The glaciers on Chile’s southern coast offer a feast for the senses

El Brujo glacier, Chile

 

THE ANNOUNCEMENT COMES right after breakfast. The shipboard PA crackles and our cruise director informs us that, due to high winds, the day’s first stop and landing boat expedition is delayed.

None of my fellow passengers still in the dining room look surprised. It’s mid-December, late spring in the southern hemisphere, and we’re on our second full day touring the spectacular channels and vaulting fiords along the Southern Patagonian Ice Field — the world’s second largest outside the poles — where it borders Chile’s Pacific coast. Our vessel, the MN Skorpios III, is an ice-fortified, five-deck, 70-metre cruise ship; and since we awoke under high winds and rainy skies, it’s been listing heavily from side to side — enough for cups and dishes to slide off the tables at mealtime.

Stressful? A little. Exhilarating? A lot.

Make no mistake. This cruise, a round-trip circuit from the small south coastal town of Puerto Natales, with 20 to 25 passengers, is all about glaciers. We visit or pass at least 10 of them on our 2-1⁄2 day loop. But you can’t sign up for the glaciers without signing up for the whole Patagonia package — and, in particular, the wind, el viento.

We’re invited to the bridge to watch the ship’s churning advance up Fiordo de las Montañas. A digital anemometer shows gusts topping 140 kilometres per hour, equivalent to a category-one hurricane. I push my way through a side door to the outside deck to get some of the scene on video. It’s cold, 6 or 7 C, and while it has stopped raining, spray flies sideways at least 100 metres in the air. I pan from the rail, watching through my phone, when a sudden gust knocks me backward and into the wall.

I keep shooting as I hit the floor, let out a whoop and scuttle back inside.

THINGS WERE A LITTLE MORE SERENE 24 hours earlier when we awoke under cloudy skies to find the Skorpios bobbing a short distance from the first glacier on our tour, the Amalia.

The trip started the night before with tea in the dining room and a greeting from captain Luis Coñuecar; later, orientation and dinner before bed. Our overnight route brought us north, but also well inland, close to the famous Torres del Paine National Park. Here, the fiords cut deeply into the spine of the Andes and the southern ice field. The Amalia, one of many glaciers in the area, originates just above and to the east.

Our itinerary for the next two days includes six off-ship expeditions. A boat ride and hike to a viewpoint near the snout of the Amalia is first. After breakfast, we put on our winter gear, don lifejackets and gather at the gangway on the second deck. The crew loads us into the landing boat made with heavy, gale-worthy plastic and with bench seating for about 30.

When we reach the landing point on an ice-strewn beach below the Amalia, the Skorpios advance team onshore extends a gangplank over the blocks and hooks it onto the boat. We go up and over in single file and step onto a large expanse of coarse brown sand. Off to our right is a terminal moraine, rock and rubble bulldozed into place by the leading edge of an advancing glacier and then dumped when the ice melts and retreats — an ongoing fact of life here and around all but a few of the world’s glaciers as the global climate warms.

Two decades ago, the ice extended close to where we’ve landed. Today, it’s about a 10-minute walk — through rich, colourful beds of moss, lichen and sparse wildflowers — to a natural platform of polished bedrock outcrops before we get a full view of the glacier’s fractured, towering face where it terminates at the water’s edge. As we proceed, a few loud rumbles signal its presence. They may be rivers of ice, but glaciers don’t so much flow as they inch along imperceptibly, then crack and explode, calving off icy chunks and shards that fall into the water as icebergs. They’re noisy, almost alive. My first thought heading up the beach is of a looming thunderstorm. Or artillery fire.

Despite the noise, most of us are slack-jawed and silent as we take in the Amalia’s size, colour and texture. The time scales on display are mind-bending, too, with layers of ice testifying to millennia of snowfall heaped on barren, banded, 300-million-year-old rock.

The mass and height of the glacier at our next stop, El Brujo (“the witch”), is even more stunning. As we again head toward shore, a wall of deep blue ice at least 15 storeys high and several times as wide dwarfs the members of the advance crew ahead. After landing, we scale some of the bedrock, to a spot where the glacier’s face arcs away from us, with water in front, to the far side of the valley. The rock we’re on forms a small amphitheatre, and we sit or stand to watch the calving in action.

El Brujo doesn’t disappoint. The cracks and booms and shattering explosions are more frequent here than at the Amalia. A chunk of ice, maybe the size of a van, calves off the face toward the far side and plunges into the water with a huge, snowy splash. Things are quiet for a few seconds, then suddenly the water right below us begins to bubble and boil and push its way up the rocks — a chilled mini-tsunami, triggered by the block’s fall across the bay. Those among us who make the connection take a nervous step back.

