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Patagonia: in the shadow of the condor

Peter Holthusen on a vast wilderness of glistening lakes, vertiginous peaks, volcanoes, sweeping glaciers and empty, barren plains

"Patagonia has changed very little from its pioneering past and remains a beautiful, remote and sparsely populated wilderness."

As many of our discerning readers will have gathered, I have always held a particular interest in the more remote corners of the earth, and especially the unique variety of birds found in isolated places such as the southernmost tip of Latin America.

In 1987, it was my good fortune to visit the Falkland Islands, having sailed on 'HMS Endurance' for a short time during one of her ice patrols in the Antarctic. She was helping to maintain the British Antarctic Survey team's bases on South Georgia, a scattering of other islands and on the Antarctic continent itself. The Argentinians had long been repelled from the Islands, but the Falklands had even then occupied an unusual place in the minds of many British since the 1982 conflict between England and Argentina.


The British Antarctic Survey were among the first conservation groups to restore communications with the new democracy in Buenos Aires, for prior to the conflict they had used the remote Argentinian port of Ushuaia as a staging post for replenishing supplies for their bases.

Ushuaia is the capital of the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego and is commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world. The first-time visitor to this isolated outpost could easily be forgiven for thinking they really had arrived at "el fin del mundo" – the end of the world – where the great Andean mountain range finally meets the sea at the tempestuous Southern Ocean.

Although my first visit to Tierra del Fuego was brief I was determined to return to this spectacular archipelago and explore the liberating expanses of Patagonia to the north – an ambition that was finally fulfilled earlier this year as a guest of Gustavo Santos, the Argentina Minister of Tourism.

Patagonia is a region located at the southern end of South America, a territory shared by Argentina and Chile, and boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. The region comprises the southern section of the Andes to the southwest towards the Pacific Ocean and from the east of the mountain range it continues south through the Colorado River towards the bustling city of Carmen de Patagones on the Atlantic Ocean. To the west, it includes the territory of Valdivia through the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.

The name Patagonia derives from the Spanish word "patagón" used by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 to describe the native people that his expedition encountered who they thought to be giants.

The Argentine portion of Patagonia includes the provinces of Neuquén, Río Negro, Chubut and Santa Cruz, as well as the eastern territory of Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost sector of Buenos Aires province: Patagones. The Argentine politico-economic Patagonic region includes the province of La Pampa. The Chilean part of Patagonia embraces the southern provinces and regions of Valdivia, Llanquihue, Aysén and Magallanes, including the west coast of Tierra del Fuego, the inhospitable island of Cape Horn, and Palena province in the Los Lagos region.

A vast wilderness of glistening lakes, vertiginous peaks, volcanoes, sweeping glaciers, empty, barren plains, and rugged coastline, Patagonia was first roamed by dinosaurs, and later was long the preserve of indigenous groups such as the Mapuche and Tehuelche, whose numbers and society were reduced to near extinction not long after the arrival of the first Europeans. However, the region is perhaps best known for its pioneering era, when visionaries and adventurers came in search of a better life at the bottom of the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, notably the Welsh settlement of the Chubut Valley.

Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to discover the region in 1520. However, 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). His failure to accurately describe the main geographical features of the region such as the Río de la Plata casts some doubt on whether he really did so.

Regardless, adventurers, merchants and pirates soon followed in Magellan's wake, although no permanent colony was established until the late 18th century, when Francisco Viedma founded El Carmen, nowadays known as Carmen de Patagones.

Two hydrographic surveys of the coast of Patagonia were of significant importance: the first expedition (1826-1830) including 'HMS Adventure' and 'HMS Beagle' under the command of Admiral Phillip Parker King, and the second (1832-1836) being the famous voyage of the 'Beagle' under Captain Robert FitzRoy. The latter expedition is particularly noted for the participation of Charles Darwin who spent a considerable amount of his time onshore exploring and collecting specimens of the regions diverse flora and fauna, including long rides with the gauchos in Río Negro.

After gaining its independence, Argentina made concerted efforts to settle Patagonia. In 1865, a considerable number of Welsh pioneers landed at Puerto Madryn. In the same decade, the Argentinian government launched military campaigns against the Mapuche and Tehuelche, putting an end to all indigenous resistance in the region.

Towns such as Junín de los Andes and Bariloche were founded in the Mapuche heartland and populated by European immigrants. Railroads, ports, and new settlements were built to serve the burgeoning wool industry. Today, oil, gas, and fishing have superseded wool as Patagonia's major source of income and a blossoming tourist industry has added further prosperity to the region.

