By Chris Ord
“It’s the end of the world and it’s the beginning,” Julio muses through a steaming cup of cocoa. “It’s drama realised in earth, ice and water.”
Sitting around the century-old estancia’s fire we agree his is an appropriate epithet for the vast landscape that is Patagonia.
Southern Argentina’s combination of sheer mountains, endless valleys, postcard lakes, gigantic glaciers and rolling gaucho plains has the ability to inspire the poet in anyone, even hardened men of the land like Julio.
But if anything, Patagonia conjures up images quicker than words and today it’s one of the most photographed regions of nature in the world. Travellers are lured by countless adventure opportunities, from trekking Torres and Fitz Roy ranges to horse riding across estancias the size of small countries, walking over glaciers the size of cities and watching whales the size of trucks.
First stop is often the 600,000 hectare Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site stretching east along the Andes. A world of mountainous ice - over 40% of the park is covered by the stuff - it features 47 glaciers which track their way violently down to the green waters of Lakes Argentino and Viedma.
Not far from outpost town El Calafate is the most famous wall of moving ice, Perito Moreno Glacier. It remains one of the few glaciers in the world still advancing, the evidence a spectacular ‘calving’ display where large chunks of ice break away from the five kilometre-long face, crashing down sixty metres in thunderous applause.
Even more impressive is Upsala Glacier, the largest glacier in the park measuring over 60 kilometres long, seven kilometers wide and 80 metres high.
If the land of glaciers is Patagonia’s attempt at abstract, then its mountain ranges are pure classical art. Approaching El Chalten, a four hour drive from El Calafate, the cathedral ranges of Torres and Fitz Roy - considered two of the most formidable challenges in the climbing world - provide towering backdrops to quintessential gaucho grazing country.
More sedate walkers (like us) are happy to hike into base camps located an easy day’s walk away. En-route, we pass through Lord of the Rings-like beech forests, scramble over rocky outcrops and follow meandering, crystal-clear rivers before emerging to face a moderate climb up to snow-line lakes resting at the mountains’ knees. Each and every rest stop reveals breathtaking views featuring a palette of colours crying out to be captured by an artists’ brush.
With earth and ice covered, it’s time to head east, back over the plains to the Atlantic coast and Peninsula Valdez.
One of the world’s premier wildlife viewing reserves, the Peninsula provides the perfect playground for the Great Southern Right Whale. Over 3,600 frisky giants come to frolic in the area’s protected coves between May and December every year. A kind of desperate and dateless meeting area for whales, Valdes doubles as the Southern Hemisphere’s largest maternity ward: whales return here to give birth exactly one year after their last watery lovemaking session.
Travellers witness the amorous action up close and personal from boat launches, the wrestling whales often nudging up close to the bow. Also on the Patagonian wildlife menu are huge colonies of elephant seals, sea lions, Orca whales, Commerson and Dusky dolphins, guanaco’s (llama-like), nandu (ostrich-like) and a plethora of other bird-life. One hundred kilometres further south at Punta Tombo is South America’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins.
On our final night we sit around a crackling estancia fire contemplating the huge array of life and beauty seen on our travels through southern Argentina. Outside, the vast space that is Patagonia stands stiller than the crisp night yet continues its invisible process of creation. Dramatic stuff indeed.
Adventure Associates offers a vast range of tours in Patagonia. From short 3-day excursions to comprehensive 19-day cruise packages. From AU$450. Phone (02) 9389.7466 or visit: www.adventureassociates.com/patagonia/