Thursday, November 12, 2015

Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile

Map picture

The ship successfully navigated the incredibly narrow and winding passage known as “the white narrows” after which we were to dock at Port Natales in the early evening, spend the evening there, and the following day and evening. Well, our arrival into the port was filled with the usual bureaucratic mish-mash that has become all too familiar on this voyage; originally our ship had been promised the main dock that was right at the center of town. The evening prior to our arrival however, we were denied access to that pier because a ferry would be docked there, and instead we were diverted to an auxiliary dock five miles from town. This meant that the ship had to scramble to arrange a shuttle operation for that evening and the next day for those guests wishing to explore the quaint little port.

That was all accomplished and ready, however, when we did arrive into the little harbor, the auxiliary dock was occupied! Now what? We could see that the there was a ferry in town, and it was staying overnight. Just before dark, the officials cleared the auxiliary pier, and we pulled anchor to finally get to dock, but just as we did so the famous Patagonian winds blew up, and before we knew it, the ship now had a direct 40 mph side wind pushing it towards the pier. Before we could even try to dock, the port officials closed the pier. So, we had to drop anchor, again, and spend the night in the harbor, and because of the late hour, no zodiac service could be established. This also meant that the next morning all of the passengers going on tours now had to be transported to shore first in the zodiacs. Grrr!!

Thus, the next morning’s schedules were adjusted for earlier than normal departure times to account for the hassle of the zodiac ride, and a complete zodiac operation was mounted. There were two tours being offered, both to the National Park, one longer than the other to allow for hiking. We were on the shorter of the two. The first group departed as scheduled, and we were told to get ready to be called--that meant wet bags for cameras, and life vests. After the first group had successfully departed suddenly the ship’s engines roared to life, and we were told to standby. Once again, we were all dressed up with no place to go. We hear the anchor coming up, and before we know it the ship is preparing to dock. It seems that even though the crew had been given multiple times as to when the ferry would depart, it suddenly, and without notice, pulled up its ramp and steamed off, leaving the main pier open at last. So, off come the life vests, cameras are pulled out of wet bags, and we prepare for a normal departure for our tour.

The drive to the Park, while long at 2.5 hours, was at least incredibly scenic. After an hour of driving north on a paved highway, we stopped at an intersection in the road at what could best be described as a small town – well, maybe a village, or a hamlet – well, maybe just a spot in the road named Cerro Castillo. There was a very quaint little wooden café with restrooms. The coffee smelled good and the pastries called, but we were on a mission and alas had no time to dawdle. At this stop, we encountered for the first time the highly unpredictable and at times fierce winds for which Patagonia is famous. On leaving the bus, we were caught by surprise at the strong winds which quite literally threatened to push us over. Walking was difficult and talking was out of the question. As a pilot, I would estimate that the winds were blowing a steady 50 mph with occasional higher gusts. Once back onboard, our local guide warned us to be very careful about the winds, which at one moment can be calm and the next overwhelming. He related how last year in the Park winds had been clocked at over 135 mph and had in fact quite literally blown two tourist busses off the winding dirt roads. So, we took this pretty seriously, I can tell you.

This intersection of roads was interesting. For one thing all of the roads with the exception of the one we had come by now, turned to dirt. If you continued north, the road eventually came to a dead end somewhere in the mountains in front of us. If you travelled east, you quickly came to the border station, since 7 miles down that way was Argentina. Thus, the only logical option for us was to head west which would then leave us on small and at times treacherous dirt roads. In spite of the roads, the scenery was awesome and at times, simply breathtaking. Even before we reached the National Park, we started seeing wild guanacos; this beautiful animal is related to the Llama and the Alpaca. It is native to the arid mountainous regions of South America. We kept wanting to stop for pictures, but the guide said to have patience. Soon there were herds of guanacos some even blocking the roadway. We did stop, and we took plenty of photographs.

Finally, we reached the entrance to Torres Del Paine National Park, one of the oldest National Parks in South America which in 1959, was designated a Biosphere Reserve. It is hard to describe the beauty of what we witnessed in the next several hours. It was at times breathtaking! As we had been warned about the fierce winds, at times they were calm, then suddenly they would roar down the mountains threatening to topple anyone who was not prepared. I really encourage you to look at my pictures of this incredible area.

Besides guanacos, we saw one puma, numerous Chilean condors, black necked swans, and the biggest surprise was when a large armadillo bolted from the bush and ran right along the group. That was the first armadillo I have ever seen outside a zoo, or as roadkill on a Texas highway. By the time we left the Park and headed to a luxury hotel just outside the entrance, we were all tired but pumped up by what we had seen. The lunch, as with every meal we have had in Chile, was really wonderful. Directly outside a large wall of windows which looked over the nearby mountains, was a horse pasture. While we were having lunch, a mare gave birth to a foal, and the entire room erupted into applause.

It took 3 hours to drive back to our ship at Puerto Natales, where we spent the night again at the dock. Many of our guests went into town for dinner, but after a 10 hour day, Lisa and I were just glad to have a great dinner and fall into bed.

This morning we awoke to the most beautiful rainbow which stretched from horizon to horizon and stayed visible for over an hour – must be a good omen for what is to come. Today, the 11th, we are cruising the fjords on our way to Puerto Arenas in beautiful weather. Although at times the winds are so strong that they push the ship over to the point that things start falling, but then again, this is what adventure cruising is all about.


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