Finding divinity in South America's sparsely populated southern tip.
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Scientists attempt to make rational sense of the world. Our greatest, Sir Isaac Newton, developed theories of colour, calculus and the laws of motion and universal gravitation. He was a man of reason, but also a man of faith and a strict believer in God. He strived to uncover the systems that govern the planet, but found within them evidence of design and divinity.
The sleepy Argentinean town of El Calafate is home to a Glaciarium, a museum about glaciers that explains how Patagonia – the sparsely populated southern tip of South America – was formed. It told me, through a series of informative slides, what I rationally knew to be true: that over millions of years, the remote area had been pushed, ploughed and shaped by ancient sheets of slow-moving ice, as though the land was nothing more than Play-doh. This is science. It’s geology.
Yet still, when I was standing in the vast panoramas of Patagonia, drinking fresh water from the folds of glaciers or with an entire mountain beneath me, I didn’t believe it. It wasn’t that I couldn’t fathom it, but I couldn’t believe it – the sound science behind how it came to be – because Patagonia is God’s land, whatever that means. It’s not a series of geological accidents; it’s spiritual, it’s celestial, it’s more than nature – it’s supernatural.
It’s easy to think of this mild and desolate place, carved by ice, as an entity separate to the rest of South America – typified by its salsa dancing, street-side fruit stands and colourful towns – but to do this discredits the diversity of the continent and its varying shades and differences.
Covering 800,000 square kilometres along the lower spine of the Andes, Patagonia is known for its vast empty steppes framed by violent peaks of snow-crowned mountains, towering glaciers, icy waterfalls, lunar landscapes and milky turquoise lagoons. Inside its boundaries are glacial parks, the southernmost city in the world – the charming coastal port of Ushuaia – and a true amalgamation of cultures (including the only Welsh-speaking settlements outside of Wales). It has this near-mythical status due, in part, to the art and literature it has inspired. (An article on the place isn’t complete without a mention of Bruce Chatwin’s novel In Patagonia – there’s mine.)
But it’s the sheer beauty of Patagonia that’s nearly impossible to overstate. It’s probably the best place in the world to walk to the top of a mountain and feel good about being here, on our home planet, as a human, with the consciousness to appreciate amazing things. Heavenly things. The corners of the world that are not yet touched.
On a two-week trip through Patagonia’s wilderness, something subtle in me changed.
El Calafate, Argentina
Easily accessed from both Santiago and Buenos Aires, the town of El Calafate is named after the area’s delicious native berries and is conveniently placed smack bang in the middle of a buffet of natural wonders. As an introduction to the otherworldliness of Patagonia, it’s perfect: the descending plane’s shadow in a jade green lagoon; the sweeping stretches of empty brown land; the curiosity of passing a lake that has flamingos in it.
We’re on an Intrepid Trip called Patagonia Wilderness, and as we drive in, our Argentinean guide Dennis Berk tells us that “Patagonia is new”, but what he means is that tourism to the area is new. Until 30 or so years ago, there weren’t even paved roads. It was still a magnet for hardcore hikers back then, but now it’s much easier to visit. It’s still in that sweet spot, where it’s buzzing with outdoor enthusiasts during high season (the southern hemisphere’s summer, from December to February), but it’s never actually too crowded. Don’t visit in winter, when the weather is harsh and unforgiving.
The actual town of El Calafate has taken architectural cues from American alpine villages – it’s all wooden and A-framed with plenty of adventure-wear and souvenir stores. Here, we pile our plates high with lamb, cooked in the traditional Patagonian way – the whole animal spit-roasted for eight hours over an open fire pit, preferably served from the bone on a sizzling hot plate.
It’s best eaten at Don Pinchon, perched on top of a hill with wide windows overlooking the unique landscape, or at Casimiro Bigua’s two-for-one lamb special night. The previously mentioned Glaciarium, which is a courtesy bus ride out of town, is also worth the $30AUD entry fee.
