Patagonia is vast terrain, some 1043 squared kilometres, spanning both Chile and Argentina, and its wild and untamed open spaces down at the bottom of the world awaken the often dormant pioneering spirit in us. Like many we’d been enchanted by Chatwin’s vintage vignettes in In Patagonia and so three years ago, our clunky VW Dormobile transported us from our home in Rio de Janeiro as far as the Welsh belt of Patagonia and back again. That time we clocked up circa 12,000km in 28 days, and since then had been dreaming of reaching the south. Now, in the company of our bouncy two year-old and my in-laws, we flew to Punta Arenas (via wine slurping in Santiago) and rented a civilised vehicle which helped us travel just shy of 3000 km in 9 days. Here are a few highlights of where to explore.
Tierra del Fuego
Fireland – such an evocative name! In Autumn, the land is ablaze as the leaves of the lenga, ñire and other southern beech trees light up in an array of reds and yellows before being blown out by winter. And fires were the principal source of warmth for the Yaghan people, then the world’s southernmost indigenous group; they would even, on extremely cold occasions, light small fires in their canoes. There was nothing of the sort on our little boat (although the dulce de leche liquor did bring comforting cheer) as we got out onto the Beagle Channel to see the spendour of Ushuaia with the snowy Andes striking up behind. A half-day boat outing is also an unforgettable way of getting to know the great variety of sea life, like the South American fur seals, sea lions, imperial cormorants, whales – we sighted a couple of slick minke whales – the albatross, kelp geese, flightless steamer ducks, Magellanic penguins, and a whole lot more. We were well served by Tres Marias Excursiones.
There are multiple hiking opportunities in and around Ushuaia, but for a great morning’s strenuous walk, head up the Martial Glaciar with its slabs of snow and rushing water and paralysed ice flow at the top of the trail. Reward yourself by rounding off the outing with a glug of gluwein at Refugio de Montaña. On the good food trail, savouring the exotic king crab is a must. One of the most surprising Customs experiences we had was being beckoned behind one of the desks as we crossed into Argentina to be shown an image on the border official’s computer of the king crab la centolla and encouraged to try it. A couple of days later, dutifully, we sat down in a restaurant in Ushuaia that was pinker than most enthusiastic girls’ bedrooms and enjoyed the recommended fare. If you want the real deal of picking your crab from a tank, then head to La Cantina de Freddy.
If you prefer foraging for your food, there’s a whole array of wild berries that are there for the pickings, including the Magellanic barberry or the calafate, similar to the blueberry, and found in lots of local jams and sweets, and the diddle-dee (which sounds like a name my son coined, but is the common name for the Magellanic blackcurrant) that looks like a redcurrant and tastes like an apple.
Some of the earliest pioneers to this part of the world were Anglican missionaries, and Rev Thomas Bridges’ lexicon of the Yaghan peoples’ language – some 30,000 words in total, in the care of the British Library – quashed the perception of many, including Darwin, that they were a people beyond savage. Albeit an hour and a half outside of Ushuaia, a visit to Harberton Estate, which still belongs to the Bridges family, is well worth it, and it now houses a museum of marine birds and mammals, as well as a restaurant and cosy old tea room serving up delicious ginger biscuits and cakes, using vegetables and berries from the long-established vegetable gardens.
Punta Arenas – originally named ‘Sandy Point’
Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition is recalled as one of the most extraordinary stories of resilience in the age of Antarctic exploration. After losing their ship to packed ice, it took four attempts until the crew were retrieved, thanks to Shackleton making his way to Punta Arenas and calling on the Chilean navy to come to the rescue. We intended to go to the historic Shackleton Bar for dinner, but found that the downstairs sea-cabin of a restaurant next door, La Taberna, had more of a buzz so we admired the old photos and arquitecture of the former and sat down in the latter to enjoy their mouthwateringly good lamb chops and huge litre tumblers of the world’s most southerly brewed beer, cerveza Austral. A little less sophisticated and a bit pricier than Bar Shackleton, but great fun.
Perito Moreno Glaciar
The Perito Moreno glaciar is one of 48 glaciars in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Being the most accessible, it receives waves of tourists, but it is mesmerising, and it’s also unusual because it’s one of the few glaciars in the world that is advancing. It does of course still lose large chunks daily so that amidst the hushed wonder of it all, there’s still an ongoing creaking and intermittent smash of ice hitting water. It’s a relic of ages past, yet very much alive.
We stayed nearby at the Estancia Rio Mitre, a rustic yet authentic horsey estate on a branch of the Lago Argentino. It’s off-grid (pretty de rigueur in those parts) so in the evenings the cosiest and brightest place to hang out is by the fire with the owner, don Esteban who donned the timeless beret of his Basque ancestors, and sharing a glass of malbec with whichever locals he has round that day. Hands down the best leg of lamb I’ve had was cooked to perfection on the embers there, and after riding a horse that day in the wide open plains between the Andean cordillera and the Magellanic peninsula, it seemed life really couldn’t get any better…
National Park Torres del Paine
This is Chile’s pin-up national park, with glaciers and icebergs and turquoise lakes abounding and the Paine massif out of which emerge three stocky security guards keeping watch over their terrain – three granite peaks, fittingly named the Torres (Towers). As it turns out, we had only one day to dedicate to the park (no thanks to Chile’s budget airline JetSMART) but blissfully it was the clearest day we’d had for our whole trip, and we were able to do the day trek (around 5 hours) up to the postcard Towers viewpoint. We were spared what Neruda called the “rancorous finger of the wind” and so while definitely stretching, the hike was not beyond our capabilities. Most memorable meal? Perhaps unsurprisingly, an egg sandwich and chocolate washed down with scotch up by the Towers lake. There are a number of high-end accomodation options in the park, as well as refugios and campsites, but wherever you pick you’re likely to have a privileged view. The majesty of these mountains awoke in me some old memory of fascination for mountains, so yet again I find I have more reasons to return.