I promise I am not making this up – ice cream in wine? Independence Day in Chile brings out the devil in many locals involved in mayhem and frivolity, not just for the designated public holiday, but for about a week surrounding Independence Day. The iconic "terremoto" (aka "earthquake") cocktail-of-sorts is a sweet concoction of fermented wine, pineapple ice cream, grenadine syrup, and a dash of pisco.
Typically consumed from glass jars that resemble buckets, it's the drink for all Chilean festivals. There should be a cautionary warning before partaking of what looks like a kid's soda spider drink – especially if you plan on trekking in the Torres del Paine National Park the following day.
Puerto Natales is a humble and quirky port-town on the banks of the Señoret Channel in the Patagonian region of Chile. It's only 75km from the southern entrance of the national park, making it a base for many avid trekkers. It's near the bottom of Chile, where the scenery will leave you in awe, the wildlife enthralls and magical glacial lakes host migrating graceful birds. Beautifully marked black-neck swans elegantly glide the water in flocks. In between sticking their rear-ends in the air as they dive for little unsuspecting fish morsels to gobble.
Right on the Chilean-Argentinian border, Puerto Natales’ remote position makes it one of the most southern cities in Chile – Punta Arenas is a further 247 km south. The spat has been going on forever as to whether the Chilean town of Puerto Williams, the southernmost city in the world, qualifies as a "city" (it only has 2,000 residents). Argentinians will tell you that Ushuaia is the "end of the world."
Such squabbles between Chile and Argentina are rife. Bitch fights happen over who has the best "mate" (herb drink), the best "dulce de leche" (caramel spread), and border disputes over the Beagle Channel. Maybe it's a good thing that the longest mountain range in the world, the Andes Mountains, stands between the two countries.
Puerto Natales is definitely not a town to go shopping in, so don't expect to buy any upmarket designer outfits. It's a town of thick woolen gloves, big boots, heavy coats, and sunglasses for when the glare of the snowy mountains makes your eyes burn. The locals, 15,000 odd, throw off clothes when it reaches 12°C, as this is summer to them, while winters hang around the 2°C mark.
January is the warmest month, and July is when it's time to stay indoors by a wooden fire out of the freezing air. From October to March, the wind will blow you away, as the region sits in the zone between the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties. Patagonia gets the brunt of violent westerly gales because warm air crossing from the equator clashes with the cold air coming from Antarctica. There's very little to stop the icy blasts on this vast landscape.
The Puerto Natales Port is home to numerous commercial boat operations that ply the Patagonian fjords. For such a small town, there's a wealth of upmarket contemporary restaurants and luxury accommodation, either in town or out in the wilds of the National Park.
Walking along the foreshore puts you into a picture-postcard moment of snow-capped Chilean mountains across the water. Opaque pink sunsets shimmer on the channel where the black and white swans can be found, plus an abundance of seagulls, condors, and cormorants sharing the sky.
A massive sculpture of fingers rises out of the boardwalk, "Monumento de la Mano," and a colossal statue of a bear-like creature greets visitors as you enter the town. To the north of Puerto Natales is the vast Mylodon Cave, once inhabited by sloth-like creatures known as "mylodons." Skins and fossils were found inside this somewhat creepy cave that belonged to the sloth creatures. Weighing over 900kgm and standing on hind legs, up to 3mts high, they became extinct approximately 5,000 years ago.
Chile Independence Day was an eye-opener when the army marched in what can only be called Nazi-inspired uniforms. Music was played, and traditional gauchos rode into town on horses. A market/fair was set up in the main square where locals indulged in firing up their asados (barbecues) to chargrill chunks of lamb and to knock back shocking pink terremotos. Empanadas were snacked upon, as well as "sopaipillas" – deep-fried pumpkin dough slathered in spicy hot sauce and guacamole.
You can hire a bike and ride around the streets that are decked out in corrugated tin houses perched side-by-side. Streets are splashed with local art of the indigenous population in a grand narrative of what their lives were like. The town is built around tourism, while its countryside overflows with estancias (cattle and sheep ranches).
Puerto Natales is known as the "gateway to adventure" in the Patagonian wilderness.