As we walked up the street into Puerto Natales at about nine in the morning after our extra night on the ferry, I had the odd feeling that we had come ashore in a ghost town. Even the dogs were mostly missing. As we climbed the slope toward our accommodations, we started to wonder – is there something we should know?
Eventually we reached our hostel, dumped our stuff and went to look for a way to visit Torres del Paine. Ever so slowly the town came to life, and revealed itself to be a pleasant enough gridded pueblo of small houses, pensiones and hostels, plus some larger hotels, and an interesting cemetery. There were a surprising number of outdoor outfitters and camping suppliers. Even the locals wore North Face and Marmot, while I was wishing for the same!
Turns out there was little need to be a morning person. With the December solstice bringing nearly 18 hours of daylight, people were sleeping in. Lots of stuff was just getting started in the slanting light of 9 pm and the supermarket didn’t close until 11.
18th and 19th century settlers found the grasslands of southern Chile and Argentina well-suited for raising sheep and did so on vast estancias, exporting the wool. As technological advances permitted, meat was also exported. At Puerto Natales, there had been a slaughterhouse and meat-packing facilities but that declined after World War II. Part of the plant has now been incorporated into a classy-looking hotel, a bit out of town – maybe next time?
Nowadays Natales is mainly the terminus to the ferry and the gateway to the Torres del Paine National Park. That’s pronounces Pi-nay, an indigenous word for, I think, blue. It’s got a glacier, blue- and green- colored lakes, silty melt rivers, a famous massif, climbing and hiking trails that can occupy visitors for a day, or a fortnight.
Torres del Paine was in the travel plans of just about everyone on the Navimag ferry, and of course we wanted to go too. Could we rent a car to go look around? Nope, all booked. Could we rent camping gear and do one of the multi-day treks thru the park’s spectacular scenery? We vetoed that idea ourselves as we became aware of just how many other people there were competing for limited space, and just how variable the ‘summer’ weather could be. And, how complicated and expensive it would be to outfit ourselves from scratch for a week of camping.
So we settled for a mini-bus tour, which ended up being a maxi-bus tour, shuffling off and on at each of the miradors, except the one at the waterfall which was deemed too windy to be safe.
The park is a two-hour drive away from Pto Natales through miles of estancia country, huge pieces of flat scrub? grass? land rising gradually into much taller peaks. Surely TdP is the largest money-earner of all the Chilean national parks, since to drive through on our bus cost US$30 admission each, not including the bus. Foreigners pay a premium and they are 60% of the 150,000 annual visitors (Wikipedia).
But, our destination having been named by National Geographic in the top five of the most beautiful places in the world, we couldn’t complain. And we’re not. Especially since, at the end of the day we came across some folks, Australians we had met aboard the ferry. They did get a car, and we got to ride back to TdP again with them the next day at a much more leisurely pace. Plus, we got to travel with them for another couple weeks. It was grand; so much easier to share the planning and expenses, especially with compatible seasoned travellers!
Here are a few shots from Torres del Paine.
Something still not right with the Gallery, so I’ll just leave it small.
Although we had happily been riding the excellent buses everywhere we went in Chile, we came to a place where going further south meant either flying or diverting into Argentina, there being nothing for the most part but rough tracks south along the glacier-strewn Chilean Andes.
Mirabile dictu! There is a passenger- and freight-carrying ferry weekly from Puerto Montt all the way to Puerto Natales. That’s the one, at the top of the page.
One of the reasons we came to Chile was because of Patagonia. It has mystical status in my mind, like Timbuktu, or Kuala Lumpur. It turns out there is way more to the place, at least area-wise, than I knew. Patagonia is basically all the southern tip of South America, generally considered to include Tierra del Fuego. In Argentina, Patagonia is dry and flat, diametrically opposed to the steep, jagged, and damp Chilean coastline I had in mind from years of reading sailing yarns and history of the early explorers.*
However this isn’t a post about Patagonia per se, but about how we moved ourselves southward down the coast of Chile through the portion of the territory that falls under the Patagonia umbrella, on the Navimag ferry Evangelistas.
From my reading I carried an impression of Patagonia, Chile Deep South Section, as a fine-cut maze of rocky fjords and uncharted reefs islands and under a perpetual low pressure system that made the weather blustery, erratic and generally foul, in the 40-knot-with-gusts-higher-and-cold-rain kind of foul. In short, a miserable place to try to sail. The map below, from the iPhone app Tracks, that shows our track, gives just a tiny hint of the myriad compound indentions, and no hint at all of the weather.
Hence the trip down the coast on the ferry, the Navimag Evangelistas in this case, sounded wonderful. Four days, three nights, somebody else’s boat, someone else’s responsibility. I could sleep through the night if I wanted, didn’t have to go out in the cold or rain if I didn’t want to. No reefing of sails or radar tweaking for me! No night watches, and all the cooking was outsourced. Yes, please!
