Ode to Patagonia

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Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
By Duncan Walker

As I approached the top of the hill I could hear the wind howling over the peak. Here in the woods it was still, but as soon as I poked my head outside the trees that peace was shattered. The wind picked me up and hurried me helter-skelter along the open summit. My legs moved like marionettes, no longer dictated by my own will but by the whim of the wind and the roaring in my ears was deafening. I turned to face the force of the wind and battled to return the few steps I had taken back towards the wood. After a couple of endless minutes of taking two steps forward and one back I regained the shelter of the trees and paused a few moments to recover from my battle with the elements. Just another day in Patagonia.

The granite spire of Fitzroy
The granite spire of Fitzroy
On the southern tip of South America, Patagonia is a place I had dreamt for years of exploring. Spanning the southern part of Argentina and Chile, I had seen the pictures of the granite spires and cliffs of the Fitzroy and Paine sections of the Andes and longed to walk in the shadow of these giants. But these high peaks and the glaciers that tumble from the icefields behind are only part of the magic of Patagonia. On the Argentinian side, the plains stretch for hundreds of miles from the foot of the Andes to the Atlantic ocean. To the west of the Andes, the glaciers flow directly into the Pacific, forming a maze of channels and fjords where only a few people scratch out a living.

No description of Patagonia is possible without talking about the wind. Over all this land the wind is the king, sweeping in from the west over the Pacific, rising laden with moisture against the barrier of the Andes and then dropping all of that as snow over the southern Patagonian icefield, the third largest in the world, and the cradle of the glaciers that then flow to east and west, carving away the mountains in their wake. To the east of the Andes the wind meets no obstacles in its path and with each mile it travels, so the rainfall reduces. Here lies the Argentinean steppe, a sparsely populated scrubland. Travelling by bus over this, the view of the land is flat and unchanging for hundreds of miles. An hour or two may go by before another few trees rising out of the land mark another estancia or small settlement. A couple of blinks later and it has gone, a few simple houses with red roofs clustered in the lee of a small grove of trees which provides shelter from the remorseless wind. Across this land you may see the occasional small group of guanacos or a rhea zigzagging crazily like a drunkard. Now and again there is a flock of sheep and the gravel road heading onwards, straight as an arrow. If the land is unchanging, the sky above is a symphony of movement and light. Propelled by the wind, the clouds race past, occasional rays of sun illuminate the land below in the gaps between the clouds, an odd burst of rain is drunk up by the thirsty land. This is a view which would have made the great Dutch landscape painters feel right at home.

South of Rio Gallegos, the Straits of Magellan separate Tierra del Fuego from the mainland. This is a narrow strip of water where the winds typically blow from the Pacific to the Atlantic. In the days of sail, ships could spend weeks off the Atlantic side waiting for the winds to relent so that they could brave the passage and cross the continent of South America from east to west and enter the waters of Pacific. Tierra del Fuego – “The land of fire” – a wonderfully evocative name which bears little relation to this bleak, desolate and eerily beautiful landscape. Stories abound as to the origin of this name – did the sailors of Magellan look to the left and marvel at the columns of smoke arising from the fires of the Yachana people who lived in this land? Did they wonder at the nakedness of this people in this empty land and ponder how they kept warm? Whatever the reason, this is a land whose name rings in my ears.

An estancia sheltered from the wind
An estancia sheltered from the wind
Down on the southern tip, the Andes stage a last gasp before plunging into the ocean with a small uninhabited region where the peaks rise 3,000 feet from the sea. This is reminiscent of Scotland with marshy areas coating the valley floors; the mirky greens and browns draw the eye up towards the rocky peaks, still streaked with the last of the winter’s snow. I spent a couple of days backpacking in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, only a few hours walk from the town of Ushuaia but I could have been hundreds of miles from anywhere. My only companions were the courting couple of Patagonian geese who squawked loudly at each other before taking off for a ceremonial tour of the lake to assert their territorial rights. The cloud covered the sky except for the occasional ray of sun and muted the colours, imparting a watery hue to the landscape. This is not the grand, overwhelming majesty of the great peaks further north but an intimate masterpiece where each element blends with its neighbour to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The towns in this part of the world are wedded to the sea, outposts of civilisation far from the bustle of the major cities. In Argentina, Rio Gallegos, Rio Grande and Ushuaia, are home to the navy which underpins the local economy. Over 20 years after the Falklands War, the scars are still evident. These are the ports from which the navy sailed east to claim the land they believe is theirs and these are the towns whose young men died in a war they shouldn’t have been sent to fight. Prominently in each town you can find a memorial to the heroes of the Malvinas (Falklands) and a street named for the islands.

