An immense land of arid steppe, seemingly stretching into infinity, Patagonia is famed for its adventures and adventurers, for marvellous myths and fabulous facts. Its geographical immensity is paralleled only by the size of its reputation – which itself has taken on legendary proportions, thanks partly to writers such as Chatwin, Hudson and Theroux, as well as Charles Darwin. As a region of extremes, it has few equals in the world: from the biting winds that howl off the Southern Patagonian Icecap – the planet’s largest area of permanent ice away from the poles – to the hearthside warmth of old-time Patagonian hospitality; from the lowest point on the South American continent, the Gran Bajo de San Julián, to the savagely beautiful peaks of the Fitz Roy massif; from the mesmerizingly sterile plains along the coastline to the astoundingly rich marine fauna that thrives and breeds just offshore.
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One of southern Argentina’s principal arteries, the RN-3 stretches from the capital all the way down to austral Río Gallegos. The highlight of this Atlantic fringe of Patagonia is the wildlife, most notably at the nature reserve of Península Valdés, famous for its whale-watching, but also at Punta Tombo, the continent’s largest penguin colony. Further south, in Santa Cruz Province, colonies of sea birds perch on spectacular porphyry cliffs at Puerto Deseado and playful Commerson’s dolphins frolic in the ría, or estuary, just outside the town. This coastal area was key in defining the Patagonian pioneering spirit: Welsh settlers landed on a beach just south of Península Valdés, at what is now the resort town of Puerto Madryn, and gradually ventured into the Lower Chubut Valley. You can explore their cultural legacy in settlements such as Gaiman and Trelew.
The second main road running through Argentine Patagonia is the famous RN-40 (Ruta 40), which starts at Cabo Vírgenes, the most southerly point of mainland Argentina, and hugs the Andean backbone most of the way all the way up to the country’s northerly tip. Some of the destinations in this western fringe are difficult to reach without your own transport (and not always that easy with it) but it is along or close by this route that you’ll find Argentine Patagonia’s hallmark features: a slew of impressive national parks brimming with wild beauty, a series of great mountain lakes, the finest spit-roast lamb asados and some unique skies. The Cañón of Río Pinturas is home to one of Argentina’s most famous archeological sites, the Cueva de las Manos Pintadas, with its striking, age-old rock art; to the west two beautiful, wind-whipped lakes, Posadas and Pueyrredón, lie in a seldom-visited area in the lee of stately San Lorenzo peak. Further north is an outstanding geological curiosity, the Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento, a beguiling collection of ancient fossilized trees, while to the south stretches the wilderness of Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, one of the most inaccessible – and, consequently, untouched – of Argentina’s national parks, with some excellent hiking trails.
The region’s climax is reached, however, with two of the country’s star attractions: the trekking and climbing paradise of the Fitz Roy sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, accessed from the laidback village of El Chaltén; and the patriotically blue-and-white hues of craggy Glaciar Perito Moreno, one of the world’s natural wonders, within easy reach of the tourist hotspot of El Calafate.
For over ten thousand years, before the arrival of European seafarers in the sixteenth century, Patagonia was exclusively the domain of nomadic indigenous tribes. It was Magellan who coined the name “Patagonia” on landing at Bahía San Julián. The tales related by these early mariners awed and frightened their countrymen back home, mutating into myths of a godless region where death often struck hard.
Two centuries of sporadic attempts to colonize the inhospitable coastlands only partially ameliorated Patagonia’s unwholesome aura. In 1779, the Spanish established Carmen de Patagones, which managed to survive as a trading centre on the Patagonian frontier. In doing so, it fared considerably better than other early settlements: Puerto de los Leones, near Camarones (1535); Nombre de Jesús, by the Magellan Straits (late 1580s); Floridablanca, near San Julián (1784); and San José on the Península Valdés, all failed miserably, the latter crushed by a Tehuelche attack in 1810 after braving it out for twenty years. Change was afoot, nevertheless. In 1848, Chile founded Punta Arenas on the Magellan Straits, and in 1865, fired by their visionary faith, a group of Welsh Nonconformists arrived in the Lower Chubut Valley. Rescued from starvation in the early years by Tehuelche tribespeople and Argentine government subsidies, they managed to establish a stable agricultural colony by the mid-1870s.
In the late nineteenth century, Patagonia changed forever with the introduction of sheep, originally brought across from the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands. The region’s image shifted from one of hostility and hardship to that of an exciting frontier, where the “white gold” of wool opened the path to fabulous fortunes for pioneer investors. The transformation was complete within a generation: the plains were fenced in and roads were run from the coast to the cordillera. Native populations were booted out of their ancestral lands, while foxes and pumas were poisoned en masse to make way for gigantic estancias. By the early 1970s, there were over sixteen million sheep grazing the fragile pastures on over a thousand of these ranches. Later, the region’s confidence and wealth blossomed further with the discovery of oil, spurring the growth of industry in towns such as Comodoro Rivadavia.
Plummeting international wool prices and desertification, though, eventually brought sheep farming to its knees, with the final blow being the eruption of Volcán Hudson in 1991, which buried immense areas of grazing land in choking ash. To make matters worse, the oil industry also went through a massive downturn and shed thousands of jobs.
