There are destinations that beguile even if you've only seen them in pictures. Problem is, many of them are remote. So remote that getting there is an adventure in itself. When I first saw stunning photos of Patagonia years ago, my jaw simply dropped. This far-flung spot on Earth, along with Peru's Macchu Picchu and Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, drove me to dream big when it comes to traveling. However, traveling to Patagonia is not just time consuming. It is also expensive. Airfares have gone up and unless I really go rough - as in pitching my own tent - accommodations can also be pricey.
video courtesy of Cascada Expediciones
Luck thankfully was on my side when I won in the International Ecotourism Society's travel auction earlier this year. The prized item? A 5-day stay at a suite dome in EcoCamp deep within Chile's crown jewel - the Torres del Paine National Park. The current selling price for one person in their Patagonia Wildlife Safari program is $2,608 - quite a lot of money and way more than my winning bid of $555. I figured paying $111/day isn't so bad considering accommodations, meals, drinks, activities, transfers and park entrance fees are included. Of course, there are other expenses I have to shoulder since my trip involved visiting other areas of Patagonia.
The trip to the far south began very early in the morning in Santiago. At 4 AM, the hostel clerk knocked on my door (how's that for a wake-up call service?) to remind me that a driver is picking me up in half an hour for the drive to the airport. Normally, the airport transfer cost $12 but lucky me, another traveler staying in the hostel was airport-bound so we split the fare. With less traffic to contend at such an early hour, we reached the airport in just 30 minutes. I bid the other traveler goodbye, a Brazilian girl on her way to Sao Paulo. For security reasons, I always put my big backpack inside a big duffel before locking it and checking it in. My daypack was all I have to carry with me.
Santiago's Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez Airport, damaged from last February's massive earthquake but has since been repaired, is one of the better airports I've passed through. Since my LAN flight to Punta Arenas doesn't leave until 6:30 AM, I killed the time reading the book whose movie I've already seen. I got hungry but there was no coffee shop open past security checks so I munched on some cookies I bought the day before. Boarding was called and we got airborne on time. LAN is one of those few airlines whose domestic flights offer something to eat and drink, in this case, a box full of sweets exclusively supplied by Havanna, a popular Argentinean brand. For breakfast, my sugar level really went skyhigh after devouring a heavenly alfajores.
After almost 2 hours, our plane made a scheduled half-hour stop-over in Puerto Montt. Some passengers disembarked and some more came in. Soon, we were airborne again. The LAN flight attendants went the second time around handing me that box full of sinfully good sweets. Of course my hunger obliged. Flight time was a full two hours to Punta Arenas - a really long plane ride on a domestic route outside of continental United States! As I had a window seat (requested prior to this trip),I peered at the plexi-glass window hoping to get a sneak peek at what I've been dreaming about all these years. Unfortunately, there was a heavy cloud cover but I did manage to get a blurry shot of a glacier that I could not identify till now.
|Glimpse of a glacier|
We landed just before 11 AM - or after 4 hours flying - in a tiny airport just outside Punta Arenas, Chile's most southernmost city and one that's practically at the end of the world (Argentina's Ushuaia is a bit further south). Close to the airport is the fabled Straight of Magellan (or Estrecho de Magallanes), so named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who sailed along this body of water searching for a western route to the East Indies. As every proud Pinoy remembers well from school or perhaps from Yoyoy Villame's song, Magellan met the deadly wrath of Lapu Lapu in the Philippines.
|Straight of Magellan - named after Ferdinand Magellan who sailed through here|
At the airport, someone from EcoCamp was already waiting for me, or us, rather. There were others apparently on the same flight as me that's also going to EcoCamp. Which was fine: the more the merrier on this long 7-hour drive to the camp. There's Bradley, a surfing dude/teacher from Maui, Hawaii, an American couple from sunny Florida (whose names I forgot duh!) and Fernanda, from EcoCamp's head office in Santiago on a familiarization trip. With us on the van was Mauricio, one of EcoCamp's guides.
A little after the Straight of Magellan faded from our view, a traffic policeman holding a speed radar stopped our van. It looked like our driver must have exceeded the speed limit. Some tense few minutes later and after a stern warning for the driver, we're back on the road - and into the vast wind-swept steppe that looks empty, desolate but gorgeous. It is in this open plains that estancias have thrived, owned by wealthy landowners who raise cattle, sheep and horses. Miles and miles we go and estancias after estancias distinctly defined by endless fences become a repetitive blur in my sleep-deprived mind. I reclined my seat and slept until we reached Puerto Natales, some 4 hours since we left the airport.
Puerto Natales is a small town spread on a gently sloping coast with a grand view of the Almirante Montt Gulf and the glacier-capped peaks around it. Houses looked sturdy enough to withstand the winds that usually pummel this area. Gladly today, we were blessed with a calm weather. After stopping by EcoCamp's office in town and signing some papers, we walked to Cormoran de las Rocas for late lunch. Since I'm in Chile, I ordered Chilean sea bass. The fish was excellent, made all the more memorable as we sat on a table overlooking the gulf and the mountains outside. Our group was soon joined by another couple from the UK, who just arrived on the bus from Argentina.
We all resumed the drive, the steppe now punctuated by more snow-capped mountains. Mauricio announced a short stop-over at the Cueva del Milodon, a cave discovered in 1896. What was in it made it to the headlines: a scrap of hairy skin and a few bones that were determined to be from an extinct giant ground sloth called Mylodon. There's a replica of this herbivore beast at the cave's entrance which to me looked almost like a polar bear. We walked inside the huge cave surprised, never expecting this kind of geologic formation within Patagonia. I never even knew about this until we got there.
The long stretch of asphalt soon turned into gravel road. This could only mean we're closer to the park. A turquoise lake appeared with a mountainous apparition behind it. Mauricio declared "right in front of us is Lake Sarmiento and behind it is the Torres del Paine massif". It was late in the afternoon, half past 5 PM, and we were all tired but this great view of the massif playing peek-a-boo with the gray clouds all looked so surreal as to keep us from blinking our eyes. We're almost there. Almost.
At the park entrance, Mauricio paid for our entrance fees ($30). We're now officially inside the Torres del Paine National Park but the famous torres (or towers) were not yet ready to reveal to us, hidden as they were at this time by a thick mass of clouds. Nevertheless, we were all excited at what lay ahead of us. EcoCamp was still several more minutes away, past a one-car bridge, up some more twisting gravel road and finally into our camp. It's almost 7 PM. Rafael, who calls himself Rafa, met me and brought me to my own dome tent. The bed is inviting but dinner is waiting. What a long day of travel it's been!