Monday, January 18, 2016

Patagonia II – Isla Chiloé and Pingüinos!!!!!

18 January 2016

We drove from Osorno, heading south, to a crazy toll booth that confused us.  Three lanes head to Puerto Montt, and one heads to the airport.  In small print it also says “Chiloé” – and we realized too late that we were in the wrong lane.  No way to back up.  No way to turn around at the toll booth plaza.  We had to pay, go forward a bit, do a “retorno” (return, like a half cloverleaf), go north a bit, then another retorno, and then pay again, five minutes later.  Insane!  We tried explaining, but Ms Toll Lady wouldn’t raise the bar so we were stuck.

Okay, so south we went, to the tiny town of Pargua, where we caught the car ferry to Isla Chiloé, Chiloé Island.  The car ferry is really a big barge, with a tiny area up two flights of stairs where passengers can sit and watch the view.  It was really chilly up there once we were underway, and most people came up, looked a bit, took a few selfies, and headed downstairs out of the fierce wind.  But the view was so great, there was no way I’d go back downstairs.  And there was so much entertainment, with dolphins (delfinos) doing their scalloped arcs through the water, and sea lions (lobos) stopping to watch the ferry go by.  Young sea lions came over for a closer view, and there was even a baby sea lion who was so enthusiastic, he was leaping all the way out of the water!!!  SO funny and adorable and exciting to see this little guy, he looked like he was pretending to be a dolphin!!!

We decided, once we were here, that we’d head to the town of Ancun on the north side of Chiloé.  Turned out to be a great last minute decision, because this is the area of the Chilean penguins!!!  Yay, penguins!!!

We stopped at the info center and gathered information, and then found a place to stay.  Went out walking and for a bite of dinner.  Came back and 1) the power was out, 2) someone had been through my bag, 3) the latch on the window was broken.  Uh, yeah.  Really, my backpack which I had unpacked earlier was exactly where I had placed it on a shelf.  But the small inflatable pillow I carry but rarely use was on the bed.  This is also where I hide our emergency stash of US cash, just in case.  And of course that wasn’t in the pillow bag.  Uh oh!  After much looking through my bag, using a flashlight and our landlady holding a candle I found the money belt with cash intact, and my little case with Chilean pesos also intact.  Landlady tried to fix the latch, but it needed more work than she could manage by candlelight.  So even though we booked for two nights, she suggested we stay that night (it now being 10:30 PM), and find somewhere else for our second night.  We agreed and received a refund.  (I don’t know if this was an inside job or what, since she asked for cash and her young son came and watched me get my pesos out for her.  Very suspicious behavior.  Plus a very small window.  I don’t know, it was all very weird.)  I’m now walking around as well as sleeping with my money belt on!

In the morning we had our traditional Chilean breakfast, packed up the car, and headed off to Puñihuil Beach, a little southwest of Ancud.  This is the place where the penguins live.  It was a pretty drive through hilly farm and ranch country, and we stopped at a coffee and crepe stand that had the most amazing views of the beach!!  Off to the south we could just barely see the island of the penguins.

Onward to Puñihuil, where the road just ends right at the beach!  We drove through a fair-sized stream, parked at one of the shops, and I went in to enquire about tickets for a tour.  The penguins here live on the outer rocky islands, eschewing the nice sandy beach.  The usual plan is that the pingüineros, the penguin tour guides, take people out on small boats to see several of the penguin colonies out on those islands.  There probably are more colonies than are visited, but the tour takes people to the sites that are a bit more protected than the others.

It was Sunday.  It was busy.  Richard was coming down with a cold and not feeling like heading off in a small boat.  I was also coming down with the same cold, but didn't want to miss my penguin buddies.  So I tried the boat ticket vendor where we parked, but they didn't have room on a boat for two or three more hours.  I walked down the beach to the next place, and the man outside assured me I could get on the next boat, leaving in about an hour.  He was keeping count of passengers, so I figured okay, no problem, I'll stay on line and wait.  And waited.  And waited.  (Amazing how slow it can be to sell a boat ticket.  Although the person actually selling the tickets wanted passport or ID number, and a contact person or phone number in case of emergency.  Very encouraging for their safety, right?!)

I was next in line.  Two men went around me and sat down inside.  It was almost my turn for the ticket purchase, and a different man inside asked if I was alone.  I said yes.  He said I couldn't go on this boat, I'd be on the one in three more hours.

I went off.  The New York in me comes out in these situations.  I said that I had been waiting in line, that the man outside was keeping count, and that he had assured me I'd be on the next boat.  That I didn't know where those two men came from, but I was next in line.  That they had just wasted my time after saying I would be on the boat.  That they couldn't treat people like that.  (This was all in English, because the lady selling the tickets spoke English.)

The man in front of me in line stood up for me, and told the people that yes, I had been in the line, the man outside said I would make the boat, and he also didn't know where those two men came from.

So they sold me one of the last tickets for the boat in an hour - now 45 minutes away.  What could they do?  I wasn't going to back down.  I'm rarely that pushy, but I also refuse to be treated like that.  

Since I had time, I walked around a bit.  I found a point where I could see some penguins gathered on a rocky point, visible from the beach, and took a few photos.  But it wasn't very close, way too far away to see much.  I went back to let Richard know I'd be on the next boat, he was reading in a shady spot, nursing his cold.  

