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Out Where the Road Ends in South America

<i> Ratliff, a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is a specialist in Latin American politics and travels frequently to South America. </i>

--If there is an end to the world, the tip of South America may be it.

On my map the southernmost city on an inhabited continent is Punta Arenas (about 30 miles to the south is the tiny fishing village of San Juan, where the last road ends).

In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to sail past this spot along the strait that bears his name, and in the 1830s naturalist Charles Darwin explored much of the region for his famous “Voyage of the Beagle.”

My daughter and I, both amateur naturalists, came here in part to retrace some of Darwin’s steps.

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We started far north of Santiago on Chile’s Bolivian border. We hopped down the 2,600-mile coast by airplane, visiting deserts, valleys, forests, lakes, mountains and fiords before finally reaching Punta Arenas.

Cold and Windy

We found a paradise--a bit on the cold and windy side--for backpackers, bird watchers, geologists, astronomers, historians and starry-eyed adventurers: the Strait of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, Port Famine and Cape Horn.

Here you can sail through labyrinthine fiords and archipelagos, backpack to creaking blue glaciers and icebergs and march across broad expanses of scraggly brown wasteland.

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You can meet penguins on their home ground and see rheas just where Darwin did (he called them ostriches). And you can join herds of guanacos, which Darwin called wild llamas, roaming the hills against a backdrop of crystalline blue lakes and towering, snowcapped granite peaks.

The main tourist months are December through February, though we arrived in mid-March when tourist facilities outside the cities were closing. We had much of the land to ourselves.

We arrived in Punta Arenas just as most of the regional tourist travel and living facilities outside the cities were closing, as we had expected. We rented a car, tossed our sleeping bags and backpacks onto the rear seat and headed north toward spectacular Torres del Paine National Park.

Risky Driving

We soon discovered that driving in southern Chile bears little resemblance to the same activity in Northern California. There aren’t many cars, but neither are there many roads . . . or service stations or hotels.

What’s more, most of the roads outside the cities, except for an occasional expressway, are packed gravel, rutted clay or worse. Buses that regularly face the stones thrown up by other vehicles often have windshields that are as pocked as pineapples.

On our way to the park we dropped in on a colony of penguins along Otway Sound an hour northwest of Punta Arenas. We found that penguins don’t live near paved roads, nor do most of the creatures or sights worth seeing in southern Chile.

We bumped over gravel, packed earth and fields, past clusters of rheas , a lone guanaco and thousands of small but extraordinarily handsome sheep. Finally, when we were beginning to wonder if we had gone wrong, small signs assured us that there were penguinos ahead.

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When we reached a fence we couldn’t cross, along the windblown beach of the sound, and had to park, there still were no penguins.

We trudged along the beach for more than an hour, against a virtual coastal sandstorm that stung our faces and at times almost held us motionless. Still no penguins. As we turned back in frustration, Sharon rushed up and shouted into the wind: “Out there!” Three penguins were bobbing in the tossing surf.

Undisciplined Soldiers

In 10 minutes we had found a hundred more in the sea, on the beach and inland. We headed inland, for there they could only hide in their shallow earthen burrows and not escape altogether by sea. Strutting on land, they seemed to be regiments of undisciplined two-foot soldiers in irregular black and white uniforms.

When they saw us the penguins broke for cover, hobbling--or scooting on all fours, using their flippers as feet--into their burrows. Inside they began to grunt, gurgle, bray and sneeze. When we fell to our knees and looked inside they peered out at us, first with one large inquisitive eye and then, after a 180-degree rotation of the head, with the other.

One Chilean guidebook says the penguins “glare out” at you, but don’t believe it. We will never forget the soft, inquisitive eyes and slowly rotating heads of these gentle but tough, if seemingly slightly scatterbrained little creatures.

In a short time some of the penguins were pushed out of their burrows by a chattering housemate, while others emerged on their own to resume marching, scurry overland or chase a neighbor into his burrow.

Late that afternoon we drove on to Puerto Natales near the Argentine border, and stayed at the Captain Eberhard Hotel ($40 U.S. for a double) looking north over a fiord filled with black-necked swans and toward the glaciers and peaks we would climb the next day.

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Our good fortune continued. That afternoon, as we were hiking in the mountains at Torres del Paine Park, an immature eagle with a five-foot wingspan hovered about 25 feet above us for a full minute, unable to break free from a wind current. The next day we encountered the first of a number of Andean condors.

Scaling the ‘Towers’

We had been warned that only experienced climbers with gear would be able to scale the “towers” in the park. True enough, but there were many short hikes and longer, more taxing backpacking trips available for the rest of us, all marked on an excellent map available for a small fee at the park entrance.

