timberland teddy fleece At the bottom of the world in Chilean Patagonia
As a native New Yorker, I have been known to commiserate with fellow Manhattanite Woody Allen who, commonly at odds with the great outdoors, unashamedly admits, “I am at two with nature.”
Aspiring to commune more comfortably with our planet, I decided to join the growing number of international enthusiasts heading south to Chile, the long, slender country in South America where one can still feel utterly alone in the wild, where nature is writ large, as it is in remote Alaska or the western fjords of Iceland.
Chile has been ranked by Lonely Planet as the world’s top country to visit as part of its “Best in Travel 2018” list, and National Geographic selected the capital and largest city, Santiago, as one of its “places you need to visit in 2018.” Those accolades did not surprise Debbie Feldman, general manager of Turismo Chile, who insisted that the accolades “are not just coincidences; they are cumulative results that have been building momentum for over 20 years.”
And although Chile’s bicentennial was celebrated in 2010 with festivities and fanfare, the country did not become officially independent from Spain until 1818, making 2018 the year to resuscitate and continue the party.
It looks like this is the year that Chile is ready for its close up.
Chilean flamingos soar over Southern Patagonia. Photo Credit: Claudio F. visitors to Chile surpassed 200,000 for the first time, a 12% increase over the prior year.
And let’s not forget Chile’s far flung Easter Island, 2,000 plus miles and 5.5 hours by air from Santiago. Annexed by Chile in 1888, it is an exotic Polynesian piece in Chile’s already eclectic mosaic.
Adventure is at the forefront of Chile’s burgeoning tourism market, and it can be experienced in any of the country’s impressive roster of activities and attractions: its expanding world class vineyards, an easy daytrip from Santiago; the hilly port city of Valparaiso (or “Valpo”); the high and empty Atacama Desert (50 times drier than California’s Death Valley), where stargazing is second to none; and the scenic lake district, with its German Latino lifestyle.
It is a vast, almost mythical stretch of empty land in Chile’s largest and southernmost region, Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica, that stretches south to include the fjord notched coast of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, where the forces of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans clash.
Chile shares Patagonia with Argentina, and our itinerary’s finale included the famous Perito Moreno glacier near El Calafate. But IE’s focus was on Chile’s Patagonia (as is this article’s).
EcoCamp’s domes include ones for yoga and dining.
Hailing from these parts, he expounded on two of the main economic activities of this treeless and sparsely populated region: sheep farming and tourism. We saw a whole lot of the former and next to nothing of the latter. Tourism is light, and Americans are infrequently seen.
Punta Arenas was the area’s first permanent settlement. Today, it offers only a faint reminder of its early pioneer era in the late 1800s, mostly the fading, once elegant homes of powerful wool barons.
It is a convenient base for a visit by boat to Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan to visit the colony of Magellanic penguins, a highlight dampened in our case by rough seas, howling winds and an unexpectedly poor showing of what is said to be a population of more than 100,000 birds.
A small colony of king penguins inhabits Bahia Inutil (Useless Bay). Photo Credit: Claudio F. Vidal
A subsequent visit to a small but flourishing colony of king penguins in Bahia Inutil (Useless Bay) was a thrill. The second largest penguin after the emperor, this is their only colony on the continent. We watched firsthand these magnificent birds and their fuzzy chicks in the wild.
Puerto Natales is the seaside gateway city to Torres del Paine National Park, 100 miles to the north, the real reason visitors come to this growing tourist town of 20,000. Those with limited time can consider the overly ambitious one day tours of the park that leave from here, offering drive by reconnaissance.
A 2016 expansion of the Puerto Natales airport has made the park more accessible than ever, and most local businesses (from craft brewers to trekking outerwear manufacturers) now feed off tourism.
I enjoyed the few easy paced days that served as an introduction to this bottom of the world corner of the continent. A delicious lamb asado (barbecue) at a 15,000 acre sheep farm, the Estancia Cerro Negro, was followed by a sheep shearing demonstration. (Imagine doing 250 in one day!)
Time was also spent with a young gaucho, his wife and infant son. They proudly shared the history of the ranch they call home, today in the hands of the fourth generation of the original owners, the Kusanovic family, who emigrated here from Croatia in 1906. Family histories are fascinating in this corner of the world.
Our destination was the Torres del Paine National Park, a remote, windswept outpost in the heart of Chilean Patagonia and one of nature’s last untrammeled wildernesses. Unmapped before the 1930s, the national park is a 600,000 acre network of aquamarine lakes, ancient forests, the rolling grasslands called pampas, rivers and fjords. But it is perhaps best known for the torres themselves, three slender towers called Cleopatra’s Needles by a late 19th century British adventurer, and the glacier eroded Cuernos del Paine, the spectacular rose colored “horns” that rise dramatically from the Patagonian steppes.
Part of the Paine Massif, the cuernos are the geological showpiece of the Cordillera Paine mountains, an eastern spur of the Andes and a kind of grand finale to the chain.
Vast and pristine, Torres is the largest and most visited park in Chile, but even with 200,000 annual visitors (half of whom are foreign), it will feel empty. Torres del Paine’s massive relief dominates the park while also reveling as the showcase of Patagonia, and the magnet for Chile’s burgeoning ecotourism industry.
Sheep farms are still big business in Southern Patagonia, where gauchos live an age old way of life on the vast and empty steppes and pampas. Photo Credit: Explora Patagonia