Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Journey to Southern Patagonia and Tierra de Fuego

I've recently returned from a brief trip to the southernmost parts of Chile. Like my prior journey to Patagonia (see here), I saw many great sights and enjoyed traveling to such remote places. This particular journey featured lots of penguins and the famous Torres del Paine. For more details, and for those that may be interested in doing their own trips, keep reading.

Chile is long. It will take many trips, or a single very long trip, to explore all of it from North to South. In the summer months (approximately Nov-Mar), traveling to the South is ideal as Santiago suffers from very warm weather whereas Patagonia is cool year-round. In my prior trip, I visited the northern parts of Patagonia with Jackie. This time, I visited the southern parts with my officemate Nadia. As I learned, many of the other postdocs would also be heading down there at various times of the month. Nadia and I just had a week set aside, so I figured to maximize the things we could see on our trip.

We arrived early in the day at Punta Arenas and picked up our rental car. As we had been forewarned, the windshield (parabrisas) is not covered in the insurance given that the high winds of the region and gravel roads can frequently shatter it. We were lucky, but it's something to keep in mind. This vehicle was also manual transmission, as most vehicles in Chile. Nadia's license had expired so it was up to me to do all the driving. My only experience thus far driving manual transmission, however, has been at Las Campanas Observatory. Fortunately, I have been there so often that I was able to get the hang of it... after a day or two. Needless to say, it was quite stressful driving in stop-and-go traffic near the crowded city center of Punta Arenas in a car I was unfamiliar with. We, and others around us, survived, with only the smell of burnt rubber to tell of the driving problems.

Punta Arenas

We stayed at the Hotel Isla Rey Jorge, which was more difficult to find than we expected. Basically, the problem was we were looking for the sign at eye or roof-top level, but their sign is down near the ground. We passed it at least twice and only by parking and walking around did we find it. It was a pretty good place, but not the best one we stayed at. The only major complaint we had was that it was right in front of a pub and plenty of drunk people would periodically go out there singing until 4 or 5 in the morning. Still, most of our time the first two days was spent away on our first major trip: Tierra de Fuego.

Tierra de Fuego
South of the chilean mainland is a bit island shared between Chile and Argentina. This is Tierra de Fuego and it's accessible via ferry from Punta Arenas or Primera Angostura. We crossed from Punta Arenas to Porvenir (the main town of Tierra de Fuego) via the ferry, which took between 2 and 3 hours. You can find more information on the crossing on the TABSA website. Our hotel had called to make reservation the day before, and we arrived an hour before boarding, so we had no problem getting on. Still: it was quite a crowded ship with lots of vehicles and people making the crossing.

The main plaza at Porvenir

We spent only a little time in Porvenir. We were worried about the time, anticipating a very long return journey, and restaurants in Chile generally open so late we couldn't really grab a lunch. Good thing we had plenty of snacks for the road, though. And hit the road we did, for the first of many long drives that day. Our destination: the King Penguin colony at Bahia Inutil.

The drive was quite eventful. It was a rough, dirt road with frequent strong crosswinds. At one point, the wind was strong enough that we started swaying wildly. No other cars were around and I was driving sufficiently slowly that I was able to keep us from spinning out of control. It was a scary moment, though, and made me drive far more carefully the rest of the day and whenever I felt strong winds (which are very common in Patagonia). Because of driving so slowly, however, we reached the penguin colony after 2 hours rather than the ~1 hour I had anticipated.

King Penguins at Tierra de Fuego

The trip was completely worth it: about 30-40 King Penguins were there just chilling around. I took plenty of pictures and even some video:

This is the only place I know in Chile where one can see this species of penguin. The other penguin colonies tend to have the smaller magellanic or humbolt penguins. It was magnificent to see such majestic birds so close by (~20 meters). There were some wooden panels we would hide behind so that the penguins wouldn't see too many humans at once and get scared. We had done a reservation via the park's website, but it wasn't too crowded (with humans) and we probably could have managed to get in without one. Still, it's worthwhile to check that website as it has plenty of information. Note also that the park closes on Mondays.

After the penguins, we started on the long road back to Punta Arenas. As you may notice if you check the ferry schedule, there are usually only two per day: one at 9am going there, arriving around noon, and one at 2pm heading back. If you intend to explore Tierra de Fuego, such an option isn't ideal. Fortunately, there is another, easier way to get back to the mainland. This is the Primera Angustura Crossing at the north end of the island. It's a much shorter crossing (~20 minutes as opposed to 2.5 hours) and operates continuously every 30 minutes or so. It's also far cheaper, but does require you to drive ~2-3 hours to Punta Arenas (and about the same time from Porvenir or the King Penguin colony). Fortunately, the road to Punta Arenas is paved and after we left the penguin colony we discovered about half of the road north through Tierra de Fuego was also paved. Hooray!

Torres del Paine
After the long day trip to see penguins, we had yet another long drive ahead of us: 3 hours to Puerto Natales, stopping ground for those who wish to see the Torres del Paine park. Fortunately, the road was paved yet again and we made good time, but it was uncomfortable to always be pushing down on the gas. I'm used to have an automatic vehicle with cruise control for long drives. We made it fine, though, and enjoyed a good pizza & pasta lunch at Mesita Grande. Overall, I think our dining experiences were better in Puerto Natales than in Punta Arenas.

Puerto Natales

We stayed at the We Are Patagonia Ecohouse, a rustic place on the edge of town. It was very nice, a marked improvement over our place in Punta Arenas. The bed cover (but not the pillows) were down feathers, which I have to admit I've rarely used and didn't like. Nadia certainly liked them, though. We spent our day easy since I was exhausted from all the driving that day and the prior one. We did head out and have some nice hot chocolate at Patagonia Dulce (despite the very warm weather we had), saw the coast, and then had an amazing dinner at Afrigonia. I highly recommend that restaurant. It is a fusion of African and Patagonian cuisines and is absolutely delicious. I had the lamb in port wine and apricot sauce and I would totally have gone back the next day for more.

