The journey into Chilean Patagonia

The beauty of Chile being such a long country is that is crosses so many geographic belts so you really get all worlds in one place. After leaving Pucon, I began journeying deeper into the Lakes District. You have to see this place!

I met 2 Aussie backpackers whilst hiking the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru and despite them being Australian (had to throw that in Olly and Andrea 🙂 ), they were great people. They recommended that I visit a town called Puerto Varas, a 4 hour bus ride south.

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Volcan Osorno making a decent appearance in Puerto Varas.

Their recommendation was 100% on point. The town is an old German colony (yes, Chile has a rich history of German colonisation – I didn’t know this until recently) and at times, it felt like I was in Europe – wooden houses, German food and a sense of German structure.

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You’ll be forgiven for thinking you were in the Alps.

The town is set on Lake Llanquihue with views of 3 snow-capped volcanoes in the distance. You’d be hard pressed to find a more idealic setting. When the weather is behaving itself, there are few places I’d rather sit on the shoreside for hours just absorbing this incredible view.

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More volcanoes in the Chilean Lakes District.

Another reason why Puerto Varas should be included in your itinerary is that there are a number of other small, equally quaint towns all along the shores of the massive lake. I went to one such town called Frutillar. It is tiny but perfect for a day out – more incredible views and some great bakeries (I’ve developed a major problem in terms of the quantity of cake I’m consuming – going to have to pay for 2 seats on the flight home at this rate). Frutillar is home to a theatre on the shores of the lake (called Teatro del Lago) – you couldn’t find a better location for such a venue. It you head here, try and coordinate your trip with a performance.

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A wooden church in Frutillar.

From Puerto Varas, I needed to make my way down to southern Patagonia pretty quickly as I’d made plans to hike Torres del Paine on 1 October. As a result of the pretty tight timing, I opted against heading any further south in the Lakes District and fly directly to Punta Arenas. This is a decision I’m happy with in retrospect as although 1 October officially marks the start of the high season in Patagonia, many things only open on 1 October and are shut until then. This seemed to be the case for many of the parks between Puerto Varas and the deep south.  It also means I now have an excuse to come back to Chile!

Punta Arenas is on the map for 2 primary reasons: the closest major hub to Puerto Natales (the gateway to Torres del Paine) and secondly, Penguins.

The major penguin attraction is on  Isla de Magdalenes which is home to many Magellanic Penguins during breeding season where 60,000 breeding couples arrive on the island, but this park is shut and only opens on 1 October (there are very few penguins on the island until then as they’re still making their journey north from the southern Patagonian ice fields).

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Guanacos (a variation of Llama). I can’t tell the difference between Llamas, Alpacas, Vinunas, Guanacos… I think someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes!

Fortunately, the island of Tierra del Fuego is a few hours drive (and ferry ride) from Punta Arenas and is home to a colony of King Penguins which I was very excited to see. If you haven’t hired a car and aren’t familiar with the roads and ferries, the only feasible option to get to Parque Pinguino Rey is on a very expensive day tour. I was hesitant to part with the $120 which felt like extortion but I’m very glad I did. Although I think the price tag is unjustifiable for what you get – the penguins are amazing but everything else about the tour was mediocre – attractions for the sake of being attractions.

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Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland and is shared between Chile and Argentina. The island has a pretty horrible history as there was massive displacement of local people in the nineteenth century by colonisers to make way for the booming Patagonian sheep trade and gold rush. It was a genocide really – a local tribe to the island (the Selk’nam) were systematically killed – their numbers dropping from 3000 to 500 which eventually led to their extinction. Many ranchers paid to have tribesmen killed – the death being confirmed by the delivery of the slain person’s ears and hands. Why you ask? Quite literally to make space for sheep and to reduce the number of mouths to feed.

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A mural depicting the murder of the local Selk’nam tribe.

On a lighter note – the King Penguins – they’re the second biggest penguin species on the planet (the biggest being Emperor Penguins only found on Antarctica). At this time of year, the chicks are starting to hatch and are the cutest things you’ll see. Unlike their white, black and orange parents that look slick and proud, the chicks are covered in brown fur that almost makes them look like fat, hairy rugby balls with beaks! We witnessed the parents waddling along to feed them – an incredible sight to behold.

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King penguins and their chicks. I wish I had a big camera lens with me to get a proper photo of them!

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A photo taken from my phone through the lens of a telescope. The things you have to do for a close-up pic!

The drive back to Punta Arenas was a long one passing by many abandoned sheep ranches and ship wrecks – it makes for quite a surreal landscape.

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One of the shipwrecks on the shores of Punta Arenas

I am in Puerto Natales now, where I’ll spend a day before beginning the W circuit of Torres del Paine. Here’s hoping the weather holds up as current forecasts predict snow everyday with a maximum temperature of 4 degrees and 40km winds!

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The ferry ride back to the mainland.

 

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