Thursday, September 20, 2007

Patagonia Expedition

Patagonia. There really is no way to describe this magical land in a manner that does the region’s beauty any justice. Patagonia simply challenges your imagination – and wins. You just have to go there and see the place for yourself. Soaring fjords, ice blue glaciers, pristine forests, and domineering snow capped mountains, combine to create what one can only describe as a land lost to the mind but found in the heart.

I love Patagonia and even though I have been there a number of times, it was with great excitement that I returned recently. The trip took a couple of weeks and while I initially traveled with an old friend, I completed the second leg of my last tour to Patagonia with my wife and daughter. The idea behind the trip was to map out one of the Fly-Drive Adventures we offer in the region; Fly-Drives are adventure packages that involve flying to a destination, picking up a car and driving around an entire region before flying back home. Experience has taught me that this is the best way to explore a vast territory like Patagonia and to add to the fun we decided to go one up on the fly drive and add water into the land/air equation by doing part of this trip on a cruise ship in order to explore the watery side of Patagonia as well.

It was without pretense that I began this latest adventure with Lambert – an old friend and new travel companion. Lambert is quite possibly the wittiest Dutchman in Argentina, and it was without reserve that I started this journey with him. Together we boarded a flight in Buenos Aires, excitement and a little trepidation setting in. Four hours later we were coming in to land over the peaks surrounding Ushuaia. Ushuaia is the most southerly city on the globe and is often described as the place at the end of the world. In my mind’s eye, I have always envisioned this city as being out-of-the-way, coldly forlorn, and as far south as one could possibly travel without climbing in a boat. As a result it is hard for me to realize that – give or take a little – Ushuaia is only as far south as my own hometown in Holland is north. With a chilly climate, an adventurous atmosphere and a remarkable Patagonian oddness about it, Ushuaia feels a lot further away than it probably is. After numerous travels – it still remains the best feeling; to climb off a plane and into another adventure…

In the past, Ushuaia town has been home to a penal colony, a missionary stronghold, and a naval base for the Argentine Navy. Following the economic crash in 2002 in Argentina, Ushuaia’s popularity as a tourist attraction sky rocketed – people could now afford to travel here. Travelers from all over the world come to Ushuaia for its scenery, its amazing hiking trails, and of course because it is perhaps the most economic and convenient place in the world to start an adventure to Antarctica. Ushuaia is also of course home to the fabled Lighthouse at the end of the world – made famous by Jules Verne’s novel of the same name.

After a bay tour and a couple of nights in a reasonable hotel – Lambert and I had taken in about as much of Ushuaia as we possibly could. As our plan revolved around the drive up north through Patagonia we looked around for a good car to rent and eventually managed to find a Volkswagen Polo for a good rate. Not what we had in mind exactly when we set off, but it turned out to do an excellent job. We left Ushuaia – driving through some jaw-dropping Patagonia landscapes – and headed towards Rio Grande. Lakes and mountains line the roadside and upon reaching Rio Grande, expansive plains reach out towards the horizon. Rio Grande is located on the northern tip of the island of Tierra del Fuego and while it is described as the Garden City of Argentina, its industrial nature did not attract us, mildly put. After spending an evening exploring the city we climbed back in the VW the next day and continued onwards into Chile.

After crossing the ever-impressive Straits of Magellan we made our way on towards Punta Arenas – the southernmost city in Chile. The residents of Punta Arenas – as well as most Chileans – are rather vocal about their belief that Punta Arenas is actually the most southerly city in the world. As far as the grounds for this claim are concerned I am unsure. Punta Arenas clearly lays at least a degree north of Ushuaia. And the argument that Ushuaia is in itself not a city is rather groundless. By every differing measure discerning a city from a town Ushuaia comes up as the former (and strangely enough – though I may be misinformed – Chileans gauge a city as any urban settlement with a population of over 5,000 inhabitants). Clearly the title belongs to Ushuaia. Punta Arenas however, is not without its charm and although the weather was rather miserable as Lambert and I entered the city – the many rustic buildings and colored tin roofs gave the city an aura of tranquility and repose. In its own peaceful way, this city has survived the ups and downs of history as a port on the Magellan Straits, and has emerged, a couple of hundred years after its modest beginnings, as though nothing much had ever really changed. The occasional horse drawn cart is visible, as is the age-old look on a few of the local faces which suggests an awkward indifference towards out-of-towners. But all in all Punta Arenas was a worthy and comfortable stop-over.

Lambert and I took a few days exploring the city and getting to know its charms before dropping off the Polo and trading it for a more suitable vehicle for some of the off road driving planned for later on during the trip. I picked up a Mitsubishi Double Cab Turbo Diesel and we set off once again, reentering Argentina before proceeding towards Calafate. The drive took us once again through some absolutely stunning scenery as we crossed over the Andes. The small town of Calafate is home to some of the world’s most impressive glaciers. Named after a yellow flowered scrub that thrives in the region, the small town of Calafate boasts idyllic views over Lake Argentino and the Los Glaciers National Park; the white capped peaks of which tower in the background and promise sites and scenes of unimaginable beauty.

The day after Lambert and I arrived in Calafate, I went to the town’s small airport to pick up Karin and our daughter Edie who had just flown in from Buenos Aires. Lambert then returned to Buenos Aires on a plane later that day in order to return to work – and Karin, Edie and I set out together for what was to become the second leg of this Patagonian Adventure.