Visitors can enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities, including horse-riding, trekking, fly-fishing, boating and rafting, and wildlife watching, all while admiring Patagonia's spectacular scenery. Its cities and towns remain busy centres of culture and entertainment, offering excellent museums and restaurants. Some, like Trelew and Gaiman, are still quintessentially Welsh, complete with chapels, tea shops, and Welsh-style houses.

Originally a remote backpacking destination, Patagonia has attracted increasing numbers of upmarket visitors, cruise passengers exploring the Straits of Magellan, the Beagle Channel, Drake Passage, rounding Cape Horn or visiting Antarctica, and a considerable number of adventure and eco-tourism holiday-makers. Principal tourist attractions include the spectacular Perito Moreno glacier, the Valdés Peninsula, Torres del Paine National Park, the Argentine Lake District, particularly Lago Viedma, and of course, the port of Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego.

Over the years it has been my good fortune to sail in these latitudes on a number of occasions, but I had regretfully yet to round Cape Horn or indeed see this now legendary landmark from the sea, but from the very early stages of planning this expedition to the uttermost south, I had a burning desire to do just that.

Cape Horn, or Cabo de Hornos, is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile, and is located on the small Isla Hornos (Hornos Island). Although not the most southerly point of South America, which are the Diego Ramírez Islands, about 65 miles (105 km) west-southwest of Cape Horn, this remote island marks the point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide. For decades it was a major milestone on the ‘Clipper Route’, by which famous sailing ships such as the Cutty Sark and Thermopylae carried trade around the world. The waters around Cape Horn are particularly hazardous, owing to strong winds, often mountainous waves, strong currents and drifting icebergs, which have made it notorious as a sailors’ graveyard.

The need for ships to round Cape Horn was greatly reduced by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. To this day sailing around the Horn is widely regarded as one of the major challenges in ocean racing. Thus, a few recreational sailors continue to sail this route, sometimes as part of an epic circumnavigation of the globe, no doubt inspired by the exploits of Sir Francis Chichester and his 54 ft ketch ‘Gipsy Moth IV’, in which he became the first person to sail single-handed around the globe in 1966-67.

Since then several prominent ocean yacht races, most notably the ‘Volvo Ocean Race’, the ‘VELUX 5 Oceans’, and the ‘Vendée Globe’, sail around the world via Cape Horn. However, you do not need to join an ocean race or even be an accomplished yachtsman to visit Cape Horn and soak up the atmosphere that goes with this historic place.

My good friends Roger and Ben Wallis of Ocean Expeditions operate an international charter service to Cape Horn with their fully equipped 75ft steel-hulled, fully rigged motor sailor ‘Australis’. Departing from Ushuaia, their voyage spans a minimum of six days, with safe anchorages every night. As you slip your moorings in the bustling harbour you sail down the Beagle Channel, past Puerto Williams and turn south around Isla Navarino to Isla Herschel and the mythical waters of the Drake Passage where you wait for the best conditions to attempt to round the Horn.

My first glimpse of Cape Horn, with its seemingly tortured topography standing sentinel over a storm-lashed ocean, was an awe-inspiring experience and one that I shall cherish for many years to come, for I couldn’t help but ponder those early mariners such as Magellan, Drake, FitzRoy and Chichester who carved their names into history having passed this very point.

The Chilean Navy maintains a weather station on Isla Hornos, consisting of a small residence, utility buildings, chapel and lighthouse. A short distance from the main station is a memorial, including a magnificent sculpture featuring the silhouette of an albatross, in honour of the many mariners who lost their lives while attempting to round the Horn.

Dotted with lakes and overlooked by the Andes, the Lake District is probably Patagonia's most popular destination. Its largest town, Bariloche, receives many visitors but there are quieter alternatives such as San Martín de los Andes, El Bolsón, and Villa La Angostura. In the uttermost south of Patagonia is the Perito Moreno glacier, which is in the same national park as Argentina's trekking capital, El Chaltén, and Mount FitzRoy.

First climbed in 1952 by the French alpinists Lionel Terray and Guido Magnone, it remains among the most technically challenging mountains on earth for mountaineers. Mount FitzRoy is also the basis for the Patagonia clothing brand logo following Yvon Chouinard's ascent and subsequent film in 1968.

The Atlantic coast has great opportunities for spotting marine fauna, especially the spectacular Valdés Peninsula. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the peninsula is one of the world's greatest nature reserves. Its rugged 310 mile (500 km) coastline is a haven for an astonishing and easily observable array of marine life that includes Southern right whales, killer whales, elephant seals, sea lions, Magellanic penguins, and millions of seabirds including the black-browed albatross, and the endangered striated caracara. Its interior is an arid wilderness, the eastern extension of the Patagonian steppe, populated by dry-land fauna including guanacos and the ostrich-like rhea. It is marked at its centre by two large salt lakes, Salina Grande and Salina Chica. At 138 ft (42 m) below sea level, the Salina Grande is the fourth deepest depression on the planet.

