As the world continues to shrink and bucket lists of exotic places become “been there, did that,” the word Patagonia still has the capacity to excite even the most intrepid traveler. The name conjures one of the wildest regions on Earth, a place inhabited by strange creatures, with rugged terrain and mercurial weather. A wilderness of mountains, steppes, glaciers and lakes, Patagonia lies at the end of the Andes in southern Chile and Argentina, covering an area the size of Texas. It has become more accessible, but no less mystical.
Explorer Ferdinand Magellan called it Patagon, meaning “giant,” because of the tall natives his expedition encountered. As seamen recounted the tale, the natives grew taller until it was considered fact that the region was inhabited by 12-foot-tall savages. The “giant” myth was not debunked until 250 years later, in the 1800s.
In the 1950s, Chile took steps to protect exceptional areas of Patagonia, giving rise to the Torres del Paine National Park — 600,000 acres now recognized as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
It’s a four-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, south to Punta Arenas, and almost three hours by road to Puerto Natales, the nearest town to Torres del Paine. Visitors from all over the world arrive in this simple fishing village. From October though April (spring and summer in the Southern Hemisphere), there’s a babble of mixed languages in the narrow streets, small restaurants and modest inns. Excitement is in the air, and a pulse-quickening anticipation. Strangers grin at each other, as if recognizing members of a secret fraternity.
After a night in one of the town’s small hotels, my tour group of 10 piled into a van for the 72-mile drive into the park — most of it on dusty gravel roads that dictate a leisurely pace. In the flower-speckled fields, gauchos and their dogs trailed a flock of sheep. We stopped to explore the Milodon Cave, where a giant prehistoric sloth was discovered in the late 1800s, causing a stir akin to finding the Abominable Snowman. In the grotto is a life-size statue of the 12-foot-tall critter, standing on its back legs. Maybe there was something to that “giant” legend.
Hiking amid guanacos
It was late afternoon when we arrived at EcoCamp Patagonia, a cluster of geodesic dome tents. The unusual structures are eye-catching, but only momentarily. The gaze is drawn inexorably up, up to nature’s canvas — craggy, snow-covered peaks jutting from grassy steppes — and the Towers, granite spires caressed by clouds, golden in the fading light.
Sitting on wooden platforms connected by boardwalks, the domed “tents” offer a range of amenities, ranging from simple two-bed tents (108 square feet) with a shared bath house to family suites (398 square feet) with a wood stove, several beds and private baths with composting toilets. There’s a large dining and lounging dome warmed by a potbellied stove.
In a shed near the dining tent, a lamb rotated on a spit, its juices sizzling in the fire. We gathered around, sipping pisco sours (a South American concoction of lime juice, egg whites and pisco, a strong regional liquor) and savoring the scents. When we sat down to dinner, the lamb was tender and delicious — and the Chilean wine was a perfect complement.
We turned in early to rest up for hiking the next day. My basic two-person dome proved to be wonderfully cozy, with flannel sheets, down comforters and sheepskins on each bunk. It was a cold night, with wind sweeping down from the snow-covered mountains, but our beds soon became warm cocoons. A window at the back of the tent faced the Towers, lit by the moon.
Morning dawned cold and crisp, and one of the staff reported seeing a puma in the field below the camp. He said the big cats thrive in the park, feeding on guanacos (a breed of wild llamas), rheas (ostrichlike birds), wild horses and hares. As we set out for Lake Pehoe, we kept an eye out (unsuccessfully) for pumas, but guanacos were everywhere, turning to watch us with their liquid brown eyes. Rheas raced alongside our vehicle and fearless foxes barely paused in their hunting. A shallow lake reflected a flock of flamingos.
We hiked along the Salto Grande to a spectacular waterfall, then followed the flow to Lake Pehoe, where the Explora Lodge stood on the bank, an ultramodern structure in stark contrast to the surrounding wilderness.
At Lake Grey (so named because glacial silt has turned the water milky), we boarded inflatable rubber zodiacs for a wind-tossed run out to a large, sturdy catamaran. The ship wove its way through icebergs as big as houses on the way to their source, Grey Glacier, which rose 100 feet above the deck. We braved the cold long enough to hear the sharp crack and watch a massive wall of ice slough off the face and crash into the sea.
We spent our remaining days hiking, which is the best way to experience the park. More than 155 miles of foot and horse paths lace the wilderness, and there are countless rock faces for climbers. I opted for day trips from the Eco Camp, such as the 11-mile trek to the base of the Towers. Hardier souls hiked the famous seven-day “circuit” laden with tents and supplies for wilderness camping.
Sailing through Cape Horn
Patagonia is so far south it seems like the end of the world — but my friends and I decided to venture farther south. Back in Punta Arenas, we boarded the 136-passenger Via Australis and headed south, through the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel, waters once plied by Antarctic explorers such as Byrd, Scott and Shackleton. Conditions aboard the Via Australis are luxurious, with roomy cabins, private baths and large picture windows. The “daily rations” are sumptuous — including fresh Chilean king crab, sea bass and filet mignon from the Argentine pampas. Accompanied, of course, by fine Chilean wines.
We sailed past snow-covered mountains plunging directly into the sea and primordial forests unscarred by man. Climbing into zodiacs, we went ashore for a closer look at elephant seals and Magellanic penguins. On Day 3 we entered Glacier Alley, a spectacular channel lined with enormous glaciers, each named for a country. As the ship passed each one, the national anthem rang throughout the ship and the crew served appropriate drinks and hors d’oeuvres — German beer and sausages, French Champagne and cheese, Italian wine and pizza, Dutch potato cakes and beer.
The following day we braved the icy sea off Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide. High winds, strong currents and icebergs have sent more than 800 vessels — and countless sailors — to watery graves here. Today the Panama Canal makes it unnecessary for most vessels to brave the cape, but it’s still a rite of passage for yachters.
The weather was at its best and worst at Cape Horn National Park. Crewmen in wet suits stood waist-deep in tossing icy waves to help passengers from the zodiacs to shore. Steep, wind-buffeted steps led to the top of the island and a monument of a stylized albatross, the savior of sailors. There’s also a tiny chapel, a memorial to lives lost here. The modest visitors’ center does a brisk business in postcards with the Cape Horn postmark.
At the entrance to the port city of Ushuaia, Argentina, we were greeted by a sign, “Fin del Mundo — the End of the World.” Cape Horn and the military base at Port William are farther south, but Ushuaia is the southernmost town in the world.
Our flight back to Santiago was scheduled for late afternoon, so we had time to explore the unusual Maritime Museum, a collection of galleries housed in a prison that held the worst of Argentina’s criminals until 1940. We roamed from displays of early Antarctic explorations, to collections of maritime art, to blocks of cold, damp cells, some with signage about the notorious inmates who once lived there.
Ironically, Ushuaia was a town where adventurers arrived full of anticipation, and prisoners arrived full of dread. For both, it was often the end of the world.
Dale Leatherman is a freelance writer and former president of the Society of American Travel Writers. She lives in West Virginia.