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Southern Chile (Dec 2000)

posted Nov 19, 2008, 8:07 PM by Gerick Bergsma

In planning my trip through Chile, I had arranged my entire schedule around the ferry trip through Chile's southern island and fjords.  The cruise, touted in all the guidebooks and highly recommended by my cousin, who had taken it two years before, was to be the focal point of my Chilean experience, and the primary reason my aunt and uncle had come down to Chile.  It was therefore one of the few parts of the trip that I had reserved and planned ahead of time.  My aunt and uncle had done me the favor of reserving our tickets, and when still in Peru, I had nearly missed my trip to Machu Picchu rushing about trying to get faxes of my passport and student ID card so that they could process my reservation.  They demanded full payment beforehand to secure a reservation, and so we thought it must be a pretty well organized company.  We even paid the exorbitant price to get a private cabin on the upper deck, splurging to assure we would maximize the cruise experience.  We, therefore, took cautious measures to be sure that we would arrive with plenty of time to meet our 12:00 check-in and 6:00 departure.


A short bus ride from Valdivia, and Julie and I arrived in Puerto Montt.  An industrial town with a busy port, it was where we were to start our three-day cruise through the southern islands and fjords.  My aunt, uncle, Julie and I were booked for the ferry passage to Puerto Natales aboard the Puerto Eden.  Julie and I arrived just in time for our 12:00 check in time, where we were also to meet Auntiekiki and Uncle Paul.  Navimag, the company that operates the Puerto Eden, has an office at the port, and so we made our way there so that we could leave our bags until our 6:00 departure.  We arrived at the main office, but my aunt and uncle were nowhere to be seen (we later learned that a restaurant experience similar to the one in Santiago prevented them from arriving on time), so Julie and decided just to check ourselves in.  I approached the lady at the front desk, and gave her our reservation number.


She typed the number into a computer, and asked, "Are you in the economy class?"  Undoubtedly observing two backpackers, she assumed we would be in the shared bunks surrounding the engine room.  I explained to her that we had a reserved cabin on the upper deck, to which she responded, "You must be in "C" class.  Where are your tickets?"


"All I have are the reservation numbers."


"I'm sorry," she responded, "I can only check you in if you have your tickets."


I explained to her that we had purchased the tickets from the United States and that we had been told that all we would need were the reservation numbers to check in.  I also related the fact that my aunt and uncle may have already checked in, and that they might have our tickets.  She told me to wait a moment.  She picked up the phone, and had a brief conversation with an agent in their Santiago office.


"The tickets are on the way," she told me, hanging up the phone, "They are printed in Santiago, and are on a bus coming here right now.  They should arrive about 4:00, and you can check in then."  She then added, "The boat is also arriving late, so we won't be departing until 9:00."


Having spent almost 15 hours on busses trying to get from Santiago to Puerto Montt, I wasn't exactly impressed by their efficiency, but resigned myself to the wait.  Not wanting to lug our packs around for four more hours, I asked her if we could at least leave our luggage.  She thought for a moment, and then said that we could, but had to take our bags to the luggage service area in the passenger waiting area.


We exited the office to go to the waiting area, where we proceeded to the luggage service.  We placed our packs on the counter.  The man behind the counter asked, "Are you in the economy class?"


"No, we have a private cabin."  I replied.


"May I see your tickets?"


"We don't have them yet."


"You can't check your luggage until you have your tickets, you'll have to talk to the people at the check in counter," he said, pointing to another counter in the waiting area.


We went to the check in counter, where we were again asked for our tickets.  Explaining that they were on a bus arriving from Santiago and telling the lady behind the counter that the lady in the main office had said we could leave our luggage, she asked for our names.  She then asked if we were in the economy class (backpackers should just wear a big sign that reads, "I'm cheap."), and after explaining our situation, she finally called over to the luggage handlers and told them to accept our bags.  We left a note for my aunt and uncle, and departed to find something to do until our 4:00 check-in.  On our way out, we noticed that the sign on which the departure time was written had now been changed to 10:00pm.


