Strait of Magellan -Pali Aiki -Penguins

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
Trip End Sep 12, 2010

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Patagonia Nativo

Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Friday, March 12, 2010

Driving our rental jeep towards our final destination in Patagonia, we crossed the peninsula headed west along gently winding Ruta 9, keeping the Strait of Magellan to our left. We were coming to the end of a two day, 500 mile journey, from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas, mostly via rutted dirt roads that took us into a hinterland of barren beauty, where animals are plentiful and humans very, very few.
Pali Aiki National Park, close to the Argentinian border, is a Chilean "B" list park, which in a country of incredible natural beauty, is none-the-less well worth a visit. The park encloses a region of intense volcanic activity that thousands of years ago left deep craters of varying sizes, and fantastic lava formations in shimmering shades of green, red, pink and orange. These rugged shapes and textures made hiking a daunting, even painful, endeavor. Yet, even in this charred moonscape, life endures. In the grassy lowlands, foxes and puma hunt, and herds of guanaco and ostrich-like nandu graze.
We spent one night in the small town of Punta Delgada, close to the main ferry crossing to Tierra del Fuego. Thanks to natural gas exploration in these parts, the town has seen something close to a boom in recent years, with less signs of decay and abandonment than elsewhere in Patagonia, and even a few new buildings. Next morning, we at last rejoined paved highway and followed the Strait of Magellan west 150kms into Punta Arenas.
Over the next few days, we would come to know the Strait's diverse moods: dismal grey under cloud, roiling onyx with wind-whipped white caps, or, as it was the first time we saw it; still as glass and brilliant blue. Ruta 9 took us past abandoned estancias and wool processing factories and shipwrecks in various states of decay. The only things moving besides ourselves were the few cars we passed on the carreterra and seabirds over the strait. No signs here of the graceful leaping guanacos, ostrich-like nandu, grey foxes, and diverse bird life we had encountered on our "wildlife safari" across the Patagonian steppe. 
We rolled into Punta Arenas on March 7, to find a bustling port city. This city of 160,000 was under construction in the center and port area, so we didn't see it in its' best light. We did appreciate its city ¨buzz¨, and low-key approach to tourism. After being on the tourist trail for weeks, here we were refreshingly invisible. We could go about everyday life along with the locals without being confronted with souvenirs in every storefront. Oliver got a haircut, we did laundry, went to the bank, bought socks.These familiar errands grounded us after a whirlwind few weeks that had begun February 27, when we set out on our trek in Torres del Paine. 
Punta Arenas' major attractions include two Magellanic penguin colonies. We visited the penguins at Seno Otway, the smaller of the two. This colony has been in rapid decline, dwindling, from 10,000 in 2002, to a peak of 1,000 recorded this year. When we queried a reserve volunteer, we were told that global warming is the suspected cause -- the Arctic waters of the Humbolt current that flow up the coast of South America are not as frigid as they once were, so cold water fish that feed sea mammals are not as plentiful. Early March is near the end of nesting season, so we counted only 85 of the little fellows. Adorable they definitely are, and seeing them up close as we ambled along a roped boardwalk was a treat, Even Michael, who's generally unimpressed by cute animals, enjoyed himself. He did observe that we could see more Magellanic penguins at the San Francisco zoo (an exaggeration, but not by much).  
A two hour ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan delivered us once more to Tierra del Fuego, and into the sleepy seaside hamlet of Porvenir; located on Inutil ("useless") Bay. Porvenir, which translates roughly as "toward the future" was a boom town during a gold rush in the late 1800's. Following the bust, major wool producing estancias took over the land, until that industry, too, dried up. The day we visited, Porvenir was seemingly deserted but for a crack Chilean military outpost and large petrochemical factory. The town is charming and easily seen by foot in two hours. Its' pastel bungalows were reminiscent of Valparaiso and we were impressed by homes built in the "Chiloe" style; reminescent to us of Craftsman bungalows, with the addition of a delicately carved wood trim. This charming style was brought from middle European immigrants who came en masse some 100 years ago seeking riches in gold and better life. Judging by the size and elegance of the homes, many found both, although it's clear those days are long gone now. Punta Arenas today has a gritty feel, very much a simple working town with few signs of wealth or excessive living.  
Our final day in Punto Arenas was wild and windy, rainy and bitterly cold - a sharp reminder that winter in the southern hemisphere is around the corner. With little to do on a rainy day, we headed to the airport early and boarded an evening flight to Santiago, giving ourselves lots of time before our continuing flight to Easter Island the next morning. Having no access to television (even in Punta Arenas) or other news sources, and still unable to understand Spanish well (especially rapid-fire Chilean Spanish), we were not aware of the magnitude of damage caused by the February 27th Chilean earthquake, which measured an unbelievable 8.8 on the moment scale (similar to the old Richter scale). We also had no idea that Santiago's airport had been badly damaged, and that the main terminal was closed for repairs. When we landed, we were met with a starnge scene indeed - a maze of ropes was set up on the runway to guide arriving and departing passengers to the correct outdoor kiosk to check in, or to the exit. The "departure lounge" was set up under a canopy on the tarmac, within yards of the runway. We sat down on hard chairs and put on extra layers of fleece as the night air dipped below freezing. We ended up spending a memorable (that would be a bad memory!) night in the icy outdoors, scrunched up on hard chairs adjacent to the screaming jet engines of incoming and outgoing aircraft. 
That night, we took little comfort in the fact that warm tropical breezes of Easter Island were just a few hours away. 
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