Buenos Aires - Where your heart beats all the way to the horizon
Patagonia is one of those legendary, almost mythical destinations. The name Patagonia evokes wilderness, volcanoes and glaciers, adventure and freedom - but does this rugged land live up to its name? The answer lies in this tale of wind, shards of ice, never-ending bus rides – and a mythical reputation that even on closer inspection remains unfathomable
Where your heart beats all the way to the horizon
This is the place that the wind calls home. Rushing in from the icy wastes of Antarctica, it piles up seething waves in the Beagle Channel and charges on over the Andean foothills until there is nothing left to hold it back. It races through the mountains and on to the plains, where it sweeps through the pampas grass, shakes the trees and ruffles the wooly fleeces of the grazing guanacos. Finally, it swoops up into the clouds above the Cuernos del Paine, the horn-like peaks of Torres del Paine National Park, until a moment ago still obscured by what appeared to be a wall of cotton batting. Finding a gap, the wind penetrates the white swathes, nudging, pushing, and within the space of five minutes totally dispersing them.
Torres des Paine national park lies where the "Towers of the Blue Sky" peaks meet the Patagonian steppes
And now? After all the days and kilometers you have traveled through Patagonia, you find yourself sitting quite lost for words, yet again, as you gaze across at the mountaintops. All that's missing is a dramatic movie-style fanfare to highlight the moment.
Instead, you hear the rustling of tin foil. South America's chocolate manufacturers wrap their products with great care " an important precaution given the wildly fluctuating temperatures in this part of the world. It can be icy cold when trekkers sit down for a break, and boiling hot when they set off again a short while later. Patagonia is a land of extremes, of totally unpredictable weather, barely fathomable dimensions. Surveying the vast panorama stretching away toward the horizon on all sides, your knees almost buckle beneath you. And now there's a weird lump in your throat " must be the chocolate.
Something for everyone: The Patagonian Desert not only attracts hikers but can also be explored on horseback. If cycling is more your style, mountain bikes can be rented locally
When it comes to getting around in this part of the world, buses are definitely your best option. They will take you just about anywhere: over mountains and across borders, even across the sounds, riding pickaback on local ferries. But at the very least, they will take you over the rough roads that in western Europe would be deemed fit only for farm vehicles.
As a passenger, there are two ways to spend the 27 hours between Ushuaia and Puerto Natales: You can either watch a stream of Spanish videos on the TV screen above the driver's seat, or gaze out the window. Not that there's anything much to see, hour after interminable hour.
The landscape slides by like a highly elitist experimental movie. No wildlife, no plants, and least of all humans to be seen far and wide. That's what makes the bus a great place to reflect on the myths around Patagonia perhaps.
Patagonia's mythical reputation is inspired not so much by the steppes and mountains, by the raging wind, and the waves that crash against the quay wall, but by all of those other indefinable qualities. By the things you imagined vaguely before starting out that you still can't really put your finger on now that you're here, but somehow know for sure that they have something to do with windswept hair and salt spray on your face.
With the whinny of horses and the shadow of a condor soaring high overhead. With the glittering blue of a glacier face, the dull thud of hooves on the grassy steppe, and the molten crimson corridor conjured onto a mountain lake by the sun as it hangs low in the sky.
No prizes for guessing which way the wind blows here. Over the decades, the trees have been sculpted by the winds in the Beagle Channel
Patagonia has dual nationality. One part lies in Argentina, the other in Chile, and if it weren't for the lone checkpoint cabin out there in the middle of the pampas, you wouldn't even notice that your dusty track had crossed from one territory into the other. Everywhere here is desolate. "The plains of Patagonia are boundless," Charles Darwin wrote in 1836, "they bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages." Maybe this is what we sense here today. Maybe this all-embracing emptiness gives us an inkling of our own mortality and of how tiny we are, how insignificant in the great scheme of things. Could be.
In bad weather, the gateway to hell's laundry room opens in Ushuaia. On sunny days, San Francisco seems to be Tierra del Fuego's answer to San Francisco
It could also be that these landscapes attract a very special type of person. Today, my fellow travelers on the bus are a group of athletic Californians who have come down here to break some speed-trekking record or other; a handful of Israelis who have fled their country's military draft, their faces all but obscured by giant headphones; three English ornithologists; a Dutch couple traveling around the world and two other Germans. Hour after bumpy hour, this motley crew is making its way across the countryside on board a bus.
