Chilean chill-out

It is sometime after two in the afternoon when I awake to the sound of footsteps scurrying past me and the soft murmur of unfamiliar voices. I recognize the pitter-patter of rain against a window but, for the moment, I can’t quite distinguish where I am. Curious, I open my eyes and quickly reacquaint with my surroundings — only now there are far more empty seats around me below deck, where I had fallen asleep after lunch. “We’re here,” someone says. “Time to get up.” A quick glance out my window confirms as much: floating all around our boat are huge chunks of ice — pieces that had broken off of the glacier — as if an artist had been wielding a chisel, creating freeform sculptures in strikingly varied shades of blue, grey and stark white. We were here: the Tempanos River, a minefield of ice, which would ultimately lead us to the San Rafael Lagoon, home to a millenarian glacier. Aboard the Patagonia Express, a high-speed catamaran, we had taken more than seven hours — and more than one nap — to reach to reach our destination. The view out my window confirms its worth. I’ve awakened in Chile, to discover a secret south of ilence.

I find the remaining passengers up on deck, clinging to the rails, as our catamaran cuts its way through the waters surrounding the natural ice sculptures in front of San Rafael Glacier. Heavily armed with cameras, most are busy trying to capture memories, while those without a lens struggle to find the right superlatives to best describe the experience. For the most part, however, despite the occasional “Wow!” there is a glorious silence, as we all stand gazing in awed reverence of the sapphire beauty of a mile-wide glacier.

San Rafael Glacier, the centrepiece of a national park of the same name, is part of an ice field created by ice and snow tumbling down Mount San Valentin, which towers more than 4,000 metres above the lagoon. The glacier was first seen by Europeans some 400 years ago, though at the rate it is now crumbling, it will likely vanish from sight within the next 200 years. The ice field extends well inland from the lagoon into an area virtually inaccessible except by foot across rugged terrain. On maps of the region, the ice appears to cover about 100 kilometres from north to south and roughly half that from east to west. What we are gazing upon is a section roughly 2,200 metres wide, which forms an icy path between mountain peaks, rising 70 metres above the water and down more than 225 metres into the lagoon.

Not to be outdone by the glacier, San Rafael Lagoon offers breathtaking scenery of its own. It sits wonderfully secluded amid a landscape of exceptional beauty, which extends itself along the majestic snow-capped Andes. And getting there isn’t easy. Each voyage begins early in the morning and ultimately ends late at night. Nevertheless, the Patagonia Express offers many creature comforts, so while some may choose to snooze, other guests will enjoy a unique journey through the crystal-clear waters, channels and uniquely shaped islands of the Patagonia Fjords.

When our catamaran comes to a halt, roughly 500 metres out from the glacier, I begin to wonder if we have reached our limit — the nearest safe distance from the imposing mountain of ice — and that we will venture no further. Curiosity sets in once more as two crew members are spotted in a small pontoon boat gathering large chunks of ice from the frigid water and returning with them to our ship. What was the ice for, I wonder, and would I too be able to explore the ice fields? The thought barely leaves my mind, when someone hands me a glass filled with the very same crystal-clear ice, now floating in a fair amount of Scotch. I welcome the offer — a ritual, I’m told, on the Patagonia Express — as passengers and crew toast one another and share in this rite of passage, capping off what would only be the first in a series of unforgettable moments.

Over the years, we all develop a certain skill for travelling. If you’re fortunate enough, you become a seasoned veteran: never packing too much; only travelling with a carry-on; and always arriving at the airport with just enough time to check in, buy a magazine, visit duty-free and board the plane as the gate is closing without ever breaking stride and never having to wait. But, of course, no one is that fortunate. The reality is most travel is in the waiting. First, we can’t wait, we just can’t wait, but then we have to wait — for everything: the taxi, airport lines, security checks, first class being boarded, the mid-flight meal you won’t eat, your luggage to be found, hotel rooms to be cleaned, and so on. But then, through all of it, come the unforgettable moments you wait for. The thing glimpsed out of the corner of the eye; the serendipitous happening when you’re not going anywhere and not expecting anything, your senses alert to the moment; an open window through which marches the story you will finally tell when friends ask, “How was your trip?”

