Primordial rainforest thick with strange bamboo and the spreading canopies of big trees. Rugged mountains flanked by black glaciers and streams that run as green as jade. Deep valleys cut by icy blades and filled with lakes bigger than most cities. This is Patagonia, the end of South America and to me, it felt like the end of the world.
Six months ago I got off a plane in Cusco, Peru and started an adventure that would take me from the extreme heights of the Andes back to the ocean, from the ruins and people of the Incas to a place of modern struggle, and from the world’s driest desert to a verdant land seeping with water. In Patagonia I was the furthest south I had ever been and I thought it was a fitting end to one of the most life changing experiences I’ve ever had.
Our travels through this amazing and rugged land were based around two cities; Bariloche, Argentina and Puerto Varas, Chile. These cities are located at the extreme north of Patagonia. Freezing weather and deep snow kept us from traveling further south. Even in the north we only had two days without rain or snow.
On the days when it was clear, we traveled around the many lakes. We climbed mountains to profound lookouts and took walks by serene shores. When the weather turned bleak, we found refuge in the cozy restaurants, cafes, and pubs where a European influence is evident in delicate desserts, steaming hot-chocolate, and well-crafted beers.
Most of the sun came early in our trip and was followed by long rainy days. Right when the weather was changing, we booked a tour to see a local volcano, famous for its thundering ice-falls and black glacier. The rain fell hard that day and within the first couple of hours our boots were muddy and our aging rain jackets were soaked through.
After another hike we were drenched. Water had saturated our socks and was seeping through every layer of our clothing. Then the rain stopped — because it had started to snow. We walked from the base of the mountain to the glacier through snow with boots that squelched at every step. I am hard pressed to think of a time where my feet were more cold.
The views of the glacier were lost in a screen of falling snow but what we could see was stunning. Before we left the base of the mountain we witnessed cascading snow and ice followed by the rumbling echoes that caused early explorers to name this mountain Tronador.
We returned to Chile through the thickest snow storm I have ever seen. The trees clinging to the mountain pass between Argentina and Chile had so much snow on their branches that they looked like bleached skeletons. After a single rainy night in Puerto Montt we headed north and arrived in Puerto Varas.
The rain was still falling hard but the town had plenty of interesting and warm places to seek shelter. We were just in time to join in on the Chilean independence celebrations which last for the whole week around Sept. 18. That meant the town square was partly covered with a large tent where groups gathered to barbecue Chilean classics like anticuchos (meat skewers).
The vast cattle ranches of Chile and Argentina are renowned for producing some of the best beef in the world. I might have gotten lucky, but even the street-meat I tried rivaled the best steak I have eaten back home. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Chilean barbecue if there weren’t also crispy empanadas and chorizo sandwiches to round out the meal.
Our last day was spent wandering the lakefront and watching the clouds for any sign of the local volcano’s uncovering. It did eventually peek its head out for a few moments before being blanketed again by clouds. We also climbed some of the local hills for views of the town spreading out below us with all of its wooden houses and alpine-style shingles.
In some ways, Patagonia got away from me. From the beginning, I knew I was arriving too early in the season to do any real exploring. I knew that this was just a scouting trip but once I was there, the urge to explore was hard to resist. This time, the wild reaches of the south were left untouched. While it leaves me a feeling a little sad, I guess it just means I have to come back.