The Bottom Of The World

| February 14, 2013
Carla Sue “glacier watched” and sipped mulled wine.

Carla Sue “glacier watched” and sipped mulled wine.

Off the coast of southern Chile we – the members of the Seven Seas Society (Regent’s Frequent Floating Club) – were up early to get a special close-up view of the Amalia Glacier from the prow of the ship. Well, the weather was rainy and dreary so we sat inside the big Horizon lounge drinking mulled wine ‘til we got to the glacier. It is a beautiful sky blue.

Our captain is young, Norwegian, bright and very capable. We have known him for years, since he was a staff captain. This ship will turn on a dime and he did a “720” with it in front of the glacier. That is two complete circles while staying in the same place and not moving with the current! We were impressed and everybody had a wonderful view from every point on the ship.

We also passed the wreck of the Almirante Leonidas that foundered on underwater rocks over 100 years ago. Surprisingly it still has its hull and masts. And birds use it as a sanctuary.

The icy fjords in this area of Chile make up one of the least populated areas remaining in South America. The population density is said to be lower than that of the Sahara!

The Andes Mountains at Paso Garibaldi, Patagonia, Argentina.

The Andes Mountains at Paso Garibaldi, Patagonia, Argentina.

The Pan-American Highway, which snakes its way through the northern half of Chile, never quite makes it to the southern coast. To connect this remote region with the rest of the country, former President Pinochet proposed a massive public works project to construct a highway called the Carretera Austral. But the $300 million venture had another purpose as well. Pinochet was afraid that without a strong military presence in the region, neighboring Argentina could begin chipping away at Chile’s territory. This highway would allow the army easier access to the area which was previously accessible only by boat.

It is touted as “a beautiful road studded with rivers, waterfalls, forests, lakes, glaciers and the occasional hamlet.” The description is correct. You may live the rest of your life and never see anything as beautiful as the scenery. However, the highway itself is far from perfection. The mostly unpaved road has dozens of single-lane, wide-board bridges over streams and rivers. Shoulders are nonexistent or made of soft, wheel-grabbing gravel. The road struggles along all the way from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. There, the huge Southern Ice Field forces it to halt.

This area that we are sailing through is called Tierra del Fuego, or “land of fire.” The name came from the early explorers who saw the natives fill the bottom of their canoes with rocks and combustible material that allowed them to carry fire coals with them.

Ushuaia, the southernmost city at the bottom of the world.

Ushuaia, the southernmost city at the bottom of the world.

We sailed through the Beagle Channel. A portion of it is called the “Avenue of Glaciers” with six glaciers. In 1813, the Beagle was the first ship to sail up this channel. It is 1,000 feet deep and about a mile and half wide at one point. The sad thing is that the glaciers are retreating. You can tell that by the bare rocks beneath them.

Terry Breen, the anthropologist who travels with us, is appalled at the glacial shrinkage in the last year. Who says there is no global warming?

Then we were in Punta Arenas, Chile. Impenetrable forests, impassable mountains and endless fields of ice define Chilean Patagonia, and this meant that the region went largely unexplored until the beginning of the 20th century. But the town, founded a little more than 150 years ago, is booming. The center of town is a park with a statue of Ferdinand Magellan as the centerpiece. That is surrounded by elegant French Regency homes. At one time this was the wealthiest city in Chile.

We visited the cemetery and it was interesting, with lots of large imposing mausoleums. They are architecturally elegant and outdo Cave Hill! But – they bury one casket on top of the previous one! That is a little weird, I think. But then we went to the Salesian Museum, which detailed the religious history of Punta Arenas and on to the Patagonian Institute for a lecture on natural history.

Patagonia was interesting but I am not sure I would go again. Even though it does has a lot of souvenir/gift shops.

After that we cruised Cape Horn. “Round the Horn” can be a sailor’s nightmare. We went “Round the Horn” about suppertime and docked at Ushuaia, Argentina the next morning.

Dinner companions Aranya and Charn Pirapokin, a financier from Bangkok, and contemporary art dealer David and Yuko Juda from London.

Dinner companions Aranya and Charn Pirapokin, a financier from Bangkok, and contemporary art dealer David and Yuko Juda from London.

When we arrived the next morning we realized it had been a calm night. Ushuaia is a cross between LaGrange and Valley Station, with the addition of a huge dock and bay. It is the world’s southernmost city. Chile and Argentina have engaged in heated debate over land ownership at the tip of South America. Much more is at stake than Tierra del Fuego and the region surrounding Cape Horn. The south is a staging point for Antarctic expeditions, and both nations claim large sections of the southernmost continent.

We boarded buses and headed for the hills. Actually we went to the Garibaldi Pass for a look and then were back on the road. We marveled at the gigantic sunlit mountains. Lunch was at the rustic Las Cotorras restaurant, where we were served roasted lamb and potatoes. At least that is what they said it was. It was hacked into pieces that were like nothing we had seen before. It was served with a red chili sauce that was divine and we put it on everything, including the bread!

There were kennels outside full of sledding dogs. Some thought the dogs were part of lunch!

A grand mausoleum in Punta Arenas cemetery.

A grand mausoleum in Punta Arenas cemetery.

Then it was back to the ship. We had barely gotten in when our doorbell rang and there stood Paul Gross, who used to live in Glenview with his late wife, Gail. He has remarried and he and his wife, Veronica, live in Terra Ceia, Fla.! What a good time we had discussing old times! We have plans to meet “Roni,” Paul and mutual friends for dinner on our way up the east coast of Argentina to Puerto Madryn, our next stop.

The sea has been unusually calm for this part of the South Atlantic, but not too calm – an after-lunch “Country Fair” on the top deck was canceled the next day. It is sunny and glorious at sea.

Our cruise is set up in segments. The current segment gets to Montevideo, Argentina in time for their Carnivale and ends in Buenos Aires, where we will tour for a day and then go off the ship to Iguazu Falls for a couple of days. More about this next week.

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Category: Partyline

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Carla Sue
A fixture in Louisville society, Carla Sue Broecker has been writing her weekly column for more than two decades.

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