In Patagonia, from Chile, with my tour group, over the border to Argentina and El Calafate, the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. The city is named after a little bush, with yellow flowers and dark blue berries that is very common in Patagonia.
Patagonia refers to the geographical region that encompasses the southern end of South America, so it covers the bottom end of both Argentina and Chile, below the Colorado and Barrancas rivers. And also, sometimes. the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. Patagonia comprises the southern section of the Andes Mountains, lakes, fjords, and glaciers in the west and deserts, tablelands and steppes to the east. It is bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and many bodies of water that connect them, such as the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel, and the Drake Passage
Surprisingly Patagonia is named after from the word patagón (big feet), as Magellan decided that the local tribes were giants, when he arrived. in 1520. When the Spanish came, Patagonia was inhabited by multiple indigenous tribes. both (minority) agricultural and hunter-gatherers In colonial times, some of these indigenous peoples adopted the colonial horseriding lifestyle.
Once independent, Chile and Argentina completely reversed the Spanish protectionist policy and encouraged settlement, over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thousands of Europeans (German, Croat, Italian, English, Scot, and Welsh) settled in Patagonia, whilst Argentines and Chileans came south. The indigenous populations, however, went into decline, their lives and habitats disrupted.
Today, eastern Patagonia thrives on sheep farming and oil and gas extraction, whilst in western Patagonia fishing, fish farming and tourism are the backbone of the economy.
Patagonia is possibly the most stunning place I have ever been - Perito Moreno and Los Glaciares in the spring - wow!
Perito Moreno Glacier
The colossal Perito Moreno glacier is nearly 300 feet high, 19 miles long and three miles wide, at its terminus on Lake Argentino. A land area the size of Buenos Aires and a mass of blue peaks, like giant frozen penguins marching into the sea. (There are more real penguins, too). This is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world's third largest reserve of fresh water. And it's one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding, as its mass is continuously replenished. No-one is quite sure how.
We watch the glacier calving icebergs into the iridescent lake. They fall with a giant roar, creating mini tsunamis and an explosion of ice, before floating off.
Steak In Argentina
We venture out to sample the renowned Argentine steaks, but our food arrives overcooked. Duncan, the guide complains and they eventually bring another round, so we end up devouring two meals. I haven’t felt hungry since.
The expedition is becoming a little sedate and we don't seem to have much planned while we are in Calafate. Duncan has foolishly told me that, in his opinion, Mount Fitzroy is the most impressive sight in South America, but it isn’t on our itinerary. So I decide to see it anyway, sign off the tour for two days and take a four hour bus ride to the village of El Chalten, the capital of Patagonian trekking. I end up in the middle of nowhere, at midnight, with a map I can't read, and I have virtually no Spanish. I'm rescued by a lanky drunk musician, toting a guitar home after his gig.
My walk is great. I get a taxi to the end of the trail and work my way backwards to the start. It's easier for transport to return to Calafate, I'm told. Duncan warned me it would be busy: 'You'll have loads of company', but he is wrong. I wend my solitary way for two hours accompanied only by a large, noisy, persistent horsefly, who will not depart despite my constant entreaties. He keeps reappearing, not satisfied until he has stung me hard. Perhaps, like the locals, he doesn't understand English.
Fitzroy, a wall of stone, is carved out of the sky, like the Last Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit. It is a beautiful, beautiful day. Parrots peek out of holes, gunacos leap and hares lollop. When I finally get back, I scan the park noticeboard. 'A steepy (sic) trail', it warns. 'To prevent bad encounters with pumas do not walk alone.'
The Uttermost Part of the Earth
From Calafate to Tierra del Fuego and its national park. I well remember learning about this archipelago at school - such an evocative name. Land of Fire. No fire today. Not volcanoes then, but bonfires built by the local peoples. The archipelago consists of the main island, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and a group of many islands, including Cape Horn and Diego Ramírez Islands. Tierra del Fuego is divided between Chile and Argentina, with Chile controlling the eastern half of the main island and Argentina the western half, plus the islands south of Beagle Channel.
Men reached these southern extremities in approximately 8,000 BC. Lucas Bridges, the son of a Missionary, and one of the first Europeans to settle in Tierra del Fuego poignantly referred to this land as The Uttermost Part of the Earth', in his 1948 book of that name. He wrote about his youth among the coastal Yaghans in Tierra del Fuego and his adult initiation into the Ona tribe, Their culture is now virtually extinct. However, we can visit the replica huts in the grounds of the Estancia Harberton, the family home. built by Lucas's missionary father, Thomas. in 1886. The estancia was named for the Devon home of his wife. Tourism keeps the ranch afloat today.
Ushuaia, The End of the World
On to Ushuaia, arguably southern most town on earth (the Chileans don't agree, but it all depends what you call a town), capital of Tierra del Fuego and gateway to the Falklands and Antarctica. We're 680 miles away from that continent. It's a windswept place, perched on a steep hill and surrounded by the Martial Mountains.
The thing to do here is another boat trip (catamaran) on the Beagle Channel, in the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The post office in Ensenada Bay is where we find the Unida Postal fin Del Mundo (End of the World Post Office). And you can have your passport stamped if you want and you have remembered to bring it. Then it's on to several islands in the channel, including Isla de los Pajaros (Bird Island) and Isla de los Lobos (Sea Lion Island). There are plenty of those. Mores stunning mountain views and (of course) the Faro del Fin del Mundo Les Eclaireures (the Lighthouse at the End of the World).
It's very strange to think I'm poised at the bottom of the globe. The weather is a little fresh, but not too uncomfortable. Zodiacs again on the (windy) Beagle Channel, probably the most famous of the three navigable passages down here. The channel separates the larger main island of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego from various smaller islands and its eastern area forms part of the border between Chile and Argentina.
Lapataia Bay is famous as being the endpoint of the Pan American Highway. It has emerald forests, silvery lakes fjords, sea birds sea birds and beavers galore. There is a story that the first pairs were imported as Eva Peron liked the fur coats. but the fur wasn't great quality, nobody cares to wear fur today anyway and the beavers got out of hand and devastated the landscape. There's a lot of fallen timber, which may or may not be picturesque. And lonely trees bent over with the prevailing wind that most definitely are. Winding, narrow hillside paths deliver views over the Beagle Channel and the mountains beyond.
Back in Ushaiaa proper there .are maps of the Falklands hanging in the port, though of course here they are called The Malvinas. There's another sign in the harbour:
Smile, it really is the end of the world.
Buenos Aires in Shock
I re-organised this part of my tour as I thought New Year in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina would be fun, but in the event it's a quiet and sobering experience. There's a nightclub fire the night we arrive and many people are killed and injured. This is a city in shock and mourning. Much is closed.
On New Year's Eve all the office workers throw last year's files out of the window to make way for the new. The streets are covered in paper. I just hope they have an electronic back up. Then it is a steak dinner and early bed.
On to Los Angeles and then Thailand.
(Read more about Argentina here.)