Perils of Polly: Running on empty

Polly’s Chilean glacier tour ended at this estancia outside Puerta Natales

Editor’s note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote “Perils of Polly.” She also has written a series of “Peril” columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

Finding gas was a concern that haunted us throughout our trip, but no time was as dire as our journey from the last gas station in Rio Grande to our proposed destination of Puerto Natales.


With less than 1/8 of a tank left, I noticed what looked like a tiny gas station down a gravel road to the left. I screeched the brakes, turned around, and headed there. It looked more like a company fill-up place than a real gas station, but there was a man at the pumps.

I asked if he had Nafta, and the “Si” raised my hopes. Then I asked if he took a credit card. “No.”

Oh-oh. We knew our inability to buy Chilean money would come back to bite us. Here it was. In Spanish, I asked if he would take Argentine money. No. U.S. money? No. Where’s the next gas station? I held out the map. He pointed to the intersection where we could turn either left for Punta Arenas or right for Puerto Natales.

I got back in and off we drove.

We held our breaths and reached the intersection. Yea. We still had some gas and our problem was solved. We thought.


“Si … pero” … the pump was broken. His father was currently fixing it. We parked and watched. And watched. We’ll know in a minute, the boy told us. We continued to watch. Their minutes are long. We watched gas spray out of the pump. I looked at my sister and shook my head. “I don’t think so.”

Finally the boy came back. “Lo siento,” he shrugged.

We looked at the map. It was about 50 km to Punta Arenas, and 210 to Puerto Natales. It was a no-brainer. We were going to Punta Arenas after all.

Our fumes took us all the way to the first gas station in Punta Arenas where the stress dripped from our shoulders. We paid with a credit card and immediately found an ATM machine for Chilean pesos.

Next goal was to find a campground. We drove all through the quaint seaside city and stopped at a hostel to find out if there was a campground. They called around and gave us the name of one. We tried to follow the directions and wound ourselves around shopping malls and an airport, so finally had to stop back at the gas station to get more directions.

We finally found the store that supposedly operated a campground. The owner led us down a grassy road to a now-defunct campground that had been cleverly designed as a family play area. We have no idea why it wasn’t being operated as a campground, but he turned on the water for us, collected our money, and we were the only ones there. It turned out to be quite pleasant.

It was a fun detour, but the next morning we were off to Puerto Natales. It is a cute little town that looks a lot like Alaska. We found a very crammed camping area/hostel right downtown and headed out to book a glacier tour and see the sights. We found black-necked swans and beautiful aqua ocean. Better yet, we found a chocolate shop that had a delicious chocolate mousse pie.

The next day found us on a boat at 7 a.m. to see glaciers. It was a big boat with probably 150 people on it. We were seated by some English-speaking tourists from England and Australia. While the tour didn’t measure up to the Kenai Fjords tour, we enjoyed the company, especially when they brought out pisco sour and calafate sour beverages. Pisco sour is a strictly Chilean drink made from the pisco grape grown in middle Chile. Calafate sour is a purple drink made from the calafate berry which grows profusely throughout southern Chile. I preferred the Calafate sour but once we traveled north had to make the switch to pisco sour.

We saw a couple glaciers and went hiking, but no marine mammals showed themselves even though the water was beautiful. The finale was a yummy lamb barbecue. Back in the village, Sue and I topped off the barbecue with another chocolate mousse pie.

Two nights in one place was a first for us, and a max. The next day found us on gravel roads again, heading to the famous Torres del Paine National Park. These roads were even worse than the previous ones: it was mile after mile of washboard.

Torres del Paine had been closed for the first part of the season because agitated indigenous people had set it on fire. We’d heard it was open now, but didn’t know what to expect. We were here, so why not?

Check back next week for the next installment of Polly’s perils.