Ihad always imagined Patagonia as a windswept scrubland at the end of the world, populated by sheep. On the second leg of our South American trip, my wife Hilary and I were going to see what it is really like. Patagonia is an inverted triangle encompassing parts of Chile and Argentina, with the island of Tierra del Fuego at the bottom, and the sides reaching up over 1,000 km north, with the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Atlantic on the east.
Before entering Patagonia, we flew to the Chilean town of Pucon, where we had arranged to hire a double cab pickup from Gidon, an Israeli who had set up business there. Pucon is a town with beautiful wooden buildings, a big lake on the one side and the snowcapped but active Villarica volcano on the other.
Being the height of the summer holidays, it was full to the brim with Chileans on holiday. We were forced to cancel our climb up the 2,800-meter volcano because of strong winds at the base. This volcano last erupted in 1960, and always has a plume of smoke rising from the top.
After driving through the lake district of Chile we crossed over the Andes and into Argentina, passing through forests high above Lake Constanca with its unbelievably blue water. Our first stop was the picturesque town of Villa La Angostura, situated on Lake Nahuel Huapi, with forests of tall trees all around. I was mystified by the sight of kippa-wearing boys standing in groups on the sidewalk. My curiosity got the better of me, and they told me they were on holiday from a yeshiva in Buenos Aires, about 1,500 km away.
We traveled round the long lake Nahuel Huapi to Bariloche, the jewel of this "Little Switzerland" region of Argentina. We had an excellent meal at the "Weiss Family" restaurant, a beautiful double-storied wooden building whose Jewish owner had served as a volunteer in the IDF's "Mahal" division.
The area has many immigrants from Germany and Switzerland, lending it a distinctly European charm. One of the specialties here are the chocolate shops where chocolate is made on the premises. They are mouthwatering and like everything else, very reasonably priced. A ride up one of the nearby ski lifts will give you a superb view of the lakes, forests and snowcapped mountains for many kilometers around.
An hour's drive on a dirt road took us to the Black Glacier. This glacier, which really is black, is situated at the bottom of semi-circular Mount Tronador, the top of which is covered by glaciers. As they melt, the water picks up dirt along the way, freezing again at the bottom, and forming the Black Glacier. I counted 21 waterfalls flowing down the mountain, a breathtaking sight. The glaciers were for the most part covered in cloud. This happens all over Patagonia. Excessive sunshine would melt them.
From here we traveled south and crossed back into Chile at Futaleufu, situated on the river of the same name, which is also one of the world's best rivers for rafting. This is the start of the Carretera Austral, a dirt road completed twenty years ago by order of the autocratic president Pinochet, which opened up areas that were previously only accessible by sea.
It is a north-south road in the narrow strip of land between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean and this section was literally hacked through virgin forest. Only small sections of this 1,000-km road have been surfaced, and it would prove to be a test of the skills and patience of any driver. The road is potholed, narrow, with many blind rises and corners. We picked up our first hitchhikers, three Israeli girls, at Foutaleufu, as the public transport is minimal.
I soon realized that the distance that could safely be covered in an hour was no more than thirty kilometers. This part of the Carretera goes through temperate rain forests with tall trees and lush undergrowth, including bright green ferns and lichens. It receives between three and four meters of rain a year, so we were continually passing over fast flowing rivers. We were fortunate that the weather was good, as there is a large chance of doing this section in pouring rain, regardless of the season. We spent the night at the village of La Junta, where we shared a cabanya (cottage) with our hitchhikers. We hired cabanyasall the time we had the pickup as they are usually on the edge of the town and run at $40 to $50 a night.
AFTER SPENDING a night in the regional capital of Coihaique, we continued south on the Carretera. This section was much drier, and many of the forests had been cleared for cattle farming. We reached the quiet village of Puerto Tranquilo, situated on Lake General Carrera, where we hired a boat with five Israeli youth to go to the marble caves in the lake. These caves have been gouged out of the side of the lake, presumably by wave action, leaving exposed marble of all colors and shapes imaginable. The boat was navigated into the caves and through tunnels. To give some idea of the isolation of this area, the only fruit and vegetables available at the three food shops were plums and onions!
It was time to backtrack to Puerto Chacabuco, from where we had arranged to have the pickup returned to Pucon. We had booked a fullday cruise on a catamaran to the San Rafael glacier, which is 200 km from Chacabuco. The catamaran sailed through fjords and past islands, all thickly forested. At the glacier we were lowered into zodiacs (rubber boats) to get close to this awesome wall of ice towering sixty meters above us. Pieces of ice were continually falling into the water, forming blue and white icebergs of various sizes. The glacier stretches for 50 km inland but is receding at a rate of 200 meters a year.
