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Saturday, 01 July 2006

Land of Ice and Fire: Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego

Written by Christina Kay Bolton
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We began our journey deep into Patagonia from Carretera Austral with a three-and-a-half-day journey past fjords and glaciers on NavimagNavimag is a large barge that carries all the supplies down to the southern part of Chile.  The trip used to be solely for transport, but occasionally backpackers would hitch a ride until it became so popular that the company built many cabins where there used to be cargo; now their business is largely a tourist enterprise.  It is the cruise for those who can’t afford to cruise.

puerto edenWe shared a AA cabin with another couple. It was very small but clean, and the thin bunk beds were comfortable but definitely not for anyone who is even slightly claustrophobic.  We had a good journey, but we were also pleased to get off the ship. It’s a large ship, though there’s only so many times you can walk around it- even with a steady stream of unbelievable views of fjords, mountains, and glaciers, including the Pio XI glacier (the largest glacier in South America).  The boat made one stop at Puerto Eden Island (the only inhabited island along the way).  We were able to visit the island via small boats for a short walk while all the mail and supplies that keep the 200 islanders going were hauled off the ship and delivered.  When we finally arrived in Puerto Natales on day four, we were ready to walk!

We took the afternoon bus up to Torres del Paine National Park, got off just before the park, and were picked up by a car to transfer us to Estancia Mirador del Paine: a very friendly, organized, exceptional farm with a great restaurant & view.  It was a fantastic ride – we had a view of the Torres (towers) along the way, and when we arrived, a view of the Cuernos (horns).  The sun sets late in Patagonia during the summer, so we had some time to take a walk down to the lake and up some of the hills around the Estancia.  It was very windy, but beautiful.

We had a fantastic 4-course meal at the restaurant, where the daily menu consisted of only two choices – they happened to be chicken or fish. (Note: visitors with food allergies should inform them before you go, and the chefs can prepare other options.)  I had the chicken which was very fresh and served in a delicious sauce with angel hair pasta.  The dessert was even better – it was a bowl of stewed rhubarb with a vanilla crème anglaise.  After dinner, other guests and staff sang and played guitar around a fireplace and encouraged us to join in, but we retired to our room for our early start the next day.

In the morning they served another great meal (which was included). There was a whole table full of various pastries, juices, & cereal.  Also we were offered eggs, toast, and pancakes to order.  The eggs were fresh from the farm.  The “pancakes” were more like crepes with a Dulce de Leche filling, the local caramel that’s served every morning in Patagonia -- a little sweet, but delicious.

paine mistAfter our too-short stay we were off to the main road again to meet our mini-bus tour to Torres del Paine.  We decided to take the tour because the park is so huge and it’s difficult to see it if you only have a couple of days.  The tours are quick, but cover a lot of ground. Ours stopped at all the major lookouts, and we saw all kinds of rare animals like Guanacos and Chilean Elk and incredible views everywhere we turned.  We also did a short hike at Lago Grey to see the icebergs floating in the lake near Glacier Grey.  On our return trip the mini-bus dropped us off at the footbridge to our hotel, Hosteria Pehoe, which was on its own small island.  Our guide even helped us across the long bridge with our luggage and made sure we were all right; she was very helpful, informed, and considerate.

The hotel had our reservation but somehow hadn’t assigned us a room, and there were no more rooms available in our price range.  They did, however, have a few more expensive rooms available, but instead of giving us an upgrade to compensate for their mistake, the manager insisted we pay for the higher-priced room.

Faced with the possibility of having nowhere to stay we were tempted to give in, but we held our ground until he finally gave us a room at the price we’d originally agreed to pay (which, at $175 a night, was already the most expensive hotel on our trip).  This manager was one of the few people we met in Patagonia who seemed dishonest and unfriendly.  Hosteria Pehoe was worth this challenge, though -- it had the most gorgeous location of anywhere we stayed.  It is on an island of black rock and sand covered with green brush and small yellow flowers, perched on the shore of the electric-blue Lago Pehoe with the Cuernos towering overhead.

Most striking was the quality of the silence. ‘This is the high season’ I kept reminding myself, but there was an incredible stillness.  The day tours and buses had gone and there were still hours of light.  If there was ever a place made to meditate, we’d found it.


For dinner we ate at the hotel’s restaurant (good, but overpriced).  Breakfast was a buffet plus eggs (adequate, but nothing like at the Estancia -- here crackers and canned fruit salad replaced pastries and fresh juice).  But the view from the restaurant was a feast for the eyes.

We took a hike up the road to Salto Grande, the largest, crashing, foaming waterfall in the park and then on to the lookout across from the Cuernos.  It was a lovely short hike on narrow paths that wind through low native shrubs and flowers.  We took the last bus out of the park around 6:30pm and arrived back in Puerto Natales at 9:45, had a good meal in town and stayed the night at a hostel.

perito morenoThe next morning we took the bus to El Calafate, Argentina, and then caught an afternoon tour from Calafate hostel to Los Glaciares National Park to see Perito Moreno Glacier, the largest advancing glacier in South America.  We stopped at a lookout where we could see the length of it, but we couldn’t really get an idea of its size until we were in a boat on the lake.  We had been given an hour to either take a boat ride, which takes you right up to the glacier, or hike around on our own.

After the boat ride, we hiked from the lakeshore up to a lookout at the top of a hill for some great views.  Then were given another hour to explore along the impressive system of stairways and lookouts on the cliff across from the glacier that made the glacier accessible and much more dramatic. With each flight of stairs we descended the glacier would rise further above our heads.  It was unbelievable watching this very active glacier as pieces calved off and plunged into the lake, sounding like cannons firing.  I only wish we had had more time there. glaciar

We stayed at America del Sur hostel which was a very friendly and clean hostel with a panoramic view.  The staff was the best part of the experience.  The dorm rooms are small, only 4 to a room and there are also rooms with double beds.  We had one night in each kind of room.  It was a good value at $10 per person for a dorm bed, although breakfast was not worth getting up for (cracker-like toasts, jam, and coffee), so if you feel like sleeping in this is a good time to do it.

