• Story and photos by Elizabeth F. Armstrong / Special to The Herald
  • Saturday, April 22, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

A cruise to the end of the world followed by a visit to a desert that hasn’t seen rain in 450 years? It sounded like a great vacation.

In addition, there would be lots of physical activity, education and interesting photography. Perfect!

“Fire and Ice,” a guided tour in Chile, caught my eye and the anticipation of an incredible journey began.

Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes mountain range to the east, the long, thin country of Chile runs like a narrow ribbon along the western coast of South America.

Our destination would be two of Chile’s extraordinary and diverse natural attractions that are 3,000 miles apart, Cape Horn and the fjords of Chilean Patagonia in the south and the Atacama Desert in the north.

Travelers must fly and take a ship to experience the geographical, cultural and climatic differences of these two distinct regions in a short time. However, a number of tourists visit Chile by bus, bike or rental car, or by booking a trip to a fishing lodge or passage on a ship, seeing only one portion of this vast country at a time.

My husband and I joined two other couples for a two-week escorted tour that began in the sophisticated capital city of Santiago, the center of the country.

Because Chile lies south of the equator, the seasons are the opposite of ours. We chose to travel in March, their early fall, in an attempt to take advantage of good weather without the crowds.

We boarded the 100-passenger ship Mare Australis, joining passengers from 15 different countries to spend four days alternately attending lectures and cruising south through the ice-strewn Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel on our way to the celebrated Cape Horn.

It was easy to become transfixed by the changing scenery: the mountains, the wind-battered trees, the avenue of glaciers and the blue-green sea. As we cruised we spent time looking for seals, dolphins and albatross while trying to identify some of the 200 other species of birds that visit or nest on the fjords.

Weather in Patagonia is unpredictable and changeable, and within minutes it is raining or hailing or sunny. The reward are rainbows and we saw them frequently.

The ship anchored once or twice a day and, dressed for the elements in yellow rubber suits under orange life preservers, we traveled to shore in inflatable Zodiac boats.

We walked gingerly across the tundra on Ainsworth Bay, moving slowly so we could appreciate the small red berries, daisylike flowers, lichen, a variety of colorful mushrooms and other tiny intrepid plants that once provided food for the indigenous people.

We hiked a beach, keeping a respectful distance from huge elephant seals lounging on the shore, and we floated by an island beach covered with animated Magellan penguins.

I will never forget climbing high on a rock promontory and sitting silently with 60 other passengers from our ship listening to the sounds of the Pia glacier. The reverence for this act of nature was contagious and magical. Avalanches within the glacier were explosive and the “calving” of sections of ice caused a roar and a splash into the sea below.

We cruised south to the island of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America and the last landmass before you reach Antarctica. This is the site of Cabo de Hornos, the treacherous Cape Horn that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Even at this, the best time of year for travel in Patagonia, only 70 percent of the expeditions to Cape Horn are able to land Zodiacs in the rough seas and strong winds that often buffet the shore.

We landed as the sun began to rise, exposing the exquisite two-piece monument of an albatross that was erected at the top of the hillside to honor captains who perished with their ships.

With thoughts of the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan (Hernando de Magallanes) who sailed in these waters in 1520, we struggled against 70 mph gusts of freezing wind that attempted to knock us off the wooden path as we ascended the hill. Everyone took photos but it was really hard to keep a steady hand on the camera.

Completing the cruise in Ushuaia on the Argentinean side of the island of Tierra del Fuego, we caught our next series of flights north, first to the wine country near Santiago for two days, and then to the Atacama Desert at 7,900 feet above sea level.

Talk about diversity! As we drove for more than an hour from the airport in Calama to the beautiful Explora Lodge near the town of San Pedro de Atacama, we felt like we had landed on Mars.

This is the world’s driest landscape. No precipitation has been recorded in the plains since the days of Spanish colonization.

Glancing off into the horizon, we could see the very sharp conical peaks of Chile’s mountain ranges rising to nearly 15,000 feet.