Julie and I spent the next several hours trying to locate a restaurant that served something other than overpriced fried meats, and walking along the waterfront.  We returned to the Navimag office at 4:00 to find a long line extending out the door of the main office.  "The tickets must be here," I thought seeing the long queue, so we joined the wait.  Soon after we got into line, my aunt and uncle appeared, having gotten the same story about getting our tickets at 4:00.  We continued to wait in the long line, finally getting to the front of the line.  My aunt had been to the office several times, and had already attained a considerable rapport with the woman at the counter, as she greeted her warmly.  Apparently, the story I had been told about the tickets arriving by bus had been fabricated, as the woman had told my aunt earlier that the tickets are usually printed in Santiago, and then faxed to the Puerto Montt office.  She informed us now that the faxes still had not come through, and that she had been calling the Santiago office repeatedly to request that they be sent.  We would have to continue to wait.


By this time, the Puerto Eden had arrived, and we watched as the steady stream of passengers disembarked.  The cargo would be offloaded next, after which the cargo that would accompany us to Puerto Natales would be loaded.  The departure time was still set for 10:00 that night.  We talked to some of the arriving passengers, asking them about the boat.  It was primarily a cargo ship, but that the passenger area was large and comfortable.  The food was adequate, but the snacks and drinks onboard were pricey.  We decided that we should stock up on food and drink, so while my aunt waited for our tickets to arrive, my Uncle Paul, Julie and I went to a nearby grocery store to pick up supplies.


By 6:00, the tickets finally arrived via fax, and we were allowed to check in.  Once I was armed with my ticket for my AA cabin, the service suddenly improved, and our luggage was taken onboard to await our arrival.  Unfortunately, we were notified that they were having problems with the cargo handling system, that we could not board until 9:00, and that our departure would likely be postponed until 11:00.  We decided to go out for dinner.  We found a nearby restaurant, had a couple of burgers, bought some more water for our journey, and then found an internet cafe to let the folks back home know we were about to depart.


Back at 9:00 to load onto the ship, we waited until 10:00 before they made another announcement, they would not be able to repair the cargo system until later that night, and that we would not be departing until 6:00 the next morning.  Not to worry, everyone would be allowed to spend the night on the ship, and by morning, we would be ready to sail.  We boarded the ship, passing the truckloads of live cattle, sheep and horses that were the cargo waiting to be unloaded.  We were treated to our first meal onboard, settled into our cabin, and spent our first night on the Puerto Eden.


Next morning, we were up bright and early only to find the sheep and cattle pitifully staring towards us.  The cargo elevator was still broken, and we were told we would not be leaving until sometime shortly after noon.  Alejandro, the crewman assigned to keep the passengers happy, notified us that we would not be allowed off the ship, but after considerable murmurings of discontent, the crew finally handed out shore leave passes.  We would be allowed to get off and back on the ship once, but had to return by 2:00 so that the ship could depart.  Julie and I immediately jumped ship, and spent a few hours wandering about the town and sitting by the waterfront.  We returned at 2:00 to find that the elevator had finally been fixed, and the poor animals being unloaded after having spent more than four days locked in their trailers.  Back onboard, we spent the afternoon exploring the ship, and getting to know some of the other prisoners, I mean passengers.  By this time, none of the crew was willing to give us a departure time, but Alejandro finally confided to me that he thought we would be ready to go by about six that evening.  We had our second dinner on board, and I spent he evening watching birds from deck.  Six o'clock passed, and we still had not left.  At about 7:30, a small boat came out and began to untie some of our ropes, soon after, a tugboat steamed towards us, hovering near us as our engines fired up.  "Soon," I thought.  We passed 9:00 before we finally pulled away from port, only a little over 27 hours late.


Despite our retarded departure, the remaining three days of the voyage went smoothly.  Life onboard was pretty relaxed, a combination of sleeping, eating, sitting inside to warm up and going outside to battle wind, rain and cold.  The first night and most of the first day we steamed in the calm waters inand of the large island of Chiloe, and the broken island to its south.  Despite the cloudy, rainy weather, the landscape was spectacular, with the steely waters lapping against the gray-green shores outlined in the mist.  By the evening of the first day, we exited the shelter of the islands, exposing ourselves to the open Pacific.  As we entered the open ocean, the winds immediately picked up, soon topping gale forces.  The 40 nautical-mile-per-hour winds we beat into soon piled formidable waves in our path, and as we began to pitch, Julie and my aunt sucked down some Dramamine to help them through the night.  I, the seasoned sailor, figured I would be all right, and instead enjoyed the ships increasing roller coaster ride.  That night, the dining hall was a little empty.  Julie was feeling a little off, and opted to stay out on deck, so I brought her some food.  Several greenish looking people hung their heads over the side of the boat, and Julie said that a lot of the people on board were getting sick.  I returned to the dining hall to eat my dinner.


