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Posts tagged ‘patagonia’

the beauty at the end of the world

Patagonia is not a land for wimps.  I had been drawn to visit by a travel article that made the trip to Cape Horn sound like an adventure.  The Australis team is very zodiac-experienceprofessional and you feel that you are in safe hands.  It will be an adventure but draped in first world safety standards.  Quite different to being trapped on a runaway elephant sans driver in the Thai jungle…

It was my first time on a zodiac though and I had seen enough of the Strait of Magellan by then to know I did NOT want to be in that water!  First you are suited up in lifejackets.  You then go through detailed instructions, which are repeated every time.  It isn’t particularly difficult but you do need to follow the procedures to avoid tipping the raft.  It’s an adventure for small-a adventure people.  People who likely don’t swim with sharks, climb Mt Everest or paraglide over the Grand Canyon.

We all got on the zodiac without incident but everyone was pretty quiet and there wasn’t even a lot of photos being taken.  No one wanted to tilt us into the Pacific Ocean.  The zodiac driver employed only modest speed and tried not to scare us.  I am always fascinated watching pampered first world travellers morph into greater adventurers.  Even by the return trip to the ship, you could see people were relaxing on the zodiac and the driver gunned it once he knew we could handle it.

That was probably because the harder hike was indeed harder.  By Navy Seal standards, a walk in a particularly pleasant park but we had been expecting something more 60+ friendly.  Everyone made it but our tour leader just quickly led the way without paying too much attention if everyone was right behind her.  There was enough elevation for heavy breathing and. in some places, you had to pull yourself up by grabbing a rope and making your way along its length, frequently through enough mud to destroy your footwear for any other future purpose.

22-stunning-patagonian-landscapeIt was all quite exhilarating and the view from the top made it totally worthwhile. And this is a luxury cruise, so all physical efforts are rewarded with hot chocolate, whiskey or both.

There is a lot of time on the ship to chill out – or be brave and take photos in the frosty air.  I did a lot of the latter.  Luckily, I grew up in one of the coldest places on the planet so freezing my fingers off for a photo seems a fair trade-off.

In the afternoon, we got to put our zodiac skills to use a second time.  This time we just cruised around a couple of islands admiring cormorants and penguins.  It’s always amazing to see wildlife in abundance IN THE WILD in our over processed modern world.  Patagonia has done a good job of maintaining its natural splendor.

cormorants posing for tourists ;)

cormorants posing for tourists 😉

Part of the credit goes to Doug Tompkins, one of those rare local hero types who can actually turn money made from being a good businessman to money spent actually doing something good for the entire world.  He was the guy who created, along with his first wife, The North Face and Esprit.  He first travelled to Patagonia in the 1960s and in 1968 did a famous trip with Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia Inc.) where they put up a new route on Mount Fitzroy.  Growing disillusioned of the environmental impact of the fashion industry, he channelled his Esprit profits into conservation.

yes I know I'm cute ;)

yes I know I’m cute 😉

He moved to Chilean Patagonia.  At first, he explored the wilderness of the region, eventually setting up the Foundation for Deep Ecology, The Conservation Land Trust and Conservacion Patagonia.  He also married Kristine McDivitt Wear who had been the CEO of Patagonia Inc.  North Face meets Patagonia… quite the love story.

Not surprisingly, they both shared the same retirement goals – land conservation, environmental activism and biodiversity.  Tompkins used his retail riches to buy up land in Patagonia to save it from mercantile uses.  This land grab by a foreigner was regarded with suspicion by locals.  He was at various points accused of being a spy, of buying up land to create a Zionist enclave, and of planning to ship Chile’s fresh water to parched lands overseas.

Instead, his goal was to turn the land into national parks working with the national governments of Chile and Argentina.  It appears he has made great progress in convincing everyone that there is benefit for everyone in creating national parks in Patagonia along with wildlife protection, biodiversity and sustainable organic farming practices.  It all sounds a little too good to be true but go to Patagonia and see for yourself.  The end of the world is a stunningly beautiful place full of fresh air and star-studded skies.

Sadly Doug Tompkins died in 2015 while on what he thought was an easy kayaking trip with a bunch of old friends.  No doubt it was probably a manner of death he would have chosen for himself.  Kristine continues on their legacy and the future looks promising.  According to The Guardian, the Chilean government announced the day after Tompkin’s death that Pumalín Park, one of Tompkins’ earliest acquisitions, would become a national park in March 2017 but the website suggests that it is already open.