WE’RE BACK ON THE SHIP FOR LUNCH, where the dining room is our hub. There are passengers from six or seven countries, but I’m one of only a few non-Spanish speakers — the others being a couple from China travelling with their son and his wife, who live in Santiago, and a man originally from Amsterdam.

Travelling solo, I was assigned a seat at the captain’s table. We are 10 in all (including the captain’s mother, Mimi, who sits next to her son and is an eager hostess). A younger Chilean couple to my right, Jorge and Marcela, are comfortably bilingual, and Jorge soon becomes my translator whenever the waiter arrives or the conversation at the table gets rolling. At most meals, captain Coñuecar sits last, raises his glass to toast the group — “Salud!” — and then smiles at me and says, “Cheers!”

Coñuecar is a second-generation Chilean whose father, Constantino Kochifas, founded the family cruise company in the 1970s. Besides offering the southern Patagonia route, they have a second ship, Skorpios II, which plies a northern course from the town of Puerto Montt, where the family business got its start.

The morning’s outings have everyone buzzing. And hungry. The meal is typically hearty, featuring Chilean soup, stew, seafood and ample Chilean wine. Also, thanks to our latitude (about 50° south) and the time of year, there’s daylight until after 11 p.m. So dinner isn’t scheduled until nine, and there’s time for an afternoon nap before our third excursion of the day.

When the time comes, we meet at the gangway as usual. But instead of the small landing boat, we board a larger, flat-decked tour boat that’s moored nearby. We’re at the mouth of Fiordo Calvo, a short distance north of our earlier stops and just a mountain pass removed from the Argentinean side of the Patagonian ice field. It’s a two-hour trip to the head of the fiord and back.

The northernmost point on our route, the fiord has a haunting end-of-the-Earth feel. Four or five glaciers feed into it; we’re surrounded by icebergs, waterfalls and cliffs, and see cormorants, steamer ducks, seals and sea lions. The outing also serves up the ceremonial highlight of the cruise, when the crew breaks out the souvenir glasses and fills them with glacial ice, and we toast our adventure with 12-year-old scotch over 30,000-year-old cubes.

AFTER THE HIGH WINDS WE ENDURED to start the morning in Fiordo de las Montañas, the rest of our second full day has a mellower vibe. We manage a short boat ride along the snout of the Alsina Glacier, followed by a pleasant shoreline hike beneath the Bernal Glacier through a lush low rain forest and glades of bushes and flowers in fragrant spring bloom. In the afternoon, with the sky clearing and the wind easing, I join about half the passengers once more in the landing boat, touring the islands and bays in a section known as the Angostura White, or White Narrows. Later, we enjoy our last evening meal — known as the captain’s dinner — followed by music and dancing, while steaming across the Golfo Almirante Montt back to Puerto Natales, where we dock and spend the night aboard ship.

The trip takes less than three days, yet seems like much more. In the morning, warm hugs, handshakes and email addresses are hurriedly exchanged and then everyone disembarks, some to continue touring in Patagonia, others taking the three-hour drive south to the airport in Punta Arenas, southern Chile’s largest city.

We’ve left the glaciers behind, and on the road south the mountains quickly give way to a flat, treeless plain. Only the wind remains, a blustery companion as stirring and timeless as Patagonia itself.

SIDEBAR

Torres de force

Puerto Natales, the terminus for the Skorpios southern glacier cruise, is a long way from just about everywhere (a four-hour flight and a three-hour drive from Santiago alone). So it makes sense to include at least one other Patagonian destination if you make the trip.

Foremost among the options is Torres del Paine National Park. Located less than 100 kilometres northwest of Puerto Natales, the park is a popular hiking destination — with rugged terrain, big lakes, glaciers, abundant wildlife and, at the centre of it all, the Paine massif, a spectacular mountain block with three soaring granite towers (the “torres”) that are on many a traveller’s bucket list.

Accommodations range from backpacker campsites to high-end eco-style resorts inside and outside the park. Visitors can choose from multiple half- and single-day hiking routes, but the “classic” park hike follows the “W” route, a four- or five-day circuit that takes in all the park highlights and has a difficulty rating of “demanding.” Regardless, if you’ve come a long way to get here, the sights it offers may be worth the extra effort.

Originally published in Canadian Geographic Travel, Spring 2015

Image: Brian Banks