Although dinner was quite good, something about being inside as the ship pitched wildly made me feel a little sick, so I returned to the outer deck to join Julie.  I spent the rest of the evening outside, enjoying the fresh air, and battling a slight feeling of nausea.  As the day's light waned, I finally decided to retire, and hurried through the ship, knowing that once I was able to lie down, I would be all right.  I entered the cabin, and stood there a moment, suddenly realizing that I wasn't going to make it to bed in time.  My aunt asked me a question, to which I simply replied, "I'm going to be sick."


I lurched for the bathroom door, barely making it in time to vomit mostly into the garbage can.  My aunt, not realizing what I was doing, got up to look, laughing hysterically when she saw me.  Perhaps because she is usually the one to get seasick on our family sailing trips, she found it terribly humorous that I became sick on this voyage, but she continued to laugh as I embarrassedly found Alejandro to get someone to come and help me clean my mess.  The janitor that came to assist looked about as sick as I had, and nearly threw-up himself before running from our room, leaving me to clean up after myself.  My aunt only found this more humorous, unable to stop laughing.  Julie arrived, joining in the mock seasick Gerick session (although I think she was laughing at my aunt's laughter as much as she was laughing at me) as my uncle defended my right not to be ridiculed for getting sick (Thank you Uncle Paul).


Overnight, the wind worsened, slowing our progress dramatically.  The time it took to cross the stretch of open ocean nearly doubled, meaning that we were just past halfway across by the time we woke up, instead of completely across as we had been told the night before.  By morning, I felt much better, and fortunately, the seas had calmed considerable from the night before.  We passed a point and entered the Golfo de Penas (gulf of regrets).  As the ship's pitching changed into the ship's rolling, I decided that I would spend most of the day on deck.


Once we passed behind the chain of island that extends to Chile's southern tip, the trip went much more smoothly.  Although the skies never cleared, the rain stopped, and I spent much of my time out on deck, or in the bridge, which the captain kept open to anyone who wished to visit.  I met many people on board, and spent most of one day on a marine mammal hunt, as they wanted to see whales.  We never saw any, but I kept myself very entertained seeing lots of birds, sea lions, seals and even the occasional porpoise.  There were albatross everywhere, mostly black-browed, and petrels, cormorants, penguins, terns and gulls abounded.  Sea lions and seals popped up everywhere, and one particularly huge one struck me as possibly being a Southern Elephant Seal (Raf, if George ever gets that big, my god!).


On the evening of the second day, the dining hall and common area were turned into a huge disco party.  A group of Peace Corps volunteers, Julie and I were hanging out, as we had been told that we might pass an area full of icebergs, and wanted to be ready to see them, and were dismayed that most of the senior officers were partying with the passengers rather than out on iceberg watch.  Figuring that they knew what they were doing, we decided to just enjoy the party.  Somehow, I got the idea that I wanted to see Julie dance with the crew, so I started conversing with the Second Officer, convincing him that he wanted to dance with her.  They danced (apparently with him getting a little too close at times), and she returned to me telling me that she wanted to dance with another officer that was also out on the dance floor.  She said that he looked like he would be fun to dance with, and she went off to make friends.  She returned a dance later saying that what had looked like good dancing was actually the officer's drunken attempts to stay standing as he danced.  Having been disappointed by the officers' dancing abilities, she relegated herself to sitting the rest of the dance out.  Then, the crowd parted, and the captain walked in.  Her eyes met his, and as she ran to his embrace, she knew that she would never be lonely again.  O K., perhaps that is not exactly how it happened, but the captain did ask her to dance (who was by her admission the best dancer of the crew, he didn't earn those stripes for nothing), and when we left the party, the highest ranking officers on the ship were all putty in her hands.


