I always try to read a travel novel about my next destination. “Zorba, the Greek” is my all-time winner, but Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia” is my silver medal with honors. It’s the hyper austral version of Jack Kerouac’s escapist manifesto “On the Road”, so to say.
The wild landscapes of forests, glaciers, the steep oceanic mountains that the author described remain as intact today as they were in the seventies, when the book was written.
Mental post-it: The name Patagonia derives from the word patagón (bigfoot), used by Magellan in 1520 to describe the native tribes of the region. The people he called Patagons were probably the Tehuelches, who were taller than Europeans of the time.
There is no clear delineation of where it begins and where it ends, but the Patagonian heart undoubtedly inhabits the provinces of Chubut and Santa Cruz, which stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Andes: the vast and unknown world that Chatwin longed for.
A perfect starting point to discover this barely inhabited territory is the city of San Carlos de Bariloche, a couple of hours by plane from Buenos Aires, on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi.
Bariloche is the gateway to the Nahuel Huapi National Park and one of the stages of the mythical National Route 40. This 5,301-kilometer highway crosses Argentina from north to south, parallel to the Andes, and crosses up to 21 national parks, including the spectacular Los Glaciares National Park.
From Bariloche it’s possible to reach the small villages of Villa Mascardi and El Bolsón. The first is located on the shores of Lake Mascardi and is surrounded by forests, whereas El Bolsón is known for its artisans, a community that leads an alternative life and respect for nature, away from urban values.
With the Andes as a backdrop, it’s possible to travel by land to the Atlantic: almost 1,200 kilometers of tracks that run through a moving landscape. But the fastest and most convenient alternative is to fly from San Carlos de Bariloche to Comodoro Rivadavia and then continue to Puerto Deseado by road.
Puerto Deseado is a fishing village of only ten thousand inhabitants. The natural reserves of Ría Deseado and Cabo Blanco are its main attraction.
The highlights of the trip: Los Glaciares National Park, 790 kilometers west from Puerto Deseado, connected by plane in less than an hour through El Calafate. The Park is home to one of the greatest natural wonders of the planet, the Perito Moreno glacier!
Its cliffs break off into hundreds of floating ice blocks. There are other ways to contemplate it even more closely: walking with crampons on the icy surface or embark on any of the boats that sail from Punta Bandera and navigate between icebergs to reach its base.
This last option allows contemplating the giant Upsala, Onelli, Bolados, Agazzis, Heim, Spegazzini and Mayo glaciers. A world of ice.
In the northern area of the Park are located the mythical Cerro Fitz Roy (3,375 m) and Cerro Torre (3,128 m). El Chaltén, 212 kilometers from El Calafate, is the base for exploring this area around Lake Viedma. On a clear day, the sun reflects on the water of the lake like a million fires, and the surface produces an illusion of solidness: a diamond.
To cross to the island of Tierra del Fuego it is best to return to El Calafate and fly directly to the town of Río Grande. From the air you can see the Strait of Magellan, strewn with bays and beaches. It’s quite a powerful vision.
Mental post-it: Meaning “Land of Fire”, “Tierra del Fuego” was the name given to the island when the first European saw fires flicking in the darkness, along the shores.
Around Rio Grande, the landscape repeats that of Atlantic Patagonia: dry and rough, but changes abruptly shortly after leaving the city: from the steppe and plains to the snowy mountains all the way to Ushuaia.
In the outskirts of Rio Grande is the Historical Museum Monseñor Fagnano, a Salesian who did a great job of protecting the natives in the nineteenth century, and which contains photographs of the time as well as samples of the fauna and flora of the area.
National Route 3 continues south and then west, encased between the last cliffs and mountains of the Andes. After skirting Lake Fagnano, the road winds its way up to the Garibaldi pass, 450 meters above sea level.
The region encompasses the territory of the Ona Indians, related to the Tehuelches (or Patagonians), and that of the nomadic Yamanas.
We then arrive in Ushuaia, self-proclaimed the southernmost city on the planet. Overlooking the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia (“bay facing west” in the Yamana language) bases its appeal on the imposing nature that surrounds it.
Today is a busy city with a wide range of outdoor activities ranging from skiing and dog sled rides, to tours aboard the End of the World Train in the Tierra de Fuego National Park, and cruises on the Beagle Channel.