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Out Where the Road Ends in South America

March 05, 1989|WILLIAM RATLIFF | Ratliff, a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is a specialist in Latin American politics and travels frequently to South America.

PUNTA ARENAS, Chile — --If there is an end to the world, the tip of South America may be it.

On my map the southernmost city on an inhabited continent is Punta Arenas (about 30 miles to the south is the tiny fishing village of San Juan, where the last road ends).

In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to sail past this spot along the strait that bears his name, and in the 1830s naturalist Charles Darwin explored much of the region for his famous "Voyage of the Beagle."

My daughter and I, both amateur naturalists, came here in part to retrace some of Darwin's steps.

We started far north of Santiago on Chile's Bolivian border. We hopped down the 2,600-mile coast by airplane, visiting deserts, valleys, forests, lakes, mountains and fiords before finally reaching Punta Arenas.

Cold and Windy

We found a paradise--a bit on the cold and windy side--for backpackers, bird watchers, geologists, astronomers, historians and starry-eyed adventurers: the Strait of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, Port Famine and Cape Horn.

Here you can sail through labyrinthine fiords and archipelagos, backpack to creaking blue glaciers and icebergs and march across broad expanses of scraggly brown wasteland.

You can meet penguins on their home ground and see rheas just where Darwin did (he called them ostriches). And you can join herds of guanacos, which Darwin called wild llamas, roaming the hills against a backdrop of crystalline blue lakes and towering, snowcapped granite peaks.

The main tourist months are December through February, though we arrived in mid-March when tourist facilities outside the cities were closing. We had much of the land to ourselves.

We arrived in Punta Arenas just as most of the regional tourist travel and living facilities outside the cities were closing, as we had expected. We rented a car, tossed our sleeping bags and backpacks onto the rear seat and headed north toward spectacular Torres del Paine National Park.

Risky Driving

We soon discovered that driving in southern Chile bears little resemblance to the same activity in Northern California. There aren't many cars, but neither are there many roads . . . or service stations or hotels.

What's more, most of the roads outside the cities, except for an occasional expressway, are packed gravel, rutted clay or worse. Buses that regularly face the stones thrown up by other vehicles often have windshields that are as pocked as pineapples.

On our way to the park we dropped in on a colony of penguins along Otway Sound an hour northwest of Punta Arenas. We found that penguins don't live near paved roads, nor do most of the creatures or sights worth seeing in southern Chile.

We bumped over gravel, packed earth and fields, past clusters of rheas , a lone guanaco and thousands of small but extraordinarily handsome sheep. Finally, when we were beginning to wonder if we had gone wrong, small signs assured us that there were penguinos ahead.

When we reached a fence we couldn't cross, along the windblown beach of the sound, and had to park, there still were no penguins.

We trudged along the beach for more than an hour, against a virtual coastal sandstorm that stung our faces and at times almost held us motionless. Still no penguins. As we turned back in frustration, Sharon rushed up and shouted into the wind: "Out there!" Three penguins were bobbing in the tossing surf.

Undisciplined Soldiers

In 10 minutes we had found a hundred more in the sea, on the beach and inland. We headed inland, for there they could only hide in their shallow earthen burrows and not escape altogether by sea. Strutting on land, they seemed to be regiments of undisciplined two-foot soldiers in irregular black and white uniforms.

When they saw us the penguins broke for cover, hobbling--or scooting on all fours, using their flippers as feet--into their burrows. Inside they began to grunt, gurgle, bray and sneeze. When we fell to our knees and looked inside they peered out at us, first with one large inquisitive eye and then, after a 180-degree rotation of the head, with the other.

One Chilean guidebook says the penguins "glare out" at you, but don't believe it. We will never forget the soft, inquisitive eyes and slowly rotating heads of these gentle but tough, if seemingly slightly scatterbrained little creatures.

In a short time some of the penguins were pushed out of their burrows by a chattering housemate, while others emerged on their own to resume marching, scurry overland or chase a neighbor into his burrow.

Late that afternoon we drove on to Puerto Natales near the Argentine border, and stayed at the Captain Eberhard Hotel ($40 U.S. for a double) looking north over a fiord filled with black-necked swans and toward the glaciers and peaks we would climb the next day.

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