Thursday, October 13, 2016

In Patagonia: Sights of the Steppe

Southernmost South America is “Big Sky Country” but there’s a tendency to dismiss spreading steppes with few obvious landmarks. Between the Strait of Magellan and Puerto Natales – a frequent route for anybody who visits the region – oddball sights like the Monumento al Viento, Santiago sculptor Alejandra Ruddoff’s homage to the nearly incessant winds (pictured below), are the rule rather than the objection. Eventually Ruta 9 reaches the iconic Torres del Paine but, when I first drove here nearly 30 years ago, it was a gravel road that required my close attention to avoid spinouts, and rocks that passing trucks rocketed toward my windshield.
At that time, it took about five hours to get to Natales; today it’s only about three on a smoothly paved highway. There were few accommodations along the route but, historically, the vast sheep farms – known here as estancias – would offer passing strangers a bed for the night. Their cascos (“big houses”), Victorian-style pre-fabs that owed their origins to British immigrants who helped pioneer the wool industry, did stand out on the landscape.
At times, even on the main highway, gauchos guide droves of sheep that sometimes stop traffic, but this landscape is easier to appreciate off the beaten track – about an hour north of Punta Arenas, Ruta Y-50 is a slightly longer but nearly parallel gravel route, smooth enough even for small passenger cars. It leads to Estancia Río Verde (pictured at top), a traditional ranch that’s reinvented itself to accommodate guests and, overlooking Skyring Sound, they’ve converted part of the complex into a small hotel – including an interesting tower suite – and a parrilla (grill restaurant) that’s also open to non-guests. This is one place to savor the grilled lamb that’s typical of the region.

I’ve stayed and dined at Río Verde, and would happily do so again, but I’m not sure I’ll have time this coming summer. This style of architecture also exists at Estancia Río Penitente, about halfway to Puerto Natales but back on the main highway, but their own handsome Victorian may be closed at present (something I’ll need to check when I return next month). Still, I’d recommend the detour to anybody looking for deeper insights into my favorite region.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Park To Oneself? At Laguna San Rafael

When southbound travelers head to Patagonia, a frequent motive is the opportunity to see something “off the beaten path.” One of their bucket-list sights might well be Chile’s glacier-studded Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, southwest of the regional capital of Coyhaique, which remains one of the region’s least visited parks – technically, at least.
Laguna San Rafael is one of Chile’s largest national parks, where the ice from the Campo de Hielo Norte, the Northern Patagonian Icefield, still reaches the sea. I have viewed the jagged seracs of the park’s namesake glacier (pictured above) - the world’s lowest-latitude tidewater glacier - on three separate trips, but I have never actually entered the park.
In fact, even though thousands of visitors view the glacier up close and personal every year, only a relative handful ever enter the park – as recently as 2009, only 158 persons (82 Chileans and 76 foreigners) actually set foot in it. That’s because the jurisdiction of the Corporación Nacional Forestal (Conaf), which manages the park, ends at water’s edge – where the Chilean navy exercises authority. Thus, almost everybody arrives on catamarans and cruise ships that spend a few hours before heading back to Puerto Chacabuco (pictured below), the port from which they sailed.
On my most recent visit, a few years ago, I took the catamaran Chaitén (pictured above), which sailed from Chacabuco at 8 a.m., arriving at the glacier around 1 p.m. after a couple brief stops to view sea lion colonies en route. Over the next couple hours, the crew shuttled the passengers on rigid inflatables along the glacier’s face - not too close, to avoid the crash of melting towers of ice and the waves they create - on a magnificent day that yielded the best views I’ve ever had of the advancing river of ice and its surrounding peaks.
In the course of my Chilean travels, I have also taken the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales at least half a dozen times, and it still amazes me that, in a world of six billion people, such an enormous area could be almost unpopulated - human settlements, or any sign of population, are virtually absent in an area that resembles the Alaska Panhandle. Verdant forests rise from the sea to mountains bearing the last of the winter snow, among other peaks of perpetual snow and ice, but they remain largely nameless, to me at least.

In reality, except for the handful who earn their livelihood at sea, this is still the nearly trackless wilderness it was when John Byron - grandfather of the famous poet Lord Byron - was shipwrecked here in the 18th century, and when the Beagle, with Darwin and FitzRoy aboard, anchored at Laguna San Rafael in 1835. In one sense, the forested hillsides and islands of archipelagic Chile differ little from the barren wastes of the Atacama desert - there is a verdant monotony to them. Yet in the Atacama the evidence of human habitation and activity is present everywhere, while in the lush south it's simply overgrown, if indeed it ever existed. There is no simple way to orient yourself, other than by the cardinal directions - in general, you’re going north or south.