The corner has since been turned, however, and today the picture is far from bleak. Although there are hundreds of abandoned estancias in Santa Cruz alone, the Patagonian economy is once again booming – wool prices have been steadily rising owing to rocketing demand in emerging economies and a worldwide interest in a return to natural fibres. Perhaps more importantly for the region’s economic future, tourist numbers are also rising sharply, as visitors come looking for a wild experience in an almost mythical land. This swelling interest has helped rekindle regional pride to the point where locals boast of being NYC – Nacido y Criado (Born and Bred) – in Patagonia.
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, the wild expanse of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is a huge chunk of magical terrain shoved up against the Andes in the southwest corner of Santa Cruz Province. It encompasses a range of contrasting environments from enormous glaciers that ooze down from the heights of the gigantic Hielo Continental Sur icecap to thick, sub-Antarctic woodland of deciduous lenga and ñire, and evergreen guindo and canelo; and from savage, rain-lashed, unclimbed crags to dry, billiard-table Patagonian meseta stretching as far as the eye can strain. Most people will visit only the two sightseeing areas: the southern sector, around Glaciar Perito Moreno, one of the planet’s most famous glaciers; and the Fitz Roy sector in the north for its superb trekking. Serving as bases for these two areas are, respectively, the towns of El Calafate, in the south, and El Chaltén, in the north, both lying just outside the boundary of the park itself, but catering well to a burgeoning influx of outdoor enthusiasts from across the world.
EL CHALTÉN, 90km west of the RN-40 and 220km north of El Calafate, has undergone a convulsive expansion since it was established in 1985 in a (successful) attempt to claim the area from Chile. Today, it’s a thriving tourist centre showing regrettable signs of uncontrolled development: whereas some hotels have been built in a style sympathetic to their surroundings, others would look more at ease in the beach resort of Mar del Plata. That said, the atmosphere in the town is extremely pleasant and relaxed, with a friendly mix of Argentines and foreign visitors of all ages.
Rearing up on the opposite bank of the Río de las Vueltas is the curiously stepped, dark-grey cliff face of Cerro Pirámide, while you can glimpse the tips of the park’s most daunting peaks, Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, from the southern and eastern fringes of the village. In terms of specific sights, there is only the classically uncluttered alpine chapel on the western edge of the village. Built by Austrian craftsmen with Austrian materials, it’s a fitting memorial to the climbing purist Toni Egger, as well as to others who have lost their lives in the park.
The northern sector of the park
The northern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the Fitz Roy sector, is a trekking paradise. One of its main attractions is that those with limited time, or who are not in peak fitness, can still make worthwhile day-hikes using El Chaltén as a base.
The sector also contains some of the most breathtakingly beautiful mountain peaks on Earth. Two concentric jaws of jagged teeth puncture the Patagonian sky with the 3405m incisor of Monte Fitz Roy at the centre of the massif. This sculpted peak was known to the Tehuelche as El Chaltén, “The Mountain that Smokes” or “The Volcano”, owing to the almost perpetual presence of a scarf of cloud attached to its summit. It is not inconceivable, however, that the Tehuelche were using the term in a rather more metaphorical sense to allude to the fiery pink colour that the rock walls turn when struck by the first light of dawn. Francisco Moreno saw fit to name the pagan summit after the evangelical captain of the Beagle, who, with Charles Darwin, had viewed the Andes from a distance, after having journeyed up the Río Santa Cruz by whaleboat to within 50km of Lago Argentino. Alongside Monte Fitz Roy rise Cerro Poincenot and Aguja Saint-Exupéry, while set behind them is the forbidding needle of Cerro Torre, a finger that stands in bold defiance of all the elements that the Hielo Continental Sur hurls against it.
For those who enjoy camping, the quintessential three-day Fitz Roy/Cerro Torre loop at the centre of the park makes a good option, and can be done in either direction. The advantage of going anticlockwise is that you avoid the steep climb up to Lagunas Madre y Hija and you have the prevailing wind behind you when returning to El Chaltén. However, the biggest gamble is always what the weather will be like around Cerro Torre, so if this unpredictable peak is visible on day one, you might like to head for it first. The longer interlocking circuit to the north will add at least another two days. There are also a many other shorter trails.
The Cerro Torre controversy
Even members of the French team that first ascended Fitz Roy in 1952 thought that summitting Cerro Torre was an impossible task. The altitude wasn’t the problem – at 3102m, it wouldn’t reach even halfway up some Andean peaks – neither was the type of rock it was made out of – crystalline igneous diorite is perfect for climbing. Rather, it was the shape and the formidable weather: a terrifying spire dropping sheer for almost 2km into glacial ice, battered by winds of up to 200kph and temperatures so extreme that ice more than 20cm thick can form on rock faces. Not only that, but the peculiar glaciers – “mushrooms” of ice – which build up on the mountain’s summit often shear off, depositing huge blocks of ice onto climbers below.
Maestri, egger and ferrari
The Italian alpinist Cesare Maestri became the first to make a serious attempt on the summit. In 1959, he and Austrian climber Toni Egger worked their way up the northern edge. Caught in a storm, Egger was swept off the face and killed by an avalanche. Maestri somehow made it to the bottom, and announced that he had conquered the summit with Egger. The world, however, demanded proof, something Maestri could not furnish – the camera, he claimed, lay entombed with Egger.
Angered by the doubters, Maestri vowed to return. This he did, in 1970, and it was clear he meant business. Among his equipment was a 150kg compressor for drilling bolts into the rock. Torre couldn’t resist in the face of such a determined onslaught, and Maestri’s expedition reached the summit, making very sure that photos were snapped on top. A stake had been driven through Torre’s Gothic heart.
