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Chile: The New Alaska

Visitors will find a craggy coast with breathtaking glaciers
and cool wildlife. But where are the crowds of
tourists and the fleet of cruise ships?

The end of the world is a jagged rock 1,391 feet high. The desolate headland has been famous—or infamous—for 400 years, yet surprisingly few people have seen it, except from wildly pitching (or sinking) ships caught in the rough seas that make this one of the earth’s most inhospitable spots.

Welcome aboard. We’re at Cape Horn.

The Horn lies at the bottom tip of the nation that reaches southernmost on the globe—the dot on the exclamation point of land known as Chile. My wife, Pamelia, and I are lucky to be cruising here, 600 miles from Antarctica, at the point where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide. We are on our way to explore a quietly thriving country touted as the new Alaska for its rugged beauty and dramatic, mountain-flanked inside passage. More important at the moment, our ship, the luxurious 
940-passenger Crystal Symphony, has reached Cape Horn under the rarest of conditions. It is twilight on a summer evening in February, temperature close to 50 degrees, waters calm, a half-moon dangling in the mostly clear sky. Crowded onto the top deck with fellow passengers who have rushed out from dinner, Pamelia and I can see the rock perfectly.

No matter how magnificent a cruise to Alaska may be, with its whales and glaciers and unspoiled wilderness, it doesn’t take you around the 
Horn—one of the unforgettable experiences in travel. But as in the 49th state, the natural splendor of far southern Chile unfolds in many forms: pristine fjords, electric-blue icebergs, dolphins and seals frolicking at sunset beneath an ignited sky. In the thousand-mile archipelago north of Cape Horn, solitude reigns.

We began our cruise in the Paris of South America—Buenos Aires—and sailed down Argentina’s coast, with stops in Uruguay and the Falkland Islands. On Day 7 we rounded the Horn, and now on Day 8, while on a shore excursion to the Argentine portion of Tierra del Fuego (a group of islands, most of them owned by Chile), we are again reminded how far south we have come. The dusty dirt road we’re on halts, and so ends the Pan-American Highway, which originates near the Arctic Circle and connects to Tierra del Fuego’s main island by ferry. A nearby sign reads alaska 17,848 km. (11,090 miles).

After cruising through the Beagle Channel and the Strait of Magellan—two of sailing’s most storied, and at times ferocious, waterways—we step ashore on Day 9 at Punta Arenas, Chile, a city with winds so fierce that guide ropes are sometimes strung along sidewalks to steady pedestrians. Because those winds pinned our ship to the dock for several hours in Tierra del Fuego, we arrive too late to take our planned day trip to Torres del Paine, the jewel of Chile’s national park system. The park’s massive glaciers, turquoise lakes, and 8,000-foot granite spires have made it one of six Chilean locations listed in Patricia Schultz’s book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Sigh. As Pamelia and I commiserate over missing the park’s varied wildlife—the 100 species of birds, the pumas, the dog-size pudu deer—a voice cries out: "There’s a condor!" The speaker is a young Chilean woman named Paula, who is narrating our backup excursion, on a bus, to the Otway Sound penguin colony. "He must have come down from the mountains of Torres del Paine," she says as we watch the majestic vulture soar across the grass-and-scrub flatland. "He’s a young one; maybe he’s having his flying lessons."

As if on cue, the wildlife has come to us, here in sheep country, under an endless sky. Ostrichlike rheas graze on the pampa. A gray fox prowls for the birds’ mammoth eggs. While upland geese and flightless steamer ducks bob in a water hole, crested caracaras—raptors that in this region prey on lambs—shadow a flock left unattended by its shepherd.

We are in a landscape typical of Patagonia, the semiarid scrub plateau that covers much of southern Chile and Argentina. No human beings are in sight. Paula informs us that in Chile’s south, home to less than 2 percent of the country’s nearly 16 million citizens, the emptiness of the land has made the people especially friendly. "If you have to travel for hours to find someone," she says, "you want to talk to him, show him pictures of your family, everything!"

Soon we are off the bus, watching the march of the Magellanic penguins. These two-foot-tall birds belong to one of four penguin species commonly found in Chile, and thousands of them have come here to burrow holes in the ground to nest. Seeing them waddle through the bleached grass from a few yards away is both thrilling and comical: penguins on the prairie? But the truth is, most penguin species don’t live on icebergs. This group will swim some 2,000 miles, to the other side of South America, to winter in the warm climes of Uruguay.

