Strait of Magellan -Pali Aiki -Penguins
Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
43Trip End Sep 12, 2010
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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
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
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)
That night, we took little comfort in the fact that warm tropical breezes of Easter Island were just a few hours away.