There are 12 of us, perched on the sides of a Zodiac rubber raft. Fashion is in full retreat. We are wearing rain gear – waterproof hats, waterproof jackets, waterproof gloves, waterproof pants, waterproof boots – all topped with orange life vests. The question occurs to me: What am I doing here?

But then I remember that the word “travel” derives from the French word “travail,” meaning “work,” which in turn derives from a Latin word meaning “torture.” My misgivings vanish, and I celebrate the moment.

Minutes earlier, the sun had put in a cameo appearance as we stepped aboard the pitching raft; but soon it was snowing, minutes later there were spits of sleet and finally a steady rain that stung our faces courtesy of a 30-mph wind.

“You get four seasons in one hour here in Patagonia,” said Ivan Bustamante, our guide. He continued speaking, but the wind flattened his words and whisked them away.

Our Zodiac was propelled by a Yamaha outboard that left a boiling wake behind Leandro, the driver, who dodged three- and four-foot-long ice floes. “These are called ‘bergy bites,’ Ivan said, “because they are chunks off an iceberg.” We landed, stepped off the Zodiac – with the help of crew members standing in icy, waist-deep water–and began walking towards Cape Horn…

Patagonia at Last!

Ever since reading Bruce Chatwin’s classic 1977 In Patagonia, I have wanted to come here to the end of the world. Stretching from the 40th to the 55th parallel south, Patagonia covers southern Argentina and southern Chile in a land mass equal to that of Texas and California combined. Chatwin said Patagonia had to be seen to be believed, and he was right. Its beauty – rugged peaks, glaciers, steppes, lakes, rivers, and lush forests – is otherworldly and beyond any nomenclature.

After climbing 139 steps up a cliff, we came to the Cape Horn lighthouse. Here is the last gasp of the Andes, the longest mountain range in the world, coming down 4,400 miles from Venezuela across seven nations. The slopes were ribboned with waterfalls from melting glacial ice. Mountains, sea, and ice united in stunning conspiracy. The wind came howling out of Antarctica and nearly blew my hat off my head.

Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide in the far south of the world, was once the single most feared spot on the globe for mariners. “Down there are more than 800 shipwrecks and the bones of some 10,000 sailors,” says Bustamante. He is a veteran Patagonia guide for Odysseys Unlimited, a Massachusetts-based company specializing in small-group tours.

Our home for the first four days was the Stella Australis, a 292-foot cruise ship built specifically to navigate the narrow fjords of Patagonia. Its captain determined that “rounding the Horn” was too dangerous under current conditions.

So instead, we cruised west in the Beagle Channel, named for the ship that carried Charles Darwin on an expedition here in 1831. Soon we were gliding through “Glacier Alley” (sometimes called “Avenue of the Glaciers”). We passed five main glaciers, massive forces of nature flowing down from the Darwin Icefield in southern Chile. Then we turned north into a fjord that led to Pia Glacier. As we were standing about a half-mile away, there was a sharp report that resembled a gunshot. But it was the sound of calving– a mass of ice breaking away from the glacier.

We hiked up a mountain, passing waterfalls, crevasses, and granite outcrops, and stopped at a viewpoint. “This glacier has been shrinking since the 1970s,” says Bustamante, allowing a sliver of anger to enter his voice. “We may be looking at something that won’t exist in a few decades.”

Tierra del Fuego National Park

At the bottom of every globe is Tierra del Fuego National Park, a pristine place of serene lakes, beech forests, and sharp, toothy mountains decapitated by clouds. We took a 30-minute walk on the Beacon Trail through a forest that glistened and dripped from recent rain. The constant wind has forced the trees to grow almost horizontally.

Wild horses, called baguales, with flaring nostrils and flourishing tails, totally ignored our intrusion. “Patagonian horses are descended from Andalusian horses brought in by the Spanish in the 1500s,” Bustamante says. “They roam all over Chile and Argentina.”

Tierra del Fuego means “land of fire,” a coinage of Explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who passed this way in 1520 and observed signaling campfires set by the aboriginal tribes. Magellan, in fact, is credited with naming Patagonia, which means “Land of the Big Feet,” because he mistakenly believed that the natives were larger than other humans.

