Patagonia? The name itself conjures mystery. “Where in the world is Patagonia?” you ask? Patagonia lies at the southern parts of Argentina and Chile in South America. The Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean is on its west. The Atlantic Ocean is in the East. The notorious Drake Passage, and Antarctica, is to its south. The Colorado River flowing from the Andes in the Northwest, into the Atlantic Ocean in the East, is usually regarded as Patagonia’s Northern boundary.
Patagonia is a sparsely populated, wild, and an immensely beautiful region. Over the centuries, its wind-whipped landscapes of pristine emerald lakes, white snow-capped mountains, glaciers, ice fields and vast stretches of empty arid grasslands, have fascinated many travellers. I’ve just returned from Patagonia for the seventh time. I want to tell you about Patagonia. I urge you to place Patagonia on your radar, and to consider Patagonia in your gypsetting plans, because it’s one of the most fascinating places in the world.
The first Europeans to arrive in Patagonia were the explorer Magellan and his crew in 1520. Magellan reported seeing natives on the shore of the straits that bears his name today, who were twice the size of the relatively smaller Europeans of that time. Magellan and his crew called those giants patagons, a reference to a literary character in a Spanish novel of the early 16th century who was big in size. Subsequent explorers fuelled the legend when they too, reported seeing these patagons. Eventually the land of the giants became known as ‘Patagonia’, a name which has endured to this day. In reality, those natives were never as big or as tall as they were made out to be in those early, exaggerated travellers’ tales. In all likelihood, these giants were probably the indigenous Tehuelches natives, who are known to be quite tall, and up to around 6 ft. 6 inches, but certainly not 9 or 12 feet tall as those sailors would have their listeners believe.
So what is so special about Patagonia, which led National Geographic to rate it as number four in the list of the one hundred most beautiful places on earth? You’ll need to go there yourself to see why, because my photos just don’t do justice to the attractions of Patagonia. I’ve been to Patagonia seven times, and I keep returning, so that should be a clue. Immediately after my next Antarctica Expedition in January 2018, (email me at [email protected] if you’d like to join me), I am planning to explore yet another part of Patagonia – the fjord coast of Chile on the Pacific side, to look for breeching blue whales, humpback whales and gray whales. The topographical conditions and water depths in Chile’s Patagonian coastline, encourages migrating whales to come very close to shore between December to March, when they are making their long journey from warmer latitudes, where they mate and give birth, to the krill-filled waters of southern Chile and Antarctica.
Other areas in Chile’s Patagonia where you can see whales and penguins up close and personal, are the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve which is just over 100 km north of La Serena, and the Francisco Coloane Marine Park near Punta Arenas. This latter marine park is home to the Minke, Humpback and Southern Right whales. Here you can go sea kayaking among the whales for an unforgettable adrenaline rush. Patagonia is huge, with many breath-taking National Parks within its boundaries. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, a trekker’s delight, and a landscape photographer’s wet dream. Although it is more than a million square kilometres in size, Patagonia has barely been settled, or civilised, since humans first arrived there tens of thousands of years ago.
Patagonia is such a remote location that the writer Bruce Chatwin famously described Patagonia as, “the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origin”. It takes almost 30 hours, including transit time, to fly from Malaysia to Patagonia. So it’s no wonder that Patagonia is off the radar for most people from my part of the world. But make an effort to go to Patagonia, and you’ll be amply rewarded. Go to Ushuaia, the pretty little town at the tip of Patagonia and South America. It is often called fin del mondo or the end of the world, but the proud Ushuaians prefer to call their remote township Principio de todo, or the beginning of everything, instead of the end of the world.
Ushuaia is the port from which you can board ships for cruises to Antarctica. However I need to tell you that if you are planning to go to Antarctica, try to avoid sailing across Drake Passage, because the seas there are among the wildest and most ferocious on earth. In fact at Cape Horn, at the southernmost tip of Continental South America, there is a monument in the shape of an albatross, which was erected there to remember the thousands of seamen in days of old, who died while attempting to sail around Cape Horn. However, once you get to the waters off the Antarctica Peninsula coast, you will find that they are pleasantly calmer as they are protected from the winds by the string of islands off Antarctica’s coastline. Although modern cruise ships are very safe, and many have sophisticated ballast systems to maintain an even keel during stormy weather, if you decide to visit Antarctica, it is better to do it my way – by flying over the Drake Passage from Punta Arenas in Patagonia, and board your cruise ship at King’s Island in Antarctica. You should plan for your Antarctica cruise to end at Port Stanley in the Falklands, because doing this means you can again avoid sailing across Drake Passage by flying from the Falklands back to Punta Arenas. When in Patagonian Argentina, do remember it’s polite to refer to the Falklands as the Malvinas.