Day three, the channel narrowed considerably, allowing us wonderful looks at the islands we were passing through.  The snowline dropped below the cloud line, enhancing the view, and the myriad of waterfalls cascading the steep slopes added to the panorama.  We passed several extremely narrow passages, and on our closest approaches to shore, I got great looks at a number of birds, including kelp geese, steamer ducks, pintails, oystercatchers, and on one steep point, a pair of nesting Andean Condors.  The landscape kept becoming more and more spectacular, and although the skies never cleared, the gray added a cold austerity to the steely waters and brooding mountains that surrounded us.


We landed that afternoon in Puerto Natales.  As we left the boat, we were immediately surrounded by people encouraging us to stay with them.  A young girl finally convinced us to follow her to her home, where her mother rented out several rooms above the travel agency she ran.  We moved into a couple of rooms, and made friends with Liliana, the owner, as we discussed some of the tours she offered locally.


The main attraction in Puerto Natales is the close by Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, whose centerpiece, the towering Cuernos del Paine, are one of Chile's most photographed natural wonders.  Julie had decided that she wanted to take a multiple day trek with some of the folks we had met on the boat, and my aunt and uncle wanted to spend a couple of days in the park, and then head south to Tierra del Fuego.  As Tierra del Fuego was one of my main reasons for coming to southern Chile, I joined my aunt and uncle, but spent most of the next day helping Julie arrange her trek. 


Before we could plan too definitely, Julie and I had to make arrangements on how to get back to Santiago to catch our flights home.  In talking to Liliana, we learned that three airlines flew from Punta Arenas, the nearest large city, to Santiago, LAN Chile, Avant, and Aero Continente.  Although most of the travel agents represented either LAN Chile or Avant, and refused to sell us tickets on Aero Continente, Liliana confided in us that Aero Continente usually had the lowest fares.  She repeatedly tried to contact Aero Continente, but was never being able to get through.  Meanwhile, we decided to check with other travel agencies to see if perhaps they could arrange a ticket with Aero Continente.


One of the first agencies we tried was an agency operated out of Navimag's main office in Puerto Natales.  The agents warmly greeted us as we entered the office, seating us down at one of the desks.  The man who smiled at us from behind the desk asked us what we wanted.  We told him that we were looking for flights from Punta Arenas to Santiago.  He asked us what dates we wanted to travel, and he turned to his computer, typing in a few commands.  He wrote a fare on a piece of paper, and handed it to us.  The fare was identical to the fares we had received at all the other offices for LAN Chile, but we still asked, "What airline is this for?"


"Lan Chile."


"Can you check the other airlines for us?"


"There is only one other airlines, Avant, and their prices are the same."


"Can you check it, because we were told they might have lower fares?"


The agent frowned, but typed another command into the computer.  He told us the price for Avant, which, although similar, was slightly cheaper.  We then asked him if he could check the price for Aero Continente.


"They are sold out on the day you want to fly," came his abrupt reply, realizing that we didn't quite buy his 'there is only one other airline' bit.


"Well, we are pretty flexible with our travel dates, could you at least get us a fare?"


"I can't access them on the computer, and their fares are the same as everyone else's."


"Can you please call them?"


"Their office is closed, you'll have to come back tomorrow."


Realizing that he really didn't want to help us any longer, Julie and I got up and left.  At first angered by his refusal to help us, we at least figured that if their office was closed that might be why Liliana couldn't get through.  We guessed that maybe he told us to come back tomorrow so that he would not have to help us, meaning we would get somebody else who might be more helpful.  We went back to where we were staying, where Liliana told us that she was unable to get through to Aero Continente, but that she would keep trying tomorrow.


The next day, we returned to the Navimag travel agency, and again were warmly greeted by the agent on duty.  He sat us down, and again we explained that wanted to travel on the 14th of December and wanted fares for Aero Continente.  He smiled, turned to his computer and looked up some fares.  I thought, "See, this guy is already being more helpful.  The other agent claimed that he couldn't get Aero Continente fares on the computer."  He handed me the fare he had looked up.  It was identical to the fare for LAN Chile.  I immediately became suspicious.


I asked the agent, "Can you give us the fare for Aero Continente?"


