Journeys in a Land of Fire and Ice

I confess to being a relentless pursuer of (good) dreams. This came to take on quite a literal meaning during my recent trip to Patagonia.

I had always wanted to visit that unfathomable, sparsely populated region shared by Argentina and Chile, but not so much for the reasons that you might expect. Sure, while there I wanted to take in some of Patagonia’s rugged beauty, but there was something else drawing me in; I’ll come back to that later.

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Cosy porch view onto Escondido Lake

Based in Buenos Aires, my partner and I made two trips down to Patagonia. The first trip took us to Ushuaia, a city at the southern most tip of Argentina in the region of Tierra del Fuego, in English ‘Land of Fire’. While this immediately brought to mind George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, on which Game of Thrones is based, the name derives from the smoke seen the first European explorers in the 19th century. This smoke came from the fires lit by the many indigenous people who lived here, who were naked and covered themselves in animal grease to stay warm. The Yaghan are considered to be the most southernmost people in the world, and with time evolved significantly higher metabolisms to survive the region’s harsh climate. There are no traces of the Yaghan as their populations were decimated by the endemic infectious diseases carried by westerners. Some now have assimilated and there is one remaining native Yaghan speaker alive.

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I had the strange sensation that I’d been here before. Later I discovered that this was where Leonardo DiCaprio shot the final scene of The Revenant.

Ushuaia offers one of those last promises of a mysterious ‘Land in the West’ to travellers, being the main departure point for cruise ships heading to unexplored Antartica. It is also a city where you can see the Southern Lights if the sky is clear, and it seldom is. Our hotel had a view onto the harbour where these ships set sail, and I thought that we might one day return to join one. Aside from visiting the surrounding wilderness areas, we went skiing in the Argentine Andes range; before descending from the peak we took in a view of the valley that extends to Chile.

From Ushuaia we flew to El Calafate, and the one hour flight took us to a terrain that couldn’t be more different. Without a doubt, the take off from Ushuaia airport was one of the most beautiful in the world, flying out from the peninsula in between Chile and flying low over the snow-peaked Andes. El Calafate, in comparison, appeared a dry, arid desert as we first saw it from above, though there were great frozen craters which gave it away for the cold, steppe winter it was really experiencing. Driving through El Calafate initially felt a bit like driving through a more pristine Kazakhstan, and getting out of the car felt that looks can be deceiving; despite the lack of snow it was colder than Ushuaia.

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Argentino lake set against Andes

El Calafate had that sleepy cowboy town kind of feel. Tourists like us come and go, using it as a base to see the huge glaciers in the surrounding areas and hike in Chaltén. A boat trip through the three enormous glaciers is probably the closest thing to experiencing Antartica on land in the southern hemisphere. Our hotel looked out onto a lake that froze on the last day of our stay, people quickly took to it with their dogs, children and skates.

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Perito Moreno Glacier, near El Calafate

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Iceberg channel in front of Upsala Glacier

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Spegazzini Glacier

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Frozen waterfall near Chaltén

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Returning to my original introduction, for around three years I had been experiencing extremely vivid dreams about whales; at times I was the only one in a party able to distinguish them from the rocks close to the cliffs, often I was in the deep ocean with them, their tail fins surfacing close by. I don’t know what, if anything, these dreams meant, but a childhood interest in marine biology was reawakened, and I wanted to see whales up close in the wild. I had tried and failed in Reykjavik some years before, but had heard and read about the guaranteed sightings of right whales off Península Valdés, Puerto Madryn and knew I had to go there, so we did on our second weekend trip to Patagonia. Some were metres from the beach thanks to the sudden depth change, others we saw from the cliffs, many from the boat, including a mother and her calf. At sunset I could see them spouting water from my window. Before heading back up to the capital we did some preliminary work for a future collaborative project inland in the Chubut region. We’ll be back shortly, and next time I want to get in the water with these beautiful, gentle giants.

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