The boat moves slowly through the milky haze floating above the waters of the Ultima Esperanza sound. Passengers brave the damp cold on deck for as long as they can, taking in the views of the mystical landscape–the dreamscape of waterfalls cascading over cliffs that rise on either side. When the bitter cold is too intolerable, they slip back inside to warm themselves.
Occasionally a guide will point out the places where animals in warmer times congregate. But not now. Now, only condors watch over us, soaring across those occasional patches of gray sky where the haze clears.
At dawn that Easter morning, I waited at the dock a few blocks from my hotel in Puerto Natales, a town a few hundred miles from the southern tip of Chile. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the trip that day. At first, I lamented the bleak day, the chill that seeped to the bones. I soon realized that something that seemed almost spiritual slipped in with the white wisps of clouds come to earth.
Two nights before, I’d flown into Punta Arenas, the southernmost town in Chile. The flight from Santiago was the most anxiety producing of my life. The plane flew over a region largely claimed by nature. Much of the last hours, I saw nothing on the ground—no lights from towns or cities. Only completely blackness.
Suddenly, a force brusquely nudged the plane and the currents of air tossed it about. Through the window, I could see flakes visible as they descended from the inky darkness and through the plane’s exterior light. Snow.
The plane finally dropped lower as it started its descent, but I couldn’t see where it would land. Only one patch of amber luminescence which in time showed itself to be the tiny Punta Arenas airport.
The edge of the that town of just over 100,000 people is battered by the waters of the Strait of Magellan, nicknamed the “dragon’s tail” by early explorers.
The southern region is most of all a place of wind. Brutal wind. On the Ruta del Fin del Mundo (the “Route of the End of the World”) that runs the 152 miles from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, a monument dedicated to the wind stands at the halfway point.
We took that route to reach Puerto Natales, surrounded by patches of the snow that had fallen the night before. For many people Puerto Natales is the jumping off point into the natural wonders just north of Punta Arenas. An hour or so away from Puerto Natales is a national park which is home to the Torres del Paine (‘paine’ means blue in the indigenous language of the Tehuelche—also known as the Aonikenk—people), a cluster of mountains so stunning that someone once used them in an advertisement for the Canadian Rockies. The snow of the night before dusted the ground around us as we traveled.
The boat continues its journey up the sound, winding through the waters that skirt the national park. Three hours into the trip up the sound, we leave the boat and walked a path through the trees to one glacier. Afterwards, I hike with the other passengers to a lake where the remnants of another glacier float along its surface like irregular ice cubes in a giant punch bowl. We all return to the boat to retrace our journey, sipping whiskey to mark the occasion.
A few years later, this time during the Chilean summer, I will return to Puerto Natales. As before, the boat will sail just after dawn, but on that trip bright sunshine will light the way and the sea lions I had not seen on the previous trip will make an appearance. In only a short while, I will realize, though, I have traveled to a new and different land.
The future is another country to be visited at a later point in the itinerary. I savor these moments now moving toward our destination in Puerto Natales. I don’t realize it now, but I prefer the bitter cold, the frigid moisture. Most of all, I favor the ghostly mist surrounding us without knowing all that it conceals.