Puyuhuapi in Patagonia

By David Cogswell

It took practically a full day of travel to get from Santiago to the Puyuhuapi Lodge, our destination in Patagonia, but it was fun travel. The trip to Patagonia began with a flight south, stopping in Puerto Montt, which marks the beginning of Patagonia, then continuing to Balmaceda. It was roughly a three-hour flight. I was traveling with about 20 tour operators and their companions at the annual out-of-country meeting of the U.S. Tour Operators Association in Chile. It was a meeting in motion, a nomadic conference.

Puerto Montt is Lan Airlinesí hub for the southern tip of Chile. Balmaceda is Lanís southernmost destination in Chile but one, Punta Arenas, which is way down at the tip of the continent in Tierra Del Fuego, a disembarkation point for trips to Antarctica. Balmaceda is roughly 500 miles north of Tierra Del Fuego Ė but still way down south, and quite remote from urban civilization. After we landed in Balmaceda we had another three-hour trip, this one by motorcoach. We crossed the Andes traveling east to west. It is the only place you can cross the Andes and still be in Chile, according to our guide, Daniel MuŮoz. That trip took us through heartbreakingly beautiful mountain and plain landscapes to Chacabuco, the port where we were to board the catamaran called the Patagonia Express and ride for five hours through the Chilean fjords to get to our destination for the night, the Puyhuabi Lodge & Spa.

Thatís how far out we were. It was beyond cell phone signals. When we were aboard the catamaran, Pablo Moll Vargas, the general manager of Turismo Chile, tried to explain to me how remote we were. ďIf you just picked a place here to land,Ē he said, ďthereís a very good chance that you would be the first human being who has ever been there.Ē Far out.

It was early autumn in that part of the world. The pastures were yellow. Some of the leaves were turning a little brown. The port was colorful, quaint. The Patagonia Express was a sort of a cross between a ferry and a dinner cruiser. With a capacity of roughly 60 passengers it had a lower deck with rows of reclining seats similar to airline seats with headphone sets. Upstairs was the dining/bar/lounge area and an outdoor deck area. It was a comfortable ship, but lithe and fast with its catamaran bottom and its water-jet propulsion system. As we pushed out into the fjord we were surrounded by rugged black mountains with blankets of snow draped over their tops.

Most of the time we were in Patagonia it was cloudy, or raining. They say itís the wettest place in the world and I donít doubt it. But there were also periods of brilliant sunshine, making the wet country sparkle and producing vivid rainbows. Waterfalls, like vertical rivers, became a common sight. As Daniel said, the fjords in Northern Patagonia, where we were, have roughly two seasons: rainy and very rainy.

The fjords are like the tire tracks of glaciers that rampaged through that part of the world thousands of years ago, ripping up practically everything in their paths. There are massive peaks as the spine of the Andes reaches its tail end. And towards the Pacific, the land breaks up into myriad tiny islands like scattered gravel.

Far up the Puyuhuapi Canal where it comes to an inlet called Dorita Bay is the Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa, our home for the weekend. Itís a complex of rustic wood buildings that house 30 guest rooms lining the bay, encircled with richly forested mountains. Besides the jaw-dropping beauty of the surroundings, a major reason for the location of the lodge is the existence of thermal springs in the area.

The spa incorporates hot water from the thermal springs as well as sea water from the bay and fresh water from the mountain springs to provide a variety of hot, warm and cold pools both indoors and out. There were a number of outdoors activities possible, such as hiking. We hiked through the forest to a place where it was possible to observe what is known as the Hanging Glacier. Itís not really hanging, but it occupies a massive crevice high on a mountain top, and the leading edge of it is always dropping off the mountain. When we hiked there it was so rainy, cloudy and misty it was impossible at first to see anything in the direction where there glacier was. But the mist did lift somewhat, and we could could make out the glacier, gleaming with an eerie blue, crystalline light, as if reflecting sunshine from above the clouds.

The lodge was a cozy refuge from the rain, with a toasty fireplace, like a ski lodge. The food was phenomenal, with a visual presentation that is usually seen only in the swankest big city restaurants. The help was warm and friendly, as they were virtually everywhere we went in Chile.

When we left the lodge, we rode in the catamaran back toward our original point of embarkation and then a few hours beyond to visit the San Rafael Lagoon and the San Rafael Glacier. It was one of those experiences that alters your world view by challenging your sense of scale. As we headed south we began to encounter icebergs, with elegantly sculptured blue ice crowns sticking out of the water. When the glacier first appeared in the distance it looked like a giant mass of ice pouring out of the mountains into the ocean. And that is pretty much what it was. Though I had read school book descriptions of glaciers, the real thing was beyond anything I had imagined.

Like its sister up north, the San Rafael Glacier glowed with a strange blue-green hue. But we could get up quite close to this one. The catamaran came up a hundred yards or so from the mile-wide edge of the glacier and from there we were able to board zodiacs and ride closer. Everyone in our group was awe-stricken by the sight of this monstrosity of ice and snow. I had imagined a glacier to be just a huge pile of snow, a homogeneous, smooth material. I didnít expect a mass of ice and snow packed for millennia to have so much texture and dimension, but it seems to have almost as much modeling on its surface as the mountain faces themselves. Every 10 minutes or so, a large section of the glacier, say the size of a Fifth Avenue department store, would cave in and come crashing down into the water, making a glorious, slow motion splash and creating waves that would eventually rock our zodiac. The people in the zodiac would groan as they were swept over with wonder at the sight.

We stayed at the Puyuhapi Lodge two nights. I would have been happy to spend a long time there, maybe even get a job there and just stay. But the tour operators of USTOA had a lot more of Chile yet to see and we had to get moving. -- David Cogswell

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