It was all going entirely too well, beginning with the weather.
The morning we landed at Isla Hornos, the sea was like glass, and we were ferried ashore under glorious, unblemished skies. This is the location of Cape Horn, mind you, the notorious headlands at the southern tip of the Americas. There’s a monument on the island to all the sailors who have perished rounding its rocky shores, a giant metal sculpture of an albatross that has been torn in half by winds. But as we pondered the broken welds and storm-rent steel, there was barely a breeze to ruffle our hairs. We asked the lighthouse keeper, a Chilean naval officer, how often it was like this. He and his family were the island’s only residents. He said, “Five, six days a year. Maybe.”
I had been to Patagonia once before, years earlier, and it had been a completely different story: wet, cold, windy, miserable—so bad it was great, or at least great to write about, for, as every travel writer knows, the worst trips make the best stories.
On that trip, we’d been on horseback in the pelting rain, shivering in our saddles. We’d roughed it in tents and leaky cabins. This time around, we’d be sleeping in fancy hotels and eating at nice restaurants, basically sitting in the lap of luxury—and charmed, to boot. It rained, but barely, and then only at opportune moments. As in the Irish prayer, the wind was always at our backs.
Our group numbered 27 in all, counting my mother and me. We were a remarkably international bunch: six Thais, one Greek, one German. The rest American. About half were Cal alumni. This was a Cal Discoveries tour called Patagonian Frontiers, an 18-day grand tour of the Southern Cone. At the heart of the tour was this cruise through three legendary passages: Beagle Channel, Murray Channel, and the Straits of Magellan.
The trip was offered free to me in exchange for serving as host—someone to assist the tour director and represent the Cal Alumni Association, publishers of this magazine. My duties included throwing a cocktail party, taking a group photo, distributing souvenir pins, etc. Onerous, I know. On top of that, I could offer a discount to a friend or family member.
Believe it or not, I’d almost said no. Call it a case of reverse snobbery. I’d spent a good part of my twenties bouncing around South America, staying in dirt-bag hotels, eating street food, living on the cheap. I would save up my tips bartending back home, then book a flight and wander from place to place ’til the money ran out. It was a kind of bumming, I admit, but I brought a certain seriousness of purpose to it. And like other dedicated vagabonds, I looked down my nose at package travelers on guided tours. Who wanted to be led by the nose, told where to go, chaperoned? Where was the adventure in that?
Faced with this free trip, I asked myself: How could I betray my younger self and accept such a cushy, bourgeois proposition? On the other hand, my older, wiser, more sensible self demanded to know: How could I not?
I emailed my mother with the discount offer, figuring she could help with the hosting. I said, effectively, “Mom, Patagonia. Three weeks in March/April. What do you say?” Without the slightest hesitation, she said yes.
The trip started in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, a city of professional dog walkers, psychotherapists, and poets. The most European of South American cities, it has always seemed haunted to me, dogged by its faded glory, by the legacy of its Malvinas defeat, by the ghosts of its disappeared.
On our arrival we were met by our tour director, Gabriel Blacher, a somewhat schlubby but very charismatic Argentine of Polish-Jewish descent who speaks five languages and is funny in all of them. A born comedian, Gabe worked the tour bus like a comedy club, tossing off wisecracks and sardonic commentary on the government, educating and entertaining us at the same time. The Palacio de Justicia he called the “Palace of Injustice.” Standing before the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s answer to the White House, he said, “And this is where our president does not work.” Of Eva Perón, the famous former first lady: “Some people say she was a prostitute. It’s not true. She never charged.”
Buenos Aires was only a prelude, though, and soon we flew to Ushuaia, the town at the end of the world. That’s how it bills itself: The welcome signs bid you Bienvenidos al Fin del Mundo. A former penal colony, Ushuaia (pronounced OO-soo-why-ah) is built atop the lateral moraine of the ancient glacier that carved Beagle Channel. Like so much of Patagonia, it calls to mind Alaska. Squint, and you could easily be in Kodiak or Dutch Harbor. You can eat king crab here, too—the southern king crab, centolla. Order the spiny delicacy at La Cantina de Freddy, and it will be introduced to you live at your table, then returned 20 minutes later, quite dead, bright orange and garnished with lettuce and lemon wedges.
