On Sunday, Seabourn Sojourn approached Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan. The strait was discovered, of course, by Ferdinand Magellan, who believed it was the long-sought passage westward to India. It was of limited value to sailing ships, however, due to strong contrary currents and limited fetch for tacking into the wind. As for the wind, it greeted us at Punta Arenas in all its notorious strength. The waters were whipped by gusts in the range of 50 knots, and although the sun was brilliant, the chill was penetrating. The picture of the tug escorting us to the dock tells the story. Captain Elliott carefully brought the ship alongside, although it required some extra muscle from the tugs to get her snug to the fenders. Once there, he also used extra lines to secure here against the gale blowing straight on her beam. At last the gangway was secured and those of us participating the 11-hour tour to Torres del Paine National Park sprinted to the coach for the airport.
Torres del Paine was a big part of why I chose this itinerary. I had gazed at pictures of the massif for years, and it was one site I really wanted to see before I shuffle off this mortal coil. The Torres (Towers) are granite peaks that rise sheer against the sky, surrounded by lower but equally impressive black shale peaks called the Cuernos or Horns. The derivation of the name Paine (pron. PIE-nay), like a lot of things Chilean, seems to be the subject of some controversy. The most logical explanation seems to be that the word means “blue” in the native Mapuche language, and refers to the river of that name that feeds several lakes in the massif. The towers themselves are pink granite.
Our quest began with a flight from Punta Arenas airport over the flat wetlands to Puerto Natales, at the mouth of a huge glacial valley. We were 28 souls on the brilliantly painted motorcoach, as we turned up this valley and drove by broad pasturelands nestled between smooth, rounded hills of glacial moraine dotted with beef cattle and sheep. At their tops, the hills broke with tilted strata of rock obviously thrust up above the reach of the ancient glaciers. At one point, our guide spotted a condor in flight, and we stopped to watch it. To our surprise and delight, it continued to glide directly toward us, and finally began to settle into a pasture just off the road. At that point, we noticed several others already on the ground, and it became apparent that they were homing into some sort of carrion, which is their sole source of food. We stopped the coach, quietly got out and snapped pictures of a rare close encounter with a whole flock of Andean condors. Our November visit is prime time for condor sightings, since it is early lambing season in the region, and the quantity of lambs that die shortly after birth provide a bounty for the birds. Further on, we saw a Buzzard Eagle flying on the ridge, another bird that takes advantage of carrion for food. A bit further on we came across the first small herd of guanacos. These handsome animals are the largest of the wild South American camellids. They are protected here and largely indifferent to vehicles of people. We had a number of opportunities to observe and photograph them at close range throughout the day, including one instance where they were grazing along with a few rheas, one of South America’s native ostriches. We entered the Torres del Paine National Park and moved ever closer to the massif. However the clouds were being coy with us, engaging in a sort of meteorological Dance of the Seven Veils, revealing just enough to keep us excited, but not everything. After pausing at the requisite photo locations for “insurance shots” in case the weather deteriorated, we repaired to a lovely restaurant on a lake island for lunch. A repast of barbecued lamb (no surprise, but delicious), potatoes and vegetables, accompanied by a nice Chilean wine followed. We then headed back toward the massif. A stop was made for a short walk to a rushing cascade, and we made one last pass by the veiled massif. It was magnificent even in its reluctance, but the clouds would not relent. We started back down the valley toward our Sojourn “home.” Again we passed through the soft, feminine undulations of the moraine valley, so different from the polished, muscular granite walls of the fjords. If you had asked me whether I would have been disappointed had I not been able to see the towers before I went, I would have said yes. So I went and the towers were next to invisible, was I disappointed? Perhaps a little. Do I regret the trip? Absolutely not. We saw an amazing amount of wildlife, some astonishing scenery and spent some unforgettable time in the presence of the massif itself.