Patagonia, a journey to the end of the world
A windswept outpost situated beyond the 42nd parallel south, shared by Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is the ultimate dream for all adventurers. With its arid steppes bounded by mountains and the sea, where water and ice unveil breathtaking landscapes, there is little doubt that Patagonia is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. This corner of the world is best explored between November and March during the austral summer and promises visitors a unique opportunity to get close to untamed nature in its purest state. So are you ready for a stopover at the end of the world?
Torres del Paine National Park
Declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO, this gem of Chilean Patagonia stretching across 242 hectares is bursting with untouched nature and dramatic scenery. Its granite peaks – which give the park its name – rise up some 2,000 metres above sea level, forming a backdrop to the icy seas that feed into translucent blue lakes. The most emblematic of all is Grey Lake, one of the world’s largest reserves of freshwater. Located at the southernmost tip of « Campo de Hielo Sur » (the Southern Patagonian Ice Field), it is dotted with numerous icebergs that have come away from the Grey glacier, an enormous formation that is still 30 m high and 4 km wide, despite the inescapable melting due to global warming.
Explore the Perito Moreno glacier
On the Argentinian side, Patagonia’s other not-to-be-missed glacier proudly dominates the landscape: the Perito Moreno glacier, located in Los Glaciares National Park, not far from El Calafate. Listed as a World Heritage Site, it forms an impressive blue-toned barrier. Ice bridges offer visitors the chance to get as close as possible to the ice formation, and to hear the worrying growls that rumble deep in the heart of the beast. Thrill-seekers can even sign up for one of the trekking tours on the glacier, led by a guide. Amazing memories in the making!
To get to Los Glaciares National Park, visitors travel along the famous National Route 40 – known locally as “la Cuarenta” – the longest road in Argentina. This 5,000 km-road stretches from north to south between the Bolivian border and Cape Virgenes, at the southernmost tip of Patagonia. It traverses the windswept steppe and deep canyons and crosses the mythical Monte Fitz Roy, offering stunning scenery from start to finish.
“Where nature retains her wild initiative, human instinct is revealed in all its glory and life, at every passing moment, garners meaning.”
José Santos González Vera.
To discover the incredible biodiversity of the steppe and the Patagonian coasts, head for the Monte León National Park in Argentina: 60,000 hectares of untamed nature are home to guanacos (wild llama), rheas (related to the ostrich), pumas, grey foxes and sea lions, along with southern right whales and a large colony of Magellanic penguins that you can even get close to. For some eye-catching flora, the Circuito Pehuenia, a mountain road stretching over around one hundred kilometres, offers great view of the Chilean pine (Araucaria araucana). This majestic species of evergreen coniferous trees endemic to the Andes is the national tree of Chile. It is also known as the « monkey puzzle tree » due to its spiky, stiff leaves. As the saying goes, « it would puzzle a monkey to climb that.” This enormous tree, which can reach a height of 40 metres and live up to a thousand years, is also a powerful symbol of nature’s strength and resilience.
…and artistic treasures.
160 km south of Perito Moreno, in the province of Santa Cruz, a fine example of parietal art is to be found: la Cueva de las Manos – the Cave of Hands. Included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, this site houses an incredible set of cave paintings, the oldest of which date from 13,000 years ago. Over 800 human hands, hunting scenes and depictions of lizards and guanacos decorate the cave walls, bearing witness to the presence of groups of hunter-gatherers in these inhospitable lands, well before the arrival of the conquistadors.
Also well worth visiting, on the Chilean side, is Chiloé Island (also known as Greater Island of Chiloé) with its colourful houses on stilts and unique, quirky churches. Built entirely of wood (larch and cypress), these churches are outstanding examples of the successful fusion of European and indigenous cultural traditions, blending representations of Christ, Indian snake gods, brujos chilotes (Warlocks of Chiloé) and mythological warriors. Sixteen of these churches are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including San Francisco de Castro, which is not to be missed.
Terminus: Ushuaia and Puerto Williams
No traveller can journey to Patagonia without going the extra mile and experiencing the Terminus. Ushuaia (60,000 inhabitants), the southernmost city in the world, capital of Tierra del Fuego province, as named by Magellan when he discovered it in 1520 and beheld the camp fires made by the native Yaghan people. The ultimate dream of all adventurers, Ushuaia is the gateway for expeditions to Antarctica, some 1,000 km away. The town boasts an interesting maritime museum housed in the old prison, and the End of the World Museum, retracing the history of the native tribes wiped out in the 19th century. This is also the place where visitors can hop on a boat for the neighbouring Martillo Island, known as “Penguin Island” for its colonies of penguins. However, although Ushuaia tends to get all the attention, the real title of last inhabited village before “el fin del mundo” goes to Puerto Williams, on Navarino Island, in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego. This village in the middle of nowhere is a favourite final stop for sailors winding up their round-the-world tour. They moor their boats side by side next to the Micalvi, a ship anchored here in 1961 that has since been turned into a clubhouse and restaurant – a chance to soak up some human warmth before plunging into the solitude of the Great White continent.