By Marilyn Diggs
Glaciers, global warming and penguins are hot movie topics lately with films like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth,” prizewinner “March of the Penguins” and dare I say it, “Happy Feet”. Bitten by the frosty wanderlust bug, I recently decided to see it all for myself. Since I live in Brazil, Chile is a close destination. Rather than heading for the Argentinean Patagonia, I chose the Chilean side, opting to make several other stops in this fascinating country that stretches from the tropics nearly to the Antarctic.
Lan’s convenient flights took me to Punta Arenas at the foot of the Andes, where my unforgettable cruise with Cruceros Australis began. That night I could hardly sleep. My hotel room window faced the Strait of Magellan and I could see the Mare Australis ship in the harbor – my home, refuge and classroom for the next five days and four nights.
The cruise headquarters was a convenient half block away from the hotel so until the 1pm check-in Punta Arenas was mine to explore. In the main plaza, peppered with souvenir vendors and surrounded by tall buildings and Belle poque mansions, stood a monument to Fernando Magellan’s voyage in 1520. As tradition dictates I kissed the bronze foot of the Tehuelche Indian on the second tier, thereby guaranteeing my return to Punta Arenas someday.
As the afternoon wore on, we boarded the ship. Welcome cocktails (pisco sour is the national drink) and Chilean folk dancers put us into a festive mood before the launch. The overcast sky all but suffocated the setting sun as bundled passengers crowded starboard to watch the departure from the docks. We shared the same expectations – for this was not a party cruise, but rather an expedition with more than 19 nationalities ready for an adventure in the southernmost region of the world. The crew warned us in a briefing that landing on Cape Horn would depend upon the sea, and penguins were not under contract to appear. Never mind. I went to sleep seeing myself wading through tuxedoed birds and overlooking where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans embrace.
Excursions, Glaciers and Zodiacs
It is said that Magellan named the region “Patagonia” after the huge human footprints (Pata Grande) found on the islands. Anxious to leave our own, after breakfast we donned orange life vests over parkas, trekking shoes and set out in groups of twelve in black rubber motorboats (zodiacs) in the direction of Marinelli Glacier in Ainsworth Bay. This mighty aqua and white river of ice frozen between mountains has receded 6 miles in the last 25 years. Global warming, close up. At its base, chunks of pale green and blue ice in varied sizes floated in a narrow inlet of the sea between steep slopes (fjord). We maintained silence and listened to the crack, crash and splash as more ice disengaged from the glacier or separated from the icebergs (Pia Glacier in the Beagle Channel pictured left*).
Guides taught us about flora and fauna. On the shore a solitary baby elephant seal was doing its sentence of 50 days on land as its species dictates, surviving on its own blubber. A two-hour trek took us from sterile rocks to lichen coverings, to thinly layered vegetation where trees miraculously root and can survive winds of up to 200 mph. Guides pointed out tiny “British Soldiers”, redheaded matchstick-shaped plants that cling to rocks and can survive under water. Wild kelp geese flew overhead. Beavers brought over in the 1940s to be raised for pelts have overtaken parts of Patagonia and we peeked inside dams in hopes of seeing one. A light cold rain began to fall. Time to return, but first Johnny Walker served over glacial ice to warm us. During the trip there would be several excursions to glaciers, each with its own allure.
After returning to the ship, a hearty international buffet fortified us for the afternoon outing. Back in the zodiacs we approached the cliffs on Tucker’s Island, overrun with black and white cormorant birds nesting on the steep, sheer rock. As the boat rounded the corner, there they were – about thirty penguins on the grey gravel shore. They boldly stood their own as we quietly banked a few feet away. Magellan Penguins with the telltale black stripe along the perimeter of the grey bellies posed for zillions of photos (Magellan penguins pictured right*).
Desolate, Isolated Cape Horn
On the last day, at 6:45am, sleepy passengers strapped into lifejackets, looking like so many orange marshmallows, crowded into the lounge and waited for the go ahead to embark. The ocean currents collaborated, we got a thumbs up and joyfully headed to the island amidst choppy waves. Enthused invaders climbed the steep 130 steps up the cliff to the top of the desolate Cape Horn, covered with tundra. Strong winds got even fiercer as the time passed. We carefully walked the long, slippery wooden path connecting a lone lighthouse at one end of the island to a huge bronze Albatross cutout, a monument to fallen sailors, perched on a distant peak. (Over the centuries, more than 800 vessels have sunk here.) The wind made our return to the ship difficult. Even so, everyone smiled knowing smiles at the breakfast table two hours later.
The cruise ended in Ushuaia, Argentina, where a light snow was falling. We passengers shared remarkable experiences enhanced by the qualified and experienced staff, educational films, safety measures and an excellent infrastructure onboard. This voyage through glacier-lined channels was well worth a journey to the end of the world.
Hotel Cabo de Hornos: Plaza Muoz Gamero 1039, Punta Arenas; Superb location, luxurious accommodations and sophisticated restaurants with gourmet cuisine; Reservations: Tel (56-61) 715-001. Fax (56 – 61) 715-030; www.hotelesaustralis.com
Cruceros Australis: www.australis.com.
*Photos courtesy of the Tourism Promotion Corporation of Chile
Marilyn Diggs is an American living in Brazil for over twenty years. She is a freelance writer, artist, lecturer and author of nine books – two about Brazilian art history. As an art reporter and travel writer she has two monthly columns in Sunday News, Brazil’s English language newspaper that circulates in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. She has written for the Miami Herald and Museum International , a UNESCO publication. Marilyn has a degree in Latin American Studies and is often contracted by intercultural training services to give talks on expat challenges. www.mdiggs.com“