[Note: I suppose I should warn you that I wrote down most of the Patagonia blogs as they happened, during spare moments on bus rides & whatnot. Thus, they will be even more exuberantly wordy and over-detailed than usual.]
Around 4am, the flight crew starting serving a second round of drinks. I still hadn’t slept, but figured that, at this point, it was highly unlikely that I would. Instead, I started watching the in-flight entertainment: a Canadian prank show, inexplicably enough. My favorite scene involved a police officer pulling people over for a breathalyzer test. The breathalyzer went haywire when they breathed into it, so the policeman called over two other officers, and, with great seriousness, had the poor citizen struggle to perform a choreographed square dance with them. Very silly. (It reminded me of Reno 911, but more innocent.)
My first impression of Patagonia: blue and blue and blue. Initially, all I could see was a vivid sunrise near the nose of our plane. Then, undulating shapes appeared beneath us. At first, I wasn’t sure if they were clouds or lakes, but as more light appeared, they revealed themselves to be the latter. As we neared the Punta Arenas airport, we flew over a giant, dimly azure body of water. In the pale morning light, everything I could see was blue: the rippled land, the shining fingers of water, and the misty sky enveloping the earth.
We disembarked, and I bade farewell to my friendly seatmates. Then came the part of the day I had dreaded: waiting around the airport from 4:30am to 8am, for the first transportation to Puerto Natales to become available. As it turned out, the situation was even trickier than I thought, as the Natales vans depart from the middle of the city, not from the airport. According to the ladies at the information desk, my options were: (a) call the bus company to see if an airport pickup could be arranged (I don’t enjoy talking on the phone in English, so Spanish is extra horrid); (b) take an overpriced taxi into town; or (c) wait until 9:30am for the cheaper transfers to start running, then take one into the city to meet the transport. This was too much for my tired brain to figure out, so I decided I would wait until 7:30am, since nothing productive could happen before then anyway. I sat and stared blankly at the wall for several hours: too tired to read a book, but too awake to nap on the bench. Eventually, I roused myself and migrated to the second-floor café, where I had a wee glass of coffee and some tostada con palta (toast with avocado). They were far from stupendous, but they were a passable way to help the hours pass.
The Punta Arenas airport doesn’t have the nice tiny-airport feel that Calama had. Still, it wasn’t unpleasant: it had large silver-lined windows, and many of the walls and all of the chairs were of smooth blond wood. There were two ghostly whales hanging from the ceiling, constructed out of rows of clear plastic loops that form a translucent whale if you look at ’em right (or a dog-chewed plastic bottle if you look at them wrong).
I bravely decided to try calling the bus companies, but alas, none of them could do an airport pickup. Then, I trudged outside, thinking I might spring for a taxi. I immediately encountered a city-transfer van; apparently they did start running before 9:30am, no matter how many times the information desk ladies had insisted they didn’t. I boarded the van, and it took me directly to the bus company’s terminal, in good time to get a seat for the 9am bus.
I’m not sure how best to describe the Punta Arenas area, but I’ll try. In general appearance, it seemed like a hybrid between Ireland’s peat bogs and the California coast. It was sprinkled with numerous, spread-out buildings, all with bright green, red, or blue roofs, which were sloped and grooved for snow protection. Along the fences and house-edges, there were bushes with globular clusters of yellow flowers, whose blooms were so profuse that they looked like they’d been dipped in yellow paint. There were also vigorous chimney-broom-esque lupines bursting up from every spare patch of ground. They were more diverse than the typical purple-blue lupines: there were pink, cream, white, yellow, red, and orange lupines, almost too many colors to count. There were even dark indigo ones that appeared almost black; very often, five or more colors would grow in a single patch. Dennis Moore would have a field day! All of this bordered a huge body of water, which glimmered a reflected silver from the cloudy sky, and almost seemed to curve upward like a giant upturned bowl.
As we passed more rural areas, we saw more and more animals: horses (including spindly foals), cows, and tons of sheep. In the middle of a sheep field, I spied a strange round white-grey shape, standing up on two legs. It blended in uncannily well with the sheep, but it turned out to be a ñandu (the South American name for the rhea, which apparently comes from a Guaraní phrase for “big spider, most probably in relation to their habit of opening and lowering alternatively wings when they run”). By wonderful luck, it was baby season for the ñandus, so several times, I managed to glimpse a crew of adorable three-foot-tall baby ñandus, bopping around alongside their five-foot mothers.
For the duration of the bus ride, I sat next to a grizzled older fireman, who was traveling into Torres del Paine to help fight the fires. He told me that the ñandu often have 12-15 offspring per brood — oh my! He also enjoyed pointing out various landmarks: a statue honoring los ovejeros (shepherds), complete with a metallic fleet of sheep, or a little house on the shores of the strait, which had been used in telephone technology long ago.
I stayed awake as long as I could, fascinated by the scenery, but finally the exhaustion set in, so I reclined my bus-seat and dozed for a while. When I awoke, we were about two hours into the three-hour bus trip, and the landscape had shifted. Now there were more mountains, as well as vast fields dotted with orderly clumps of bleached, fallen wood (I don’t know if this was natural or logging-related, but I suspect the latter). Finally, we rolled into Puerto Natales: a handsome medium-sized town, again abundant with colorful, ridged snow roofs. After wishing the fireman good luck, I took a taxi to my hostel.
