It’s hard to imagine – and even harder to describe – a place like Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. I’ve started and stopped this blog post about fifteen times in two days, trying to find the right words.
It is true undeveloped, wildly remote, vast wilderness. Covering an area of over 8.7 million acres (that’s bigger than the country of Belgium), the southern Chilean park is only accessible by boat or helicopter. Dominated by water and ice, rugged glacier-carved mountains jut from sea to sky, dark evergreen trees textured the hills, waterfalls cascade from their sources, and broken islands bob in fjords for miles and miles.
On a 2-day, 1-night kayaking excursion through the region this November (Honeymoon!), I only saw a fraction of the park. With no buildings, no homes, no roads, the soft waves of the Serrano River guided my kayak toward the ocean. Yet while surrounded by this surreal, unending beauty, the most tangible memory of the trip was the silence.
Maybe it was the stark contrast to the ruckus and riots of Santiago or the people and packs along the W Trek, but I welcomed the serenity.
Paddling 26 miles to where the river meets the fjords, our group of 5 guests and 2 guides were blessed with great weather – at least great in Patagonia standards. After raining all night long, the skies lifted right as we shoved off the shore. While most people don’t get excited by gray clouds and light wind, we were thrilled. The last five days in Patagonia, my husband and I had been soaked to the bone nearly every day once if not twice. So gray, was great!
The first half of the day, the waters were gentle as I worked on my box stroke and we synced up in our two-person sea kayak. Trees and rolling meadows streamed by as spring birds chased their pair. The sun graced us mid-day, breaking through the clouds and presenting a wide view of Torres del Paine National Park in the distance. For a few minutes, we just sat in our kayaks as they slowly drifted, letting our arms and minds rest.
The second half of the day brought even more stunning scenery as the rolling hills gave way to steep peaks with jagged crowns of rock and snow. Waterfalls flowed down the layers of land like chalk lines outlining the cliffs and Patagonian Condors sailed on the wind.
Other rivers began to join the Serrano as we neared the end of the day’s journey and the solitude was greeted by a new sound. Like a freshly opened can of Fresca, the water bubbled and fizzed from the influx of oxygen-rich glacial melt and turned a hazy teal color. The water quickened.
As the evergreen trees became more dense and the faint smell of salt-water tickled the air, high overhead, our destination for the day came into sight – the Serrano Glacier. Crumbling from far up in a mountain valley, the frozen flow crept down toward its lagoon and where it met the sea.
Pulling our boats up to one of only two main ports in O’Higgins National Park, we docked and unloaded our kayaks – unpacking our tents, food, and sleeping gear. Despite the minimal presence of National Park structures and pathways, we remained alone in this corner of wilderness for the night.
The next morning, after breaking down our tents and breaking fast, we put our kayaks back into the water for a few last moments alone with the Serrano Glacier. Paddling around marbled-blue icebergs, we glided in the lagoon. Though the path through the ice was narrow, the glacier’s impressive white walls drew us in like a magnet.
As we traveled closer to the glacier, which is one of the many fingers of the Southern Ice Field, avalanches could be heard high up on the mountain, cracking and rumbling. Yet, the glacier remained still.
Once near, we too became still.
Suspending our paddles in our laps and setting down our cameras, we allowed the powerful silence to again envelop the landscape. We sat motionless for some time, waiting for the boat full of tourists (and our ticket out of the park) to arrive, and savored the moment. As we knew, like glaciers, silence is fleeting.