Patagonia has near-mythical status in the minds of the world’s adventurers. Patagonia’s numerous national parks is home to amazing mountain peaks, vast and empty steppes, glaciers, fjords, icefields, lakes, rapids, waterfalls and some seldom heard of wildlife, like Guanacos, Condors, Caracaras, Podu, Pumas and the Culpeo Fox. It is a region of incredible natural beauty, virtually untouched by the hands of man. The average population density here is less than 2 persons per square kilometre. There is a so called highway that runs across Patagonia from the north to south, stretching for more than 6000 km called Route Forty or Ruta Forty. Ten years ago when I was on a 100 days expedition to circumnavigate South America in a go-anywhere 4×4 truck, I saw less than 20 other vehicles along a 1500 km stretch of this amazing road. It’s no wonder Ruta Forty is called the Loneliest Highway in the world.
Although many stretches of the highway are simply dusty unpaved tracks cut through the arid pampas, the sights that greet you will be nothing short of amazing. One such view is the photo of the rainbow over Ruta 40 which was shot through the windscreen of my truck, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a small camera. And you will see a lot of wild Guanacos by the side of the road. Guanacos are graceful and elegant animals with a long slender neck and fine legs. They are from the camelid family and are related to the domestic llama. There are nearly half a million guanacos roaming freely in the steppes of Patagonia. Half a century ago, there were 20 million. Many have been killed by farmers who see them as competitors for grazing land for their sheep. Guanacos are the natural prey of the elusive Patagonian Puma. During my recent visit to Patagonia, we saw a Puma feasting on a Guanaco he had just killed. Other wild animals you are likely to see in Patagonia are Andean Foxes, the Huemul or Andean deer, and an occasional Puma or two.
And if you are into bird watching, the huge condors of Patagonia can often be seen scavenging on road kills, as well as leftover carcases of dead guanacos killed by pumas. The Andean Condor is one of the largest flying birds on earth, with a wing span of around 3 meters. These vultures can fly as high as 4000 meters and they live up to seventy years. The Condor is the national bird of Argentina. Other large birds you are likely to see in Patagonia are Darwin’s Rhea, a flightless bird that looks like an ostrich, and also exotic raptors like the Patagonian Caracara.
Caracaras are quite unafraid of humans so you can creep up close to them and shoot them with a 50 mm lens. Driving through Ruta Forty, I noticed almost the entire stretch is bordered on both sides by a flimsy wire fence. I discovered subsequently, large tracts of empty and barren land in Patagonia had in fact been sold to wealthy individuals and foreigners, in what is called prestige purchases. In the one-upmanship world of the very wealthy, it wasn’t quite enough to own a private jet and moor your yacht in Monaco, but it is something if over cocktails you casually mention to your friends that you have a 200,000 hectares estanza or a ranch in Patagonia.
However not all prestige purchases of land in Patagonia were whimsical. Doug Tompkins, one of the founders of the outdoor clothing brand The North Face, was a keen conservationist, and he bought huge swathes of land in southern Chile and Argentina to preserve it. When Tomkins died in a kayaking accident in Chile in 2015, inspired by his vision, his widow Kristine McDivitt Tompkins donated 408,000 hectares of his land to Chile for national parks to be created.
There are six major national parks in Patagonia – Los Glaciares, Nahuel Huapi and Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, and Torres del Paine, Laguna San Rafael and Alberto de Agostini in Chile. Each National Park has its own unique charms. In the North, the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina has the mesmerizing Mt Fitzroy or Cerro Chalten as its centrepiece. It is surrounded by equally beautiful companion peaks, Cerro Poincenot, Rafael, Saint Exupery and the jagged needle like Torre, Egger, Herron and Standhart on one side, and Val Bois and Mermoz on the other.
equipment in El Chalten, and even hire guides and porters if you need to. As I wanted to photograph the golden autumn landscapes, sunsets, sunrises and the Milky Way with Cerro Chalten in the frame, I opted to go trekking and camping for 5 days in the Los Glaciares National Park. On Day 1 I trekked 12 km up to Laguna Torre where we camped for the first night. I am 72 years old, so it will be an easy trek for you thirty and forty somethings. Along the track, the autumn colours of skeletal Beech forests framed the Fitzroy massif beautifully. One of my friends aptly called the view before us as a giant Japanese Garden in the sky.
