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Getting to glacial

Crossing mountain and meadow, sand and rock and snow, and lastly the icy sea

By David Abel
Globe Staff / March 21, 2010

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GOLFO DE PENAS — Well before we boarded the old cargo ship, before it plodded past the protection of the mountainous fiords, before the skies turned stormy and the seas swelled, we were warned.

We were warned not to expect a cruise, about the smell of the cattle often herded below deck, and the inevitable nausea.

So when the smoky, diesel engines of the 360-foot ship prodded us into the open sea and the waves began sloshing us around, we expected to feel it in our stomachs. What we didn’t expect was that the pummeling would last nearly a full day — through difficult-to-digest meals, perilous showers, and a lot of restless sleep — and that Dramamine would be no cure for the persistent urge to hurl.

“It’s called the Gulf of Punishment for a reason,’’ said German Balboa, the ship’s second mate, who like most of the crew seemed impervious to the queasiness as he monitored our course for southern Patagonia.

The passage through the Pacific was one leg of a 15-day trip my fiancee, Jessica, and I took late last year from the top to the bottom of Chile, a sliver of land that extends no more than 109 miles between the Andes and the ocean and stretches 2,700 miles from the sprawling salt flats in the north to the south’s snowcapped volcanoes — longer than any other country.

Our journey began some 14,000 feet above sea level at a lonely border post in the cold, dry mountains of southwestern Bolivia. We stood in a field of rocks for about an hour, with strong winds nearly barreling us over as we waited with heavy backpacks for a bus to take us across the border.

When we finally left, the difference between one of South America’s richest countries and its poorest was apparent immediately, a contrast that makes it easier to understand how Chile fared as well as it did after being rocked by a massive earthquake last month. In Bolivia, we had traveled for hundreds of miles without roads, but as soon we crossed into Chile, out of the barrenness of the high mountains, there appeared a modern highway.

As we descended, we could feel the atmosphere change. The altitude slowly released its grip on our heads and the frigid air turned sultry. In the distance, as we peeled off layers, we began to see patches of green rising from a seemingly lifeless land.

The road took us to San Pedro de Atacama, a 1,000-year-old desert outpost of squat adobe buildings, dusty streets, and flocks of tourists who come for the dry air and nearby geysers, salt flats, and flamingo-filled lagoons. With little time to explore, and the afternoon slipping into dusk, we rented bicycles and rode into a howling wind for the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). It was 10 miles of pedaling against wind-borne sand, under a hot sun, and up steep hills, but the slanting light and the spreading shadows embossed an eerie, desolate beauty on the surrounding landscape of goopy-looking rocks and rolling dunes. As the sun sank over the horizon, the sky ignited in a slow symphony of colors until darkness revealed the bright arc of the Milky Way, lighting the route back.

The next day we hopped another bus for an hour ride to the copper mining town of Calama, where we caught a flight south to Santiago, Chile’s capital and largest city. The two-hour trip offered a glimpse of the oddity of such a long country, in which the small northern cities are separated from Santiago by a vast emptiness of fallow plains, rocky mountains, and dry canyons. The only green we saw arrived with an accompanying cloud of smog just a few miles before we landed in Santiago, where nearly half of the nation’s 17 million people live.

Friends picked us up and drove us into the city on a modern highway. They gave us a quick tour of the downtown, including a stop at La Moneda, the 205-year-old presidential palace that was partially destroyed in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet, then the army chief, ordered it bombed during the coup d’etat he led against President Salvador Allende.

Our speedy evening tour of Santiago ended in a sprint for another bus. We spent the night rolling farther south. When we awoke about 10 hours later, just outside the city of Pucón, it seemed like we had crossed into a different biome, where lush vegetation replaced parched desert. There was a bounty of trees, birds, and flowers, and Lago Villarica, one of a series of large lakes in the region.

