PUERTO NATALES | CHILE
EL CALAFATE | ARGENTINA
IT WAS EXCITING TO FLY FROM SANTIAGO SOUTH TO PUNTA ARENAS. DOWN HERE, THE TIP OF SOUTH AMERICA IS KNOWN AS THE “ANTARCTIC REGION”, THE NEXT STOP BEING THE FROZEN CONTINENT ITSELF. IT WOULD BE AS CLOSE AS I’D GET TO THE ICY SOUTH POLE – FOR NOW.
The first thing that struck me – literally – as I touched down in Punta Arenas was the wind and the cold. Magellan named the southern tip of Patagonia Tierra del Fuego, meaning “Land of Fire” presumably because irony is the last thing to die on an around the world voyage. Legend has it Indians threw fire at the passing boats from the coast. I knew some fellas around town who used to throw rocks at passing cars so it’s nice to know the old ways will be carried on.
Unfortunately the chilean Tehuelche peoples are all but gone. It was a sorry story repeated all across the americas with the introduction of white settlers. I think we as a species have a very fatalistic view of life. We are aware of concepts like “death” and “extinction”. We know we’re doomed and we’ve decided to take everything out with us.
It was now very dark when I got off the bus. My hostel was a rickety old wooden guesthouse. It was great to curl up in a comfy bed though, listening to the howling wind outside. In the morning I would get the bus and journey five hours north to Puerto Natales, gateway to Torres Del Paine National Park, renowned for containing some of the world’s most beautiful hikes. There are a number of routes you can take through the park, the most famous being the five day W circuit. I was saving my strength for some grueling hikes to come so I decided to take the bus in and do some mini hikes for the day. Plus, the weather was bad. Very bad. The day I entered visibility was almost zero, although it cleared up considerably throughout the day.
Our first stop was the Cueva del Milodon. Here the remains of a giant bear-like animal called the mylodon were found. I haven’t seen the Ice Age films, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy turned up in them. The Mylodon roamed Patagonia 10,000 years ago before dying out – possibly due to human hunting, we do love killing stuff after all.
Torres del Paine is a huge park with plenty to see. After signing in at the ranger station we made our way to the Torres viewpoint, or at least it would have been it if wasn’t for the thick cloud cover. That’s the thing with mountains, they can be notoriously shy. I vented my frustration by yelling that Mount Fitzroy was better looking anyway. Although I really don’t know why seeing as I hadn’t seen that one either.
The road winds it’s way alongside the Torres massif, and skirts around aquamarine coloured glacial lakes. The lakes here really are something else. Coloured amazing green / blue, they get their unique pigment from the pulverised glacial deposits known as glacial milk. These are suspended particles the glacier has ground out from the surrounding mountains. The slopes of the mountains are knarled and windswept. An iconic image of Patagonia is the bent-over tree, battered into submission by the chilling antarctic winds.
Not far along the road are the Cuernos del Paine. Cuernos means “horn” but unfortunately the word paine is pronounced “Pay-nay”, and not “pain”. Otherwise I’m convinced Horn of Pain is a name that would rocket straight to the top of the death metal album charts. The Cuernos are perched above the tranquil Lake Pehoe, which is a great place to stop for lunch. The wind certainly adds a dramatic element to the landscape here. Towering peaks will appear for mere seconds before being engulfed in a torrent of cloud, while fleeting shadows will dart and slither across the undulating rocks. It was fun to watch. Then an eagle swooped down and stole my sandwich. If ever there was an epic way to lose a sandwich, this was it. It made for a cool story but still, I’d rather have the sandwich.
Lago Grey is home of the famous Glacier Grey and is hemmed in by cragged mountains either side of the channel. Crossing the stone beach to the other side of the lake was a challenge. The wind howled off the glacier leaving me with a distorted face looking more like a male orangutan. The wind had abated once I had got across and I was finally able to appreciate why I was here. As the glacier calves and cracks on the far end of the lagoon it creates amazing blue icebergs which float lazily across the lake before beaching themselves on the shorefront. It wasn’t my first time to feel glacial ice, but it was definitely a cool moment watching these icebergs of various shapes and sizes bobbing along like rubber ducks in a White-Walkers bathtub.
My time in Torres del Paine was unfortunately short due to the weather. I decided to take the bus to another Patagonian highlight, but to do that I’d be crossing the border into Argentina. Five hours east is the small town of El Calafate. From here it’s a short ride to probably the world’s most famous and photographed glacier, the incredible Perito Moreno.
