Savoring Patagonia

The story below recounts my first visit to awesome Patagonia. During my second visit in 2007, I had an experience that I’ll remember for life. Please read about it at the noteworthy Perceptive Travel Web Magazine.

The_Towers.jpg“I wonder when the last rock slide occurred,” I say to Holger, my German hiking companion, as we scramble, occasionally on all fours, to scale this steep rubble. Our target point, atop a nearly vertical incline, is the lookout for the three towers.

It’s another wet and windy day in Torres del Paine, Chile’s national park where these Patagonian treasures have grown up over the eons. Holger seems unconcerned with geological instability here at the stem end of the earth, where tectonic plates meet. He powers up ahead of me, no poster boy for the dangers of smoking on which I have given up lecturing him.

We hooked up back at the Las Torres Refugio, whereEasy Day in Torres de Paine_1.jpg we are lodging, to hike to one of the park’s namesake attraction. (Torres is towers and Paine, Pie-ee-nay, is transliteration for the indigenous Nandu people’s word for blue, the color of so much water here.) We’ve left all vegetation behind just after the five-mile mark of the trail to reach this slope that looks like a demolition site where a wrecking ball felled a structure and spread the jagged debris over the ridge in chaotic fashion.

Sharp-edged boulders tumble over each other precariously ready to slide with just the right pressure. But as I watch the steady stream of hikers persevering upward, I realize I’m wrong, this ground has been well trampled.

El_Chalten.jpgThe last time I had similar visions of being entombed was in Southeast Alaska when I climbed the Chilkoot Trail out of Skagway. In fact, that trail’s last kilometer, a near 90-degree angle of stacked rock, was called “the tower” by the 1898 gold-seekers climbing the pass into the Yukon’s Klondike. It’s as if I’m ascending the planet’s mirror image of its northerly 54th parallel.

With little chance of stone cairns balancing or standing out, bright orange slashes of paint on the boulders guide the hiker toward the top. (The Chilkoot used orange poles.) Holger and I make it to the summit safely and I expect to look down on a symmetry of more talus, falling into a basin.

But the spectacle, austere as the moon, features a snow-fed jade-green lake at the base of the sheer granite obelisks. We catch up with two other fellow lodgers, Sunny (from India by way of the Bronx) and Laurie (a man, from England). Along with about a hundred other gawkers, we take in the bare bones of the uplifted granite, gray igneous monoliths still partly sheathed in black sedimentary rock. Laurie and Sunny rock-hop down to the lake for photos of the towers, named South, Central, and North. The last, at an altitude 2,850 meters, is the highest.

Fitz_Roy.jpgThere is some hushed chat about a man, who appears to be in his late sixties and in good shape. He fell, lower down the talus, about the time I was worried about rock slides. He landed on the side of his face and got a deep gash that will no doubt require medical attention. It’s about eight inches long and bandaged with lots of gauze, thanks to his friends. He was determined to summit and has not let this wound turn him back. What a trooper.

Listening to the young and old who have made this pilgrimage, as they shoot images of the bald scape, I decipher many tongues. Hebrew, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Scandinavian, and Japanese blend with every brand of English, from Yankee, Cockney, and Queen’s to Kiwi and Aussie. I realize that Patagonia, a land mass of Andean peaks, plateaus, and plains pocked with bodies of water at South America’s tail end, is not so far-flung these days.

I once thought it was and that I would never get closer than the seat of my pants. Going on 20 years now, I’ve owned a pair of much-loved aquamarine pants from Patagonia, the ecologically-aware outdoor outfitter foundHot_Hiker_in_Torres_de_Paine.jpged by French climber Yvon Chouinard. My pants are like a cloth travel trunk (pardon the pun) with patches or holes on butt, knees, and thighs, representing wear and tear from many walks on the wild side. Besides the Chilkoot, they accompanied me on New Zealand’s Routeburn and Rees Dart tracks, Kauai’s Napali coast, Italy’s Cinqueterre, California’s Trinity Alps, and countless times on the Sierra Nevada’s John Muir and Pacific Crest trails, including two of the range’s “fourteeners,” mounts Whitney and Langley.

