Saturday, February 12, 2011

By Sea or by Land?

Less than two weeks ago, I anticipated sailing north from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, a voyage that I’ve done at least half a dozen times in the opposite direction. Northbound, the thought of returning from, rather than heading toward, the exhilarating scenery of Chile’s virtually uninhabited Pacific fjords promised to be a different experience. I wondered whether my return to the Chilean lakes region wouldn’t be a letdown after the thrill of wild Patagonia.

In fact, I’ve suffered a different sort of letdown. After the grounding of the Navimag ferry Evangelistas for at least a month, I won’t be seeing Chile’s Patagonian fjords at all this time, as there’s no room for me on the smaller Puerto Edén. Instead of a leisurely sail through the inland seas and among the forested islands of the fjords (as pictured above in the vessel's namesake hamlet of Puerto Edén, I face a tiring three-day drive along Argentina’s arid Atlantic coast, across the patchy steppes and through the northern Patagonian lakes district to return to Chile. I will then head to the Chiloé archipelago, the last major destination to revisit as I update Moon Handbooks Patagonia.

It’s a drive I hadn’t wanted to do, despite my affinity for this part of the world, but it has two major compensations. First, as far as the town of El Bolsón (pictured above) in southern Río Negro province, I will be able to fill up on gas at Patagonian discount prices. Second, when I reach El Bolsón, I will also be able to fill up on the bittersweet chocolate, calafate with sheep’s milk, and mate cocido flavors at Helados Jauja, one of the country’s top ice creameries.

Of course, I did have the additional compensation of a week on the new Stella Australis, cruising from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia and back in the comfort of a private cabin with enormous picture window views of the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel’s "Avenue of the Glaciers," and the southernmost tip of the Americas at Cape Horn (where I went ashore on Thursday, in calm seas with a light drizzle). It’s also given me hours of peace and quiet in the late stages of writing up the book (the fact that the Stella has no Internet access has reduced that distraction but, on the other hand, I also got recruited to give a talk on Patagonia to a group from National Geographic Expeditions).

I wasn’t the only one affected by ships running aground in the region. While paying a visit to a friend’s B&B in Ushuaia on Wednesday, I met a Turkish tourist who had been aboard the Canadian vessel Polar Star when it hit a rock in Antarctica. Pictured above, it’s now docked awaiting repairs at Ushuaia; what was intended to be a 12-day cruise became a six-day trip instead, but the company gave him what he said was a generous refund.

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