Meet Your Highness, Fitz-Roy, Patagonian Treasure
Sam and I were traveling overland in Patagonia, the geographic region that straddles Chile and Argentina, and is one of those places like Amazonia or Appalachia, that is hard to pinpoint precisely. Maps seldom commit to its borders. Even Bruce Chatwin in his seminal work, In Patagonia, was off by some 20 miles on its northern border.
Generally, Patagonia starts around the “waist” of cone-shaped South America, below Argentina’s west-east flowing Rio Colorado, and tapers down the continent to Cape Horn, near the stem-end of the earth. It encompasses Tierra del Fuego, the Andes, deep lakes, sprawling ice fields, numerous glaciers, and unforgettable cloud-studded skies.
From rambling buses, large swaths of dramatic scenery peeled away before our eyes. Chile’s much-perforated southern portion looked more like a tight fleet of islands than a coherent land mass. Argentina’s pampas resembled “oceans” of grassland.
Patagonia was named for apocryphal big-footed giants, called “patagons” by explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who met them in 1520. Most likely they were tall indigenous people, the Tehuelches and Aonikenk who, at an average six feet towered over smaller Europeans. Chatwin wrote his wife that the “haunted quality” of Patagonia was due to the “very thorough job” the colonizers did in wiping out the indigenous Patagonians.
We had spent a few glorious days hiking Chile’s magnificent Torres del Paine. We were more than halfway through the long two-day bus ride from there, heading eventually to Tierra del Fuego. We had started in El Calafate, Argentina, where we boarded our first bus north to El Chalten, a charming village in a mountainous river valley. We watched the expansive open steppes shape-change under long twilight. The late sun shone on the ropy bunch grass like cellophane. It was November, spring in the southern hemisphere. I snapped way too many photos of vast nothingness that stretched to a far horizon. Sam said, “Charles says the horizon is always farther off and wider on sea than on land.”
I said, “Well, Bruce says, unlike the world’s great deserts, Patagonia’s stretches of scrub offer no ‘dramatic excess of spirit,’ but he notes that Charles ‘found its negative qualities irresistible.’” There were four of us traveling — Charles, as in Darwin, and Bruce, as in Chatwin, who spoke through us as we read Voyage of the Beagle and In Patagonia.
“It is extraordinary,” Sam said, laying Charles in his lap to study the view. We both found the desolation irresistible. One reason was for what it lacked — just about every distraction known to us overly civilized, from billboards to gas stations to strip malls. Desolation today is a form of consolation for those of us from dense urban areas. The low, flat wind-teased earth was solace, just by being there — the conjunction between the high points, like Fitz Roy. The “primal calmness” here “is perhaps the same as the Peace of God,” wrote Chatwin.
A jolt of energy ruffled the bus passengers. A spry guanaco, a llama relative, with its wide-eyed face of innocence, had loped in front of our bus. The driver hit the breaks in time on the narrow two-lane road. We all pulled out cameras before the guanaco melted back into the hide-brown pampas.
By the time we checked into our El Chalten hotel it was late and the last shred of twilight gave way to inky night. We groped our way from the bus stop, rolling suitcases up a stony dirt road to our lodging.
Even before sun-up, El Chalten set the storybook tone that would color my recollections. Under bright streetlamps, the town was awash in primary colors, a foil for the surrounding drab-colored plains. Rosita’s Victorian-red restaurant pulled us in for a late dinner of grilled chicken and Malbec. The kiosco, or variety store, where we’d buy snacks and drinks, glowed lavender. And our small Hotel Kalenshen was saffron-yellow inside and out. Our airy room looked out on lush green horse pasture.
Like most visitors to El Chalten, we had come to view the Fitz Roy, a jagged shard of the Andes, 3,405 meters high. It’s named for the captain of the Beagle, the ship that carried Darwin on his famous five-year voyage (1831–36). We were lucky to have a morning mild and sunny in meteorologically-moody Patagonia, promising for our hike.
In our hotel’s bright dining room with lacy café curtains, we ate the standard breakfast of the land, coffee, white toast, scrambled eggs. We wrapped the extra eggs into the bread and napkins to take as fuel for our trek up the steep viewpoint of Fitz Roy at Lago de Los Tres. A taxi drove us 15 kilometers to the trailhead down a dirt road. There, nestled in the trees like a cabin in Mother Goose or Brothers Grimm tale, was a small Hotel Pilar with more café curtains and storybook demeanor.
