Patagonia: an unforgiving, sometimes grim, yet achingly handsome corner of the globe. So why visit this chunky blade of mountains and bleak desolation that slices into the ‘Roaring Forties’, the endless stream of westerly winds that chase around the southern hemisphere? After all, it is hardly close to the great cities of the world.
Well, if you want wall-to-wall sunshine, go elsewhere; but if you crave adventure, otherworldly landscapes and an escape from the madding crowds—and then some!—head south. Here’s three ways to have an unforgettable trip.
Go trekking in the Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Trace your finger down the spine of the Andes on a map. Just before the mountain range plunges into the South Pacific in an angry outburst of contours, start drawing a circle with your finger. Between the milky smudge of the Patagonian ice cap—the third largest in the world—and a kink in the border with Argentina you should be able to make out the words ‘Torres del Paine’. Welcome to the park at the end of the world.
In fairness, this isn’t always an easy region to love. The area is routinely scoured by gales and lashed by rain. It can be cold. It can be wet. But when the clouds part and the winds relent, one of the world’s most spectacular treks, the ‘W’ walk, awaits: five days of hiking in scenery so captivating it’s like starring in your own science fiction movie set on some lost world. Tiny icebergs the colour of powder-blue toothpaste float in glacial lakes. Mountains contort into shapes that dumbfound geologists. Even better: you’ll have this all to yourself. Visitor numbers are low: not much more than Antarctica—less than a thousand miles to the south—receives on an annual basis. The solitude almost hurts.
So where can you stay? Happily, accommodation has improved in recent years. If you fancy a bit of eco-friendly luxury after your hike, head to the Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa, half an hour’s drive from the park’s entrance. They can also arrange other excursions such as half-day/ full-day walks, horse-riding and scenic tours.
Visit Mount Fitz Roy, Argentina
El Chaltén is a dusty settlement that shelters under the towers of Mount Fitz Roy in the far south of Argentina. It is due to have a good 2015: not only will it celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its founding, but it has also been chosen by Lonely Planet as one of its must-visit cities; coming in at a creditable number two, just behind the US Capital, Washington DC.
Putting aside whether El Chalten is a city (it isn’t), visitors come here to be mesmerised by the magisterial, cathedral-like spires of Mount Fitz Roy. The peak, named after the captain of the ship that brought Charles Darwin to South America, looks so new it really ought to have a sign on it warning that the rocks are still warm to the touch. The air around it is so fresh it’ll make your lips tingle. The mountain is arrestingly beautiful, even more so in autumn when the lenga beech trees which crowd around its base turn a volcanic red. If you’re lucky you’ll spot an Andean condor; if you’re really lucky, a puma. That said, don’t forget that the peaks of Fitz Roy are usually shrouded in mist—sometimes for days at a time—so you may need to wait to appreciate its winsome charms.
A lot of the hotels in the town are still rough and ready; however, there are some special places. If you want true isolation, try the Agua Arriba Lodge, just north of the town on the eastern side of the Laguna del Desierto. Be warned: the lodge can only be reached by boat or on foot. Not surprisingly there’s plenty of fly-fishing and trekking nearby.
Marvel at the Perito Moreno Glacier
Never ‘done’ a glacier? Not sure what all the fuss it about? Head to the Perito Moreno Glacier in southern Argentina. Extensive viewing platforms face this gargantuan tongue of ice, close enough to hear the hidden war that rages unseen within. The 19-mile long glacier groans, grumbles and gripes as it tears through the long-suffering valley. It is an unhurried campaign of attrition: glaciers move at, well, a glacial pace (who’d have thought it?). Typically, the moans are barely discernible; however, from time to time, bangs like cannon fire blast from within it into the raw mountain air above.
But the biggest treat is yet to come. The frozen landscape has nowhere to go once it arrives at Lago Argentino. Initially the glacier, as seemingly permanent as the surrounding mountainscape, appears to stand sentinel over the lake below it. And then—crack!—towering columns of ice splinter off and crash into the waters below. These shards of ice are up to 60 metres (200 feet) high—about the same height as Nelson’s Column or two-thirds the height of the Statue of Liberty. This is truly nature at its most wondrous.
When you tire of this spectacle—is this possible?—head to Eolo: “The southernmost Relais & Châteaux [hotel] in the world”. If you can, book a corner room so that you can drink in the extraordinary views of the Patagonian steppe and the snow-capped Andes. The hotel can also organise a mini trek on the glacier itself.
So, have you been to Patagonia? What do you think about the unrelenting gales (‘God’s broom’ in the word of the locals)? What would you put in your top 3 ‘must dos’? Let us know below.