Tierra Patagonia

Images of a wild and beautiful place, the urging of a former guide in South America, and a romantic notion of the “uttermost ends of the earth” – all were convincing – so we followed the adrenalin rush of our experiences with Cruceros Australia to Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn with a visit to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine – a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1978 – and more time in amazing Patagonia.

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Our drive from El Calafate in Argentina on the first day provided a gradual introduction to the unique environments of the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica region, including Patagonian steppe, Pre-Andean scrubland, Magellan forest, glaciers and watercourses.

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But nothing could quite prepare us for the location of the Tierra Patagonia Hotel on the shores of Lake Sarmiento and the ever present magnificence of the peaks or for the soft (but nonetheless amazing) adventure of a few more days at the end of the world.

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Tierra Patagonia Hotel is uniquely placed to provide visitors to the national park with an uninterrupted vista stretching from Paine Grande, including the “Cuernos” (horns), the “Torres” (towers), the Almirante Nieto and Nido de Condor.

The weather here can be notoriously changeable with bone chilling winds – it was not.


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We saw sunrise, sunset, moon rise and moon set, reflections in lakes and the mesmerising presence of the peaks of the Paine Massif from different perspectives as we travelled on excursions, a navigation, hikes and on horseback throughout the park. We were spellbound by the 360 degree picture postcard moments but also felt utterly privileged to go out each day with our very experienced guides.

Thursday afternoon – arrival day – Cornisas (Cornices) hike

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From this plateau we had stunning views of las Torres del Paine, Sierra Contreras and Sierra del Torro. The sky was blue, the breeze fresh but light and the condors were soaring and performing for the cameras.

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The unmarked trail was strewn with small flowering plants, the most notable the red mate guanacos.

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Our expert guide was relaxed but reassuring as we made a skidding, zigzag descent.

Friday morning – Hunters Trail

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After a frosty start, the weather was again unbelievably bright, sunny and calm.

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The trail gave us a chance to pass close to herds of guanacos.

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A key focus was a visit to the rocky outcrop with “pinturas repestros de Aonikenk” – cave paintings of a native people who were hunter gatherers and occupied the area some 6,000 years ago.

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Again, the initial descent was a little challenging. It then became obvious that we were in the territory of a hunter – the puma (the predator of the guanaco).

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The grassy sierra was strewn with their remains – some recent kills. According to our guide, the nervous behaviour of the guanacos also indicated that a puma was not so far away.

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Friday afternoonLaguna Azul

There was a relaxing option after lunch. A drive north to the Blue Lagoon, stopping along the way at the Paine waterfall – such a powerful, deafening surge of water and an exhilarating experience to walk along the path and feel the spray on our faces.

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The picnic spot in the forest above the lake had more breathtaking views.

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A curious (and obviously scavenging) Caracara approached us hopefully.

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The picnic spread provided by the hotel included a refreshingly crisp white wine. Pure pleasure.

Saturday – full day including navigation on Lago Grey

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A very long day but there was so much to see and do! The drive included stops along Lago Pehoe, views of another impressive waterfall on the Rio Paine, an informative visit to the administration centre of the park (CONAF), a “typical” lunch at Rio Serrano, a forest walk, a (stony) beach walk and a trip aboard the Grey II on the lake right up to the Grey Glacier.

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We boarded the boat late in the afternoon for the cruise to the glacier.

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The little boat was crowded and there was the usually difficulty for the photographers to that ‘perfect’ shot.

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The sky again was a brilliant blue and the skyline of the Paine Grande was imposing. The boat manoeuvred among  the ice floes along each face of the glacier – it was an amazing, if slightly unnerving experience to hear the ice crunching under the bow.

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We would have appreciated a guide aboard the boat. This was not provided but the friendly crew offered pisco sours with clinking glacier ice.

Sunday – Baguales and Estancia Lazo

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Our last day in this beautiful hotel – an option was to simply relax and experience its picture perfect location, sympathetic eco design immersed in the landscape with spa, library, relaxation areas, extensive picture windows overlooking the lake, dining room and bar. BUT we opted to go out again. In the morning after an interesting drive we reached a higher altitude and walked beside a stream looking for fossils.

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We were outside the park and crossed the boundaries of estancias. Wild horses roamed freely.

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In the afternoon, eager for one last opportunity to be out in the park we spent a couple of hours horse riding accompanied by our guide and a couple of local gauchos, through ancient forest of lenga trees to a lookout point.

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On the drive to the estancia (and during the drive south to Punta Arenas the next day) it was quite confronting to see how much of the forest has fallen victim to massive fires (2011) and ongoing destruction caused by a parasite (commonly called Chinese lantern).

Monday – departure

Soft clouds were dimming the brilliance of the southern sky and the wind was beginning to rise. It was time to leave. As a parting gesture, the manager handed me a password. It was the key to my ongoing connection to this land. If I chose to activate the link, Tierra Patagonia Hotel would plant a tree on my behalf as part of a renewal program for the depleted forest.

Our guide drove us on the long road south to Punta Arenas through a rather desolate open countryside of immense sheep stations. We turned for one last look at las Torres del Paine (towers of blue)), the condors wheeled in the air in farewell and flamingos provided a surprise flash of pink in the landscape.

