#3 Argentina/Chile, Feb. 9, 2005

Dear Everybody,

Got the bus to the Torres del Paine Park on Friday morning. The park is full of young people with huge packs and bedrolls who hike the ‘W’, a four-day trek, or the wider circuit, a seven-day trek. They stay in rustic ‘refugios’ or bring their own tents. A man about my age was on my bus with his son (son had big dread locks) and said he had been treking and tenting for six days and now his son was going to do another two nights while he would go to a hotel. He said it was very hard treking, and I noticed that he was limping as he walked. Frankly, dare I say it, I fail to see the fun in hiking there. They carry huge packs including all their food, with tents, and the problem is there are gale-force winds All The Time! After I got to the hotel I took an hour’s walk and it was quite uncomfortable with that WIND!

The trip out there on the bus was magnificent. The towers (Torres del Paine) are like nothing I’ve ever seen—huge, high granite towers. All around are snow capped mountains, and the skies here are always dramatic and change every quarter hour. The wildlife was also great. I saw oodles of black necked swans in the lakes, black coots, blue herons, hawks, two red foxes, several rheas (small ostrich-like birds that were being raised), 50-100 wild guanacos that are a refined cousin of the llama, and then gorgeous aquamarine lakes all over the place in between the snow capped mountains. It certainly is one of the most beautiful parks that I’ve ever seen, but that infernal wind!

I was planning to take a boat cruise on one of the big lakes to see Gray’s Glacier, but the boat was ‘full’ so I couldn’t go. Another hour and a half walk the next morning and then a decision to bag it and return to Puerto Natales on the bus at noon.

At a guest house I hooked up with a man that had been writing on the Lonely Planet Internet. He has been doing essentially the same trip as I have but he’s been about two weeks ahead of me. I’ve been getting lots of good information via the Internet from him. He came back to Puerto Natales to take the ferry for the four day ride north to Puerto Montt, Chile, which I will do a week later. We had dinner together the two nights I was in Puerto Natales before I headed out on Monday morning for Punta Arenas, Chile, a three-hour bus trip south (away from the sun!)

On the way—more wildlife—two more red foxes, about two dozen flamingoes (!), two hawks and then a herd (domesticated) of alpacas and llamas. After going to three places, I got a room of my own in a hostel but no private bath. And I got two towels—both a hand towel and a bath towel—a first. Sometimes I don’t get any and then I use my tiny travel towel. The room has a small TV, too, on which I can get CNN and a few movies in English, all for $19/night.

The hostel is an old, pretty (but a little run down) large house that has lovely ambiance and is located very near downtown. The proprietors are a young couple who are very helpful—such as last night when, on a bathroom trip at 4:30 AM, I accidently locked myself out of my room. The host cheerfully responded when I rang the bell, and unlocked my door. Marlys, remember when we sewed pockets on the travel nightgowns we made in which to put the room key? Now I remember why!

I did a walking tour of this charming town (population 140,000) as it has quite a few pretty turn of the century buildings around a lovely plaza. The Casa Braun-Menendez house is now a museum with its original furnishings. Wow, those sheep barons really were rich, judging by this house.

Later in the day was one of the highlights of my trip so far. I took a ferry in the Strait of Magellan (two hours each way) to Magdalena Island to see 140,000 Magellanic penguins. What a sight! They covered the whole island. When the ferry pulled up to this tiny, uninhabited (except for penguins and gulls) island, they all sort of stood at attention, and didn’t really bunch together, either. It looked like a dress parade greeting the Queen! They also call them ‘donkey’ penguins because they bray and squeak quite like a donkey. The chicks were about as large as the adults but they still had soft, fluffy feathers which they were molting. All those birds and no poop, and no poop smell! They make burrows in the ground for nests which are all over the island. It was a lovely afternoon/evening.

I had bought #50 sunscreen for Punta Arenas as JuanLuis (my seatmate on the bus from El Calafate to Puerto Natales) had a peeling sunburn on his nose from when he was here. He had used #30 sunscreen and gotten quite badly burned anyway, which he said was because of a hole in the ozone layer in this neighborhood. So far I haven’t had any problem with sunburn.

I walked down to the local cemetery and found, as usual, big mausoleums as well as more modest graves. The interesting thing about this cemetery was the variety of ethnic names—Spanish of course, but French, Croat, Italian, English, German and Norwegian as well.

Magellan sailed through the Strait of in 1520 but European settlement really didn’t start here until the mid 1800’s. Then cattle and especially sheep raising attracted Europeans of all stripes with a few becoming very wealthy. As usual, the Native population was decimated. The big industries here now are sheep (still), petroleum and tourism.

I’m finding the food here in Chile not all that enjoyable. I think the food in Argentina was better, even in the small town of El Calafate. For one thing it seems to me that everything lacks salt. Then their seafood isn’t prepared with the right seasonings, at least not for my taste. A minor matter, but I was sure you’d want to know (!)

Tomorrow I will take a 12-hour bus ride to Ushuaia, Argentina, in the south of Tierra del Fuego—nearly as far south as one can get in South America.

Until later,

Carol

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