Still smiling, he told me, "That is the fare."


"I thought that you couldn't look up Aero Continente fares on your computer?"


He quit smiling, argumentatively retorting, "Their fares are the same."


Julie, sensing the man's less than honest nature, motioned for us to leave, but I wanted to at least make this guy go through the motions of helping us.  I asked if he could call and double-check the fare.  Obviously a little perturbed, he said that they never answer the phone.  I asked him to try anyway.  He picked up the phone, and dialed a number he obviously knew by heart.  The party on the other line picked up almost immediately.  He began to whisper to the person on the phone, chuckling softly, and avoiding eye contact with Julie and I.  After an extended length of pleasantries, I finally heard him ask, "Do you have any tickets left for the 11th?"


Hearing the wrong dates, I immediately stared at him.  Startled that I had heard him, he quickly looked up to me, and raising his voice to be sure I heard him added, "oh, and on the 14th."  He turned his chair so that he was facing the opposite direction from us, and began talking even quieter.  It became obvious that he was not on the phone with Aero Continente.  I commented to Julie, who agreed, again saying that we should just leave, but I wanted to see how far he would take his deception.  He returned to his computer, turning the monitor so that we could not see it (although I still swear I saw the game minesweeper come onto the screen before he turned it), and typed a few things in.


After a few more whispered comments, he turned to us, and wrote down another fare, almost identical to the LAN Chile fare.  "That is the Aero Continente fare, but they are full on the day you want to fly."


"That is alright," I told him, "We are flexible, can you check the 15th?"


"They don't have a flight on the 15th."


"How about the 16th?"


Realizing his folly in even making the flight a reasonable alternative in his fantasy world, and also realizing that I had mentioned that we were both trying to catch flights on the 18th, he said, "They are completely booked for two weeks afterwards."


Not to be outdone, I said, "We can also fly to Puerto Montt.  Can you find out fares for that flight?"


A few more hushed comments over the phone, and he wrote down another fare, this one almost a hundred dollars higher than LAN Chile's fare for the same flight.  It was clear that he was not going to make the same mistake in reformulating his lies.  Looking in retrospect, I should have asked him to book the flight just to call his bluff, but realizing that there was no possibility of us being helped, Julie finally convinced me to leave.  We left, the agent still quietly laughing to his pseudo Aero Continente representative on the telephone, wishing that the mines on his computer screen were real.


We never discovered what the travel agents in town had against Aero Continente, because none of them were willing to look up Aero Continente fares.  We finally returned to Liliana, and I bought tickets on Avant through her.  Ironically, the next day she was able to get through to Aero Continente, checking on a different ticket for Julie, but they were sold out.


Having secured our plans for returning to Santiago, Julie and I spent the next morning buying supplies she would need for her trek.  My aunt, uncle and I had arranged for a bus tour to the park followed by a day on a zodiac cruising the rivers and fjords back to town, so after we boarded Julie on her bus to the park, we made our own preparations.  Liliana had told us that we would be spending a night in one of the refuges in the park, so we rented sleeping bags, and early the next morning, a van picked us up to take us to the park.


The ride to the park was beautiful.  The weather looked like it was finally clearing up, and we cruised through the grasslands separating Puerto Natales from the park.  We made a brief stop at a cave in which the fossils of a giant sloth had been found.  Not wanting to pay the entrance fee for the cave, my aunt, uncle and I opted to go bird watching as the others in the van entered the cave.  The scrub and grass stretched into the distance, blending into the rocky scarps and mountains to our east, while to the west, it met the placid waters of the bay that reflected the snowy peaks on the other side.  The bird life was spectacular, with black-necked swans gracing the bay, and upland and ashy-headed geese gathering in the grasslands.  Rufous-collared sparrows darted through the underbrush, and Crested Caracaras glided low over the waist-high scrub.


As our ride to the park continued, the landscape became more dramatic, with steep cliffs rising from the grasslands, and longs chains of snowy precipices peaking out of the threatening clouds the increasing wind brought.  As we neared one steeply sloping hillside, we stopped to watch nearly two-dozen Andean Condors circling to catch the updrafts the hill created.  Their slow, graceful arcs brought them directly overhead, as they effortlessly caught every gust of wind.  We entered the park winding through low grassy hills, witnessing the spectacular chain of mountains separating Chile from Argentina.  A large herd of Guanaco, a wild relative of the Llama similar to the Vicuna, greeted us, and we paused to watch them frolic.  We also passed a group of enormous Rhea, who eyed us suspiciously as we stopped to photograph them.


