Punta Arenas Chile….Strait of Magellan, Sheep Ranching & Dolphins

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March 7th 2015
Published: March 7th 2015
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Punta Arenas Chile….Strait of Magellan, Sheep Ranching & Dolphins

We left Ushuaia late as a woman on our ship had a stroke and an ambulance was sent for. This meant that there was a possibility that we would not get to see the glaciers as we made our way up the Beagle Channel toward Punta Arenas. But… the gods were with us and even though darkness was coming on and there were lots of clouds and some rain, we passed by a glacier before darkness fell. This glacier was up on a mountain and making its way down a pass. Glistening white against the stark vegetation-less mountains it looked close enough to touch with beautiful waterfalls. After taking some pictures, cold, wind and rain finally forced us inside.

The next morning dawned still and with a beautiful sunrise over the Strait. About 48 degrees. Our first views of Punta Arenas, Chile and the Straight of Magellan was very different form Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Punta Arenas is pretty flat. We tendered into port as we did in the Falkland Islands but it wasn’t rough at all and a short trip. Before leaving the ship you pick up a numbered tender ticket so know when to leave the Princess Theatre as they call out boarding numbers. Each of our tenders (lifeboats) holds about 90 people so the process goes pretty fast with 3 tenders going back and forth.

Today we are headed to the Chilean Estancia Fitzroy, (named after the Captain of the Beagle). It is an Agroturismo and sheep ranch. The first hour heading north is on a paved road, then a left turn and the next hour is a dirt road heading west across the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean. The final leg is on a substantial steel ferry that will carry 3 buses, 1 huge truck carrying a Caterpillar tractor on a trailer and 2 small pick up trucks. This huge ferry seems like overkill in crossing the Fitzroy Channel which is only about ¼ mile ;-), to the island of Reisco. Reisco is situated between the mainland of Chile and the Pacific Ocean.

The entire trip takes us 2 ½ hours. Along the way we see land that is flat with 2-3 foot high brush and grasses. Very few trees and those we do see are stunted with their branches blown to the east by the ever-present winds blowing in from the Pacific. Reminds us of the cypress trees along the coast of California near Monterey. We are excited to see a plethora of wildlife! First off in the Strait are Dolphins jumping and playing along with us as our bus heads north. Then field after field we see the Chilean version of an emu or an ostrich as they run wild. They do not fly, but can run like the wind. Our tour guide, Eva, regaled us with the mating habits of these unusual creatures. The male is the aggressor during mating and pretty much subdues the female with kicks and attacks, then over the next 3 days she lays eggs just at random in the fields. He does this same mating routine with several females. The male prepared before these mating attacks by building a nest so now has to scour the fields looking for the randomly laid eggs and rolling them back to his nest. He then sits on them for 3 weeks, leaving only for water. The females have very little to do with the process except to get beat up and deliver the eggs. A very strange process.

We see many of the 2 ½ million sheep of Patagonia blending into the brush as well as 200,000 cows and feral horses. We also see huge birds with colorful heads called Crested Cara Cara’s. Patagonia does not have any snakes, only 1 kind of lizard but the most exciting part is that people here have not seen whales in the Strait in over 20 years and the last couple of years they have seen a few. They are coming back.

The pampas are much as we have envisioned them. What we would call prairies as far as the eye can see. It looks very much like Wyoming, Montana, North or South Dakota. Low mountains stretching far off in the distance. Wind blowing the grass.

The island we’re going to started out as a coal mining center in the1800’s.

As we cross the Fitzroy Channel our bus continues down a one lane dirt road to the estancia. The family originally made their money from coal, then bought and consolidated several sheep farms on the island resulting in this beautiful estancia. This is a family owned sheep farm that has expanded to a museum with lots of artifacts from the coal mining days on the island, an Agroturismo with lodging and the ability to host large groups for lunch, such as our tour buses. We wandered around the estancia looking in buildings at all the historical farming implements, newspapers, antique cars and household goods. There were sheep dogs running around and laying in the sun. They were very friendly and wanted everyone to pet them. We did ;-) There was also a cute, small Daschund running around. The owner’s son, who was about 8, was chasing her. He caught the little dog and told Jean her name was Maurita and let Jean pet the pup who is only 3 months old. When Jean asked him in Spanish what his name was, he said very proudly, “Lorenzo Vicente”! Now is that a great Chilean name or what ;-)

We walked around and saw domesticated alpacas, including a new baby. They also have a cougar named Xena who was found injured as a baby and raised in the house with them. She has a large nice enclosure and cannot be let lose as she does not have the skills to survive in the wild. We also saw a sheep dipping demonstration. Poor sheep, was all Jean was thinking. But it has to be done to keep them from getting ticks, etc. The sheep are penned and at the end of the pen is a floor that drops out, allowing the vaquero to “drop” one sheep at a time into a long tank. They are quite startled to find themselves up to their necks in sheep dip. This is a long tank and they must walk about 12-15 feet through the dip to the other end where there is another pen. As they are walking through the dip, trying to keep their heads up, other vaqueros take long wooden sticks with what looks like a small oxen yoke on the end and push the heads of the sheep under the treated water. The sheep are once again startled and come up sputtering as they make their way to the “safe” pen at the other end ;-) We had never seen this done in person.

There are three adult daughters of the family on the estancia. When the middle one wanted to get married around2003, she was unhappy that she couldn’t get married on the island. One afternoon she found her father building a small building out of the trees on the island. He was building a small chapel right on the estancia so she could be married there. The priest from the mainland came over and presided at her wedding. Later both the other girls were married there too. It is a beautiful rustic chapel. The pews are made of logs and the windows are made with wagon wheels with glass placed between the spokes.

Lunch was a wonderful buffet in a glass fronted wood building with tables and chairs made from tree stumps. Lunch was BBQ lamb, salads, steamed potatoes, vegetables and local Chilean wine.

After lunch, there was a demonstration using sheep dogs to herd sheep along with a vaquero on horseback to lead the sheep as the dogs were herding them. We always love to see working dogs. The sheep were not afraid of people or the horse at all, but were totally focused on the sheep dogs. The sheep kept trying to hide from the dogs by getting right under the horse. The vaquero also demonstrated how to shear sheep the old fashioned way with hand held shears instead of with electric ones.

It was about 3pm by now so we started back down the dirt road, over the channel on the ferry, down the dirt road, down the paved road to the town of Punta Arenas. We stopped at an overview for photos and then down to the town square where we stopped. There vendors in this pretty park all around the statue of Magellan. They were selling hand crafts and many things made of alpaca. Punta Arenas has a population of 120,000 and is the largest “city” in the sub-arctic area of South America, with Ushuaia, Argentina being the largest “town” of 70,000-these are important distinctions to the local people of both areas.

Our adventures were not done for the day. As we were making our way back on the tender, 4 large dolphins decided to race us ;-) They were within 5 feet of us and going full speed! Everyone on the tender was laughing and taking pictures. It was so fun.

This seems to be our “Year of the Dolphin” since we also saw the “pink dolphins” (Chinese White Dolphins) in Hong Kong Harbor.

Next Port: Three days at sea and then Santiago (Valparaiso) Chile

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