Or had it? The climbing world was riven by dispute. Were Maestri’s tactics in keeping with the aesthetic code of climbing or had the use of a machine invalidated his efforts? Did this represent a true ascent? On top of this, Maestri’s photos revealed that although he had reached the top of the rock, he had not climbed the ice mushroom – the icing that topped the cake.
Enter Casimiro Ferrari, another Italian climber. Using guile where Maestri had favoured strong-arm tactics, Ferrari sneaked up on the beast from behind, from the Hielo Continental Sur. In the space of two days, Ferrari achieved his goal, and, elatedly, his team brought down photos of them atop the summit, ice mushroom and all.
Toni Egger’s body was recovered in 1975, but no camera was found with him (he is now commemorated in the name of a jagged peak alongside Cerro Torre and a simple chapel in El Chaltén). But despite the controversy at the time, the bolts drilled by Maestri were used for many years, forming the most common route to the summit.
A bittersweet irony
Nevertheless, this irony was a bittersweet triumph for Maestri, who feels he has been cursed. In the 1990s, he reputedly voiced his hatred for the mountain, claiming he wanted it razed to the ground. History has added its own weight to that of the doubters. The mountain has been scaled by routes of tremendous technical difficulty by modern climbers with modern equipment, culminating in the Slovenians Silvo Karo and Janez Jeglic’s ascent of the south wall in 1988. It wasn’t until 2005 that a team of climbers managed to climb the route that Maestri claimed he and Egger took in 1959.
The controversy reignited in January 2012 when two climbers – American Hayden Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk – unilaterally decided to remove many of Maestri’s bolts. On their return to El Chaltén, amid much local anger, they were briefly detained by the police, who confiscated the bolts. The reaction in the mountaineering community worldwide has been mixed: while some have praised their actions as returning the mountain to its natural state, many others have accused them of destroying a piece of climbing history.
The Hielo Continental Sur
Blanketing massive expanses of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the Hielo Continental Sur (Southern Patagonian Icecap) is the largest body of ice outside the poles. Estimates vary as to exactly how big it is but most studies put the figure at around 17,000 square kilometres, some seventy percent of which is in neighbouring Chile. What is certain is that it is suffering from the effects of global warming. In 2003, Science Magazine published a report claiming over 16 cubic kilometres of ice was melting annually; Greenpeace puts the figure at 42 cubic kilometres annually, or “enough to fill 10,000 large football stadiums”.
The southern sector of the park
The exalted glaciers in the southern sector of the Los Glaciares national park attract huge numbers of visitors from all over the world and it takes a bit of planning to find the magic and avoid the crowds. The main sites cluster around Lago Argentino, the largest of all exclusively Argentine lakes, and the third biggest in all South America, with a surface area of 1600 square kilometres.
The three hotspots in the southern sector of the park are: the easy-to-reach and not-to-be-missed Glaciar Perito Moreno, which slams into the western end of the Península de Magallanes; Puerto Bandera, from where boat trips depart to Glaciar Upsala and the other northern glaciers that are inaccessible by land; and, to the south down the RP-15, the much-less-visited Lago Roca and the southern arm of Lago Argentino, the Brazo Sur.
Within the boundaries, be especially aware of the dangers of fire – an area of forest near Glaciar Spegazzini that burnt in the 1930s still hasn’t even remotely recovered. Mammals in the park include the gato montés wildcat, pumas and the endangered huemul, although you are highly unlikely to see any of these owing to their scarcity and elusive nature. There is plenty of enjoyable flora on display, though, such as the ubiquitous notro (Embothrium coccineum, known in English as the Chilean firebush or firetree), with its flaming red blooms between November and March. Commonly seen birds include the majestic black and red Magellanic woodpecker (Carpintero patagónico).
Glaciar Perito Moreno
The immense pack ice of the GLACIAR PERITO MORENO (also called Ventisquero Perito Moreno) is one of Argentina’s greatest natural wonders. It’s not the longest of Argentina’s glaciers – nearby Glaciar Upsala is twice as long (60km) – and whereas the ice cliffs at its snout tower up to 60m high, the face of Glaciar Spegazzini can reach heights double that. However, such comparisons prove irrelevant when you stand on the boardwalks that face this monster. Perito Moreno has a star quality that none of the others rivals.
The glacier zooms down off the icecap in a great motorway-like sweep, a jagged mass of crevasses and towering, knife-edged séracs almost unsullied by the streaks of dirty moraine that discolour many of its counterparts. When it collides with the southern arm of Lago Argentino, the Canal de los Témpanos (Iceberg Channel), the show really begins: vast blocks of ice, some weighing hundreds of tonnes, detonate off the face of the glacier with the report of a small cannon and come crashing down into the waters below. These frozen depth-charges then surge back to the surface as icebergs, sending out a fairy ring of smaller lumps that form a protecting reef around the berg, which is left to float in a mirror-smooth pool of its own.
That said, it’s more likely you’ll have to content yourself with the thuds, cracks, creaks and grinding crunches the glacier habitually makes, as well as the wonderful variety of colours of the ice: marbled in places with streaks of muddy grey and copper-sulphate blue, while at the bottom the pressurized, de-oxygenated ice has a deep blue, waxy sheen. The glacier tends to be more active in sunny weather and in the afternoon, but early morning can also be beautiful, as the sun strikes the ice cliffs.
With the wind coming off the ice, the temperature at the glacier can be a lot colder than in El Calafate, so take extra clothes. Do not stray from the boardwalks: many deaths have been caused by ricocheting ice or wave surges.