Evangelistas carries trailers and other cargo (including at times live cattle in pens on the open deck) between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. And it takes passengers, maybe 250 max, if every single bunk including all those indented the thwartships passageways, were filled. On our trip Constanza, the lovely young guide in training, thought we had about 160, which seemed close to capacity for dining room seating. A layout of the ship is shown in the Photo Gallery at the end of the post.
The open ocean part of the trip took place at night, with the wind mainly behind us, which made for such a comfortable ride that I slept through it all in my cozy top bunk. But Doug said, there and in the narrower channels, that he sure was glad he wasn’t trying to go the other way under sail.
The passengers were a mix of backpackers and silverbacks, which is to say, young and old. The mid-range strongbacks, in their 30s and 40s and not with us, were, I guess, still at work.
Several groups were heading towards Torres del Paine, a Chilean national park with a well-known super-scenic 5- to 10- day hiking trail. Some would turn east and then north towards the glaciers on the Chilean-Argentine border. And some, including us, wanted to see Ushuaia, the self-styled ‘Fin del Mundo’ end of the world city, (although not too much further south in Puerto Williams they disagree, in a thinner, piping voice!)
The uniform was common to all – hiking clothes, clumpy boots, puffy jackets, hi tech windbreakers. There was a scattering of North Americans, but there were many more Germans, and French, and Swiss (or as we came to call them, the sharp-elbowed Swiss). And there were a dozen Chileans, who were either tourists like the rest of us, or truckdrivers.
We didn’t have a cruise director exactly, since it’s a ferry, not a cruise ship. We did have a naturalist. Percy made presentations every day on matters of geology, vegetation, sea life and birds. He was a hard-working man who had to do everything in Spanish, then again in English, and he had a lot to say. He also relayed messages from the captain about expected sea conditions and how these would affect the route. So maybe he was a cruise director!
Things We Saw Underway
For us, at the summer solstice towards the end of December, there were some Minke whales pretty far away, some penguins, condors, maybe some birds that didn’t get announced, and at least 17 hours of daylight to see them in. Here is what I took notice of.
Christmas Day was sunny and bright, at least for a while, coinciding with our stop at the little settlement of Puerto Eden. Googling around to find out what the place was even there for, I learned how lucky we were with the weather: “Villa Puerto Edén has an extremely wet subpolar oceanic climate (Köppen Cfc) and is widely reputed to be the place in the world with the highest frequency of rainfall, though according to Guinness World Records the highest frequency of rain in a year occurred at Bahia Felix, a little further south, with only eighteen rainless days in the whole of 1916”. (1916??)
Furthermore, this Wikipedia article went on to say that there were no roads in Puerto Eden, only raised boardwalks, and that it was the home of the last Kawéshkar people, one of several indigenous groups no longer extant in Patagonia. In 2002 there were 175 people, but Percy told us it was less than a hundred now.
As we were anchoring off Puerto Eden, I saw someone checking his cell phone. It was interesting to watch how news of a nearby tower spread through the passengers. People who had been looking around were now looking down.
There was news from the world: a 7.7 earthquake that morning on the coast of Chile, south of Puerto Montt in an area we had traversed less than two days before. With my own phone out, I heard about it by email from a friend, and got details on the Guardian newspaper’s website, then on usgs.gov, a wonderful site for the geologically inclined.
Up in the dining room, it turned out we really did have satellite TV, which had heretofore been silly white noise off in the corner, but now was showing a crack in the asphalt of a bridge on Chiloe Island.
Then they had a home video of someone’s lamp shaking. Those two items played for the rest of the day, and that was it as far as the big earthquake went.
A Windy Weather Event
As we made a few last turns towards Puerto Natales on a hard blue day, the wind began to pick up until it did become a little challenging to hold on to one’s hat, and the sharp-elbowed Swiss could be found already hunkered down in the cozy lee corners.
When we arrived at Pto Natales, the wind was reported at 60 knots, which was odd because the seas were so flat, although the boat did have a modest heel.
Percy made an announcement: the port had been closed and the ferry was going back out to a better anchorage. There would be no docking this afternoon, and probably not this night. So the kitchen made another good meal and we all went to bed.
When I woke up at seven the next morning, we were tied to the dock and the trucks had already left. It was grand! After breakfast, the intrepidistas shouldered their bags and strode off toward Puerto Natales.
*one of the books I have really enjoyed about this area is by Dallas Murphy, called Rounding the Horn. It blends history with modernity, perspective with adventure, in a conversational way. It’s as if we were meeting over a beer, not over a thesis interview.
Trouble editing the photo gallery – sorry, but moving on….