I arrived before the hostel’s check-in time, hoping I could drop my bag off and then get out of the way. The door was answered by L., a woman in her late 20s, who is from Texas, of all places. She had a bulge in the front of her sweatshirt, which she explained was a sleeping kitten who was usually really obnoxious. She also offered to make up the bed straightaway so I could nap.
My hostel in Puerto Natales was the Tin House Patagonia, which had wood-paneled walls, luxurious red couches, and, surprisingly, a tin exterior. I don’t think I could have chosen a better hostel: it was warm, friendly, and relaxing, and I actually wished that my schedule were freer so that I might have spent a few more nights there.
As L. kindly made up the beds, we discussed the status of the fire in Torres del Paine: some parts of the park were still burning, but all the remaining fires were contained. I also played joyfully with the kitten, who was indeed a holy terror, but a cute one: racing across the floor, attempting to capture and chew on my hands, frightening himself and keeling over, tangling himself up in the curtain-strings, and getting deeply confused. He also stalked and captured a large fly, which he then carried around proudly (or absentmindedly) in his mouth for the next half-hour.
L. helped me book my plans for tomorrow. I had hoped to do an expedition to los bosques en miniatura de la Península (miniature forests). This tour description promised lichen and a variety of flora, but, as in San Pedro, the tour company won’t take a group of only one person. Instead, L. booked for me another expedition which I had been interested in: an all-day tour to the Argentine town El Calafete, near which the glacier Perito Moreno is located. Having solidified my next-day plans, I allowed myself to conk out for a two-hour nap. I was staying in a dorm room, shared with three other people, but everyone was out for the day, and my top bunk was squishy and warm.
When I awoke, I puzzled for a few moments about an odd new sound I was hearing, before pulling on my glasses to confirm my suspicion: it was raining! (Excellent news for those fighting the Torres del Paine fire.) I was once again exceptionally pleased to be staying in this house, with its roofly rain-music.
After forcing my brain into being awake again, I headed out into Puerto Natales for a walk. It was still drizzling steadily, but the clouds were bright and everything seemed fresh and delicious. I walked without intention, passing elegant European-seeming buildings, which were still hung with Christmas decorations. Occasionally, I caught a whiff of butter-scent from street corner popcorn vendors. Just as I walked by, a large church on the side of the main plaza began playing “Silent Night” on its bells; I paused to listen, feeling eminently peaceful.
Then, I walked through the town’s central park, which was planted with handsome trees and plants, and had a fountain shooting up from the ground at its center. The mountains peeped up occasionally, on all sides. I enjoyed the gentle drizzle, and found each new sight to be intriguing: a tempting wooden coffee-and-chocolate shop, a structure with its upper half burned and blackened, houses and shops painted in almost as many different colors as in Valpo, and quaint wooden signs. All of this lay beneath a heavy, enthralling stormy sky.
One of the attractions located near Torres del Paine is the Cueva del Milodón Natural Monument, a giant cave where the remains of a giant ground sloth (a mylodon) were found, a century ago. As such, Puerto Natales was full of enthusiastic little allusions to the proximity of this discovery: there were several full-size wooden statues of the mylodon, all the gift shops sold stuffed mylodons, and, in the main part of town, all the street signs were emblazoned with wee mylodon shapes, which looked as though they were dancing. I relished this unusual little quirk of Puerto Natales.
One street that I stumbled upon led straight towards a grey lake, that lay at the edge of the little town: Última Esperanza Sound (Last Hope Sound). I sped to the water’s edge and strolled there for a while. The ground was wet and grey-black, and scattered with clumps of bushy daisies.
I’m not sure why, but this low-key walk filled me with a feeling of peace and contentment. Perhaps it was the fact that I do love winter, and this was the first wintry-feeling day I’ve had in Chile. (This may be an ideal way to console myself about my impending return to the U.S.: even though I will be missing Chile, at least I should return in time for a few months of wonderful rainy-drear weather.) At any rate, I could have wandered around in the Puerto Natales rain all day, refreshed by the gentle raindrops and just warm enough with my two jackets. This far south, it’s almost like the Land of the Midnight Sun: the sun started to come up around 4:30am, and it stayed bright and walkable until 10pm.
Since I’ll mostly be eating sandwiches once I’m in Torres del Paine, I decided to have a real meal at a restaurant. Upon L.’s recommendation, I went to a restaurant with large glass windows and a fireplace. Right next to my table, it featured a small central room, which was entirely lined with windows (both into the street and the restaurant interior). This room contained a barbeque grill, upon which an ex-sheep sat on a metal pike, slowly roasting over a fire. My waiter frequently nipped into the room to poke the coals or rotate the sheep. While it was macabre dinner scenery, I appreciate such open acknowledgement of where food comes from.
I had a tasty buttered salmon, some rice, and a cup of hot black tea with milk — the perfect thing after my rainy walk. The waiter correctly guessed that I had been living in Chile, saying that my Spanish was much better than many Americans’. After a slow-paced meal, I strolled back to my hostel, enjoying the elongated daylight and the wet earth.