On the second day, I climbed higher to the Poincenot camp, sleeping in tents in sub-zero temperatures, before descending nearly a thousand meters on the fifth day, to return to El Chalten. It was quite an easy trek because I didn’t climb higher than altitudes where AMS would be an issue. If you are fitter than me, you can attempt the non-technical ascent of nearby Cerro Eléctrico and be rewarded with amazing views of Mt Fitzroy and its cousins. It’s a pity Park Authorities prohibit the flying of drones as I could have obtained such spectacular shots. Mt Fitzroy itself is a technical mountaineer’s wet dream. The sheer, near vertical granite faces of Mt Fitzroy, and the needle like jagged peaks of its cousins, Torre, Egger, Herron and Standhardt, poses an intimidating challenge to mountaineers. My guide said that each year, more than 5,000 people successfully make the accent to the peak of Mt Everest, which is the highest mountain in the world at 8848 meters.
Mt Fitzroy is only 3405 meters and although hundreds of people try to climb Fitzroy each year, not more than two or three climbers succeed in getting to the top of Fitzroy and its cousins. The needle like jagged peaks of Torre, Egger, Heron and Standhart, look menacingly wicked and unwelcoming. Many mountaineers have tried to climb them, and many have paid with their lives. Aside from Mt Fitzroy, if you are in Argentinean Patagonia, you shouldn’t miss a visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier in the Southern part of the Los Glaciares National Park. You can make El Calafate your base to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. Measuring 30km long, 5km wide and 60m high, the Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still growing. It moves forward at up to two meters each day, and it is one of the prettiest glaciers I have ever seen. And getting there is extremely easy, as you can drive right up to the cliffs above the face of the Perito Moreno Glacier, and safely shoot photos from there. You can also take a cruise boat in Lago Argentina to sail right next to the north face of the Glacier which is normally hidden from the common viewing platforms.
Yet another attraction of Argentinean Patagonia is Penguin spotting and Whale watching at Punta Valdez on the Atlantic coast, and at Puerto Madryn. Apart from Humpbacks breeching close to shore at Punta Valdez, you can also see killer whales or Orcas, snatching seals right at the shore line. And when you are done savouring nature’s visual delights in Argentinean Patagonia, head for an Asador or Parilla restaurant to tuck into another Patagonian wonder of the world – Patagonian lamb slow roasted on a T-frame, Asador style. It is one of the things that keep pulling me back to Patagonia. There’s something in Patagonian lamb that makes it so different from roast lamb elsewhere. I am a fan of roast lamb, and apart from Patagonia, there are three other places in the world where you’ll get amazing roast lamb. But that’s another tale for another time. In Chile’s part of Patagonia, the most visited attraction is the Torres del Paine National Park.
The park has been listed as the 8th Wonder of the World by TripAdvisor. I stayed at an incredible hotel (in terms of location, not its food quality), built on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Pehoe, with the Torres del Paine massif overlooking the resort. The views of the Paine Massif from Lake Pehoe are incredible. You could just sip coffee by the wood fire in the hotel’s restaurant, and soak in the grandeur of the Paine Massif even without venturing outside into the cold blustery weather. At sunrise, when the first rays of the sun hits the Torres del Paine massif, the way the highest parts is lighted is amazing.
It is as if the Gods have set the mountains on fire. The best time to visit the Torres del Paine National Park is between September and April, during the southern spring, summer and early autumn. In summer, daylight hours are very long given the extreme southern latitude. Outside of this period, the weather becomes a little extreme for us tropical types. During the southern winter, daylight dwindles to only a few hours a day. There are 24,133 glaciers in Chile alone, comprising 82% of the glaciers in South America. These vast and intricate cascades of whites, blues and browns, form one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world. Many of the glaciers are easily accessible, and if you should find yourself visiting Grey Glacier, try to go for a cruise on Grey’s glacial lake.
From your ship you can see calving, or the breakaway of massive chunks of ice at the face of the glacier. A 4 hours cruise on Lago Grey to view the impressive Grey Glacier will cost about US$100, Go to Argentina and Chile, and try and see Patagonia. You will be glad that you did. Email me if you’d like to join me in Antarctica and Patagonia on my next visit in 2018 and 2019.
Photos: Yusuf Hashim