Inside the Mylodon Cave

The next day was our second big trip: Torres del Paine. We set off in the late morning and stopped by the Mylodon Cave. The mylodon is an extinct giant sloth and there's a small park dedicated to it and its surroundings. It's certainly worth a stop, but not a very long one, especially if you just do the big cave and not any of the lookout spots. The main attraction is about an hour away on the same (dirt/gravel) road.

A distant view to the Paine mountain range

We stopped on the way to the Torres del Paine since the views were spectacular. You can see one such shot above. The weather that day was warm and sunny with only some occasional clouds (and the ever present wind). It was an excellent day to see the vistas and check out the park.

Salto Grande

For the park, I had already planned two brief hikes to explore key vistas there. First was Salto Grande, a waterfall amidst the glacial lakes, and a ~1 hour hike to Mirador Los Cuernos which gives excellent views of the main mountain range of the park. I am not a good hiker, though, so it took us somewhat over an hour to get there (less to get back). It also grew very hot under the sun, despite the very (very!) strong wind. Still, it was worth it to see Lake Nordernskjöld and close up views of the mountains.

Cuernos del Paine and Lake Nordernskjöld

After that hike, which exhausted us more than we expected, we set off to Lago Grey. As anticipated, we were too late to catch the boat rides which I hear are nonetheless very expensive and tourist-y. As such, we had planned to do another short hike to the Mirador Grey. We didn't actually do the full hike, but got out to the beach to see a different view of the mountains, Lago Grey, and chunks of glacial ice coming from the more distant Glaciar Grey.

After a long exhausting day, we had a big dinner of lamb cooked the traditional style. It was good, but the place got packed and it got very warm inside with the open fire and all the people. It was a relief to pay our bill and head out for some fresh air and a quiet night.

Punta Arenas
Having explored the Torres del Paine to some degree (we never intended to do the long W or O or Q hikes), we set off once again to Punta Arenas for the last part of our trip. It was again another long 3-hour drive, this time with high winds and gathering clouds.

For this occasion, we stayed at Shenu Patagonia, a series of cabins a bit removed from the main plaza, but still walking distance. This was my favorite place we stayed at as the cabins were spacious, quiet, and even had a full kitchen. We even got a complementary tray of bread, juice, and other snacks. After setting in, we set off yet again for some more adventure.

The Nao Victoria, as seen from the (under construction) Beagle

Our main stop that day was the Nao Victoria Museum. This is a new place showcasing some of the famous ships in the region, most notably Magellan's Nao Victoria. Only Darwin's Beagle (still under construction) is 1:1, but the ships are still impressive to look at. The weather, however, was turning foul and so our second plan for the day, visiting the penguins at Otway Sound, had to be cancelled.

The following day we set off south of Punta Arenas to do a quick visit of Puerto Hambre and Fuerte Bulnes. Puerto Hambre (Port Hunger) was the first settlement in the region, but due to the harsh conditions and ill supplies everyone died. Fuerte Bulnes is a reconstructed fort just south of Puerto Hambre. You can see how some of the old buildings looked like and learn a little bit about the history of the early settlers. After those quick visits, we went back north to the same ferry terminal we visited our first full day. This time, however, was to check out the penguins at Isla Magdalena.

Fuerte Bulnes

Isla Magdalena is reached via the ferry and there are daily trips to the island. We had bought our tickets in the morning, but there seemed to be plenty of space so that even late comers could join in. Unlike the trip to Porvenir, the ship was smaller since it only takes people on foot yet even then it was crowded. There must have been over a hundred people eager to see the penguins. Don't worry, though: there are enough penguins for everyone. Naturally, I took tons of pictures and some video.

Magellanic penguins at Isla Magdalena

The journey to the island took nearly 2 hours, more so on the way back. While on the island we spent about 1 hour walking around specified paths amidst thousands and thousands of Magellanic penguins. They had tons of homes dug into the ground and some were actively digging. Many were just walking around and would frequently pass right in front of us. As this is a protected park, we had to stay away from the penguins and had to stop when they crossed. Still, we were very much closer than in the King Penguin colony.

Penguin crossing

This penguin island was certainly one of our favorite visits of the whole trip. The journey back took longer than expected, though, and we arrived tired and hungry. We ate well, but the food in Punta Arenas was not as remarkable as that in Puerto Natales. The next day we checked out of our cabin and spent the day just strolling around and visiting a few of the museum, most notably the Salesian Museum near the cemetery. Note that museums can be closed on Mondays or Tuesdays or during lunch time so you do have to plan ahead.

We had a great time exploring Southern Patagonia. The main three highlights of our trip were the visit to Torres del Paine, the visit to the King Penguin colony at Tierra de Fuego, and the visit to the Magellanic Penguin colony at Isla Magdalena. I would highly recommend all three for those interested in checking out the region. A little more time on Torres del Paine would also have been nice as there are plenty of hikes one can do and there's no obligation to do the multi-day circuits. The distances between cities are long, but once you settle down in a single place it's easier. We didn't cross over to Argentina given the amount of time we had and the requirement to pay reciprocity fees, but this can be a good options for those who stay longer and want to visit the Argentinian Patagonia.

1 comment:

  1. The only place I have been outside of the United States is Cancun, Mexico. There are many countries I want to visit, but so far, Mexico has been the only one I've been to and I loved it. Seeing the pictures you have taken while you were in Chile might make me add that country to my list.

    Wilbert Bowers @ Mirr Ranch Group