Back to World Tour Page or Chile 2: Viņa Del Mar & Puerto Montt.

Fri 25th Feb. Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales.

Spend so long trying to find the bus to the airport, I only just make it in time for my flight.

Short flight to Punta Arenas, the most southerly city of more than 100,000 people in the world - and on a more personal level, home to the world's most southerly brewery. The clouds part just enough to give tantilizing glimpses of the snowy wilderness below as we fly over the coccyx of the Andes, and as the plane comes in to land, Tierra Del Fuego looms darkly across the Straits of Magellan. South of here there is nothing much other than harsh wilderness, and Antarctica.

In the airport, I hear a couple of American voices discussing the Torres Del Paine. Aha! I spy a conversational opening! Five minutes later, I'm on a bus to Puerto Natales with Kevin and Barak from Montana, in search of some scenery.

The far south of Patagonia looks like a rolling landscape that has been hammered into submission by the wind, til only vestigal hills and dales, sparsely covered by tough little trees and scrub, remain. The trees suffer badly from some (fungal?) disease, and the stretches of bare, dead forest give an overwhelmingly desolate air to the scenery.

The bus and it's trail of dust arrive at Puerto Natales at sunset. The mountains are reflected in the dark water of Last Hope Sound, and each post of a never-to-be-finished pier supports a single seagull.

Sat 26th Feb. Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina.

Have just watched a chunk of 30,000 year old baby blue ice the approximate size and shape of Big Ben fall into the lake with a sound like a bomb, and a huge wave of slate-grey water. Argentina is an unexpected stamp in the passport - it's taken six hours rattling dustily along dirt roads to get here, and it'll take six to get back to Puerto Natales, but a couple of hours in the close presence of the Glacier makes it more than worthwhile.

Two miles wide and 100 metres high, glittering white and intense blue (where the ice has had all dissolved gas squeezed from it under pressure) I expected the glacier to be dramatic scenery, but it is much more than that. It is a creaking, grinding, splitting, almost living thing. It's groans and roars, and trying to work out which bit is going to drop off next (and always being wrong), make it magnetic and facinating - although it almost doesn't move, it dominates the attention.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Sun 27th Feb. Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile.

First stop: Cave of the Milodon, as featured in 'Life on Earth'. Look around, half expecting David Attenborough (the greatest living Englishman) to step out from behind a rock in his bush jacket, saying "And in this (pause) enormous cave, were found the remains of a very remarkable animal (pause) indeed."

With my luck, I'll probably get Dickie Attenborough and some dodgy C.G.I. dinosaur instead...

The heart of the national park are the Torres (towers) of Paine themselves, gigantic fangs of volcanic rock, surrounded by glaciers and multicoloured lakes. Guanacos (kind of like athletic brown llamas) and Rhea (metre tall drab flightless birds) are common. I burn film like dry grass. Fortunately, I seem to have met the two guys in Patagonia who burn film faster than me, so I don't stand out.

Torres Del Paine

Mon 27th Feb. Puerto Natales.

Goodbye to Kevin, Barak and Jane, who are going hiking in the park for several days, looking like they are going to their doom. As they step out the door, the first snowflakes start falling...

Before I leave, I have a long chat with Paula, the lovely owner of the Residencial I am staying in. She talks about growing up as an Argentine child in Chile, and the universal cruelty of children to those just a little different. She also tells me in no uncertain terms that at my age I should be settling down and starting a family, not going gallavanting round the world!

back in Punta Arenas, there is a statue of Magellan rising above a couple of dying Indians. Legend holds that rubbing the toe of one of the Indians (you can't miss the toe, gleaming brightly in contrast to the dark metal around) guarantees you will return to Patagonia. I already know the harsh beauty of Patagonia will call me back, but I give the toe a rub just to be sure.

Tues 28th Feb. Punta Arenas to Santiago.

Stayed up til 4am drinking a box of wine and talking with Corinna from Tel Aviv in the hostel last night.

The wine box turns out to contain three litres - four standard bottles. How do they fit all that in there? It must be a trap. For some reason, it wasn't easy to get up to go to the airport when the alarm went off at six, I ran late, had to flag down a taxi and made it onto the flight with minutes to spare. This is turning into a REALLY bad habit.

Back in the dry heat of Santiago, check into a splendidly eccentric hostal called 'Rio Amazonias', all lush tropical pot plants, native wood carvings and tribal spears, with classical music playing faintly in the background. Get along splendidly with the owners, an dignified elderly Equadorian/Chilean couple, who flatter my pidgin Spanish enormously.

Wed 1st March. Santiago to Antofagasta.

When I check out, my hosts present me with a handmade personalised bookmark. The charm of this simple gesture touches me so much, I'm speechless.

On to Chile 4: Atacama Desert

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