Puerto Natales – The Land where Sea and Mountains Meet

Many people talk about the fierce Patagonian climate, and its not before you experience it for yourself that you can understand just how harsh and unforgiving it can be, at any time. In winter it’s even more merciless, hence the reason why travellers tend to stay away during this season.

But beggars can’t be choosers and we didn’t want to miss out altogether on this magical land just for the weather. There was one exception though…Torres del Paine, where the climate can change in a second and it can be ruthless.

But come hell or high snowy mountains we would try our best to see this place. So after much deliberation on whether or not we should take the leap and venture into one of nature’s most beautiful and most ruthless lands, where pumas roam among glaciers and condors soar between mountains – we headed to Puerto Natales, our first destination in Chile and gateway to Torres del Paine National Park.It may be in Chile and not Argentina, but it’s just over the border and a slight detour from our Southern Argentinean itinerary.

It was the best way to figure out if the national park is habitable this time of year, as there is in Puerto Natales abundant information about the park and weather conditions for its 70,000 visitors per year.

We arrived in Puerto Natales one afternoon. As the bus cruised into the town we were confronted with a landscape that for an Australian, defies all logic – the waves crashing ashore from the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by chains of snowy mountain peaks, as far as the eye could see. This is one of the rare places where you can almost literally hike in the mountains straight off the beachfront.

 

We were lucky enough to be taken in by another couch surfing host, this time a family – Gloria, Oscar and their three children. This was a typical Chilean family who live in the back of a restaurant they own and run for late night workers in the area.

We were warmly welcomed, literally with open arms, and the first thing they told us was “mi casa es su casa” and sat us down while they chatted away in super rapid, Chilean Spanish about their values, their culture and many, many anecdotes about the couch surfing experiences.

In our limited experience with couch surfing, we have found that it’s been the best way to really get to know the culture, the people and the way they live in a short period of time. For this family, it was a way to get to know other cultures and share knowledge without having to leave their own backyard. A world map on their wall marks the 200-odd travellers that have passed by their home.

The social side of cross-cultural exchange is the most important to them. As Oscar said to us “I’m not interested in mountains. These mountains have been around for millions of years and will always be there. I’m interested in people, because you and I will only be around for a short time.” It was an interesting insight into what Chilean people value most – personal relationships – family being the most valuable of all.

Our first day there was Antoine’s birthday. It wasn’t until we were sitting around the table at lunch talking about birthdays that I mentioned his. “Feliz Cumpleanos” and besos flew around the table. Later that night while we were preparing dinner, Gloria mentioned that she wanted to make a cake for him. So I helped Gloria and Alison prepare a traditional Chilean dessert, on which we wrote “Feliz Cumple”, and we popped open a bottle of sparkling wine and the topic of taste came up. We learnt that Chileans like everything sweet (including their sparkling wine) and that they don’t drink water at the dinner table. To be seen to drink water is a cultural faux-pas and to them a sign of poverty that is now more psychologically ingrained than anything, and so they drink coke, wine, sugary stuff posing as juice…anything but H2O. Whereas we always drink water at the dinner table and savour flavours not too loaded with sugar.

 

For the three days we were there we chatted about many things in life, cultural differences and our respective countries. We shared dinners, made friends with the children, that showed us around the natural environs of Puerto Natales and a peninsula with only 50 habitants, and we learnt to (almost) understand the Chilean lingo and their fast-talking.

The Patagonian winter however, made us decide against venturing into Torres del Paine. The refuges were closed, some paths too, the weather was unpredictable, and so we couldn’t be sure that hiring the right equipment would be worth the views we may (not) be able to see.

Instead we took advantage of the cultural experience that our trip to Puerto Natales had afforded us, and continued on the last leg of our trip towards the end of the world – Ushuaia.

 
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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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