Here is Chapter Seven of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We'll publish each chapter over the course of the year (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book direct from EarthPhotos Publishing, or at Amazon.com. Photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Chile Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.
A band of cold rain swept over the Hotel Cabo de Hornos, churning the Strait of Magellan dirty gray. Punta Arenas’s “oldest and grandest” hotel was, well, it was just a hotel, all of its walls painted a determined shade of mustard. A bare minimum of staff kept the Cabo de Hornos open and we all watched cold squalls spray over the strait.
The Pan American highway stops at Puerto Montt, 816 miles of Chilean coastline to the north, so there are no roads here. There is little tourism. You have to be damned determined to get here.
Feliz Navidad. Punta Arenas was closed tight, for we came in on Christmas night.
I think I snared the last car for rent in southern Chile.
I bought coffee and stopped on the plaza to rub the shiny toe of a statue of Magellan, then I found Hertz.
“Buenos dias. You have a car?”
A happy smile.
“If I go to aeropuerto?”
I looked across the street. “Budget?”
This “no” betrayed a smug certainty, and at the same time a creeping regret that he wasn’t helping. He allowed that I could always “ask the question” across the street at Budget and furthermore, the man down the street at Santander might have uno auto. He wouldn’t open until ten and it was only 9:30. Still, that was something, so I bid him and another man who was washing cars adios.
At Budget they had big smiles but no cars.
“For today!?” He acted amazed.
He phoned around, but nothing. At least I had “asked the question.”
It’s hard to imagine that the nearly Antarctic tip of South America came to be known as Tierra del Fuego, or land of fire. It’s likewise hard to imagine being so far from home – so isolated – as Ferdinand Magellan and his crew were, sailing through appalling weather where nobody they’d ever heard of had been, five centuries ago. Especially when they spotted huge bonfires onshore.
Tribes called Ona and Yaghan kept fires constantly stoked for warmth. The Yaghan wore only the scantest clothing despite the cold. They smeared seal fat over their bodies to fend off the wind and rain.
Canoeists, adept at navigating the labyrinthine channels and tributaries around the straits, they hunted the sea. Between Magellan in 1520 and Charles Darwin on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1834, not a lot changed. Darwin noted “these people going about naked and barefoot on the snow."
The Ona lived across the strait, on the island I could just see through the spray and mist. The books call them fierce warriors who adorned themselves with necklaces of bone, shell and tendon, and who, wearing heavy furs and leather shoes, intimidated the bare-skinned Yaghan. Darwin gave them their backhanded due, calling them “wretched lords of this wretched land.”
An early European settler described life hereabouts as 65 unpleasant days per year complimented by 300 days of rain and storms.
With time to kill, I walked to the water, stepping lightly past mongrels at a Purina warehouse, and I put my hand in the chilly Strait of Magellan – right there amid a bunch of floating plastic bags and candy wrappers.
One passenger ship was calling just now. Across the strait, looking just about west to east, low hills rose around a town called Porvenir (Future), Tierra Del Fuego. It wasn’t very far but I couldn’t make it out.
At 10:00 I tried the knob at the Santander Car Rental but it wouldn’t turn. The windows were still boarded. Oops, wait a minute. Soon as I turned the knob a man appeared from six doors down and opened the store and ushered me in. The long and short of it (mostly long, since we did the whole mileage and insurance wrangle without a common language) was that I got the last car he had and eventually it appeared, driven by the man who an hour ago had been washing the cars at Hertz.
Punta Arenas, at 110,000 people, is a proper town with a proper town park, which is home to the statue of Magellan and its smooth, often-rubbed toe. If you rub the toe you’ll be sure to come back. Twenty two hundred kilometers south of Santiago, you take what entertainment you get.
Having rubbed the toe we were free to drive, so we set out in our petite white Nissan Saloon to cross 430 kilometers of gravelly wilderness. A wire screen over the windshield served to prevent a crack from gravel flying off the road, the rental car man said. But no other cars had one, so we were embarrassed. Maybe it really was the last car for rent in town.
We looked silly, I thought, motoring off toward the hills. A quarter inch mesh of expanded metal surrounded the window all around. It extended far enough from the windshield for the wipers to operate underneath. A foot-square hole was cut in front of both the driver and the passenger with more mesh hinged over it so that the normal position was open from the top, for city driving, but for your serious gravel roads you could pull a string that reached inside your side window and roll the window up real fast to catch the string and bring the panel down. That sealed the whole windshield against rocks and provided you with about a thirty percent view of the world in front of you.
A hundred kilometers of blacktop, virtually no houses, virtually no traffic. A little bit of Greenland, with tiny white wildflowers but no trees. Then the pavement disappeared, a Mack truck barreled by, and we battened down the wire hatches.
