Patagonia. What does the word conjure up in your mind? Its not a country, therefore has no demarcation line, no boundaries, no government or status in its own name. It does, however cover a huge area and is a most important part of two countries – Argentina and Chile. It’s really all the land roughly speaking south of latitude 42 degrees down to the Straits of Magellan.
Actually the name was derived by Magellan in 1520 on his voyage of discovery and after whom the Straits were named, when he described the natives of the land as Patagons or giants. Forensic evidence since has shown them to be of an average height of 6’6”, very considerably taller than Europeans of that time.
It is a wild and, in the main, sparsely populated land of immense beauty in the mountainous areas and wide plains in the east on the Argentinian side leading to open beaches interspersed with rugged cliffs battered by the Atlantic storms.
The Andes mountain chain geographically divides the two countries down as far as the Chilean border town of Puerto Natales with both countries having soaring snow covered mountains from which glaciers descend into the ice blue waters of hundreds of lakes. It is an enchanting land of immense beauty and vast contrast.
In the 18th and 19th centuries settlers from further north of the South American continent started to infiltrate into Patagonia. Many were bandits, mobsters, cattle thieves and a state of near lawlessness existed.
But there were goodies too, serious ranchers from Buenos Aires who realised that the plains of Argentinian Patagonia were ideal for the raising of cattle.
Sheep were introduced from the Falklands into the Chilean areas around Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales. In the mid 19th century, amidst the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, a group of disillusioned Welshmen, fearing that industry was taking over their land and the threat of being overrun by Englishmen, emigrated to Argentina.
After enduring many hardships and a series of disasters they formed a Welsh colony in the Chubut Valley where their descendents remain to this day.
Irish immigration followed a rather different course, coming from religious, medical and landed backgrounds but not, perhaps, all of them: Che Guevara, although born in Argentina, was the son of Ernesto Guevara Lynch from Co Galway who only died in1987.
William Brown however, from Co. Mayo became Chief Admiral of the Argentine Navy. In Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins became the first President of Chile having led his country to victory in the Chilean War of Independence from Spain in1810. He was the son of Ambrose O’Higgins from Co. Sligo who became Captain General and Governor of Chile under the Spanish.
The two essentials needed to make the best of Patagonia are a sense of adventure and a love of beautiful, sensational scenery. A journey through this land can be made as easy and comfortable as you wish; alternatively it can be energetic and challenging; or, maybe, a combination of the two.
Let us examine the options: the points of entry and exit are Santiago or Buenos Aires. Maybe arrive at one and leave from the other. Let’s take arrival in Santiago; from there fly on to either Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas.
Puerto Natales is a small town and, as the name suggests, is a port although about 150 miles from the open sea.
The whole coastline of southern Chile is a mass of islands, fiords, jagged mountains and lakes. In former days Puerto Natales was the site of the primary meatpacking factory in Patagonia and it was here that Magellan, towards the end of his 1520 voyage, his crew on the verge of starvation and mutiny and stricken with scurvy, thought that the end was nigh.
Indeed he named the stretch of water Last Hope Sound. Fortune favoured him and food and fresh water a- plenty was found in the low lying land close to the shore. Leaving Puerto Natales, a 3 hour drive across mainly flat grazing land and past estancias with large herds of beef cattle, many of them Herefords and many flocks of sheep, takes us to Punta Arenas, the major city in western Patagonia at 53 degrees south on the Brunswisk Peninsula and bang on the Straits of Magellan.
Founded in 1848 originally as a penal colony it soon attracted the merchant classes and hit its peak of importance in 1914 before the opening of the Panama Canal destroyed much of its trade overnight.
For an overnight stop and wander round it has much old fashioned charm and looking across the water from the shoreline, the rather bleak looking land of Tierra del Fuego lies ahead.Now we are heading for the mountains proper. We are at the very southern end of the Andes range, a mountain chain which, under different names, forms a part of 14 countries without a break from where we are looking up to the north of Canada. Our road climbs steadily winding round lakes, the vegetation changes from grassland to bush, Megallenes forests, tundra, various species of pine, some permanently bent against the ferocious winds that can tear through the country in the (southern hemisphere) winter.
Over 100 species of birds from birds of prey such as condor and various eagles to aquatic birds, kingfishers and woodpeckers. Animals such as puma (very rarely seen), guanaco of the llama family, foxes, skunks and many small field animals. Nestling in dramatic locations and well separated from each other are a few very cleverly designed and purpose built places to stay. None are too large and none stand out against the scenery. They are low and fit the contours. They are also very upmarket.
