Donnerstag, 21. November 2019

Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine National Park and Punta Arenas

Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park

The morning after we had arrived at Puerto Natales we took a taxi into town to the local Europcar office where we had booked a car. Instead of the tiny car we had expected we received a small Jeep-like car, which would come in handy for the dirt roads in the Torres del Paine National Park.
After looking for a shop to wash our clothes again and topping up our water and snack supplies we drove 2 hours to Torres del Paine.
Before entering the actual park we already saw a lot of giant lakes, mountains (part of the Andes) and a few animals, including a Traro (Southern Crested Caracara, a bird of prey with orange and red beak), an enormous muskrat and several upland gees (white male and brown female).
The "torres" themselves, the famous mountain peaks of this park, were covered in clouds.
Fortunately, the further we drove the less the clouds became.

We entered the park through the Southern entrance and met with 5 ladies who were (not) busy with giving us paperwork to fill in (passport details, home address, you name it). With the form we had to go to an extra office to pay, then come back and get a few stamps onto our papers.
Very old-fashioned and not very user-friendly as you do not get any extra information, just fill out the form and be gone. (We did receive a map though.)
The weather was becoming better, the sun came out, though the park is known for some heavy winds, which we met at the Saltos de Pehoé, a waterfall next to the Pehoé lake. From here we had almost a perfect view on the "torres", almost without clouds. A condor was flying through the two main towers, which was quite awesome. They are still quite rare.

We made our way through the park to one of the Eastern exits, stopping a lot at view points and in between next to the road, where it was possible. On the left side we could see the mountains and on the right were hilly green plains with quite a few ponds with geese or ducks in it. Unfortunately we could also see high amounts of burnt trees. We were told that the plants were so dry here that they easily burn and three times in the last 20 years tourists had caused vast forest burns in the total size of Paris to go up in flames.

We followed the Eastern gateway out of the park and drove approx. 2 hours back, passing huge grass plains with sheep and cattle belonging to a few scattered estancias (ranches). Next to the plains were massive brown mountain ranges where we could see a few condors again.

We had tried to book a boat ride on Lago Grey for a few days which was not successful online which made me call Hotel Grey the next morning, because we had found out that the boat rides were few and wanted to make sure we could actually go. To actually receive our conformation it took quite some time, so that we entered the park quite late, this time from the Eastern main gate at Lago Amaro. It was raining and the mountains were all covered in thick mist. How lucky we had been the day before.
We had many chances to see wild guanacos, even with a young one. I saw the adults jumping over the cattle fences easily, but wondered what the old and young ones would do.
Later I learned that the local pumas were using the fences as an advantage while hunting the guanacos. They were driving them against the fences and then caught the ones that couldn't jump.

We drove once more through the park, stopping here and there and taking in new points of view before taking the road to Lago Grey. We arrived exactly on time and paid 95 EUR each to join the boat ride. To get to the catamaran we had to walk for 3 km over a very heavily swinging bridge, a small forest and a wide pebble beach. My knee still made it hard for me to walk normally so this was no piece of cake. But I had wanted this boat ride so badly I had to make it.
It was raining a bit (and heavier on the way back) but it was awesome to see our first blue icebergs on the lake by the beach.

The ride took 45 minutes until we reached the Grey glacier that was split into 3 pieces, because it was melting quite fast. We were allowed to go outside in our life jackets and take close-ups from the beautiful blue and grey ice. We even received a drink each with ice that was thousands of years old: we took Calafate (blueberry) sour and Patagonia (wild berries) sour. It tasted really fresh.

The next day we had to give back the car. As originally planned we would have travelled on now but had changed to staying a day longer in Puerto Natales. We wanted to see a cave with a giant sloth figure in it, but were shocked by the transport prices, so we decided to have a sight-seeing day in town. Near the rental car office I took photos at the shore of some black and white swans.
We walked a bit, hung out in a cafe, where René tasted an original mate tea. To me it tasted like spinach but he liked it. After that we walked slowly to the hostel (we had changed to a new one after making the travel changes), had a break there, then took a taxi back to the beach (to the Wind Monument), looked at souvenir shops and went to a Vegetarian cafe to have dinner, El Living - what a wonderful quiet and unexhausting day.

Our new hotel lay near the main bus station, so the next day we could walk there and get onto our bus to Punta Arenas (Sandy Point). The quite flat landscape was changing a lot in between, so I took videos from time to time. We also passed a small lake with pink flamingos.

Punta Arenas

When we arrived at our hostal at Punta Arenas the first thing was that we had to fight for a better room deal as we had received their ugliest, coldest room with no window (for a proud 85 EUR).
We were able to come to a conclusion and could change after one night to a really nice room. It was also a bit chilly and run-down like the rest of the place but in a charming way, it had a window and all was good.
The rest of the day we spent by walking through the city center, finding places to eat, booking some tours for the next days and trying to find a bank, because one of the tour agencies wanted the payment in cash.
The banks were all boarded up against possible protesters and there was no ATM reachable from the outside. There was a full street of at least 7 enormous banks and no money to obtain. Luckily in the end we found an ATM in a supermarket and could get some shopping done as well.
In town there were a few signs of protest marches from before: a museum with a glass front had several huge holes in their glass front and at a corner a building had burnt down, which was confirmed to us had happend during a protest.
We were told that this was still a very pacific town but there had been protests every evening for 4 weeks now. So we tried to avoid the inner city center after 6 pm.