“Look at the snow,” someone would remark only to be informed that because of “Bolivian rains” in the volcanic mountains, we were really seeing a beautiful dusting of salt.

The beauty in the desert was the azure blue cloudless sky, the peaked mountains to the east that change color as the day progresses, La Cordillera de Sal, the mountain range to the west composed of salt and miles of huge, rounded sand dunes.

The area is rich in pre-Columbian, Tiahuanaco, Incan and Spanish history.

Ancient fortresses and simple shelters and corals for sheep and llamas constructed with carefully placed rocks cling to the cliffs.

The active portion of our trip was about to begin.

At the Explora Lodge, guests are encouraged to experience the incredible natural beauty of the region by taking two guided treks a day.

Only a few of the excursions were on flat ground, such as trips to small towns to visit central squares, adobe churches, markets and museums, or to explore Laguna Chaxa, a salt lagoon, to watch the flight of flamingoes at sunset.

If you go…

For all travelers anticipating the cold of Patagonia and the heat of the desert and the weight restriction of 44 pounds on airlines, the mental anguish over what to pack can be answered by one word: layers, especially fleece and a waterproof jacket. Other things to remember:

* Our ship sold yellow rubber rain suits for $15.

* Take sunscreen.

* ATMs are everywhere but always carry some Chilean pesos.

* Get hiking boots or shoes with good grip.

* International phone service is expensive.

* Cell service with international roaming is expensive and sporadic.

* Carry binoculars.

* You’ll need electrical converters for hair dryers or battery chargers for digital cameras.

* Remember a light jacket for desert nights.

Enthusiastic, multilingual young guides escorted groups of two to 10 hikers on treks that were graded based on aerobic activity, not on the degree of difficulty encountered with the terrain. Our group blended with the international guests at the lodge, and we all picked hikes that had a particular appeal.

My excursions were usually based on photo opportunities. I selected my camera and lens by the level of difficulty of the hike. I used my bigger digital SLR and its telephoto lens when I was relatively sure of my footing and I selected a more compact film camera to use when I feared for my life but couldn’t resist the photographic possibilities.

Some of our fellow explorers handled these varied treks with the grace, speed and agility of mountain goats.

I have never had trouble climbing up. However, even on the Atacama Desert, what goes up must come down, and that was frequently my problem. I took hikes on terrain that had no trees to grab for security. More than once I hugged a rock. On a beautiful trek above a river fed by hot springs, I slid a good part of the mountainside on the seat of “Oprah’s favorite jeans.”

Each panoramic view was exquisite and unique. Chest pounding, adrenaline pumping, I kept on hiking.

My favorite hike was to the Valley of the Moon, alternately climbing and descending rocky hillsides to look over vistas of salt, gypsum rocks or sand dunes carved by time and the relentless wind.

As the sun set and the full moon began to rise, I watched the landscape turn from a muted brown to a rosy shade of pink.

One afternoon, we were challenged to run heels first, as fast as we could, down a dune in knee-deep sand that curiously made me bounce with each step.

The morning of our last day we rose before daylight and drove to the world’s highest geothermal field, the geysers of Tatio. As light crept into the sky, we stopped periodically to see archeological sites, shepherds’ homes, flamingoes and vicuna, a small llamalike animal.

Our van driver took us back down the bumpy road to Termas de Puritama for a gourmet picnic treat, Chilean wine, the ever-available Pisco Sour and a soak by a waterfall in the clear hot springs pool. Ah, decadence! How lucky could we be?

When I have had the privilege of visiting another country, I try to soak in as much knowledge as I can and memorize the visions in my eyes because intrinsically I know I will never return. However, Chile is special. Tales from other travelers indicate there is so much more to see.

In Punta Arenas, we rubbed the bronze right foot of a handsome indigenous man sculpted into the base of a monument dedicated to the Magellan. Tradition assures the visitor a safe voyage and return to Chile. We’ll be back.

Elizabeth Armstrong is a freelance photographer and writer and a longtime regular contributor to The Herald.

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