It’s a bright, crisp morning in Puerto Natales, and the weather gods are in a good mood. We are at the edge of the world – in the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia – and our luck seems to be holding. For now.
Fjords, glaciers, penguins, guanacos – a Chilean adventure is a ‘bucket list’ experience, if you’ll excuse the terribly hackneyed phrase.
The husband and I have booked a Turismo 21 de Mayo boat tour to sail through the Ultima Esperanza fjord to the Balmaceda and Serano glaciers. This is particularly special for us, as glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate and our generation could be the last to see these natural wonders. The tour also promises possible wildlife spotting and whisky on glacier ice. What’s not to love?
The adventure begins…
…rather early in the morning, as it turns out. A bus picks us up from the Turismo 21 de Mayo office in the town centre and we head for the harbour. The friendly team is on hand to answer questions and help herd the motley collection of excited travellers on to the boat.
The boat starts off at a leisurely pace across the fjord’s calm waters, with a view of the jagged, snowy peaks on one side and the postcard-pretty town of Puerto Natales on the other. We’re free to hang out on the deck outside once the captain has given the all-clear. After the first flurry of selfies, the atmosphere is relaxed and we take in the endless scenic beauty on display.
Sunbathing sea lions and the hanging glacier
The vibe on the boat is perky, and we make friends with chatty fellow passengers. A short while out, we slow down for the crew to point out sea lions basking in the sunshine. They’re in a playful mood, diving into the water or just chilling out in the most indulgent fashion. There’s a colony of royal cormorants to keep us company and waterfalls dot the dramatic scenery.
Our first stop is in front of the glorious Balmaceda glacier. The hanging glacier has been billed as a ‘must-see attraction in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park’ but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s a stately presence, cascading grandly down the peak. With 2035 meters of extension, Balmaceda can apparently put on a spectacular show when its icebergs detach from the east side of the glacier.
Due to global warming, the glacier is losing ice fast. It’s moments like these when you realise the staggering level of the recklessness with which we treat nature and our natural wonders.
Many photos and selfies later, we chug onwards with the glacier receding from view. The bright sunny day lets us soak in the view for much longer, for which we’re very grateful, as it’s not always guaranteed.
The Serrano glacier is part of the Southern Ice Field. We don’t just stop for a viewing from the boat, but it can be seen up close with a short walk around the lake at its base. The glacier cascades steeply into the water and is surrounded by pine trees in a picturesque setting. The lake has chunks of floating ice that has chipped off from the glacier, exquisitely framing the scene.
From the little pier at the base, we walk up the slope to the closest point to the glacier. There’s so much excitement in the air, that people are chattering away like magpies. If we ever get a chance to do this again, we’d probably walk the other way round, away from the route the boat passengers take.
Watching the floating ice and the spiky glacier just puts life in perspective – all our daily problems just seem like niggles now. Life is good, when faced with such beauty.
There’s time for lunch with a view at an estancia, or a cattle ranch, where we get talking with our fellow passengers. A lot of gesticulating is involved when language is a barrier, which adds much hilarity to the proceedings. Good humour, great scenery, and a bucketlist experience done – a day truly well spent.
Chile is an astonishing country, and the people in Puerto Natales are hospitable and gracious. From Atacama to Patagonia, the landscapes are surreal and leave you with lasting memories.
We took this trip before lockdown but now Chile is welcoming visitors back. Please visit the Chile tourism website for requirements of entry: https://chile.travel/en/traveltochileplan
Getting there: We flew to Punta Arenas from Santiago and then drove to the tranquil town of Puerto Natales.
What to wear: Wrap up warm and in layers! We cannot stress this enough.