Ushuaia’s population has ballooned in recent decades to nearly 60,000 souls, but it still feels like frontier. While some of the group shopped for souvenirs, I climbed the steep hillside behind town and soon found myself wandering on unpaved streets filled with derelict cars and cast-off appliances. Dogs slept in the roadway and a horse drank from a trash-strewn stream. The houses were mostly rough hewn, sheathed in corrugated iron, with stovepipes jutting out at odd angles. I felt like I was in my element.
Turning to head back down, I could see a long red-hulled cruise ship in the harbor preparing to set sail for Antarctica across Drake’s Passage. Just in front of the ship, tied to the same pier, was our own vessel, the blue-hulled Via Australis, much smaller and handsomer.
We set sail as the sun began to sink, and crossed into Chile at dinnertime. While we ate, a pilot boat from Chilean immigration pulled alongside and processed our passports. Border crossings notwithstanding, national differences tend to vanish here; this far south, it’s all Patagonia. They may call the horsemen gauchos in Argentina and huasos in Chile, but a huaso is a guacho is a cowboy—only not literally, because cattle mostly give way to sheep at this latitude.
We certainly ate our share of lamb on the trip, even on the ship where it competed for attention with merluza (black hake) and salmon and hearty soups and copious deserts, all served up buffet style in polished tureens and chafers. After dinner, we would go to the lounge for a beer or a pisco sour and strike up a conversation, or else head topside to look for the Southern Cross.
The first night aboard, I swallowed Dramamine before bunking down. I’m descended from sea captains on both sides but have always suffered at sea. On family sailing excursions, I would inevitably be the one hanging my head over the side, heaving my guts out. Charles Darwin, whose famous five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle brought him through these same waters, was similarly afflicted. “If it were not for seasickness,” he wrote to his father, “the whole world would be sailors.” Amen, Charlie.
As it happened, we had nothing but smooth sailing.
Technically speaking, ours was an “expedition cruise,” which I gathered meant the ship was not the point; the surrounding scenery was. At 230 feet long, with a shallow draft for poking into the icy fjords, and big windows in place of portholes, the Via Australis was the perfect sightseeing vessel. It had a bar, as I mentioned (an open one at that), but no casino; no game room, no gym, no pool or sauna. (Also, blessedly, no TV, no wi-fi, and no cell signals.) For exercise we would go ashore in inflatables and venture about the beaches and bosques, and as close as we dared to the faces of the tidewater glaciers, lest they calve on our heads.
Granted, the territory around Beagle Channel is not great hiking country. There is precious little flat acreage anywhere, and the forest grows up from the waterline in dense thickets. Southern beeches dominate here—the evergreen guino and deciduous lenga. Up close, the forest is jumbled and toppling over and has a wet, gloomy aspect. Darwin seemed spooked by these woods, remarking in his journals that, although reminiscent of the tropics, “there was a difference … Death, instead of Life seemed the predominant spirit.” The indigenous Yámana, too, were said to fear the forest, never venturing deeper than was necessary to gather firewood.
Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle, named Tierra del Fuego after the Yámanas’ fires—which they even carried in their canoes, a detail I found hard to believe. The canoe replicas I’d seen in the Museo del Fin del Mundo looked about as seaworthy as birds’ nests, and every bit as flammable.
Darwin judged the Yámana, whom he called Fueginos, the wildest people he had ever encountered, and regarded them—naked and painted, with only the most rudimentary shelter from the elements—with a mixture of awe and repulsion.