Writing about Doug and Kristine is a great antidote to thinking about the US election and how most of the rich people spend their money.  I am incredibly hard to impress but Doug Tompkins goes on the hero board.  What a wonderful world it would be if this is what all billionaires did with their riches…


realizing one’s dreams

finally a post!  lots more to try and get onto the blog…

I had been waiting for over a decade to procure the funds and time to travel to one of the most remote points on earth.  Since I’d managed to knock off the pinguinos the first day, I was chomping at the bit to get on the ship.  I did find some cool handicrafts and plenty of lapis lazuli in tourist shops and in the open air market in Plaza Muñoz Gamero.

living large in early patagonia

living large in early patagonia

Prosperity first came to Punta Arenas via sheep imported

moody punta arenas

moody punta arenas

by some enterprising immigrants.  One place definitely worth visiting is the Braun Menéndez Mansion.  While they made their fortune out of supplying ships rounding Cape Horn prior to the Panama Canal, both had familial links to sheep barons.  The house is now a national museum where you can get a fascinating glimpse into the lives of wealthy immigrants trying to create a life of European splendour in a place so remote it was unlikely they would ever see the European mainland.  The craziest part is that it was only over 100 years ago – but only that short time ago in human history, electricity and indoor plumbing were novel and there wasn’t even an airline let alone on-line booking on the internet.  Turn off your phone for a few minutes and just imagine what their lives must have been like.

The weather in Punta Arenas worsened each day that I was there and by the time I walked with my suitcase to the pier to get on the Australis ship, I was worried I might get picked up by the wind and end up in Oz instead!  I spent my final night at the Dreams Hotel drinking pisco as already noted.  I also found a charming place to have dinner.  It’s called La Cuisine.  It’s also an homage to immigration – a French and Chilean couple.  The serving sizes were far too generous but the food was excellent – home-made terrine followed by salmon with saffron cream and jasmine rice along with artistically arranged vegetables.  It was all accompanied by an excellent rose wine and lovely service.

my home for the next 4 days

my home for the next 4 days

Finally it was time to board the ship!  Many people were not well organized so check-in went on for a long time.  They took my passport!  Officially because we would sail into Argentina but it felt both disconcerting and comforting.  I had just been issued the temporary passport after all the trauma so reluctant to hand it over BUT it meant I wasn’t responsible for caring for it while I was on the ship…

The captain welcomed us and there was some safety information and then we headed to dinner.  I’m not really a cruise person so am not amused by the mandatory seating but does seem to be the norm.  On my two cruises so far, Canadians are rare so I can tell they aren’t sure what to do with me and Americans seem the most obvious choice.

In this case, I got lucky.  I doubt I would have met the people at my table otherwise but it definitely made for an interesting cultural experience.  Diane was a lawyer from Montana in her 60s who had brought along her 30-something son Ryan.  She was a great conversationalist and an intriguing mix of cosmopolitan and naïve so watching her in action was fascinating.  The most interesting exchanges involved her and 93 year old Harlan, who was accompanied by Cézar, a much younger Brazilian who spoke minimal English.  The exact nature of the relationship between Harlan and Cézar remained a mystery.

It was unfortunate that Harlan hadn’t managed to get a hearing aid that really worked for him so the conversation didn’t flow as easily as it might have and we only learned some tantalizing snippets of information.  He was one of those people who might have been the most interesting man in the world for real, not just as a frontman for Dos Equis.  He seemed more likely to drink champagne than Dos Equis 🙂

What I did learn was that he had grown up in South Dakota and then served briefly, without injury, in World War II, which entitled him to the GI Bill.  He chose to go to law school at the University of Chicago.  I have had that same kind of journey so can totally understand how Chicago in the 1940s would have seemed like Oz to someone from small town South Dakota.  It’s that history thing again, too.  There was very limited media in the 1940s so you had little knowledge or imagery of places you had not seen with your own eyes.