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Faithful pairs of upland geese were a constant reminder of a land appearing dry and desolate but carrying so much water in its lagoons, lakes, streams, rivers and glaciers – I added my tears in farewell.

“Why then – and this is not only my particular case – does this barren land possess my mind? I find it hard to explain…but it might partly be because it enhances the horizons of imagination.”   Charles Darwin.




Saturday (Navigation – Punta Arenas/Ainsworth Bay 90 Nm)

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The sky is clear, there is a fresh breeze whipping at the flags and the reception desk is a flurry of passports and boarding documents.

AAA Superior Cabin 422 on the bridge deck, Pisco Sours, a welcome toast in the Darwin Lounge (5th deck), meet and greet the captain and the expedition crew and then we are sailing into Estrecho de Magellenes! Everyone wants to be outside on the rails until the very last moment of the sunset before dinner is served in the Patagonia Dining Room (1st deck).

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We embrace the shipboard rhythm of briefings, drinks and fine food  – and anticipation of what tomorrow will bring.

Sunday (Navigation Ainsworth Bay/Tuckers Islets/Pia Glacier 208 Nm)

The Sky Lounge (4th deck) offers early coffee and fresh, gourmet pastries for those who are keen to photograph the sunrise or work out in the gym.

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Today’s disembarkations are not testing physically but it is the first time wearing all the gear and following procedure for leaving the ship and returning in the zodiacs.

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There is a shore excursion in the morning – we see our first condors of the trip, walk through an Antarctic beech forest, examine delicate marsh plants, mosses, lichens and mussel beds with our guide Javiera in the National Park Alberto de Agostini.

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I could have stayed longer at the imposing rock face – no cathedral, no matter how soaring or ornate can possibly match the sense of ‘awesome’ as this remote, silent, natural place.

Prior to the afternoon disembarkation to view penguins and cormorants at Tuckers Islet, there is some trepidation about the sea conditions but the crew ensures that the expedition (although thrilling) is quite safe despite the 30 knot westerly wind. AND we see another condor. BUT there are fewer penguins than usual – fewer each year.

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The evening lecture is Glaciology in Patagonia and after the briefing for the next day, there is very little energy for the other entertainments provided.

Monday (Navigation – Pia Glacier/Cape Horn 142 Nm)

There is high excitement as we sail in Ballerno Channel as the clear, early morning weather deteriorates. Snow flurries! The disembarkation for Pia Glacier goes ahead although there are a few modifications to the excursion on land because of the snow. It is quite amazing to be so close to the ice and very satisfying to experience this chilly place while drinking whisky and hot chocolate.

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We are anticipating a perfect sail through Glacier Alley and are keen to capture all five glaciers on film. It is not to be. The snow increases and there is almost complete white out. Disappointment is put aside as we anticipate the itinerary for the next day and the bar provides drinks and snacks and opportunities for interesting talk with new acquaintances.

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Late in the afternoon there is a briefing for the next day’s morning excursion – Wulaia Bay. And in the evening, the Captain’s dinner.

Tuesday (Navigation – Wulaia Bay/Cape Horn 78Nm; Cape Horn/Pto Navarino 94 Nm; Pto Navarinot/Ushuaia 20 Nm)

This place is steeped in history and legend. Captain Fitz Roy, naturalist Charles Darwin, Yaghan aborigines….the stories are wonderfully and meticulously curated in an old naval station. However, as we disembark for the hill hike in Wulaia Bay, our thoughts are on the viewpoints far above us which we will strive to reach. There was fresh snow overnight but now the forest is a winter wonderland (even though it is October and officially Spring).

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The track is muddy and the climb long and steep but well worth the effort as we reach the viewpoint and see Stella as a tiny toy on the bay below. There are photos and a minute’s silence to appreciate the pristine environment and breathe the clear, cool air. No sound except the rushing water of an icy stream.

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This day yields another excitement late in the afternoon. The captain and crew keep us in suspense as they assess the sea and landing conditions on Isla Hornos – the ultimate experience for most on this expedition is to reach Cape Horn AND go ashore to the monument. After the satisfaction of the morning climb in Wulaia Bay, I am feeling that Cape Horn would be an extra bonus.

The disembarkation begins. I am on the second boat to land and push myself to climb to the monument – then race to the lighthouse and back down to the landing spot in the fading light for the first zodiac back to the boat.

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It is time for the farewell toast all too soon. I really wanted a very special keepsake for us to take home – there was a raffle for the 150th voyage flag (the Jack) and an auction of the nautical chart too. But I am happy with the Cape Horn stamp in my Passport and the memory of an unforgettable expedition cruise. The Stella Australis is a beautiful boat with an exceptional crew. I am forever spoiled – cruising for me can only be on a small ship like the Stella – preferably with a barman who understands that champagne is my first love but Pisco Sours come a close second.

Wednesday – Cruise destination – Ushuaia

The voyage destination is Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina – a stepping stone to El Calafate and the next part of our journey in Patagonia.

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We have sailed and walked in this  remote area of legends, pristine waters, the albatross and the ancient ice of the Darwin Range glaciers….we think we have been especially privileged to  have had the opportunity to be here.

Our next destination is back in Chile in the Torres del Paine National Park. Another very special place on earth.

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