Sunset on the Fitz Roy Range whose peaks point dramatically skyward up to 3,440 meters or 11,300 feet.
By Margie Goldsmith
Images courtesy of Geographic Expeditions
We are honored that our writer, Margie Goldsmith, won a 2009 award of merit in the “Cultural, Educational, Self-Improvement” category from the North American Travel Journalists Association, for another of her articles in our collection, commissioned by Travel with a Challenge. Read her award-winning article about Lapland reindeer herding adventures. Congratulations to our author!
Patagonia is all about the wind — sometimes short gusts, other times furious blasts or full gales which tear at your clothes, blow dust in your eyes, and whip hair into your face.
I was on a trail in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, not so much fighting the wind as hoping it would blow the storm of constant chatter out of my mind – thoughts of what I’d forgotten to do, emails, obligations, even what I’d said or didn’t say. Patagonia is the 648,000-square mile southernmost cone between Chile and Argentina, a place so desolate and remote that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came here to hide from the law. It is a smorgasbord of glaciated mountains, jagged granite peaks, massive glaciers, and fragrant forests where Magellan woodpeckers peck away in trees.
A popular hiking destination in southern Chile, Torres del Paine National Park is home to guanacos, pumas and 15 species of birds of prey. It is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
If I were an artist, I’d paint non-stop because Patagonia is also about the light – the way the sun hits the ochre-colored rocks, dapples through beech trees onto the forest floor, and turns the snow-covered mountains into glistening ice palaces. In the southern hemisphere summer, days stretch until after nine pm, and then the stars light up the sky. Long before sunrise, the clouds open up like curtains, and when the sun rises, the steppe turns golden.
Fed by glacial meltwater, Patagonia’s Lago Argentino is Argentina’s largest lake.
No matter where you are in Patagonia – on the Argentinian side climbing muddy inclines to get a better view of the Fitzroy Range and Cerro Torre or huffing your way up steep rocks to gape at Chile’s Torres del Paine – you’re always in for a surprise: a gaucho on motorcycle rounding up his horses, a condor with a ten-foot wingspan soaring above, or turkey-sized ibises foraging on the ground.
Group travel is not my thing, but the idea of trying to set up an itinerary and accommodations in two foreign countries with limited Spanish was too daunting, so I went with Geographic Expeditions, a California-based tour outfitter I know and trust. Fourteen of us from all over the U.S. had each chosen this trip because it offered challenging hikes and, at the end of the day, gourmet meals and plushy accommodations (most of the time).
There must be as many guanacos (members of the llama family) in Torres del Paine as there are pigeons in Manhattan. We snapped photos of a huge herd so close I could see their fur blowing. We spotted a mama fox with her three babies, then, two ostrich-like Rheas, native to South America. “The male Rhea makes a harem, builds a nest, and sits on it while the female goes off to party,” quipped our guide, Merlin.
Native to South America’s high plateaus, the guanaco stands up to four feet at the shoulder and weighs 200 pounds.
Hiking is one spectacular way to explore Patagonia.
When I first saw Merlin Lipshitz’s name on the roster, I was ready to cancel, sure he must be from New York. Why go to the end of the earth to have a New York leader? Fortunately, the 28-year-old Merlin is not only 100% Argentinian but one of only 14 of his countrymen to climb to the summit of Cerro Torre, one of the world’s most hazardous peaks. When we arrived at El Chalten, a four-block long town nestled beneath Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, climbers rushed up to shake Merlin’s hand. He’s a legend. El Chalten is like a Chia plant. It sprouted up overnight in 1985 and now has 53 hotels, 26 restaurants, and 10 youth hostels. Most people come here to bag a peak or, like us, to trek. It is ideally situated at the base of the mountains so you can walk to the trailhead.
The first day we hiked 11 miles with a 2,500-foot elevation gain revealing extraordinary views of the Fitz Roy Massif; when dinner included baskets of thick fresh-baked bread, I could delve in without guilt. The next day, we hiked 13 miles to Laguna Torre, a lake 2,164 feet up on a moraine near the base of Cerro Torre. Merlin pointed out his climbing route, a 7,000-foot wall twice as high as Yosemite’s El Capitan and just as vertical. I couldn’t imagine him bivouacked at night, dangling by just a few ropes on a sheer mountain ledge. I will not be taking up extreme mountain climbing.
The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.
Nor will I be taking up ice-climbing. Patagonia is a land of glaciers, including the 19-mile-long Perito Moreno Glacier. We took a boat past icebergs as big as whales towards an ice wall that rose 200 feet. There was a sudden explosion which sounded like a shotgun blast, followed by huge chunks of ice tumbling into the water.
Another day at Viedma Glacier, we hiked over rocks and then donned crampons (a shoe cover with spikes for walking on ice) to slog around huge pinnacles of ice called seracs, crevasses, and ice caves. Merlin took two ice axes from his pack and gave us an ice-climbing demonstration. I tried it but could barely smash the axe into the frozen wall. I soon gave up.
Another day, at the 74,000-acre Estancia Cristina (a former ranch, now a boutique hotel), we went horseback riding. The gaucho helped me onto my horse which he said was named Corazon Perdito.
“Why Broken Heart,” I asked? He replied, “Look at his face. Does he not look like a very sad horse?”
Corazon Perdito and I clip-clopped up a steep rocky trail to a perfect view of the Upsala Glacier, dusted in fresh snow. I got off the horse, took some pictures, then looked at my horse. He didn’t look sad. He was as mesmerized by the extraordinary view as I was.
In the heart of Los Glaciares National Park, Estancia Cristina is a comfortable home-base with delicious Patagonian cuisine.
Riding out of Estancia Cristina allows for greater exploration of the forests, lakes and glaciers of the area.
I stood for a long time staring at the vista. It was cold, it was windy, I smelled like horse, and I still had to ride down the steep trail, which I was not looking forward to. I thought about the endless miles we’d hiked, the number of times it had gone from T-shirt warm weather to windy and freezing cold. At that moment I realized that for two weeks my mind had stopped whirling – no more committee meetings going on in my head, no worrying about what I needed to do or what I hadn’t yet done.
For once, my mind was free of clutter. The vast, desolate landscape of Patagonia had been my reset button.
Since 1982, a pioneer of travel to remote and challenging destinations, Geographic Expeditions, www.geoex.com, has offered a varied portfolio of overland tours, treks, walks, and expeditionary voyages to the world’s most astonishing places. Margie Goldsmith’s 16-day “Into Patagonia” touring and walking trip is among those astonishing places. Each year, Patagonia departures are scheduled in January, February, March, November and December. Price is about US$6,000, including accommodations, most meals, expert guiding and all ground transport. Buenos Aires, Argentina is the start and finish of the tour.
Read more Travel with a Challenge feature articles by Margie Goldsmith:
Exploring French Polynesia by Cargo Ship
Finding Common Ground in the Middle East
Hiking the Hills Beyond Petra, Jordan
Horseback Riding Vacation in Tuscany, Italy
Lapland Reindeer Herding Adventure in Finland.
Caption: Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
Margie Goldsmith is a NYC-based writer who has visited over 111 countries on 6 continents. She is a contributing writer to Elite Traveler, Executive Traveler, and Art & Antiques.. She also writes for National Geographic Traveler, MORE, Robb Report, DISTINCTION, Women’s Running, Modern Bride, and the Washington Post, among others. Berkley Press published her novel, Screw Up, and her essays appear in Travelers Tales, The Walker Within, and In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org.