At the Edge of the Steppe, South Patagonia, Argentina & Chile

March 19 - April 6, 2007


11,200' Cerro Fitz Roy in Argentina




Between the Atlantic Ocean and the Andean foothills the great expanse of the Argentine Patagonian Steppe stretches into infinity. Wild guanaco roam this endless dry scrubland, and out the bus window we see condors soaring on thermals and the occasional flock of flightless Rhea (resembling an ostrich) running through the grass. Here there are vast estancias (ranches) raising sheep and cattle, herded by horseback riding gauchos. This area is famous for the incessant dry winds that blow down from the Andes across the plains.

Heavy rain and snow fall on the Andes as moist Pacific air passes over the mountains. This has created the Campo de Hielo Sur, or Southern Patagonia Ice Field, the third largest ice field in the world (after Antarctica and Greenland). The boundary of the steppe and the Hielo Sur is where spectacular glacially carved mountains emerge from the ice, and glaciers pour out into the valleys. We visited two national parks to hike in these mountains: Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, in Argentina, and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, in Chile.




Watch out for the pets, Veronica warned as we stepped off the bus at an estancia, a rest stop on our way to the Perito Moreno glacier. And there he was, a sweet little orphaned guanaco, who nibbled bread from our hands, and almost purred as we scratched his incredibly soft head.




The awesome Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate is a massive tourist draw for Argentina and the balconies built on the hill opposite are packed with busloads of camera wielding touristas (like us)...





When we stepped off the bus in dusty El Chaltén we were hit by gusts of wind that nearly knocked us over. First impressions were along the lines of: When is the next bus out of here? This place was haphazardly erected in 1985 so that Argentina could better stake its claim to the disputed border with Chile. It's hard to imagine a worse choice for a town site, in a wind tunnel in the bottom of a valley between parallel rocky ridges.

But we grew to love this place after we realized there was an excellent hostel, several good restaurants, and the trails into the wildly spectacular Fitz Roy range started just a short walk up the road from where we were staying . In between a series of mighty wind and rain storms that blew down from the Hielo Sur, we had some wonderful long hikes through this northern section of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.




Crossing the border en route to Puerto Natales, Chile.



El Chaltén was windy, but did nothing to prepare us for the wild wind and weather at Torres del Paine, Chile. This wind is nothing like what we've experienced before. Gale force gusts almost blow us to the ground, grab our walking sticks and blow them up into the air, and slam into our bodies, forcing dust and grit into our eyes. We heard stories of fierce catabatic winds rushing down from the ice field, picking up hikers and tossing them off the trail.

We watched, awestruck, as the wind sucked up water from the glacially formed lakes we staggered next to, forming airborne water spouts thirty feet up into the air. At one of the saline lakes, the wind scooped up minerals from the shoreline, creating salty tornado funnels. High above us, clouds formed at the tip of each towering mountain peak, billowing up like smoke from a volcano. We lasted only three nights. Most of the time, the clouds were low and heavy, pelting us with hail, soaking us with horizontal rain storms, but just as we were leaving, the sun came out, the lakes turned shimmering turquoise blue, guanacos came out to graze, and the full range was fully displayed on the horizon. Torres del Paine is a stunningly beautiful and dramatic place!

Unbelievably beautiful, and unbelievably expensive! We stayed in the refugios, which are privately run affairs, ranging from basic to hotel-like, located throughout the park. Our first stay was at a rustic cabin with wood heating and no electricity. We were floored by the eighty six dollar charge for the two of us to rent sleeping bags and sleep in a six-person dorm room.

And we were amazed to see droves of backpackers converge on Torres del Paine. They arrive from all over the globe -- France, Germany, Switzerland, Israel (on some days, Hebrew seemed to be the most common language heard on the trail), and for the first time on our journey, many fellow Norte Americanos.







Mate, everyone is drinking and sharing mate. Preparing this caffeinated tea is an elaborate ritual, performed every day, and throughout the day by all Argentines -- bus drivers, shopkeepers, receptionists, friends on holiday. Packages of dried Yerba leaves (a holly plant), some flavored with apple or other fruit, fill many shelves at the local supermercado. We watched Veronica, our guide to the Perito Moreno glacier, fill her wood-lined silver cup to the brim with dry Yerba leaves, then pour in a little hot water from her thermos. Next, she pokes a metal straw with a bulbous end that filters out the Yerba leaves (called a bombilla) deep into the leafy mix, takes a long sip of the warm elixir, then pours in a little more water and passes the cup to her compadre. Restaurants gladly refill thermoses, and gas stations keep a tank filled with water heated to just the right temperature for mate-sipping motorists. We shared some of Veronica's brew -- it's a bitter but somehow soothing brew.





Ushuaia, Argentina (plane) ► El Calafate (bus) ► El Chaltén (bus) ► El Calafate (bus) ► Puerto Natales, Chile (bus) ► Torres del Paine (bus) ► Puerto Natales (bus) ► Punta Arenas