We love mountains, we really do, and like the desert an awful lot as well. This is why we like our hometown of Reno so much – technically we live in the desert yet are 15 minutes from some of the most beautiful mountains in the United States. We have the benefit of a dry, sunny climate and can drive to “the snow” in a matter of minutes for our outdoor fix. This might be why we have fallen in love with Patagonia, the region that spreads from the Pampa through to Tierra del Fuego and crosses between Chile and Argentina. It is definitely our kind of place. The flat horizon line of the pampa or the ridgeline of the Andes in Patagonia holds our imaginations.
When we arrived in Patagonia, we were immediately struck by the landscape – arid yet mountainous – we felt at home. In contrast to the Pampa’s mesmerizing expanse and razor-sharp uninterrupted horizon line, Patagonia is a series of rolling hills, subtle mountains, small lakes, ancient glacial moraines, and milky blue streams. The diminutive Guanaco roam in small packs, the Rheas seem oddly out of place, and the wind blows strong and consistent. It is as if Nevada, southeastern Wyoming and Colorado have all been wrapped in to one – but it is different and on a grander scale. The spaces are larger, the mountains taller. We love Patagonia.
Like the West, the people are tough. Their skin is tanned and weathered from the intense sun, biting wind, and snow, but the smiles are bright and welcoming. The dogs look as if they have come from herding stock – Australian Shepherd, Cattle Dogs and Border Collies mostly, but some German Shepherds and Great Pyranese too.
The lenga trees are short and sturdy against the wind, small oak-shaped leaves tough like holly but without the spines. Much like a forest of hemlock, walking through a forest of lenga makes you feel as if you are in the land of gnomes and elves or that Robin Hood will bound out from behind a tree any moment. It is a tidy forest without understory or debris. The landscape is young because the ice fields have only recently (in a geologic sense) retreated, revealing fresh and raw lands. It is a place where all life must find a way to survive. We loved it.
After our trek in Torres del Paine, we were ready for a few days of rest and some time to catch up on schoolwork. We took our few unplanned days in El Calafate to enjoy being in one place. Other than a day-trip to see the glaciers and a visit to a wetlands sanctuary and museum, we mostly stayed in town and did math…not very exciting but what you need to do when road schooling your children. While visiting the glaciers was interesting, there was little else to do in a town which mostly caters to package tourists. After four days, it was time to move on.
To get closer to the mountains, we headed north from El Calafate to El Chaltén. (Side note: our trip has been broken down in to different letters: The C’s – Cuzco, Quito, Cuenca, The P’s – Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas, Patagonia, and The L’s – El Chalten, El Calafate, El Bolson!). El Chaltén is a new town, only in existence since 1985, created to end the border dispute between Argentina and Chile over who was responsible for administration of the northern part of the park. It is an outdoor person’s heaven.
Situated at the confluence of two rivers, it is a spectacular location where you can see Cerro Fitz Roy from the town playground, you can walk a half-hour to a 30 meter waterfall, or an hour to an overlook where you can see Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, and both rivers from one spot…and there are Andean condors there too! Only 10 kilometers by trail from town is what is perhaps our favorite campsite of all times – de Angostini.
Literally, we loaded our packs with overnight stuff and walked out of our door a few hundred meters to the trailhead and were hiking in a matter of minutes. No long drives, no park entrance fees, no shuttles – just amazing hiking, good local beer, and great lamb asado. We loved El Chaltén.
At some point during our 1800 km road trip to El Bolson we noticed the shadows and the location of the sun. Shadows are cast on the left side of the car heading west. We were struck by the contrast. In the US, when driving west, the sun falls in the lap of the driver and casts a shadow on the right side of the car. The long days and bright sun in the far south of Patagonia make a northern hemisphere inhabitant stop and wonder where they are. We love Patagonia.