Position: 51° 44’ S, 72° 32’ W
Weather: Mostly clear with sunny periods, some scattered clouds
It was with great delight that we woke up this morning to look out our windows and see sunshine! In the distance we could see the rugged peaks of the Torres del Paine (“pale blue towers”) – our destination for today’s excursion. We disembarked the ship and boarded our buses. We drove past the quaint town of Puerto Natales, then through vast plains (locally known as ‘pampas’), up and over several moraines and finally into the mountains.
The buses stopped several times to allow us to take photographs of the scenery and wildlife, which was amazingly abundant. We saw a group of about 12 rhea (flightless birds), a single South American hog-nosed skunk rooting through the scrub looking for grubs, herds of guanacos (a close relative of llamas), European hares (introduced) and a lone Andean grey fox. In addition to all these animals, we saw plenty of birds – including upland geese, red-breasted long-tailed meadowlarks, black necked swans (with chicks), Andean geese, and, of course, condors – the national birds of Chile.
We had a particularly spectacular condor experience that had our ornithologist, Chris, really excited. Normally, condors are only seen flying far above the landscape looking for dead animals to scavenge, but on this occasion our guides sighted a group of approximately 20 congregated on the ground. It was amazing – there were full adults, subadults (2-3 years old) and juveniles (1 year old) all in one place. Many were standing with their wings spread open – apparently to help thermal-regulate (cool down). Even our guides were thrilled - this is apparently a very rare sight indeed!
As we entered the National Park, we stopped at a couple of the beautiful glacier lakes to take photos of the stunning scenery. These lakes are particularly beautiful because they are a unique pale turquoise colour, not the usual dark blue. The colouring is a result of the high mineral content from the sediments left behind by the receding glaciers thousands of years ago. The combination of the green-blue waters with the majestic snow-capped mountains behind was really beautiful. Once inside the Torres del Paine National Park, we stopped at the Salto Grande waterfall trailhead. It was a short 1km walk to the falls themselves. As you walked over the last hill, the scenery in front of you took your breath away - rugged mountains set the backdrop for the roaring waterfall.
From the waterfall, we had the choice to stretch our legs and walk the 6km to the restaurant where lunch was being served, or take the buses. The restaurant perched on the side of an island in the middle of a large lake. To get to it we had to walk across a bridge. Most of us chose to walk the road that hugged the lake side. Our timing was perfect – it had been calm and sunny the entire time, but suddenly the winds picked up, with gusts of about 50 miles per hour!
Luckily, we were warm and comfortable sitting inside the restaurant watching the ‘mini-hurricanes’ move across the lake. After lunch we headed straight back to the ship so that the Captain could sail away in time to make the slack tide to pass through the Kirke Narrows safely. If we miss the slack tide, we will delayed about 12 hours until the next slack tide. Many of us gathered on the Observation Deck, in the rain, to watch the Prince Albert II pass through safely and head on further south into the Chilean Fjords.