Stark and beautiful, Patagonia is a vast territory, more than double the size of California. In the Chilean side, as the continent comes to an end, we find a dazzling explosion of snow covered peaks, volcanoes, forests, glaciers, islands and fiords, but as we move east towards Argentina, steppe like plains bare of much vegetation and covered in shingles are more common. As we venture south, the temperate climate of Northern Patagonia gives way to colder temperatures, and the famous Patagonian winds add to the sensation of isolation that most visitors look for. Some of the most popular tourist attractions include the Perito Moreno glacier, Mt. Fitz Roy, Torres del Paine National Park and Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.
Reaching this remote region is rather easy. The best way is to fly from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, a small city that offers the charm of an alpine village with excellent hotels, shops and restaurants. The town is named after a wild berry that grows in the vicinity and it makes a good starting point to explore Southern Patagonia, where the improbable landscapes are the protagonists. Although Patagonia can be visited year round, the best time to come is during summer, and to avoid the tourist masses, spring and fall make excellent choices. It is important to remember that in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are inverted: summer becomes winter and fall becomes spring.
A number of National Parks dot the entire region and welcome tourists from all corners of the world. Make sure to bring your kindle with a selection of the finest Latin American literature, the poems of Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories, Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia since distances between points of interest are long here. We recommend you make plans and reservations ahead of time through a travel consultant, since availability is limited. Travelers should also be aware that weather conditions may prompt them to modify itineraries at the last minute.
From El Calafate you can reach the village of El Chalten 140 miles north in the northern extreme of the Glaciares National Park at the foot of Mt. Fitz Roy, named after the famed captain of Darwin’s exploratory vessel HSM Beagle. Fitz Roy has a reputation of being one of the toughest mountains to climb in the world despite its average height, and a site of pilgrimage for serious climbers. Less adventurous trekkers will find plenty of opportunities to get close enough and bring back the most amazing photos of the iconic mountain. Cell phones do not work in these parts and Internet access is scarce and very expensive. Another unforgettable excursion is to Torres del Paine National Park, also 140 miles but to the south of El Calafate. The trip takes about 4 hours plus time to go through customs in the border between Argentina and Chile. This excursion is worth the time given the impressive vistas of the Andes and the beautiful lakes that reflect the mountain peaks on their crystalline waters.
No journey to Patagonia is complete without a visit to the Perito Moreno glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981 and the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. The glacier is 3 miles wide with an average height of 240 ft. above water, but the total ice depth can reach 558 ft. A two hour drive from town through well maintained all weather roads with photographic stops along the way gets you to this natural wonder. Once there you’ll find a series of pasarelas, boardwalks with strategically placed viewing points that let you explore the area at your own pace. You can also take a scenic boat ride that offers a different perspective of the southern face of the glacier. From the boat, the majestic ice wall appears even more impressive, and the thunderous sound of the breaking ice reveals this fragile environment at its best. The fragmenting ice creates icebergs that float on the lake aimlessly like sentinels of a pristine world found nowhere else. The Perito Moreno is a stable glacier, meaning it is not receding like many other Patagonian glaciers due to global warming. Other points of interest in Patagonia include the ski resorts in Bariloche, the Valdes Peninsula and the petrified forests further up north.
As we near the end of the journey, the southernmost city in the world awaits. The windswept city of Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego has the feel of a frontier town with some modern amenities like duty free shops and fine restaurants. The fare here consists of local seafood, and the king crab certainly lives up to its name. You can also sample the traditional lamb parrillada (grill) accompanied by the sumptuous wines of Argentina and nearby Chile. This city is closer to Antarctica than to Buenos Aires, and the magical sunsets can bring tears to your eyes, overcoming visitors with a feeling of isolation seldom experienced by most travelers. Surrounded by lakes and bays, Ushuaia is the departure port for cruises to nearby islands and to the Antarctic Peninsula. While the latter will make for unique experience if you have the time, the former is a fantastic way to view the Patagonian fauna as Darwin did in his time. Guanacos, cougars and foxes are found inland, while the abundant marine fauna includes Southern right whales, orcas, sea lions and the adorable penguins.
Our search for the mythical lighthouse described by Verne comes to an end when we reach Isla de los Estados, where the fabled lighthouse once guided ships in the treacherous waters of the South Atlantic. Its lights were turned off in 1902, but in 1988 a French seaman by the name of André Broker built an exact replica that still stands today. A trip to Patagonia will make believers out of heretics. Those who can avoid the tourist crowds will find themselves alone with their thoughts and feelings. This is a place for introspection and contemplation of nature in quiet solitude with no other sound than the wind humming through the haunting landscape of the end of the Earth. ■