Every single step forward felt like a huge achievement. Gale force winds were being channeled through the sheer valleys walls of the Fitzroy range, and with every particularly large gust we were being blown three steps back from our destination, a small ridge of the summit of the glacier moraine. Our quest to view the azure colored glacial lake was going to be somewhat of a struggle. However this was to be expected in Patagonia, a place where nothing is easy. A land where struggle is an essential part of everyday life.
Spanning the southern tip of the continent of South America, Patagonia is a landscape of extremes divided by a backbone comprised of the magnificent Andean mountain range. Tierra del Fuego in the deep south is host to Cape Horn, the southernmost point of the continent and in fact not a true cape but actually part of the island archipelago that, alongside the main island, forms the region of Tierra del Fuego. Heading north from the icy expanse of Antarctica, this group of islands are the first glimpse of the Andes as they rise dramatically from the Southern ocean to form this great continent.
Tierra del Fuego gained its colorful name from the first european explorer to visit the archipelago. So named the ‘Island of fires’ by Ferdinand Magellen in 1520 as a result of the numerous fires visible on the main island whilst he navigated the region, which he believed were an attempt by the native american indians to lure his crew to the land and to subsequently ambush his party when they entered the dense forests. Little did he know that the Yamana indians actually relied upon the primeval fire to provide them with warmth in these sub-antarctic lands, and that they would even carry a lighted fire abroad their canoes when they were hunting and fishing, as they often wore very little or no clothing.
Vast glaciers and dense, highland forests thankfully still cover this jagged, mountainous landscape and offer numerous opportunities for the modern day explorer to get off the beaten track. Some of the more accessible hikes begin near Ushuaia, the self proclaimed southernmost city in the world and the international gateway for Antarctica expeditions. My own experiences of hiking in the great Lenga forests of the nearby Tierra Del Fuego National Park were to empower me with a huge respect for the Patagonian wildlife.
After a hard day of exploring the varied landscape of the park on foot, we had pitched our tent in a suitable patch of woodland near the Beagle channel. As the day light quickly began to fade and the transition to dusk began, I noticed a pair of eyes staring at our campsite from deep within the woodland. As the creature began to approach us, I caught my first sighting of a Patagonian Grey fox wearing a fur coat so dense that it almost made it look like the size of a wolf. This majestic wild animal took a few minutes to confirm if we were a threat (or a potential food source) before finally deciding to walk away in the opposite direction. We were privileged to have been accepted into the creatures domain although we were probably never trusted.
The ownership of Tierra del Fuego is divided between two countries – Argentina and Chile. This is a pattern that is repeated along the length of the Patagonia region, with the imposing peaks of the Andes forming the natural boundary between the two. The climate of the region changes dramatically with the rain shadow effect of the worlds longest mountain range. Southern Chile to the west has a wet, temperate weather system which has led to a lush green environment not unlike New Zealand which also formed part of the ancient subcontinent Gondwanaland. However, the majority of the Patagonia region is located within Argentina and is a sun drenched, inhospitable landscape.
There is a significant exception to the typically encountered land-forms to be found within Southern Patagonia. Straddling and engulfing the lofty peaks of the Andes with only the occasional peaks breaking through the blanket of ice, the Southern Patagonia Ice-field is the largest region of glaciers to be found, outside of Antarctica, within the southern hemisphere. Covering an amazing 13,000 square kilometers (5,020 square miles) it actually once covered an area nearly 40 times bigger. The legacy of this retreating sheet of ice has been the scouring of the landscape, forming the majestic fjords to be found along the coast of Chile. As the ice cap continues to retreat, it in turns reveals a fresh landscape that has not witnessed the light of day for over 10,000 years.
However, it is not just the patagonian ice field that has made its mark on the landscapes of southern Patagonia. The effects of glaciation, combined with the subduction of the Nazca plate underneath the South American plate has resulted in an uplift that has created what has to be considered some of the most dramatic mountain scenery to be found anywhere in the world. Without a doubt, one of the best ways to experience these land-forms is on foot. It was whilst I was hiking the circuit track of the Torres del Painne National Park in Chile that I got to view both of these unique landscapes in close proximity. After a particularly arduous climb over a mountain pass encountered mid way through the eight day hike circling the national park, battling yet again with the infamous Patagonian wind, I finally managed to reach the summit of the pass and was immediately rewarded with a birds eye view of the Southern Patagonia Ice-field – an immense sea of ice blanketing the landscape for as far as the eye could see.
The hike continued for nearly two days alongside this relatively small stretch of the ice-field offering an vantage point that was essential to realize the full extent of its size. Briefly after the route began to leave the glacier and started to head inland, I was yet again to see a landscape that left me speechless. The convoluted, granite horns of the Cuernos del Paine dominated the gently, undulating land-mass that surrounded the mountain range. Far in the distance I could briefly make out the towering pillars of the Torres piercing the clouds that seemed to eternally shroud the peaks.
