Published on April 19th, 2010 | by Mark Chesnut
Hot, Cold & Blue in Chile’s Patagonia Region
I’ve been in Chile’s Patagonia region since Friday morning, and only late last night, on Sunday, was I able to catch a wave of Wifi, here at the Hotel Loberías del Sur in Puerto Chacabuco. After all, you don’t fly all the way to South America’s far southern reaches in order to Google the word glacier. You come here to see one.
On Friday, we flew LAN Airlines to Balmaceda, a wind-swept town set just a few yards from the Argentina border, amid rolling hills and with a backdrop of soaring mountains. I donned a sweatshirt to adjust to the cooler clime and hopped aboard our group’s motor coach for a 2.5-hour ride that included a brief stop in Coyhaique, a cheery small city of some 50,000 where vendors on the downtown pedestrian mall sell woodcrafts and handmade sweaters.
At the port town of Chacabuco we boarded the Patagonia Express, a 90-foot, 247-ton catamaran that features business-class style seating designed to keep travelers comfy for extended excursions (as we spent five hours on the craft that day, I was especially appreciative of the airline-style reclining seats and the second-floor dining room, which kept us well fed and well lubricated with an open bar). This was the last boat of the season, as fall was already enveloping the region, shrouding the mountains in misty clouds and dousing our ship in a near-constant drizzle. As we ate lunch on board, the skies outside hung so full and low that at times it was like flying in a dirigible, with no land in site. What scenery we did glimpse was dramatic and painterly, as we wended our way through the fjords, gazing at the mountains. (Most visitors wouldn’t come after the season has ended, so they get better views. This is one of the crazy parts of being a travel writer.)
It was after dark when we arrived at Puyuhuapi, an upscale lodge and spa tucked into the far corner of a Pacific Ocean inlet. A smiling staff greeted us at the dock and escorted us into the cozy lobby, which centered around a crackling fireplace. They instructed us to proceed to our guestrooms, put on swimsuits and bathrobes, and come back to the reception area to join a “water experience” in the spa. I headed to my perfectly tranquil room and glanced from my balcony over the dark waters. I dutifully changed and felt a bit silly when I was the only person wearing a robe in the lobby. But within a matter of minutes, more people appeared and we were escorted to the lodge’s large, candlelit spa, dominated by a huge heated indoor pool surrounded by several smaller pools and tubs with water of varying temperatures. A hotel employee recited a brief poem about nature before we all toasted with pure mountain water. Then it was into the water. Most of us opted for the giant warm pool, but several eventually decided to try the hotter tubs and — most entertainingly — the super-cold pool. We took turns jumping into the frigid water as others laughed at our reactions. My hands and feet still tingled when I returned to the warm water. We refueled afterwards in the lodge’s restaurant, which served up an array of tasty cuisine.
The Patagonia Express
Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa.
The indoor spa pool at Puyuhuapi.
See that blueish stuff at the top? That’s the glacier.
The Elusive Glacier
They did their best to keep us dry and warm at Puyahuapi. On Saturday, as we headed out to view part of the closest glacier, the staff suited us up with tall white waterproof boots, long blue raincoats and hoods, and even waterproof bags for those who needed to store their cameras. As the rain continued incessantly, we took a small boat across the inlet to board a bus, which delivered us to the foot of an easy hiking trail where we forged over the charging rapids of a river fed by mountaintop waterfalls. Unfortunately it was too cloudy to see much, but it was still wonderful to see the towering mountains and the blue-tinted glacier that revealed itself atop one of the mountains when the clouds briefly pulled back.The tiny strip of my pants that was not covered by something waterproof was soaked by the time I returned from the excursion. Fellow travelers who had opted for a more intense hike, which had left earlier in the morning, reported that they had indeed gotten quite close to the glacier and enjoyed a rewarding view. That afternoon, I soaked in Puyahuapi’s indoor pools once again before wandering over to the outdoor hot pool, which offers still another vantage point for appreciating the local scenery.
Mote con huesillo, a traditional Chilean dessert, made with dried peaches and wheat.
The first glimpse I get of an iceberg. (And yes, it is that blue.)
Glacier, on a Grand Scale
We awoke on Sunday morning before the sun rose and boarded the catamaran yet again for a long day of travel among the fjords. It would take us five to six hours to reach the glacier that was our next stop, so the time was perfect for a long nap in the comfy business-class seats on the Patagonia Express (several members of the United States Tour Operators Association, with whom I’m traveling, admirably used the dining area for a business meeting, spreading their papers across one of the tables. But I needed to sleep).
Sometime after lunch, I started to notice different geography outside our windows. The first pieces of ice appeared like artificially blue chunks sitting in the water. Gradually, the lumps grew larger until we saw the source: The magnificent San Rafael glacier, a popular tourist site that is one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world, and has been receding rather dramatically in recent years.
A multi-textured mass with countless shades of blue, the glacier was so perfect, so dramatic, and so colorful that it would be easy to think it’s artificial. Two zodiac crafts shuttled four groups of visitors from our catamaran; I had the good luck to be in group two, which enjoyed some sunshine and relatively warm weather as we cruised slowly through the ice, awed by the sheer size of the glacier, and the drama when pieces of it would come crashing into the water, sending gentle waves under our craft.
Back on the catamaran, some passengers sipped drinks served with fresh glacial ice as we cruised away from the approaching rains and headed back toward Puerto Chacabuco, about 5.5 hours away. And here I am now. I’ll no longer experience Internet withdrawal pangs starting on Monday night, when I check into the W Hotel in Santiago de Chile. But it was worth being disconnected for a weekend to get to see all that beautiful blue ice.