam looking for tourists and titbits.
Our guide tells us that the dog shelters are so “awful” that Chileans prefer the dogs to remain as strays. But these strays are so pampered, the locals even make winter coats for them and build kennels on the pavements.
Chile is one of South America’s least known tourist destinations. Go while it still stays that way, and expect friendly, courteous people, fantastic food and wine, and gorgeous, unique landscapes.
Hikers pause to admire the imposing Torres del Paine
A guanaco forages for food
Pampered strays stay warm
Prehistoric paintings on a mountain
The Southern Patagonian Ice Field