Friday, April 16, 2010

Into Patagonia

The sky dimmed with the passing hours as we leaned over the rails and pondered the colossal sea of ice looming below. Snow-crusted mountains framed the frozen city that extended beyond our vision, like the ocean itself. Thunder ruptured the silence whenever a chunk of ice cracked from the mass and crashed into the aqua lake below, shooting a water high into the sky. Each explosion brought on a wave of chills. The glacier seemed so powerful, so alive. The jagged jaws of ice gleamed a brilliant blue, their dagger-like forms jutting into the sky with an air of violence.

Standing in the mighty vicinity of El Glacier Perito Moreno in El Parque Nacional de Glacieres of southern Argentina is a thrilling, even spiritual experience. The glacier is an imposing, active presence. I mulled over the idea that the entire metropolis of Buenos Aires could fit inside the 100-square mile, 200-foot-tall mass of ice as the last of the sunlight gleamed an incandescent pink through a break in the clouds. Antarctica seemed dangerously close. It was ... surreal. There I was, more than 6,000 miles from home in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, facing one of the world’s natural wonders. 
A week earlier I hadn’t known this glacier existed, but after a three-hour flight south of Buenos Aires I'd landed in the Santa Cruz province of Argentina. I suddenly found myself 2,000 miles away from my apartment in Valparaíso and my chaotic new class routine in La Universidad Católica. I'd arrived with three new acquaintances-turned-friends: Natalie, my shining fellow Rotary Scholar and two tall, blond and beautiful Christian-school teachers. During the next three days we bonded over conversaton accompanied by Quilmes, empanadas, Malbec, ice cream and gooey Argentine pizza after our long days of excursions.

We took refuge in our cozy and rustic hospedaje in El Calafate, the boomtown gateway to Argentine Patagonia (its population has more than tripled since 2001). In the mornings Balén and her husband served us homemade bread and jam made from fruit from the backyard trees (our favorite tasted better than cherry pie) along with the quintessential medialunas. We topped our sweet-grain cheerios with vanilla or strawberry yogurt and sipped mate cocido or coffee by the old-fashioned stove. From the moment the warm and beautiful couple (always chasing after or scooping up their puppy-eyed, snotty-nosed toddler) first greeted us I swooned, dismissing any doubts I had about my former affinity for Argentine accents and memories of Argentine hospitality. The husband was a typical shaggy-haired and aquamarine-eyed Argentine – imagine an older brother of Gael García Berna (from The Motorcycle Diaries and Y Tu Mamá También).

Our second day in El Calafate we woke up for a three-hour bus ride to the village of El Chaltén, the base for some of the best trekking in Patagonia where we hiked around the Fitz Roy Massif. While walking through the sunny forest we met three red-headed Magellanic woodpeckers. The giant birds announced their presence with the drum of their tree-demolishing double knocks. Again I reflected on my circumstances -- Here I was, meandering though the rugged wilds of Patagonia, admiring turquoise lakes, peering down into gargantuan valleys and gazing up at the sheer granite faces of the extra-terrestrial-shaped Fitz Roy mountains. The peaks protruded like fangs into the clouds of the Patagonian heavens, perhaps the most spectacular on planet earth.

The next afternoon following a round of cappuccinos in the pleasantly touristy El Calafate, Natalie and I walked to the Laguna Nimez Reserve on the edge of town. The wind whipped our hair and our hiking boots sunk into the soft, wildflower-carpeted field shoring the lake. A flock of flamingos soared over the water while horses grazed and upland geese waddled through the grass.

Later that evening we hired a taxi to the Lago Roca, an almost-secret spot where the locals spend their weekend afternoons. Our driver turned out to be a private local guide, an opinionated character named Mauricio who drove us through the lonesome highways of rugged Patagonia, dodging dozens of leaping, dog-sized hares reminiscent of miniature kangaroos in the golden glow of evening. He paused for photo opps of aqua lakes and a took us for a look around of one of the estancias (a sheep farm in this case) before parking at the shores of Lago Roca to share a round of mate in the plains below El Perito Moreno. After the sunset we piled back in the car, just as the stars punctuated the humbling expanse of Patagonian sky to ride home in silent, sleepy gratitude. 

And there I was, unworthy, exploring Patagonia, the namesake of the ultimate brand of outdoor gear and the wilderness enthusiast’s definitive adventure at the southern ends of the earth.

(see the rest of my photos at


  1. F A N T A S T I C. Just as bright as it is in the caverns of my mind, locked in memory.

    If only I could taste Balen's jam with the same vivid clarity... . . . : )


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