Puerto Natales and Environs, Chilean Patagonia

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April 6th 2007
Published: August 8th 2007
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Arriving into Puerto Natales, one truly feels at the end of the world. Sort of like being in Alaska, in that there are lonely roads and a real feeling that you are in a polar region. Ice and mountains, winds and cold. Forests give way to fields, and quickly after the views of the Fjords appear you arrive at the outskirts Puerto Natales.

The towering mountains of Sierra Dorotea a the back of Puerto Natales were completely unexpected. Their sedimentary layers faced the setting sun like a patient audience...thousands of sunsets later they still look west. Puerto Natales was just round the corner, past the crumbling greenhouses and yellow fields. The sleepy waterfront was lined with Chilean black neck swans and birds surfing the choppy surf. The fjord was wide and long, and the giant cargo ships let you know this water is a gateway to the distant Oceans. The snow covered 2000 meter peaks covered in virgin forest in the distance were imposing.

Puerto Natales is friendly with a great supermarket, many banks and not a lot of traffic. I got to Casa Cecilia and organized my stuff after the flight. I walked to the supermarket and around town, seeing the school kids and the day workers, professionals and elders. Its a nice town with good people, but before I knew it I was off roadtriping to see Cueva del Milodon.

An unexpected surprise came in the form of the "Ethnonatural Park Patagonia". More appropriately called the "Ethnographical Nature Park", it was filled with excellent life size carvings of Patagonian Native Americans, a replica of their huts and evidence in the cliffs of habitation. A short trail with great views, huge lengas and an excellent guide had me smiling. The guide turned out to be the carver of the wood sculptures, and when he found out I spoke some spanish he went from very quiet to very friendly! Soon I was having instant coffee and hearing stories. He was born in Isla Chiloe in the Lake Dristict of Chile, but grew up in Puerto Natales. We talked about bears and spanish speakers, trees and travels.

After 3 scoops of Nescafe I left his cabin fully caffeinated and in a reflective mood. Nothing too existential, I just started thinking of the human history and plants of this strange world. this is truly the furthest humans travelled out of Africa, here at the tip of South America. Archaological evidence exists showing hunters were here many thousands of years ago, but when the Europeans arrived there were at least 4 Native American groups that called this area home, each with their own way of life.

The four groups made perfect sense, as there were the 4 classic groups of hunters and gatherers- The Coastal Kayakers, The Polar Fishers and 2 Groups of Hunters from the Grasslands. Tierra Del Fuego is actually a huge island, so the separating of the hunters into two distinct cultures is in a sense are a microcosm of Chile and Argentina today. Separated by an arbitrary layer of ocean or mountain peaks, two similar and equal people developed independently to create unqiue variations on an American theme.

The Kaweskar: Maritime cultures living by canoe in the fjords of the Chilean Pacific from Tierra del Fuego to Laguna San Rafael.

Aonikenk: The Aonikenk could be considered the true inhabitants of the tip of South America, as Tierra del Fuego is actually an island. They were one of the tallest ethnic groups in the world, men were an average of 2 meters tall(6'3"). They survived the year round winds, cold and rain with elaborate robes of Guanico skin. True polar region hunters and gatherers, they were nomadic, did not use agriculture, dressed in animals skins and were excellent with bows and arrows and Bolas.

The Aonekenk(or Tehuelche) give Patagonia a good name. When first encountered by a Venitian writer accompanying Magellen on his trip around the world, he called them Patagons. This was a reference to a fictional book called Primaleon(1512), which imagined a race of 'villages of Patagon giants'.

Selknam: Nomadic People living on the coasts and plains of Tierra del Fuego. For the young men's rites of passage, the Selknam displayed extravagant initiation rites and expression of their cosmology(photo). The question is, would you believed in Kloketen?

The Yagan Maritime cultures living by canoe in southern tip of South America off the coast of Tierra del Fuego. Except for possibly isolated Native American adventurers visiting the South Orkney Islands, these were the southernmost living people on earth.

After finally arriving to Cueva del Milodon I thought it was pretty nice, not like what I expected after all the silly pictures you see of the cave which are taken from the same spot. Its hard not to take that picture, the view is incredible. Apparently an ancient lake was once at the level of the 120 meter high cave entrance. It cut the cave out, and when the glacial lake drained it left a huge amphitheatre for mammals to live. The extinct Milodon lived here, and the first remains found by Hermann Eberhard in 1896 seemed so fresh that an expedition was launched to find a live specimen. Presumably hunted to extinction by the arrival of humans around 8,000 years ago, the 2.5 meter tall and 500 kg beast was probably quite a delicious treat. Knowing sloths, it probably wasn't much of a fight huh?

After dinner back in Puerto Natales and a good nights rest, I went on a walking tour of the town. In the central park of Puerto Natales, like Puna Arenas, their are these trees pruned into domes. They were by all my observations Monterey Cypress. Native to California, the evergreen tree thrives in along the Chilean, New Zealand and Mediterranean coast. Many plants have similar histories- much like the California Monterey Pine grown in New Zealand and Chile for wood plantations or the Australian Eucalyptus becoming naturalized in California. California has its own invaders, like the Iceplant- native to South Africa, this succulent covers California's coasts so pleasantly most people dont want it to go away.

There was also a large cemetery in town that seemed very old. I couldn't find anyone born before 1895 though- but hey they were 1 year old when the fossils of the Milodon were found! It was special to see those people who came before, to share in their lives through their personal mementos and photos. Their lives did not seem forgotten, I could feel the thousands of other people the cemetery represented- the living families of these individuals who had passed away. Their pioneering lives were probably more important than our own. Chilenos who helped build an identity over hundreds of years at the Southern end of the inhabitable earth.

Additional photos below
Photos: 40, Displayed: 27



Rite of Passage and Ceremonial Spirits of the Selknam. They lived on the coasts and plains of Tierra del Fuego. Extravagant initiation rites.

15th May 2007

Beautiful blog!
I´m living in Chile right now and I really enjoyed your writing and photos! I haven´t heard much about Puerto Natales but now I may need to make a stop down there, as well as the rest of beautiful Patagonia. Happy travels! my blog = www.travelblog.org/bloggers/tweedledeej
15th May 2007

Wonderfuf writing
Thank you again for your wonderful writing. I will be visiting Puerto Natales in Novemenber. You have opened my eyes as to what to look for. Your description of the mountains was pure poetry. Carolyn
15th May 2007

Thanks so much! I staying up VERY late writing this blog... its like pulling teeth!! :) And Deanna, I think you're going to have to wait a few months right? Winter has arrived in Chile!
15th May 2007

I enjoyed this blog and the photos very much Stephen, thanks for sharing. My favorite image was the Cueva del Milodon :)
21st May 2007

So your stealing our trees now!!?
Your a poet, do you know it?? Love looking at your pics when i get a chance.
25th January 2009

Very reflective
Your story is very reflective and nicely written. Can we get by without too much Spanish? And how about cold weather gear? Did your camera work at all temps? Thanks, Gerry
5th August 2011

Hey!!! tienes muy buenas fotos, nada mas que decir, solo que son espectaculares, realmente se puede apreciar la belleza del sur del mundo. Saludos.

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