The penguin tour goes like this:  people line up for life jackets, about 15-20 minutes before the tour begins.  Everyone is placed in a group, and the guide explains in Spanish, then English.  Each group gets into a strange little cart, eight to ten people at a time, and they get rolled down to where the boat is tied up (in what my father would have called the swash washback zone - where the breaking waves hit the front of the boat, but the back is sitting on the sand).  Then the passengers climb onto the boat, find a seat, and the process is repeated until everyone is on the boat.  (Our cart didn't line up with the boat, and then we got a little stuck in the wet sand.  We had a back and forth ride!  It almost would have been easier to roll up my slacks and walk out to the boat, but not everyone was wearing shoes that would be okay in the water.  Which was freezing cold!)

Our boat had a solid base, probably fiberglass, but the sides were sort of like a giant inflatable dinghy.  I managed to sit on the bench around the side, toward the front, so I could have a great view of my penguin friends.

Off we went!  First we went over to the rocky point I had looked at earlier, and there they were, penguins!  Magellanic penguins!  These are related to the Humboldt penguins, who live along this coast as far north as the Galapagos (but we never saw them when we were there).  They're roughly 24-30 inches tall fully grown (60-75 cm), and 6 to 14 lbs or so (2.7 to 6.5 kilos).  So bigger than the little blues we saw in New Zealand, but smaller than the emperor penguins in Antarctica.

Their most distinguishing feature is that the Magellanic penguins have a white swirl in their head, a partial oval running from the beak to around each eye, and under their chin.  They also have a white stripe, then a black stripe, and then the usual white belly.  So they kind of look sporty, with the swoop and then the racing stripe.  (Humboldt penguins also have the stripes, but they have a pinkish stripe around their beak, as well.  And they're a little smaller.)

Some of the penguins watched us approach.  Some ignored us and talked with their penghy friends or partners.  Others, the fuzzy teenagers who haven't grown their adult feathers, stood around looking a little lonely and left out.  And still others hopped from rock to rock, heading down to the water or hopping out of the chilly water to warm up.  A few jumped in and swam around, though none of the penghies came over to say hello.

We then visited another colony gathered on a tiny cay, hardly room for a penguin to turn around!  This group decided to serenade us, with several penhies pointing their beaks to the sky and giving a warbling squawkie sort of song.  Okay, maybe they were really trying to scare us away, I don't know.  I prefer to think this was the penguin opera group, as several others joined in on the chorus.  My neighbors on the boat spoke English (they were from Germany, but with the embassy in Paraguay) - we joked that this was the penguins' song greeting us, and that they did this for each boat that came by.  

We headed a bit further out to sea, riding some good sized waves, sort of Mother Nature's rollercoaster.  Great fun for me, I love this, though it probably was good that Richard wasn't there, he isn't as fond of rolling waves as I am.  

We watched another colony of penguins that were a bit further away, and spread out over a larger island.  This group was very funny - a whole little posse of penguins came hopping down the rocky path to the edge of their island, which was covered with kelp stuck to the rocks, the long strands rising and falling with the waves.  The penguins would line up along the top of the kelp and wait for the wave to ebb, exposing more of the kelp strands.  Then each penguin would jump on their stomach and slide down the kelp, tobogganing into the water!  SO funny and SO cute!  The little clowns of the sea, these penguins, having fun getting into the water, all to the approving sounds of the crowd watching their antics!

It was just wonderful!  I have no idea how far out we were, the houses on the shore were just tiny little toy-sized boxes.  Probably a mile or so?  A kilometer or three?  We were out for about half an hour, and then headed back in.  

Just getting back to shore was another event:  the captain motored back to shore, but well before the area where the waves were breaking turned the boat around, and we kind of surfed the waves back to shore.  They tied up the boat, and the crew (some who stay on the beach) hauled us mostly to shore, using the waves to help the boat along.  As more and more people climbed out and into the cart to get away from the water, our boat became less stable and started really keeling to one side.  Kind of exciting, though it wasn't as if we were in any depth of water.

And that was it.  Lots of penguins, tons of penguin photos, and a slightly sunburned face.  SO.  MUCH.  FUN!!!!!

We had lunch on the beach - and of course, the restaurant had penguin chairs.  I found a great penguin mosaic, as well.

We headed back to Ancud, and easily found another hotel.  Actually, it turned out to be a very affordable apart-hotel, and we ended up in a rather luxurious three bedroom apartment!  We booked for one night, letting them know we might stay another night.  We both woke up with full-blown nasty colds, and decided we'd stay another night rather than pushing ourselves.  

And because life is never smooth, the staff told us that someone else reserved the room, so we packed up and found a third place in town.  We're now in another room, large, with a kitchenette in the corner, and a view of the bay or harbor or whatever it is.  So we were able to just watch the sunset from our room.  Take it easy, take the cold pills we picked up, and rest.  Hoping we feel better tomorrow, and well enough to drive south.  As Richard said, it isn't easy to drive when you're sneezing all the time!

One of the interesting features of the houses here on Chiloé is that the wood shingles are cut in different designs.  They aren't plain boring rectangles.  No, they're cut with zigzag edges, or clamshell curves, or funny triangular shapes.  Most of the old houses have these wonderful shingles.  Some are weathered wood, some are painted.  Really interesting houses!

Chiloé is also known for the churches, which are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as being unique wooden religious structures.  These churches are in a style initiated by the Jesuit missions in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the tradition has continued.  The style merges the traditional indigenous culture with the European culture, as well as "the full integration of its architecture in the landscape and environment, as well as to the spiritual values of the communities."  The style is referred to as the Chilota School of architecture.

We'd like to get to Castro, the largest city on the island, as well as more of the smaller islands in the area.  These make up the Chiloé Archipelago, and are home to more people as well as more penguins.  But we'll see how we feel tomorrow.

So, a map of our route through Patagonia thus far, and some BIG penguin photos.  Because you can never have too many penguins!

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