Chile's wild winds and natural wonders

Chile lies between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, a narrow land never more than 221 miles wide, with a coastline extending more than 2,700 miles. I have long been fascinated by its unusual geography.

In 2002, I attended a law conference in Santiago, and then traveled to the port city of Valparaiso and north to the Andes.

This year I returned to Chile to travel in the south, starting at the Strait of Magellan. I, who live in a climate-controlled urban environment, surprised myself - and my family and friends - by willingly exposing myself to latitudes known to sailors as the "roaring 40s" and "furious 50s." I went from being coddled at sea level in New York City to awesome mountains, fierce winds, stormy weather, and rough seas.

Not having the appropriate clothing, I purchased waterproof hiking boots, a warm windbreaker, head-to-toe rain gear, and a knapsack before I left New York.

My adventure began at Torres del Paine, a magnificent national park in southern Patagonia. To reach the base of Torres del Paine - with itsthree striking spherical granite towers - I needed the assistance of a horse.

My relations with horses have never been easy. I ask the gaucho for the gentlest, kindest, slowest, nicest, and all-around most patient horse. The gaucho produced an animal.

"Nombre? (Name?)" I asked.

"Attila," he responded. As in the Hun, destroyer of lands and people!

With me on his back, Attila trotted along the open stretches. Bouncing in the saddle, I felt my innards being rearranged.

We forded deep mountain streams together, with Attila struggling to keep his footing on the slippery rocks. We traveled along narrow mountain paths bordering steep ravines. I tried not to look down.

I never did reach the base of Torres del Paine. The fault lay with me, not Attila. I decided not to proceed by foot up the steepest part because of the height, and the fog, rain, and cold. The day's outing ended less than triumphantly.

To put this setback behind me, I undertook major hikes not involving heights or horses. As I walked in the national park, I saw and heard streams cascading down the sides of mountains. Andean condors flew high overhead. Wildflowers bloomed in January. Butterflies guided my way along the path. There were showers and rainbows.

I came upon guanacos (Andean llamas) and culpeos (Chilean foxes). I passed the gray waters of glacier-fed lakes.

Across Lake Nordenskjöld, I saw the grandest view of all: the snow-covered, 10,000-foot peaks of Paine Grande, the highest mountain in the park; the black rock peaks of the two majestic horns of the Cuernos; and Mount Almirante Nieto, with its hanging glacier.

I experienced the fierce wind of Patagonia, a wind strong enough to knock you down. Frozen droplets of lake water, driven by the wind, struck my face. Dust storms temporarily blinded me. I heard a thundering roar - a snow avalanche on Paine Grande. Patagonia bared its teeth and pounced, as once did the region's now-extinct saber-toothed tiger.

Then, from the mountains I went to the sea. I boarded the M/N Magallanes to travel 800 miles along the coast past thousands of islands forming the Chilean archipelago.

On the coastal voyage, we experienced days of rain, fog, and strong winds. There were no signs of human habitation on the many islands we passed.

Near a glacier, the ship proceeded with extreme caution through waters filled with melting ice. A pair of dolphins appeared off the ship's bow. Then we left the protection of the inland sea for 12 hours on the open sea. Small ship, big ocean: The Pacific tossed the ship about. I grabbed at railings, tables, and chairs for support - and welcomed our return to the inland sea.

I spent time during the three-day voyage on the bridge of the Magallanes with the captain and crew members, watching the fog-enveloped sea, islands, mountains, and clouds. On the bridge I had with me the poems of Gabriela Mistral. I read lines from her poem, "Fog." The lines seemed written for the voyage:

The fog has been thickening
into a bluish-grey blanket
and blinding the sea she steals
our clutch of archipelagoes....
She blurs away Chiloé,
reaches down to Tierra del Fuego....

She was born in Chile in 1889 and christened Lucila de María Godoy Alcayaga. But when she was in her 20s, she took the name Gabriela Mistral - the name of "an archangel and a fierce French wind" - writes Ursula K. Le Guin, who has translated her poems into English.

For years, Mistral taught at schools in Chile. Pablo Neruda writes in his memoirs that she introduced him to the great Russian novelists. In 1945, Mistral was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Neruda received the prize in 1971.

Will I ever return to Patagonia? Prospects are good: In Punta Arenas, on the Strait of Magellan, I kissed the foot of an Indian warrior forming part of a statuary tribute to Ferdinand Magellan. And when walking along the mountain trails of Torres del Paine, I munched on calafate berries. These actions, according to local tradition, promise a return to Patagonia.

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