The Beagle had three Yámana aboard when Darwin sailed. They had been captured and/or purchased on FitzRoy’s first surveying voyage and brought back to England, where they learned to speak the King’s English and dress like Londoners. On Darwin’s voyage, they were going home. The youngest of them and the crew’s favorite was called Jemmy Button. When the sea was rough and Darwin fell sick, Jemmy would press a damp cloth to the naturalist’s forehead and cluck his tongue, saying, “Poor, poor fellow. Poor, poor fellow.”
I became especially interested in Jemmy and the Yámana after a brief hiking excursion at Wulaia Bay on Navarrino Island. Jemmy had disembarked from the Beagle and stayed on Navarrino, where he shed his clothes and his European airs. According to some accounts, it was Jemmy who, many years later, led the Yámana to massacre a group of missionaries at Wulaia Bay.
Back in my cabin on the Australis, I began to search for references to Jemmy and his tribe in the accounts of Patagonian expeditions I’d downloaded to my Kindle. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin had documented his impressions at some length. It was interesting, and not a little disturbing, to read the revered scientist’s comments on the difference between “savage and civilized man”—a gulf he judged to be “greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is greater power of improvement.” (For his part, FitzRoy noted that Caesar had also found the Britons painted and clothed in skins.)
But the most shocking passage in Darwin’s account described the Fuegian practice of resorting to cannibalism in times of famine, when they would “kill and devour their old women.” Many sources have subsequently doubted this account, but Darwin insisted that it was independently confirmed by Jemmy. “Horrid as such a death by the hands of their friends and relatives must be,” he mused, “the fears of the old women … are more painful to think of; we were told that they then often run away into the mountains, but that they are pursued by the men and brought back to the slaughter-house at their own firesides!”
I related the story to my mother and got a kick out of her response—the same response I’ve had from every woman I’ve ever told it to. Across the board, they are less repulsed at the taboo of eating human flesh than they are indignant at the flagrant double standard. “What about the old men?” they ask. “Why don’t they get eaten?”
It’s a good question, certainly, but Darwin posed a different one. No, not “How do you cook them?” But rather, “Why not eat the dogs first?”
The young Yámana informant answered, “Doggies catch otters, old women no.”
My mom caught otters.
I realize I haven’t told you much about her, so if you’ll forgive the rather gruesome juxtaposition, here goes: She’s beautiful (everyone says so) and tough-minded (I almost said “tough,” but that would have sounded wrong) and uncomplicated. I do not mean to suggest that she’s simple, only that she is down-to-earth, pragmatic, not inclined to brood or live in her head as I tend to. When I started high school, my mother, who had until then been a “housewife,” enrolled in community college and studied graphic design, eventually starting her own firm and becoming a successful businesswoman. So if not otters, exactly, she did bring home the bacon.
Now in her seventies, Mom is beginning to lose her hearing, which became a source of mild annoyance between us on the trip. I’d think, “She’s too vain to get hearing aids,” never minding that I was too self-conscious to talk louder for her benefit.
She kept a journal of our travels, composing in a neat, cursive script so different from the barely legible scrawl that filled my reporter’s notebooks. No doubt her observations were more coherent than my random jottings, which were often simply lists of names, just stuff to keep the pen moving. On one page from Ushuaia, I wrote the names of seabirds in the harbor: white kelp geese, upland geese, crested ducks, black terns, oyster catchers, scuas. I made another list of the names on the shipping containers in the shipyard. Go figure.
Of course I made observations on our fellow travelers, as well. “Each becomes familiar for their most notable characteristic,” I wrote. “J for her mix of incredulity and gullibility; S for her skepticism and good-natured world-weariness, eyes rolling at her old friend J’s remarks; F and N for their endearing, aw-shucks Mormon-ness; M for his pertinacity with the camera;” etc. Reading my notes now, I wonder at how I must have been perceived by them, of course—but more than that, about how differently we all inevitably process our travel experiences.
