Punta Arenas, Chile

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Punta Arenas, Chile -- A transition zone between grassland steppes and the Andes is a forest reserve just above this frontier town. Predominant trees are lenga, or southern beech, Nothofagus pumilo, and the Magellanic coihue, Nothofagus dombeyi. These slow-growing trees have just put out their new leaves, which are small and deeply veined with serrated edges. Attached to the gray bark are all kinds of lichens, which are excellent indicators of clean air. We hike up several kilometers, finding mistletoe and a weird parasitic fungus called Darwin's bread, which grows out from gall-like formations and produces yellow knobs that are the fruiting bodies or mushrooms. Darwin noted that the mushrooms were collected by women and children and eaten uncooked.

Darwin's Bread

The beech trees evolved to grow in a very cold climate, and as the climate changes, they are not reproducing as they did once, but instead putting out root suckers.

Beech Trees

There's a small fern that grows on the forest floor called simply small fern, Blechnum  Penna-Mariana, as well as a low-growing clumping plant called diddle-dee, Empetrum rubrum, which loves the boggy soils here, and a dwarf form of gunnera, Gunnera magellanica, which is the size of a half dollar.

The higher we climb, the windier it is. Patagonia is famous as the windiest place on earth. Yet, near the top of this hill, a sweet mountain dog appears, asking nothing more than to walk a bit in human company.

Dog of the Mountains

From Punta Arenas, we sail to the Strait of Magellan, a tricky place to navigate. Then to Admiralty Fjord,where the Karukinka Natural Park showed off its splendors to hikers: a gray wolf, Andean condors and lovely kelp geese. Unhappily, bronchitis kept me aboard the ship.

As we cruise through this Strait of Magellan, we are surrounded by sharp cliffs and rounded hills with rock that reminds me of the folds of loose skin of sharpei dogs.

They are the tail end of the Andes, sliding into the sea. Squalls, huge waves, and gray skies abound one minute, followed by rainbows and calm. The Cordillera Darwin offers waterfalls and green-black forests, and a sweet, enfolding calm.