Patagonia – Part 1

Why then, and this is not only my particular case, does this barren land possesses my mind? I find it hard to explain, but it might partially be because it enhances the horizons of imagination.” – Charles Darwin

Patagonia has been on my list of travel itineraries since I was a child. Located in the southern end of South America, embraces partially the territory of Argentina and Chile. Similarly to Alaska, in my mind Patagonia has always been one those destinations for which the single mention of its name wakes up the fascination of the distant, wild and unknown. An immense land, seemingly stretching into infinity, whose geographical immensity can be compared only to the size of its reputation.

The Argentinean area of Patagonia expands to the south of the river Colorado between the Andes and the Atlantic Ocean. A vigorous nature is imposed to the observer in the semi-arid plateaus of the eastern part, fitted by deep valleys and canyons, like in the upright western mountain ranges, covered of an arboreal tapestry, crowned of snow and sprinkled with glaciers and lakes.

In Chile, Patagonia travels from the Biobio region, down to the very end of the country (and the continent!) to Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego, embracing areas of great natural diversity and unsuspected beauty, including glaciers, volcanoes, lakes and forests

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am no historian but apparently human habitation of the Patagonia region dates back thousands of years, with some early archaeological findings in the southern part of the area dated to the 8th millennium B.C. The region seems to have been inhabited continuously since that time by various cultures and alternating waves of migration, the details of which are as yet poorly understood. The indigenous people of the region included, among others, the Tehuelches, whose name means “brave people”. Sadly, their number and society were, not surprisingly, reduced to near extinction not long after the first contacts with Europeans.

According to a little research I did, the region of Patagonia was to be first noted in European accounts in 1520 by the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan, who on his passage along the coast named many of the more striking features, Gulf of San Matias, Cape of 11,000 Virgins (now simply Cape Virgenes), and others. However, according to other articles I read on the subject, it is also possible that earlier navigators such as Amerigo Vespucci had reached the area (his own account of 1502 has it that he reached its latitudes), however his failure to accurately describe the main geographical features of the region such as the Rio de la Plata casts some doubt on whether he really did so.

According to Antonio Pigafetta, one of the Magellan expedition’s few survivors and its published chronicler, Magellan gave the name “Patagão” (or Patagoni) to the inhabitants they encountered there, and the name “Patagonia” to the region. Although Pigafetta’s account does not describe how this name came about, subsequent popular interpretations gave credence to a derivation meaning ‘land of the big feet’.

Patagonia is also famous for its unpredictable weather and the strength and intensity of its precipitations. Generally, the weather in Patagonia is dominated by two factors. The first, and there is no equivalent part in the world in which this factor plays such a crucial role, is the very strong and highly predominant west wind. The second one is represented by the Andes. As they run North-South they build an orographic barrier to the west winds, comparable to the Rocky Mountains in North America but with even more severe consequences. The high rainfall against the western Andes and the low sea surface temperatures offshore give rise to cold and humid air masses, contributing to the formation of ice-fields and glaciers, outside of Antarctica the largest ice-fields in the Southern Hemisphere.

Although every time I have pictured a trip down to Patagonia in my mind I have always included itineraries both north and south of the region, this time, due to the limited amount of time available and to the time of the year, during this trip I will have to limit my journey to the northern part. I will therefore not have the chance to see the glaciers and go climbing around the famous Mt. Fitzroy. The northernmost section of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the Fitzroy sector, contains some of the most breathtakingly beautiful mountain peaks on the planet. An excellent reason to go back and explore more in the future!

My journey begins in London on a Saturday night with a 13 hour flight to Buenos Aires where I land the following morning at 7:30am. From Pistarini, the main international airport I have to go to a smaller one from which I have another 3 hour flight to Esquel. It’s about 8am when I come out of the terminal and it doesn’t feel cold. It’s only when I get to Esquel a few hours later I finally feel the temperature difference comparatively to the part of the world I am coming from. Here it’s about 1° which it means I am officially in winter again! Although it’s only about 4pm and my body clock is telling me it’s almost time to go to bed I am still 4 hour bus ride away from my final destination, Bariloche. So, reluctantly, I drag my bags outside the small crowded terminal and, together with a couple of dozens more people I board a big double deck bus. Luckily I manage to secure a nice pair of empty seats on the upper deck with the clear intention in my mind to get some sleep.

Only 5 minutes into the journey though, looking out of the window I realise that over the past 20+ hours of travelling, this is actually the first time I am able to look out of a window and see where I am. This is the first time I see Patagonia with my own eyes. And this is what I see:

 

As expected, this part of the country is a rather featureless, dry, seemingly endless land. Despite the fact that we are only 5 minute into the journey, it feels much more remote than that. I can look in any direction without seeing any sign of human presence. Not a bad thing at all if you ask me. In a land so densely populated like Europe, openness can be very hard to find. It seems increasingly difficult to reach areas where the horizon can be experienced as a long unbroken line. In her book The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich put it nicely: “People are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves we what we can buy. We only have to look at the houses we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs out ability to see what is already there”. Ceratainly something to think about

Where are the mountains?! Finally few peaks appear on the horizon

Once I finally get to Bariloche, my final destination, the first thing I can think of is that very few times in my life I have travelled so far to go snowboarding. I know though, that like few other trips I have been on in the past, this one is not going to be only about the snowboarding. As always, even if I am perfectly aware that the main motivation to plan a trip like this one is to explore a new mountain environment on my splitboard, I know that it’s not going to be just about that

The plan is to meet up with my friend Jorge and together explore his beautiful backyard. When I get off the bus he and his lovely girlfriend Sarah are there waiting for me. Jorge has been living in Bariloche all his life. He is an amazing guy. His strong passions for climbing, skiing and just being out there in the mountain environment led him to years spent travelling around the world doing what he loves and gaining numerous and excellent skills which eventually led him to qualify as IFMGA/UIAGM mountain guide. I am sure you have seen this logo before

IFMGA Mountain Guides are the most qualified and experienced professionals to lead people in the mountains, having been through training and assessment that take many years and exceptional skills to achieve. It’s the highest qualification in the world which allow to leading people in any mountain environment, whether skiing, climbing or mountaineering.

Jorge’s commitment and enthusiasm for his job and for the mountain environment is unsurpassed. I find it super inspiring. He has been guiding professionally full time since 2005 and everyone who has been out with him says the same thing – he is the best guide in Argentina! Check out his company, Andescross:

http://www.andescross.com/

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