Patagonia: the Home of the Gods

Trip Start Aug 06, 2008
Trip End Dec 04, 2008

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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Monday, October 20, 2008

Patagonia. The name conjures images of impenetrable wilderness; rugged and daunting. The name Patagonia, given by Ferdinand Magellan, actually means 'big feet'; it seems that when he first arrived in the area, he noticed that the indigenous people who lived here were tall and had large feet. Guess 'ol Ferdy was a bit of a size queen. :-) Err, back to those images... Yes, Patagonia is indeed a rugged and daunting place. It's a huge area that's divided by countless channels, fjords, ice-fields, glaciers and the southern end of the mighty Andes mountains, making large parts of the region quite inaccessible. Then there's the extreme weather. The wind is relentless and can bring with it rain, hail and snow at any time of the day throughout the year. The wind is a dominating factor in Patagonia: through the course of millions of years, it has determined where forests grow, where the glaciers flow and how the vegetation is shaped. All these elements make Patagonia a remote and wild region that is fascinating, awe-inspiring and often bewildering.

Frits and I flew into Punta Arenas from Santiago (a 3.5 hour flight) on Wednesday. The flight down gave us an unforgettable impression of Chile's geography and geology. It was an incredibly clear day and the pilot basically followed the line of the Andes to the south, treating us to amazing panoramas of the snow-capped mountains, lakes, volcanos, rivers, fjords and glaciers. It was simply breathtaking. The highlight was seeing the Los Glaciares National Park from the air. The park is just across the border in Argentina and encompasses a large slice of the massive Patagonian ice-field, including the famous Perito Moreno and Uppsala glaciers, and the massive jagged peaks of the Fitzroy mountains.

We were prepared for some rough weather in Patagonia (we were warned by both our guide books and Mauricio in Santiago) but apart from the constant strong wind and the accompanying chill factor, the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly. We were warmly dressed and we slathered dollops of sunscreen as we were also warned that in the spring, the hole in the ozone layer is directly above Patagonia so the risk of severe burns was very real. We were met at the airport by our guide for the day and we hopped into a mini-van along with a small group of other tourists for our trip to Puerto Natales, about 250 km northwest of Punta Arenas. Along the way, we stopped at a colony of Magellanic penguins. Funny creatures. As we stood there observing the penguins, one of the guys in the group asked the guide where the sun sets in Patagonia. The guide gave him a puzzled look, answered "in the west" and pointed in a westerly direction. Now it was the guy's turn to look puzzled. After a moment of thought, he said, "I thought the sun sets in the east in the southern hemisphere, opposite from the northern hemisphere". I guess that's one reason why travelling is so important: to expand our horizons and to learn new things, like where the sun sets in the southern hemisphere! :-)

The drive to Puerto Natales took us through the massive wind-swept desolate Patagonian steppe. Just low, thick shrubs as far as the eye can see and not a tree in sight. We later passed an area which did have some midget-like trees and all the branches faced one way, in the direction of the wind. The wind here is indeed harsh and incredibly dry (after having dumped all its moisture in the Andes). We arrived in Puerto Natales in the dark and were dropped off at our hotel: Hotel Indigo. We were glad to finally get out of that cramped mini-van. We stepped into the hotel and were just blown away by the interior. Black and different shades of brown constrasted sharply with the white, red and yellow in the cushions and furniture while the black granite floor complemented the wooden walls, windows and doors. Ramps and broad staircases criscrossed the main atrium, some accompanied by cascading streams. The spa on the rooftop was just incredible. It was all white and had among others outdoor pools with ergonomically designed 'deckchairs' IN the 38 degree water that had built-in jets to provide a massage as you lay in them. And the views of the harbour and the snow-capped mountains in the distance were nothing short of stunning. Our room was pretty stunning too. We had an open-plan bathroom - the sink and counter faced the sleeping area while the shower had just two glass walls that separated it from the rest of the room. A large bay window formed a perfect frame for the gorgeous view. Absolutely loved it. We left our bags in the room and rushed downstairs to explore the rest of the hotel. The loungebar was great - large sofas and ditto cushions. We ordered our new favourite drink, pisco sour (the Chilean national drink - which, by the way, originates from Peru - a liquor with lemonade and whipped egg-white and tastes absolutely yummy!), sat back on the comfy sofas and though we were both exhausted, we felt very happy.

