Friday 26 January 2018

Chile Summer Series: Glacier Cruise (Part 2)

Last post I described the beginning of a glacier cruise I took in southern Chile in 2006. Now the adventure continues...

On the second morning of the cruise we awoke to find the Pio XI glacier right outside our window. This is the largest glacier in South America, stretching back some 70 kilometres into the mountains.

If you saw this in a movie, you'd assume it was a special effect. Filling our field of vision is a cathedral of ice, ranging from pure white through blue shades to almost indigo depths.

Great vertical cracks resemble caves, promontories look like spires.

On its upper surface are projections like great crystals, and gigantic cracks hint from where the next giant chunk of ice will fall into the sea as the glacier makes its way down from the heights.

After a run in the ice-filled fiord in the excursion boat, we return to the ship and stand on the top deck as the Skorpios cruises parallel to the glacier’s cliff-like surface.

Every so often a chunk of ice breaks away and hits the water, with a deep crash and ensuing waves.

Standing there with a quiet sense of reverence, we all feel we’ve seen a major highlight of our travelling careers.

"Just look at it," says one of the Australian women. "Forget about photos. Look at it and carry it in your mind".

So we put down our cameras for a moment and just look.

And as we look, a barman sidles up with the inevitable brightly-coloured cocktails on a tray.

And so to Eden. Puerto Edén that is, a fishing village set in the middle of this chilly beauty.

It's strange to come across a settlement after travelling for days through areas with no evidence of human activity.

There are no roads in this part of Chile, and not even any streets in the town; instead, it has a series of raised boardwalks which lead around the village and up to a nearby lookout.

It's an attractive place, even in its obvious poverty. Fishing boats lie high and dry on the shore, brightly coloured with hand-painted names; fishing nets sit piled, ready for use; and the different coloured roofs are pleasing as they follow the curve of the bay.

The locals supplement their incomes by selling handcrafted souvenirs to visitors, mostly woven baskets and model boats made of wood or hide. We buy a few to pay our way.

Back on the ship, afternoon tea is served as Puerto Edén slips away in our wake, disappearing from sight as if it were never really there: like a South American Brigadoon.

Over the next few days we see more ice than you’d ever hope to meet, in an assortment of breathtaking glaciers. Each has its own distinctive formation: one even looks like a giant frozen meringue.

The mix of onboard treats and external adventure continues, typified by the Captain’s Ball whose buffet features animals carved from butter

Then for our final excursion, we go ashore and walk right up to the face of a glacier.

This seems to be the hallmark of the cruise: a neatly-judged balance of comfort and adventure.

Aboard we have pleasant cabins and plentiful food and drink, which are contrasted by frequent excursions to the rugged, primal wilderness outside.

Although the passengers are mostly a middle-aged bunch, I think it would work well with a family group, as there’s enough activity to keep kids occupied. And there are no unexpected costs, as the tariff includes all food and drink, even the alcoholic variety.

But that special glass of Scotch we had earlier - chilled by 50,000 year old ice from a glacier - may have spoiled me. Where’s the fun in drinking whisky with day-old ice, when you’ve had the really old stuff?

Information about Skorpios cruises can be found at

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...

Friday 12 January 2018

Chile Summer Series: Bohemian Santiago (Part 2)

Here's the next instalment of my previously published print articles about Chile, South America.

Last post, I toured the former residence of poet Pablo Neruda in the company of guide Gonzalo Iturra. Now I find out more...

Gonzalo is so obviously fond of Neruda, and so knowledgeable about his house, that I arrange to meet up with him later over a beer to learn more about the poet and his neighbourhood.

Narrelle heads off to the riverside craft markets, while I kill a few hours hanging around the Barrio’s main drag, Pio Nono.

As it’s now late afternoon, the street has come to life, with university students filling the plastic chairs in the sun outside the corner pub I choose. Chileans love their outdoor drinking and dining, and it’s pleasant sitting among the good-natured crowd.

A waiter appears and I order cervezas (beer), to which he responds “Chico?” (“Small?”). As I’m considering this, he vanishes, to return with a half-litre stein of the amber fluid, obviously feeling that this large gringo had not got that way by consuming chico amounts of anything.

In due course I meet Gonzalo at Venezia, another long-term Barrio Bellavista survivor and a famous Pablo Neruda hangout.

It's so old and unrenovated that the dining room's floor is bowed down in the middle, just managing to bear its load of tables with sky-blue tablecloths, and straight-backed wooden chairs.

By now I’ve figured out that Neruda is a huge deal in Chile; but coming from a country where sportsmen matter way more than poets, I wonder why.

“He was the man who finally put Chile on the map,” explains Gonzalo. “Chile was a very isolated country, and people thought of us as a geographical accident.

"And then Neruda came and started thinking about the rivers and the mountains and the people and the workers and the fruit. He took small things from a poor background, and made them so big.”

What was he like as a person?

“He was a big kid in many ways, says Gonzalo. “He never took himself too seriously.

"When you met him, you were expecting this really important figure, and he’d be wearing a nightdress or something. He was an eccentric, and he knew that. He enjoyed it and people forgave all.”

As Gonzalo emphasises, the maintenance of his house is important not just as a memorial or museum, but as a glimpse into the poet’s mind.