Perito Moreno is considered to be a “stable” glacier in the sense that it is neither advancing nor retreating. It is famous for the way it periodically pushes right across the channel, forming a massive dyke of ice that cut off the Brazo Rico and Brazo Sur from the main body of Lago Argentino. Isolated from their natural outlet, the water in the brazos (arms) would build up against the flank of the glacier, flooding the surrounding area, until eventually the pressure forced open a passage into the canal once again. Occurring over the course of several hours, such a rupture is, for those lucky enough to witness it, one of nature’s most awesome spectacles.
The glacier first reached the peninsula in 1917, having advanced some 750m in fifteen years, but the channel did not remain blocked for long and the phenomenon remained little known. This changed in 1939, when a vast area was flooded and planes made a futile attempt to break the glacier by bombing it. In 1950, water levels rose by 30m and the channel was closed for two years; in 1966, levels reached an astonishing 32m above their normal level. The glacier then settled into a fairly regular cycle, completely blocking the channel approximately every four years or so up to 1988; after that there was a sixteen-year gap until another rupture in 2004. Since then there have been major ruptures in March 2006, 2008 and, most recently, in March 2012.
The RN-3 coastal route
A journey along the seemingly endless RN-3, with a few detours just off it, offers many opportunities – albeit at great distances from one another – to marvel at magnificent wildlife; nowhere is this easier or more rewarding than at the world-class reserve of Península Valdés, best accessed from the seaside town of Puerto Madryn. In addition you can check out Patagonia’s fascinating Welsh legacy in the villages of the Lower Chubut Valley near Trelew, while nature lovers will want to see the huge Magellanic penguin colony at Punta Tombo. The long trip can be broken up with stopovers in a trio of typical austral ports, Puerto Deseado, Puerto San Julián and Puerto Santa Cruz, each with its own wealth of marine wildlife and historical associations. A short way south of the last of these three, Monte León, the country’s newest national park – and the first to be created on the coast – is well worth a visit even if the marvellous estancia in its midst is beyond your budget. With your own transport, you could also fit in a side-trip to the curious petrified forests of the Monumento Natural Bosques Petrificados, or the Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento, closer to the Ruta 40 but accessible from the coast, too. The end of the road – and seemingly the end of the world – is reached at workaday Río Gallegos, a jumping-off point for travelling on to Tierra del Fuego or for starting a journey northwards along the RN-40.
Chubut Province: the Welsh heartland
If you’re coming to Chubut Province looking for Argentina’s answer to Snowdonia, think again. Not only is there not a mountain in sight, but also the Welsh, like the Tehuelche before them, have been absorbed almost seamlessly into Argentina’s diverse cultural identity. Under the surface, though, there remain vestiges of their pioneering culture and a real pride in both the historical legacy – evident in the number of fine Welsh chapels dotted across the farmlands of the Lower Chubut Valley – and the current cultural connection that goes well beyond the touristy trappings.
Halting Welsh is still spoken by some of the third- or fourth-generation residents in the main towns of Trelew and Gaiman, even if it isn’t the language of common usage, and whereas it once seemed doomed to die out, the tongue now appears to be enjoying a limited renaissance. In municipal schools today, young students have the option to study the language of their forebears: a team of Welsh teachers works in Chubut, and cultural exchanges with Mam Cymru are thriving – two or three pupils are sent annually from Chubut to Welsh universities and numerous delegations from different associations ply across the Atlantic. It’s not all one way either: scholars have come from Wales to study the manuscripts left by pioneers and seek inspiration from what they pronounce to be the purity of the language that was preserved in Patagonia.
The town of GAIMAN, 16km west of Trelew along the RN-25, sits amid lush pastures and poplar trees that – in clement weather, at least – form a landscape more like a Monet watercolour than typical Patagonia. It’s a pleasant place and the most eminently “Welsh” of the area’s settlements. A visit to a Welsh tearoom is a must, and there are various monuments built by or dedicated to the settlers dotted around town: keep an eye out for the handsome brick Capilla Bethel, a chapel dating back to 1913, and the squat stone Primera Casa (First House), which was built in 1874, and looks as if it has been transplanted from Snowdonia. Mini-eisteddfodau are held in Gaiman in mid-September and the first week of May.
Gaiman’s Welsh tearooms
The highlight of a visit to Gaiman is working your way through a mountain of cakes over afternoon tea at a Welsh tearoom (casa de té), some of which are owned and run by descendants of the original Welsh settlers. They all serve similar arrays of cake, toast, scones and home-made jams; the most traditional component is the torta negra (dark fruit cake), originally a wedding gift to be eaten on a couple’s first anniversary.
The Lower Chubut Valley
West of Trelew is the broad LOWER CHUBUT VALLEY, a fertile ribbon of land amid some barren steppe, thanks to the Río Chubut, which flows through here from the Andes. The river derives its name from the Tehuelche word “chupat”, meaning clean or transparent. The Welsh began using the Chubut to irrigate the valley in 1867, and it was dammed a hundred years later to ensure a more predictable flow to the farm plots, while also generating electricity for industrial development around Trelew. A string of well-maintained Welsh chapels (capillas galesas) line the Chubut, including – just south of Trelew – the Capilla Moriah; dating from 1880 it’s the oldest in Argentina and many of the original settlers are buried in its cemetery. The small towns along the river’s route are all charming and, though you won’t exactly hear Welsh spoken in the streets, the legacy of pioneering times is still detectable.