This 14-mile trek was lovely, with occasional clouds and strong sun that had us peeling layers of clothing. The well-marked footpath wound through fields of the spiny round bush. The thorny shrub arranges itself like topiary, pudgy, cuddly with the deceptive “squeeze me” adorableness of the desert’s cholla cactus. Downed lenga beech tree limbs, smooth and silver, littered the blond grasses. The lenga survives Patagonias prolific wind and dearth of rain and compensates for the lack of arboreal diversity with its wild and whimsical sculpting — all manner of twisted, torqued trunks. We came to love the low-growing lenga forest, studying its unique cursive as if the branches and trunks were relating to us in tree talk.
We were hot by the time we hit the pinnacle of climbing, a careful scramble up sharp scree on all fours, a ziggurat, like scaling a pyramid with several terraces. I nearly stopped at the lower terrace — a cirque where one frozen lake lay white and still under snow. I told Sam I was not climbing that last mound just to look from higher up.
I sat on a perfect rock seat and began nibbling the soggy and delicious egg sandwich. A few minutes later Sam was yelling and motioning me that I must climb the mound. His urgency told me I had no choice. Okay, legs, here we go. I scaled the steep mound and saw the “cathedral” perch was at that tier of the cirque. A dozen hikers sat quietly in the “pews,” on natural rock benches just staring in awed silence. I might have heard angels singing.
It was an astonishing view of Fitz Roy. We counted this view among our top three. It gave me vertigo to stand, so I sat and didn’t budge. Craggy Fitz Roy capped in snow and blue ice towered over the lake. We sat on the sheer cliff, perhaps a crow’s half-mile distance, on the other side of this lake. The lake, protected by fiord-like walls was glassy sapphire-blue and strewn with chunklets of crushed ice that came every few minutes flying off the face of Fitz Roy. The thunderous rumble of a calving glacier always has this apocalyptic sound, adding to the tingle of my weak knees.
Sam took a few bites of the soggy egg sandwich and seemed to enjoy it as much as I did mine. He went and stood at the edge of the cliff to look down, and I had to look away with fear and un-abating dizzy spells. Too embarrassed to admit to my vertigo, I didn’t dare shout, Sam, get back from the precipice, please!
The last leg of our hike before we descended back into El Chalten took us to a gentle ledge of a mesa looking down on the whole village. We could see the dusty grid upon which the village sat, squares and rectangles of the Crayola-colored structures, like Monopoly pieces, boxy dwellings, the mountains, the barren stretches, and the rises of land we saw throughout the Patagonian plateau, the barancas, which look like islands and perhaps they were in some distant epoch.
After a few wows and extraordinarys we dragged our sore bodies down. At the lavender kiosco, I held my camera up and a horse ambled into view of the frame. Sam went inside the to buy water as a bus of teenage girls unloaded. They seemed bent on buying out the store’s supply of sugary snacks and sweet drinks.
I sat, fagged out, but self-satisfied, on a crate. A plump teen hugged and kissed a frisky puppy. Che chiquilin! she squealed in its ear. She looked at me and told me she had two dogs at home and loved them. I conversed in my broken Spanish. Si perros son muy cariños. As she learned I was from California, that mystical, magical place in so many movies, the group of girls around her grew, wide-eyed and curious. Wow, San Francisco, que linda ciudad. Like many, they knew it from movies, TV, and general myth.
I wondered what exotic life they had. They were from Rio Gallegos, a blustery maritime town on the Atlantic coast. Before we could converse more, the bus driver honked for the girls to board. They slowly backed away from me, the extranjera espectacular, waving as if one of us was Shane heading into the sunset.
There is a decidedly Anglo feel in much of Patagonia. Many British were drawn to the remoteness, the clime, similar to theirs, being no drawback. Chatwin writes of many of them as he meets them and draws their stories out — to their chagrin. There are precious teahouses throughout. At a pub hofbrau in El Chalten we filled up on savory empanadas, Quilmes beer, and espresso. We met a Swiss couple who showed us a beautiful image of a wild golden orchid they’d seen. It was stunning.
