Friday, April 01, 2005

Punta Arenas, Chilean Patagonia

Today's Destination: Punta Arenas
The alarm on my mobile phone went off at 5:45am, the hotel phone rang at 6am with a wake-up call, and my watch alarm also went off at 6am. Kacey showered first and it took a while for the hot water to arrive, so I had maybe 10 minutes to get cleaned up, packed, and be good-to-go. We checked out at 6:45am and the cab was waiting for us. When we checked in at the domestic terminal, you could tell the ladies at the counter were playing some sort of gringo hot potato. They each seemed to be trying to get the people in front of us until we were next, then held onto their customers as long as they could in the hopes that their coworker would finish earlier and have to take us. Even with that perceived slight, it was fairly painless, and we stopped into a restaurant to have a buffet breakfast before boarding the plane.

Our flight took off around 8:30am, but our over-wing window seat provided little of interest as the Andes are still enshrouded in smog. Some sky was peeking through, but only just a little bit. The in-flight breakfast was okay, as we’d already filled up. The flight south was uneventful, as we were on the right side and the mountains were on the left. We should have thought about that when we were getting our seat assignments. Kind of had a view of the coast, but it was quite overcast until we landed at our intermediate stop at Porto Montt.

The favorite outfit of the male Chileanos seems to be the sweater (preferably zippered), dark pants, and a fitted button-down shirt. The folks on our plane all have their adventure pants on. You know, the ones with cargo pockets that you can also unzip the legs on to turn them into shorts. I like them, but when flying I prefer jeans or non-synthetics so they don’t melt on me if we crash. Because that would make a bad day worse. We are in row 13, by the way.

While taxiing at Porto Montt, our brakes sounded like a /link/ Wookie debate. One side made a noise that the other side interrupted with a louder noise, and the banter continued back and forth for about a minute. I’m not sure who won, but the plane stopped and almost everyone got out except for 7 or 8 people. The plane refueled without requiring us to deplane, but they were nice enough to remind us to remain seated with our belts unfastened. Apart from the 2 seconds it takes to undo the belt, I don’t think we’d be able to get outside fast enough if there really was a problem. And the nearest emergency exit is over the wing/fuel tank so it wouldn’t do much good anyways. They’ve got the doors open, maybe to catch and trap the jet fuel fumes in the cabin, but the air is a brisk 9C (~50F). As we were told in Santiago: “Patagonia es muy frio.”

Before the plane left Porto Montt, I asked the attendant if we could switch sides for a better view. He recommended the back left for the best view, since the wing gets in the way up front. Our flight took us over the /link/ Volcan Michinmahuido, near Chaiten. Then, a little later, over the /link/ Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael. The glacial fields are a faint blue, and the flight attendants are just as eager to take photos. The whole cabin is in motion, with nearly all 25 people aboard moving to the left side. When we got to /link/ Torres del Paine, the captain made an announcement. We pulled out the heavy weapons: a zoom lens so large that holding it made my hand cramp up. This place looks so incredibly alien from most of the world. I commandeered the camera and pretty much unloaded on the mountain. The sun is shining so brightly that I am seeing little blue spots on my food tray after looking at the snow fields.

As we turned in for our approach, we passed over some clouds that were sitting on the mountains and fields like they were tired of flying and wanted a nice view while they rested. I’m also beginning to doubt my level of preparedness, clothing-wise. My orange Patagonia jacket shell wouldn’t offer much warmth, but it’s possibly more appropriate here than back in my closet in Florida. And the captain just made another announcement about Torres del Paine, the real one. The first one we thought was it, but it wasn’t. But the plane was bouncing around so much that it was hard to squeeze a shot off. We’ll try to get the front right window on our flight out, should be roughly the same time of day, but might not be as crystal clear of a sky.

On a few occasions, the shifting snow fields had stretch-mark-like chasms, like it was bearing the glacier in its womb many years ago and stretched to hold it before finally releasing the blue-eyed baby into the world. Once we hit Puerto Natales, the mountains vanished, the snow vanished, and everything else was brown, course earth. It’s like God ran out of material on the mountains farther north and just patted the ground down as He headed south, calling it finished and hoping that no one notices or calls him out on it. There’s just nothing there, except for the occasional cloud shadow.


We landed in Punta Arenas and grabbed our bags with no trouble. In deciding between a bus or a cab, the bus was leaving and they said we could pay on board, so we hopped on once our bags were stowed below. Followed all the other gringos with backpacks and got out at a stop two blocks from the hostel. We were checked in by a girl who couldn’t be older than 13. She had a very polite way of explaining that the room didn’t have power, like we were her little brother. “This key opens that door,” but all in Spanish, claro.
Map of Punta Arenas

We walked down to Plaza de Armas, pretty much the center of downtown Punta Arenas. We stopped into an information booth where we got information that conflicted with our hotel info on Seno Otway’s penguin colony. Our hotel called up the tour guide and they said that they were running, but the info booth guy said they weren’t. We’ll find out soon enough.

We had lunch at Sotitos (a Spanish Palindrome!) where I had a relaive of the mackerel and Kacey had the salmon. We walked around a little more, and she bought some gloves. We’re both still having sinus problems lingering from dry and dirty Santiago, but the air here is much cleaner. We were back at the room before 4pm, where we readied ourselves for the 4:!5 pick-up for a tour of Seno Otway. We waited until 5pm, when it became apparent that the only one showing up was a little black dog. We walked up to the nearby cemetery just as the sun was getting low, so every color stood out. Huge, green gumdrop shaped trees broke up the saw-tooth skyline of white tombs that were decorated with flowers, photos, and other colorful flourishes. Lots of very foreign/European names, from Yugoslavia, etc on the tombs.

We strolled back down the main street as the sun set, and all of the teenagers began appearing out of nowhere. Kacey’s boot suffered a critical failure as the whole front of the sole detached in a matter of minutes. We stopped in to one shoe store looking for shoe glue, they directed us to a store across the street, who in turn gave us directions for a shoe repair store around the corner. We showed up, gave them the boot and waited for them to glue it. The cashier came back and said we might get a very short life out of it. “Dos semanas?” I asked. She replied with a look like I just asked if we could walk to NYC. “Un dia” she replied. Then she walked to the back of the store and a few minutes later the boot came back with some stitches holding the sole to the boot. Bueno.

From the shoe repair store, we resumed our walk down the main street. Only a few minutes later, we came across a warmly glowing café that drew us in like moths to a flame. We both got hot chocolate of different styles. Mine was a hot milk in a glass and I had to melt a chocolate cubes in it. It looked like liquid cookies and cream. I finished off a couple of brownies, too. In the name of cross-cultural exchange, this was a good example of being too easy.
Kacey: “Do you want brownies, too?”
Me: “Ok, um, maybe we should point to them or something; they aren’t labeled.”
Kacey: “The menu says brownies.”
Me: “Oh, OK then.”
We left the café and walked over to the locations listed for tour operators listed in our guide book. We found the first one with no sign, paper covering the windows, and about 5 people sitting between boxes. In no way did it look like a functioning tour office. The second place was worse, as it had been turned into a restaurant. Back at the hotel, our hostess told us that the penguin park closed today. Which is kind of a let-down when you literally travel to the end of the earth to get there. She said that she would call tomorrow to see if they would extend the season. That’s the best we can hope for, but we could still take a day trip across the bay to Tierra Del Fuego, so all is not lost.

We spent the rest of the night watching English language movies and reading the Spanish subtitles. In case you were wondering, watching the Hispanic cast of “Girl Fight” with Michelle Rodriguez speaking English while we were reading in Spanish was a bit weird.

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