The medium-sized town of TRELEW – its Welsh name means the “village of Lewis”, in honour of Lewis Jones, its founder – rose to prominence after the completion, in 1889, of the rail link to Puerto Madryn, which allowed easy export of the burgeoning agricultural yields. Today it is home to a couple of excellent museums, while its good transport connections make it a convenient base from which to explore the surrounding Welsh settlements of the Lower Chubut Valley and, to the south, the famous penguin colony at Punta Tombo. The only downside is the shortage of appealing accommodation – nearby Gaiman has a far better selection.
The Welsh in Patagonia
In July 1865, after two months at sea, 153 Welsh men, women and children who had fled Britain to escape cultural and religious oppression disembarked from their tea-clipper, the Mimosa, and took the first steps into what they believed was to be their Promised Land. Here they planned to emulate the Old Testament example of bringing forth gardens from the wilderness, but though the land around the Golfo Nuevo had the appearance of Israel, its parched harshness cannot have been of much comfort to those who had left the green valleys of Wales. Fired by Robert Fitz Roy’s descriptions of the Lower Chubut Valley, they explored south and, two months later, relocated – a piecemeal process during which some groups had, in the words of one of the leading settlers, Abraham Matthews, to live off “what they could hunt, foxes and birds of prey, creatures not permitted under Mosaic Law, but acceptable in the circumstances”.
The immigrants were mostly miners or small merchants from southeast Wales and had little farming experience. Doubts and insecurities spread, with some settlers petitioning the British to rescue them, but when all avenues of credit seemed closed, vital assistance came from the Argentine government by way of provisions and substantial monthly subsidies. And despite initial mistrust of the Tehuelche, the Welsh learned survival and hunting skills from their native neighbours, which proved invaluable when the settlers’ sheep died and the first three harvests failed. By the early 1870s, 44 settlers had abandoned the attempt, and sixteen had died, but optimists pointed to the fact that ten new settlers had since arrived, and 21 Welsh-Argentines had been born into the community. They decided to stick it out.
With increasing awareness of irrigation techniques, the pioneers began to coax their first proper yields from the Lower Chubut Valley, and recruitment trips to Wales and the US brought a much-needed influx of new settlers in 1874, the year in which Gaiman was founded. Yet the best indicator of the settlement’s progress was the international recognition received when samples of barley and wheat grown in Dolavon returned from major international expositions in Paris (1889) and the US (1892) with gold medals in their respective categories. The village’s flour mill, built in the 1880s, still works today.
The coast of Santa Cruz Province
The stretch of the RN-3 south of Cabo Dos Bahías encompasses some pretty dreary towns, not least the oil-hub of Comodoro Rivadavia – a dire place best avoided, though it does have some useful transport links, including an airport. While this section of eastern Patagonia must claim some of the most desolate scenery in Argentina, there are some natural gems threaded along it: the Ría Deseado estuary at Puerto Deseado, with its handsome porphyry cliffs and marvellous opportunities to view dolphins and penguins at close quarters; the tremendous trunks of fossilized araucaria monkey puzzles in the Monumento Natural Bosques Petrificados; and Puerto San Julián, a historic town with access to one of the most conveniently situated penguin colonies in Patagonia. Farther south you could also break the excruciatingly long distances of largely uneventful coastline into more manageable chunks by stopping at Comandante Luis Piedra Buena, known for its fishing, or Parque Nacional Monte León, Argentina’s first coastal national park, in which a century-old estancia offers some of the area’s finest lodgings.
The birthplace of Patagonia
Puerto San Julián can rightfully claim to be the birthplace of Patagonia. In 1520, during Magellan’s stay in the bay, the very first encounter occurred between the Europeans and the “giants” of this nameless land, when, it is believed, the explorer bestowed on them the name “patagon” (literally “big foot”) in reference to their comparatively large build. As related by Antonio Pigafetta, the expedition’s chronicler: “One day, without anyone expecting it, we saw a giant, who was on the shore of the sea, quite naked, and was dancing and leaping, and singing, and whilst singing he put sand and dust on his head… When he was before us he began to be astonished, and to be afraid, and he raised one finger on high, thinking that we came from heaven. He was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist… The captain named this kind of people Patagon.” On Palm Sunday, April 1, 1520, Magellan celebrated the first Mass on Argentine soil, near a site marked by a cross, down by the town’s port.
PENÍNSULA VALDÉS, a sandy-beige, treeless hump of land connected to the mainland by a 35km isthmus, is one of the planet’s most significant marine reserves, winning deserved UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999. It was beautifully evoked by Gerald Durrell in The Whispering Land: “It was almost as if the peninsula and its narrow isthmus was a cul-de-sac into which all the wildlife of Chubut had drained and from which it could not escape.” No description, however, prepares you for the astonishing richness of the marine environment that surrounds it – most notably the southern right whales that migrate here each year to frolic in the waters off the village of Puerto Pirámides – nor the immense animal colonies that live at the feet of the peninsula’s steep, crumbly cliffs.
The first attempt to establish a permanent settlement here was made in 1779 by Juan de la Piedra, who constructed a fort on the shores of the Golfo San José. A small number of settlers tried to scrape a living by extracting salt, but the colony was abandoned in 1810 after attacks by the local Tehuelche; an extremely limited salt-extraction industry exists to this day in the saltpans at the bottom of Argentina’s second deepest depression, the Salina Grande, 42m below sea level, in the centre of the peninsula. However, it is nature tourism that’s the pot of gold now, with Punta Delgada, Punta Cantor and Punta Norte, along with Caleta Valdés bay, providing some of the best opportunities on the continent for viewing marine mammals such as elephant seals and sea lions. How the recent discovery of oil and shale gas reserves in the vicinity of the reserve will affect this remains unclear at present.