We left Puerto Natales the next morning at 6:30am for the long drive across the border into Argentina to the small town of El Calafate and further to the Perito Moreno glacier. The five hour drive was very scenic. We first drove past the deep blue Seno Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope Sound) - love the name - where huge snowy mountains rise steeply from the water's edge to heights exceeding 2,500m, their flanks littered with gorgeous waterfalls and cascades. After crossing the border, we continued through the steppe, with its bare hills, gushing streams and aquamarine lakes, while the imposing granite peaks of the Andes formed a constant backdrop. After several hours, we reached Lago Argentino, a huge glacial lake with water that's a bright turquoise. Here and there, we spotted several icebergs that had broken off from various glaciers that flow into the lake. A stunning sight. We passed the town of El Calafate and drove another 80km to the Perito Moreno glacier. The Perito Moreno glacier is located in the Los Glaciares National Park which we saw a day earlier from the plane. The park is huge and includes the Patagonian ice-field, the origin of several massive glaciers, including the Perito Moreno. The drive to the entrance of the park past huge glacial lakes and impressive snow-capped peaks was magnificent. Just when I thought it couldn't get more spectacular, we rounded a corner and caught our first glimpse of the glacier. OMG factor 10+. To begin with, it's huge! I'm not sure how long it is but it is four kilometers wide and at its end, it towers 60 - 80 meters high above the lake. The glacier is so huge that it literally divides the huge lake in two: it flows down from the mountain into the lake and hits the opposite shore of the lake, thereby creating a dam. Every so often, the pressure on one side of the lake builds up to such a tremendous level that it breaks through the glacier in a spectacular display of exploding ice - that's what most people hope to see when they come here but this phenomenon only happens once every few years. Furthermore, the glacier's surface is not smooth but craggy, giving it a very thorny appearance. Its colour is just awesome: an icy blue. Plain water does have a colour: it's blue - Frits told me that not many people actually realise that water is blue in colour. Well, not in a glass but when it's frozen like this, and compressed into a massive glacier, it suddenly becomes very evident! And the blue is just STUNNING!! The most bewildering thing about this glacier: you can hear it move!! It doesn't creak or squeak, when it makes a move (you can hear something every few minutes), it releases a thunderous roar that you can hear from miles away. We took a boat ride to the front of the glacier's wall and we were so lucky. Just as we pulled up to the front of the glacier, we heard a massive cracking sound and all of a sudden, a large piece of the wall just fell away into the lake, sending a big wave heading our way. OMG factor 10+++. Good thing regulations prevent boats from getting closer than 300 meters because those waves were pretty big. Good thing also that we were in a catamaran which was very stable! Smaller pieces of the wall crashed into the water in the next half hour - I just couldn't believe these astonishing scenes. It felt so surreal. We were soon surrounded by icebergs and other smaller bits of floating ice. WOW! We spent an hour on the boat cruising along the two kilometer north face of the glacier (the south face is another two kilometers wide), and when we got back to the pier, we went on a walk along the boardwalks which brought us to the front of the glacier that hits the far shore of the lake. Impressive stuff. The glacier was prominently featured in Al Gore's alarmist documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth' as an example of global warming - convenient filming I guess. Just find a glacier that crashes into a lake on a regular basis, film it (you don't have to wait too long before the next piece crashes down), and there you have it: 'concrete proof' of global warming! He just forgets to mention that this particular glacier has been very active for centuries and that glaciers' retreat and expansion have been occurring in cycles for billions of years. And I believe the 'big freeze' is up next. There you go, I've said my piece!

On the way back to Puerto Natales, we stopped by at El Calafate which I must say is a lovely small town that's definitely worth a visit. We had a cold glacier beer, then hopped into the van for the long drive back.

We were treated to another absolute highlight the following day: the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. It was another early start, this time at 7am, and we drove northwards from Puerto Natales. It was another glorious day: clear and sunny, but cold and windy. The Torres del Paine NP is one of those few places on Earth that will absolutely blow your mind away. We spent the whole day driving through the park and the scenery along the way was so intense that the superlatives I had in mind aren't sufficient to describe this place. We saw huge, imposing mountains, with granite faces that rise vertically almost 3,000m high; magnificent jagged peaks that resemble the tips of fountain pens; immense turquoise and dark blue lakes, some littered with gigantic icebergs; eery moss-covered forests; gorgeous alpine meadows; impressive volcanos; massive glaciers; crystal-clear rivers full of salmon and trout; and beautiful waterfalls. One of the highlights of this trip was the trek along the shores of Lago Grey (Grey Lake). It's one of the many lakes in the park but the scenery is simply mind-blowing. OMG factor: way off the scale! Seriously, if Bora Bora was a "little piece of heaven", then Patagonia (and Torres del Paine in particular) must surely be the Home of the Gods. Throughout my travels, I've not seen anything so spectacular and magnificent. Yes, landscapes like this exist in places like New Zealand's South Island but absolutely not on this scale. We spent the day just gaping at the scenery and there were lots of 'ooohhs', 'aahhhs' and 'wows'. Well, let the photos speak for themselves. This place is just incredible. We were very lucky of course because the weather was good throughout the day and aside from the occasional clouds, we had unobstructed views of the Torres del Paine peaks for most of the day.

