Patagonia, the Great Beyond

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.

“I pictured a low timber house with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires inside and the walls lined with all the best books, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up.” (Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia Ps: For me, Best Books + Wine – In a cozy literary cafe in El Calafate, with Bruce.

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.

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.

Mental post-it: The legend says that those who taste the tiny red fruits of calafate shall return to Patagonia. The shrub that gives name to the town is the ingredient of artisanal liqueurs and jams, elaborated perhaps to perpetuate the legend. I bought these mini bottles of liqueur. Amongst them, calafate liqueur. A baby step of faith. The taste was quite weird, like rancid olive oil, but it’s done: I’m anxiously waiting for my return there.

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!

Perito Moreno is one of the 47 glaciers that compose the Patagonian Ice Field, the largest frozen surface of the planet after Antarctica. This red flower is the notro, or Chilean firebush.
Perito Moreno is located on the southern section of the Lake Argentino, in the iceberg channel. A circuit of footbridges overlooks this glacier of 35 kilometers long, 5 kilometers in front and 60 meters high, which gives a colossal spectacle: the glacier roars and moves, like a white-bluish beast.

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.

Cerro Fitz Roy
Me and Keita at El Calafate. Keita, the guesthouse owner’s dog, was super friendly and soon we became friends.
A walk with Keita in the Patagonic steppe.
A snowflake melting, but still retaining its structure: An ephemeral diamond in this land of extremes.

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.” alt=”img_1873-1″ width=”750″ height=”988″ /> Far, too far…a typical residencial street in Ushuaia[/caption]

The cute homes of the End of the World in Ushuaia

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.

Me at the entrance of the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego

Me, jumping of joy in the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego
And now tired of jumping


This area is called ‘turberas de Tierra del Fuego’. Turbas are a type of wetland with accumulation of organic matter in lake basins, generally of glacial origin. They are very soft and you feel like walking over sponges soaked with water, it’s quite unique!
Me at the Beagle Channel. Observe the colony of Magellanic penguins in the background!
A couple of Magellanic Penguins
“El Faro del Fin del Mundo”: Les Éclaireurs, the Lighthouse at the End of the World
Navigating the waters of the legendary maritime pass to the lighthouse of Les Éclaireurs is like plunging into the history of exploration and trying to imagine what this land was like when the first English settlers arrived in the 19th century.
Beyond the Patagonian south there is nothing familiar to us. It’s the end of the world, indeed. The end of our world.