Favorite Places: Patagonia

It’s a strange and not always wonderful thing to finally arrive in a place you’ve dreamed of for years. More than once I’ve taken stumbled off the plane, looked around, and started shaking my head. There are times when it just isn’t worth the trouble.

I had long admired images of Patagonia’s windswept mountains. Like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, Chile’s Torres del Paine stand as one of the world’s iconic destinations. I arrived in the park after crossing a continent and a half, then flying the 3,000 mile length of Chile and finally driving six more hours on dusty and rock-strewn roads.

I was not disappointed.

Patagonia loosely applies to the region where a vast South American continent dwindles to a windswept and forbidding point at Cape Horn, “Behold the terror of mariners…” was what my first Antarctic skipper gravely intoned over the howl of a 70 knot squall, before he returned below deck to his bottle and psychotic tendencies.

Battered by storms that circle the globe, Patagonia offers weather at least as dramatic as the scenery. I have worked my way through a thesaurus’ worth of descriptions for the winds there. Expletives too, now that I think about it. I have been lulled to sleep by the banshee wale of gales ripping through Andes peaks and awoken to the eerie, unnerving silence when the earth caught its breath. And only gone back to sleep when the familiar roar resumed.

Several grand national parks grace the continent’s southern reaches Argentina’s, including Glaciaresand Tierra del Fuego and Chile’s iconic Torres del Paine. The explosion of ‘eco-tourism’ has brought boom times to once sleepy towns like El Calafate and Puerto Natales. Now tour buses are filled with seniors in sensible shoes clutching their Chatwin paperbacks.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

My last Patagonia trip came on the heels of icebreaker ‘expedition’ to Antarctica, photographing emperor penguins there. And as much fun as that was, I was done with industrial tourism and traveling grannies for a while.

So I rented an new if entirely unsuitable car and set off up Argentina’s Ruta Cuarenta, a gaucho version of Route 66. Without the cool teepee motels. Or very little else in the way of services, either. I spent a memorable night swaddled in the front seat with windblown gravel pelting the windshield, the nearest hotel room hours distant. By the time I finally reached my destination at Peninsula Valdes, the windshield was cracked, I’d angrily kicked in a door panel and the muffler remained attached only with the help of a coat hanger.

Among all the tour buses and commercial whale boat operators, I stumbled across a small dive shop that let me charter their zodiac and go exploring. Which was how I found myself some days later sitting on the ocean floor sucking up the last of my oxygen staring up at the silhouette of a Southern Right Whale and her small calf. She was the size of a locomotive, but they fell toward me no faster than an autumn leaf.

They settled in the sand beside me, her immense eye staring into mine. It felt like looking into the eye of God.

At the end of my week on the peninsula, one of the pretty Spanish expat girls asked me, “Why don’t you stay here and be a hippie with us.”

I had a ticket in my hand and it was time to go home, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.

Best Bits: Patagonia offers astounding landscapes within easy reach. There’s a wide range of backpacking trails for either day trips or more ambitious circuits. Peninsula Valdes offers crazy cool wildlife, including the calving and breeding grounds of most of the world’s Southern Right Whales in the austral spring, and hunting Orca whales in February or March.

Worst Bits: The weather can beat you like a junkyard dog. Rental cars are expensive. Distances are long and roads can be treacherous. Taking a rental across the border from Chile to Argentina is theoretically possible; I’ve managed even with my terrible spanish. The other way is almost impossible. Driving from Ushuaia into the rest of Argentina is similarly difficult. The cross-border bus service is supposed to be comfortable and reliable, but where’ the fun in that?

What to Bring: It’s windy and it rains. A lot. Bring the obvious stuff for hiking in crap weather. And prepare to be pleasantly surprised when the sun pops out. A good spanish phrase book will come in handy for the monolingual among us.

How to Get There: Fly into Punta Arenas on the Chilean side. If you’re heading onto Antarctica, Ushuaia is your departure point, but further exploration by car is restricted to Tierra del Fuego. You’ll need to take an international bus to cross the border into Chile and back to Argentina if you want to go north to Glaciares. You can now fly into El Chalten or El Calafate from Buenos Aires.

When to Go: I’ve only ever gone in January and February, which is the high season. I’d love to see this country in the southern winter.

Who to Call: Don’t be a wuss. You can totally do this on your own. Learn a bit of spanish (helpful phrases like “the car was like this when I picked it up”) and go for it. Call up LAN Chile and get moving. If you’re in Ushuaia, I always stop at Kaupe, my favorite restaurant at the end of the world.

Photographed November 14, 2006 near Puerto Piramedes, Argentina. Exposure: 1/125 at f/4 with Canon EOS 1D IIN using a 14mm f/2.8 lens.

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One Response to “Favorite Places: Patagonia”

  1. Kreatyna says:

    Please do more because I really enjoyed reading your article on this.

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