Everything is included in the price you pay and there are no extras. Each evening guides come and ask what you would like to do the next day and make suggestions. For instance, a nature walk with different degrees of difficulty, riding, again to easy or more difficult destinations, salmon and trout fishing, rock climbing – the list goes on and on. Or you can do nothing but admire the scenery, read a book, swim in the heated pools or have spa and beauty treatment. It’s all there – and the food and drink are top notch. We are now in the Torres del Paine National Park.
The Torres are peaks of the mountains rising up to 10,000 feet above sea level; they are vast and sheer like thrusting fingers reaching up to the sky, dramatic in the extreme particularly when set against a clear blue sky.
We are also on the edge of the Patagonian Icecap, the third largest icecap in the world behind Antarctica and Greenland. Of the several glaciers coming off the mountains, two of the most spectacular are the Grey and Dickson feeding into huge lakes of the same names.
To ride, walk or drive through this unbelievably beautiful and wild land is a never to be forgotten experience. Other lakes are Pehoe, Toro, the long and twisting Nordensfiord, named after a Norwegian explorer, and Sarmiento. Higher up, smaller lakes ringed with trees with mountain peaks rising high above are such as Azul and Paine.
On one occasion during a 6 day ride across southern Patagonia and on a lovely and totally clear February day, having already discarded a thin windcheater after coming down from the mountains, I was so hot that I rode my horse into Lake Sarmiento, fastened my boots to the stirrup leathers, took off all the rest of my clothes and leapt into the water. Not for long, mark you: it was somewhat chilly!
We are now moving on to Argentina. From the Torres del Paine area a 1 ½ hour drive leads to the distinctly rural border control at Cerro Castillo. In the past relations between Chile and Argentina in Patagonia have been strained due to territorial squabbles but all is well now.
Argentinian Patagonia covers a much larger area than in Chile but in the mountainous south the jewel in the crown is the mighty Perito Moreno glacier. On one extensive journey in South America, one of my companions remarked that the huge distance covered would have been worthwhile just to see Perito Moreno. The location is 1 ½ hours drive from El Calefate, the nearest airport or, if coming in from Chile, about 4 hours from Cerro Castillo. In the locality are a number of farm homestead haciendas which are a feature in this part of Argentina.
Often set in huge estancias these homesteads are frequently run as small boutique hotels usually with no more than 7 to 9 very comfortable rooms with excellent service and all that goes with it. Just like staying in a country house which is what they are anyway.
Perito Moreno glacier is not very long, only about 20 miles and sweeps majestically down in a long curve from the ice cap. It is over a mile wide at its mouth with sheer ice cliffs of up to 200 feet. When meeting the Lago Argentino it continues to advance until the weight of the ice cliffs above the downward shelving of the floor of the lake causes ice blocks the size of a 12 story apartment building to break off and plunge into the water making a thundering noise that can be heard miles away.
The blocks disappear beneath the surface of the water only to emerge broken up into serious icebergs which gently start to flow with the current of the lake. It is possible to take a sightseeing boat very close and to look up at the varying shades of bluey white ice towering above. Don’t worry, the captain knows what he is doing: his job, and his life depend on it.
It is also possible to venture, with a guide and wearing crampons and carrying an ice axe, across the surface of the glacier. This is not, however, like walking across a frozen pond. There are mini cliffs to scale and deep crevasses to negotiate. The colours, shapes and sizes of the formations made by the flow of ice are quite sensational together with the growling noise made by sections of ice grinding against each other and the flow of clear blue streams running along the bottoms of the crevasses.
There is a further phenomenon unique to Perito Moreno. As mentioned the mouth is over a mile wide. However Lago Argentino is shaped like a bent arm with an elbow in the middle. The glacier approaches the lake with the elbow pointing to the middle of the glacier. The point of the elbow is a fantastic position from which to view the glacier and the channel between the point of the elbow and the advancing glacier is narrow. Every so often, a matter of several years, and depending on climatic conditions, the gap closes forming a wall of ice bonding with a wall of rock.
The effect of this is that although one section of the arm continues to flow to the end of the lake, down the River Pelque and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean at Rio Gallegos, the other arm of the lake, about 15 miles long, draws its water from rivers and streams coming off mountains and glaciers to the west. This water now has nowhere to go so slowly and gradually, the water level rises up the base of the mountains on the shore of the lake on all sides. Imagine the level of water in a lake of 15 miles long and an average of ½ mile wide rising by some 60 feet.
Something has to give: inevitably the weight and pressure of water at the weakest point, the fusion of ice against rock bursts like a breached dam through the point of the elbow. The noise of cascading torrents of water, ice and rocks torn from the elbow and sides of the channel can be heard in Calafate, 50 miles away.
