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It took practically a full day to get from Santiago to the Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa, our destination in Patagonia, but it was fun to travel with our group from the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA). The trip to Patagonia began with a three-hour flight south, stopping in Puerto Montt, which marks the beginning of Patagonia, and then continuing on to Balmaceda. I was traveling with about 20 tour operators and their companions at the annual out-of-country meeting of the USTOA in Chile. It was very much a meeting in motion, a nomadic conference.
Puerto Montt is LAN Airlines' hub for the southern tip of Chile. Balmaceda is LAN's 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, 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 crossing 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 Muñoz. We passed through heartbreakingly beautiful mountains 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 Puyuhuabi Lodge & Spa (www.puyuhuabilodgespa.com).
We were so far outside civilization that it was beyond cell phone signals. When we were aboard the catamaran, Pablo Moll Vargas, general manager of Turismo Chile, tried to explain to me just how remote Patagonia really is. "If you just picked a place here to land," he said, "there's a very good chance that you would be the first human being who has ever been there." Far out!
It was early autumn in that part of the world. The pastures were yellow and some of the leaves were turning a little brown. The port was colorful and 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 the region is the wettest place in the world and I don't doubt it. But there were also periods of brilliant sunshine, making the wet country sparkle and producing vivid rainbows. Waterfalls, like vertical rivers, were a common sight. As our guide Munoz said, the fjords in Northern Patagonia have roughly two seasons -- rainy and very rainy.
The fjords are like the tire tracks of glaciers, which rampaged through this 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, we came to an inlet called Dorita Bay and the Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa, our home for the weekend. It's a complex of rustic wood buildings with 30 guestrooms that line the bay, all encircled with richly forested mountains. Besides the jaw-dropping beauty of the surroundings, the lodge is located where it is because of 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. It's 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 that it was nearly impossible at first to see anything in the direction where there glacier was. But the mist did lift somewhat, and we 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 staff 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 alter your world view by challenging your sense of scale. As we headed south we encountered 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. Though I had read guidebook 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-struck 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 didn't 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 surrounding mountain faces. Every 10 minutes or so, a large section of the glacier about 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 rock our zodiac.
We stayed at the Puyuhaupi Lodge & Spa for two nights. I would have been happy to spend a much longer time there, but the tour operators of USTOA had a lot more of Chile yet to see and we had to get moving. For more information on Chile and USTOA, visit www.turismochile.com or www.ustoa.travel.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours for TravelPulse.com.
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