Chilean Fjords

Anna Selby continues her cruise on Fred. Olsen’s Balmoral to discover Chile’s fjords

Chile’s fjords begin around Castro, capital of the island of Chiloe, part of an archipelago just off the mainland 42 degrees South. I am continuing my journey on Fred. Olsen’s Balmoral and have left the Panama Canal far behind journeying past Ecuador, Peru and now Chile itself. After a week off the ship in the Atacama Desert, the green of Chiloe comes as something of a shock. This is a temperate island where they grow apples, plums and cherries and keep sheep. It’s not unlike the climate of Nebraska, its equivalent in the northern hemisphere.

In one way, though, it is very different. On the long jetty of Castro port, a pair of vultures sits. The seaside is dotted with the houses of fishermen built on stilts out over the water. In the bay where they grow mussels from long lines below buoys, sealions lie atop them enjoying the sun. They are a promise of what is to come. The cold waters of the Humboldt Current and the fjords themselves are home to a multitude of cetaceans and all manner of birds.

Just like their Norwegian equivalent, the Chilean fjords have plenty of majesty and mystery and as the Balmoral does its “scenic cruising” – at a slow and sedate pace, ideal for photographers and bird spotters – they instil a sense of tranquillity. This is a good place, I imagine, for stress therapy.

Unlike Norway’s fjords, though, you’ll see no sign of humanity, not a village, not a dwelling, not a road. These are islands and outcrops that are still pristine – some thickly forested, some bare rock, some low scrub. In this empty landscape, it came almost as a shock to see a small sailing dinghy pass by.

What you will see is some of the most extraordinary sights the world has to offer – mountains and glaciers, whales and dolphins, colonies of penguins and the solitary wandering albatross soaring on the bird world’s most massive wings. The air is pure, the silence is palpable, and the light has such clarity, you get to experience real life in high definition.

On its way to Punta Arenas, our next stop, the Balmoral glides through breathtaking scenery arriving on our first evening while there is still light enough to see the Amalia Glacier spreading down the mountainside to the water’s edge. The next day, we go through the famous Strait of Magellan, discovered by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, the most important natural passage between the world’s two greatest oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific.

A glacier in Straits of Magellan.

As we make our way to Punta Arenas, I am entranced for almost an hour by a pair of albatross who swoop and dive, dare devil acrobats above a wild sea outside my cabin window. They aren’t the only big birds around either. At Punta Arenas, I go in search of condors. Although often associated with the high Andes, these giant birds (they have a wingspan of over nine feet, second only to the albatross) also live in the lower reaches of Patagonia and so I take the bus and drive deep into the cold steppe grasslands known in these parts as la pampa. There are vast estancias (ranches) here where sheep graze on the sparse vegetation and roam far and wide to find it. There are no pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers used out here so the land is basically as Nature intended.

This means it’s just fine for the condors who are surprisingly susceptible to chemicals. After a long drive through the pampas where there are, next to the sheep, lots of rhea (a bird that closely resembles an ostrich though it is, in fact, no relation), we arrive at a sudden cliff face – an unusual sight on the generally flat pampas that reaches all the way from here up to the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Pampas

The condors are nesting in openings in the cliff face and spend hours on the wing soaring above it and you can spot the young standing on the rock and waiting for the return of their parents. They stay together as a family until the young reach the age of two and condor parents mate for life. And lives are considerable – the oldest condor recorded was 100. And it’s not just one or two condors or even families on the cliff. There are more than 100 of them above us and our small party of bird enthusiasts watch them in awe.

That evening we cruise through the Magdalena Channel en route to Cape Horn – with surprisingly benign seas forecast ahead. These last all the way round the Cape (named after the city of Hoorn in northern Holland) and we spot the lonely lighthouse at the end of the world inhabited by just one family all year round and reliant on supplies from passing ships. Unimaginable isolation.

Our last stop as we pass through the Chilean fjords is in Ushuaia. This is, of course, not Chile at all but Argentinian territory on the oddly divided island of Tierra del Fuego. The border is quite literally a straight line and, for much of the day, we slip between the two countries on a catamaran that is quite astonishingly manoeuvrable. As a result, we get up almost close enough to touch (we don’t of course) the birds and animals on the many islands dotted around Ushuaia’s vast bay and into the Beagle Channel.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things here is that no one seems at all disturbed by our presence despite the proximity. One island is literally covered with tiny snowy white South American terns. And another has hundreds of Imperial (aka blue-eyed) cormorants who from a distance look very like penguins – except, of course, unlike penguins they can fly. They don’t fly as we approach, though, while the sealions around the island are popping their heads up out of the water, seemingly as curious about us as we are about them.

The backdrop to all this are the magnificent snow-covered Fuegan Andes – and even in the southern summer, the snow is there. Every ten minutes, in fact, the weather seems to change and in the course of the morning we have sun, hail, snow and gusty winds. No one could complain about the weather, though, given the life-affirming experience of being so close to so much nature. And, if we even thought about it, we’d be shamed by the indigenous people who once lived here. The Yaghan or Yamana people, about who Darwin wrote in 1832, lived here all year round entirely naked.

Find out more

Visit Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678 to get further information and book your cruise.

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Anna Selby

Travel writer & author

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