The breakfast at the hostal was very cute. Everything was so tiny: 2 tiny bread rolls each, very small pieces of butter, a tiny glass of juice, a coffee (or two) and a tiny bowl of scrambled egg (one egg p.p.).
We walked to the agency Solo Expeditions to see Magellan penguins on Magdalena Island, which is situated in the Magellan strait between the mainland and Tierra del Fuego (=means Land of Fire) Island. We had to wait for an hour at the agency because of the weather and were then driven by bus to the agency's small pier where a few fast boats were waiting for us. Meanwhile we had talked to a couple from Oregon about their journeys in Chile and whale watching in Orgeon.
Unfortunately there were no humpback whales yet in Chile's southern waters. I was so longing to see them in real life.

What I did see while standing outside in the back of the boat was dolphins, which were jumping through the waves behind the boat. There were Austral dolphins and Commerson's dolphins (black and white, a little like reverse orcas).
When we reached the island we followed a trail up to the lighthouse and back to the ship, passing huge amounts of sea gulls of all sorts and lots of very cute looking Magellan penguins going about their business: walking, napping, watching their eggs, singing to their mates and building their nests (sometimes by steeling grass from the neighbour's nest...).
It was so cute. I am not sure if a 100 US$-worth of cute but it was the one thing I wanted to see the most in the South, so I had to go and see them.
On the way back the boat was rocking a lot, so I had to stand in the back and look firmly at the horizon to avoid becoming sick and it worked.

After returning to the agency we found a cute little cafe, the Kaffü, where we had a coffee, snack and a piece of fantastic tarte (you surely remember the kuchenes, they are also a thing here).

The next morning we had a bit of free time and had lunch at a recommeded restaurant, the La Marmita, just a block from our hotel. It was fantastic. I had a lamb tagine and René had a Guanaco stew. It was wonderful. We also couldn't miss their orange chocolate tarte.

At 3 pm we got picked up by Cristian and Claudia for our private dolphin tour. We were driven to a place south of Punta Arenas, Agua Fresca (fresh water), where they had stowed their gear and a zodiac. We put on half-wet suits and shoes and drove to a bay, where there were a lot of dolphins. Claudia explained a lot about the region to us on the way. We also stopped at the Southern-most gas station on the American continent (if you were wondering, it is owned by Shell).
The zodiac went here and there in the bay and we saw Austral dolphins, some of them jumping playfully, some passing just in front of the boat. It was fantastic, also most of my photos show water splashes.
In the evening we were dropped by the Cafe del Inmigrante, near our hotel, to have a snack and another tarte... If you ever come to Punta Arenas, this is the place to go for kuchenes and tarte.

On our very last day of being in Patagonia we went for a tour to Tierra del Fuego and the king penguin colony.
Our guide Luis picked us up and with 15 people we drove to the ferry that crosses the broad part of the Magellan strait between Punta Arenas and Porvenir.
Magellan discovered this strait while looking for a pass through the American continent to get to the Maluku islands to bring back spice to Spain. Magellan was a Portuguese military man that pledged his loyalty to the Spanish king when the Portuguese refused to give him a pay raise.
King Philip II gave him 5 ships and he entered the South American waters at 1520 (500 years ago). On Novmber 1st, Allsaints Day, he discovered the strait that nowadays bears his name.
When Magellan's ships passed the strait they saw a lot of fires burning on Tierra del Fuego, that why it has received its name "Land of Fire".
He also met a few natives on the mainland, which were discribed as to having huge feet and who were very tall. That is why he named them after a giant called Patagon. This is why the area today is called Patagonia.
To make a long story short: after passing towards the Pacific (Magellan also named that ocean, because after the very windy strait it appeared very calm to him) and sailing towards Southeast Asia, only 1 ship made it back to Spain after three years. Magellan died on the Philippines (later namd after Philip II) when fighting natives.

At Porvenir we had a typical Chilenean lunch at a local place and we visited 2 memorials for the natives that had lived on Tierra del Fuego: the Selk'nam people.
When gold was discovered in the late 19th century they were killed by gold diggers and also the farmers that wanted to use the space for their cattle. Only a few Selk'nam survived the genocide and finally were re-located to the mainland where they died from sicknesses the civilisation broad them. Only three girls survived and died in the 1970s. At least like that historians have been able to interview them and record old Selk'nam traditions.

After 2 hours driving over unpaved roads we reached the king penguins. They are one meter tall and obviously very calm. When we were there they very mostly standing still, trompeting a few times and one couple was mating, which was very interesting to see. The female lay down on its belly and the male stood on top of her. No idea how this works.
It was quite windy so we just stayed for an hour.
Thereafter we drove on a paved road to the town Cerro Sombrero, which had been founded by the Chilenean oil company Enap. We visited the sport complex that had ben inaugurated in the 1960s and which still looked like that. There was an old swimming pool that was out of order nowadays, a gymnasium that still functions, even a workout room with modern gym equipment, a pool ball room (which the center's boss Don Rodrigo was especially proud of) and an old botanic garden.
Next to this building stood a 1960s cinema and a small museum with Selk'nam weapons.
It was all a bit run-down and we asked oursleves why this was included in the tour but Don Rodrigo was so excited about us that that made up to it a little.

We passed a few nandus and lots of Guanacos next to the street and a lake with pink flamingos.
On the way back we crossed a narrow part of the Magellan strait via ferry and drove back passing through an abandoned estancia that had 2 half-rotten ships laying at the beach next to the ranch. They were quite fascinating and you could go inside and take very peculiar photos of the ruined parts.

The next day we flew back to Santiago to head back home. This was a great adventure and not my last stay in South America. I hope you had fun reading my Chile blog.

Look at my videos

Lago Grey glacier

Landscapes from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas

Penguin call

Playful dolphins