The fertile valleys along the coast of what is now Chile were first settled by primitive tribes migrating from the north about 10 000 years ago. The Incas extended their empire into what is now Chile, but were stopped by fierce resistance of local Araucanian tribes south of Santiago.
In the 16th century, the Spanish, under Pedro de Valdivia, encountered hundreds of thousands of Indians of various cultures (Quechua, Araucanian, Mapuche), that supported themselves principally through slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting.
The Spanish did not find gold but they recognised the agricultural potential of Chile's central valley where they founded Santiago in 1541 and Concepción in 1550, as part of the Viceroyalty of Peru.
Vast tracts of land were given to friends of the Spanish crown who forced local indians to farm them. Indian resistance led to a quasi permanent state of war which lasted well into the 19th century and decimated the autoctonous populations.
By the mid-seventeenth century, the population of the Spanish settlements, mostly in central Chile, numbered approximately 100,000. This population grew to about 500,000 by mid-eighteenth century and to one million by 1830.
Independence was first declared in 1810. At that time, central Chile was to a large extent controlled by a small elite of Creoles (locally born Europeans), who owned large estates. A period of instability and internal strife led to the restoration of Spanish rule in 1814 but combined Argentinean and Chilean forces under Jose de San Martin and Bernardo O'Higgins drove out the Spanish army and restored Chile's independence in 1818.
Independence brought little social change, however, and 19th century Chile preserved the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the highly stratified colonial social structure. The system of presidential power eventually prevailed but wealthy landowners continued to control Chile. The Mapuche indians were finally suppressed in the south and Chile signed a treaty with Argentina confirming Chilean sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan in 1881. In the north, Chile defeated Bolivia and Peru in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) in which it gained control of the rich mineral deposits of the Atacama Desert. Bolivia lost its outlet to the open sea and Peru, the Tarapaca district.
A multiparty, parliamentary regime came into being in 1891 but the interests of the upper class of large landowners and wealthy business people, continued to predominate. After a short period of military rule (1924-1925), followed by the reinstatement of the democratically elected president Arturo Alessandri, a new, more progressive, constitution came in force in 1925. Left-wing parties, including communist, gained much influence from 1930s onward and played an important role in elections of several presidents. However, the right-wing parties remained in actual control.
A presidential candidate of the left-wing parties, Salvador Allende, won the elections
in 1970. Upon assuming office, he nationalised the mines, industries, and public services.
Allende was deposed and died in a military coup in September 1973, which was followed
by 16 years of military dictatorship by General Augusto Pinochet. Democracy was restored in 1990 with the assumption of the presidency by Patricio Alwin Azocar, following free elections.
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The map shows the roads around Puerto Natales with the pass across the Andes towards Rio Turbio in Argentina.
The church and city hall have not changed in the 10 years since I passed through on my way from Puerto Montt to the beautiful Parque Torres del Paine 110 km north of here.
The old locomotive that is now the centre piece of the Plaza de Armas used to pull the "meat train" that brought beef and mutton carcasses from the abattoir to the port .
The growing number of tourists support this new shopping centre and a few more hotels and restaurants.
I stayed at the friendly family run Lago Pingo Hostel on Manuel Bulnes, the main street. That's Maria Santana in the doorway.
They invited me to share with them the traditional New Years' dinner which in Patagonia is lamb slowly roasted over charcoal embers. In the usual order, Hector Estrade, Maria Santana and her daughter Anna Perez. We ate early so I could board the ferry Magallanes that evening. Huge amounts of tasty lamb washed down with white wine and congenial company made a great celebration for me.
It was still light at nine o'clock when I took this picture of the ferry Magallanes before boarding for the three day, 1470 km trip through the Chilean Fjords to Puerto Montt.
And here is a departing shot of Puerto Natales.
It must have been 10 PM when we crossed the White Narrows which is the narrowest passage of the trip. We are going to cross in the gap on the right.
Here is a closer view of the gap. It is only 80 meters wide.
And here it is again behind us.
This is the dining room. Transport of passengers is a secondary business for Navimag Shipping so food was basic, not to say mediocre. The two hostesses did make an effort by presenting a few conferences to help pass the time.
The journey north to Puerto Montt on the Magallanes was more comfortable than my trip south on the Puerto Eden by same route in 1994 but it was a let down after the luxury treatment I had enjoyed on the M/V Orlova!
It had been cold and raining when I was here in 1994 so I was hoping the weather would be good this time. No such luck, it was cloudy all the way. I'm sure the scenery must be great on a clear sunny day!
We passed this two masted schooner on the afternoon of day two in the Sarmiento Channel. Use your slider to see more of this panorama.
The comfortable lounge was a good place to get acquainted with the other passengers, play games and read.
One day, a big chap that I had never seen before came up to me calling me by my first name. His wife, that I had never seen either, had recognised me from having seen my pictures on this site!
It was Nathalie who had translated several pages of my site and her husband Javier. Meeting them was a very pleasant surprise and it made the rest of the trip more interesting.
I was frankly frustrated by the bad weather. Can you imagine how beautiful the snow capped mountains would be in the sun! When asked, the ferry's crew admitted that clear skies are a rare occurrence in the Chilean fjords because the moisture laden Pacific air gets cooled and forms clouds as it rises to cross the Andes. That's why Patagonia is so dry. If I come this far south again, I'll do it by bus on Argentina's route 40 unless the weatherman guarantees an exceptional three sunny days.
This small island called Puerto Eden, is the home of the last Kawashkar indians who elke a meagre life from the sea. Navinag has somehow taken a particular interest in this isolated village. They even named one of their ferries Puerto Eden. This year Navimag organised tours of the island to provide some income to the villagers whose normal livelihood is threatened by an toxic epidemic affecting the local seafood fishery.
Passengers stayed inside most of the time because of the cold muggy weather, either in the lounge or in the dining room.
North of Puerto Eden we come to another narrow passage called Angostura Inglés (English Narrows). We are going through the passage on the right.
Angostura Inglés just before entering the narrows.
And here are my friends Nathalie Beguin and Javier Perera from Zaragoza in Spain. I had met Nathalie on the Internet while looking for help to translate my website into Spanish.
It was cloudy but calm in most of the Messier Canal until we approached the Golfo de Peñas that leads out to the open sea. There we met a moderate sea swell. It was really nothing compared to the Drake Passage but it did make some passengers seasick.
The next day we were back in the sheltered waters of the fjords and enjoyed a few glimpses of blue sky.
The weather improved considerably as we entered the Ancud gulf between the island of Chiloe and the mainland. It was so nice during the last day of the cruise that people came out to sit in the sun on the upper deck as you can see in this 360 degree moving panorama. .
We reached Puerto Angelmo, a suburb of Puerto Montt, very early on the following morning, 81 hours after leaving Puerto Natales. Puerto Montt is visible at the other end of this 150 degree panorama.