But I won’t be adding Torre del Paine’s W or Circuit to the pants’Hiking to Fitz Roy_1.jpg roster. These two backpack trips, requiring four to nine days outback, carrying 30- to 40-pound packs with lots of waterproof gear—maybe cement for tent stakes—I happily leave to the world’s many younger adventurers. Their dauntless trekking affords them access to some of the park’s most extraordinary scenery, including the desolate beauty on the back sides of peaks. But I don’t envy their having to all but mortar down their tents against fierce howling winds that make grown men and women go down on their knees and crawl.

Which is exactly what I have to do on my way back to Las Torres. Holger and I have separated because I lingered in the warm atmosphere of the Chile Refugio along the trail. I had no one to cling to as I tried to round a narrow ridge corner with a drop off, which the sudden wind—seemingly 60 mph—wanted me to test. I sat on the ground until the wind settled down.

I had no more such challenges the rest of my return down the broad Mariposa_Fitz_Roy_Trail.jpgrolling pampa steppe. After leaving the only trees here, thin stands of “lenga,” a sort of beech tree that turns golden yellow in fall, the vegetation is all low growth, mostly the calafate or blueberry bush (pity, there are no bears, only the lama-like guanaco, here to eat them).

The landscape mimics tundra in its open expansiveness with lots of big sky. In spring there are wildflowers, including virgin’s slippers. But it is late March during my visit, fall, so I see only the late bloom of a brilliant orange-red flower of the Chilean fire bush.

I have arrived the previous day from El Calafate, Argentina, a five-hour bus ride to the park entrance. From there, a van with guide ( gave us all a brief tour of the park before depositing us at our lodging. As we rolled over the unpaved, packed-dirt roads, I could see the visual appeal here where the Andes give way to Tierra del Fuego.

Dark peaks, many still cloaked in snow, rag the horizon. Besides the On Our Way to Fitz Roy_1.jpgdruid-like towers, a formation called the Cuernos del Paine rises above Lago Pehoé, one of many lakes we passed, whose waters seem to come in three shades—emerald, aquamarine, and sapphire. When the relentless wind blows, it’s a sight to see hundreds of frothy white caps stand up and dance on their rippling waters.

We passed many native guanaco (llama kin) foraging on the plains, who having never been hunted let humans get very close—though still, with the risk of being spat upon. I saw a bird with a wide wingspan swoop down into the low brush. Daniel, our guide said it was a caracara, a type of hawk. I wanted it to be a condor. But I’d have to wait.

We parked near a sign that said “don’t feed the foxes (gray)” but saw no foxes, and walked 1,500 feet to the Salto Grande, a waterfalls that is a mini replica of Iguazu’s Devil’s Throat. It crashes with a forbidding gurgle from Lago Nordenskjold into Lago Pehoe, The wind knocked most of us down at least once and we found we could lean a good 45 degrees into it and not fall until it died. A common photo pose here.

Although we had some rain and clouds, we were lucky, Daniel said, toTorres de Paine_1.jpg have unimpeded views of the usually mist-shrouded towers and cuernos. When a couple of rainbows appeared he said notice how they are flatter, given their location here at the bottom of the earth. But he is a biologist not a physicist to be trusted with commentary on curved space.

It’s not peak season during my visit, but the park still feels crowded at times, given its remoteness. A ranger told me that in 2006, the park received 117,000 visitors, most arriving in summer (December through February) and most of them backpackers doing the W or the Circuit. Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), where I spent 10 days in 1991 camping, rafting, and hiking felt much more remote and isolated. At that time ANWR, which unlike Patagonia can only be reached by bush plane, was getting about 15,000 visits per year. Which is about how many people go through the revolving doors at Grand Central Station in an hour (or is it a day?).

I am not at all disappointed by the number or quality of people. I meet mostly foreigners, hardly any Americans, many of whom share my home of three nights. The sprawling Las Torres Refugio, a stylish wood-log structure, features quarried-stone floors, beamed high cathedral ceilings, and large-paned windows. It’s spacious, airy, and crawling with young trekkers.