We trudged over mountainsides crowded with lazily grazing guanacos and backpacked around the towers and up to Gray Glacier, a creaking, sliding mountain of ice.

When the sky was clear we could sleep outside and absorb the brightest mass of stars I have ever seen, a Milky Way that was so thick it seemed like cream about to spill down on us. Even when the full moon came out, the stars sparkled in the sky.

But when the clouds descended and it rained, as it did while we were backpacking through the mountains, we had to dive for one of the refugios, small community cabins sited along several of the main hiking trails.

“They are dry,” a park ranger told us several days before, “but they are stuffy. And watch out for the ratones.

Right. The cabin didn’t let rain in, but neither did it let smoke or smells out. I looked for a sign, “Darwin Cooked Here,” for some of the odors seemed that old. And then we listened all night to what seemed to be dozens of ceaselessly scurrying, munching mice.

In the mountains we met backpackers from Europe and the United States, most in their 20s. One young fellow from Southern California, on a six-month hiking tour of the continent, asked me to mail his father a roll of film he had taken at Gray Glacier.

“Be glad to,” I said, putting his roll in with my own film, prophetically adding: “As long as nothing happens to mine.” His father never got the pictures because most of our exposed film was in a backpack grabbed from Sharon’s hands several weeks later on a street in Buenos Aires.

One Choice in the Park

For those who like to sleep in sturdier structures there is only one choice in the park: the Pehoe hostel in the middle of Lake Pehoe, reached by a long footbridge. It’s about $40 a night and is a favorite spot for tourists who arrive by bus between late November and early March. Just outside the park the Posada Rio Serrano has barracks doubles for about $15.

Several days later we returned to Punta Arenas, stopping again on the way to see the penguins. Many people stay in the large and overpriced Cabo de Hornos Hotel where a double goes for about $80. We had a superb lamb dinner in the hotel restaurant.

You get more for less money at Los Navegantes, which also has a good restaurant; a double is about $55. Both serve tourists and businessmen, many involved in transporting cargo by ship around Cape Horn.

One of our best dinners in Chile was at the Asturias, a small atmospheric restaurant that served a magnificent marisco soup. It is Chile’s rightly famous stew, consisting of all the generally unseen and sometimes unmentionable creatures that hide out in the dark depths of the sea.

The Asturias seems to cater mainly to locals who chat over bottles of inexpensive Chilean wine. Sotitos is less atmospheric, but famous for its steaks and huge plates of king crab.

We took a ferry across the choppy Strait of Magellan to Porvenir, a small town heavily populated with Yugoslavs. The waves rose to about 25 feet on this “average” crossing, throwing sheets of spray across the ship.

We rode the voyage out first on the lower deck where we were drenched by the waves, and then on an observation platform where we had to hold on tight with both hands to avoid being blown or thrown down.

‘Extreme Suffering’

After returning to Punta Arenas we turned south toward the end of the world. We passed the grave of Pringle Stokes, the first captain of the Beagle, and arrived at what is now called Port Famine.

A village was founded there in 1584 but lasted less than a year. The name, as Darwin wrote in his “Voyage,” expresses “the lingering and extreme sufferings of several hundred wretched people, of whom only one alone survived to relate their misfortunes.” Today the original village is abandoned and only a few people live nearby.

Finally it was on to San Juan. The road had become packed dirt and gravel by that point, but continued for a mile beyond the village. Then it stopped. Since planning our trip we had wondered what we would find at this point. We were hardly prepared for what we saw.

First, a camp with a cluster of tiny, abandoned cabins. The only animal life was a small spotted dog tied to the porch of a cabin. He yapped sorrowfully at us and wagged his tail.

And there was a small well, which those who have read William Morris’ 19th-Century fantasy novel, “The Well at the World’s End,” somehow knew would be there.

Beyond that was a playground with several brightly colored swings, slides and a couple of gigantic truck tires.

A thick forest stretches down toward the Strait of Magellan, with the snowcapped peak of Mt. Sarmiento, so often noted in Darwin’s “Voyage,” standing high across the water in the distance

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You can fly to Santiago from Los Angeles via Eastern and Pan Am, or on either of the Chilean airlines, Ladeco and Lan Chile. Each has a limited number of seats at $850 round trip, with restrictions.

Within Chile your best bet will be an unlimited-mileage, 21-day travel pass for continental Chile for $299 (about half price for children under 12) from the Chilean airlines, though it must be bought before entering the country. (If you want to visit Easter Island too, the price is $520.)

Once in Punta Arenas you may contact several car-rental agencies through your hotel. Daily rates are comparable to those in the United States, except that mileage is additional.

For general information on travel to Chile, contact the Chilean National Tourist Board, 510 West 6th St., Suite 1210, Los Angeles 90014, (213) 627-4293.


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