A Cruise Through Geologic Time in Chile’s Fjords
In a world bisected by cable lines and telephone wires and punctuated by cell phone towers, few unplugged places remain. Most require effort to reach: on foot, bike, horse, skis, sled, snowmobile, helicopter or boat. Shaped by glaciers over eons, lined with rocks and mountains striated by ice, Chile’s fjords offer a glimpse back through geologic time. It seems fitting that to see them travelers must unplug for 3–7 days aboard one of the 200-passenger cruise ships run by Stella Australis from Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, Chile, and Ushuaia, Argentina, or the 160-passenger Skorpios II cruises that depart from Puerto Montt, Chile.
Although there is no way to definitively compare the scenic beauty of cruising in this area with the much better known and more popular routes through the fjords of Norway and Alaska, it is an experience unlike any in the Northern Hemisphere. How do you define a fjord, exactly? It’s a deep, U-shaped valley formed by a receding glacier that has subsequently filled with seawater. In the deep sea and shoreline environments of Chile’s fjords, South American natives such as the Patagonian fox, Magellanic penguin and South American dolphin coexist with Orcas, Emperor penguins and other species also found in the Antarctic. Small islands and shorelines bristle with slow-growing, wind-gnarled lenga trees (a Sub-Arctic species of beech). Craggy, white peaks contrast with rocky hills. A surprising diversity of plant life blooms on sheer rock walls patchy with rust, pink and yellow lichens.
Along Chile’s fjords, glaciers glowing with interior blue light provide a dramatic backdrop for gray-green glacial lakes. Tidewater glaciers at the water’s edge seem to spill into the sea. Like glaciers all over the world, most of Chile’s are receding because of climate change. The only one still advancing is the Pio XI glacier in nearby Bernardo O’Higgins State Park. Excluding those in Chile’s Antarctic region, glaciers cover 2.7% of the country’s landscape and account for 80% of the total area of glaciers in South America. They contribute to the natural beauty of Chile’s Magallanes and Aisen regions and provide water for its population.
I joined a group of travel writers and tour operators in landing on the shoreline in front of Bernal Glacier. Before the excursion, the leader schooled us in the safe way to get on and off the zodiac that would take us across the Montanas Fjord from the cruise ship Stella Australis. His takeaway message? Scoot along the side to move forward and NEVER stand in the boat, because if you fall in the crew will have only seven seconds to fish you out before you freeze. Bundled in layers and wrapped in a life jackets that buckled under the crotch as well as around the waist, we shivered and grew numb in the light sleet of this partly cloudy day as we motored across. Careful not to stand up, we climbed out and began hiking on a path that led from the shoreline to a land bridge across a glacial lake and finally to the foot of the glacier, where we could look into the ice through wind-whorled caves and crevices.
Patagonians often say this is the land of four seasons in one day. In the second week of September, at the cusp between winter and spring, I experienced three seasons in one hour, and summer wasn’t one of them. Even the penguins don’t arrive until October. Escape here and you’ll discover a world of contrast. Cruising comfortably in 21st century style, you’ll experience a wild place buffeted by wind; kissed by mist; quenched by rain, sleet and snow; and highlighted in a chiaroscuro of clouds, shadow and sun. If you go during peak season, December-February, you’ll see a range of wildlife both on and offshore. High or low season, any time you take this unplugged voyage, you’ll have no choice but to give this changing landscape the rapt attention it deserves.
Ellen Girardeau Kempler’s articles and essays have been published in the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Westways and many other publications. She writes about balance, travel and the metaphorical journey on her website, Gold Boat Journeys, and shares short, sweet tweets @goodnewsmuse. This article was originally published on Gold Boat’s Ship’s Log (aka, the Slog) on September 13, 2013.