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Spires of Patagonia

The Press

13 May 2011

Before you pull out the atlas, a word of warning: Patagonia isn’t officially a 'place' as such. Rather it’s the name given to an area spanning southern Argentina and Chile, and everything you have heard about it – barren, windswept, sparse and beautiful – is true.

Patagonia is also exceptionally remote, with the remotest of the remote being the small frontier town of El Chalten. A far cry from the wide avenues of Buenos Aires, El Chalten was only established 30 years ago as a base for those seeking out the jagged spires.

Complete with roaming dogs, micro-brewery and no ATMs, this was to be the starting point for our Patagonian adventure. To be honest, I didn’t have any great expectations on the glaciers, mountains and lakes nearby; I just assumed they would be similar to our Franz Joseph, Cook and Hawea. How spectacularly wrong I was…

Our very first excursion brought home that this was no ordinary part of the world. The majestic Perito Moreno Glacier, a blue-iced mammoth more than 6 stories high and 3kms wide is one of the few advancing glaciers left in the world. It is also one of the most spectacular. We stood on our boat awestruck as it cracked and creaked, piercing the quiet before ice broke off to thunder down into the waters below. Later there were even more opportunities to “ooh” and “ahh” from the myriad of walkway lookouts designed to show off nature’s splendour.

While that day was relatively easy the next few would be a little more challenging. Patagonia is a climbers and hikers mecca, and for us this was going to be an active holiday. Eight to nine hours a day walking up to 25kms meant it did help to have a moderate level of fitness. Our first real trek was to see the fabled Cerro Fitz Roy, a mountain that the native Tehuelche thought was an active volcano due to the cloud constantly around it.

Located in Argentina’s Parque National Los Glaciares, Fitz Roy is a photographer’s dream that is perhaps only eclipsed by two stunning lakes – the emerald green Laguna Sucia and the reflective blue Laguna de Los Tres. As we stretched back to take in the view, suddenly our feet didn’t seem so sore any more.

The next day it was time for a close up look at the quintessential Patagonian peak, Cerro Torre. It was hard to believe that yesterday’s vista could be surpassed, yet three hours later we were standing in front of a glacial lake which had icebergs floating to shore. It was all simply a little too surreal.

Our guide explained that we were extremely privileged to have seen the mountain at all. Patagonia is quite rightly known for its changeable weather and more than once did we have to pull out our Gore-Tex jackets before stuffing them back into our packs just as quickly.

Chilean Patagonia is a slightly different beast from its Argentinian cousin, with grassy pampas, gushing waterfalls, craggy rocks, pebble lake beaches and of course, mandatory glaciers. At 51° South is the massive Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve that forms part of the 16,000 square kilometre Southern Patagonian Ice Field. It is about as close to the end of the Earth as you can get.

The star of the show is the immense Torres del Paine, a trio of pure granite towers standing over 2800metres tall that dominate this former sheep estancia. Home to two famous walks – the W (of which we took a whole day just to do one of its sides) and the full Circuit – Torres del Paine (pronounced pie-nay) is high on the ‘must do’ list for any serious hiker. It’s well equipped with refugios along the trial which are a welcome respite from battling the 90kmh winds that suddenly change your plans for the day.

Just as spectacular as the scenery is the park’s wildlife. We were fortunate enough to spot a group of Andean Condor rising, rising, rising up through the valley floor only to circle above what remained of a puma’s kill. The carnivorous condor has the largest wingspan of any bird in the world, 3 metres, and with its 3km eyesight (yes, that’s 3 kilometres) and endangered species status it is one vulture not to be messed with. Its prey in this case was a young chulengo, the offspring of the llama-like Guanacos who roam freely across the national park. Protected from mankind, the greatest threat to male guanacos are other male guanacos who protect their territory by chasing them to bite their testicles.

The star of the show is the immense Torres del Paine, a trio of pure granite towers standing over 2800metres tall

Less brutal are the red and grey foxes – small, fast, solitary creatures living in the steppe. Feeding on lizards and rodents, it’s not often you’ll see one in the wild long enough for it to stay still in one place. The bird life was also vastly different.

Stopping to fill our water bottles in one of the many glacial streams along the way, the tap-tapity-tap of a native woodpecker earning his lunch brought smiles all round. Even the humble owl – in this case the Pygmie Owl – was no stranger to hunting. We awoke one morning to find one proudly clawing what looked like a decapitated mouse, before he fluttered off to share his breakfast.

Having a good base is vital for this part of the world, and for us it was a campsite in the shadow of the Towers of Paine. While the site was basic we got to experience both the local culture and food. Sipping mate through a metal straw from a gourd was a highlight, but nothing compared to the whole lamb slowly barbequed on a metal stake for an entire day. If you’re a vegetarian sometimes it’s a little tough in South America.

It wasn’t all bad though – not far from our site was a concession to home comforts in the form of a proper bar and restaurant where they served up lovingly warm Chilean reds to those of us weary from another day. Staggering back at night we took a moment to turn off our headlamps and look up. Layers of stars were stacked one above another; a sky so clear and pure that it was a pity to bid it adios and reluctantly make our way back to civilisation the next day.

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