Chile – Via Australis Through the Beagle Channel

February 29, 2008

(February 24,25,26, 2008) For the obligatory trip to “the end of the world,” we took the four-day, three-night cruise around Cape Horn aboard the Via Australis, a 40-cabin ship with quite luxurious space and furnishings. The excursions included seeing penguins on Magdalena Island and glaciers up close from 10-person Zodiaks. For us, however, the real treat was “sailing” the area that Robert FitzRoy had charted at the end of the first third of the 19th century.

blog6482-350x233.jpgThe cruise through the Beagle Channel and the Straits of Magellan was made even more enjoyable accompanied by our current reading of “This Thing of Darkness,” by Harry Thompson, a page-turner historical/factual novel of the 1831-33 voyage of the Beagle captained by FitzRoy with passenger Charles Darwin.

blog6499-350x233.jpgWe were blessed with some of the sunniest weather known to Patagonia as well as the calmest seas, but it was still possible to comfortably imagine what the Beagle and its crew had faced 170 years ago in the winter.

At cruise end, with four hours to kill in Punta Arenas, Chile, before our flight to Santiago, we chose to eat in a restaurant recommended by the blog6507-350x233.jpgguide who met us at the pier.

Were we glad she had pushed hard for Sotitos, a restaurant that will likely end up on our “best ten” list of the South American trip.

Our first course, the regional specialty, crab, this time served up with an avocado, was perfect.

The spiced local lamb, sliced off the triangular spit on the open fire in the back room, was spectacular, with or without the sauce picante served on the side.For dessert, we couldn’t pass up the calafate mousse if for no other reason than the berry is highly recommended by the residents of El Califate (see separate blog entry) but impossible to find on the town’s roadsides having been picked off by every guide and tourist. blog6505-350x233.jpg

However, the mousse with the very mild but tasty calafate berry was terrific. The waiter, one of 10 in this 35-table restaurant, helped us with our first Chilean wine selection of the trip. He directed us to a $30 bottle of Vina Tarapaca, Gran Reserva 2004 which was smooth and a perfect fit for the lamb.

The town of Punta Arenas itself, was more than we expected. There is a lovely central square, planted with large trees. Grouped around it are some gracious old colonial structures, now housing banks and hotels but retaining the charm originally intended. They are now gearing up for what they believe and hope will be a continuation of a burgeoning tourism business. We think they are correct.

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