Archive for December, 2007

Christmas happens

December 28, 2007

Christmas happens, even if you’re in a place where it’s sunny and summer and about as far from the North Pole as you can get. Here’s proof (I was present as witness):


Christmas happening

I had a distinctly different Christmas experience than usual though, what with being in Patagonia, thousands miles from family, home and tradition.

Christmasy things I didn’t do this year:
•  Taste gingerbread or lemon squares
•  See Frankie shoot his eye out on television numerous times per day
•  Wear my puffy-painted Santa sweatshirt
•  Hear the cat try to climb the Christmas tree in the next room
•  Watch the traffic director at the local shopping center dance while signalling cars
•  Lip sync along with the carolers at my doorstep

Christmasy things I did do this year:
•  Decorate our cabin by hanging stockings and a string of lights from the curtain rods and putting a 2-inch Christmastree made of green beads in the windowsill
•  Blare English-language Christmas carols from my computer while sitting in front of the woodburning stove with my roommates one evening
•  Buy chocolates and a bracelet for my amiga secreta at work
•  Visit my second cousin Christian Santelices at his family’s ranch in Río Verde, a small community about an hour and a half from Punta Arenas. Eat a feast, open gifts by a tree.

Fútbol is life

December 28, 2007

As I walked from my hostel toward the center of Punta Arenas the other afternoon, I heard the announcer on someone’s television scream “Gooooooooooooooooooooooooool” from an open window.
Minutes later, everyone in town rushed to Calle Bories, a main drag that’s always pumping with eaters, shoppers and vendors selling strawberries, garlic or handmade bracelets. Most of the congregants on that day were wearing shiny polyester soccer jerseys.
They circled the block in cars, honking their horns. They hung from windows, ran through the streets waving oversized flags, slapped each other on the back, yelled.


About 15 minutes into the commotion, I entered the Abu Gosch supermarket. When I emerged 45 minutes later with a bag of vegetables and some cheese, the noise and excitement were strong as ever.
Here’s the story, as told by the man in front of me in line at the grocery store: The Colo-Colo soccer team won. They were playing another team. There are many soccer teams in Chile. Colo-Colo is one of them.
Here’s the same story, told with slightly more flair by a man I met on the sidewalk on the way back to my hostel: The Colo-Colo soccer team beat the University of Conception 2-0 in the national championship. The Colo-Colo team is based outside of Santiago, but since Punta Arenas does not have a soccer team of its own, most here root for Colo-Colo, a team that has come to stand for the working class. The team will go on to play other countries.

So, there you have it. Colo-Colo is one of many teams in Chile. But it’s one worth keeping an eye on.

Walkin’ the W

December 18, 2007

Trying to put up a tent in the wind is like trying to walk a big, dumb animal that has an agenda distinctly different from your own. On the first night of my 3.5-day solo-hiking excursion along the Torres del Paine’s legendary W Circuit, my tent wanted to go in the thorny bushes surrounding the campsite — or the lake, it didn’t matter — and I wanted it to go in the nice, flat spot I had picked out in Paine Grande campground.
I’m proud to report that after a long, fierce battle, I firmly anchored my opponent to the earth with titanium stakes, and I lined its inside with heavy rocks for extra measure.



The W Circuit is approximately 50-kilometer route through Torres del Paine National Park that runs between Grey Glacier the granite towers themselves, ascending the awe-inspiring Valle Frances along the way (forming, oddly enough, a W-shaped route).



A mystic mountain and wind-blown lenga tree I encountered along the trail

For some reason, I wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of taking on the W alone (I didn’t find out about the disappearance of Irish hiker Ronan Lawlor until after I returned). I figured the trails were well marked and I was way more likely to run across a crazy psycho maniac in the hollers of North Carolina than the internationally-visited Torres del Paine. Still, I packed a map and first aid kit, gave Victor in the office my route and asked him to send out a search party if I wasn’t back by Tuesday.
I started the hike toward Glacier Grey along the western leg of the W in rain and the 90-km-per-hour winds on Friday morning. The trail ascends a valley, passes the dark-watered Laguna Los Patos and then traces the shoreline of Lago Grey as it approaches the 15-mile-long glacier, one of the largest tongues of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field.



Icebergs in Lago Grey

The still, blue glacier fills the valley it occupies almost to the top, and its edge hugs an island as it meets Lago Grey. The ice field is hard for the eye to comprehend from afar because the sun refracts off it in so many different directions. It registers as a white glow that’s hard to distinguish from the sky. When I crested a hill and first glimpsed it, I inadvertantly gasped and got chills at the same time.



