The pier in Puerto Natales
The bus has dumped me at its final stop, an intersection in
"downtown" Puerto Natales. While I put the bike back together I wave away the
teenagers who try to sell me their particular lodging. I have my own addresses, of two
hostels recommended by Manuel in Punta Arenas the day before. These names mean nothing to
me and I pick the first one, Casa Cecilia. Some young folks show me the approximate direction. I try to
follow the grid of roads but it is not perfect and "Tomas Rogers" is not easy to
find as is ends at "Bulnes". But I get there finally, pedalling against the
one-way designation of this street. By the way, dont pronounce Rogers the American
way, no one will understand you. The "g" in Rogers should be like the
"ch" in the Scottish "loch"
Casa Cecilia is a low building, just another one-storey house on this residential
street. There is a sign on the lawn and, re-assuringly, a tent has been pitched outside
for drying. They are full, says Cecilia, the woman of the house, but she calls another
hostel, which was my second choice, and secures my bed there. I move across town,
digesting the good reception that I had received at Cecilias. Also, I had peeked
into Cecilia's common area and sensed the warmth of a real home rather than the usual
assembly of near-expiry furniture. I resolve to try there again some other time, if I
should get the chance. It is late, and I cycle over to "Don Boscos". After
I after put down my packs and put things on my bed to mark it "occupied", I head
out again for dinner.
The next day I shop for my trip into the mountains. Shops do not open before 9:30, but I
am out earlier anyways and look for a chance to get more information on the park. I strike
it lucky when I stop a stranger whose determined gait makes him unlikely to be a tourist.
He does not look local either, he's got a good north-American jacket. Alex is a guide in
Torres del Paine and tells me that one cannot buy any bread in the park itself. Thus I
will have to buy bread for all the days that I intend to spend there. He also tells me
about a back road into the park that cuts 30 km off the official route and goes through
pretty mountains. It is called the "new road" and has not been opened to the
public yet; so I will have to ask for permission to use it. And the bridges there are
partially dismanteled to stop cars, but a bicycle can be pushed across.Why is it private,
I ask? The owner of the land has built it with the understanding he will get certain
concessions in the park, Alex confides. These concessions are not materializing and thus
the gate stays shut. Ah, politics!
I do my shopping: bread, pasta, cheese, jam, salami, soups and dried fruit; enough food
for 2 days to cycle to the park, plus 4 days in Torres del Paine and an additional 3 days
to return. After I have shopped and packed, I am shocked at the weight that this food adds
to my baggage. Back at the hostel, I ask that they prepare lunch for me; when I sit down
to eat, it's a huge amount and I cannot finish.
Then, at about noon, I
set out on my loaded "Rosinante", pedalling the road along the Sena de la Ultima
Esperanza where hundreds of black-necked swans search the shallow shore waters for food. I
cycle past the abandoned meat plant, past the small airport, on to the Cueva del Milodon
and to Torres del Paine, one of Chile's finest National
Cueva del Milodon
Looking out of the cueva del
Milodon toward the "Sena de la Ultima Esperanza"
The road leading out of Puerto Natales is paved and curves along the Bay of Last Hope
(Seno Ultima Esperanza), along the bay with its cormorants and flocks of
black-necked swans, and past the now-silent meat plant. Here the road turns to gravel and
dirt, and as there is lots of speeding traffic (mostly mini buses full of trekkers heading
towards the park) the gravel is soft and the washboard vicious. After about 15 km, I turn
left to follow the signs to "Cueva del Milodon" and eventually pass the
"Silla del Diabolo", an isolated rock that stands about 100 feet high, shaped
like a sugar cube, in the midst of cow pastures and "lenga" trees. I pay my fee
to get into the cave. The park attendants promise to look after my bike and let me refill
my water bottle at the tap behind the next building. I then follow the paved path towards
the hillside, and stop spell-bound before the yawning mouth of the cave. This is the cave
of the Mylodon, a prehistoric giant sloth, whose hide was found in the cave. A piece of
the skin was kept by Bruce Chatwyns grandmother in England. There, it cast a spell
over little Bruce and thus became responsible for the writing of one of the most
fascinating books: "In Patagonia", published in 1977. The cave is shaped like a sock, and the wide mouth admits light enough to
let you walk to the back of its 200m depth without a flashlight. A path has been built so
one can walk its full length and there stands a life-sized statue of the Mylodon near the
exit. Kids gawk at it, and adults ridicule it as a fiberglass monstrosity. In my opinion,
it's pretty well-done and the adults just don't want to admit that they are impressed and
intimidated by the clawed monster.
