Chile’s East Coast

We moved twice from Argentinian to Chilean waters, once to see Cape Horn before we visited Ushuaia, and then through the Beagle Channel towards Punta Arenas. (Interesting note: In Spanish, Cape Horn is called Cabo de Hornos, literally the Cape of Ovens.) Unlike some videos we’d seen before leaving that included solid masses of fog and walls of waves, we encountered flat seas and calm winds around the bottom of Patagonia. Small islets increased in height throughout the day as we sailed from the Falklands toward Cape Horn. The terrain rises rugged and rocky – it really does look like the end of a continent. In some protected spots, plant life takes over and it gives the impression of wide, smooth lawns from the deck of the ship. Just east of the Cape is a small Chilean Naval station and a chapel, as well as a memorial to sailors killed while attempting to make the passage. Just a mile or two past the Cape, the ship did a 180 degree turn and headed back toward Ushuaia.

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Cape Horn, sunset over mountains in Tierra del Fuego

Picking up after Ushuaia (it’s covered in a previous post about cruise stops in Argentina and Uruguay), we reentered Chilean territory just before Glacier Alley in the Beagle Channel. Again, we had reasonable weather, though clouds kept the largest mountains hidden and the wind was fierce. Our ship sailed by six glaciers, five in quick succession and then a sixth about an hour later. Sadly, though several used to reach the waterline, only one, the Holland Glacier, still does. Others, shrunken by climate change, are surrounded by large sections of bare rock, marking their former limits. After sailing by the initial five, rain picked up and we headed inside, catching glimpses of the final glacier from a warmer corner of the vessel.

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Holland Glacier – the only remaining tidewater glacier in the Beagle Channel, and the drastically climate-change shrunken French and Romanche glaciers

Punta Arenas was our first Chilean port, and we had the entire day to explore the town. However it was a Sunday, and almost the entire city center shuts down each weekend. Luckily for us, we will be returning later this year and can see everything we missed. We again hiked uphill to the back of town to get a better view. Like other small towns in Argentina and Chile, quite a few wandering dogs crossed our path, and that always makes me wary. Happily all were completely absorbed in their own animal lives and ambivalent to our fleeting presence. Spotting what we assumed might be the Mercado Municipal from the viewpoint, we headed back toward the waterfront. Our guess was only one block off, and thankfully it stays open every day. Fishmongers were selling all sorts of shellfish, salmon, octopus, as well as pre-mixed ceviches. We ate ceviche at a table tucked into the corner of a tiny restaurant, and it was refreshingly crisp and spicy  after bland food on the cruise. Without needing to see anything else, we decided to walk back along the waterfront and ended up at the Zona Franca where a shuttle would take us back to the pier. I’m glad we found the duty-free zone before moving there. The stores within its boundaries sell everything from imported pastas and shoes to new refrigerators and SUVs. This area turns Punta Arenas, all the way at the bottom of the continent, into a shopping destination for Chileans, Argentinians, and Falkland Islanders all hoping for deals. It certainly seems to have served its purpose of spurring on the local economy, and we’ll be spending pesos there in the future.

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Full double rainbow – too large for my camera, view of Punta Arenas, Chile
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Around Punta Arenas

After leaving the southern city, we spent two days cruising in and out of the fjords that line Chile’s coast. The weather never fully cleared, but the dark shapes of mountains were usually in sight, and watching a line of peaks vanish into the mist is moving in its own way. Nestled in the fjords on day three was a quick stop at Puerto Chacobuco. Its few hundred buildings are surrounded by water and peaks and were topped by gray clouds during our stop. The port buses dropped us off next to a set of geodesic domes that have a couple dozen local artisans selling knitted hats and mementos that had the fairest prices of any port. Without time to rent a car to reach inland lakes and hiking, we opted to see all of the town, and I think we managed it. There is a hotel, a couple restaurants and markets, a gas station, a fire station. The waterfront here also boasts a shipwreck, the rusting Vina del Mar.

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In Chile’s fjords, an arm of the bay and homes in Puerto Chacobuco

Our final port of call was Puerto Montt, though we spent much of the day in nearby Puerto Varas hoping for volcanoes to make an appearance. Puerto Montt doesn’t feel focused on tourism, though it certainly is one of the gateways to some of southern Chile’s incredible landscapes. Next to the waterfront is a fair with rides and even a small roller coaster, though we saw no one there on a Thursday. Just beyond that is the main bus station where we caught a microbus to Puerto Varas after seeing the downtown, visiting the Cathedral, and finally getting our phones hooked up with local SIM cards. (Fun discovery: the Claro office did not have nano-sized SIM cards or a cutter, so Kevin delicately trimmed ours down to size with a pair of safety scissors).

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Shrine to the Vision of Lourdes and a church in Puerto Varas, some spring-feeling graffiti, “There should be a volcano behind this lake!”

Bussing to Puerto Varas only took about forty minutes and cost about $1.25US. Unlike Puerto Montt, this is definitely a tourist town. It freely embraces its German heritage. Many of the buildings and hotels along Lake Llanquihue belie a German style, as do many of the bars around town. (If you’ve been to Leavenworth, WA, this is the light version.) Finding the Osorno Volcano just as hidden from view here, we stopped at one of the restaurants and grabbed local beers as a way to enjoy the rest of the afternoon. Turned out we made a good choice; Chester Beer is quite tasty and doesn’t make it too far from the source. If we hadn’t have tried it in Puerto Varas, we would have never found it. As a bonus, we got to watch a local TV show was filming at the same restaurant and the hosts reactions to being recognized by passers-by and one busload of loud teenagers. We easily caught a microbus back and made our way for a final full day of sailing before the end of the cruise. Apparently lots of passengers had taken a bit too much time exploring; we left a little bit late and were underway before the crew even pulled the last life/tenderboat back out of the water.

After two weeks we arrived in Valparaiso and jumped on a bus to Santiago. From our new internet access in Puerto Montt, we learned that large sections around the capital were burning, and this was absolutely the case. Santiago was hazed in thick smoke, that blocked everything over two miles away, but more on that in a future post.