Crowds of people gather and camp for weeks on end waiting for the inevitable. When it happens it is with such speed and force that the water level becomes normal again within 48 hours. Another botanical feature is that the whole area has a microclimate.
It’s not like, say, the high Alps, Greenland or Antarctica: trees, vegetation and an abundance of beautifully coloured wild flowers grow down to the very edge of the glacier. For much of their summer it is comfortable to walk around in shirt sleeves although it is always best to have a pullover or windcheater handy.
As already stated, hacienda life is a feature in southern Argentinian Patagonia and these largely family establishments are run to a high standard given the remoteness of their location. Most are on the shore of, or close to, one of the many mountain lakes. To give an example, one is slightly up from the shore of one of the smaller lakes with fantastic views but there is no road anywhere near. It does, however, have 2 boats that can collect guests from a point only 15/20 minutes away but the most interesting way to approach the hacienda is on foot taking 3 hours with a guide who will point out all the mountain peaks and flora and fauna along the way over undulating and unbelievably beautiful scenery, so remote that its difficult to imagine being anywhere else.
The boat is there to take luggage and any unwilling walkers. Another, on the shore of Lago San Martin, dates back to an English adventurer named Jimmy Radboone who arrived as a fugitive in the late 1800s having unsuccessfully chased an unsettled bet as far as Punta Arenas and acquired a Telhuelche Indian wife who bore him 5 children. He built his own log cabin close to where the present hacienda now stands and started producing wool on what is now a 4,000 hectare estate.
A word here about the weather: it is unpredictable. It is a well used but true saying that in southern Patagonia it is quite possible to experience all 4 seasons in one day. Wind is the common factor; it can be very strong indeed but equally there can be long hours of bright sunshine.
Temperatures during the Patagonian summer, December to March, can be as high as 25 degrees and as low as 5 degrees. Sun block is essential but layered clothing, strong walking boots and a light windcheater are recommended.
A final word if staying in one of the more remote haciendas: it is best not to book a departure flight on the same day as leaving the hacienda in case adverse weather conditions delay departure. El Calafate is the departure airport and there are many hotels in the vicinity. Also in Calafate a superb ice and glacier museum has been open only since 2011 and is well worth a visit.
Still in Patagonia but very different to the southern ice cap is the more tranquil and relaxed northern Patagonian Lake District. Here again it covers both Chile and Argentina and can be a whole trip in itself. In Chile an easy flight from Santiago down or from Punta Arenas up to Puerto Montt is the gateway to a drive up into the hills to a number of smart hotels by the side of lakes under the backdrop of the high Andes.
A typical example is Lago Todos los Santos, about 60 miles north east of Puerto Montt and surrounded by 3 snow capped mountains, Osorno volcano, Puntiagudo and Tronador. The river Petrohue flows out of the lake and down the wonderful Petrohue Falls. A good road from Osorno passes close to Todos Los Santos, up over a pass in Andes into Argentina and down to Bariloche, the hub of the Argentinian lakes. Bariloche can be approached by air from Buenos Aires or up from Calafate.
Coming from Chile and an hour’s drive short of Bariloche, the road goes through the sleepy town of Villa Angostura, originally a small market village with mainly wooden buildings with a faintly wild west atmosphere and a centre for agricultural supplies for estancias in the area. Now it is rather more touristy with smart shops specialising in leather and fashion goods but still most attractive. However the main attraction here is that, off the main road is the most sensational area of lakes, steep hills, forests and absolute calm and stillness.
The climate is much warmer here than in the south with long, hazy, sunlit, soft days spent either by or on the lakes, many of which join up together through narrow channels between the hills, long rides or walks through the forests and along lakeside paths, some very good fishing or just reading a book beside the swimming pool of one of several small hotels or haciendas. It is pretty blissful.
So, I’ve tried to answer the question asked in the very first sentence of what Patagonia conjures up in my mind. Of course I have the advantage of having travelled there at both ends of the comfort scale but for beauty, romance of mind, as much adventure as you want and for the spirit of excitement, you can’t beat it. It is not difficult to imagine and indeed to see the hazards faced by the early pioneers, many from our own land, not so very long ago.
The way back home from Bariloche is via Buenos Aires. To leave Argentina without spending a little time in one of the most delightful cities in the world would be silly but that’s another story …………………….
For further information or advice on Patagonia please contact:
FROM HERE TO THERE
Dorset DT8 3NR
Tel. 01308 862630
Photographs courtesy of: Lihue Expeditiones, Argentina Condor Travel, Chile