We turned and followed a road that twisted around the hills and lakes at the base of the monolithic Cuernos de Paine.  The massive granite precipices reached into the churning clouds, the obscured peaks defying the force of the biting winds that whistled through their heights, while the stunning lakes at its base rippled and frothed in the chilling gale.  Each of the icy lakes possessed a different color depending on which glacier's water filled its shores, adding color to the raw beauty of the ochre hillsides and black peaks surrounding them.  We passed innumerable Guanaco, and condor could occasionally be scene patrolling the dramatic scene.  Our guide, seeing our interest in birds, stopped to show us a Great Horned Owl whose haunts he was familiar with.


We stopped for a short walk to a waterfall that connected two of the lakes, and then stopped at a small hotel located on an island in one of the lakes for lunch.  From there we followed a road that curved around the lake towards another lake that flanked the Cuernos on the west side.  One stretch of the road became particular rocky, and one of the tires went flat.  We paused to change the tire, and then continued to Lago Grey, at the base of the massive Glacier Grey.  We hiked in to see the lake.  Crossing a narrow suspension bridge across the Rio Grey, we followed a beautiful trail to the lake's shore.  The pebbly beach that filled the valley between two long rock escarpments had been left by the huge glacier as it slowly receded into the distance.  The lake stretched to the glacier, and was filled with incandescent blue icebergs that had calved off the sheet of ice.  My aunt, uncle and I walked along the beach for a ways, admiring the drifting mountains of ice.  I crossed the pebbly beach, and climbed the escarpment on the other side, walking out to a point jutting into the lake to take pictures of the icebergs.  As I did, the skies over the glacier cleared, bathing the glacier in blinding light, and giving me a brief glimpse of one of the looming Cuernos.


Following our hike, our guide drove us to what we thought was the refuge where we were going to stay.  The story becomes a little drawn out to relate here, but the guide actually took us to a rather expensive hotel in the park (the fact that we could not distinguish the hotel from a refuge should tell you about the relative luxury of the hotel), but we did not realize the mix up until after we received the bill.  Anyways, the guide probably got a cut from the hotel owners, and after spending ALL of the money we had brought, we were a bit irate.


Anyhow, we spent that evening walking around and enjoying the gorgeous park.  We followed a short trail along a small pond, that lead us to another small pond, filled with birds.  On our evening walk, we saw siskins, sparrows, wrens, rayaditos, coots, another Great Horned Owl, spectacled ducks, speckled teal, pintail, lapwing, steamer duck, snipe, oystercatchers, caracaras and a variety of geese.


Up early the next morning, a van came and picked us up to take us to the zodiac.  We picked up a few more passengers, and headed towards the river we would be cruising down.  As we arrived at the river, the skies finally cleared enough for us to see the Cuernos.  After snapping a couple of pictures of the secretive peaks, we put on our raingear and life vests and loaded onto the small boat.  We cruised down the river, through magnificent forests with mountains rising behind them.  The Cuernos peeked at us occasionally, as we turned and maneuvered to avoid the rapid areas in the stream.  We came to a small waterfall in the river, and had to land, hike and short ways, and get in another zodiac on the other side.  We continued down the river, passing near the largest glacier in Chile, the southernmost in a series of glaciers collectively known as the Campo de Hielo (Ice Fields).  Together they form a stretch of almost solid ice extending several hundred kilometers.