The next day, on our hike to Laguna Torre, Sam spotted one, then two, three, then a dozen or so of the orchids on a little incline, all in prime bloom. We fell to our knees shooting them. Passing hikers showed no interest. Having stalked wild flowers for years, we knew that orchids in the wild, rare or common, are a treat.
Our bus for El Calafate, brimming with young travelers, left late in the day with the changing light. At dusk, we made the same pit-stop we had made on the way coming, at a historic roadhouse, Hotel De Campo La Leona. The modest all-weather yellow metal structure recalled a roadhouse I’d stopped at once along the lonesome Alaska Canada Highway. Leona’s is named after the puma (female puma in Patagonian slang is Leona) that mauled the explorer, Francisco P. Moreno. It is in the middle of nowhere, full of basic necessities, shelter from wind and other elements. The pit stop offered empanadas, ham and cheese sandwiches, five-and-dime goblets of cheap wine, espresso. But Sam and I stretched our legs first, our gaze always pulled to the ever-distant horizon.
Leona’ s walls were covered with sepia and black-and-white photos of famous bandoleros norteamericanos (North American bandits). In 1905, three gringos lodged here for about a month. After they were gone, when a police commissioner came looking for them, the owners recognized the faces of Butch Cassidy, the Sun Dance Kid, and the Kid’s wife, Ethel Place. They had just robbed the Bank of London and Tarapaca in nearby Rio Gallegos.
Next stop, Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, was a prison colony until 1867 when Chile made it a free port. In 1920 wealthy European merchants were determined to make Punta Arenas the Paris of the south. They were sheep raisers and seal hunter barons from Chile and Argentina (Braun, Menendez, and Nogueira). Today, you see some relics in a rundown has-been city: The handsome Braun Menendez mansion near the main plaza which also holds a monument to Magellan—don’t rub his foot unless you want to return to Punta Arenas.
We checked into our Hotel Ovejero, the shepherd, which had the biggest bathroom I’ve seen in a South American hotel. We had a good meal at Los Ganaderos, excellent Fuegian lamb. Next morning, our final long bus ride took us under big sky, with clouds, white caps at the horizon on the Strait of Magellan. At Punta Delgada, where there was a bright red and white lighthouse, our bus drove onto a catamaran with other vehicles and ferried us across the strait. I stayed in the bus, rocking and rolling, but Sam went out to look and came back, reporting he’d seen porpoises on the fifty-foot swells.
The bus rolled off the ferry onto the Isla Grande, Tierra del Fuego, and headed south along the Atlantic Ocean. We saw sheep and brown pasture for miles. Finally, the bus climbed a mountain pass with the huge Lago Fagnano on one side and Mount Olivia on the other, then down into Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s most southerly town, also once a prison and a mission.
Ushuaia, overlooking the Beagle Channel with its many little islands, sports a lot of corrugated metal construction painted in tempera colors. At night its light glowed as if emanating from candles or kerosene lamps.
Next morning we rose early for a daylong guided trip to Tierra del Fuego. We hiked through air so crystalline, it magnified the mandarin color of bush flowers. Pablo and Claudio guided us on land and sea. They showed us the fascinating Indian bread, spongy peach-colored balls, a fungus that grows in clusters on the local coihue and ñire trees. Sam had just read about this in Darwin’s book. We saw the caiquen ducks with their spiffy herringbone suits. At our lunch stop at Lago Roca we watched chimango caracara swoop like birds of prey.
We boarded canoes on the bay and watched steamer ducks and grebes float on the limpid water. Our guides said let’s play pirates and someone said, “Get the Estados Unidos!” Sam and I were the only canoe that couldn’t get through that wind channel. We almost blamed each other’s paddling but then we blamed the wind instead.
We lodged in Ushuaia’s backpacker hotel, which had an atmospheric bar café. Our room was golden-hued and dazzling. We had the best meal of our trip at Tante Nina, with its no-nonsense seafood — linen tablecloths, waiters in black and white. I had the hake and Sam had the lomo (grass-fed sirloin). The fish was butter-juicy and tender-sweet. The lomo was wood-fired to perfection too. Fuegian, yes.