Dipping in and out of the clouds, the jagged peaks of Patagonia are considered to be amongst the most magnificent, and dangerous, on earth, in some ways resembling both the explorers and natives who inhabited the area, who were able to survive in these harsh landscapes.
It was 1520 when the Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães made it to the southernmost tip of South America and, after passing through the now infamous Magellan Straits, came upon a land inhabited by “giants so tall that the tallest of us only came up to their waist.” This region, north of the 330 mile-long straits, was thereafter known as Patagonia, named after the fictional giant ‘Patagon’ who was famous in Spanish novels at the time. The region south of the straits was labeled ‘Tierra del Fuego’ (Land of Fire), after Magellan spotted numerous glowing campfires during dark and overcast nights.
Before the explorers made their mark, the land was inhabited by indigenous groups such as Yamanas and Onas in the Tierra del Fuego, and the Mapuches and Tehuelches on the mainland. The centuries that followed saw waves of immigrants from northern and central Europe blending with the native population to create mixed culture. The modern day indigenous communities are spread sparsely across the land, living on reserves or working in Estancias, with 35,000 of the Mapuches constituting the most populous community.
The Patagonian region now spans across two countries and cultures, shared by modern day Chileans, who are considered modest, friendly and hospitable, and Argentinians, who are generalized as more outgoing and passionate with a strong artistic flair. Although the people populating Patagonia have evolved, the mountains remain the constant and unyielding guardians of this region. The Andes, the longest mountain range on earth at 4,300 miles (7,000 km), have been an ever-present anchor in Patagonian history, and were to play a big role in the partition of the area between Chile and Argentina towards the end of the 19th century.
After an initial attempt at division in 1881 based on the highest Andes peaks, it wasn’t until 1902 when the border between the two countries was finally set across the summits of some of the most famous mountains, including Fitzroy and San Lorenzo. Even while tempers rose over the division, the climate remained as cool as ever compared to the rest of tropical South America, where four distinct seasons, sometimes all in one day, make the Patagonia a wildly unpredictable area.
Weather permitting, this action-packed, all-in-one destination offers something for everyone! The relaxing mountain retreat of the Argentinean Lake District is just one example of the variety that Patagonia has to offer. The largest city in the region is San Carlos de Bariloche – a quaint alpine-like resort colored by the plentiful buildings made from wood and stone – which serves as a gateway to the pristine lakes, rugged forest and snowy peaks.
Situated on the foothills of the Andes and surrounded by the Seven Lakes, you can explore the hypnotic waters of Lake Nahuel Huapi, taking a boat trip out to the tranquillity of Arrayanes Wood and Victoria Island. If it’s a high altitude destination that appeals to you, then the sugar coated peaks of Lopez, Frey, San Martin and Italia, casting shadows over the hushed lakes below, offer refuge at the summits after a panoramic trek.
On the border lies the gateway to the deep fjords of a stormy Pacific coast. Cruising the 800 miles of Chile’s inland waterways from Puerto Montt reveals the archipelagos of Chiloe, Chonos and Aysen, and the mythical city of Castro, before revealing the timeless and spellbinding San Rafael Glacier.
The main attraction of colorful Castro on the island of Chiloe lies in its forest folklore, which for centuries has claimed that the area is inhabited by mythical creatures. As the Campo de Hielo Norte (the closest body of ice of its kind to the equator) and the magnificent San Rafael Glacier come into view, it is hard not to be captivated by the constant tremors of the chunks of ice jumping ship into the lagoons to form mini icebergs.
The echoes do not resonate into the Southern Patagonian ice field, where the famous Perito Moreno Glacier remains in a unique state of equilibrium. This 30km-long and 5km-wide river of ice is located within Los Glaciares National Park, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is one of 20 national parks in Patagonia that have been created to protect both pine and coastal wilderness.
On the northern extreme of the park, granite peaks, lakes, woods and glaciers merge into an extraordinary encounter for those trekkers and climbers taking shelter in the village of El Chalten. The soaring mountains of Fitz Roy (3405m) and Torre (3102m) contribute to the reputation of Patagonian peaks being the ultimate challenge, with climbers being subjected to vertical walls, falling rocks, unpredictable weather and fierce winds.
The cloud-covered sky accompanies us over the arid Patagonian steppe all the way to Torres del Paine, past the oasis of El Calafate (gateway to the world of glaciers) and the poplars, willows and pines in the surrounding area. Three majestic pink and white granite towers guard over the 181,000 hectares of Chile’s most famous national park, where hikers often delight in completing the famous ‘O- or W-circuit’ trek, enjoying the spectacular landscape and abundant wildlife.
Finally we come to the grandeur of the 1,250 miles of the Patagonian Andes leading all the way to the end of the world at Ushuaia, where the wildlife continues to thrive. Capital of Tierra del Fuego, it is the closest mass of land to Antarctica, protected by mountains and glaciers, colored by forests, and open to the wild waves of the sea. Designated a penal colony towards the end of the 19th Century, the prisoners of the past have now been replaced by thousands of adorable penguins.
Almost a third of the lands in Chile and Argentina lie in the Patagonia, and while the dense clouds may temporarily cloak the borders between the two countries, the ice field north of Fitz Roy remains a disputed zone. Bumper stickers on cars reading “Los Hielos son Argentinos” (the ice is Argentinian) are common, but no one really knows what the future holds for this rugged territory. The only thing that is certain is that no one will ever truly conquer these great lands; they are destined to stand alone forever in their extreme and daunting form.
If you are interested in Trips to Argentina Patagonia check our selection of tours here: Say Hueque Patagonia.
Written by Andy Buswell – Freelance Travel Writer.