That was enough to make him interesting but he was recruited by a Wall Street law firm to article so that

cold but gorgeous

cold but gorgeous

took him to New York City.  Where the story got really interesting, though, was that he didn’t like Wall Street so went to teach law at the University of Minnesota, somehow ending up at Columbia Law School back in New York.  Apparently somewhere along the way he met Mary Hemingway who introduced him to Ernest with whom he shared a love of bullfighting.  He was also obsessed with ballet.  It’s hard to know if it was all true but he was an excellent raconteur 😉

Once dinner is over, there is an open bar on the upper deck where most of the guests congregate.  Diane convinced me to sign up for the harder hike for our first adventure off the ship the next morning.  Most of the people onboard weren’t terribly young… how hard could it be? 😉

desperately seeking penguins ;)

I have seen penguins at the zoo but seeing animals in the wild is a totally different experience.  Some of the Australis routes take you to Isla Magdalena but mine did not so I started researching alternative ways to check out the penguins.  It is part of the Monumento Nacional Los Pinguinos and tourists can visit from October to March.   You can reach the island two different ways.

One expedition choice is less risky.  It’s a ferry run by Comapa.  Between December and February, it goes almost every day.  But by March it only goes twice per week.  It takes more time in transit and there can be 200 other passengers with whom you need to share the island.

welcome to patagonia :)

welcome to patagonia 🙂

The sexier option is Solo Expeditiones.  They potentially go twice a day so you can get the better morning light for photos.  The reviews on trip advisor are a bit mixed and it was hard to know what I was signing up for but I decided to take what seemed a mitigated risk and choose that as my option.

It fit well into the spirit of Punta Arenas.  It is not a climate for wimps. :).  Luckily I grew up in a climate probably even more severe and had packed various levels of fleece, raingear to cover my entire body and assorted gloves and toques.  In the end, I wore it all!  Punta Arenas can be seductive though.  I arrived to beautiful blue skies and only minimal winds.

Everything looked promising for the 6:30am expedition I had reserved.  Shortly after I arrived I found the office so I would know where I was headed in the wee hours of the following morning.  Punta Arenas is a frontier town.  It’s more sophisticated than its origins as a penal colony and its blossoming as a port en route to the California gold rush as well as a home for sheep farming barons.  Nevertheless, it’s more an overgrown small town in a part of the world that doesn’t attract a large population.

It’s a place to access the Strait of Magellan and Antarctica so it has important geopolitical significance despite the weather.  It’s also where you need to go to get on the Australis ship.  If you are not obsessed with penguins, then you can just use it as a transit hub.

I appreciated the challenges of the climate and REALLY wanted to see some penguins so

penguin nirvana

penguin nirvana

ended up spending close to three days there.  It meant I had a bit of time to kill but the pinguinos made it totally worth it!  Do learn how to say their name in Spanish – it makes them even more adorable 😉

So… back to my adventures with pinguinos…

I got a ridiculously early wake-up call and scarfed down some breakfast while they were still setting up the room.  It was all in vain.  During the handful of hours I had been sleeping, the infamous winds had picked up and the harbour was closed so I could go back to bed for a nap before showing up at 3:45pm for a second try.

I kept a watchful eye on the weather as I roamed around Punta Arenas.  It certainly wasn’t clear it was improving but I had two days to try and find penguins so I showed up as instructed with fingers crossed.  After a decent waiting time, it was declared a “go” and we paid our money and filed into the minibus.

worth the waves!

worth the waves!

I had done some research so knew the boat would be small but some of the other participants seemed surprised.  It was not ideal but I had to trust the crew didn’t want to die so would only take us out if they felt we could all get back to shore safely.

It wasn’t a trip for the faint of heart.  I would not recommend it to anyone who is claustrophobic or prone to seasickness.  It was a rough passage but the crew were great and there were only a few of us intrepid enough to make the journey… so we arrived just as the ferry was departing and had an entire hour to roam the island on the well-delineated human path.

The island belongs to the penguins.  We could look but not touch and they had right of way at all points.

The water had been so rough they couldn’t guarantee we would be able to land so, when we did, it was phenomenally exciting.  It was pinguino paradise – for them and for us 🙂

Most of the others headed to the lighthouse but most of the penguins were near the shore and the best light was shooting toward the water so that is where I stayed.  I almost got tired of taking pictures of penguins.  It was that amazing!

As an added bonus, we also got to sail around Isla Marta where there are more penguins

isla marta

isla marta

and also sea lions.

The crew had decided we were hardy (or they just wanted to get home faster :)).  They sent anyone who might get seasick to the back of the boat where they would be outside in fresh air and able to vomit into the sea in a worst case scenario.  Then they gunned the boat and we surfed the waves instead of gently trying to avoid them by taking a more meandering path.

Patagonia has never been a place for pussies 🙂  I was a little worried I might die at sea and my hands were almost falling off from frostbite getting the photos but it was totally worth it!!!

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