Beyond the navy, the local economy in these parts is heavily dependent on the sea. In Punta Arenas I went for a short kayak tour. We headed along the coast past the fishing port where a couple of supply boats were unloading the latest catch. During the season, a huge fleet of small fishing boats heads out to the fishing grounds off shore and on each small boat 3 men live for months at a time, putting out their crab pots and collecting the bounty of the sea. Shuttling between them and the shore is a train of supply boats such as the ones I saw, bringing food and supplies out to the smaller crabbing boats and returning to shore with the catch. I was told that the crab season ended in a few days time and that then the smaller crabbing boats would return to shore again and that the sea wall would then be packed as far as the eye can see with these boats tied up to shore and that the fishermen would return to land for the first time in months.

Chile is celebrated for its seafood and here in the south, it is the shellfish which dominate the menu and yet living from the sea is a precarious existence. Not only must they contend with the sea and the weather but also with the vagaries of the food chain. Shellfish feed on the plankton and algae in the water. Every now and again, the red tide sweeps along the Pacific coast – an algal bloom which leads to a build up of toxins in the shellfish so that they become poisonous. When the red tide comes, the livelihood of those who live from the sea vanishes and survival becomes even harder.

If Argentina is dominated by the wide open steppes and the sky, Chilean Patagonia is where the Andes rise up from the sea. For over 1000 kilometers north from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt, there is a maze of fjords and channels carved out by the glaciers which flow from the icefield above down to the sea. This is a harsh land, scoured in bygone ages by the ice and the last remnants are still visible today in places where the glaciers still tumble into the sea. Travelling through this region is only possible by sea; the 3 day ferry trip between Puerto Natales and Puerto Montt was one of the highlights of my trip to Patagonia. When I caught the boat heading north over Christmas, the weather gods smiled down on us – the wind didn’t blow and the grey clouds slowly cleared away and on the last day the sun came out and smiled down on us. The ferry is an interlude in the bustle of travel, a chance to sleep and eat and drink and share stories with others on board – a cross-section of travellers of all ages. Yet the ferry is not the sole preserve of the tourists; this is the main communication route between the south of Chile and the rest of this country and the ferry carries many lorries transporting goods and farm animals.

Falklands memorial in Ushuaia
Falklands memorial in Ushuaia
About halfway through the journey we stopped at the small village of Puerto Eden, a hundred or so houses strung out along the coastline. This was an opportunity to get out and stretch our legs for an hour or so and so most of us did… and yet many commented afterwards that it had felt like going to a zoo. There are no cars and no roads here. The only connection with the outside world is the twice weekly visit of the ferry. Along the shoreline, a wooden boardwalk links the houses, battered by the wind and the rain and held together with old newspaper, the paint peeling away in the winds. The people here are the last remnants of the Kaweskar, a tribe of seagoing nomads who once eked out a living in these fjords. All was well until the arrival of the Chileans at the end of the 19th century, bringing clothing and housing with them… and in their wake came disease as the Kaweskar forgot their old traditions. Today there are only 7 full blooded Kaweskar left, all living in Puerto Eden amongst its population of 200. A sad story that has been repeated all too often as ‘civilisation’ has advanced. Today they still live on the shellfish they gather…and on the tourists who throng their village for 2 hours a week to buy the simple crafts they make…and then leave and forget about the village dying in their wake. When the red tide comes, part of their livelihood is lost.

In Patagonia mankind has only established a toehold. Yet we continue to travel to this land from all over the world, drawn by the majesty of a land created and shaped by the forces of nature. I marvelled at the granite spires of the peaks, caught the bus across the steppes, swept by the relentless wind and threaded my way through the Chilean fjords, overshadowed by volcanoes. Earth and air, fire and water – Patagonia is a place where the four elements of the ancients blend to create a magnificent spectacle far outweighing the humble achievements of man. Here, in the home of the west wind, we can only bow our heads in awe at the grandeur of nature.





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