Fireplaces. This was the metaphor that sprang instantly to mind when I thought of how to compare Puerto Natales with El Calafate. No idea why but it works for me. Apologies to any readers who have a cheap and shiny.. either fake brass or marble, fireplace, perhaps from Argos or B&Q if you’re English… that is El Calafate, a bit brash and tacky and possibly with a little porcelain dog on top. Puerto Natales however is the genuine old and weathered wood fireplace, pleasant to the eye with lots of appealing texture… and if there was anything on top it would be a battered old flask of whisky, next to the whalebone pipe.
Puerto Natales then is a wonderfully weathered collection of pastel-coloured buildings stretched out along the wild and windswept shores of the romantically named Seno Ultima Esperanza… Last Hope Sound. There is plenty of tourism here but somehow it has been effortlessly absorbed into the tranquil fabric of the town without affecting the natural character of the place one little bit. I wonder if it is because the package tourists are carted directly to Torres del Paine, Puerto Natales perhaps not considered worth the time…
The few souvenir shops and outdoor outfitters blend in perfectly with their peeling corrugated steel facades and wonky hand-painted signs. It is a terrific place to simply hang out. The last two mornings, with an outside temperature of just 6 degs C, I drank coffee next to an ancient wood-burning stove in an interesting little cafe-cum-secondhand bookshop where the tables are papered in old maps & postcards and the tattered and yellowed volumes on the shelves speak of many interesting years of travels for these books that have wound up all the way down here in southern Patagonia. For lunch today I sat on the waterfront for a while and watched a beautiful pair of black-necked swans, each with two fluffy cygnets on board. Link here. :-)
Still feeling crap with a chest full of phlegm it was 5 hrs on the bus rather than 2 days by bike to get here. My bike went in the hold with no complaints from the driver, although I did have to pay extra. Dave the clearly very bored dog was a proper pain in the ass as I packed my camp early in El Calafate and he followed me to the bus station on my bike and spent the next hour or so sticking his huge head in places where it was not welcome.. mostly other peoples crotches. I disowned him completely. The bus was depressing.. and the for the first hour or so I looked out the window at the pampa and wished I was riding. Then it started to rain, hard, and I decided that I did not really mind that much.
Luck was on my side on arrival, I stumbled across a fabulous little place to stay… a brand new hostel run by a lovely New Zealand lady. She’s been in Chile decades and her kids are Chilean so no issue with foreign ownership. Wood floors, spacious rooms, a notable absence of bunks, a great kitchen and copious amounts of hot water would be reason enough to stay… but throw in the breakfast of homemade bread with homemade jams… home-made granola, scrambled eggs and good coffee and you have probably the best place to stop in Patagonia. What it is not is a dirt cheap crashpad so it sees a better quality of traveller, like me for instance….. ;-) but at 10,000 pesos (about £14) it is not expensive either for this part of the world. All that sounds like a bit of a shameless plug for the place… and it is. I promised I would because I have been especially well looked after here as I recover :-) The slightly dubious name is The Singing Lamb (www.thesinginglamb.com) and you can find it at 779 Arauco. Personally I think the Spanish translation is better, El Cordero Canto, but despite that it comes highly recommended if you’re in this neck of the proverbial woods. Especially if you like breakfast.
I met Ennio and Dina here once again… a major bike mechanical means they never made it directly to Torres del Paine either, instead having to hitch a ride here to engage the services of the local bike shop. I suspect we may all be pedalling north again on Monday into the park for a few days.
Right, that is it for the words. I am being lazy so now I’ll just throw some pictures at you, give you a flavour of the place.