Distances are immense in Patagonia and even shorter distances are overcome with difficulty since the roads are often poor. Buses tend to be the most reliable means of transportation here
The myths about Patagonia don't say anything about stiff necks and discs that threaten to slip at every new pothole. Many other dream destinations fail to stand up to scrutiny, and expectations frequently dissolve into disappointment on arrival, or soon after. In Patagonia, it's different. Here, you immediately get the feeling that the myth lives up to the reality.
Which also has to do with the natural wonders of Los Glaciares National Park:
Normally, when people think of a glacier, they picture one of those dismal expanses of ice in the Alps, but they are laughable compared with Perito Moreno. This glacier shimmers an unearthly blue and doesn't just lie there, inert; it sweats and wheezes and groans. When the next ice wall breaks off, the world is plunged, for a moment, into absolute stillness. Then the ice crashes to the water below and seconds later, the sound wave reaches your eardrums. If you are close enough, it will even continue to echo somewhere inside you for a few seconds longer. Perfectly still, you listen for the next rumble.
On the final day of the journey, the weather behaves as though the four seasons had got together for a party, boozed for days on end and were still pretty much the worse for wear. At the Seno Otwas penguin colony, at least, you can expect to see hail, snow, and pouring rain all within the space of an hour - and in between, the sun will blaze hot enough to give you your first sunburn. Then suddenly the wind will get up again and the rain will begin to pelt down in big, heavy drops that gradually turn into tiny blades of ice and, luckily, fall very slowly. And maybe just because it looks so good against a sky of violet cloud, a rainbow will arch above the ocean. If only it weren't so cold, you would sit down among the penguins, drink a brandy with them and join them in gazing at the sky.
Patagonia has the glacier to outshine all others. Perito Moreno is roughly 74 meters high, five kilometers wide - and infinitely beautiful. Huge slabs of ice regularly become detached and crash into Lake Argentina
Later, at the Pionera Hotel, the receptionist asks if I've been to Patagonia, which surprises me because according to my travel guide the Pionera itself is in the heart of Patagonia. This, too, is part of Patagonia's mystery - no one seems to really know where it is. To some, it's everything south of Santiago. To others, it starts thousands of kilometers further south. Some include Tierra del Fuego, others don't. But if you ask the people in Patagonia to define where Patagonia lies, they will tell you that Patagonia is where they live. All it takes is the landscape stretching as far as the horizon. Oh yes, and you must be able to hear your heart beating.
Torres del Paine national park :
Torres del Paine national park is a haven for trekkers, who can travel the W route to circle its namesake massif in four days. The legendary glacier at the foot of the peaks should be trodden only in the company of a guide.
Torres del Paine National Park: www.parquetorresdelpaine.cl (English and Spanish)
Museo del Fin del Mundo:
The End of the World Museum in Ushuaia traces the history of Tierra del Fuego from the first Indian settlements around 10,000 BC to the arrival of the Europeans and the present day.
Museo del Fin del Mundo: Avenida Maipú 173, Ushuaia, Tel.: +54-2/901 42 18 63
The Chilean shipping company Navimag Ferries runs spectacular cruises through the Straits of Magellan and along the Patagonian coast. Ferries connect, among others, Puerto Montt in the north and Puerto Natales in the south, passing breathtaking fjords, glaciers and icebergs.
Navimag Ferries: Tel. +56-2/442 31 14, www.navimag.com
Hotel Salto Chico:
Some say the Salto Chico is Patagonia’s best hotel. The three peaks of the Torres del Paine form a magnificent backdrop. The hotel also rents out horses for rent to guests eager to explore the spectacular landscape
Hotel Salto Chico: In Torres del Paine national park (51º07’S, 73º10’W), Tel. +56-2/395 28 00. www.explora.com
Tierra de Leyendas:
Cozy hotel on the edge of Ushuaia, the southernmost town in all of Argentina. The Tierra de Leyendas scores for warm hospitality and a magnificent view over the Beagle Channel.
Tierra de Leyendas: Calle Tierra de Vientos 2448, Ushuaia, Tel. +54-2901/44 65 65. www.tierradeleyendas.com.ar
Hotel IF Patagonia:
Backwoods bunkhouse? Not the IF Patagonia in Puerto Natales, Chile. This superb hotel boasts bright rooms, lots of artwork and a marvelous panorama terrace.
Hotel IF Patagonia: Magallanes 73, Puerto Natales, Tel. +56-61/410 31. www.hotelifpatagonia.com
Photos: Corbis, Azam/Raach/Escudero/laif (5), LOOK-foto