We were going tower hunting.
Puerto Natales is the base camp for the Torres del Paine - from here you go out hiking, trekking, white water rafting, and for all of the other reasons people come down to the end of the world - even hang-gliding those stone fingers, if you’re semi-suicidal.
Since my last visit to Puerto Natales, the little town has gone upscale. The houses have turned into hostels and vegan cafes, and downtown, the shops cater almost exclusively to people needing sports shoes, hiking gear and artisanal chocolates of surpassing mediocrity.
(After a week in the park, I imagine that any sort of chocolate looks pretty good – especially chocolate that says “artisanal” on the wrapper and comes tied up in little ribbons. Caveat Emptor and all that, but if you’ve been hiking for a week, singing paeans to the wilderness over a smoky campfire and plates of tinned baked beans, any chocolate at all might actually taste just as good as that slab of grade-A Belgian dark that you’ve been dreaming about at night.)
The shabby little shop where nine years ago I had eaten hamburgers with a view has been gutted and painted white and turned into a temple of southern cuisine – serving up local Patagonian lamb and export-grade salmon like Chileans usually never get. They hadn’t changed the view, though. (an upgrade to that view would require a celestial choir and a couple of seraphim, and the seraphim would send you down to ten thousand thousand years in purgatory for imagining that it might need a coat of paint -)
This little town currently boasts at least 33 gastronomic establishments of sufficient note to have earned serious reviews across the interwebs, several of whose renown stretches beyond Patagonia. The afro-chilean fusion cuisine of Afrigonia regularly and reliably stacks up against high-concept palaces of cuisine in capital cities across the world. We considered it, even stood thoughtfully at the door, and then we went away and ate pizza. It’s the sort of thing you do when one member of your group is two feet high and prefers to spend his dinner hour crawling around the floor underneath the coat rack.
“We could eat in the other places” Sarah said “but it’s not a very nice thing to do to other diners. People go to places like that for romantic evenings out. They don’t want a small child shrieking and banging the silverware to remind them how romantic evenings can end up!”
“Canoodling with consequence.” I said.
“Exactly.” Miles reached out and caught a shaker of oregano before it hit the floor of the pizza parlor with a terminal crash. He raised a wry eyebrow. “Anywhere with real glasses is basically out. But pizza is good.”
This pizza was very very good indeed. Wood-fired, freshly made - at the Pizzeria Mesita Grande, on the corner of the Plaza de Armas at Arturo Prat 196, Puerto Natales.
Sarah, Miles and Laurie left Puerto Natales by boat – catching a ride on the Navimag cargo ferry up to Puerto Montt. Mr Tabubil and I waved them goodbye, and hopped in our car to drive back to Punta Arenas.
The pampas were blanketed by a heavy frost – the tall grass showing silver, each blade and leaf etched in ice. I asked Mr Tabubil to stop the car and stepped out to bring him sprays of grass, each autumn seed netted with rainbows where the headlights hit.
We were out so early that we were driving before the truckers were up, before the farmers and ranchers were out, and on all that long road it was only us-
As the sun rose, low places on the road filled up with mist – pooling there in choking fogs that lifted as we climbed out of the hollows to give shifting views of a world of color beyond the car - red and russet and gold, with eagles wheeling above us in the sky and herds of winter cattle with their heads down, blowing steam into the frozen grass.
We held hands across the gearstick, and smiled out at the silent autumn world and in toward each other – it was one of the moments, one of the times where you know, even as they happen, that you’ll be coming back to them over and over again for years. One of those Moments, you know?