The Three Musketeers, we set off for the Los Glaciers National Park – and more specifically to the beautiful Perito Moreno glacier. The cliff face of this glacier forms a giant wall of imposing ice that – from horizon to horizon – looms precariously over the shadowy river below, and has the effect of being at once both frighteningly beautiful and hazardously surreal. Surrounded by snowy peaks and rolling forests of lengas and ├▒ires, this glacier could quite easily be from another planet. We’d chosen the right time of the year to visit and – with the warmer temperatures – we could literally hear the ominous cracking of the glacier reverberating across the valley. Quite often huge blocks of ice detach themselves from the cliff face and collapse into the river below, creating a thunderous noise and monstrous splash. The spectacle of seeing these “ice bergs” break loose is an experience that no words can ever quite describe. Somehow, due to the distance, and the radiant light that deflects off the ice the actual size of the glacier and of the blocks that fall off seem far smaller than they really are; the huge cracking noise, followed by the enormous thud as the ice hits the water and the immense waves caused by it, take you by surprise and in some strange way make the hairs in your neck rise and send a tingling feeling down your spine. After that, what’s left is awe and silence.

The following day we began driving some 4 hours from El Calafate, north towards El Chalten – a small sleepy town that lies at the foot of the impressive Cerro Fitz Roy.

Cerro Fits Roy imposes itself upon the valley that surrounds it like a dark and dangerous dictator – tall, jagged, absolute, and unquestionable. Under a deeply blue hued sky, the towering peak of granite stone and snowy cliff face presents a truly awe-inspiring site. A few lesser peaks surround Cerro Fitz Roy – and while not as tall – they are equally astounding. A number of treks and trails are available in the park – most of which are truly extraordinary I am told. Of course trekking with an infant is not a viable option – still the 4x4 afforded us the luxury of driving to areas of the park we would have been unable to see otherwise. And so, following a day of sightseeing around Cerro Fitz Roy, we found a small hotel in El Chalten and called it a day.

The following morning we rose early in order to set out for Chile – this would be the second time I’d be entering Chile on this journey – and the second time I’d be crossing directly through the Andes. Passing through the desolate Paso Cancha Carrera crossing in the morning we were graced with some amazing views of Cerro Castillo before continuing onwards to Torres del Paine National Park.

The Torres del Paine National Park is simply breathtaking. Glaciers, lakes, woodlands, and the iconic jutting peaks combine to create what is without a doubt some of the most stunning natural scenery I have ever seen. The large towering granite massifs are much like Cerro Fitz Roy – Jagged peaks jutting up towards the heavens. The highest massif, Cerro Paine Grande, is even more imposing and impossible than Cerro Fitz Roy. The mirror-like lake below the peaks so perfectly reflects their towering grandeur that if you close your eyes ever so slightly and open your imagination a little, the peaks and their reflection take the form of giant islands floating in a flawless sky.

Careful: this is one of those truly wonderful places; take some time to look, really look at what spectacular beauty lies rolled out before your eyes, breathe the fresh air rolling over the hills and allow yourself to feel grateful to have been granted some time in this raw and overwhelming nature. You need at least three days to uncover only the very beginning of what is possible to see in the park. We drove around and admired the sites for three perfect days – and were it not for the fact that we were on a tight schedule and had to get to Punta Arenas in order to board the Mare Asutralis cruise liner – we could quite easily have remained in the park much longer.


We left for Punta Arenas mid-morning and were in the city before lunch. I had just enough time to drop the car off at the rental agency before we all boarded the Mare Australis for a five day cruise that would end in Ushuaia. On board we met some other very good friends: Marc, Zoe and their daughter Asante. We all got to know each other in Lima, Peru where we all lived and made fun trips together. We followed each other to Buenos Aires a couple of years ago. Meanwhile our family situations have changed and Asante and Edie have become friends, so it was a natural choice to make this trip together again.

We initially set out towards southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego through the Straits of Magellan. The Mare Australis is a comfortable ship, and while Karin and Zoe were initially worried that Edie and Asante might suffer from sea sickness – their worries were completely unfounded. On our first evening, a pale moon lit the sky above the fabled straits as we smoothly sailed onwards.

We woke early the next morning to the sight of an indescribable sunrise over a calm and tranquil fjord. We proceeded onwards to the Marinelli Glacier in Ainsworth Bay where we were invited aboard one of the smaller zodiacs in order to get a closer look at the weird and wondrous ice formations.
The voyage continued amid a never ending display of sights and scenes of Patagonian delight. We traveled up the Pia fjord and then up the northwest arm of the Beagle Channel and through the enchanting Glacier Alley.

If you make this cruise, do not shy away from the cold, but dress up warmly and go out on the top deck around midnight, when the sky is clear and if possible during full moon. It is a very strange feeling standing on top of that ship, moving steadily through the icy waters, snow-peaked mountain ranges on either side of the channel, a pitch black sky filled with thousands of stars and everything bathing in that milky light of the full moon…Wow. The Mare Australis has a telescope up there and I can tell you looking at the moon, just watching it, seemingly so close by, you almost feel like you can touch it. I forgot I was freezing and almost missed the last round at the bar.

We then made our way through the Beagle Channel past the Cape Horn where Pacific and Atlantic seas converge. We spent a morning exploring the Cape Horn National Park. We stood on the tip of the island and looked south towards Antarctica. One day I will travel there with my family. We however turned around, boarded the boat, and were back in Ushuaia the following morning. After 5 days on board the ship – climbing into the airplane back to Buenos Aires felt almost unnatural. This had been another incredible trip down south.

Patagonia – that never ending place of magic and wonder. It will definitely not be long before I travel there again.

Take care travelers

Bart
www.cat-travel.com