Perito Moreno Glacier
From El Calafate, it’s a one-hour bus ride to one of the most mindblowing natural wonders of the world, and easily the best thing I’ve ever seen – the Perito Moreno glacier. While all glaciers are notable (especially to Australians), Perito Moreno has a few key points of difference: it’s the fastest advancing glacier in the world (which scientists can’t explain), growing an average of two metres per day; it’s so easy to access that it feels like it must’ve been placed there for mankind’s amusement; and ordinary Joes – such as myself – can just walk on it, like it’s no big deal at all.
We hear the glacier before we see it. As our bus winds into the Los Glaciares national park, cracks of terrible thunder echo through the air. Rounding a corner, the glacier is laid out in the distance, glowing white-blue and stretching to the horizon.
Only with proximity can you understand the true scale, and everyone is silent as our boat glides along beside the 70 metre high wall of ice, avoiding icebergs that dot the water like tombstones in a glacial graveyard. Without warning, huge sheets of ice, some the size of a school bus, calve off the glacier’s snout and slide seamlessly into the water, as if in slow-mo. It’s simultaneously violent and serene, and my breath catches in my throat.
Seeing a glacier is one thing; walking on it is something else altogether, and we decide to pay the $125AUD to do a mini-trekking tour with Hielo & Adventura. We have crampons strapped to our boots before we venture on to the icy expanse. If you want to practice mindfulness, you can do worse than to hike on a glacier (or a mountain, but more than that later). The full span of your attention is necessary to navigate the creases, folds and unusual footwear, and the group is quiet as we’re steered by guides who live their working life on the frozen beast. I kneel to a tiny crevice filled with the purest of glacial waters to refill my bottle. This water was probably frozen for 500 years. Nothing makes sense. Everything is amazing.
The trek finishes with a glass of whiskey served over ice hacked straight off the glacier. My guide explains that, “It’s a gigantic frozen river and it’s technically never the same.” I update the proverb in my head: ‘No woman ever steps on the same glacier twice, for it’s not the same glacier and she’s not the same woman.’
After a packed lunch of empanadas, we head to the glacier’s north side for a wider angle view and a more distanced experience, but the all-encompassing perspective brings me right back into my own head. Nothing makes sense. Everything is amazing.
El Chalten, Argentina
Onwards through El Calafate and into Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, the small town of El Chaltén is well-placed beside the Rio De la Vueltas at the base of the recognisable Fitz Roy massif – the series of mountains found on the Patagonia brand of clothing.
El Chaltén is still small, but it won’t stay small for long. The food is good (try the carbonada – beef and peach stew – or some famous Argentinian steak at La Senyera Cocina), hotels range from modest to luxurious and there’s, rather oddly, an abundance of craft breweries – but that’s not why people come here. El Chaltén earns its reputation as the world’s trekking capital, and during a fair-weathered day the town is deserted as everyone is “up the mountain”.
Of course, only expert climbers can reach the peak of the near-vertical granite Mount Fitz Roy itself, and it’s notoriously one of the most challenging climbs in the world. While 100 people may reach the summit of Everest in a single day, only one person might successfully ascend the steep face of Fitz Roy per year. But the area is a hiker’s dream.
The massif sure knows how to works its angles, and it should be taken in from as many perspectives as possible. Day hikes range from 5 to 22 kilometres and they pretty much all require climbing and descending mountains, so stop making fun of them and invest in some walking poles (like I definitely had to).
These hikes are serious business and guides are a necessity. Ours – Lena and Sergio – remind us to take our time and set our own pace. A particularly tough part of terrain on the Lago De Los Tres hike involves climbing icy boulders in exposed wind, ascending 450 metres in just a kilometre – that’s almost a 45 degree angle – but the views and levels of self-satisfaction make it all worthwhile.
Due to beautiful weather (rare in Patagonia), we substitute a longer, flatter walk for yet another steep mountain-top hike called Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, which gives us a different (and according to our guides, superlative) perspective over Laguna Torre, its glacier and the peaks of the surrounding mountains. The uphill slog to the clouds is rough, despite the attractive surrounds – with fields of yellow dandelions and dense green forest – and I’m begging the mountain to shrink as I trek through snow to our final lookout.
