The End of the World

We landed at Punta Arenas, Chile, where they paint their roofs once a year in some bright color to help residents cope with winter depression. Metal baskets on poles stand by the curbside of each house where garbage is placed. The Municipal Cemetery is a tourist attraction because of its topiary of cypress trees pruned by the city at great expense. The family mausoleums frequently have a display case with a small padlock where family photographs and colorful faux flowers can be changed from time to time. It makes American cemeteries seem so sterile.

Puerto Chacabuco is not in your atlas. There are few such remote unspoiled and underdeveloped places left on earth. According to our guides, there is nothing to do except walk around and look at the one kiosk. But its pristine beauty seemed reason enough to be there.

The people of Puerto Montt claim winter weather is detestable and summer is not much better. There are only 50 days of sunshine, usually through clouds. Miraculously, the day we arrived the sun was out, the sky bright blue, with not a cloud to be seen. We could see the whole 9,000 feet of the snow-topped volcano Mount Osorno that looks like Mount Fuji in Japan. Because of all the German settlers, one could imagine you were in Bavaria. We looked like a bunch of yellow bugs in the rain slickers they gave us as we trekked the path to Petrohue Falls. We were soon wet bugs from all the spray.

And then came Valparaiso, where we disembarked and took a bus to Santiago. Our hotel was the tallest building in the city – the new Marriott – 40 stories high. We arrived on a historic Sunday when Chile elected its first female president, Michelle Bachelet, a Socialist, a doctor and former political prisoner in exile. She is a single mother of three and an agnostic in a Catholic country. She defeated conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera, who was staying at our hotel. If you don’t vote, there is a fine of around $90.

There was lots of excitement with all the media there. Since there seemed to be no security to speak of, we wandered among the microphones, cables and equipment while chatting and taking pictures. We met the Marriott general manager, Peter Giacomini, who informed us he had been food and beverage manager of Montecito’s Biltmore Hotel in 1980, back when it was the Marriott.

From Santiago we took a day trip into the Andes sitting on the left side of the bus while going around about 30 hairpin turns ascending to 9,000 feet. We finally arrived at the famed Portillo ski resort built in 1949, which is very near the Argentina border. Only the best skiers, including the ones training for the Olympics, come here because the runs are too steep. January was summer so the cliffs were barren and we had to picture what it would look like buried in snow. Lunch was served at the lodge overlooking the Inca Lagoon.

The shore excursion manager had warned that on this trip, sometimes far from civilization, there would be buses with no air conditioning or bathrooms and microphones that probably wouldn’t work. Happily our buses had all of the amenities (some were brand new) and the guides were excellent.