While seeing Laguna San Rafael other than by sea has been difficult, that’s starting to change. This past year, the total number of visitors rose to 4,728 – still only an average of 13 per day, though that’s misleading because almost everyone goes between mid-October and April. I had hoped to go last January with the operator Río Exploradores, which now takes hikers by road and sea to the park for day trips, and for one- and two-night packages with dome tent camping from the town of Puerto Río Tranquilo, 228 km south of Coyhaique by a mostly paved highway.
It’s not cheap, but prices compare favorably to the catamaran and cruise ship excursions; unfortunately, there was no space available on the one day I had to spend in Tranquilo (which, however, has its own brewpub (pictured above) and several other excursions, like the nearby Capilla de Mármol on Lago General Carrera, pictured below). I’ll give it another shot this upcoming season, though.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Malbec, Malamutes and Moai

Frequently, in person and sometimes on social media, I joke about the 2004 vintage Malbec we keep in our house. The joke, of course, is that while Malbec is our favorite red wine, it’s also the name of our beloved but aging Alaskan malamute (pictured below), who was born in May of 2004. Given that a malamute’s average lifespan is 10 to 12 years, and that he’s slowed noticeably – he used to drag us around the block and now we have to drag him - we've started to wonder about what’s left for him.
While we wouldn’t go to extremes to prolong his life – I wouldn’t even expect that for myself – I couldn’t help noticing, recently, a research project at the University of Washington (my undergraduate alma mater) to test an anti-aging drug with pet dogs. The drug in question, Rapamycin, has been successful in extending the lives of laboratory mice by 13 percent in females and nine percent in males.
Canine longevity aside, what interested me here was the origin of the drug – Rapamycin, also known as Sirolimus, was developed from a bacterium discovered on remote Easter Island (pictured above), where I have traveled at least half a dozen times in the course of researching and writing my guidebooks to Chile. It takes its name from Rapa Nui, the island’s place name in the local indigenous language. All this time, though I never knew it, a potential cure was at my feet – or at least at the base of the island’s iconic moai (two of which appear below, at the Rano Raraku quarry site).

The UW researchers are recruiting dog owners to participate in their study and, for that reason, I nominated Malbec as a potential participant. Given his relatively advanced age, I expect he’d be a low-priority candidate for any treatment, and those treatments do have potentially serious side effects. Maybe, though, we’ll name our next malamute “Moai.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Where Are the Penguins?

As winter turns to spring – in the Southern Hemisphere – penguins are on the move, but it’s not for their Patagonia vacation. Rather, this is the season that most of them, after spending the winter at sea, migrate to their nesting sites in the South Atlantic and South Pacific, including Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands.
With that in mind, I thought I’d suggest some of my favorite sites for flightless bird-watching, except that they’re not flightless – they fly through the water! Penguin nesting sites occur on much of the coastline of both Argentina and Chile there’s even one just a couple hours from the Chilean capital of Santiago – but access is best in Patagonia.

Humboldt & Magellanic Penguins
Visitors to Chile’s southern “lakes district” can take a detour to Chiloé – similar to Vancouver Island - only 27 km from the city of Ancud, where the northerly Humboldt penguin and southerly Magellanic penguin overlap their ranges at the Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil (pictured above). These similar species nest in burrows on offshore islets, but local fishermen shuttle penguin-spotters within camera distance.
Puñihuil is easily the best accessible place to see the Humboldts but, elsewhere in Patagonia the Magellanics are present in abundance. The biggest colony is at Argentina’s Punta Tombo (pictured above), near the city of Trelew in Chubut province, but there are accessible sites near the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, at the mainland Otway Sound and the offshore Isla Magdalena (pictured below, where Patagonia cruises and local excursions both stop). At all of these, it’s possible to approach the penguins closely – often they’ll approach you - though there are some restrictions.
King Penguins
King penguins, which are not migratory, stand out for their size and bright colors, but they’re more common on remote offshore islands than in easily accessible Patagonian locations. Occasionally a wanderer shows up at Punta Tombo or another site where other species breed, but the most accessible choice is the private Parque Pingüino Rey reserve (pictured above) on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego. This is a full-day excursion by ferry and road from the city of Punta Arenas, but it’s well worth the time.

Rockhopper Penguins
Exactly what their name suggests, rockhopper penguins nest on stony offshore islands on which they land by force of waves and then, painstakingly, they hop up to drier nesting spots. These are “crested penguins,” along with their close relatives the Macaroni, which occasionally (but rarely) appears among them. One of the easiest places to see rockies is the Isla de los Pingüinos (pictured above), reached from Argentina’s picturesque Puerto Deseado, where there are frequent excursions in summer on rigid inflatables – sea conditions permitting. Despite an excellent paved highway, Deseado is out of the way but, if you have the time, there’s much more to see – including albatrosses, dolphins and sea lions.

Gentoo Penguins
Gentoos (pictured above) like kings, are not migratory – they remain in the same place all year. Unfortunately for penguin-seekers, those colonies are mostly insular, away from the continent, though there are occasional appearances elsewhere. The likeliest place to see them is on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego, at the historic Estancia Harberton ranch,  where a small colony has established itself on a nearby islet.

An Austral Footnote
More distant and more expensive to reach, the Falkland Islands – still less than two hours from Punta Arenas by air – have almost all the above species and sometimes more. It can also be expensive and time-consuming to get around the archipelago but in just one morning, on a 4WD jaunt just outside the tiny but sprawling capital of Stanley, I once saw Magellanics, Gentoos, and rockhoppers, plus a single Macaroni (pictured above) and one lonely king. In a small king penguin colony on an outer island, I also saw a vagrant chinstrap penguin - usually seen only in Antarctica.

An Antarctic Footnote

And now for something completely different: even more distant and expensive, Antarctica has many of these species and more. The usual way to reach the frozen continent is with an expensive cruise but, in summer, there are flights from Punta Arenas to Isla Rey Jorge (King George Island), with the possibility of an overnight stay for an introduction to this environmentally strategic destination. I photographed the chinstraps above and the Adelie penguin below there.
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