Beneath my tree-hugging, nature-gal exterior, there must be an urbanite yearning to break free. That could explain the excited buzz I felt in Valparaiso, Chile, one of the South Pacific’s most important ports. I liked everything about the place: the setting, the walkability, the new discoveries around every corner, the street scenes, most of the people I saw. What made it so?
Color! It’s everywhere: walls, doors, telephone poles and trash cans, stair risers and retaining walls, not to mention the big sky and sea so often visible.
Much of it is in the form of graffiti: writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place, says an online dictionary.
It is easy to think of graffiti as a kind of vandalism. There’s a lot of graffiti I just hate to see. That bubble script and things that look like letters but can’t be read (failed fonts, I call them) signal a potentially fatal failure to connect the rising generation to their history, or maybe their culture’s failure to engage all its members. So, it’s not necessarily a good thing.
But in Valparaiso, they are learning to adapt. Perhaps the citizens and city government were bowing to the inevitable, or maybe they just learned how to channel ordinary graffiti into Street Art. Valparaiso has taken what might be considered a flaw, and made it into a feature. More than a feature even: an attraction.
I don’t know how it has been arranged between the owners of the walls, the aspiring artists, and the sensibilities of the public – wouldn’t it make an interesting study? However they’re doing it, I would say that a good number of the images that are painted on the structures of Valparaiso are attractive and intriguing, or at least more amusing than the blank/neutral canvases they replaced. The open-air art museum that is Valparaiso is a good part of what make the city so appealing to me.
Mind you, Valparaiso* is not Disneyland. It does feel like there’s hard living a few streets further back (or up), poverty and politicization for sure, and some of the hard and ramshackle that comes with port cities.
The nice thing about my pocket camera is that it lives in my pocket and slides out easily, and gets used alot. Here are a few favorites. In the gallery at the bottom of the post are dozens more snapshots.
But first, about the city
With about 275,000 residents (and in the associated suburbs, a total of close to a million), the Valparaiso conurbation forms Chile’s second largest city and its main seaport, at about 33 degrees South, 71 degrees and a half West. (You can tell I’ve been reading Wikipedia again, and Britannica too). UNESCO has named it a World Heritage Site for its history, setting, and architecture.
First of all, the setting is grand, a big amphitheater of a bay whose hills are sprinkled with bright-colored houses, or weathered and peeling ones, wood, metal, concrete, brick, in a cacophony of 19th century housing styles and textures; 20th and 21st centuries too, of course.
There is an potent aura of history too. In the 1800s especially, when sailing vessels and steamships could get around Cape Horn, but needed a port to stop at afterward, Valparaiso was that place.
English, Germans, Italians, French, seamen, sheep herders, whalers, California-bound gold miners, they came from all over, and often they stayed and built, multiplied, and sometimes prospered.
At first the town was built along the small coastal shelf, but as it grew it expanded, with landfill to seaward, and up the hill, aided by fifteen or twenty ascensors, a kind of elevator to make it easier to reach the ‘mezzanine’. These were each privately built and charged a toll. Some no longer operate, but most have now been taken over by the municipality, with an operative toll taker.
We were there in December, the southern hemisphere summer in fact and demeanor. (It’s easy to fall in love in the summer.) At latitude 33 South, and strongly affected by the ocean and the Humboldt current, it’s generally sunny and pleasant (not hot). Winters are said to be mild, maybe rainy, maybe foggy.
I need to mention other natural disasters as well. Chile is a very seismically active place; earthquakes and tsunamis have both affected Valparaiso. In fact there was a major quake in 1906, just like in San Francisco, California, to which the geography and climate, and maybe even the general vibe of Valpo, is has been compared.
Forest fires have also caused problems (are causing them right now in other parts of the country) which are exacerbated by the hilly terrain, the steep and convoluted cobblestone roads, and wind flow in the bowl. A big fire this year after Christmas, south of the port, destroyed hundreds of homes.
Panama Canal Takes A Toll
Valparaiso’s boom times were dealt a strong blow when the Panama canal opened in 1914. But they kept improving the port and today it exports growing quantities of wine, copper, and fresh fruit. It’s also a (relatively) popular cruise ship stop, and may also host beyond Panamax-sized ships.
With four universities (my dentist in Guaymas is a graduate of one) and offices of the Chilean Congress and several other government agencies, there is plenty of new blood coming into town. That would account for the clubs and bars and galleries and the general sense of life on the streets, even in my limited up-at-dawn, down-at-dusk time frame. The southern hemisphere summer allows plenty of dusk.
Photo Gallery of Street Art and Interesting Buildings
That’s more than enough of the dry bones of history. Here is a gallery of photos taken on various walks around town.
I’ve skipped a lot of captions and titles – sometimes it’s hard to chose a mere handful of descriptive words for some pretty fantastical paintings. Probably some duplicates too.