Eventually intermittent rain, lack of traffic and squinty tension convinced us we really didn’t need the mesh pulled down. A few other cars had wire cages, but not most, and we made it all the way without a crack. At one point it was one paved lane for eighty kilometers.
At a place called Reubens, where stood a settlement of a few buildings, there began to be trees again. The Nire, or Notofagus antarctica, the native species, grows to twenty crooked and branched meters, compacted and dominated by the winds. Fields of tree trunks stood twisted and contorted by wind. The forest was two colors of green – the needles and lighter clinging lichen.
Rolling hills replaced the horizon-to-horizon flat. You could watch sheets of rain approach from miles away and wash overhead on their march to the other horizon.
260 kilometers up the road we refueled at Puerto Natales, the last town. Slung over low hills, it overlooked a bay from which ships sailed up to the Torres del Paine park, and there was a nice view across the harbor to snow capped mountains.
Tarmac surrounded Puerto Natales, but gravel returned minutes outside of town, for the last long 130 kilometers plus 58 additional kilometers we’d find out about later.
Snow topped a few low peaks.
Sheep on their way to Estancia Domingo
A thousand sheep blocked the road. Two gauchos and a squad of dogs marched them forward. The dogs ran and darted, responding to the gauchos’ whistles, and moved the sheep off the road for us. Mirja pointed out they weren’t sheepdogs, but mutts, or “cocktail dogs” as she put it, and observed that you wouldn’t need to play with these dogs at night because they’d be worn out.
They, and we, were bound for a place called Estancia Domingo (Domingo’s ranch). Over a rise beyond it, like flipping a switch, the horizon suddenly revealed a snow-covered massif that made us exclaim.
There were big birds about, but neither condors, with their white collars, nor the nandu, said to look like a feather duster. At a fork where a sign pointed toward “administración,” a series of lakes, ups and downs and curves began, and Mirja spotted guanacos. Herbivores, they live all over the park, usually grazing like mountain goats in steep cliff areas.
They’re maybe four feet tall at the shoulders, llama-like, brown and white, from the camel family. They may weigh 200 pounds. They live in family groups, and we usually saw them with their kids. They’d do this funky juke with their long necks when they ran.
Park administración noted our arrival in a tatty old book, took some pesos and showed us we still had some 58 kilometers to go. Unfazed anymore by flying gravel and tired of driving, we sped on.
The Torres del Payne
A long sand spit stretched outside our window at the Hosteria Lago Gray, just in front of the lake. Icebergs floated near shore, not quite building sized, but several people tall. Then in the distance, and not that far in the distance, a massive glacier some hundreds of feet high formed the horizon where it slid down between peaks.
All the peaks were covered with snow, but the ones in the east were taller. In the southern hemisphere, the south face never gets sun, and wide swathes of permanent snowfields gathered in the folds of all the mountains.
Still farther east stood the famous Torres, or Towers, del Paine, and we could see a couple of the Cuernos, or horns, too. They were just impossibly thin, tall formations, jutting so shear that the last of them wasn’t scaled until 1963.
Most often they stayed in the clouds, and we only saw them that first day when the light began to fade, maybe past ten. Prevailing wind whipped straight down the glacier north to south, and the trees were all permanently bent to show it.
Mirja and I couldn’t remember a windier place. Every night about five or six, it kicked up a gale and bore down, and rattled the windows and whistled through the grass.
There were frequent jets, and I was befuddled. Over the course of a day I heard six. This was a remote part of the planet, not really between anywhere and anywhere else. Could have been three round trips between Punta Arenas and the populated part of Chile, I guessed, but I doubted it.
There was a flight a week to Islas Malvinas, or the Falkland Islands, but that was Wednesdays and this was Sunday, so maybe they were flying to Antarctica, where Chile claims thirty million cubic kilometers of ice. Never figured it out.
We set out over a suspension bridge (“2 max at a time”) and along the edge of Lago Gray to see the icebergs, bluer by degrees than the water, then up to Mirador (lookout) Ferrier – a vertical rise of just 300 meters, but as steep and tough as we wanted.
Gales blew hard across barren rock at the top, with views back west to another snowy peak, and up into Lago Pingo and the glacier at its north end, closer to the Patagonian ice cap.
No wildlife, save for tiny birds. Rabbit sign, though. There were lots of flowers Mirja recognized from Finland, and scrub reached knee high. The clean, clear water we drank from a brook tasted magnificent.
Many dead tree trunks were hollowed and burned, suggesting lightning strikes. Looked like if you were a tree, your life was just to stand around contorting in the wind until eventually you were struck down by lightning.
We left early in the morning and walked back into the lodge late in the day and just like Mirja’s cocktail dogs, you wouldn’t have to play with us that night.
