Has anybody seen the penguins yet?

Punta Arenas, located at the southern tip of the Chilean mainland, is Magallanes Province’s largest city. Amusingly enough, it also lays claim to the title of the world’s southernmost city. It overlooks the Strait of Magellan, and commands the historic route and local prosperity has risen and fallen with the trade that has passed through it.

It has a broad cultural mix, from English sheep ranchers to Portugese sailors. The city flourished during the California Gold Rush, when it became a haven for steamers rounding the cape. Although the Panama Canal dampened traffic, the port achieved renewed prosperity as an early 20th century Chilean wool and mutton center.

This aside, former traveling cruisers, travel guides, and even shipboard staff recommended going outside of the city for the day. The city itself is rundown, tired almost, and has virtually no unique shops or tourist attractions. We had already planned for this before hearing reviews, and booked a trip to Antarctica, which was advertised as hit or miss. For us, it was a miss.

Instead of heading to Antarctica, the cruise ship put us on board a plane to head 275 miles north to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, a preserve for the primordial ecosystem that characterizes southern Chile. Tall granite pillars, some of which rise more than 8500 feet, tower above Patagonian steppes before dropping into a deep valley filled with lakes, creeks, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, forests, and many unusual plant and animal species. It has been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, with guanaco, Chilean deer, nandue, flamingos, condors, black necked swans, llamas, fox, hares, and an occasional puma. There are more than 200 plant varieties that thrive within the microclimate housed within the valley’s walls.

Our group (which included Steve Wozniak, his wife Jan, Leo Laporte, and other Mac geeks) was fairly resilient - we rebounded and were determined to enjoy the park, which was absolutely breathtaking! Unfortunately, our tour guide was determined to make us miserable! She continued to harp on the fact that we weren’t in Antarctica, complained about how difficult it was to learn two different scripts for the two possible trips (oh, by the way, she read the script verbatim across the 7 1/2 hour bus ride from the airport! AUGH!), would have the bus driver slam on the brakes and back the bus up in reverse (hello, loud beeping noise, please scare away all the critters we were backing up to look at), and seemed generally uncomfortable with silence. After the first hour, we watched Leo bang his forehead into the seat back in front of him, asking over and over “Do we really have this for another 7 hours?”

That aside, we had quite a bit of levity within the park. We got out and were able to do a bit of walking, although not much, and stopped at the one local tourist shop, where we saw the news that Mubarak had agreed to step down. Amen! Truly, the sights were spectacular, and it seems like a place you could go back to very easily - there are over 200 km of trails to hike, and you could easily spend a week there hiking. There are also 5 hotels within the park, and a number of park camping buildings along the trails.

When we returned, we were treated to a bit of a sanctimonious lecture about what it takes to prepare an ecosystem for 40 extra visitors, and it just went on and on. Having had the great fortune of being to Midway, and seeing a similar type of ecosystem closed off to large groups, and maintaining small visitor footprint because of the impact of preparation activities, I had to disagree with her there. We were glad to leave her behind, and were pleased with the park, but I’d have to say avoid Punta Arenas if you can!

All that aside, Wayne and I are planning on making a trip down to Antarctica in the future on one of the exploration vessels, possibly even the National Geographic explorer, to spend five days down in the area, and having ample opportunity to make shore landings via zodiac boats. One day, we will see the penguins!!