Having completed my ‘ultimate fly fishing’ adventure, I was demoted back to the ultimate eco-tour group for the final few ultimate days of the ultimate cruise.
FYI – an incontrovertible tourism fact I acquired on this trip is that you can make virtually anything ‘ultimate’ if you somehow involve a helicopter. Ultimate bird watching, ultimate knitting, even ultimate house of cards building, which would admittedly be pretty ultimate if you were able pull it off with a helicopter rotor spinning at over 200 revolutions per minute nearby.
I say that my return to the eco-tours was a demotion only because the eco-guides had seemingly run out of fresh tour ideas, due to the limitations of our location and seasonal options. And one of the only original excursions they could dream up, a volcano hike, nearly resulted in a pneumonia pandemic.
We were delivered once again in ultimate fashion to a point about mid-way up Corcovado Volcano. Since there was no place for the helicopter to safely land, the pilot hovered about two inches off the ground while we jumped out with all our gear like commandos tasked with chasing down the Predator.
The disappointing lack of alien life forms aside, the views from the slopes of the volcano were amazing. The lava field terrain was covered in scrub and sponge-like moss with slicks of late-spring snow refusing to melt and the occasional spindly tree poking out of the confusion, trying to subsist on the sparing nutrients in this unremittingly harsh environment.
We scrambled up and down the volcano, enjoying stupefying vistas for 90 minutes before a sudden inclement weather system rolled in. It wasn’t long before the combination of dropping temperatures, wind and rain made everyone distinctly uncomfortable. Meanwhile, denser clouds loomed that had the potential of preventing our scheduled helicopter pick-up. It was time to leave.
Though flying time between the ship and the volcano was only about 15 minutes, we ended up waiting over two hours for a pick-up, despite repeated satellite phone calls begging for an evacuation. Meanwhile, for lack of a better option, the guides marched us for untold miles to keep us from freezing. Why it took so long for the helicopter to pick us up was never revealed, though the likely explanation was that
we were a bunch of expendable journalists and maybe paying guests would need the helicopter, the boat owner had taken the helicopter on a joyride with his young hottie friend, there were “scheduling problems”.
The following day we set out on a trip advertised as “kayaking to a waterfall”, that turned out to be “kayaking, then hiking through dense virgin temperate rain forest to a waterfall”. Knowing full well by this stage that our guides liked to underestimate the time and strenuousness of our tours by about 300%, I respectfully declined the kayak offer and sat in the accompanying Zodiac boat, as did everyone else, save one photographer. The forest hike was actually quite nice, our guides pointing out various flora and fauna (though the largest fauna that saw fit to present itself was a hummingbird), but since the guides neglected to mention that we were taking the scenic route through the forest, and the day being uncharacteristically warm and sunny, most everyone left their raingear on the boats. As such my fleece was liberally coated with decomposing forest grime, while we were soaked by countless mini-showers every time someone touched a tree branch.
That same day we were taken to see our fourth sea lion colony of the week. Now there’s no denying that sea lions are fascinating creatures and due to calm seas we were able to get closer to this particular colony than any other, but four? In a week?? Us journalists were running out of ways to spin this irksome repetition into material that would fill out our articles and photo spreads.
The next day we went on another hike through a temperate rain forest, though this time we followed an old, neglected fisherman’s path, climbing over and around dozens of giant fallen trees, splashing through spontaneous micro-rivers and skating down mud slicks. Highlights included spotting several exotic frogs and what was apparently a rare, gigantic black snail (the equivalent of seeing Brad Pitt for our ecology PhD candidate eco-guide – I thought she was going to pee herself). The outing was once again far more physically taxing than we were led to believe. The “one and a half hour” hike dragged on for over three hours. This was due partly to all the unexpected natural barriers, but also to us again being in the company of the elderly Chilean woman, who was as charming as always, but needed constant help negotiating the challenging terrain. Many of us were already running on empty due to the physical rigors and wine drinking responsibilities of the week, so the group’s already marginal enthusiasm for the hike dried up long before the end.
Sandwiched between this interminable tedium was an admittedly fabulous trip to a natural hot springs, where someone had artistically rendered a lava-scape setting using cement, then chiseled several sunken bath areas into the ‘ground’ which were fed by the spring via ingenious, gravity-driven, carved out gutters snaking through the area and emptying into the nearby lagoon. Once again, I was the only one who had the gonads to go the distance and strip down for a dip, which delighted the photographers, who carefully posed me, clicking furiously away until my body was noodle soft and the juice in my brain pan came to a boil.
Our frustration during the final few days over the dearth of tour variety, several productivity robbing delays and being left to moisten and chill on the side of a volcano like ripe vegetables notwithstanding, each night we continued to eat and drink like sultans of oil-rich nations. Dishes like ostrich fillets, lamb, Chilean sea bass, octopus sashimi, fillet mignon, grouper and more were artistically presented and consistently induced an I-saw-the-Holy-Ghost taste response.
After seven nights of tooling up and down the Patagonia coast, we returned to Puerto Montt and were released back into a world where there were gratifyingly few forest hikes, yet food was far less appetizing and one needed to open their wallet in order to obtain that food. It was pure ironic cruelty.
As I was driven to the airport in yet another Mercedes van, looking out the window I realized, bizarrely, that I’d been in Chile for a full week and seen none of the built-up parts of the country, culture or typical people. I imagined that this was what it must feel like when all-inclusive resort vacationers go someplace new. If they notice at all.