Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Vikings of Patagonia

When overseas visitors make their way south to Patagonia, they assume spectacular landscapes and unfamiliar wildlife, but they’re only rarely thinking of people and culture. From their arrival in the capital cities of Buenos Aires and Santiago to the tip of Tierra del Fuego, they may anticipate encounters with Spanish speakers, but that’s an oversimplification – like North America, southernmost South America became a land of immigrants. In Patagonia, Britons and Croatians stand out, but Scandinavians were also in the mix.
To Argentines, for instance, all Scandinavians are vikingos (Vikings), but the term is not always simply descriptive - it's sometimes a synonym for "slob," presumably for the historic Vikings' dubious table manners (full disclosure: I myself have three Swedish grandparents and one Norwegian). Two of Buenos Aires’s most distinctive churches show the Scandinavian influence - San Telmo's Dansk Kirke (Danish Church) and the Svenska Kyrkan (Swedish Church, pictured above) - and both the Danish and Swedish clubs have their own restaurants in the city. Legend says the Buenos Aires soccer team Boca Juniors chose their blue-and-gold colors from a Swedish vessel anchored in the nearby harbor.
In 1902, the Argentine navy's corvette Uruguay (pictured above, now docked at Buenos Aires's Puerto Madero and converted into a museum) rescued stranded Swedish Antarctic explorer Otto Nordenskjöld and his crew, who spent two years stranded on the frozen continent. Nordenskjöld also explored Patagonia, including the area around Chile's Torres del Paine, where one of the park's largest lakes (pictured below) bears his name.
Coincidentally, while hiking near El Chaltén (Argentina) in 2009, I met Nordenskjöld's great grandson Joel, who was paying a second visit to the region (the first was in 2002, when he and 16 other Nordenskjölds visited Antarctica on the centennial of Otto's rescue by the Argentines). In the following days, as his group hiked the "W" route in Paine, Joel pledged to take a swim in the frigid waters of the lake named for his grandfather.
The Scandinavians had more than Nordenskjöld’s fleeting Patagonian presence, though. Outside El Chaltén, Danish pioneer Andreas Madsen’s homestead (pictured above) is now a museum open to the public for guided tours. And in a remote sector of Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, between El Calafate and El Chaltén, Hostería Helsingfors (pictured below) is a remnant of Finnish pioneer Alfred Ranström’s century-old sheep ranch, but the surrounding area is open parkland where hikers can reach scenic Laguna Azul (pictured at bottom), which has its own small glacier.
Though no longer owned by the Ramströms, Helsingfors (the Swedish name for Finland’s capital of Helsinki) offers luxury lodgings and other services, with the chance to escape the crowds at the Moreno Glacier or on the Andean trails near El Chaltén. Because there’s no public transportation, though, renting a car is the only practical option for a visit unless you stay here – in which case, the transfer from El Calafate is free.

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.
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