On a blustery gray day, our gale-tossed, wave-bounced old freighter nosed into the legendary Strait of Magellan, ending an eventful five-day voyage down Chile's inhospitable but magnificently scenic southern coast almost to Tierra del Fuego on the frosty tip of South America.
For me, a first-class passenger, the adventure was over much too soon. But this was an opinion not shared, I'm sure, by the 100 or so itinerant sheepshearers and their families on board. They were sailing steerage class and had endured the sometimes severe weather camped uncomfortably on an open deck.
That trip through the glacier-filled fiord region of Chile, a land of smoking volcanoes, was made 20 years ago, but it demonstrates two great rewards of traveling to remote places, where few have gone before and few have followed after.
The first is actually getting there -- often a challenge -- to satisfy one's sightseeing curiosity. The mountains and seascapes of southern Chile were amazing beyond expectations. That is the immediate reward, and certainly the more honorable one.
The second, to enjoy for the rest of your life, is the secret glee you get from exotic name-dropping, to boast, however discreetly, of a unique travel experience. Southern Chile, I expect, will remain one of the world's remote places for decades to come.See CHILE, G7, Col. 3 CHILE, From G1
A modern, cosmopolitan nation that once prided itself on its democratic institutions, Chile is today a military dictatorship. But, whatever its government, it is also a country of immense and varied natural beauty, graced like California with both a long Pacific coastline (2,600 miles) and a towering mountain range, the Andes, that parallels the western shore.
In the north are the mineral-rich deserts; the central valley is both farming and excellent wine-growing country; to the south is an alpine region of clear lakes, rushing rivers and evergreen-forested mountains, giving way, finally, to the rugged grandeur of the fiords that reach 600 miles south to the grasslands of Patagonia and the Strait of Magellan.
The land of the fiords takes in almost a third of the country, but it remains little inhabited, except for a few isolated mining and lumbering communities and Indian fishing villages. It is a wilderness of jagged, snow-topped peaks, impenetrable woodlands and thousands of coastal islands, described by one writer as "topographical hysteria."
The region is much tormented by chilly winds and foggy mists, but the views are gorgeous when the sun finally manages to pop out. The air is an aromatic mixture of pine and salt, and here, away from everything, it is as crisp and fresh as any you will ever breathe.
Only a few roads enter, and none travels the entire length of the fiord region. You fly over it en route to Punta Arenas, a modern port city on the strait, the southernmost city in the Western Hemisphere. Or you visit the small fishing ports aboard one of the boats that ply the narrow Inside Passage, winding through the maze of islands to Punta Arenas.
Punta Arenas ("Sandy Point") is surprisingly large (about 80,000) for so remote a location. A major coaling station for ships before the opening of the Panama Canal, it now exports wool and mutton. There is a tidy, businesslike look to it, and it offers fine accommodations and the largest, sweetest red king crab you are likely to taste.
Chile's fiords remain as little-known today, and almost as difficult to reach, as they were two decades ago when a buddy and I embarked on the Villarrica, a government-owned freighter of ancient origin, for our memorable voyage with the sheepshearers.
We were on a holiday, two graduate students taking a break from a year's fellowship in Chile. The shearers were heading for the lucrative wool harvest on the large sheep ranches of Patagonia. The nippy climate, we were told, grows thick wool coats.
Freighter passage apparently is still available on occasion, the Chilean Embassy here reports, but departures are irregular and schedules difficult to obtain. But there are alternative ways to see the fiords and glaciers. Society Expeditions has scheduled a 13-day luxury cruise from Punta Arenas for next month and again in February of 1986. And a Chilean excursion boat, the Skorpios, makes six-day trips weekly, except in May and June, departing from Puerto Montt at the northern terminus of the Inside Passage.
It was from Puerto Montt also that our freighter voyage began. While our trip cannot readily be duplicated, many of the experiences of anyone going today will be similar, the region's excellent seafood surely remains as delicious, and the views haven't changed at all.
