Friday 3 November 2017

In Patagonia: Three days at the end of the world

I might have dreamed this. I'd wanted to go to Patagonia for so long, imagined those granite spires, watched docos about the wild southern tip of South America.

Morning light, Torres del Paine
Then: a chance came up a few weeks ago, to stay in Chilean Patagonia for three nights at the end of a media trip.

Not nearly long enough, but it's such a remote and unearthly place it bends time and twists space so you feel as if you've been there longer.

I won't pretend to know all about this massive region after such a short time in one tiny bit of it, but it is the kind of place that affects you no matter how long you're there.

So here are a few random thoughts from my three days in Patagonia:

Brooding mountains
everywhere you look
1. It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here. Actually, Patagonia feels like the end of the known world, particularly way down in the Chilean part where I was (90 per cent of Patagonia lies in Argentina). Down there, you're closer to Antarctica than to Santiago.

2. Getting there is a big part of being there. First, the good news: getting to South America from Australia is easier now that LATAM Airlines flies non-stop from Melbourne to Santiago (Qantas also flies Sydney-Santiago non-stop).

Driving in Patagonia
From Santiago we then had a three-hour flight to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile, then a FIVE-HOUR drive to our lodge, explora Patagonia, through some of the most desolately beautiful landscapes I've seen on my travels. There's a real sense of arrival travelling this way; it reminds you how far from the rest of humankind you really are.

The Paine massif in all it glory
3. The Torres del Paine are magnificent. Patagonia's most recognisable landform, the Blue Towers (in the language of the indigenous Aonikenk people) are mesmerising. You can't take your eyes off them, even when you can barely see them - because at any moment the clouds might drift away and reveal what we saw when we woke up on our last morning.

The boardwalk outside my room was icy when I stepped out, rugged up in down jacket and beanie, and even after looking at and photographing the mountains and the changing light for more than an hour I still couldn't take my eyes off them when I went inside for breakfast. One of the most spectacular sights I've seen, anywhere.

Dawn view, right outside my room
 4. It's exhilaratingly cold. Cold enough for us to need thermals, beanies, gloves and down jackets every time we went outside - in October - not to mention waterproof jackets and pants because rain (or sleet, or snow) is always imminent.

The vegetation is stunted, alpine-style. There's year-round snow on the highest peaks. We might have been at the same latitude as London, 51 degrees, but in the southern hemisphere the Southern Ocean makes this a bleak part of the world - you're basically on a finger of land jutting out into it.

Grey Glacier coming down the valley
5. There's no shortage of ice. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field, from which flow dozens of major glaciers, is the third largest ice mass in the world, after those in Antarctica and Greenland.

We did a boat trip one day to see Grey glacier and the wind screamed off it so violently we could barely stand on deck to take photos. But the crevasse-blues and jumbled terminal face were amazing to see up close.

6. Patagonia is named after a race of giants. Patagones (meaning "tall person") was the name Portuguese explorer Magellan gave to the Aonikenk people he encountered while exploring the South American coast in the 1520s, said to be twice as tall as they were.

A forest walk near Lake Grey
7. It's green. Besides icebergs and glaciers, Chilean Patagonia has incredible forests of Nothofagus, southern beech trees also found in Australia. In autumn (March-May) this part of Patagonia blazes with reds, oranges and yellows - a great time to come, particularly for photography.

8. Bruce Chatwin's epic turns 40 this year. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin sparked countless explorations and daydreams when it was published in 1977, partly because it's as much a meditation on nomadic life as it is an account of the six months Chatwin spent there (people knew how to travel then). It certainly inspired me when I was starting out as a writer, along with Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard.

A lone guanaco, native to Sth America
9. There's wildlife galore. Before we'd even arrived at the lodge on our first afternoon we saw an armadillo (an armadillo!) crossing the road like an armoured echidna. We also saw guanaco (like orange and white llamas) and condors, which have the second-largest wingspan after the wandering albatross. But no pumas, sadly, though there are lots in Torres del Paine National Park.

10. You can buy Patagonia-brand clothes there. It's disheartening that an outdoor brand is the first thing to come up now when you Google "Patagonia", but it's comforting to know that founder Yvon Chouinard named the company after climbing and surfing in Patagonia in 1968 (see my post 180 degrees of inspiration) and that Patagonia Inc has always been ahead of its time in terms of caring for the environment. And it's kind of cool that all the staff at explora Patagonia wear Patagonia gear.

Room with a stunning view
11. The best-ever view from a hotel. Looking like a ship that's run aground on the shore of a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains, explora Patagonia lodge is ideally situated for making the most of those views. For all its luxury, it's the kind of place where you can simply sit in an armchair pretending to read a book (while really looking at the view) or lie in bed, or a hot bath, listening to the rain pelting against the windows.

12. Hiking and horseriding. Every night before dinner an explora guide with a map would come over to chat with us and explain the next day's options, usually hikes and horserides with beret-wearing huasos (Chilean gauchos).

Horse and huaso (gaucho)
We'd be outside from 8am to 5pm, sometimes returning briefly to the lodge for lunch, taking in the landscape from different angles. Alas, there was no underwater angle this time: the lodge was perched on the edge of a gorgeous lake, but this is one place I didn't swim - it was just too cold.

I'll say one thing about short trips: they focus the mind so you make the most of every last second. Even as we drove away, I had my nose pressed to the window of the van trying to burn into my memory the vision of those mountains and how they looked for real, not in photos. It was also a preview trip, I decided, a way to know for sure that I'll do a multi-day hike there one day, soon I hope, or find some other way to stay in Patagonia for more than three magical days.


Big thanks to LATAM Airlines and Adventure World, which arranges tailored experiences all over the world, for this incredible experience. LATAM now flies non-stop from Melbourne to Santiago three times a week, on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, see

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