Wild_OrchidsEl_Chalten.jpgBack from my hike, I find its three wood-burning stoves roaring and Holger enjoying a hamburger—before he steps outside for a smoke.
I sink into a bean-bag chair seeking solitude in a commons area where throw pillows and an acoustic guitar suggest group sing-alongs occur. My bed is a comfortable lower bunk in a cheery dorm sleeping six, but I’m the only one for two of the nights. In the morning through my picture window, I see snowy peaks, wild hares browsing, and horses running loose from a nearby estancia.

There is other middle- and high-end lodging here, including the nearbyDarwin cordillera in Tierra del fuego_1.jpg Hosteria Las Torres ($141/night) and the exclusive Explora on the edge of Lago Pehoe (four nights run $2,170 to $3,110 a person including all meals and activities like horse riding, birding trips and nature walks-NYT). But I enjoy my refugio’s camaraderie and the buzz of young people who may shower or eat there before retreating to tents in the camp area. (I end up paying about $100/day for my bed, incidentals, and two meals a day, including wine.)

I find Holger, post-smoke, chatting with Juan, an Argentine man who has saved and planned many years for this trip. His eyes glow and tear with satisfaction—Patagonia has lived up to his wildest dreams. He works for utilities in a province outside of Buenos Aires, and Holger and I regret that he won’t join us for dinner. He retreats to his room, or tent maybe, to dine alone on food he brought in to save on expenses.

Hike_in_torre_del_paine.jpgHolger, who is a structural engineer, Sunny, a research biologist, Laurie, a photographer, and I all sup together on the inn’s fixed menu, lasagne with meat sauce this night. At some point they seem to forget, or not mind, that I am there, and discuss their relationships, the women who’ve left them (Holger and Sunny) or whom they left (Laurie). It’s sweet to be included. Sunny says it takes four years to make a breakthrough in his research and relationships are much harder by comparison.

Then Holger tries to get one of the cooks, a young Chilean woman, to show him her country’s folkloric dance, the cueco, which is an aggressively flirtatious line dance between men and women, with pañuelas (handkerchiefs). She demurs, saying she doesn’t have the right music, but Laurie (who recoils into stiff British demeanor) and I think she is intimidated by Hoger’s wine-induced Teutonic exuberance.

She looks relieved when we lead him outside. There we crane ourHosteria_las_torres_dumpling_clouds_overHosteriadel_torres.jpg necks back to see stars, silver sparkles scattered thickly over black velvet, with the translucent Milky Way achingly close. The sky is so dense with stars, it’s impossible to pick out any constellations. Someone, not I, claims to see Orion’s belt.

Given my more than half-dozen trips to Alaska, it is impossible for me not to compare it with Patagonia. Especially when it comes to the ice (one web site says Alaska has half of the world’s glaciers, but there are many here and I need to do more research to see how they compare quantity wise). In a March 4, 2007, New York Times article, the reporter writes, “Nowhere else are glaciers as accessible as they are in Patagonia.”

Perito_Moreno.jpgThat may well be true, given that most of the glaciers I’ve seen in Alaska I’ve had to reach by boat or plane. Twice I’ve sailed to those in the Inside Passage’s famous gorge-walled Tracy Arm, where big ships can’t go. Once I cruised to those in Glacier Bay National Park to see many more tidewater glaciers (including Sawyer, Muir, and Marjorie) calving thunderously by the minute, with sea mammals sidling up on the floes. I’ve flown over LeConte, near Petersburg, in a small plane. Three I’ve approached by road vehicle and on foot: Portage Glacier, an hour from Anchorage; Exit Glacier near Seward; Mendenhall in Juneau.

Folks, my brown eyes have seen a lot of blue ice.

And I never tire of gazing upon all those mounds of densely packedLenticular_Cloud_over_torres_del_paine.jpg six-sided crystals. So my second day in Torres del Paine is as memorable as the first as I head toward Grey’s Glacier. It may be accessible by foot, but it’s a hell of a long day to get there from my refugio and not possible to go and return in a day. Had I gotten the right information, I could have taken a $44 cruise down Lago Grey to the glacier then hiked back. But the flow of info here is as speedy as the mail.