One day was heavy and wet, as if a Georgia spring shower might start anytime. By 5:00 we were beset by gray – no Torres showing. Our whole stay in Patagonia it rained nearly the entire time, including from a clear blue sky, but most of the time it rained about three drops per second per square meter. You’d get hit but you’d dry by the time you got out your parka.
We drove a short distance to a car park to hike to Salto (waterfall) Grande. The path was thick with bugs and heavy with wet, but the bugs weren’t really after us. The bushes sent out a pungent but pleasant smell either side of the path that was cut flat as if by a foot-wide mower.
Salto Grande, chalky water rushing from Lago Nordenskjöld into Lago Pehoe, wasn’t really all that grande, but up and over the hill, suddenly the rumble of the salto gave way to the silent stone face of the Cuerno Principal (2600 meters), the highest of the Cuernos del Paine.
After an hours’ walk, Mirja and I stood at the Mirador Nordenskjöld and gazed across Lago Nordenskjöld at Cuerno Principal, shortly before the clouds conquered the tops of the cuernos for the day.
At the Posada Serrano, a provisioner along the road back, they were so happy to see us they fried up some fresh papas fritas, so we bought a twelve pack and sat right there and drank most of them with a giant man whose father from Poland and mother from Odessa met in Palestine and moved to Brazil.
Everyone told stories and passed the time with warm Austral beers right from the box (and french fries) there in the Posada Serrano dining room, cozy and dry in the rain. A happy bonus: there was no one to drive into out there alone on the gravel, driving home in the rain after a six-pack apiece.
I peered through the Hosteria’s front window. As we feared. The common room was filled to the rim with ill-matched groups of families and acquaintances, lining the walls in chairs, waiting to be fed. Every time we ever went inside they alternated two CD’s: Pachelbel’s Canon and a cheap Out of Africa knock-off. Over and over and over for days.
Hosteria Lago Gray was four-unit prefab blocks with siding, five of them facing one another with driftwood placed deftly in between. The dining room – and this was the only place you could eat for miles around – had ample seating. The common area, alas, was sadly lacking, too small by half, so any one group could dominate.
Instead of going inside, we visited with the chef. He threw meat to a nearly domestic fox, which warily came within feet to grab it. The chef whistled for that fox like for a dog. Outside, one happy bird perched behind the common building, worm writhing in its beak. White and black sea birds cruised the icebergs in pairs close to the surface of the water, one of each pair in full throat.
Five hundred meters across the water at the close end of the sand bar sat the hosteria’s low red boat. It looked like holding maybe forty – so it must have been an attraction park-wide, carrying passengers through the bergs up to Glacier Gray.
It was parked now, though, grounded up against a bergy bit. The hosteria, or the captain at least, was being punished for sailing too close to the bergs.
The Alps are massive and majestic. The Torres del Paine only reach three thousand something meters versus Mont Blanc’s 4260. But the Alps have been domesticated, everywhere you go, all the way up onto the slopes. Cowbells tinkle. Farmers keep track of their livestock. Every village is prim.
It’s the vastness around the Torres, the silence. There are no houses, no farms. Land isn’t delineated by perpendiculars. No fences to keep anything in or out. Nothing, except for the snow and the big rocks, and the water and the animals and the silence. That’s what you’re after in a place like this, but too often you find yourself in the common room with strangers, hearing about things like Kurt’s blister.
“It’s out to here,” Kurt said several times, showing a distance between his finger and thumb. The wife of Kurt would then chirp something like “He’s not very athletic.” That was galling because she clearly never auditioned for Buns of Steel.
There are always people like that, though, fighting their petty wars, and Kurt was a good enough old guy, running a party of five, some of them sullen kids.
Maps was what Kurt liked and he’d sink his head deeper into his maps to ignore his wife. The wife of Kurt liked showing people things. She’d go back to the room (“Wait right here,” she’d command) to get some page that she’d printed off the internet. Or she’d inflict her sack of trail mix on a very dubious little boy.
Each time she got loud Kurt would move his face closer to his map and trace lines on it with his finger.
The wife of Kurt had a running disagreement with Kurt over the price of gas, or benzene, as they called it here. Kurt had heard they were getting six dollars a litre out of jerrycans back at Posada Serrano and the wife of Kurt wouldn’t hear of it.
She worked herself up to high dudgeon (although high is pretty much the only way dudgeon comes) as she asked the dubious little boy’s father if he knew the price of benzene, and he allowed that he’d got some and it was close to the normal price.
“See Kurt! Six dollars a litre is impossible! I thought six dollars a litre was impossible. Did you hear that Kurt? I told you six dollars a litre was impossible. Kurt, this man says it’s not any six dollars a litre. Kurt thought gas cost six dollars a litre!”
And Kurt pulled the edge of the map nearest his wife nearly to his ear and the little boy’s father, who had a naturally puzzled, disheveled look, tried to find somebody else to talk to.