The next day, we went for a boat trip along the Seno Ultima Esperanza to two other glaciers: Balmaceda and Serrano. It was another beautiful day and the trip was just gorgeous. The fjords were breathtaking, with mountains rising steeply on both sides to their snow-covered peaks more than 2,000m high; cliffs that harbour a variety of wildlife including sea lions, condors and cormorans; and countless waterfalls and cascades down the mountainsides. Totally breathtaking. The glaciers were stunning - that icy blue is just magnificent! After cruising past the Balmaceda glacier, we docked near the Serrano glacier and were led through the forest along a series of trails to various look-out points which offered stupendous views of the Serrano glacier and the little icebergs in the lake. That afternoon, we docked at an estancia (a cattle ranch) where we were treated to a lovely BBQ lunch with heaps of grilled beef, pork, lamb and chicken. Awesome! As we left the estancia, the weather turned quite suddenly. The sunny sky turned a dark grey in an instant and it started to pour. We were tossed around by big waves and strong winds as we cruised back to Puerto Natales. I'm quite accustomed to bad weather on boats now :-) so I just shrugged it off and fell asleep!

When we reached Puerto Natales, we were taken to the bus terminal where we boarded a regular bus to Punta Arenas, where we are right now. Punta Arenas is the southernmost city on the American continent. Located on the shores of the Strait of Magellan, the city is really interesting and colourful and boasts an amazing history of pioneers, immigrants, booms and busts and Antartic explorers. I guess it's a pretty important city for the Dutch as well because both ING and Rabo have big offices here and there's also a Dutch consulate! By the time we arrived in Punta Arenas (about a three hour bus ride from Puerto Natales), it was dark and very cold and windy, and we were totally exhausted. We checked into our hotel, Cabo de Hornos, which faces the town's main square. After a quick dinner, I was glad to just climb into a nice warm bed and doze off. The next morning, we were taken on a short tour of the city. It is a very pleasant city. I especially love the brightly coloured houses and the broad avenues. We were driven up to a viewpoint where we had a brilliant view of the city, the dark blue Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego in the distance. From here, it really did feel like we were at the 'end of the world' as the tourism office here proclaims. Funny though because Punta Arenas is as southerly as Amsterdam is northerly, yet it feels so much more remote. Could it be because most of the planet's landmass (and its population) is in the northern hemisphere? After the viewpoint, we went to a museum where we had a great overview of the city's history. Fascinating place filled with the adventures and haunting stories of the city's earliest inhabitants. We then continued the tour to the city's cemetery. Morbid, no. Stunning, yes! The cemetery was opened in the late 19th century by one of the city's richest citizens, a wool baroness by the name of Sara Braun. Her tomb and that of her husband's are absolutely impressive. The other tombs (little houses where whole families are laid to rest) were really beautiful - I loved the manicured trees too.

Anyway, that was Patagonia. A bit of a long read I guess but I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have. I feel so privileged that I've been able to witness the immaculate nature of this region. I'm still feeling quite exhausted from all those amazing sights but the excitement and exhilaration is pushing me on. Quite a few people have asked me if I'm now tired of the travelling, the new impressions and experiences every day. The answer is a resolute NO! Why, I'm seeing the most amazing things, experiencing new cultures and above all, during these four months, I'm actually living one of my dreams: travelling around the world and writing about it. I don't know if it can get much better than this. And for that reason, I've extended my trip to early December :-)

Ok, back to my trip. We leave Punta Arenas tomorrow morning for a two hour flight to Puerto Montt, halfway between here and Santiago. From there, we'll head to Puerto Varas, a small lakeside town where we'll stay for a night. The next day, we'll embark on a two-day lake crossing trip that will take us over the Andes and into Argentina where we'll be for the following twelve days.

Take care all.

Big hugs from 'the Home of the Gods',
Slideshow Report as Spam


nagtglas on

useful reading
Hi Keith,

Fascinating reports! It just so happens that Marlous and I are off to BA, Patagonia and 'the rest' of Argentina as from the second half of November.
So your travelreport makes also very useful reading!
Quite a trip you are making.


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