I figure I’ll go as far as I can. I take a 9 am shuttle to Laguna Amargael_Chalten.jpg (Bitter Gap) where there is a small ranger station-cum-visitor center. After about 15 minutes a bus takes me to Lago Pehoe, where I have a scenic wait for a 12 pm catamaran.

The purser is about to de-boat me as my cash stash does not include dollars or Chilean pesos to pay. But a kind Israeli man comes to my aid, exchanging my Argentine pesos. It takes 30 minutes to sail the length of Lake Pehoé. By 1:15pm I’m on the far shore, where there’s expensive hostelry and a camp edging a broad valley, green with low stands of lenga and calafate.

hike_to_towers_in_t_de_p.jpgThe most salient aspect this mild day is the absence of wind. I let the droves of young backpackers go ahead of me, so I have to myself that rare silence in the wilderness you cannot bottle. I stop every now and then to let it fill me and my lungs and to look at the peaks off to my northeast, the cuernos or horns. There is a remarkably deep cleft, or couloir, between two. And they have names, too, Espade (sword), Hoja (leaf), Mascara (mask), Este (east) and Principal, the highest at 2,600 meters.

Up valley on the far side of the crest is a big, beautiful view of the expansive Lake Grey. I begin weaving with backpackers again who are doing the Circuit or the W. The trail hugs the ridge high above the lake through dense vegetation. I don’t make it to Grey’s face, but what I do see let’s me more than fill in the blanks.

I get far enough to see a dramatic seam in the lake waters, where it goes from clear to cloudy, suddenly thick with glacial flour ground off mountains. And I begin to see the “babies.” At least a couple of dozen fancifully shaped icebergs, some as blue as sapphire, have calved and floated away from the big mama. It’s pretty awesome, but the glacier is still a couple of hours away and I have to turn back to catch the catamaran by 6:30 pm.

My legs have no regrets. Back at Pehoe, late sun is turning the bunchHosteria_las_Torres.jpg grasses grass blond against the navy blue lake and shape-changing the Andes peaks, which are very close in view.

On the catamaran’s return trip, I meet a couple from Manchester England. They look very suburban, which is to say not terribly outdoorsy. But they have a serene look on their faces and they have a secret that they share with me. They came here 35 years ago. There was nothing, almost no one, not a shred of development. They hitched around, bivouacked against the elements, and experienced the fabled land that Bruce Chatwin, Patagonia’s John McPhee, wrote about.

Now they were lodging in high end comfort, while their son did the Circuit. They didn’t resent the development at all but thought it was great—now more people could come here. It didn’t detract from the emptiness they recalled. After all, the park is 242,242 hectares—California and Texas put together—so, if one were determined one could with some effort still find that isolation today.

I spend the morning of the day I am leaving to return to El Calafate atbus_top_on_way_to_Ushuaia.jpg Laguna Amarga with Laurie where he sets up his camera and tripod waiting for sun to hit some snowy peaks just right. In those four hours, everything comes to me, including, at last, el condor. Charcoal black with a snowy white ring around its neck, it has a majestically wide wingspan of three meters.

First I see one, then two, then more than a dozen, flying and hunting on the nearby hillside. I change Laguna Amarga’s name to Condor Roost. Laurie and I suppose they could carry off a baby guanaco, some of whom have come down to munch near us. A little pond is filled with ducks including, striking upland geese, or caiquen, with barred bodies that remind me of herringbone suits. There are also some colorfulMeadowlark.jpg songbirds nearby—a few long-tailed meadowlark, one singing on the ranger station’s antenna, with orange-red necks, and several rufous-collared sparrows. All we need is the puma that roams here and we’d have a good length of the food chain in one spot.


fire_bush_torres_del_paine.jpgMost visitors to Torre del Paine arrive by way of Port Natales, a scenic fishing town in Chile, a two-hour bus ride away. But, as I am based in Buenos Aires, I have come by way of El Calafate, a town that grew up around tourism. Still, it is attractive, situated on the huge Lago Argentino, and seems to have as many travel agencies as restaurants. They offer excursions to most Patagonia attractions, including Ushaia (the world’s most southerly town and departure point for Antarctica cruises), Fitzroy or Chalten (a lofty peak that you can view from a long hike) and to Perito Moreno, one of a very few glaciers that, despite global warming, is not retreating, but is in equilibrium. It’s one of Argentina’s stellar tourist attractions. You can’t go home without seeing it.