On the ride back to Punta Arenas, Paula tells us where to lunch on some of her nation’s renowned seafood and empanadas (savory turnovers) and buy jewelry of lapis lazuli, the blue stone mined primarily in Chile and Afghanistan. Her near flawless English offers a hint of her country’s future. Spanish is its official language, but Chile launched a program in 2003 to make its population equally fluent in English within a generation. The goal is to boost tourism and bolster the global business appeal of a nation that already has the most stable economy in South America. Scars (both emotional and literal) remain from the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which ended with a return to democracy in 1990, but free-market reforms introduced during his reign eventually helped Chile cut its poverty rate in half, to 19 percent.

What makes the country most remarkable, however, is its geography. Consider: Chile is nearly 2,700 miles long yet has an average width of 110 miles. Lay it atop North America and it would stretch from Los Angeles to New York. (Despite its shape, the country was not named for the chile pepper, which is not even a crop here, but for one of several indigenous words describing cold, or a setting overshadowed by mountains, or a place where the land ends.) Chile’s far north contains the driest desert on earth, the Atacama, home to bizarrely patterned salt fields and the world’s most prolific copper mine—and, in parts, virtually no forms of life. In contrast, the central valley just outside the capital, Santiago (population 6.5 million), is a fertile expanse of vineyards and orchards that makes Chile a major exporter of wine and fruit, especially table grapes and plums.

Farther south, where we find ourselves on Day 10, is the heart of the inside passage, a maze of complex waterways, some with dead ends. As albatross and giant petrels glide alongside, we pass rocky hillocks, thick forest, and the occasional snowcapped mountain. A highlight comes on Day 11 when we anchor in front of Pio XI, perhaps the only glacier in the world named after a pope. A rescue boat from the Crystal Symphonymotors out to retrieve some of its granite-hard ice for drinks.

On Day 13 we reach the postcard-pretty Lake District, called "Little Switzerland" for its alpine landscape, European architecture, and flower gardens. The mighty Andes mountains form an imposing wall along Chile’s eastern border, but it is possible to climb up and over them by a series of bus and boat rides connecting a staircase of lakes. Pamelia and I take an excursion to one of those lakes, Todos los Santos, famed for emerald waters. Towering above it is the stunning Osorno volcano, which Charles Darwin saw "spouting out volumes of smoke" during his months in Chile in 1834 on his voyage to the Galápagos Islands. Chile has a history of tremors, tsunamis, and lava flows; in 1960 the strongest earthquake ever recorded, a 9.5, devastated nearby Puerto Montt—where, at this moment, the Crystal Symphony is anchored.

That unsettling thought is best washed down with a pisco sour, Chile’s margarita-like national drink, and our tour group goes through several pitchers over lunch at a lakeside restaurant. We dine on farm-raised salmon (of which Chile is one of the world’s leading producers) and sopapillas (fried pumpkin bread). No one wants to leave; our fabulous 4,526-mile cruise is nearing an end. Pamelia and I, however, have one adventure left when we depart the Symphony two days hence: a tour of the Santiago area with a distant Chilean relative of ours named Joe.

He greets us on the dock in Valparaíso, a hillside city with wonderful old funiculars. Joachim von Fritschen—aka Joe—comes from one of the nation’s German immigrant families and runs a travel business. He fills our four days in the Santiago area with an itinerary that is extensive yet relaxed: We tour the home of national hero Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize–winning poet, set on terrain that looks like the rocky Maine coast. We walk for hours through sunny Santiago, enjoying the 19th-century European architecture and the majesty of two mountain ranges, the Andes and Coastal, which rise on either side of the city. We buy plastic cups ofmote con huesillo—cold peach nectar poured over dried barley and a peach half—a ubiquitous treat that inspired the phrase "more Chilean thanmote con huesillo." Outside the city, we drive the Colchagua Valley wine trail, stopping to see the rows of blue-purple Carmenere grapes, a regional specialty, at the Viu Manent vineyard. We also watch international fruit buyers play a variation of horseshoes in which they toss fist-size iron blocks at a line in a dirt pit, at the magnificent Hacienda Los Lingues guest ranch.

Too soon, time runs out. We must fly home. Somehow, 11 days after rounding Cape Horn, we have made it only halfway up the coast of this constantly surprising land. Amid farewell hugs and smiles, many miles from the barren rock at the end of the world, we bask in Chile’s warmth.

Photography by Pamelia Markwood