The vista reveals itself and I burst into tears – whether it’s due to aching legs, the tremendous sight or a combination of the two things, I’m still unsure. Some of our group members ask what’s wrong and I blubber as I say, “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” It turns out I can’t move mountains, but they can sure move me.
Torres Del Paine, Chile
The Patagonian crossing from Argentina to Chile is particularly great because it’s in the middle of absolutely nowhere and there’s about a 7 kilometre stretch of land between the two customs offices. No one really knows who owns this section of in-between terra firma and I guess no one minds, which is kind of crazy considering the centuries of dispute over the Patagonian borders. Oh well.
A local bus on the Chilean side delivers us directly to the pristine Torres Del Paine national park, which feels like we’ve arrived in the middle of a diorama plastered with stock images. Steep ridges punch up towards the sky, with the towers that are the park’s namesake (translated as ‘Towers of Blue’) being the most dramatic, their gashed peaks carved by millennia-old retreating glaciers.
Our excellent Chilean guide Anita Antich, who leads us on our day hikes, greets us at our campsite. Torres Del Paine is home to the world-famous ‘W’ walking track, and our first day involves completing the hardest leg of the three-day trek – the ascent to the base of the towers.
Our group is again lucky with the weather; Anita says that the group the week before us battled snow, extreme ice and violent winds, so strong they could knock a firm-footed person right off their feet. When it’s really bad, hikers are advised to just lay down, packs and all, so as to not get blown off the mountain. I remember that nature is a powerful force, and a physical one. We set out, sweating under a bright sun and a blue cloudless sky.
The nine-hour day of hiking takes us through thick beech forests, along ‘the pass of the winds’ (where a metre-wide pebbled track hugs a cliff face), past weary multi-day walkers at refugios (overnight cabins) and on a final steep incline up some boulders. It’s soundtracked by the rush of distant waterfalls and pebbles crunching under boots, but not much else. I take it all in: the shades of blue and green, distinct in each body of water we see; the different types of people we pass, from serious unsmiling trekkers to laughing Chilean teens playing music from their phones; the total absence of trash in the park, despite the people; the lactic acid flooding my calf muscles; and my repeated mantra of ‘hiking is walking, just keep walking’.
It’s true what they say: that climbing a mountain is more rewarding than what you find at the top, but arriving to this view after a four hour uphill slog has its own unspoken honours.
The visual spectacle can manipulate any worn-out mood. As do the bottles of Malbec waiting for us when we return to our campsite after our fourth consecutive day of putting the tops of mountains beneath our feet.
Our final trek, an “easy” 16 kilometre flat(ish) walk, takes us to a lookout over a lagoon that straight-up belongs in space, beside the mighty mountain formation called Los Cuernos (the horns). These grey peaks are marked in the middle with a thick black line – the result of the hardened magma of a volcano that never breached. We enjoy a packed lunch in the shadow of the horns and hesitate to go back.
While the park is best explored through its many hikes, a bus ride through the massive area reveals places we’d struggle to access on foot. We see pockets with thundering waterfalls, gauchos (cowboys) in berets on horseback, guanacos (cousins of the llama), rheas (ostrich-like birds) and grand condors circling overhead. No pumas, but that’s probably for the best, Anita assures us.
We tell Anita, who spends more time inside the park than outside, that we love her office. She tells us that you never get bored of this place. “You come here everyday and it’s different.” The human condition of those who live and work in Patagonia is contagious, and the locals seemed to derive an immense and genuine pleasure from being there. Why wouldn’t they? There’s beauty all around.
Travel should make you feel small, and I’ve never felt smaller than being a dot within those panoramas. Maybe nature is God. Probably. But Patagonia revealed some weird subtlety in the design of nature that made me question – well, everything. It can’t be incidental. It can’t be a fluke of geology. It can’t have just happened. I tried to find another more fitting word, but I came up blank: it’s literally divine.
“Go outside, live free, smile more,” says Anita as we finally part ways, like some sort of prophet.
(The writer travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel. All photos: Patrick O’Neill)