A small seaside resort city with pleasant tourist accommodations, Puerto Montt is located at the end of the railway from Santiago, Chile's capital about 650 miles to the north. The older structures have an alpine look, the influence of German and other European immigrants who settled here and in the Bavaria-like lake country just to the north.
The Villarrica, as I recall, had been built in 1906; and while it looked a bit seedy on the outside, it came equipped with three or four quite elegant first-class cabins richly paneled in dark woods and a larger number of second-class cabins. The price for first-class passage, including all meals, was $25 each, something of a bargain even back then. Society Expeditions' cruise next month begins at $2,550.
We boarded the night before departure. It was October, spring in the Southern Hemisphere. The sheepshearers poured on board the next day, building windbreaks for themselves with the bags of potatoes stacked on deck for transport south. They took most of the vacant deck space, but otherwise proved congenial travelers whose activities -- they prepared their own meals in large cooking pots -- became as fascinating as the passing scenery.
Some families brought chickens for dinner, which ran free until time for the pot. The ship's chef loosed a live turkey on deck, something of a cruise mascot until served up in mid-passage.
Slabs of fresh meat, for other meals, hung outside in the stern, well-refrigerated by nature. Raffish, indeed. It was that kind of a ship, and we wouldn't have wished it different.
We stopped twice on our voyage, the first time only a few hours outside Puerto Montt at the fishing town of Castro on the heavily forested island of Chiloe'. Then, it was a frontier port from a century past, and it's only a bit more modern these days. Horse-drawn carts, creaking down the hill on a rutted dirt road, the main street, brought jugs of red wine and other produce to be shipped south. Along the waterfront, rickety booths sold baskets of fresh clams, mussels and other seafood.
A gloriously bright sun, undimmed by haze or pollution, blessed much of the cruise, and we spent our days on deck watching woods and mountains pass by. To the east, perpetually snow-tipped volcanic cones emitted curling wisps of smoke. The scene is not unlike another Inside Passage, the much-traveled sea route from Seattle north to Alaska.
There was land on either side of us as we nosed through the islands. At points the channel became so narrow that the captain called all officers on deck as a precaution in case of trouble, as he edged us around a sharp bend. Rocks on either side seemingly were within touching distance. We had become well acquainted with the officers, drinking and playing poker with them late into the night, but at these moments they were all business.
One day a heavy fog settled in, and the ship barely moved as it found its way through the gloom. We were at lunch when suddenly the engines halted, our second stop on the trip. Ignoring the meal, we dashed outside to find everyone peering at a glow in the distance, a bonfire on shore. An emergency signal, we figured.
But no, it was a small band of Indians from the village of Puerto Eden who had fresh clams to sell. Descendants of the Alacalufes, who once dominated the fiords, they paddled out to us in what looked to be handmade canoes, taking wine and potatoes in exchange for the shellfish. To the tourists, they offered tiny carved boats, models of their own frail craft.
If the captain was irritated by the Indians, he didn't show it. He dined as eagerly as anybody on the clams that night.
Twice, for periods of several hours, we left the protection of the islands and sailed into the open sea, first when the Villarrica crossed the Golfo de Penas (appropriately, "Gulf of Grief") and at the end of the trip when we entered the strait. This is where we really felt the force of the winds and the waves.
The squeamish disappeared into their cabins almost as soon as the tossing began. The sheepshearers draped themselves with whatever protection they could find, fleeing the bow when waves began crashing over it. Anyone venturing on deck did so only at peril. The captain admitted me to the bridge, where I could watch, and worry.
But we came to no harm, and once we entered the strait, the bouncing stopped and we sailed rather quietly along the broad channel into Punta Arenas. The sun was out again, and we disembarked with Chilean friends we had made aboard for a farewell lunch of the region's king crab, fished fresh before our eyes from the icy sea.
The fiords of Chile? The Strait of Magellan? Destinations to stir the imagination. I suspect I've been name-dropping again, still at it 20 years later. The rewards of an adventure to remote places are endless.