Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Incredible Patagonia!

The Eden at the End of the World! Thats what they call it! The Eden at the End of the World! It sounds delicious doesn't it?- Well that description pales in comparison to witnessing Patagonia in person!

I know some of you are wondering..."Where is Patagonia?...Is that some country they talked about while I slept through geography class?"...Well, you can give yourself a break- it is not a country but rather a region that encompasses the southern reaches of the South American continent. It lies in both Chile and Argentina and is divided up almost right down the middle by the majestic Andes Mountains and has it's toes dipped into the swirling seas of the Antarctic.

12,500 year old cave painting
The area was first mentioned by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 whilst on a voyage circumnavigating the globe. He claimed to have found a race of giant men and women that he called "Patagones" (hence the name of the region) which supposedly stood up to 15 feet tall! He may have found the Tehuelche Indians who were tall in comparison to the puny anglo explorer- but we will never be certain. The indigenous peoples of this area fared no better than the other indians around the world and were wiped off the face of the earth before their secrets could be told. Someone did leave behind mysterious and beautiful cave paintings from about 12,500 years ago, but it will be left up to the "experts" to tell what they mean and who made them.

The topography of the region is called "steppes"- 13 great plains rise in succession- each one elevated about 100 meters (330 feet) higher than the last- and each one taking in vast, vast expanses. On the horizon lie the snow capped mountains of the Andes with their impossible craggy peaks. Filling the hollows of the steppes are cobalt blue pools of brackish water filled with pink flamingos! Low lying shrubs cover the plains and lean to the east as the strong prevailing western winds whip across them. Rivers and waterfalls appear out of nowhere. Looking closely, you will see ostrich sized birds named Rheas and the llamaesque animal called the Guanaco. Enormous Condors soar overhead- besides the people in our group, it seemed there was not a soul for hundreds of miles.

How does one get to Patagonia? We began by flying into the capital of Chile which is called Santiago. It is a bustling, thriving city filled with cathedrals, plazas and palaces set against gleaming new high-rise buildings, and state of the art mass transit. This beautiful city was founded in colonial times but is now a modern metropolis with near 6 million inhabitants calling it home. Situated in a large valley and surrounded by mountains. The city is quite stunning.

Patagonian Ice Field and
Peito- Moreno Glacier
After visiting Santiago for about 24 hours we boarded a small plane and took off for the tiny frontier town of Punta Arenas which is located on the northern banks of
the Straits of Magellan. The day was crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky, as the plane flew over the expansive Patagonian ice fields and glaciers- the scenery stretching out below us was mind blowing. It's a long way from Santiago to Patagonia! The flight was 3 1/2 hours in duration covering almost 1400 miles!

Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas means "Sandy Point" in english. It was (and is) a major stop for traders who were sailing around Cape Horn, going between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The little town of 150,000 inhabitants still has the feel of the "frontier" with many buildings made of brightly painted corrugated metal. The summer winds in this town are known for their voracity- reaching speeds of up to 100 miles and hour! The town puts up ropes to help the pedestrians remain standing upright on such days- but when we were there,  the wind was calm and the sun sparkled! We were taken to the top of the surrounding hills where there stood 19th century mansions and looked across the Straits to Terra Del Fuego- the last land before you reach the Antarctic! I really liked the town and we enjoyed their museum which featured information about the indigenous people and animals and the lovely little square with it's bronze statue of Magellan surrounded by Tehuelche Indians in the center. Legend has it that if you kiss the foot of the indian you will return to Patagonia- I kissed it.

The following morning we boarded a luxurious motor coach and picked up our local guide (who , between she and the bus driver, were AWESOME!) We headed north on our way to Puerto Natales- along the way we would stop and see the Magellanic Penguins! Into the flat, flat plains armed with a picnic we went.... Before long we spotted a gray fox eating a rabbit,  giant Rhea pecking the dirt in the distance, Pink Flamingos sifting through brackish ponds and huge Condors flying over our heads. The road was a dirt track and the only real signs of man was the wire fencing along it. Eventually we came to the penguin colony- the birds are adorable, about 2 foot tall and, of course, black and white. They mate for life, live up to 25 years and return year after year to their nesting grounds to raise their young. Each pair usually has two chicks and nurtures them in a sandy burrow. There is a raised wooden platform that loops around the breeding ground so that you can see the
animals without disturbing them too much (although it is fairly obvious to me that we should not be here). These are a threatened species that are in decline because of the loss of fish in the surrounding waters and the oil spills that happen regularly off the coast of Argentina. In fact, over the past 20 years, the population has declined 20%.

After our amazing visit with the penguins we head back out though the Patagonian wilderness to Puerto Natales- a rustic town siting upon a jaw-dropping fjord called the Ultima Esperanza Sound. We check into of lovely hotel and go out for a stroll along the towns waterfront. The warm, lovely weather has brought everyone outdoors! All along the shore people are picnicking, sunbathing and playing. The days are long down here and activity went on well into the evening.