Our last morning on the ship, before disembarking in Punta Arenas, we visited the colony of Magellanic penguins on Magdalena Island, hearing them before we saw them, their cries sounding like a broken chorus in the foggy distance. Stepping off the Zodiac, we were surrounded by them—cavorting in the water, toddling along the barren shore, kicking dirt from their burrow-like nests, which they dig into the hard, pebbly, ocherous soil of the island.
I was surprised to find myself spellbound, suddenly rhapsodizing in my notebook about the “little Pavarottis in their tuxes” that seem to “pump their calls up from their feet, into their bellies, their chests, ’til finally, heads thrown back, they let loose,” producing finally a “kind of flat, nasally honk, the sound a little pathetic, a little lovelorn.” And once they’ve got it out of them, they immediately fall silent, “going all sleepy-eyed, like contented housecats” until moved again to join the chorus.
Jef, a retired consultant from Southern California, came up to me as I wrote. “It kind of sounds like the males are saying, ‘Hey, are you sure the mating season has to end?’”
At the outset of this story, I said the trip was going too well, and it was. It wasn’t just the calm seas and clement weather, or the penguin-viewing. No, even the usual inconveniences of travel seemed to break in our favor. In Torres del Paine, for example, we were bumped from the four-star hotel where we’d had reservations, and sent to another, five-star place in another part of the park. It was like being upgraded to Paradise because Valhalla was overbooked. You’ll think I’m exaggerating—but the Tierra Patagonia Hotel and Spa really is a kind of earthbound heaven, an architectural gem that somehow manages to both blend into the scenery and compete with it.
The structure is basically one long viewing platform, large windows in every room and salon, all looking out across the pampas to the blue expanse of Lago Sarmiento and the granite peaks beyond. These are the famed Torres del Paine, alpine centerpiece of the finest national park in South America, the namesake towers rising up off the surrounding steppe like giant teeth. It was a photographer’s feast, and the few clouds that scudded across the mountaintops only enlivened the composition, catching the light and casting shadows in breathtaking ways. Robert, the most dedicated photographer of the group, nearly ruined his health trying to capture it all. After a full day behind the viewfinder, he succumbed to a cold and took to bed, feverish but happy.
From our base in the hotel, we made forays into the park. As we drove to the trailhead one morning, Javier, our naturalist/guide stopped the bus so we could view a flock of pink flamingos. “You can get very close,” he cautioned, “but you must go slow.” At that, Nettaya, a high-powered Thai attorney, went bounding off the bus and rushed toward the birds with her camera. Before the rest of us could even make it across the road, the whole flock took flight, banked sharply and vanished behind the next rise. Net turned to find all of us standing by the bus, arms folded, and scowling. She immediately dropped to her knees, pressed her hands together and bowed repeatedly, prostrating herself in apology—an image, in retrospect, almost as exotic as a flock of flamingos.
We forgave her, but never let her forget.
As we progressed toward the trailhead, Gabe cracked jokes, as usual. Javier said, “The park is divided into two sections: the part you are going to see today…” and before he could finish, Gabe interjected, “and the part you are not going to see.” Both of them warned us that the winds coming off the peaks were often strong enough to hurl stones. And indeed, a day later, a woman in another group would be blown over and break a rib. As for us, we found only perfect calm and placid lakes faithfully reflecting the surrounding peaks. Both guides shook their heads and marveled. “We never see it like this.”
Back at the hotel, the lack of wind in this windiest of places meant that I could sit outside on the seldom-used patio and sip my pale ale (“pah-lay ah-lay” in the barman’s pronunciation), and jot more notes and sigh at my good fortune. Every so often, condors cut across the mountain faces, or a cluster of rheas went galloping past. The latter are a kind of Patagonian ostrich—improbably delicate-looking creatures, like feather dusters on legs, that can nevertheless run at speeds approaching 60 kilometers per hour.
When I had drained my second pale ale, I began to fret. A person can only marinate in the scenery for so long before old worries arise. To stave them off, I walked to the lake, past an alarming number of sheep carcasses picked clean by condors. Turning back, I saw the hotel was now haloed by a great lenslike cloud, and I once again admired the building’s earthy grace. Low-slung and curved, modern and rustic at the same time, the hotel was designed by the wonderfully named Chilean architect, Cazú Zegers, and her name made me think of my architect wife and how much she would have loved it here.
