Chilean Patagonia’s second city, Puerto Natales, 250km north of Punta Arenas, is the gateway to the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, and a useful base for visiting the nearby Cueva del Milodón, the glaciers of the Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins, and, across the border in Argentina, the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Natales is also a good transport hub, home to the terminal of the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt in the Lake District, and linked to Punta Arenas, Torres del Paine and Argentina by regular bus services.
Enjoying a stunning location at the edge of the pampa, Puerto Natales sits on the lovely Seno Ultima Esperanza (“Last Hope Sound”), fringed by tall peaks, with the powerful wind stirring up waves on the turquoise channel where the remnants of a wooden pier bedecked with cormorants stretch into the distance. The channel’s name comes from the 1557 explorer, Juan Ladrilleros, who came upon it when he was at the end of his tether while searching for the western entrance to the Magellan Strait. He found the strait, but almost all his crew died in the attempt.
A couple of blocks west of the Plaza de Armas is the small Museo Histórico Municipal, with attractively laid-out bilingual exhibits on the region’s European settlement, natural history, the Milodón’s cave and the indigenous Aonikenk and Kawéskar tribes who dwelled in this inhospitable land, illustrated with black-and-white photos. Besides displays on Aonikenk funeral customs and photos of present-day indigenous people living in remote Puerto Edén, a highlight is the room dedicated to the region’s first settler, a rather fierce-looking nineteenth-century German, Herman Eberhard; look out for his ingenious collapsible boat that turns into a suitcase.
The vast Cueva del Milodón is an impressive 30m high, 80m wide and 200m deep. In 1895, the German settler Herman Eberhard, who owned the land bordering the cave, discovered a large piece of skin from an unidentifiable animal, which was eventually traced to a giant sloth called a milodón. This creature was thought to be long extinct, but the excavated skin looked so fresh that rumours began to circulate that it might still be alive. An expedition was mounted, though no live sloth was ever found. Along the short boardwalk leading to the cave there are displays on Patagonia’s (mostly) extinct prehistoric animals, such as the sabre-tooth tiger, the panther and the ancestor of a horse. Inside the cave, a small display features part of a young milodón femur and some skin and hair, as well as a life-size replica.
In 1900 an expedition sponsored by London’s Daily Express arrived to investigate the rumours of a giant sloth in a cave near Puerto Natales, but no live creatures were found. The skin, it turned out, was so well preserved because it had been deep-frozen by the frigid Patagonian climate. Shortly after the 1900 expedition an unscrupulous gold prospector together with Charley Milward dynamited the cave’s floor, uncovering and then selling the remaining skin and bones. Two pieces made their way to Britain: one to the Natural History Museum in London, and the other to Charley Milward’s family, the very same which was to fire the imagination of a young Bruce Chatwin.
Northwest of the Cueva del Milodón, the Seno Ultima Esperanza continues on for about 100km until it meets the Río Serrano, which, after 36km, arrives at the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers. A boat trip here is one of the most beautiful in the entire area. It takes seven hours and you pass a colony of cormorants and a slippery mass of sea lions. The glaciers themselves make an impressive sight, especially when a chunk of ice the size of a small building breaks off and crashes into the water. They form the southern tip of Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins, the largest and least-visited national park in all Chile. The east of the park is almost entirely made up of the Campo de Hielo Sur (the Southern Ice-Field); the west comprises fjords, islands and untouched forest.
Top image: Puerto Natales in Patagonia, Chile © emperorcesor/Shutterstock