“Welcome to Patagonia!” our guide said with a huge grin that was partly genuine partly affected. The other guests and I were definitely affecting ours – to the point of clenched teeth.
Having just hopped off a powerful jetboat, our group stood on a haunting black beach in five layers of warm and water resistant clothing, suffering wind gusts powerful enough to stagger a food critic and driving rain that impacted like BBs. Admittedly this wretched ‘beach walk’ was entirely our fault. The guides repeatedly warned us that the weather would be iffy and their invitations to bow out of the beach walk (in retrospect they might have been pleas) continued all the way up until we were getting ready to leap off the boat into the soft, sticky sand that clumped on our shoes like wet cement. By this point the wind and rain implications of pressing on were apparent, but our group was still bizarrely gung-ho for the experience – though in our defense some of us were still punchy from 20-something hours of flying in from the US the previous day.
Why we were so resolute to submit to the suckiest of Patagonia’s chilly late-spring elements rather than chilling in an entirely more pleasant way in the finely appointed, four star environs of our ship, ‘Atmosphere’, with its comfortable rooms, open bar, platters of tasty snacks and complimentary spa is still hard explain. But our Chilean hosts were protégées of the “School of Never Say ‘No’ to the Guest”, so per our expressed wishes we were now being deservedly pulverized by Patagonia’s sucky elements, collective enthusiasm spiraling away like an untied balloon.
The black beach was certainly intriguingly stark and other-worldly, and if the rain on my face didn’t feel like I had an anti-riot water cannon trained on me it might have even been breathtaking. But even Michelle Hunkier, Natalie Portman and Rosario Dawson doing a choreographed, all-Jell-O, nude yoga recital couldn’t have been properly appreciated under those conditions. A half hour of staggering through that meteorological punishment was all we could stand. We hailed the jet boat and raced back to Atmosphere.
Shedding my clothing and gear on the run, I clamored for the warmth of the outdoor Jacuzzi where I sat submerged from the nose down, my back being buffeted by a dozen tiny jets. A Pisco Sour was offered to me for the 17th time in 24 hours, while I stared transfixed at a distant backdrop of mountains and temperate rain forest drifting languidly by.
Our ill-fated beach walk notwithstanding, it had been a rather lively day of bouncing and skittering around lagoons in a Zodiac Hurricane, catching glimpses of sea lions, dolphins, penguins and cormorants. Devouring beef with onions, rice and apple pie for lunch, king crab bruschetta, ostrich fillet and chocolate truffles for dinner. A river of wine throughout.
The following day was another story, however.
Upping the exertion factor significantly, our guides tempted us with an invigorating morning of sea kayaking. The others in our eco-tour group unanimously demurred, choosing instead to sit in the accompanying Zodiac. Sensing our guides’ disappointment, and being none too sharp after what could charitably be described as fantastic quantities of Chilean wine the previous night, I stepped forward and accepted the sea kayaking challenge.
Who’s a gonzo travel writer? Me, that’s who.
Launching the kayaks from the edge of Atmosphere, we first paddled serenely through mirror-finish water in the lagoon, then moved out into more open (read: rough) water. I’m from Minnesota. We’re used to gentle lakes. As such we like to do our sea kayaking with the bare minimum of sea. So when the waves started, they were accompanied by no shortage of private distress. Though in reality I suppose the waves were very tiny, they nevertheless seemingly crashed over the front of my kayak with menacing violence, splattering my face with cold salt water, pushing me backwards and requiring heroic strength on my part in order to maintain forward motion. Though my guide was infinitely more cool about it, it was clear he too was suffering an overall gratification evacuation, so we mercifully steered into a tiny lagoon for a break. The Zodiac followed, bringing with it refreshments. On a side note, I loved it that no matter what gritty activity we were engaged in, no matter the remote locale, there was never a minute in any day when an open bottle of wine couldn’t be produced in under 15 seconds.
Though my guide gave me ample invitations to excuse myself from the remainder of the kayaking trip and join the pasties in the Zodiac, I refused. This would’ve meant that the young, petit, female guide – who I would eventually discover was tougher than most ox wrestlers – would have to take my place in the kayak and there was no way I was going let my masculinity take such a profound hit.
We jumped back into the kayaks and headed to a distant rock teeming with sea lions. Though decidedly un-Minnesotan perpendicular waves battered us much of the time, I managed to make it all the way to the sea lions, dignity intact. The power of the waves and the defense-minded, 650 pound bull sea lions kept us from paddling too close to the colony, but it was nevertheless a true Tim Cahill moment.
Later that day, after a brief rest on Atmosphere where we dined on salmon, topped with salmon caviar on a bed of risotto, carrot cake and sauvignon blanc by Terra Pura, we were dramatically choppered in to hike up to Llanteles Glacier.
Dropped off at a safe (and flat) spot about two miles away, we scrambled over loose rock and scrub, heading for our looming objective while surrounded on three sides by mind-bending mountains, including a towering sheer cliff on one side adorned with tiny waterfalls.
With house-sized chunks of ice continually breaking off the glacier and tumbling down the mountain, we only dared venture to the outermost edge of the ice field. After an indulgent photo shoot (two professional photographers were in attendance), we retreated a hundred yards and enjoyed a picnic of cold meats, salami, salmon, cheeses, bread and wine. And whisky. An alleged Chilean tradition demanded that we sip whiskey chilled with ice chipped off the glacier. Again, I was the only taker. I’d earned it.
That night it was more wining and dining, highlighted by an amazing Chilean Sea Bass with wine by Viu Manent and Equus. The three hours of aggressive sea kayaking and two hours of scrambling up to a glacier had reduced my entire body to such a pitiable flaccidness that if you’d thrown me against a wall, I’d have stuck to it. Trying to self-medicate with countless glasses of wine and a tall, fruity cocktail that was shoved into my hands late in the evening had predictable consequences. The snowballing hangover, physical exhaustion and travel-related sleeplessness started me down a path of deterioration that night that I didn’t fully recover from until about a week after I’d returned to Minnesota.
Next time on the Chile Review: Ultimate fly fishing at the end of the world. Will our hero survive the day without a new, self-inflicted face piercing? Stay tuned…