[Last updated 6 March 2017]
We all remember our first time.
Mine came late on a chilly sun-drenched morning midway through a bouncy ride on a boat filled with tourists on the Last Hope Sound.
We were journeying through a picturesque setting that included cliffs of nesting condors and a massive rock that’s home to a cormorant breeding colony, framed all the while by dramatic peaks in the distance that grew taller the further on we traveled. We were moving at a decent clip, bouncing over the wind-swept waves when Balmaceda came into view, the mountain that’s home to its eponymous glacier.
Ice clung to the rock behind a curtain of fog that lingered over the higher portion of the mountain; just below, the bright whitish aqua of the glacier abruptly turned to a brown stone that cried into the sound. I was momentarily saddened that my first contact with a glacier saw cascading mountain runoff as a metaphor for tears.
Just fifteen years ago, our guide said, the base of the glacier was at sea level.
It’s said that the navigator Juan Ladrillero gave the sound its name back in 1557, thinking it was his last chance to reach the Strait of Magellan. Instead he reached a dead end at a glacier.
For the rapidly retreating Balmaceda, all hope is gone. I felt glad that I made the opportunity to add it to my ‘So Very Glad I Saw it Before it Disappears’ file.
Why You Should Go
As the primary gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (pronounced PIE-nay), most visitors to Puerto Natales rush through on their way to South America’s most popular national park. But a decision to pass by without setting aside a day for this fjord trip borders on the regrettable.
For the budget traveler, at 70,000 Chilean Pesos (about US$120*) and up per person, the trip is somewhat of an investment. But given the relatively easy access it provides to a pair of glaciers on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field –glaciers retreating at an alarming rate thanks to global warming– it’s one worth making if you don’t plan to ever return to this corner of the planet. Or if you simply want to see glaciers in one of the world’s most beautiful settings before they disappear.
Then there’s the relative solitude. Bear in mind that while Puerto Natales is becoming a busy place in high season, not many boats ply these waters. You’ll largely be alone over the course of the day, getting at least a glimpse of the sublime beauty that Patagonia has to offer. And experience some of the harsh conditions that left the area unsettled until just over a century ago.
Oh, and this: each ticket includes a delicious feast courtesy of a traditional Patagonian parrillada, or barbeque. You won’t leave hungry.
Onwards. Here’s a brief four-part outline of the journey with 40 photos and a quartet of short videos. Enjoy!
The journey begins at Puerto Bories, about a 20-minute shuttle ride from the center of town. There are about 50 passengers on board when we set out at 8am.
The first landmark of note is a man-made one, the Puerto Bories industrial refrigeration complex, built in 1913 to store livestock and produce from Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. About an hour into the trip we reach the Eberhard Fjord, where cattle ranching began in the area in 1887. Here Ultima Esperanza officially begins.
After about two hours we pass the cormorant colony that has taken over Barrosa point, a giant rock in the center of the fjord. Hundreds of pairs breed here and call it home for about three months, or until their young can fly. Fortunately, they were all still present and accounted for during my February visit.
We pass a condor cliff where we can watch the magnificently ugly predators circling far overhead. Their gliding is sublime.
This video should give you a general idea; apologies for the bit of shake. It was a little bumpy at times.
The Balmaceda Glacier
Soon after we began to approach Monte Balmaceda, and its eponymous glacier. The mountain is severe and dramatic. On this morning, it was partially shrouded by dark clouds and a gray fog. Jabbing the sky at 2,035m (6,676ft), it’s stunning and difficult to conquer. Only a handful of summits have been recorded.
Next up some footage of the Balmaceda Glacier. I’d love to hear from anyone with subsequent photos or video footage for a point of comparison.
Music: ‘Passing On The Stairs’ by The Starry Tides / Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 International License [Free Music Archive Page]
The Serrano Glacier
Four hours into the trip we disembark at Puerto Toro, the only dock in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, Chile’s largest and least-visited.
From the dock it’s an easy hike of just over a kilometer through a forest and along the shore of the lake where we can walk to an overlook near the base of the Serrano Glacier and sip glacial runoff.
Back on the boat which of course begged the question: Should I have felt more guilty that my first Pisco Sour, Chile’s national drink, was served with freshly chiseled ice from a rapidly-receding glacier?
Below, some footage of the Serrano Glacier. Again, apologies for some of the shake. I’ll bring a tripod next time, promise.
And the Estancia Perales
And again back on land for lunch: a traditional Patagonian parrillada, or barbeque, in one of the most serene settings imaginable.
And the fourth and final video, a short series of scenes that attempt to do justice to the serenity of this sublime Patagonian setting.
Nitty & the Gritty
-There are a few trip options; I went with Turismo 21 de Mayo, a company with 50 years experience in the area. Another is Agunsa.
– Bring water proof and weather proof clothes. It’ll be wet, windy and chilly.
– Services vary, but most outfitters will serve snacks, coffee and soft drinks on board.
*advertised price August 2014
Visited in February 2013. Why the delay? For the record, an explanation is here.