Sunday, 6 April 2014

Oh, Patagonia.

Down. Way down. Down a bit further. Down as far as you can go. Here you'll find Patagonia. Sat stubbornly on the edge of the civilised world. The icy tail-end of South America. A world of historical human endeavour. Hope and despair. Triumph and failure. A rugged uncompromising land of steeps and shingles, granite and ice. Sparse vegetation battered by the elements - 120mph winds, driving rain, tumultuous seas. Not somewhere easily consenting to population and exploration. Yet, many proud fixtures in the resistant environment carry the names of those who successfully led the way in their conquering: The Magellan Straight, The Beagle Channel, Cerro FitzRoy. Alongside reminders that not all were so lucky: Last Hope Sound.

Cold
The major regret of my first Latin American adventure was not making it down here. As a traveller motivated primarily by challenges and drawn to the extremes, there is something greatly symbolic about the lower reaches of Patagonia. The final frontier of this incomprehensibly huge, varied and wonderful continent. You've reached the end, balanced on the tip, teetered over the edge of world. There's nowhere else to go (unless you have a spare £5000 for a week's cruise around Antarctica). When presented with a second chance to reach this milestone, I had my trekking boots on before you could say "Tierra del Fuego".

Snow trekking
The tougher side of travelling is always the most enjoyable. Testing the limits and feeling like something has been achieved. A summit reached or hardship overcome, no matter how ultimately pointless and unnecessary. There's a certain romance to trudging up a snow-covered mountain, head down and body bent against the horizontal rain, lungs burning in the thin air, feet frozen, hands numb. Just to stand on the summit for a few minutes before stumbling all the way back down again. There is nothing remotely fun about this, but it feels worthwhile just to have achieved something against the odds. A kick to the nuts of laziness, "I haven't just been bumming around, I did something really quite horrible for no particular reason." Why isn't important. Success is. As early mountaineering pioneer George Mallory explained when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: "Because it's there."

Such an attitude drives the desire to explore Patagonia. It's not a particularly easy place to travel. Distances long, dwellings few, conditions testing. This unpleasantness carries great allure. Just arriving somewhere that was tough to reach greatly increases my enjoyment of that place. I'm fully aware of the fact that this is all bizarre stubbornness inside of my own head, but such knowledge does nothing to reduce the effect. All these things considered should make it easy to guess: I love Patagonia.

Glaciers

Glaciers like the cold. They are at home in icy surroundings. The colder the better. Which explains why such a vast number have settled in Patagonia. Eking out an existence, advancing and retreating at a fittingly glacial pace. Crawling down from freezing mountain-tops, slowly winding through snug windswept valleys to create large frigid blue-green-glowing lagunas. They vary greatly in size, state and shape, but all share an undeniable ability to awe.

One frozen behemoth deserving of particular attention is the immense Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina's Parque Nacional de los Glacieres. No amount of pre-reading into the unfathomable scales at play - a width spanning 5km, sourced from numerous other smaller glacial flows converging 35km behind the 70m high front face- can prepare you for a viewing en vivo.

Ice falling
The vast majority of glaciers in the world are in a state of recession. Perito Moreno is extraordinary not only for the fact that it is advancing (one of only three in Patagonia) but also at an incredible speed - up to 2m each day. Such rampant natural dynamism causes immense pressure and great jagged hunks of ice to collapse from the face in spectacular fashion. First, a booming crack. The sort of noise that hits the pit of your stomach, resonates through the chest and makes you miss a breath before it's even registered cerebrally as a sound. Great sheets of frozen mass sheer from the shaking facade and plummet down, bombing into the water below. Mini-tidal waves emanate from the point of entry before gigantic newly-formed icebergs bob to the surface, shimmering an impossible shade of blue in the sunlight.

Perito Moreno Glacier
A crowd stands enraptured on the viewing platform, mere metres away from this living, advancing object. Complete silence. Breath held. Scanning the icy expanse in nervous anticipation of the next section to collapse into the frosty depths. A mesmerising otherworldly experience. Time stops and the glacier takes on a sentient quality with all observers at it's absolute mercy, enthralled by it's presence, willing the next thunderous snap and fissure. Hours slip by unnoticed with all spectators stuck in this meditative state of awe. A reminder of the brute natural forces at work on this planet, processes that have been progressing without the need for conscious thought since long before humans arrived on the scene, and will continue to work and adapt to the environment long after we've gone again.

In short, it's really quite pretty.

Torres del Paine

Chile's Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is one of the most visited national parks in South America. The reason is simple: Trekking. Not just any trekking but an established yet remote and challenging 'circuit' that traces a 'W' shape through and around the park's centrepiece: Soaring granite towers that burst out of the Patagonian steepe and reach over 2000m up into the heavens. The sheer scale necessitates a week-long hike to cover the entire route.

