Patagonia: Home of the Gods (Part I)
(A page from my Travel Journal of my tour of Patagonia)
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.
My tour of Patagonia
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.
I flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas (a 3.5 hour flight), a flight that gave me 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.
I was prepared for some rough weather in Patagonia but apart from the constant strong wind and the accompanying chill factor, the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly. I was warmly dressed and slathered dollops of sunscreen as I was warned that in the spring, the hole in the ozone layer is directly above Patagonia so the risk of severe burns was very real. Upon arrival, I hopped into a mini-van along with a small group of other tourists for the trip to Puerto Natales (map), about 250 km northwest of Punta Arenas.
Visiting the Magellanic penguins
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 (Booking.com). 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. And the views of the harbour and the snow-capped mountains in the distance were nothing short of stunning.
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 I was exhausted, I felt very happy.
Trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier
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 (map) 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 (map). 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.
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. 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.
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.
Search for Puerto Natales Accommodations and Tours
Other Argentina & Chile Travel Journal entries include:
- Some lazy days in Salta (Salta, Argentina)
- The spectacular bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama to Salta (Chile/Argentina)
- Mystical Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Chile)
- My great laundry adventure (Bariloche, Argentina)
- That rock star feeling in the Lost World (Iguazu Falls, Brazil/Argentina)
- A desert full of wonders (San Pedro de Atacama, Chile)