For dinner our first night we went to the excellent restaurant next door Don Pichon and were given a small discount as guests of the hostel.  We had the lamb kebob for 2 which was perfectly cooked (and with so much overcooked meat around was a great find!).  The next day we got up late and walked around, went to one of Calafate’s trendy cafes, wrote postcards, visited a few of the numerous galleries in town, and spent quite a while in the artists alley looking at handmade jewelry, woven articles and gourd cups for mate, the traditional drink of this area, a bitter herbal tea that is passed around and drunk communal style from a single metal straw.calafate

In the evening, we went horseback riding up a small mountain at Estancia Alice for a great view of the Patagonian steppe.  We were novices to the sport, but had no problem because the horses seemed to know exactly what to do, and the guides made sure we stayed on course.  On this tour we had a choice of horseback riding, hiking, or taking a ride in a 4X4 up the hill.  At the top we drank mate with our guides.  Back at the ranch, we ate a traditional lamb barbeque served with pitchers of wine before driving off into the sunset.  We really enjoyed this excursion and, at $33 each, it was a good value.Image

The next morning we took a flight to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), “The City at the End of the World,” as it likes to call itself.  It was a great flight with incredible views.  When we arrived at our Bed & Breakfast, La Posada del Fin del Mundo (“The Inn at the End of the World”), its lively owner offered us her famous croissants and tea, and then we were off to explore.

At the docks, we reserved spaces on a sailboat tour for the next morning on Les Tres Marias to see sea lions and bird colonies.  These docks are where all the cruises to Antartica leave from, so the big question in town was “Are you going to Antartica?”  At our inn we met a professor who does many of the naturalist presentations on one of the cruise lines.

Before we knew it, our couple of hours of sun was spent and the rain began to fall.  It poured all night, and when we woke we were sure they would cancel our trip because of the weather. When we still hadn’t received a call, we went to the docks and realized that they were, in fact, going to sail.  I didn’t want to go because I though it would be miserable on a sailboat in the rain, but they wouldn’t give back our deposit, and there wouldn’t be much else to do if we stayed ashore.  So we put on the bright yellow slickers they provided and boarded the sailboat.

Despite the weather, the water was calm, and the rain lightened as we set out. At one point, the rain stopped for about an hour as we walked around ushuaiaIsland H.  That was the best part of the day trip; we saw unique birds and fauna on our short hike around the small island which only Les Tres Marias has permission to land on.  We also saw sea lions and a very large bird colony from the boat.

The tour was good but not outstanding and not really worth the price considering one of the main reasons we chose the sailboat rather than the catamaran (which travels further to a small penguin colony) is that we hoped to enjoy a motorless trip. For reasons they never explained, however, the crew only put the sail up for a few minutes and used the motor the rest of the time. On the other hand, the captain was an interesting guy and it was a very small group on board so we got to know the others fairly well and we liked the small island where we landed.

We ate dinner at a great restaurant, La Estancia, one of the traditional Parrilla’s where entire lambs are barbequed over an open fire. The lamb was excellent!   You can go up to the counter as many times as you like and order whatever type of meat you like, and there is also an entire salad bar with hot and cold foods to choose from. (Try the cannelloni’s!)

We also enjoyed the place we stayed: the breakfast was good, the conversation with other guests around the breakfast table was interesting, and our host -- both gracious and exacting -- made sure everything was done correctly.  There were some quirks here like having to learn how to mix the ice cold water from the glacier with boiling hot water to take a shower. Despite very exact instructions on how to mix the water when we checked in, we managed only about 30 seconds of warm water before the freezing water turned boiling.

Our last day in Ushuaia, we had planned to take a hike through Tierra del Fuego National Park, but it continued to rain so  we decided to take the old fashioned steam engine through.  Despite claims to the contrary, we found the desperately slow train very boring, and one of the women across from us fell fast asleep.  We consoled ourselves afterwards by going to our favorite restaurant again!

The rain broke right before our flight to Buenos Aires and we were able to see Ushuaia from the air, its tall, beautiful mountains, and small, green islands everywhere. Southern Argentina & Chile are incredible places for a vacation with gorgeous nature, clean, safe, and friendly cities, countryside, and parks, and refined or cheap lodging and food. With highlights like Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and Los Glaciares in Argentina it’s tough to beat.  Best of all: you are so far removed from the everyday; you know you’ve gotten away from it all.

Check out our tour to Chile & Patagonia in January at the link on the left 'inTravel Tours'


Navimag barge (prices are seasonal, check website):

Hosteria Mirador del Payne (dbl. room, $160 including transfers to the farm, $22 each for dinner):    ph:(56-61) 228712

Day Tour to Torres del Paine($57 each):   (the Hosteria above can arrange this tour or others for you if you’re staying there)

Hosteria Pehoe (double room from $175):   ph:411390

America del Sur Hostel, El Calafate ($10 per person for dorm or $50 for a dbl. room):, Calla Puerto Deseado 151 (02902)493525 (The hostel can arrange tours to Estanica Alice)

Don Pichon Grill & Restaurant, El Calafate, Puerto Deseado 242  ph:492577

Tour to Perito Moreno Glacier through Calafate Hostel ($38 each):

La Posada del Fin del Mundo, Ushuaia (dbl. room, $60):  Rivadavia & Gob. Valdez (02901)435062

La Estancia Restaurant, San Martin 253, Ushuaia (02901)431421

©Christina Kay Bolton

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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