At the end of the asphalt road, 105km from Puerto Madryn, lies the tiny settlement of Puerto Pirámides, named after the pointed cliff at the mouth of the bay. This is the place for whale-watching: between June and mid-December the nearby waters are temporarily home to the most famous of all the peninsula’s visitors, the southern right whale. Few experiences beat the thrill of watching these massive animals approaching your boat, breaching (leaping out of the water) or jutting their tails above the surface as they dive to feed. There are also good diving opportunities for humans, with some trips attracting the attention of sea lions and whales, though it’s officially illegal to dive with whales; locals refer euphemistically to “excursiones especiales”. You can walk to the sea-lion colony (Jan is the best time) at Punta Pirámides, 5km round the headland to the northwest.
The marine mammals of Península Valdés
Although diverse and significant populations of birds and terrestrial mammals exist on Península Valdés, it is the marine mammals here that are of particular interest.
Southern right whale
The southern right whale (Ballena franca austral) comes to the sheltered waters of the Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San José to breed. Weighing up to fifty tonnes and measuring up to 18m in length, these gentle leviathans are filter-feeders, deriving nutrients from plankton. Once favoured targets for the world’s whalers – they were the “right” whales to harpoon, as they were slow, yielded copious quantities of oil and floated when killed – they have now been declared a “National Natural Monument”, and are protected within Argentine territorial waters. This has enabled the present tourist industry to develop, reinforcing the economic value of keeping these creatures alive; their charming curiosity – a trait that once put them in danger – now makes them one of the most enjoyable cetaceans to view in the wild.
The killer whale, or orca, is not in fact a whale at all, but the largest member of the dolphin family – it displays the high levels of intelligence we associate with such creatures, if not their cuteness. This is amply demonstrated in their unique hunting behaviour at Caleta Valdés and Punta Norte, where orcas storm the shingle banks, beaching themselves in order to snap up their preferred prey: baby sea lions and young elephant seals. Male killer whales have been known to measure over nine metres, and weigh some eight tonnes, although the ones off Valdés do not reach these sizes. The dorsal fin on an adult male is the biggest in the animal kingdom, measuring 1.8m, and its size and shape is one of the factors used to identify individual orcas, along with the shape of the saddle patch and colour variations. If you want to know more, contact Fundación Orca in Puerto Madryn.
Sea lions (Lobos marinos) were once so numerous on the peninsula that 20,000 would be culled annually for their skins and blubber – a figure that roughly equals the entire population found here today. They are the most widely distributed of the Patagonian marine mammals and their anthropomorphic antics make them a delight to watch. It’s easy to see the derivation of the name when you look at a 300kg adult male, ennobled by a fine yellowy-brown mane.
Península Valdés is the only continental breeding ground for the southern elephant seal (Elefante marino). Weighing some three tonnes and measuring four to five metres, bull elephant seals mean business. Though the average size of a harem for a dominant male ranges between ten and fifteen females, some super-stud tyrants get greedy. One macho male at Caleta Valdés infamously amassed 131 consorts. October is the best month to see these noisy clashes of the titans, but be prepared for some gore, as tusk wounds are inevitable. Adult females, much smaller than the males, are pregnant for 11 months of the year, giving birth from about mid-September. Pups weigh 40kg at birth, but then balloon to weigh 200kg after only three weeks. The elephant seal’s most remarkable attribute, however, is as the world’s champion deep-sea-diving mammal. Depths of over 1000m are not uncommon, and it is reckoned that some of these animals have reached depths of 1500m, staying submerged for a (literally) breathtaking two hours.
Punta Tombo is by far the largest single colony of penguins on the continent, with a population of more than half a million birds; it is also one of the most commercialized. The noise from these black-and-white Magellanic penguins is immense; it’s quite an experience to wander around this scrubland avian metropolis amid a cacophony of braying, surrounded on all sides by waddling, tottering birds. The penguins nest behind the stony beach in scrapes underneath the bushes, with a close eye on approaching strangers. Get too close and they’ll indicate their displeasure by hissing or bobbing their heads from side to side like a dashboard dog – respect these warning signals, and remember that a penguin can inflict a good deal of pain with its sharp bill.
Late November to January is probably the best time to visit, as there are plenty of young chicks. The penguins are most active in the morning and early evening; tour agencies run morning trips from Trelew, allowing around one and a half hours with the birds. The nearby countryside is an excellent place to see terrestrial wildlife, such as guanacos, choiques, skunks, armadillos and maras.
The Magellanic penguin
The word “penguin”, some maintain, derives from Welsh pen gwyn (white head), a name allegedly bestowed by a Welsh sailor passing these shores with Thomas Cavendish in the sixteenth century. In fact, Magellanic penguins don’t have white heads and it’s far more likely that the name comes from the archaic Spanish pingüe, or fat. The birds were a gift to the early mariners, being the nearest equivalent at that time to a TV dinner.