Guanaco
This hiking/climbing/camping adventure has been top of my to-do-list for almost as long as I've been wandering the continent. Which made it very difficult to accept that having finally made it all the way down here, I couldn't get stuck into the 'circuit'. Being on a work assignment 'shadowing' another tour leader, our group only had three nights in the park. Not enough to attempt the classic trek. Still this relatively short time, this little taste of the majesty Torres can offer was sufficient to whet the appetite and harden my resolve to return next season with more time, more freedom, a tent and a comfortable pair of boots.

El Chalten

El Chalten's tourism strap-line 'Argentina's Trekking Capital' was enough to get me hooked. The reality was beyond any hiking aficionados rambling dream. A compact colourful hamlet with less than 1000 in the permanent population, crouched down at the bottom of a peaceful river valley, snuggled against rolling hills, evolving into sharp, snowcapped mountain-tops on all sides.

Roof wind damage - El Chalten
A fairytale backdrop that, bathed in sunlight, enchants even the most world-weary of travellers into feeling like they've fallen head-first into a flawless oil painting. The sun doesn't always cooperate in this respect though. This is Patagonia: The rain can fall in solid sheets, the winds can howl over 100mph and the clouds can conspire to obscure even the most minuscule of peaks. In such conditions, the fairytale descends into a Brothers Grimm nightmare. Luckily, my previously-discussed penchant for sadistic energy-sapping soirées means both scenarios hold a certain charm. Experiencing the bad elements only makes you appreciate the sunny days even more.

As it happened, I was informed on arrival in El Chalten that the following day was set to be the best of the year. Quite a promise, but hopes were kept low enough so as not to be shattered by the inevitable disappointment of the ever-changing Patagonian weather forecasts. El Prognostico held true however, and teaming up with a rag-tag band of other willing adventurers, I set out on a day's trek to Laguna de Los Tres. What a day. An all-encompassing treat for the senses: Crisp air blowing a gentle breeze across autumnal landscapes embellished in deliciously rich and vivid shades of red, yellow, green, overhead a boundless deep blue sky peppered with shy, sporadic clouds precariously clinging to the towering shards of the Cerro FitzRoy mountain range.

Cerro FitzRoy
Our jolly group of bumbling viajeros skipped carefree through this magical land for 9 straight hours, pausing only to drink pure icy water direct from burbling glacial streams and to take in the impossible beauty of valley-wide vistas from the heady heights of placid hill-top lakes and sweeping miradors. This was one special day when the planets aligned and the elements allowed for a celebration of absolute natural perfection on the outskirts of a remote Patagonian town. Henceforth, El Chalten is now a strong competitor for my favourite slice of paradise on this little old globe of ours.

The week that followed was spent in a similar manner, albeit under deteriorating climactic conditions. Each day I set out on a new trek, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied, always free. There is nothing quite as liberating as the sense of freedom from a careless jaunt across paisajes that never fail to awe at every corner, every summit, every turn in the path provoking wonder afresh. Lunch in the backpack, a head clear of worry, one foot in front of the other, bliss.

On more than one occasion I found myself alone on a meandering pathway as the wind died down, the sun broke through the clouds, nothing stirred the silence. A moment of clarity and untainted peace. Everything seemed right. Is this the answer? What we're all really looking for? If not, it'll do for now.

Ushuaia

The 'Southernmost City in the World' seemed a good place to finish my expedition. Pinned between the Beagle Channel and 1500m Andes peaks, Ushuaia ('oosh-why-er') is a beautifully rugged and isolated spot, a wild frontier at the very edge of this colossal continent. Offering more of the Patagonian staples - gorgeous twinkling glacial lakes, secluded miradors atop stark mountainsides, tough trekking, cold wet and windy delights - all just that little bit more extreme than before.

Ushuaia
Unless you fly (i.e. cheat) the city is only accessible via a series of exhausting bus and ferry exchanges traversing the wonderfully-christened Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). An odd name for a veritable land of ice, but so-called as a result of those aboard early European passing ships being enchanted by the myriad fires blinking along the coastline, tended by the contemporarily-unknown and mysterious indigenous population. Secluded, far-flung, hard-to-reach, surrounded on all sides by raw, imposing natural beauty. A fine setting in which to 'layer-up' one final time and take a bracing boat ride down the Beagle Channel, lean into the howling wind, breath my last Patagonian air and reflect. Gazing back at the final outpost on this astonishing continent. South America. A place that feels like home.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

Glacier Grey

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

Glacier Grey

Torres del Paine

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten (town location)

Tierra del Fuego National Park

Ushuaia

Ushuaia

Ushuaia

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel

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