Perching precariously on the slick edge of an inflatable zodiac boat, I grip the thick anchored rope behind me tightly. One loose flip of the boat, and I could tumble backwards into the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel!
But why worry about an accident like that at a spectacular moment such as this!
All around me massive icebergs jut out of the freezing channel waters surrounding our tiny black boat. At first, I am startled by the ominous squeaks and crunching sounds I hear as we slide over the ice. A huge colony of Magallenic penguins eye us curiously from their rookery on the rocky beach nearby, and a colony of lazy fur seals doze on the rocks of the barren cliffs that rise up sharply from the narrow channel waters.
I can't believe I've finally made it. Here I am in the southernmost region of Patagonia in Chile. I am drifting on the same waters that Ferdinand Magellan explored over five hundred years ago in 1520 on his legendary search for a path to the Indies. As if that isn't enough, Sir Francis Drake navigated these same waters in 1578, and the naturalist Charles Darwin and his ship, the Beagle, navigated here in 1830-- and this channel is named for this ship.
For years I have pictured myself coming to this, one of the most remote spots on the globe. I had set my sights on seeing Torres del Paine in Chile some day but until this moment had not managed the arduous journey.
People call Torres del Paine one of the most inaccessible and beautiful mountain regions in the world. It is a spectacular natural environment, covering over 700 miles at the southern tip of the Andes Mountains in Chile. Established as a national park in 1959, Torres was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978. Today, it still harbors one of the planet's most pristine environments---mammoth glaciers of blue ice, emerald green lakes, towering snow-covered peaks, and dry desolate steppes where ebony-faced guanacos still roam.
Who knows how long this dramatic landscape of glaciers, granite mountains and fjords will remain unchanged before global warming or its rising tides of tourists encroach disastrously on the natural beauty? I've dreamed of spending time here before that happens, and I almost achieved this goal just six years ago-- and failed. Recently, I decided I could wait no longer.
[Go to Patagonia Part Two]