March 4, 2014

Around Cape Horn, #5: South Along Chile's Patagonian Coast

If you are in a hurry, you are wasting time.
--Patagonian saying

One of the things I liked about this trip was the scheduling of days at sea vs. days touring. After I bungled my flight schedules -- which resulted in my being completely wiped out during a brief stay in Santiago -- it was great to start the cruise with a relaxing day at sea. The next few days exploring the pristine beauty of Patagonia -- the sparsely populated part of southern Chile -- were also peaceful.

Here are the stops we made heading south down the coast toward Cape Horn.

Puerto Montt
Our first tour began with a cruise feature I like least. Usually the ship must anchor offshore and take passengers to the dock in small tenders. I'm impatient in queues -- and I was always eager to get on the little boats -- so that Patagonian saying above was meant for me.

We were told to report to the main lounge at 9:45am, and we didn't board our bus at the pier until after 11 o'clock.

The next stop was Puerto Varas, the “City of Roses.” It’s a nice town on a lake by the snow-capped Osorno Volcano:

We stopped here to shop and snack. These "shop-overs" have driven me nuts on other tours, particularly in Asia. I was pleased that Holland America kept them brief.

The houses in Puerto Varas and environs are evidence of Chile’s German heritage. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, they're built in a style reminiscent of Germany’s Black Forest region.

I’d known little about this German connection . . . just a vague recollection of Chile's being a haven for high-ranking Nazis after World War II. This region was settled by German immigrants beginning in the mid-19th century -- the project of an advisor to the Chilean president, a tireless promoter of European immigration to the unpopulated regions of southern Chile.

Puerto Montt is also known as an important fishing center. I was surprised to learn that Chile in the past two decades has risen to second in the world -- behind Norway -- in salmon production. I was delighted to find the tasty fish regularly available on menus on and off the ship.

We spent most of the day viewing lakes, volcanoes, and waterfalls -- my kind of countryside. But I didn’t see anything dramatically better than Cayuga Lake -- in upstate NewYork, where I grew up -- or Fewa Lake in Pokhara, Nepal, where I lived for months during this past decade. 

Our last stop at the river falls was nice, but nothing compared to the Great Falls of the Potomac, just a half-hour drive from my house.

Puerto Chacabuco
I liked the mountains, lakes, and rivers around Puerto Montt. But Chacabuco offers something more: practically a complete absence of any sign of civilization. I don’t recall ever doing what we did on this tour -- just driving for hours through uniquely beautiful countryside without seeing any people, villages, or houses.

The landscape reminded me of the mountains of Colorado at times, then the buttes of Arizona. In a land unharmed by modernization, the flora and fauna abound around Puerto Chacabuco. A hike along the river added to the enjoyment of this untouched region's splendor.

We also visited the capital and urban center of the province. With a population of 54,000, it has the only secondary schools in the province and two universities, both of which offer a mostly technical curriculum.

Our terrific guide, Teresa -- a smart, good-looking, sophisticated young woman -- went to Santiago for her education. In most parts of the world,  a young woman like Teresa who leaves “the sticks” for “the big city” would end up staying there. She told me that when she was in Santiago, she couldn't wait to get back home again. Here she is, smiling in the photo below:

Teresa said Santiago isn’t the real Chile. Remember, she said, Chile is a very young country, so its capital doesn’t have a particularly interesting history or culture. She would much rather live in this beautiful, isolated corner of the world. She gave me the Patagonian saying that introduces this post.

Two Days of Cruising—Chilean Fjords and Canal Sarmiento
As we neared Cape Horn, we spent two days at sea sailing through an area a bit like Alaska’s Inside Passage. Fortunately, we were protected from the stormy weather Cape Horn is famous for.

At one point, the captain’s navigational skills were tested when our big ship had to slow down to five knots an hour so the ship would ride higher in the water, enabling us to make it through a particularly narrow, shallow passage, Canal Sarmiento:

A guidebook I read described the Chilean fjords as second only to Norway’s. I hope it’s a distant second, since I wasn’t blown away by what I saw . . . and since I’m making plans to cruise along Norway’s fjords this summer with my son and his gal.

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