february 28, 2005 -> criss-crossing patagonia
No one can really say where Patagonia begins, though everyone knows where it ends: Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Fire – a frigid, austere, almost mythical island separated from the continent by the Straits of Magellan. Even Patagonia itself is a myth. The name derives from ‘patagon,' the name that Ferdinand Magellan gave to the 9-feet tall, ill-humored humans that he claimed to have seen during his 1520 voyage around the world. (Later voyagers confirmed their existence, and even made drawings.) Cold, isolated, empty, rugged and wild, Patagonia stirs the hearts of adventurers and dreamers in the same way that Alaska or Siberia does. Some tourists will be upset to find thriving resort towns in most corners of Patagonia, but with little effort, one can still easily find the Patagonia of legend.
Broadly, Patagonia refers to the southern third of the southern cone of South America, a tapering triangle shared by Chile and Argentina, with the Andes (rather unfairly) demarking the border between the two. Most people equate Patagonia with mountains (thanks in part to the marketing of the Patagonia sportswear brand,) but it comprises a highly varied landscape. Chilean Patagonia also includes a thin coastal strip, rent by fjords and dotted with islands. The Pan-American Highway is broken in only two places: the impassable jungle of the Darien Gap in Panama - between the Panama Canal and Colombia – and the shattered coast of Chilean Patagonia. Argentine Patagonia has endless stretches of grasslands battered by fierce winds. Opportunities for adventure are manifold. There are endless hiking trails. The Navimag passenger/cargo ship navigates a 4-day route between the islands and fjords that extend from Puerto Natales in the south to Puerto Montt in the north. Some of the best trout fishing in the world can be found around Rio Grande, in Argentine Tierra del Fuego. One of the wildest rafting trips is on the Futaleufu River in Chilean Patagonia.
A surprising collection of animals inhabit Patagonia. During long bus rides, we often saw herds of guanacos, a wild, camelid closely related to the domesticate llama. The guanaco was once nearly extinct, but its numbers are now recovering thanks to active conservation. The ñandu, or Darwin's rhea resembles a smaller, dark-skinned ostrich. On our return from the Fitz Roy mirador, we were shocked to see a flock of lime-green Austral parakeets. Chimango hawks perched on fenceposts, looking for small mammals, and Chilean Lapwings (like giant killdeers or plovers) strutted on their long, bright orange legs. However, our favorite bird was the buff-necked ibis (we referred to it as the “buck-naked” ibis), with its tan neck; long, curving beak; and loveably obnoxious squawk.
Our plan was to cross and re-cross the Andes as we headed north from Ushuaia, all the way to Bolivia, more than 5000 kilometers to the north. What seemed an unusual and ambitious itinerary turned out to be fairly common. We would continue to run into friends from the Antarctic cruise: in restaurants and hostels, atop volcanoes, in airports, at campsites. It was delightful to arrive into a new city and be able to explore it with friends. E-mail traffic kept us informed of everyone's whereabouts, and we often stayed in hostels or chose tour companies based on feedback from people who had been there before us.
Ushuaia bills itself as the southernmost city in the world, though that is not strictly true. There are several smaller settlements in Chile – right across the Beagle Channel - though Argentines claim that they are not large enough to be classified as cities. At any rate, situated at 54 degress south, Ushuaia is significantly further south then Cape Town, South Afirca (34 degrees south.) Tourism has become the city's lifeblood – thousands of well-heeled tourists spend a few days here at both ends of their Antarctic journeys, and hordes of backpackers come here for the beautiful scenery, hiking, and excursions to nearby penguin colonies. The main street is an unbroken wall of (surprisingly classy) all-you-can-eat beef restaurants (parrillas,) souvenir shops, tour agencies, and banks. On our return from Antarctica, we did a day-hike into the Tierra del Fuego National Park, climbing up to Guanaco Peak, where we had an incredible view of Beagle Channel and the last peaks of the Andes. The next morning, we boarded a 10-hour bus to Punta Arenas (Sand Point, the same name for the town that I grew up in,) and from there we caught another bus to Puerto Natales, the gateway city to Torres del Paine National Park.
Torres del Paine (Paine's Towers) National Park is one of the most famous places in all of South America, a circular massif of awesome mountains with glacier-clawed valleys. We opted to hike the very popular ‘W' circuit – which normally takes 4-5 days. We passed hundreds of trekkers everyday (including half a dozen Antarctic cruisers,) though the ‘crowds' did nothing to take away from the beauty of the surroundings. On the first day, we hiked up the mirador of the Torres. It was like looking into the lower jaw of colossal beast: the jagged canines of the Torres, the smooth gums of their bases, polished by glaciers, and an oval lake of blue meltwater at the bottom of the basin.
Two days later, we walked below the stupefying Los Cuernos (The Horns); bulging white bases with chocolate-dipped peaks. On our last day, we were blessed with an image so sublime that it made us gasp: the whipped peaks of Los Cuernos, reflected in the mirror of Lake Skottsberg. A few days later, we learned that a Czech backpacker had accidentally started a fire that had raged through a large area of the park – he had been making his dinner in a remote area not sanctioned for camping. Amazingly, he was only fined the equivalent of US$120, the largest amount allowed under Chilean law.
After crossing back into Argentina, we joined a day tour from Calafate to the Perito Moreno Glacier, a massive highway of ice that flowed down from rugged mountains. A wonderful system of walking paths had been built just opposite the glacier's terminus. Crack! A three-story shard of white and sapphire ice calved from the glacier, creating a giant wave as it slammed into the light blue waters of Lake Argentina. That evening, we celebrated “Aussie” John's birthday with several other Antarctic cruisers. A bumpy five-hour bus ride from Calafate brought us to El Chalten, a wind-scoured town at the base of the Andes. The next morning we hiked up the Rio Blanco valley and climbed to the Fitz Roy Mountain mirador (viewpoint.) Mountains are often described using royal adjectives, but Fitz Roy was truly majestic. The lofty peak rose above subsidiary pinnacles, like a king among his court. Glacier melt fed two milky blue lakes below the mirador.
The bus ride back from El Chalten followed the shore of Lago Argentina for much of the way. Guanacos were grazing in the scrubby plains above the lake. The sun was baking us inside the bus; we had to keep the windows closed because of the dust from passing trucks. So we were amazed when we looked into the lake and saw a huge iceberg floating. The light of sunset made the iceberg glow blue. This was perfect Patagonia: we could see snowy mountains, dusty plains, blue lakes, glaciers, icebergs and guanacos.
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