I am trying to picture where the hide had been found and am not sure. There are a few pits
in the floor of the cave, probably the work of the greedy folks that used dynamite to get
at more artifacts. In perfect innocence, I do look around for "a few reddish
hairs" or the strange "pebbles" that were imbedded in the Mylodons
skin as armor, but see none; I am many years too late to be able to re-live Chatwyns
Later, I will go back to the Cueva and Silla del Diabolo twice more. The cave lies in a
park that is about two km long and half a km wide, and the hill sides are riddled with
smaller caves. There are meadows, bush thickets and Lenga (Southern Beech) groves. I
become familiar to the park attendants, and they kid me in a good-natured way. They joke
about a recent sighting of the Mylodon, flying on a bicycle towards Puerto Natales,
looking for his friend....
The last day before leaving on the ferry I spent in the park, sitting under shady trees
at a picnic table catching up writing my diary. I listen to the birds with no one else
around and eventually lie down for a two-hour snooze. If you ever should go there, check
out the Cueva Chica: it's small but deep and, with a flash light (and the courage to crawl
in tight spaces), you can explore its tunnel at the far end. The Cueva Media is
difficult to find: you have to back-track from the Cueva Chica about halfway towards the
main cave and locate it at the base of the rock face.
Berries and a spent Giant Puffball in the area near Puerto
I stay in the Torres del Paine park only for one day. On the return trip, I get a
lift with a pickup, that takes me from Cerro Castillo straight into Puerto Natales. The
driver is a social worker for a catholic organization. He likes his job, but he
deplores the situation of the young folks. According to him, 40% of the youth in Puerto
Natales drink alcohol and of those, one in five is addicted. We talk in Spanish, with me
guessing and stumbling along, and he apologizes for not speaking English well. Hes
had seven years of English in school and feels he has learned nothing. I understand his
frustration, but I am not sure my Spanish was good enough to convince him to take a
different outlook. He has a good basis of grammar and vocabulary, and two weeks of
immersion would make him fluent and able to communicate. Its silly that the system
is not smart enough to follow up a seven-year effort with two weeks to make the study an
obvious and enjoyable success.
In Puerto Natales, booking the ferry is simple, a bunk is available in
"economy" and it costs me an extra 15000 pesos (about US$30) to take my bike
along. I had missed the previous boat by only a day and will have to wait for six days for
the next one. This is no problem for me: I have no time table and I need the rest.
For starters, I cycle over to Casa Cecilia and they take me in. I'm in luck, I get a
room by myself and thus spend the next six days in the bliss of privacy.
Casa Cecilia is special among the many hostels of the South: I had sensed that when I
had poked my head into its doorway a few days earlier. Cecilia and Werner treat you as a
guest first, and then as a customer. At some point, I sit down and take the trouble to
detail what makes this place special:
- the common area is a living room, furnished as if it was their own. The furniture is
solid, comfortable and respectable; the electronics are made by Sony and include a CD
player which plays classical music; there are interesting books on the shelves with a
little sign telling that you may exchange one of your books with one on the shelf but you
need Werner's OK; children's drawings are on the wall to add to the decorations: wherever
you look it's "home".
- an information board is up, where fellow travelers extol the virtues of such and such a
hostel in the next town or caution against a rip-off that's waiting at some other place.
- they allow you to cook your own meals, as many hostels down there do, but as an
extra touch there is a shelf where you can put surplus food for others to use: a great way
to avoid waste and help others
- they rent out trekking equipment which is good quality and they are fair with the
charges when damages occurred, I am told
- the breakfast is maybe the best anywhere in Patagonia: they bake their own sourdough
bread and do not limit how much you may take; there are 3 types of jam on the table, all
of them good; there's a jug of hot milk for the folks who like it, there's butter on the
table, not margarine; you get a large glass of real juice; there's coffee and tea;
and to top it off, every day there's a special surprise such as Muesli, crepes, cake,
yogurt or a quality cheese. All for just a bit more than one US dollar.
Book ahead because the closer to the date of the ferry arrival/departure, the higher the
chance they are full. Thus, call ahead and secure a place. Werner speaks English, Spanish
and German (and maybe more), Cecilia probably will understand enough English to make a
booking. (I hope I got that right....) A time that's not so busy for them is
mid-afternoon, and a busy time is around breakfast and early evening. Chile's time zone is
one hour ahead of New York, but daylight saving time differences change this. I haven't
figured out a reliable rule yet...
||Cecilia and Werner
||Tomas Rogers 60, Puerto Natales, Chile
|| 061 411 797.
Puerto Natales is still a worker's town: the fishing, agriculture and
the mine have provided people an income. Tourism is new, and I dread the day when the
old-timers will be gone and greed will make this just another tourist place.
I have time to tour the area: explore the coast east of the town, to
take a boat trip to the two glaciers nearby, and to climb up the Sierra Dorotea that
overlooks Puerto Natales..
people on the trip to the glacier Bernardo O'Higgins
Then, on Thursday evening, my waiting in Puerto Natales comes to an end.
I say good-bye to Werner and Cecilia and board the Puerto Eden, the ferry that
will take me up the coast for more than a thousand kilometers
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