We walked from the bus station to the city center, a tranquil retreat of cozy restaurants, chocolate shops, and dozens of tour operators, all below the towering Volcan Villarica, an active volcano that rises more than 9,000 feet above the lake. We admired the menacing mountain on the horizon, which last erupted in 1971, until it disappeared in the clouds. Then we did what most tourists do in Pucón and spent the next few days riding horses, white-water rafting, and soaking in hot springs.

It was the closest we came to relaxing on the trip. After two nights beside the lake, we were on the move again and decided to make a brief excursion into Argentina.

In a heavy downpour, we boarded a bus for a journey on a muddy road over the Andes that twisted through cloud-shrouded mountains covered with monkey puzzle trees. It was an all-day trip that required hours of waiting at border posts for bureaucrats to stamp passports and search luggage.

When we finally crossed the border, we stopped for a few hours in San Martín de los Andes, a lakeside city like Pucón. The next bus took us on a curvy dirt road past the so-called seven lakes, the last being the majestic Lago Nahuel Huapi. The 200-square-mile stretch of cobalt looks like a small sea beside the mountains that make up San Carlos de Bariloche, the continent’s mecca for skiers, boaters, and climbers.

We arrived at midnight, found a guest house, and after a brief sleep woke early to explore the city on foot and bicycles. We sampled chocolates and gobbled up the famed steak. And we pedaled a hilly route that took us beside waterfalls and poppy-covered fields, to hidden beaches and aromatic breweries, and up 8,000 feet to the top of Cerro Catedral, one of South America’s largest ski resorts.

After three days in Argentina, we made the long trip back over the Andes to Puerto Varas, another lakeside city. We arrived just in time to join a large crowd by the Lago Llanquihue and watch an impressive fireworks show celebrating New Year’s Eve. Strangers shared their champagne and helped us find a place for the night.

The next morning a minibus took us a half hour south to Puerto Montt, where we boarded the Navimag ferry for our three-day sail through the fiords. There was no preparing for the Golfo de Penas and the way our stomachs responded.

Along with others on the old cargo ship that ferries food, livestock, and other goods between northern and southern Patagonia, we asked ourselves more than once why we chose to spend hundreds of dollars and precious time cooped up in such misery. The answer came when we passed back into the smooth waters of the protected canals. We stood on an outside deck as a breeze washed over us and the ship cruised through narrow, dolphin-filled channels with dramatic views of uninhabited islands, moss-covered mountains, and the wall of jagged ice called Pio XI, the largest glacier in South America.

The voyage ended when we arrived in Puerto Natales, a century-old port in the southern tip of Chile in a province called Última Esperanza, or Last Hope. Here is the gateway for Torres del Paine, the nation’s premier national park.

We piled into the back of a pickup owned by an older couple who persuaded us to stay at their bed-and-breakfast for about $20 a night. We left our bags, stocked up on food, consolidated our camping supplies, and took a two-hour bus ride to the park.

Even though it was late afternoon, we were so far south that we had hours of light to hike, enough that we kept going until 10 p.m. We climbed for six hours over glacier-fed lakes, up thousands of feet to the base of the three massive granite towers that give the park its name. We camped through a freezing night but warmed up the next morning by sweating up the steep, boulder-covered ascent to the “torres,’’ which rise like skyscrapers from a bed of snow and overlook an emerald lagoon in a bowl-shaped space that feels like a temple.

After two days, we returned to Puerto Nateles, before going to Perito Moreno. We took a short cruise beside the famous Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. We took another bus south to Punto Arenas, the country’s most southern city, and then we hopped on a flight back to Santiago.

A day later, we were headed home, where for the first time in weeks, we got some sleep and yearned for a vacation from our vacation.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

If You Go

American, Delta, and LAN are among the airlines that fly to Santiago. LAN and Sky Airline offer flights throughout the country. TurBus and Pullman offer comfortable service on modern buses between most of the big cities.

Navimag Ferry

www.navimag.com

011-56-244-2311

A three-day trip through the fiords from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales with a shared cabin without a door is about $420; a high-end private cabin is $2,470.

Sky Airline

www.skyairline.cl

LAN

www.lan.com

TurBus

www.turbus.cl

Pullman

www.pullman.cl