Though they’re not exactly nimble on land, in water these birds can keep up a steady 8km an hour, or several times that over short bursts. An adult bird stands 50 to 60cm tall and weighs a plump 4–5.5kg. Birds begin arriving at their ancestral Patagonian nesting sites – which can be up to 1km from the sea – from late August, and by early October nesting is in full swing. Parents share the task of incubation, as they do the feeding of the brood once the eggs start to hatch, in early November. By early January, chicks that have not been preyed upon by sea birds, foxes or armadillos make their first sorties into the water. During the twenty-day February moult, the birds do not swim, as they lose their protective layer of waterproof insulation; at this time, penguin sites are awash with fuzzy down and sneezing birds. In March and April, they begin to vacate the nesting sites. Although little is known of their habits while at sea, scientists do know that the birds migrate north, reaching as far as the coast off Río de Janeíro, 3000km away.
With its harsh climate and no-nonsense commercial feel, provincial capital RÍO GALLEGOS – 246km south of Piedra Buena – is not the kind of place where you’ll want to stay for long, though there are a couple of museums and some attractive early twentieth-century buildings. It is, however, an important transport hub and many travellers pass through en route to or from El Calafate or Tierra del Fuego. The city’s namesake river is also a top fly-fishing spot, with some of the world’s biggest brown trout.
The RN-40 and the Cordillera
The western boundary of Argentine Patagonia and the border with Chile are formed by the southern reaches of the Cordillera de los Andes, the world’s longest mountain chain. These peaks are the feature that draws most visitors here, luring them along with a ring of beautiful lakes and a national park, albeit not as famous or as breathtaking as Los Glaciares. The nationally renowned RN-40 (often simply called “La Cuarenta”) zigzags up this mountainside swathe of inland Patagonia; indeed it hugs the Andes all the way from the southern tip of the mainland to the Bolivian border in the far north. Most access roads for visiting the region run west from the RN-40: to the wild trekking areas around lakes Posadas and Pueyrredón and into Parque Nacional Perito Moreno. The main exceptions are the major archeological site of the Cueva de las Manos Pintadas in the canyon of Río de las Pinturas, just east of the RN-40; and the oasis town of Sarmiento, a very useful stopover for anyone travelling farther up to the Lake District.
The region’s scenery is predominately dry and flat, though some slopes are densely cloaked in southern beech woods, with a narrow fringe of scrubland separating forest from steppe. It’s in these areas that you stand your best chance of seeing the area’s outstanding fauna: condors, and perhaps even a puma or huemul. As for flora, the brush looks dreary and anonymous for most of the year. Some bushes liven up considerably in the spring, however, not least the thorny calafate, which blooms with a profusion of yellow flowers, and the lengua de fuego with its gloriously bright orange flowers like clam shells. The RN-40 also passes harsh meseta, rocky outcrops, patches of desert and the occasional river valley, usually accompanied by boggy pasture and lined in places with willow and poplar. Here you’ll find the few people who live along the route, where old traditions and an unhurried pace still reign.
Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento
The BOSQUE PETRIFICADO SARMIENTO is home to perfectly preserved 65-million-year-old tree trunks, randomly strewn across a near-lunar setting with a stunning purple-and-orange cliff backdrop. Formed by mineral-rich water permeating the wood over hundreds of thousands of years, effectively turning the trees into stone, the petrified forest has parallels with the Monumento Natural Bosques Petrificados, but its bands of “painted desert” soils are more striking and erosion processes are much more visible here. Traversing the 2km circuit is rather like walking around a sawmill, the ground covered by splinters of bark and rotten wood that chink under foot, except that these woodchips are Mesozoic. The highlight is a famous and much photographed chunk of hollow fossilized log that looks like nature’s take on a giant drainage pipe.
Take water, sunscreen and hats as the sun can be very strong, as can the winds. There are toilets in the park, but no other services.
Do not try to drive around the south shore of Lago Posadas, even though a road is marked on many maps: cars can easily get bogged down near the Río Furioso. Instead, take the route running around the north shore, which passes through a zone of blasted, bare humps, crisscrossed by lines of duraznillo bushes. Known as El Quemado (The Burnt One), it’s one of the most ancient formations in Argentina, dating back 180 million years to the Jurassic Age, and there are spectacular contrasts between minerals such as green olivina sandstone and porphyry iron oxides.
Lago Pueyrredón and the Río Oro
Ambitious engineers have somehow managed to squeeze a dirt road between the southern shore of pristinely beautiful Lago Pueyrredón and the hills that press up against it, without having to resort to tiresome infill projects. This precarious arrangement is compromised only by the occasional spring flood (September is the worst month).
Just past the neat bridge over the Río Oro, a track wends its way up the mountainside and past the magnificent purple chasm of the Garganta del Río Oro.
Parque Nacional Perito Moreno
Extreme isolation means that, despite being one of Argentina’s first national parks to be created, the PARQUE NACIONAL PERITO MORENO is also one of its least visited. Though replete with glorious mountains and beautiful lakes, this is not a “sightseeing” park like Nahuel Huapi or Los Glaciares. The bulk of the park’s forested mountain scenery lies in its western two-thirds, which are reserved for scientific study, meaning that most of the area accessible to the public consists of arid steppe. Although visitor numbers are slowly increasing, the park still offers a solitude that few other places can match.
You can see much of the park by car in a day or two, but could equally spend much longer trekking through the starkly beautiful high pampas, past virulently colourful lakes and near the imperious snowcapped hulk of San Lorenzo – and still miss out on many of its hidden wonders. In the absence of humans, wildlife thrives here. Guanacos can be seen at close quarters, while the luckiest visitors may glimpse a puma (or at least its tracks) or an endangered huemul, of which about one hundred are thought to live in the park. Condors are plentiful as is other birdlife including the Chilean flamingo, Black-necked swan and the powerful black-chested Buzzard eagle (águila mora). One of the park’s most biologically interesting features is its lakes: the ones here have never been stocked with non-endemic species – native fish are protected and no fishing is allowed.