Next, we were on our way to El Calafate in Argentina. We passed through almost flat countryside which consisted mainly of low rainfall scrub vegetation on which flocks of sheep were grazing.
El Calafate is a tourist town at the foot of the Andes, and its main attraction is the Perito Moreno Glacier. This glacier is the most popular in South America because of its accessibility, being an hour's drive from the town. Getting to most glaciers requires either long treks or boat trips or flights by helicopter or plane. We donned crampons (spikes) on our shoes and set off for a walk on the glacier. It was a partly sunny day so there was a lot of water on the surface, and deep azure blue holes where water had collected.
Every few minutes there was an eerie loud crack, the sound of movement inside the mass of ice as it slowly moved down the mountain into the lake. Opposite is a high peninsula that penetrates into the lake and which affords a panoramic view of the glacier, where you can watch huge pieces of ice fall off the icy mass (calving) from a distance of less than a hundred meters. Our next stop, possibly the highlight of Patagonia, was the Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile. It has forests, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers and magnificent mountains. It is, however, also very expensive, due to its isolation. From our small, pre-booked hotel we had a view of the Horns of Paine Mountains and the fast flowing Serrano River.
The first day we did a trek of 16 km on the lower slopes of the Horns of Paine to Grey Glacier. The weather was not good - a strong cold wind was blowing with a smattering of rain. The following day was sunny and being footweary we toured the park in a guided jeep. We visited the various lakes, each a different color, and also a magnificent waterfall. In some areas we encountered guanacos, a type of llama, grazing on the hills. But the cherry on the top was the Towers of Paine, granite towers soaring 2,800 meters into the sky.
On the drive to Punta Arenas, the southern most city in Chile, we passed many estancias or sheep ranches. A hundred years ago these were owned by a handful of sheep barons who became enormously wealthy from their farming activities.
Arriving at night in Punta Arenas we were greeted by a howling, bitterly cold wind and we realized that even though it was the third week of February, we were 53 degrees south.
We were later informed that the winter in that region starts on March 1. Punta Arenas is situated on the Straits of Magellan, the shortest passage around the tip of South America. We visited the century-old house, now a museum, of Mauricio Braun, the wealthiest of the sheep barons. The interior and furnishings were like that of a European palace, transferred to the most southerly (at the time) village in the world.
Another tourist highlight is the cemetery. It contains elaborate mausoleums of the wealthy families, some of them the size of a small house.
After a ferry crossing of the Magellan Straits, we were on the island of Tierra del Fuego, or Land of Fire, so named because of the fires of the local Indians seen by Magellan on his journey of discovery. We entered Argentina for the last time, and crossing over the most southerly extension of the Andes, reached our final destination in Patagonia, Ushuaia, situated on the Beagle channel and also the southernmost city in the world.
Our first day there was a sunny summers day and we took a trip on the Beagle channel, where we saw colonies of emperor cormorants, sea lions, seals and penguins relaxing, each on their own island in the channel, as well as albatrosses and other seabirds.
The catamaran kept to the northern half of this narrow channel, as the southern half belongs to Chile. A territorial dispute between Argentina and Chile concerning one end of the channel resulted in Queen Elizabeth II of England being appointed arbitrator, but her ruling in 1977 was not accepted by Argentina. The two countries almost went to war but a last-minute intervention by Pope John Paul averted a war and the two countries signed a peace treaty brokered by the Pope in 1984.
They share a border thousands of kilometers long, and with few exceptions, all territory to the east of the highest point in the Andes is Argentina, and to the west, Chile.
The Tierra del Fuego National Park outside Ushuaia has hiking trails ranging from easy to very difficult. There is also a beaver colony in the park - they were brought here from Canada and have built numerous dams on the Los Castores River.
As in El Calafate, the lamb in Ushuaia, prepared over an open fire (parilla), is mouthwatering. You can have a meal, as much as you can eat - lamb, beef and numerous salads for about NIS 35.
From Ushuaia there is only one place to go - Antarctica. There are numerous sailings to Antarctica from Ushuaia in the summer months, some of them stopping at the Falkland and South Georgia islands.
We did not have the time or the budget for such a trip but I cannot wait to get back to Ushuaia for the cruise of a lifetime.
Patagonia certainly proved to be more than scrubland and sheep, with scenery unequaled by any we have seen on our previous travels.