Glaciar Grey and its island

The wind blowing off the glacier is fierce and unrelenting. Despite the rough conditions, though, flowers manage to bloom. I’m impressed by their resiliance.



On Day Numero Dos, I hiked about two hours from the Paine Grande campground to Valle Frances. I pitched my tent at the base of the valley in Campamento Italiano, reserving a spot in the lenga forest right by the river. Then I strapped on a fanny pack (yes, a fanny pack) and ascended the valley, the looming, glacier-ridden Cuerno Paine Grande to my left and the smooth, granite slabs of Los Cuernos to my right.


Los Cuernos from the trail

Let me just say, the view from the mirador at the top of the valley is one of the best in the park: Towering rock formations, including Las Torres in the distance and Los Cuernos more immediately, surround you on all sides.
Lucky for me, the ranger who works the Italiano campsite invited another camper and me into his metal-sided shack for dinner. We pooled our pack food, fed the wood-burning stove and created a rich feast of 5-Minute Rice, pasta with red sauce and sauteed hot dogs. As the water boiled, we listened to traditional Chilean music on a set of just-repaired speakers and discussed beehives and garbage. The social interaction was good.

The following day, a warm bed and fluffy comforter thwarted my well-laid plans. I had intended to hike to Refugio Los Cuernos and convince one of the staff members to explore the hidden Valle Bader with me in hopes of touching the base of Los Cuernos themselves and glimpsing the elusive huemul (an endangered deer said to live in the valley).
But when the Refugio Cuernos staff offered me a free stay in one of the cozy, A-frame cabins on a hillside overlooking Lake Nordenskjold, I accidentally spent all afternoon napping and reading Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” It was heaven, really. I helped the Cuernos staff wash dishes in the refugio as a thank-you.


My cabin

After breakfast in the refugio the following morning, I strapped on my pack, extended my hiking poles and took off toward Refugio Las Torres, my home base. The sun was shining, the birdies were chirping and Lago Nordenskjold was blue as ever.


I stepped off of the trail and onto my doorstep, feeling exhilerated by three days in the aire libre of Paine.

Visit this link to see more pics from the hike.

Missing person

December 17, 2007

Ronan Lawlor started the W Circuit in Torres del Paine on Nov. 18 and has not been seen since. The 28-year-old chemical engineer from Ireland signed in when he entered the park, but never signed out. He has not contacted his family in over a month and has yet to return to a hostel in El Calafate, Argentina where he left his rucksack. The Irish embassy, local police and park rangers began an official search for Ronan today.

If you have any information on his whereabouts, email


Ronan Lawlor

Penguins are funny

December 12, 2007

Everyone on Chile’s Isla Magdalena looks just about the same. Black is in, white is in, and horizontal stripes are considered OK. The treeless, grassy island, located in the Strait of Magellan off the coast of Punta Arenas, is home to about 150,000 Magellanic penguins for a few months every year.


I spent a recent afternoon wandering the island, coming within several feet of many of its inhabitants, who seemed to carry on with their usual activities despite my presence. These consisted mainly of:

1. Grooming (very important)


2. Sitting/lying (secondarily important)


3. Walking in lines (a third priority)


And now, for some fun Magellanic penguin facts:
• Magellanic penguins eat the cuttlefish, sardines, squid, krill and other crustaceans they find in the water. They rely on a salt-excreting gland to filter the salt out of their food. They do without pepper as well.
• The species of penguin gathers in large colonies off the coast of Chile and Argentina every summer to nest and breed. The men arrive early and await their women, who manage to recognize them by call alone (and perhaps, too, by that special twinkle).
• The penguin couples lay two eggs at a time and usually end up raising one or both to adulthood. Parents take 10- to 15- day shifts watching over their eggs during the almost two-month incubation period. After the babies are born, the proud mother and father feed them every two to three days.
• Magallenic penguins live an average of 25 years in the wild.
• They have been assigned a “near threatened” status, though millions live off the coast of Chile, Argenitina and Brazil. Oil spills, declining fish populations and the hungry mouths of predators like sea lions and giant petrels have made breeding extra important.

To get to Isla Magdalena, you sign up with a tour agency in Punta Arenas, lay down $64, catch a 7 a.m. or 5 p.m. shuttle to the “Tres Puentes” port outside the city and ride a zodiac 35 minutes across the strait. Once you reach your destination, you’re set free for a couple hours to stroll the path that circles the island.

On the way home from the colony, we made a pit stop at Isla Marta, home to about 1,000 sea lions that visit their neighboring island every day around lunch time. Our guide explained that the lions were lying on the beach in three basic piles: males, females and rejects. It reminded me of middle school.