Friday 19 January 2018

Chile Summer Series: Glacier Cruise (Part 1)

Over January I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about Chile, South America.

This article was first published in 2006, so some details may have changed, though the destination is still spectacular. For we're heading south to the glaciers of Patagonia...

Salud, dinero y amor! (To health, wealth and love!)

This is no idle toast. We’re on the third day of a cruise through the glaciers and fiords of southern Chile, and have left the comfortable confines of the ship to get among the ice.

Passengers are lined up on the long benches of the open-air excursion craft, lifejackets on, as the boat grinds through the small floating bergs.

Without warning, the pilot sails up to an iceberg, rams into its flank, and extracts a large chunk with the aid of an ice-pick.

A few minutes later we’re milling around, clinking glasses as we toast each other - with 12 year old Scotch containing 50,000 year old ice.

Sure, it’s a gimmick - but what a gimmick.

Not that southern Chile needs any help to be impressive. Beyond the warm central portion of the country, where most Chileans live, the landscape changes dramatically.

The roads run out, and the terrain breaks up into a rugged collection of islands, mountains and glaciers, jumbled together in an almost uninhabited part of South America.

Beyond this, the land becomes flat again, home to grazing herds of domesticated sheep and wild llamas, as it approaches Antarctica.

This southern region is known as Patagonia, and is still one of the great frontiers of tourism.

But the journey needn’t be too hard. We’ve booked passage on the Skorpios III, a cruise ship which plies the inland waters and ice fields of Chilean Patagonia, offering one of the few ways to explore this glacial wilderness.

Arriving at the Skorpios dock by road from the southern city of Punta Arenas, we meet our fellow passengers at dinner.

There are Chileans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, and a big contingent of Brazilians among them, with Australians, French, Germans and Spaniards making up the numbers.

This diversity means the cruise lacks the sterile feel of a package tour conducted for Westerners only. All tour commentary is conducted in both Spanish and English.

But before the ship leaves the port town of Puerto Natales, we’re taken on a coach trip to the Torres del Paine National Park, one of Chile’s great natural treasures.

The Paine Towers that give the vast park its name are a spectacular group of craggy volcanic outcrops among distant snow-capped mountains. They’re an unlikely backdrop to the green tones of springtime which appear below the snowline.

On the way through the park, we have frequent sightings of local wildlife: nandus (South American ostriches), guanacos (cousins of the llama) and most impressive of all, black condors.

The weather is perfect: clear blue skies and uninterrupted sunshine. Not for the first time, I'm amazed by how warm it is here at 52 degrees south.

Then we stop for lunch, and get our first taste of this company’s catering arrangements. We’re expecting a stale sandwich and a soft drink. What we get is a waiter shaking cocktails, then serving them from a tray in real glassware, followed by a full-scale barbecue and Chilean wine.

Returned to the ship, we set sail through attractive, tree-covered green hills giving way to rocky slopes at the water's edge, with massive icy mountains beyond. As we progress toward the glaciers, chunks of ice float past us.

Picturesque though it is, I’m struck by the lack of human activity - there's simply no-one here. There’s something very relaxing in that thought. Not the first time, I'm glad I didn't bring my phone along...

Next: Much more ice, a remote village and the Captain's Ball...

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