Painting a Picture Perfect Patagonia
Over a day's journey away from the UK and Patagonia offers the diversity of landscape that would normally be expected of a whole continent. The proud parents of Argentina and Chile are constantly protecting this precious part of the world. This postcard from Patagonia was sent from the end of their summer where four seasons in one day meant more than just a song by Crowded House.
Dipping in and out of the clouds, the jagged peaks of Patagonia are some of the most dangerous on earth and maybe in some way resemble the giants that were first discovered by the western world almost five hundred years ago.
It was 1520 when the Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães made it to the southernmost tip of South America and, after passing through the now infamous Magellan Straits, he came upon a land inhabited by “giants so tall that the tallest of us only came up to their waist”. The region north of the 330 mile long straits was thereafter known as Patagonia, after the popular giant Patagon in Spanish novels at the time. South of the straits was labelled the Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), after Magellan spotted numerous glowing campfires during dark and overcast nights.
Before the explorers made their mark, the land was inhabited by indigenous groups such as Yamanas and Onas in the Tierra del Fuego and the Mapuches and Tehuelches on the mainland. The centuries that followed saw waves of immigrants from northern and central Europe blending with the natives to create a cosmopolitan flavour. The modern day indigenous communities are spread sparsely across the land, living in reserves or working in Estancias, with 35,000 of the Mapuches constituting the most numerous communities.
The region now spans two countries and cultures, with modern day Chileans considered modest, friendly and hospitable whilst the Argentinians are more outgoing and passionate with a strong artistic flair. Whilst the people populating Patagonia have evolved, the mountains remain immovable. The Andes, the longest mountain range on earth with their 4,300 miles (7,000 km), have been an ever-present rock and were to play a big part in the separation of the two countries towards the end of the 19th century.
After an initial attempt at division in 1881 based on the highest peaks, it wasn’t until 1902 when the border was set across the summits of the most famous mountains, such as Fitzroy and San Lorenzo. Whilst tempers rose over the division, the climate remained as cool as ever compared to the rest of tropical South America, where four distinct seasons, sometimes all in one day, make this a wildly unpredictable area.
Aside from the weather, this action-packed all in one destination offers something for everyone and the relaxing mountain retreat of the Argentinian Lake District is a perfect example of this. The largest city in the region is San Carlos de Bariloche - a quaint alpine-like resort coloured by the plentiful buildings made from wood and stone - which serves as a gateway to the pristine lakes, rugged forest and snowy peaks.
Situated on the foothills of the Andes and surrounded by the seven lakes, you can explore the hypnotic waters of Lake Nahuel Huapi, taking a boat trip out to the tranquillity of Arrayanes Wood and Victoria Island. If it’s high altitude that appeals, then the sugar coated peaks of Lopez, Frey, San Martin and Italia, casting shadows over the hush of lakes below, offer refuge at the summits after a panoramic trek.
Just over the border lies the gateway to the deep fjords of a stormbound pacific coast. Cruising the 800 miles of Chile’s inland waterways from Puerto Montt reveals the archipelagos of Chiloe, Chonos and Aysen and the mythical city of Castro, before climaxing at the timeless and spellbinding San Rafael Glacier.
The attraction of colourful Castro on the island of Chiloe lies in its forest folklore, which for centuries has claimed the area is inhabited by mythical creatures. As the Campo de Hielo Norte (the closest body of ice of its kind to the equator) and the magnificent San Rafael Glacier comes into view, it is hard not to be captivated by the constant tremors of the chunks of ice jumping ship into the lagoons to form mini icebergs.
The echoes do not resonate into the Southern Patagonian ice field, where the Perito Moreno Glacier, despite the similarly splendid show of ice breaking, is in a unique state of equilibrium. This 30km-long and 5km-wide river of ice lies within Los Glaciares National Park, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is one of 20 national parks in Patagonia that have been created to protect both pine and coastal wilderness.
On the northern extreme of the park, the granite peaks, lakes, woods and glaciers merge into an extraordinary encounter for those trekkers and climbers taking shelter in the village of El Chalten. The soaring mountains of Fitz Roy (3405m) and Torre (3102m) contribute to the reputation of Patagonian peaks being the ultimate challenge, with climbers being subjected to vertical walls, falling rocks, unpredictable weather and fierce winds.
The cloud-covered sky accompanies us over the arid Patagonian steppe all the way to the Torres del Paine, passing the oasis of El Calafate (gateway to the world of glaciers) and the poplars, willows and pines in the surrounding area. Three majestic pink and white granite towers guard over the 181,000 hectares of Chile’s most famous national park, where hikers often delight in completing the W-circuit enjoying the spectacular landscape and abundant wildlife.
Finally we come to the grandeur of the 1,250 miles of the Patagonian Andes leading all the way to the end of the world at Ushuaia, where the wildlife continues to thrive. Capital of the Tierra del Fuego, it is the closest mass of land to Antarctica, protected by the mountains and glaciers, coloured by the forests and open to the wild waves of the sea. Designated a penal colony towards the end of the 19th Century, its prisoners of yesteryear have now been traded for thousands of penguins.
Almost a third of Chile and Argentina lies in Patagonia and whilst the clouds may be temporary cloaks to the borders between the two countries, it is the ice field north of Fitz Roy that is still a disputed zone. Bumper stickers on cars reading “Los Hielos son Argentinos” (The ice is Argentinian) are common, however what awaits the traveller to Patagonia is a natural wonder of the world.
Travelling from the UK will more than likely involve a couple of changes, firstly either in Madrid, New York or Brazil, depending on the carrier you use. From there, you have a choice of airports in Patagonia including Bariloche, El Calafate, Punto Arenas and Ushaia, amongst others. It is advised to check with travel agencies before booking flights as sometimes they have offers, but the main airlines to look out for are Iberia, LAN, Aerolineas, Delta, America Airlines and TAM.
Bear in mind that the seasons in the southern hemisphere are the opposite to those in the north, therefore the high summer season of Patagonia lies in January and February. Considered the best time to travel here (including mid-December and early March), the region offers mild temperatures and long days. There is generally more tourist activities offered locally in these periods, but beware that the prices are generally higher too. If skiing is your tipple then July and August offer snow-filled mountains to bomb down.
For me the joy of Patagonia comes in the diversity of landscape from breaking glaciers to soaring mountain peaks, precarious channels of water and vast open plains that let the sun produce some wonderful memories in the sky. To do this, take a ride on the comfortable Patagonian buses or hire a car or motorbike and experience the landscape changing in front of your eyes (rather than plane hopping). Beginning in the Lake District surrounding Bariloche and climaxing at the end of the world town of Ushuaia (with penguins, peaks and paddling) there is a whole wealth to explore inbetween. Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not melting away whilst just over the border of the Andes in Chile is the beautifully isolated Torres Del Paine National Park and the fjords.
For further information about travel or trips in Argentina, I highly recommend the Buenos Aires based travel company, Say Hueque – Tours in Argentina and Chile.