In Argentina, the pillars of the Fitzroy range are strikingly similar to the Torres del Paine. Located within the northern boundary of the Los Glaciers National Park it is not surprising that this offers good hiking opportunities. However here the weather is particularly fickle even by Patagonia standards, which in the past led to Mount Fitzroy being considered the most difficult mountain to climb in the world. The reality of visiting the region is that unless you are very lucky you will be greeted by rain and winds. If you are fortunate, the weather may clear just long enough for you to see the infamous peak.
Life and death are never very far apart for the inhabitants of Patagonia. As Guanacos graze on the hardy grasses and shrubs managing to cling for survival on the wind scoured Patagonian steppes, they maintain the vigil of keeping their senses aware to the possible presence of predators, in particularly the Puma or mountain lion. High in the sky, the enigmatic Andean Condor can often be seen waiting for its next meal to lose its fight for life in this unrelenting landscape. This vulture, alongside the other carrion eaters to be found in Patagonia, feeds entirely upon the dead of the land. There is no need for this majestic bird with a wingspan of over 2.5 meters to hunt – all that is required is patience.
As the Condor flies, the Andes heading north continue to craft and manipulate the landscape as they start to reach almost epic elevations. To the east of the range, travel by road through the Patagonian steppe is an arduous affair but perhaps the only true way to appreciate this land of vast, far horizons with little signs of human habitation apart from the occasional homestead. On the western side in Chile, the temperate rain-forest engulfs the foothills of the Andes and the almost perpetual rain continues to flood and wash away the basic road infrastructure. This is a landscape thriving with life, a complete contrast to the dry Patagonia of the west.
Then in an almost surreal transformation, a new world is reached. The barren steppe gives way to pockets of ancient woodland scattered between azure colored lakes. Dry, dusty soil is transformed into a fertile land perfect for farming and human habitation. Stereo typical Volcanoes start to pierce the Patagonian sky, dominating the landscape and constantly threatening to reclaim the land. As the lakes grow larger and the forests more dense with new and ancient growth, you are submerged in an environment so alive that you soon begin to forget the Patagonia of the south. These wild lands are far more conductive to the neutering of life.
The Lake District region of northern Patagonia combines these areas of Argentina and Chile to create a lush, fertile environment of semi wilderness that offers a number of delights to the visitor. With an influx of tourists, a new improved infra structure of travel is unveiled to allow easy exploration. Navagation between the two countries in possible entirely by regular boat sailings within the lakes. The brave explorer may even hike in the ancient woodlands between the two official entry points of the countries, proof that this landscape is so vast that even mankind has not felt the urge to tame it.
I have fond memories of bush camping with the Nahuel Huapi National Park in Argentina. Far from the madderning crowd, the bright constallitions of the southern night sky provided hours of natural entertainment. An added bonus was the appearance of a comet that dominated the vast and open skies for a number of nights, with only the call of the Great Horned Owl diverting our attention. Here, so far from civiliaisation, our thoughts ran wild with the possible viewing of Pumas hunting in their natural environment although we had to make do with a safer encounter with an Armadillo hiding in the dense bush. We spent a number of nights in this environment with no phones, radios or other trappings of day to day life.
Travel in Patagonia dictates that you are flexible with your plans and that you allow for the unexpected to happen. Perhaps the most overwhealming sensation for the traveller is that you are visiting a land at the mercy of the forces of nature. The harsh extremes of the fickle weather ensures that human habitation is limited to certain regions and that human passage over this wild land is confined to a handfull of routes. Snow and gale force winds are common even during the summer months, ensuring that preperation and foresight are an essential commodity for even the briefest of trips into the great wild open. The circling Condor high in the open sky is a constant reminder that death is never far away in Patagonia.
Despite the harshness of this region, Patagonia is undeniably a gem of the world. Yes, it does require determination on the part of the visitor to gain the most from the region and life is by no means easy for its habitants. But, when you do finally take the last step to the tip of the ridge and actually manage to look at the crystal clear waters of the azure coloured glacial lake you realise that the struggle to reach the top was esential to appreciate the wild grandeur of the place. Whilst struggle may be an essential part of everyday life in Patagonia, it is by no means a negative sensation. Indeed, it may be the very reason that Patagonia is so enduring in the fond memories of the visitor.
This essay originally appeared in the English version of ‘Patagonia – Nature’s Last Frontier’, a book featuring the wonderful photography of Marcos Zimmerman. I was honoured to have been commissioned by the English publisher to write the forward based upon my own experiences.