January 27, 2015
Riding it out at sea.
“Sitka is a nice place to live but you wouldn’t want to visit there” is the old aphorism. If you live there you get the advantage of all the beautiful days but if you visit, especially for one day on a cruise ship, you stand a better than average chance of wind, rain, or gray. When we got off the ship in Puerto Montt it was gray and drizzly. Gabriel, our guide, told us we were lucky to arrive on such a beautiful day. No one except perhaps Suzi and me understood. “It rains 200 days a year, we get 70 inches.” Actually that sounded pretty good to us but I can see how comments like his would not play well to bus full of people who will spend exactly one day of their lives here.
The bus tour was a “gift” from American Express and while we generally set off on our own I’m glad we went on this one. It started in Puerto Montt, which for years was the end of the road and the end of the railroad for coastal Patagonia. The ships and ferries go south from here although the Pan American Highway goes all the way south to Tierra del Fuego.
This tour takes us from Puerto Montt to Puerto Varas and Frutillar on Lake Llanquihue. All three towns were settled by German immigrants and look more German than Chilean. The economy of Puerto Varas and Frutillar is tourism. They have less rain than Puerto Monnt, only about 12 miles away, and offer fly fishing, white water rafting, camping (there is a Patagonia store here) and, what are alleged to be, spectacular views of three volcanoes. Of course we, like so many visitors to Alaska looking for Denali, did not enjoy such views. We did enjoy the towns, however. Puerto Varas has a lot of lovely wooden buildings and is known for its roses.
Frutillar is a smaller town further north on the lakeshore that looks like it should be in the Alps. It has a magnificent performing arts center, reputed to have the best acoustics in South America. It has a recital hall seating 250 with a glass window behind the stage that looks out over the lake, and on a clear day, the Osorono Volcano. The concert hall seats 1,100. One nice feature of the center is a children’s room where parents can leave kids while they attend a concert.
During lunch in Frutillar we had pouring rain, then blue sky so we got a nice view of the town and the countryside along the lake although the three volcanos were still shrouded. Gabriel is a good guide. He does not recite facts but tells stories. Some of them made the area sound like Lake Woebegone. There was the German Catholic church and the German Lutheran church, the street to the left was Lutheran, to the right, Catholic. He said the German community split during the Second World War. The Lutherans mostly sided with the Nazis and actually recruited young men to fight for Hitler. The Catholics sided with the allies. During the war and after the war the Catholics decided to assimilate and stopped teaching their kids German, the Lutherans continued to use the language. Gabriel said that his wife is German Catholic, he is from Santiago. He speaks more German than she does.
Much more important than tourism is food production. The valleys running north from Puerto Mutt grow much of the fruit that grace American tables in the winter and, of course, there is farmed salmon. I had decided to be nice and not make any comments but Gabriel invited them. We drove by several pens on Lake Llanquihue. Gabriel told us they were pens for rearing young Salmon that would grow to a certain size and be trucked to salt water for the rest of their life cycle before being marketed. He gave an informed presentation of temperatures, shipping, and how to deliver fresh salmon to markets in Brazil, Europe, America and Japan. Then he made the mistake of asking a rhetorical question and I could not help myself. “And do you know what these salmon eat?”
I yelled out “pellets.”
“Good, but do you know what is in the pellets”
“Dye, to give the flesh artificial color.”
He paused a second and then picked it up. “Yes, the Japanese like salmon redder than Europeans and Americans so we can provide them just the color salmon they like.” He could have stopped there but continued “Any questions?”
“Yes, do you feed your salmon antibiotics?”
Gabriel said he didn’t know, but when we talked privately he admitted they did, he took my card and promised to send me material on the farmed salmon industry. I have been reading about the farmed salmon in this area. Because of the accumulation of salmon waste under the pens and the crowded conditions disease spread through the fish almost a decade ago and caused a major die off crashing the market and putting 28.000 people, at least temporarily, out of work. The industry is picking up again. Gabriel did a good job. He learned where people were from and tried to make references to that. For instance, he compared the tide range at Puerto Montt with Cook Inlet.
Back on the ship the clouds started to lift just as we weighed anchor and I got a glimpse of one of the volcanos, Mt. Calbuco. As we pulled out the Captain got on the PA system telling us that we would be cruising in sheltered waters all night in the lee of the Chiloé Islands and at 8 AM would enter the Darwin Channel but after that, at 11 AM we would go into the open Pacific where we would encounter gale force winds and high seas. This is generally an informal ship with one dress up evening a week. Today was to be that dress up evening but the Captain has canceled that and told us to secure everything in our cabins. That was good advice; right now we’re really rocking and rolling.
The Darwin Channel was a strange ride for me. It looked so much like home with the weather, the grey skies, the rain, the squalls, the sucker holes and rainbows, but important things are different. There were no familiar landmarks, which I find disorienting. The vegetation on shore is very different, there are no fishing boats but we cruised past several salmon pens. There are few birds compared to what I’m used to seeing. By 11 AM we were in the open ocean. About an hour and a half later the Captain came told us that we would ride the storm out at sea. Tomorrow we were supposed to cruise the Chilean fjords, but we would have sail through some narrow straits at night. In the dark and in this storm he didn’t want to thread the needle. We enter the Straits of Magellan at 1 PM tomorrow afternoon.