Chile and the South Patagonian Fjords
The long, slender ribbon of a country, Chile stretches for 4,300 km from the bone dry desert of the north to the icy glacier fjords of South Patagonia. This a land of volcanoes, lakes, beaches, world renowned vineyards, lush forests and beyond, the snow sprinkled mountains of the Andes We dock in the enchanting “resort” town of Valparaiso, which serves as the main port for the Capital, Santiago. This is the start of the second segment of the Grand Voyage where a couple of hundred guests disembark and new passengers will join the ship for our journey to Buenos Aires.
With our trust Lonely Planet guide to South America in our backpack, we set off to explore Valparaiso for the day. This is a grand, gracious Unesco city of history, architecture and culture. From the Plaza Sotomayer, we experienced the slightly unnerving Ascensor El Peral, one of the original wooden funicular trains which transports people up to the top of the steep hills around town. These were built between 1883 and 1916. The cost per person per journey is 100 Chilean pesos. (about 15p).
At the top is a charming Bohemian residential village of cobbled streets, bars and bistros, like Montmartre, Paris with artists and selling prints, jewellery and decorative craftwork. Here is the Museo del Bellas Artes, within the elegant art deco Palaccio Baburizza. We wandered around the private art collection by 20 – 21st century Chilean and European artists – inspiring landscapes and enchanting portraits, exhibited with care on three floors around the cool, spacious of around this beautiful mansion.
We set sail south towards the Lake District of Chile, to Puerto Montt and Chacabuco, surrounded by mountains, rivers, cattle and sheep farms, home to the traditional Gauchos “cowboys”.
For the next three days we cruise at a steady pace through the Patagonian Fjords, a seemingly endless labyrinth of narrow lagoons dominated by the towering snowcapped peaks of the Andes.
Anchored in Laguna San Rafael, a exciting excursion by catamaran is offered to guests sail through a field of ice flows to visit the Mount San Valentin glacier This giant wall of ice cracks and groans as splinters calve off, crashing into the sea.
We were expecting chilly Antarctic-style temperatures here but the sun is burning bright. The thermometer reaches 75F and guests have discarded their sweaters and the (thoughtfully allocated) soft wool blankets for swimsuits around the pool deck. Almost tropical weather, tranquil water and truly magnificent vistas all around.
For two more days, we travel through this dramatic, surreal, isolated wilderness, only accessible by small ship, is an exhilarating experience. Much of the scenery as we meander through the narrow, curving inlets of the fjords is reminiscent of the Highlands of Scotland – like sailing through Loch Lomond with its tiny forested islands.
We follow the itinerary on our World Map tracing our way slow through the Magellan Strait, named after the extraordinary navigator Ferdinand Magellan explored the remote lost New World of Tierra del Fuego and Patgonia in 1520. Three hundred years later, it was the turn of Captain Fitzroy accompanied by naturalist Charles Darwin who arrived here on the HMS Beagle on their epic scientific expedition of discovery around South America.
Unfortunately, it is in the wee small hours of the morning that we sail through the Beagle Channel, missing the breathtaking sight of the utterly spectacular of the Glacier Avenue, along the Cordillera Darwin mountain range. This is a series of dazzling white, turquoise-tinted glaciers and gushing cascades of melting rivers of ice. Thankfully Ken and I had experienced a similar voyage on the Silver Spirit in 2010, when we cruised northwards during the day. My goodness, it was freezing cold with a 70 knot Antarctic gale!
Next stop, Ushuaia, the most southerly town on the planet before we set off to the other British Isles, the Falklands.