I meet up with California friends Dan and Diane, who are travelingPerito_Moreno.jpg around Chile and Argentina, to go see the Perito, which is located in Los Glaciares national park—along with 339 other glaciers. The whole excursion is packed with spectacularly memorable scenery, starting with the hour-long van ride to the park along Lake Argentina, which spreads, like an ocean, to the horizon with more Andes peak. There is a line of black silhouetted ones in the foreground against a background of pure snow-white covered ones in the distance. Absolutely stunning and unparalleled.

The park crawls with tourists but it’s quite organized. There are two ways to look upon the face of Perito, from a boat launch and from several tiers of footbridges. Dan, Diane, and I do both, starting with the launch.

We sail up pretty close to the face of this glacier, the likes of which I have never seen. It’s huge—30 kilometers long, being fed generously by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. Perito’s terminus, which is what we are looking at, is five kilometers wide, and 60 meters above the lake surface—about a 20-story building. Diane and I try to guess how much Bombay Gin and Aqua-Velva it took to turn the ice that gorgeous color.

From our perspective, the terminus-face appears so cleanly hewn, as if a giant spatula smoothed out icing on a cake. But the tall compacted ice towers are calving—casting off “rooms” or stories of ice—though not as prolifically as the tidewater ones in Alaska, about every 20 to 30 minutes. Everyone waits with bated breath and a chain of exclamations arises when a hunk breaks away and crashes into the lake. It’s better than fireworks.

Hiking to Fitz Roy_1.jpgFrom the footbridges we hear and see more calving and read a sign that says a few dozen people have died in the past few years from flying ice—hence, do not poach off bounds. We also see, perched on a branch of a lenga tree hanging over the footbridge, the cutest little pygmy owl. He blinks and lets us get really close, up to three feet—and becomes the most photographed pygmy owl in these parts. Diane thinks he might be so still because he’s going into “torpor” to conserve energy.

Back in El Calafate, we share a few good meals, including one at La Tablita— delicious lake trout and grilled lamb, which arrives on a cast-iron hotplate. We stroll the wooden sidewalks past storefronts packed with rhodochrocite, or Inca rose stone, the national gem of Argentina. It’s attractively set into much silver jewelry with turquoise and lapis lazuli.

Then Dan and Diane are off to Bariloche and I discover yet one more (unsung) treasure. The Laguna Nimez, a 15-minute walk from town, is a bird-lover’s haven right by the edge of the lake. About 100 species of birds, mostly waterfowl, use the protected wetlands around twoLaguna_Nimez_flamencos.jpg lagoons to feed, breed, and stopover during migration (how strange to hear that birds fly north for the winter). I follow the trail around the bigger lagoon on two occasions and see many species, including black-necked ibis, coscoroba swan, Andean ruddy duck, and a few harrier hawks. Also to be seen are shovelers, wigeons, pintails, falcons, plovers, gulls, and geese. But my favorite is the big flock of Chilean flamingos, their vivid pink feathers so dazzling against the sparkling waters.

It was one more wild image to take back with me, along with a bottle of opaque purple liqueur distilled from the calafate bush berries (good thing there are no bears!). All would be savored for a long time coming.

Note: This trip took place March, 2007. The photos are from another trip to Patagonia, November, 2007. Photos copyright Camille Cusumano and Dan Taaffe.


  1. Very funny that you had a German hiking companion “Holger”. I never hiked, but my name is Holger, I loved these rocks when I saw a photo and I did a large painting. Please look on