In the morning, the people were gone and the clean, rocky beach was filled with water fowl of all descriptions. Dogs, who are considered by the towns people communal property, ran happily along and accompanied me on my explorations. The water was clear and silver and still. The clouds drifted over the mountain tops exposing the incredible peaks of the Torres del Paines every now and then. I could hear the sound of distant cattle lowing and the ducks quacking- and not much else.
Puerto Natales

Cormorant Colony
plying the fjord
Once everyone else was up and at em' we set sail upon the fjord and headed to the Serrano Glacier- it was another perfect day with no wind and plenty of sunshine. The steep mountains rose up on each side of the boat and we passed a colony of cormorants that covered a large singular rock-island, dolphins jumped ahead of the boat (dolphins!) and the captain made a stop under a waterfall! You could see the glacier coming for miles and it continuously changed with the light. Sometimes it's peak was dark and ominous but when the sun shone on it , it would glow and it's edges turn bright white. Its icy cliffs hit the water as a long blue and white shelf. The boat docked well
away from it and we walked up a trail for a mile or so past milky green lake formed by it's runoff. Once at the bottom of the glacier you could hear sounds like powerful gunshots and huge hunks of the ice would cascade down the slope. Amazing stuff!

The Ranch
Afterwards the boat dropped up off at a working ranch where we had a traditional bar-be-que consisting of lamb cooked over an open spit served with potatoes. In this harsh land meat and potatoes are the staple of life! Lettuce and other fruits and vegetables that we are accustomed to are very hard to come by. Being a vegan in patagonia is virtually impossible! After the feast we were loaded into three small vans and driven for at least an hour down the haciendas dusty, bumpy tract which doubles as their driveway! Then two hours further back into town all on dirt roads- this land is vast-

The next morning we were picked back up by our coach and taken to, what has to be,  the most beautiful place on earth. Really! I am not kidding- The Torres del Paine National Park will leave you speechless. You can see it's craggy peaks for miles and miles before you arrive at the park. We began our tour at the parks interpretive center. Here they explain the landscapes very unique and strange geological anomalies. These peaks, sometimes called "Cleopatras Needles", are the centerpiece of the park, but there are also rivers, waterfalls, cobalt blue lakes, glaciers, forests and herds of guanaco roaming through wind swept valleys. The park lies in a transition area where a Magellanic sub-polar forest meets
Torres Del Paine National Park
the Patagonian steppes. The huge granite spires are topped with sedimentary rock containing lots of shell fossils- meaning that these granite behemoths that tower 6560 feet over your head are topped, like icing on a cake, with an ancient sea bed! Our bus drove slowly through the park on gravel roads stopping frequently to take in the mind blowing scenery. At one point we hiked to a powerful waterfall and along the way experienced all of the famous patagonian weather within a one  hour period we experiences- rain, sunshine, driving winds that threatened to mow you down, calm, fog, rain again and back to brilliant sunshine!

Sheep shearing!
The following day we traveled across the border to Argentina. The journey took us across the loneliest landscape I have seen ( think "Jurassic Park"). The only sign of humans was the occasional row of Ironwood trees that were planted as a windbreak for a hacienda's out building. When I say occasional -I mean it! We, perhaps, saw two of these and at one we stopped. There the rancher gave us a tour of the grounds, gave us a fantastic sheep shearing demonstration where we actually held the sheep after which we watched the world champion sheep herder work his border collies and then were sat down in the ranchers very own quaint living room and was fed the most delicious meal I have ever had! How is that for a day?

By evening we found ourselves in a picturesque resort town called El Calafate. Situated on the
southern banks of Lake Argentino, the town's main street bustles with outdoor cafes, crafts markets, hotels and upscale clothing stores. However, the real draw is 50 miles away. The town is the gateway to one of the worlds largest ice caps which feed 47 enormous glaciers- including the worlds only advancing one called the Perito Moreno Glacier. This particular glacier has two distinct arms- one accessible by an ingenious boardwalk and the other , only by boat. The glacier is melting quickly these days and you can expect to see it calve every couple of minutes, littering the surrounding lake with giant crystalline icebergs. We spent the next two days
Perito Moreno Glacier
exploring this wonderful place on foot and by boat but returning nightly to the luxurious accommodation in El Calafate. Also noteworthy of this region are the many caves whose walls were painted with images of human hands in the negative by an unknown people about 12,500 years ago.

The mysteries of Patagonia are many- the people who are looking to unravel them are few.  If you are looking for an extraordinary adventure- something completely different- something that will astonish all of your senses- then Patagonia is for you! But if you intend to witness it in this lifetime- you had better go now- the glaciers are melting at an alarming rate!

How to get there:
Smartours.com offers this trip for about $3800 including airfare from Miami, most meals and three days in Buenos Aires on the return!
Are you in the Memphis area? Contact Julie Butler at Peacock Travel-901-527-1991 she will arrange things for you.

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