Perito Moreno and around
With a little over four thousand inhabitants, PERITO MORENO is the biggest town in this part of the world, which shows just how thinly populated the region is. Lying 130km north of Bajo Caracoles, it’s a typically featureless, spread-out Patagonian settlement whose main point of interest is as a base for excursions to places such as the Cueva de las Manos Pintadas, some 120km south. When there is enough water, Black-necked swans and flamingoes pass their time at the free wildlife refuge in town, the Laguna de los Cisnes.
Cueva de las Manos Pintadas
The landscape between Perito Moreno and Bajo Caracoles best embodies most people’s concept of Patagonia – sparsely populated and at times empty lands stretching to the horizon. Why most people venture to these parts at all is to see the magnificent Cueva de las Manos Pintadas (Cave of the Painted Hands), one of South America’s finest examples of rock paintings and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It can be approached either by road along a sidetrack just north of Bajo Caracoles, or, better, by walking or riding up the canyon it overlooks, the impressive Cañón de Río Pinturas.
From the canyon rim, it’s a spectacular two-hour walk to the cave paintings. The path drops sharply to the flat valley bed, and continues to the right of the snaking river, nestling up against rock walls and pinnacles that display the region’s geological history in bands of black basalt, slabs of rust-coloured sandstone and a layer of sedimentary rocks that range in hue from chalky white to mottled ochre. Bring binoculars for viewing the finches and birds of prey that inhabit the canyon, plus food, water, a hat and sunscreen.
At the point where the course of the Río Pinturas is diverted by a vast rampart of red sandstone, you start to climb the valley side again to reach the road from Bajo Caracoles and the entrance building to the protected area around the paintings, where there’s a modest display. Unfortunately, some parts of the site have been tarnished by tourists etching modern graffiti on the rock – hence the fence that now keeps visitors at a distance – and you can only access the cave accompanied by a guardaparque on a one-hour guided walk.
The cueva itself is less a cave than a series of overhangs: natural cutaways at the foot of a towering 90m cliff face overlooking the canyon below, a vantage point from which groups of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers would survey the valley floor for game. Despite the rather heavy-handed fence that now frames them, the collage of black, white, red and ochre handprints, mixed with gracefully flowing vignettes of guanaco hunts, still makes for an astonishing spectacle. Of the 829 handprints, most are male, and only 31 are right-handed. They are all “negatives”, being made by placing the hand on the rock face, and imprinting its outline by blowing pigments through a tube. Interspersed with these are human figures, as well as the outlines of puma paws and rhea prints, and creatures such as a scorpion.
The significance of the paintings
The earliest paintings were made by the Toldense culture and date as far back as 1100 BC, but archeologists have identified four later cultural phases, ending with depictions by early Tehuelche groups – notably geometric shapes and zigzags – from approximately 1300 AD. The significance of the paintings is much debated: whether they represented part of the rite of passage for adolescents into the adult world, and were thus part of ceremonies to strengthen familial or tribal bonds, or whether they were connected to religious ceremonies that preceded the hunt will probably never be known. Other tantalizing mysteries involve theories surrounding the large number of heavily pregnant guanacos depicted, and whether these herds were actually semi-domesticated. One thing is for certain: considering their exposed position, it is remarkable how vivid some of the colours still are – the colours were made from the berries of calafate bushes, earth and charcoal, with guanaco fat and urine applied to create the waterproof coating that has preserved them so well.
The village of POSADAS is a loosely grouped assemblage of modern houses, and is listed on some maps as Hipólito Yrigoyen (or even, confusingly, as Lago Posadas), but locals use the old name of Posadas.
The village can used as a base for visiting the turquoise Lago Posadas, and the stunning lapis lazuli Lago Pueyrredón, set among splendid landscapes and famed for their fishing. The lakes are separated by the narrowest of strips of land, the arrow-straight La Península, which looks for all the world like a man-made causeway. It was actually formed during a static phase of the last Ice Age, when an otherwise retreating glacier left an intermediate dump of moraine, now covered by sand dunes, which cut shallow Lago Posadas off from its grander neighbour. Most places of interest around the lakes are accessible only to those with their own vehicle.
Cerro de los Indios
Three kilometres south of Posadas, the low, rounded wedge of Cerro de los Indios lies beneath the higher scarp of the valley. Bruce Chatwin’s description of this rock in In Patagonia is unerring: “…a lump of basalt, flecked red and green, smooth as patinated bronze and fracturing in linear slabs. The Indians had chosen the place with an unfaltering eye for the sacred.”
Indigenous rock-paintings, some almost 10,000 years old, mark the foot of the cliff, about two-thirds of the way along the rock to the left. The well-known depiction of a “unicorn” – now thought to be a huemul – is rather faded; more impressive are the wonderful concentric circles of a hypnotic labyrinth design. The red blotches high up on the overhangs appear to have been the result of guanaco hunters firing up arrows tipped in pigment-stained fabric, perhaps in an ancient version of darts. However, the site’s most remarkable feature is the polished shine on the rocks, which really do possess the patina and texture of antique bronze. There’s also no fence screening off the engravings and paintings here, leaving the site’s magical aura uncompromised.