First things first though. No trip to Argentina is complete without a barbecue, so I made a b-line for the restaurants. Even down here in the chilly depths of Patagonia you’re never too far away from a huge-ass grill. It seemed every restaurant here tries to out do itself with it’s grilling facilities. I’m pretty sure you could dump an entire cow on some of these things and still comfortably grill away. Obviously every place here expects Fred Flintstone to rock up and order a Brontosaurus burger, so it’s best to be prepared. I tried the lamb first of all. It didn’t disappoint. Argentina would be a valuable ally in my war against delicious animals.
I hate that feeling when you have assigned a limited number of days to a certain place, only to get there and realise there is a shit load of stuff you want to do. Such was the case with El Calafate. Being the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park there are an abundance of hikes, glacier walks, and cruises to do here. In particular I really wanted to try out the iceberg kayaking. The idea of floating through beautiful icebergs in a tiny kayak excited me, also because I just really love kayaking. It’s still something I’d like to do. Luckily this is one part of the world I feel I will definitely return to, so it remains on the list.
Los Glaciares is an enormous place. At the southern end of the park you have the incomparable Perito Moreno glacier, while further north the otherworldly Mount Fitzroy. Again, I found myself cursing the weather as I headed out that morning to the glacier. It was misty, cloudy, cold, and all round miserable. Heading into the park we checked in to book our boat voyage. Annoyingly my tour guide said I hadn’t paid for the boat when I had. There was no way I was missing out on this so I paid again in the understanding I would be refunded later.
WHICH I WASN’T.
Ok calm down. They can’t hear you.
Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers in the world which is actually advancing rather then retreating. Because of this it always provides a spectacular show, and is also famous for it’s face, which is constantly calving huge chunks of ice into the iceberg channel. The BOOM sounds like thunder, and is actually what I thought it was first time I heard it. A metal walkway lines the opposing cliff giving you an unparalleled face-on view of the glacier. When the clouds part the scale of the thing becomes apparent. 30 kilometers long, and with an ice face of over 74 meters in height this enormous river of ice covers 250 square kilometers. It’s fed from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which has it’s birthplace high in the Andes mountains. The cliff viewpoint is ideal, in that you can view both sides of the glaciers face. It looked much bigger than the Fox glacier I’d hiked on in New Zealand. This thing looked like it’s daddy. I was amazed at the shapes the ice had hardened into. Huge frozen spires and branches protruded and twisted upwards, while jagged cracks and crevases looked willing to swallow you whole and never spit you back out again.
It’s at times like this I get all teary eyed and self righteous. The planet is amazing. We really should stop destroying it. How the hell does water do this??? See a glacier before they’re gone. Visit a rhino before they’re all dead. At the end of the day we are only depriving ourselves once all this is destroyed. Once we’ve thrown all our toys out of the pram there will be none for our own children. Who are also in the pram. It’s a big pram.
Anyway, it was time for the boat ride which apparently I-didn’t-pay-for-but-totally-did. For safety reasons we had to stay a safe distance away from the glacial wall. We didn’t want a huge iceberg to break off and Titanic our boat. I got the impression my boat was full of Kate Winslets too, but not the hot naked Kate Winslet, the greedy boyfriend killing Kate Winslet at the end. When Kate Winslet tells you she “needs her space” it’s time to start making funeral arrangements.
The Wall from game of Thrones is the best way I can explain it. An impossibly enormous, shimmering wall of ice. When the sun light shone on it directly it created the most fantastic shades of blues, seemingly due to the pressure of the ice squeezing out all the air. Perito Moreno is a living and breathing part of the earth, groaning and stretching with as much life as any living creature. Like volcanoes, glaciers are the most visceral reminder that the planet is alive and constantly in motion.
Did you know the name Patagonia was given to the area because settlers believed it was inhabited by a race of giants called patagones? Betcha didn’t. And not just because it’s one of the “facts” I tend to make up. You’re googling that right now aren’t you?
My trip through Patagonia was short but packed with awesomeness, but no giants.. I’ll be back some day to grab a kayak and a pair of hiking boots for Fitz Roy. Tune in to The Wandering Boo in ten years time for Patagonia Part 2 on the way to Antarctica! (I’ll post the gofundme link as soon as it’s available :))
Alternatively just read a better blog which already features that.