To that end, waiting for Chile usually begins with a flight to Miami and, after a brief stopover, an eight-hour flight to Santiago, the capital of Chile. It was a special thrill to fly out of Toronto on a December afternoon with snow in the forecast, then landing 13 hours later on a beautiful Monday morning in Santiago with sunshine in the forecast, and summer already well in effect. Santiago sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains, very much like Los Angeles. Flying into the city is always a challenge since planes must first crest the mountain, then drop suddenly into the bowl, which didn’t seem to bother many passengers who cared only for the view out their windows. Difficult to see clearly from the air, Santiago suffers from the same geographical affliction that faces L.A., a dense smog looming over the city, which gets trapped in by the surrounding mountains. Once landed, our journey would continue with a flight further south to Balmaceda but not before a visit to Santiago, where some brief sightseeing and a good night’s sleep was in order.

With a population somewhere close to six million, a myriad of neighbourhoods, public squares and parks, Santiago may again seem like a South American version of Los Angeles: a city without a true centre. All the same, the downtown parts of Chile’s capital are, at times, quite elegant, with some Parisian influences. Colourful markets bring the city to life, and shopping seems to be that which everyone lives for, with all manner of shops dominating the bustling streets. And at the centre of it all is the popular Mercado Central — a huge fruit, fish and vegetable market, which was designed by none other than Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. Yes, the one of tower fame.

A short drive in any direction from Santiago promises something entirely different and equally exciting. Ski resorts sit atop nearby mountains where, in the summer, you’ll also find great trails for biking and horseback riding. Further west, you’ll hit the coast, where many charming hillside towns, such as Valparaiso, line the ocean. And for the literary lovers, a visit to the village of Isla Negra and the home of Chile’s most famous Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, is truly wonderful and not to be missed. With so many options nearby, Santiago is the perfect hub from which to explore and offers plenty of long-stay accommodation throughout the city.

Our stay was decidedly short this time, and though we would return one week later, this time Santiago would have to wait. We were destined now for more natural settings: to the south of Chile, far below Santiago, and a travelling crime to ignore. You start with the Lake District: Chile’s equivalent to Western Canada — delightful to the eye, with vistas of snow-capped volcanoes (some of them still active) and deep, beautiful lakes the colour of turquoise. Then add in Patagonia: wonderfully wild, scenic rivers and tiny towns that take great pride in their land. And finally, mix in Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa, situated in a tranquil sea inlet of the Ventisquero Sound, accessible only by sea within the protected shore of Dorita Bay. Gently stir and let simmer for four days. Enjoy.

After landing in Balmaceda, so began the last leg of our journey to Puyuhuapi: a three-hour drive not for the faint of heart. Along dust-covered roads, often hair-raising turns and unrelenting bumps in the road, the drive was hard to endure. Night was beginning to fall when we finally reached Dorita Bay, where boats were waiting to take us across the Sound to the Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa. Staff welcomed us in to the lodge and rewarded us with Pisco Sours around the fireplace. The next thing I remember was a pillow. And bliss.

The next three days involved intense relaxation, followed by gruelling spa treatments. Waiting for nothing to happen and loving anything that did. The spa had everything from ice-cold baths to hot Jacuzzis, though I preferred the natural rock pools that bordered the inlet. Here, surrounded by giant ferns and bamboo, I lounged in steaming water, watching kayakers in the shallows. The Queulat National Park lies across the bay, a mountain wilderness of waterfalls and dense forest. A short hike up a rocky path led us to a milky green lake where the Ventisquero Colgante, a hanging glacier, is suspended above the water.

Through the window in my room, mountains frame the inlet of the Ventisquero Sound, which remains ever tranquil. Each morning, I awake to silence, the unimaginable peacefulness of a place so remote, so far from civilization. My final morning is no different. The Sound is silent still, only now through my window comes a ship — a catamaran marching across the bay — carrying memories in waiting, and a story to tell my friends.