There's a 575 mile (926 km) stretch of Chilean Patagonia at the visitors disposal, stretching from Puerto Montt to the Taitao peninsula. Among the most spectacular topographical features are the glacially eroded volcanoes of the southern Andes. From the stepped summit of Corcovado, 7, 546 ft (2,300 m) high, you can see the whole of Chile's Los Lagos region, with opal-green lagoons in the foreground and the ice-blue Pacific below. Corcovado last erupted in 1834 (Charles Darwin just happened to be passing when it blew and recorded the spectacle in the 'Beagle's' log), but the region remains hostage to seismic activity.

This is the domain of the magnificent Andean Condor, which are the largest birds in the world that are able to fly. It is a large black vulture with a ruff of white feathers surrounding the base of the neck and, especially in the male, large white patches on the wings. In the male, there is a distinct wattle on the neck and a large, dark red comb or caruncle on the crown of the head. It is also one of the world’s longest-living birds, with a lifespan of over 70 years in some cases.

With a wingspan of 10 ft 6 in (3.2 m), the Andean Condor is the national symbol of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru and plays an important role in the folklore and mythology of the Andean regions. Because they are so heavy (up to 33 pounds/15 kilograms), even their enormous wingspan needs some help to keep them aloft. For that reason, these birds prefer to live in windy areas where they can glide on air currents with little effort.

This remarkable bird of prey is a true scavenger, feeding primarily on carrion. It prefers large carcasses, such as those of deer, guanacos or cattle. It reaches sexual maturity at five or six years of age and nests at elevations of up to 16,000 ft (5,000 m), generally on inaccessible rock ledges or caves in cliff faces, where a clutch of one or two large white eggs are usually laid.

The town of Chaitén, still inhabited though half buried in ash, is eerie testament to a major volcanic eruption in the area in 2008. On a less sinister note, the hot springs of Termas El Amarillo percolating in the foothills are the perfect restorative bath for weary travellers.

Tourism has also created new markets locally and for the export of traditional crafts such as Mapuche handicrafts, colourful guanaco textiles, and an abundance of mouth-watering confectionery, honey and preserves.

Patagonian cuisine is largely the same as the cuisine of Buenos Aires and will send you on a voyage to gastronomic nirvana – grilled meats, seafood and pasta – with extensive use of fresh local ingredients and less use of those products which have to be imported into the region. Fuegian lamb is considered the typically traditional Patagonian meat, grilled for several hours over an open fire.

Some guide books have reported that game, especially guanaco and introduced deer and boar, are popular in restaurant cuisine. However, since the guanaco is a protected animal in both Chile and Argentina, it is unlikely to appear commonly on restaurant menus. Trout, Patagonian sea bass and 'centolla' (king crab) are also common, though over-fishing of centolla has made it increasingly scarce. For an out of body seafood experience, head to Kaupé in Ushuaia. With panoramic views over the Beagle Channel, Head Chef Ernesto Vivian employs an exquisite array of fresh local seafood in his restaurant and the service is nothing less than impeccable.

In the area around Bariloche, there is a noted Alpine cuisine tradition, with chocolate bars and even fondue restaurants, while tea rooms are a popular feature of the Welsh communities in Gaiman and Trevelin as well as the mountains. Teatime at Ty Cymraeg, a delightful riverside tea shop in Gaiman is truly an experience to behold, with sumptuous pies and jams among their most popular servings.

The best way to get around Patagonia is by air or long-distance bus. Bariloche and El Calafate have international airports and many smaller destinations are served by domestic flights. Bus services linking many of the major towns and cities in the region are reliable, though some remote sites can only be reached by car or via organized excursions. Motorists should note that many roads are unpaved and petrol stations scarce.

There is no experience to compare with Patagonia: liberating expanses of nothing – just sheep, llamas, wind-whipped clouds and Mount FitzRoy's granite turrets rising majestically from the barren steppe, whose slopes turn to fire with scarlet beech trees in autumn. All along the Atlantic coast are beautiful, wild beaches, home to millions of penguins and colonies of seals, with whales basking in the bays right next to your boat.

In essence, Patagonia has changed very little from its pioneering past and remains a beautiful, remote and sparsely populated wilderness. I therefore crave your indulgence to travel to the estancia of the first pioneers, and contemplate the end of the world in utter tranquillity.


- Peter Holthusen


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