The mighty west winds sweep across southern Chile. There is no other land mass that far south, until Antarctica itself. The flat lands either side of the Magellan Straits guide ships through the southern passage that was eventually replaced by the Panama Canal. Slightly to the north the mighty Andes trap the ocean’s precipitation in the Southern Icefield (Campo de Hielo del Sur), one of the largest concentrations of fresh water on earth.
Punta Arenas, Chile’s principal southern city, is remarkably clean. Any wayward litter would quickly be blown to Argentina and on to the Falkland Islands!
Located about 53 degrees south, Punta Arenas is only slightly south of where London or Dublin are north, but due to the effect of the freezing Humbolt Current, flowing straight up from Antarctica, the waters are far too cold for swimming.
Typical of the higher latitudes, summer light is long and winter days short. Punta Arenas is a young and diverse city. While still very Chilean, its cultural mix includes many Europeans – particular Croatians. Many Chilotes migrated south over the last 100 years as have Chileans from the capital region.
The culture is distinctly Patagonian. Although difficult to define, the people of the south are quite similar on both side of the border. Estancias (ranches) dot the landscape and the southern gaucho style remains. Everyone drinks mate (traditional tea).
Patagonians are proud of their landscape and their safe and friendly environment. In a continent known for too much violence, people in many of the southern communities donot lock their doors and know their neighbours well.
Standing by the water in Puntas Arenas we gazed longingly across to Tierra del Fuego – the land of fire. The main city on the Island, Argentine Ushuaia, is fully a 12 hour drive. This is the most southerly city in the world – and well worth a visit (but on another trip).
Tiny Puerto Williams on a Chilean island is the world’s most southerly community, but in real terms, Puntas Arenas is Chile’s southern city.
After a good dinner at one of the many restaurants on O’Higgins Street and as early a night as possible, we had an early morning start for a choppy boat ride to Magdalena Island.
The trip into the windy straights did test the sea legs of several passengers, but we were rewarded with close up encounters with thousands of nesting Magellanic penguins.
Penguins really are reason enough to travel to the Southern Hemisphere and it was wonderful to spend real time with those magnificent birds.
Once back on Terra Firma, we visited a little more of the city before driving three hours across the flat Patagonian step and north towards the Andes. These are true grazing lands. In addition to sheep and some cattle, we were treated to Guanacos (related to vicuñas and llamas) as well as emu-like ñandu’s, a fox and flamingos!
Upon arrival to Puerto Natales, we settled in by the harbour for three nights. This is the end of the line for the ferries that leave Puerto Montt, over 1200 KM’s to the north (1900 km’s driving).
When clear, the harbour in Puerto Natales offers stunning views of the southern Andes and a few of the glaciers pouring down from the icefields. This is the gateway to Torres Del Paine park. Widely considered one of the most beautiful mountain areas in the world.
I have visited Torres several different ways over the years and have even stayed in the park, but this was my best visit so far. The weather was perfect and even not windy (a major theme in the region). Rather than packing the day too full, we took several long walks and saw the famous towers reflected in is a still lake.
Torres is always worth a visit, but how one approaches the park must be governed by weather.
On our next full day, we cruised the southern channels, visited glaciers, walked, ate great quantities of meat at an estancia and even saw condors. Perfect.
The south is vast and wild. People are friendly and service is good. Prices are slightly higher than in central Chile, but that is to be expected. The area retains a frontier feel. Life in Chile’s far south is very familiar to me, but then I live in another wild, region with mountains and wildlife.
Visitors should come south expecting wind and often rain in the mountains. Patagonia is a place, but it is also a state of mind – and it feels like freedom.