Monday 6 December 2010

Excursions from Punta Arenas

That sums up what we did today. We arrived in Punta Arenas late yesterday afternoon and cleared customs by 1900h. We enjoyed a nice evening in this city of 120,000. Some of us went off in a bus to the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park for an overnight and day there. Today folks went their various ways on excursions to Punta Arenas (city tour), the Magellanic forest, an estancia, and the Seno Otway Magellanic Penguin rookery.

At the Estancia Olga Teresa we were hosted by the wonderful family who owns the property. Yvonne gave us a guided tour of the sheep ranch, including a sheep shearing demonstration and a sheepdog roundup. Then we were then treated to a traditional cordero asado de Patagonia- lamb roasted over an open wood fire. The air was fresh and our appetites keen so we were ready for lunch!

Our bus ride to the Otway Magellanic Penguin rookery took us through dry steppe habitat where we saw the famous Lesser or Darwin's Rhea, AKA Ñandu. These birds are close relatives of the ostriches of Africa and Emus of Australia. The Magellanic Penguins at Otway were a delight- young ones mingled on the beach with older birds and several were ambling up to their burrows from the water.

The city tour went around the various parts of the town- from the half-collapsing houses made out of old containers to the posh neighbourhood of the rich family of the Nogeiras. The cemetery in the city is said to be the prettiest one in Chile, something we all can confirm. A visit to the local museum showed us the lifestyle of the early settlers of Punta Arenas, the explorers through time, and the life of the indian tribes - the yagans, tehuelche and all. The tour ended at the main square, with green trees and the Sunday parade of police/military, singing their national song and greeting the flag of Chile.

The hike excursion began with a scenic walk into the hilly backdrop of Punta Arenas, where vast Patagonian forests extend as far as the eye can see. The rains of last week had given the path a bit of a muddy surface in some spots, but that didn't keep the brave hikers from scrambling up and down the mountains in the fresh morning air, earning every bite of their lunch that they ate, a bit exhausted but with a big smile.

Those that traveled to Torres del Paine National Park, spent the night in Puerto Natales, some 250 km north of Punta Arenas. Early, a bus picked us up to travel a further couple of hours to the park. On the way there we were lucky to see several condors, flamingoes and an eagle; all of these on the bird side of things, of course. We also came across several groups of guanacos, the camelid animals, cousins to the llamas, vicuñas and alpacas. When we first arrived at the park, it was pouring down and the wind was howling - nothing we were very happy about. But luckily, the weather cleared shortly afterwards and we were able to see the Cuernos del Paine in their full splendor; it was an incredible sight, considering these formations are the poster children of the park, and quite rightly so!

On the way back from the park, we stopped at the famous and interesting Cueva del milodón, the cave where the gigantic, fossilised sloth was found at the end of the 19th century. It was a good finale for a very exciting day.