Christopher Percy Collier 0000-00-00 00:00:00
House-sized chunks of blue-tinted glacial ice plunge into frigid waters. Skyscraperhigh pinnacles of wind-carved granite protrude from the earth with spiky brilliance. Multitudes of salmon rise up from vast expanses of emerald-hued waters. Toughlooking gauchos dressed in cowboy hats and chaps hover over fire pits jabbing at flavorful cuts of meat that have made this region famous. “Much of Patagonia looks as if it hasn’t changed for hundreds or maybe thousands of years,” says Richard Herald, who recently spent weeks exploring the ice fields and estancias of Patagonia. Lately, however, there has been one notable change to this fabled region’s primitive character. And that is the presence of travelers like him. Many who come to Patagonia today don’t arrive with over-the-top schemes to traverse glaciers on foot, brave Class VI rapids, or pitch an Everest-style tent atop a high altitude peak. To the contrary, they travel quite comfortably from one jaw-dropping natural wonder to another. Herald, for instance, came to Patagonia with his wife and five-year-old. While Patagonia is roughly the size of California and Texas combined, it is immediately clear to those who visit that, when it comes to this corner of the world, big doesn’t necessarily mean bustling. Out here, the population density is on par with that of the Western Sahara. However, what Patagonia lacks in people it more than makes up in other ways. Patagonia is home to the second largest living tree in the world and some of the largest ice fields in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. There are petrified forests, 7,000- pound elephant seals, and soaring Andean condors with wingspans reaching ten feet. And, until recently, this 300,000-square-mile swath of ruggedly exquisite landscape in the southernmost portion of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile, had long been considered off limits. Patagonia used to be the sort of place best seen and heard about from a distance. Its striking granite spires, massive glaciers and gushing rivers gave it high rank as the sort of place worthy of adding to a traveler’s life list of must-see destinations. But it was the decided lack of tour operators, hotels and basic infrastructure that made it somewhat off-putting for all but the most hardened of globetrotters. About a decade ago, however, a series of changes took place that suddenly made travel to Patagonia far less of an arduous journey. Air travel became more frequent. The number of tour operators increased. On the list of musts is a visit to the Lake District, where easy rapids can be tamed on the Mansa River followed by a fly-fishing foray in search of trout and salmon. News spread of more upscale accommodations cropping up throughout the region. It had become clear to tour providers that, while not everyone could summit the region’s imposing rock formations, there was a market for trips that led hikers around them. Similarly, the prospect of traversing a glacier with axes, spiked boots, ropes and harnesses was out of the question for most. But simply seeing these glaciers was something just about anyone could do from the comfort of a boat. “Patagonia is moving from the mythical margins toward the center of 21st-century reality,” writes Simon Worrall in a recent National Geographic story about the area. Today, visitors can see a landscape that still remains undoubtedly wild in character—and they can do so in far more established and comfortable confines. “Overland travel is efficient and smooth and the border crossing from Chile into Argentina and back is a mere formality,” said traveler Ted Liu. Trips to the so-called “end of the earth,” as parts of Patagonia are sometimes called, have become increasingly within reach for most any kind of traveler. “Interest is definitely on the rise in South America for North American travelers,” says Sasha Lehman with Absolute Travel, a luxury tour provider, who reports that bookings to Chile and Argentina have increased by roughly 30 percent in the last two years and roughly 80 to 85 percent of travelers coming visit some part of Patagonia. Further confirming this trend is the number of visitors to Patagonia’s national parks, some of which have achieved over 100 percent growth in recent years. “We’ve seen 108 percent rise in sales from 2005 to 2008,” says Mark Wheeler, regional managing director for South America with luxury tour provider Abercrombie & Kent. Any seasoned traveler who knows Patagonia will tell you there are at least a half-dozen experiences that must be had while in this region. You must visit an “estancia,” a rustic dude ranch often filled with horses, sheep and gauchos. “There is this whole gaucho culture,” says traveler Tom Walrond. “They wear scarves, boots, and chaps. It’s a scene right out of an old American Western. Their way of life hasn’t changed much at all. And while you’re there you’ll eat one of the most flavorful steaks you’ve ever had.” Up-close experiences with glaciers are also considered a high priority. Patagonia’s largest, Perito Moreno, is one of 365 found in Los Glaciares National Park in southwest Argentina. It’s four miles wide and 25 miles long. Visitors drive to it, hike on it, or take a boat to it. “While we were at one glacier, we heard four or five good cracks, deep blue chunks of ice,” said Herald. “It was crazy. It would catch you off guard. You’d be having a conversation and then you’d hear this sound like a clap of thunder. Then, back on the ship, we’d hear about the geology of the region, about which glaciers were receding and why.” There is also the obligatory trip to Cape Horn—southernmost point in South America—where you can take a boat trip out to a lighthouse on a small island to get your passport stamped for proof of having ventured into Antarctica. In the springtime (which starts in September in Patagonia), many travelers come to see the thousands of Magellan Penguins who, after spending months at sea, come to find a mate and build a proper nest for their young along the Patagonian coast. What’s more, many would attest that no trip to Patagonia is complete without a series of hikes to see at least one of the region’s most famous granite spires: Fitz Roy or Torres del Paine, which are about 120 miles apart. “That’s where you can hike to see those stock images usually found in catalogs or magazines,” says Walrond. Also on the list of musts is a visit to the more developed Lake District, where easy rapids can be tamed on the Mansa River one day and a round of golf may be booked for another, followed by a fly-fishing foray in search of trout and salmon. “We ran into a fisherman on the dock who had just caught a huge salmon,” says Walrond. “We bought it from him and had a chef at a local restaurant cook it up for dinner.” For travelers who spend weeks pouring over jaw-dropping scenic landscapes in travel catalogs, magazines or guidebooks, the desire to see this region’s numerous natural attractions often trumps all else. And yet, Patagonia remains the sort of place that drips with local culture that has largely escaped outside influence. “I can’t tell you how many times the locals came up and asked me about my impressions of their region,” said Liu, who recalls visiting a village called Trelew where many villagers still consider themselves Welsh. “Although they are very proud of being Argentine, they never fail to mention their Welsh heritage,” he said. What’s more, proper tea in the afternoon was still a tradition. “It’s how they manage to stave off hunger until dinnertime at 10 or 11 p.m.!” It is worth noting that there are certain parts of Patagonia (Fitz Roy and Perito Moreno) that would most surely be included in an inventory of some of the world’s most dramatic natural landscapes—places on par with Alaska’s Inside Passage, Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Australia’s Ayers Rock, or England’s White Cliffs of Dover—all mythic, vast and wild locales worth visiting at least once in your life.
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