“The houses are very much like him. They reflect his obsession with ships, and hidden things like secret passages. One of the steps in one of the staircases was made from a railroad sleeper. That’s a reference to his father, who used to work at a train station.

“He even believed that coloured glass would make things taste different; and when he ate, he should have lots of friends there, and never eat alone. That’s why there are lots of dining rooms in his houses.”

The reason we’re talking about more than one house, I discover, is because Neruda had three of these creations dotted across Chile.

In addition to La Chascona in Santiago, there’s La Sebastiana in the coastal port Valparaiso, and Casa de Isla Negra on the island of Isla Negra, each as colourful and unique as their former owner.

By settling in the Barrio and acting as the hub of its arty transformation, Pablo Neruda created a unique neighbourhood that symbolises the passion and energy of Chile and South America.

“The mix of people is what I like about this neighbourhood,” concludes Gonzalo. “You have people walking their dogs, TV celebrities, writers and intellectuals, and experimental artists. It’s like a bohemian oasis.”

La Chascona is located at Fernando Marquez de la Plata 0192, Santiago, Chile. Find ticket prices and entry times at

Friday 5 January 2018

Chile Summer Series: Bohemian Santiago (Part 1)

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

This article was first published in 2009, so some details may have changed, though the destination retains its allure. For first up is the capital city of Santiago...

Que aventura! 

This simple Spanish catchphrase – What an adventure! – has been our signature expression since entering Chile.

We've applied it to all the usual traveller’s misadventures: missed buses, delayed luggage, queues at airports, language difficulties.

But now Narrelle and I are gazing at an amazing sight through the window of a central Santiago lunch bar.

Among the plastic replicas of its many dishes is the jaw-droppingly huge sandwich called lomo completo, a vast roll crammed with mounds of beef and various other ingredients.

It’d have to be almost 20cm across. This is clearly the place for a budget-friendly, value-for-money, throw-the-diet-out lunch.

It’s also frantically busy within. Sitting down at one of the dozens of small tables placed cheek-by-jowl is like taking part in a lively theatrical work.

Waiters dash rapidly along the narrow channels between tables in the vast interior of this ‘Restaurant Fuente de Soda’ (literally a fountain of soda, but actually a cafeteria), diners make their frequent entrances and exits, and the occasional near collision or dropped plate adds suspense.

Despite the pace, our waiter, like everyone else we’ve interacted with in the Chilean capital, is friendly, helpful and extraordinarily patient with our dodgy Spanish.

Forewarned by the window displays, we order a single Via Italiana sandwich stacked with chicken and guacamole, to share. The sandwich’s name is something of a mystery, guacamole being very un-Italian... though very South American, as avocado is a New World fruit. In any case, it’s only 2300 pesos, about A$5.

Replenished, we head for Barrio Bellavista, the city’s famously bohemian district, a humming zone of restaurants, theatres, bars and live music by night. By day it has a different atmosphere, quieter but scenic, with narrow streets housing compact, attractive homes and shops.

Behind the Barrio looms the Cerro San Cristobal, a mountain with a funicular railway running up to the peak, passing a zoo on the way. The funicular has been running since 1925, and has the old-fashioned air of a weekend attraction for families wondering what the hell to do with the kids. As you ascend, however, Santiago opens up beneath you.

At the summit is a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary, as no self-respecting South American city could be without a giant Biblical figure on a hilltop. We're standing at the base of the statue, when the outline of huge mountains emerges out of the haze, rising dramatically from the plain to extraordinary heights.

Smog makes the Andes difficult to see in the morning, but they usually appear more clearly in the afternoon, quite oblivious to the astonishing backdrop they create. But mountains this majestic need have little concern for the affairs of ants like us.

Back down at street level, near the foot of the Cerro, lies a museum devoted to the late poet Pablo Neruda, national icon and winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The street it’s on is a tiny, serene cul-de-sac lined with colourful houses, including La Chascona, now housing the museum but formerly the poet’s home until his death in 1973.

The area in front of it has been turned into an attractive minimalist fountain, with narrow channels carrying water between blocks of burnt orange stone to a circular structure embedded in the street.

We’re taken through the house by tour guide Gonzalo Iturra, a man with an impressive moustache and smooth colloquial English. Neruda's house turns out to be delightful jumble of oddly-shaped rooms sprawling over different levels of the hillside, separated by cool, shaded sections of garden.

This disjointed home is filled with a most curious assortment of odds and ends. The great poet had the collector mania at its most acute: among his many objects of desire, he collected bottles, ship’s figureheads, paperweights, Toby mugs, dolls, ashtrays, and images of fertility gods, horses and watermelons.

Above all this, he was fascinated by the sea, and the house is peppered with items taken from ships. One room even has an angled floor especially constructed to creak, to imitate life aboard ship.

La Chascona is charming and colourful, reflecting a man with an extraordinarily creative and active mind. That he also liked to stroll around the house dressed as a sea captain, or even a nun, is neither here nor there - great men must be allowed their little foibles.

I suggest to Gonzalo that Neruda could be regarded as eccentrico, and he replies: "Si... or maybe loco." But he says it with a smile.

Next: I buy Gonzalo a beer, and learn more about Neruda and his 'hood...