Just Back from Patagonia

{ Posted on Aug 13 2013 by B-man }
Categories : Travel news

Sarah Gold spent two weeks exploring the regions at the southern end of the earth: Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. These territories, which encompass both Chile and Argentina, together occupy the southerly tip of South America, and are the last landfall travelers can make before hitting the Antarctic ice cap. Armed with her usual bluster—but only rudimentary Spanish—Sarah imagined she’d have no trouble navigating this remote area. But she found Patagonia to be a humbling, as well as completely thrilling, place.

What was the greatest part of your trip?

Without a doubt, the boat cruise that brought me to Cape Horn (or Cabo de Hornos). I’ve been a lifelong fan of great sea-voyage stories—the Bounty trilogy; Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World; the journals of Charles Darwin and James Cook. All of them describe the terror of sailing around the Horn, the most wind-whipped and dangerous promontory on earth. My trip there was cushy, in a comfortable ship and sturdy inflatable raft, but as soon as my co-travelers and I landed on the promontory I understood why it was so legendary. Within ten minutes the weather there had changed from sunshine to pelting rain to bouncing hailstones, and then back to sunshine again. The wind was so strong it was impossible to talk—my words just got blasted away—and it seemed to come from ten directions at once. I wasn’t surprised to learn that more than 800 ships have been wrecked off that headland.

The other highlights of my trip were also things I visited by boat: the Magellanic penguin colony at Isla Magdalena (who knew that penguins made burrows in the ground?), and the incredible blue beauty of the calved icebergs at Laguna San Rafael.

What was the most difficult part?

For me, driving in this part of South America was harder than anything else. There’s just one main road—the Carretera Austral—that runs from the town of Puerto Montt, in Chilean Patagonia, down to the tiny hamlet of Villa O’Higgins 1,300 km (800 miles) to the south—and only about a third of it is paved. The rest of the route is a desolate, rutted two-lane gravel road pocked with bone-jarring potholes, and this is the part that I drove on for part of my journey. The mountains and glaciers the road winds through are beautiful, but having to change at least one tire on every drive, and getting terrible headaches from my teeth clattering together, kind of detracted from the scenery. The locals are much smarter than visitors—they use horses instead of cars.

What was the best thing you ate or drank?

There were a few dishes that wowed me in Patagonia—among them them lamb al asado, spit-roasted over an open fire in the traditional manner of the region. But what really stood out for me was the wine, most of which came from the nearby Mendoza region of Argentina. I also developed a taste for Chile’s national drink, the pisco sour, made from a muscat-grape brandy. Mixed with a little whipped egg white, some lemon juice and some sugar, it was just the thing to take the edge off after a long day on the Carretera.

What advice would you give someone traveling to Patagonia for the first time?

First, bring layers. The weather in this part of the world is mercurial—and not just on Cape Horn. There were many times during my trip when I bundled up in a fleece, a waterproof jacket, and hat and gloves, only to find myself unbundling a half-hour later when the wind died and the sun came out. Second, take the time to learn some Spanish before you go. At the heavily touristed national parks, and at big hotels and on cruise ships, there will be people who speak English just fine—but there will be many more who don’t. Learning some basic phrases and verbs won’t just keep you from having to make creative hand gestures with the locals; it’s also a sign of respect for them and their culture.

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