We headed north in the Magellan Strait. After another Zodiac beach landing, we were on Magdalena Island, home to some 120,000 Magellanic penguins (so named because they were first spotted by the explorer’s crew some five centuries ago), who come here to nest, breed, and feed. We walked a marked path around the tiny island as the adults, with the signature two black stripes across their chests, waddled past, followed by furry chicks. Some were feeding their offspring by regurgitating predigested food into their beaks.

The penguins, who mate for life, have dug nests on either side of the path to incubate their eggs. Overhead, gulls and cormorants were yawping and wheeling, dropping to the ground occasionally to jostle over bits of food. The penguin parents were watchful because gulls find their eggs a delicacy.

Patagonia Van Life

We left the Stella Australis after four days and went inland in a van, passing first through the flat pampas with solitary houses, stubby trees, and mounted ranchers chasing sheep and cattle. Then the road steepened, and we were in a landscape dominated by the great upheaval of the Andes–sharp, toothy peaks that serrate the horizon. “These mountains are pointed because they are young,” Bustamante tells me. “Your mountains back in Pennsylvania are rounded because they are old and worn.”

Even the clouds were spectacular. Patagonia’s perpetual winds result in weird, sometimes grotesque cloud formations that are often mistaken for UFOs. As we drove northward, a huge, fleecy white cloud, like a headless sheep, was shepherded across the sky by the wind.

In some five hours, we reached our destination–Torres del Paine National Park–the crown jewel of Patagonia. The park, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, gets its name from three bluish 9,000-foot granite towers that stand side by side. “Paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche language.

We were scheduled for a three-mile hike the next day, but it was canceled because of winds approaching 50 mph. “Forty is the cutoff,” says Bustamante. “We don’t go beyond that.”

So instead, we are rattling along a gravel road in the van, stopping first at glacier-fed Lake Pehoe, where hundreds of long-legged, pink flamingos were feeding, plunging their heads into the shallows. Once sated, they took off, running on the water with their webbed feet to pick up speed before soaring into the blue sky.

Our driver braked suddenly as a small herd of guanacos–llama-like creatures with light brown bodies and white undersides, crossed the road and began feeding on grasses and flowers. They chewed their cuds while eying us with long-lashed, soulful eyes. Darwin called the guanaco “an elegant animal, with a long, slender neck and fine legs.”

A solitary male stood on a nearby hill, wary about pumas, the natural predator. “He is the sentinel,” says Ivan. “At the first sign of danger, he will alert the rest of the herd with a high-pitched bleating sound that some people say sounds like laughter.”

The Final Day in Patagonia

On our last day, the winds died down to about 35 mph, calm enough to allow us to take a three-mile hike along the Laguna Larga trail. As we stepped out of the van, it was being rocked by the wind. Trees leaned as though the earth’s rotation had accelerated dramatically. The trail was undulating, and downhill walking jammed my knees and drove my toes into my boots. Sometimes the wind was so fierce I’d have to back into it.

At the halfway point, Francisco, our trail guide, stopped and raised a finger to his lips in an admonitory shhhh. “For three minutes,” he whispered, “we are going to experience a total absence of human sound.” The silence hung there among us, sifting down like snowfall. The only sound was the wind.

When you go:

Patagonia is not for everyone. Indeed, Odysseys Unlimited ( https://www.odysseys-unlimited.com/ ) offers this caveat. “Please Note: This trip involves considerable walking on uneven terrain in a natural environment. You should be in good physical condition to enjoy this tour to the fullest.” But if you’re in good shape and willing to put up with some discomfort, inhospitable terrain, and unpredictable weather, you will be rewarded with bold and otherworldly beauty still largely unspoiled by human touch.

Written by: William Ecenbarger

 Ecanbarger picture William is an award-winning journalist whose magazine and newspaper articles appear in markets throughout the world. As a travel writer, he has produced more than 400 articles for major newspaper and magazine outlets. He has won 17 writing awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, which named him “Lowell Thomas Travel Writer of the Year” in 1996.
More bio at www.ecenbarger.com.

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