Imagine a land created by the collision of continents with towering mountains, deep ice scoured valleys, a land of fire and lush forests inhabited by mythical giants of almost 12 feet tall. One would expect this land to be part of a Tolkien novel and yet, it is none other than Patagonia, nature’s true masterpiece of creation.
Falling predominantly in Argentina with a small part extending into Chile, Patagonia is a land of dramatic contrasts; high peaks, terraced landscapes, glacial peaks, icebergs and azure blue lakes. The original inhabitants of the land were the so-called ‘Patagones, (or big feet), so named by the explorer, Magellan in the 1520’s to describe the native people that they saw along the coast line of Patagonia. The idea of these giants living in a unique land persisted for many years until it was later proven that they were in fact, just above average height.
Regardless, the land is still shrouded in mystery. In 2007, a lake about the size of 10 football fields simply vanished, leaving scientists speculating that the ground must have simply opened up and swallowed it whole.
Stretching along the centre of Argentina along the border with Chile, is the incredible Andes range, over 7000km long and 500km wide in places. At its most southern point, the range suddenly drops off and is broken up into a series of small islands that form the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, a land equally shrouded in mystery. Once home to an extinct group of people called the Fuegians, the area is known as the “land of fire”, so named because of the numerous camp tires seen at night by the early explorers. For almost 6000 years, the area was also inhabited by until the area was conquered in the 19th century. Then in 1902 a penal colony was established there for political prisoners and later, for hardened criminals amidst attempts by the Argentine neighbours to lay claim to the area. After the prison closed, the area, then home to 3000 people blossomed to the current 45000 residents who have pegged their hopes of economic survival on tourism. Given the snow capped mountains, the crystal skies, towering glaciers and iridescent sunsets, this is not surprising. The area has a romantic allure with such pristine beauty that it captures the heart and soul. Beech and Canelo trees grow with the roots anchored into thick peat bogs. Lichens and mosses hang from trees in sheets. Small island inlets protect populations of penguins and sea lion which have migrated from the Antarctic.
Many of the penguins from the Antarctic, head for the warm breeding grounds of the Valdes and the Punta Tambo penguin colony around September of each year. The five hundred acre reserve is the world’s largest Magellan penguin colony, with around 500 000 penguins arriving annually to breed. Stretching about 3.5km into the ocean, this narrow strip of land is transformed each year into a chattering orchestra of penguins accompanied by giant petrels, cormorants, steamer ducks and gulls.
Given the tranquility of this lush coastal oasis, it is not surprising that in 1865, 159 Welsh settlers arrived to set up residence in Patagonia. Settling in such towns as Trelew and Rawson, the largest settlement occurred in a town called Gaiman. Today, the town is home to about 5000 residents, most of whom are direct descendants of the original colonists.
Amidst the endless rows of tree lined streets and window boxes overflowing with vibrant flowers, tourists gather to enjoy a traditional Welsh tea, served with black cake and clotted cream scones.
Heading south of the colonies of the Valdes Peninsula, you arrive at the picturesque tapestry of the Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia, a truly Tolkein landscape. This national park is home to a spectacular mountain range protecting endless glacial lakes, craggy granite peaks, woods and boggy marshes not to mention an array of unusual wildlife. Strolling among the lush forests which are home to guanacos, culpeos foxes and pumas, you would expect to see strange mythical creatures staring at you from the undergrowth. If you look close enough you will see just that. Standing about 10cm tall, wearing brown pants, a white cummerbund, orange jackets, round yellow hats and an average age of 2 years, are the fat remarkable little Darwinii, a family of the Calceolaria plant, sporting such family embers as the bright yellow “slipper flower” and “ladies purse.” However these “little creatures” pale in significance when one looks up to the massive towering craggy granite blocks that stand tall within the park.
Formed about twelve million years ago by the collision of sedimentary rock and magma and later carved out by wind and melting waters at the end of the ice age, this magnificent park is home to some of the most photographed granite peaks in the world, the Cuernos and Torres, translated to mean horns and towers. The highest of these is the Torre Sur rising 2835m from the ground. Only the condors attempt to brave the thermals that well up from these crags.
Not too far north of this park, lies the town of El Calafate, the jump off point to view some of nature’s formations that know no boundaries.
Connecting both Chile and Argentina, are about 48 glaciers which together form the Patagonian Ice Cap. On the Argentinean side of the Andes, there are more than 300 glaciers, most of which fall within the 350km long Glaciers National Park. it is here that we find the largest lake in Argentina, fed by the glaciers of Perito Moreno, Mayo, Spegazzini, Upsala, Ameghino, Agassiz and Onelli. Among these, Perito Moreno serves as a true miracle of nature and a sought after tourist attraction. It is one of three glaciers in Patagonia that are not retreating. Moving about 2m a day, with a height of about 60 metres above water level and 250 km2 of ice, this massive giant constantly advances forming a natural barrier between Lago Argentina and Brazo Rico – a higher glacial fed lake. Through the constant supply of glacial melt water, Brazo Rico can rise by 30m, causing extreme pressure buildup behind the glacier. Over time, this natural symphony builds to a massive crescendo, when the terminus of the glacier ruptures and buckles under the pressure. The first rupture of Perito occurred in 1917 when it took an entire forest with it. Since then it has ruptured every 4-5 years, with its next performance expected in July of this year, 2008 when it will make history, as never before has the glacier ruptured in winter.
Traveling through this vast landscape of never ending beauty, you start to feel as though nature has her own plan. Sometimes it feels as though time has stopped. Other times it feels as though nature is carving out a plan beneath your very feet. Patagonia is a marvel of nature, a true miracle of formation with every turn presenting a new symphony of colour; a new kaleidoscope of sights. Ancient formations rise up around you in a land that seems to have no end. This is Patagonia, a land steeped n mystery, a never ending story book of myth and creation.
By Debra Bouwer