We awake the next day to a gorgeous morning. There is a shelf of clouds above the mountains. Otherwise, the sky is clear and blue and boundless. I drink coffee in the broad-windowed second-floor dining room of our hotel, which is halfway up the mountainside. I watch the sunlight slowly advance across the tops of the far mountains, then over the Beagle Channel, and up the helter-skelter houses and compact buildings on the near shore till all the city below and the mountain above are shining.
"Did you guys see that sunrise?" I ask them later.
"Yeah," Sam says, almost reverent.
"I did," Jessica says, excitedly.
Sam is eating medialunas, small croissantlike pastries that he has been seeking out all over Argentina. Jessica is drinking coffee. They seem content. No need, it seems to me, to test them about their enthusiasm.
The city recedes into the spectacular landscape surrounding it and, within a few miles, a person can lose himself in the immense beauty of the Tierra del Fuego National Park. After breakfast, we take an almost toylike steam train into the park. It is called El Tren del Fin del Mundo.
It is also known as the Prison Train, as its path was once used to transport convicts.
The harsh whistle blows, a cloud of steam exhales from the front-engine chimneys, and we board. Sitting in a comfortable compartment, we watch for guanaco, the llamalike creatures that roam the area, but don't see any. We do spot fox and deer. The train climbs into the forested mountains, and we gape at the vistas of valleys and streams and sloping mountain passes.
Later in the day, we take a bus deeper into the park, occasionally stopping to marvel at the landscape. With its calm lakes and rushing streams appearing through the woods against a background of snowy mountain peaks, each panorama is ridiculously more stunning than the one before it. After a hike through the densely wooded mountains, we pop into a little shop for a bite of lunch - an empanada and chocolate milk. As we eat the enormous, warm, buttery, and flaky-crusted beef empanada and drink the soul-satisfyingly-rich chocolate milk, Sam looks me in the eye, shakes his head as if in disbelief, and says: "I think this is the best chocolate milk I have ever had." "And I think," I reply, "that this is the best empanada in the world." We both look at Jessica. She washes down a bite of
empanada with a gulp of chocolate milk. "I can't disagree," she says.
We want to see penguins, but they are migrating, so we settle for a catamaran tour of the Beagle Channel. It is a beautiful day, around 70 degrees. As we depart the harbor, Sam sips mata tea, the national drink of Argentina. Served in the hollow of a gourd and sipped through a straw, the musty-tasting tea is ubiquitous throughout Patagonia.
The boat stops at an island where we watch a colony of sea lions laze on their stony beds then slip surprisingly gracefully into the water. The catamaran approaches a small rock island crowded with white-chested, black-backed, and long-beaked birds standing at a formal posture.
"Those look like penguins," Sam says as he and I stand on deck.
"Mom," Sam says, returning inside the cabin. "Penguins!"
"Really?" Jessica exclaims and dashes out to see them.
"Those sure are short penguins," she says.
"Babies," Sam says.
"Wow," Jessica says. "They're beautiful."
"Mom, they're not penguins. They're cormorants."
"I didn't think so."