If I can sum up Patagonia in one word, it would be wind. It is chilly, it is heavy and freezes your face. I caught a flight in a (20 seater) to Puerto Natales.
I sat too cosily next to an elderly Armenian-Argentinean journalist who informed me that the first tourist in Puerto Natales was the Marquess of Queensberry who went there with his sister after Oscar Wilde’s trial. At least it shows Alfie was either too upset or too ashamed to stay in England. I mean Oscar only fled to Paris after his ordeal.
The journalist was on a mission : he was trying to reunite Yaghan Tierra-del-Fueguian Indian families whose members had scattered in Patagonia after the persecution practised by the Chilean and Argentinian governments in the 1890s. The Indians were gathered all together in a small island that served as an extermination concentration camp off Tierra del Fuego. Only 11 families live on the island now. I have written in my book Brazil, Life Blood, Soul that the Holocaust and slavery notwithstanding, the extermination of the New World indigenous populations has been the time of the last millennium.
Puerto Natales was the biggest surprise of my (second) tour of South America. It has an exceptional setting, it is cheap and it is the gateway to some great National Parks. I was to see a lot more wildlife that I could dream of. Even just driving into Puerto Natales from the small airport, you are greeted by a colony of black-necked swans, cormorants with propeller ducks swimming to and fro. Plus Puerto Natales has the best seafood I had in Chile. Pacific hake and conger eel (congrío frito). I can recommend the best restaurant I ate in in Chile: The Última Esperanza. It means the Ultimate Hope, but thankfully it has nothing to do with the food – it is the name of a nearby strait.
Indeed, the catamaran trip up the Strait of Ultimate Hope to the two glaciers is par of the course for a tourist in Puerto Natales: the receding Balmaceda glacier that runs into the sea and the Serrano glacier further inland within a very Rocky Mountain landscape. I was very impressed with the cormorants who sweep the edge of the waves playfully and with the patos vapor – the propeller ducks, one of the tree flightless birds of South America (the other two are the penguins and the rheas) . I also spotted my first condor who glided down a sharp cliff and circled the boat. The attraction of this magnificent species lies in the ease with which it uses the air currents to soar rapidly in the heights, much like a hanglider with no equipment.
After four hours we reached the O’Higgins National Park and climbed to the bottom of the Serrano glacier where large chunks of icebergs fall into a lake. Because of trapped oxygen, the icebergs are blue, not an obvious fact, unless you’ve seen one. We chopped off some 60,0000,000 year-old ice and put it in a glass of whiskey (it was Irish, therefore the ‘e’) where it fizzled, because of the trapped oxygen.
I slurped the ice and it was cold and tasted like, ermm, ice.