It was my wife’s idea that I invite my mom on this trip, by the way—an idea that, honestly, never would have occurred to me. It’s not the kind of thing that occurs to sons—at least, not to the kinds of sons my mother had. At my parents’ 50th anniversary, for which my brothers and I did zero planning, I made a toast while holding my 2-year-old daughter in one arm, a wine glass in the other.
“We all know my mother deserved better,” I said, as my father shot me a withering glance. “She deserved daughters.”
That night, our last in Tierra Patagonia, we traveled to a nearby estancia (ranch), for a traditional parillada (barbecue). It was the only time I heard grumbling from our folks, who were not generally complainers. Now, though, they grew restive on the 45-minute bus ride and griped, upon arrival, about the muddy path and the barnyard ambience. I could see their point. We’d traded the luxury of our hotel for this: particleboard walls, bare lightbulbs powered by generators, and large dogs sprawled on the floor at our feet.
Until now, Gabe had always done a masterful job of managing expectations, but this excursion was new to him, as well. It was the one night, I began to realize, where I might be of genuine help to him, and so I tried to sell the authenticity of the experience. Forget the hotel, with its spa treatments and soft beds, I said, a gaucho is tending a bed of hot coals over which a split lamb has been slowly roasting for hours. There’s sausage and potatoes and fried bread to go with it.
I told them, “This is the real deal, folks, the genuine article. This is Patagonia!”
And gradually, as the wine began to flow, they came around, beginning with Costa the Greek, for whom the lamb was a reminder of home. As we sat together and tucked into the feast, he said, almost yelling to be heard over the generator, “On Easter Day in my village, we all eat lamb. All over the island, they say you can hear the mother sheep crying for their little babies.” He smiled, and I slapped his back and refilled his wine glass and decided I’d probably had enough lamb.
Our trip was nearly over—the real trip, anyway. We would fly home from Santiago, Chile’s bustling capital city, but just as Buenos Aires had been mere prelude, Santiago was little more than afterword. The final Patagonian chapter opened in Puerto Varas, on the western shore of Lago Llanquihue, not far from the area where I had traveled all those years earlier.
Though still technically Patagonia, the character changes this far north. The forest is more beautiful, for one thing, and the weather is even worse. As Darwin put it, “In winter the climate is detestable, and in summer it is only a little better.”
If Ushuaia had evoked Alaska, Puerto Varas conjured the Pacific Northwest: chilly rains, temperate rainforest, snow-capped volcanoes. My mom, who lives in Washington state, a bridge and ferry-ride from Seattle, felt right at home.
On one of our last excursions together, we went as a group from Puerto Varas to Volcán Osorno, the Fuji-like stratovolcano that Darwin watched erupt from the deck of the Beagle in 1835. “At midnight,” he wrote, “the sentry observed something like a large star, which gradually increased in size till about three o’clock, when it presented a very magnificent spectacle. By the aid of a glass, dark objects, in constant succession, were seen, in the midst of a great glare of red light, to be thrown up and to fall down.”
Today, 180 years later, the evidence of that eruption was everywhere visible as our bus zig-zagged up the mountain’s lava-scarred flanks. We finally pulled into the lot of a small ski resort, where we got out and walked on the charcoal terrain of the cinder cone, straining to peer through the all-enveloping fog. On a clear day we could have looked across the length of Llanquihue to another volcano, Calbuco, not 100 miles distant.
Five days after we arrived home, Calbuco exploded, sending a spectacular plume six miles skyward. The eruption lasted 90 minutes; afterward, ash fell like snow on Puerto Varas. People were evacuated, and all flights out of the area were grounded. In geologic time we had missed it by a heartbeat. Just our luck.
Pat Joseph is editor of California.