We continued to follow the snaking river until we came upon a small estancia, where we had some coffee and met an old vacero who still raised cattle in the rugged mountains between the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, which we were exiting, and Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgens, which we were entering.  Farther down, the river joined one of the fantastic fjords carved into the rugged mountains, and our zodiac rafted onto a small ferry docked at a small pier.  We went ashore, and followed a trail to a glacier steeply dropping from the mountain on which it rested.  Similar to Glacier Grey, a lake had formed at the glacier's base, filled with icebergs.  We hiked to the base of the glacier, marveling at the beautiful wildflowers and the bright orange ball-shaped fungus, known as Indian Bread, that grew on the surrounding trees.  Because of the steep slope it was descending, the glacier was broken up, with deep crevasses extending deep into the ice.  We were not allowed to walk on the glacier, but stood near enough to appreciate its immense bulk.  After returning to the pier, we boarded the ferry, and took a short cruise to another nearby glacier, whose precipitous drop was even more remarkable than the last.  Its ice dropped directly into the fjord, and we circled about for a while, staring up at the suspended ice hanging above.  The ferry then cruised down the fjord back to Puerto Natales, through steep mountains dotted with innumerable cascades and waterfalls.


We docked at Puerto Natales that afternoon.  After a mix up with the company that ran the zodiac, and having to wait several hours for our luggage to arrive, we finally boarded a late bus to Punta Arenas.  We arrived a little after 11:00 in the evening, and unsure of where we should stay, asked a taxi driver to take us to a hostel whose flier had been given to us.  The taxi driver, whose rotund shape, talkative nature, and thick glasses reminded me of Newman from Seinfeld, chatted incessantly as he drove.  We stopped at the hostel, only to find that it was full.  Our corpulent chauffeur suggested another hostel, and we agreed to let him take us there.


It was midnight by the time we arrived at Ely's residence.  Ely, the owner of the hostel, greeted us warmly, and showed us the only private room she had available.  My aunt and uncle took it, and I moved in with three Chilean meteorologists on their way to Antarctica.  Ely asked me if I was hungry, and despite the hour, prepared me a meal of noodles and chicken.  My aunt and uncle retired, but I stayed up talking to a group of Americans that were staying there, finally going to sleep.


I awoke at five the next morning when one of the meteorologists, getting off of the top bunk he was sleeping in, smashed into the chandelier as he crashed to the floor.  I fell back asleep as they got ready and left for their flight, but awoke again soon after, and greeted my aunt and uncle at the breakfast table, who were talking to Ely's small daughter.  We breakfasted, and as my uncle had not slept well that night, he returned to bed.  My aunt and I spent the morning walking about town, and arranging for a tour of one of the nearby penguin colonies.


That evening we boarded the Melinka, a small ferry that normally runs between Punta Arenas and Porvenir.  In the evenings, she moonlights as a tour boat, taking tourists to the large colony of Magellanic Penguins on the nearby Isla Magdalena.  On the hour and a half trip out, my aunt and I braved the cold winds and rain, spotting penguins, albatross, petrels, diving petrels, terns, skuas and gulls.  Eventually we arrived at the small island, beaching on the downwind side of the island.  Park rangers greeted us, and guided us on the small trail up the island's leeward slope to a lighthouse on top.  The island was covered with penguins.  The 120,000 penguin strong colony encompassed the entire island, and the grassy slopes were dotted with the black and white birds.  Each wave lapping at the island's shore brought more penguins with it.   They scrambled up rocks, waddling over to pause and watch the line of gawkers file up the slope.  Once we had passed, they would continue their scramble to their nesting holes.  The penguins were everywhere, peeking out from their holes as we passed.  At one point, a group of penguins was about to cross the footpath.  My aunt and uncle sat very still to watch them.  One daring penguin decided to investigate, and walked right up to my aunt, gently pecking at her in curiosity.  Kelp Gull also nested on the island, and one poor gull that built its nest on the footpath kept diving at us as we walked by her abandoned nest.  Great Skuas hovered menacingly nearby, ready to make a meal of any eggs or young left alone too long.  After wandering to the lighthouse, I hurried back, so that I would have a few moments to explore the intertidal before getting back aboard the Melinka.  The tide was not very far out, but I did get to see a number of large limpets, the remnants of some large crabs, and a rock that appeared to have some sort of fossil in it.


I spent the trip back seeing the same birds I had seen on the way out, and we arrived back at Punta Arenas to find our Newman-like taxi driver waiting at the dock.  Recognizing us, he offered to take us back to Ely's house, and then offered to drive my aunt and I to the grocery store free of charge afterwards.  We spent another night at Ely's, and departed early the next morning on a bus bound for Argentina.