I stared into the frigid waters of the Strait of Magellan. The August wind was angrily sweeping across Seno Última Esperanza (Last Hope Sound) and the temperature was well below freezing. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the desperation of the Portuguese sailors who passed through the same spot on All Saints' Day in 1520.
"I should have my head examined for visiting the Patagonia at the height of winter," I muttered to myself as my escaping breaths were exhaled into the frosty air.
Situated at the southern extreme of the Chilean Patagonia, I imagined Punta Arenas to be the bottom of the Earth. Antarctica expeditions depart from here and penguins waddle its shores. The British-found port city (originally named Sandy Point) has a rich history as a penal colony whose first governor was executed by revolting prisoners. The town subsequently earned its keeps as arriving Germans, Croatians, and English and Welshmen got rich raising sheep and drilling for gushing black gold. But nobody told me the same rampaging prisoners also captured two visiting ships, marooned their passengers, got piss drunk on looted cognac, and were quickly recaptured.
Later day travelers, like Bruce Chatwin, imagined Patagonia to be the perfect nuclear bomb shelter because it isn't near anything worth bombing. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to the south of this continent to escape from pursuing sheriffs.
But overall, aside from visiting Austral Beer, the world's most southerly brewery, Punta Arenas in August is as Lady Florence Dixie said in 1881, "there may possibly be drearier places but I don't think it is probable."
Why do I travel?
Standing at the edge of where the famed Portuguese explorer once roamed, the same thoughts I had in Joshua Tree, Bangkok, Wadi Rum and Aqaba, and many other places raced through my mind. As Richard in Alex Garland's novel "The Beach" was motivated to have a go at the mysterious lagoon, I've been tempted as far as I can remember to strike out and travel to faraway places, where I would be free from guidebooks, gringo-priced cafes and pubs, and cheeky taxi drivers.
"Buscando una habitación?" the woman at the Puerto Natales bus station shouted at me.
Still groggy from the four hour bus ride from Punta Arenas and shocked by the icy Patagonian air, the only Spanish I can conjure up was a confused "permiso?"
"Oh you're American," she immediately switched to flawless English.
"Bugger! That obvious eh?" I thought to myself.
Pointing at the Chilean flag patch I used to repair my coat, "I thought you're South American," she said.
"Have a look at my place. No need to pay if you don't like it. I can organize tours to the Perito Moreno Glacier and the Torres del Paine National Park if you like."
So much for getting away from other gringos and Europeans.
Cecilia was a kind woman who ran a tight ship. Casa Cecelia in Puerto Natales was one of the best guesthouse I've stayed in. The shower pressure was strong, the water was hot, the kitchen and bedrooms were spotless (and heated!). She also sorted me out on treks to go on and rides to the parks.
The walk from where the bus let us off to the first warming hut with hot showers, food, and bunks was five hours. I made the hike with a Japanese girl on her gap year and a Maltese couple. The only way to get supplies in and out of Torres del Paine is on foot or mules. Fast-falling snow was a faithful companion during our whole trek to Refugio Pehoe.
We walked mostly in silence, each awed with the scenery and each with our own thoughts. Dampened by the wintry weather, not many trekkers are about the park. We've almost the entire mountain to ourselves, except for the hungry pumas.