At the End of the World

They say in Ireland, there are 40 shades of green. In Patagonia, you can see 100 shades of blue in a full, brilliant spectrum. Lakes and rivers are a sparkling turquoise color thanks to the sediment from glacial runoff; the air, noticeably unadulterated, turns the sky a rich cerulean color; the glaciers glow aquamarine; and the mountains are a mix of violets and navy blues.

Patagonia is the kind of place that inspires a lot of mythologizing and statements of breathless amazements, neither of which are wholly unwarranted. The Spanish and the Portuguese first arrived here in the 16th century (Magellan is responsible for the modern name) and even they were blown away by what they saw, though that was more due to the fact that Magellan claimed the native inhabitants at the time were 10 feet tall.

This part of the world is deceptively far south. As a point of reference, Buenos Aires is at the same latitude as Cape Town. Patagonia begins a few hundred miles to the south, stretching to the tip of continent, 500 miles from the South Shetland Islands Antarctica, and encompassing five provinces in Argentina and two in Chile.

From the serene landscape in Bariloche straight from a Renaissance painting, to the sublime, severe terrain further south in El Calafate and Torres Del Paine National Park, Patagonia has an incredibly variable landscape that can be both utterly idyllic and completely barren and inhospitable.

Bariloche

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Bariloche is known as the “Germany of Argentina” for more than just the alpine chalet architecture and pastoral The Sound of Music landscape. It’s not exactly a secret that a bunch of Nazis ran away to Argentina after the war to avoid prosecution and no one in this part of the country makes any bones about that. Bariloche was a particularly popular spot for on-the-run war criminals, and according to the people who live there, the place where Hitler lived out his final years.

I don’t think I buy this theory, mainly because no one with any kind of academic credence whatsoever seems to have written about this, but it’s kind of intriguing to think about. Hitler does seem like the kind of guy who would have an exit strategy no matter what. The Argentinian story is that Hitler and Peron had an arrangement whereby the government would look the other way if Hitler paid Peron and gave him information about nuclear technology. So it’s probably a load of crap, but it’s interesting to think about.

Anyway, aside from potential Hitler spawn running around town, Bariloche is completely charming and the most approachable part of Patagonia. A series of enormous glacial lakes break up the steep, but gentle mountainsides covered in pine trees and other greenery. Patagonia is notable for its lack of flora and fauna, but Bariloche is an exception to this. There’s little in the way of wildlife, but the landscape is much less severe, the wind blows less violently, and overall the scenery is just easier on the eyes than further south. El Calafate is stunningly beautiful, but the landscape is so dramatic and so sprawling, it can be visually overwhelming.

Bariloche as a city isn’t anything, but you could do worse than the friendly hippie town along the banks of the Nahuel Huapi Lake with a surprisingly impressive gastronomic display. Still, the town is an afterthought for any visitor.

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Like any mountain town, Bariloche has the full lineup of outdoorsy activities. I spent one day hiking to the midlevel basecamp of an extant volcano, Tronador, a little way outside of town. At an elevation of 11,453 feet, this isn’t going to impress any Coloradan on paper, but the effect is as intense as standing at the top of a 14,000-foot mountain.

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The peak of Tronador, covered in clouds, in the distance

The lakes make Bariloche a great place to sail and I headed out on a surprisingly rough morning with a guy who had sailed across the Atlantic in his 40-foot sailboat. He completely looked the part in the best possible way, from the wind-whipped, mad scientist hair to his windbreaker that looked like it had only just survived an apocalyptic storm.

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It’s probably impossible to run out of things to do in Bariloche, between all the hiking, cycling, kayaking, sailing, golf, and swimming. This part of Patagonia feels so livable. This is where the Argentinian Brady Bunch would rent a lakeside cabin for the summer. Aside from the Nazi weirdness hanging around, which is more a joke than anything, Bariloche feels like the most happy-go-lucky place ever. My only caution would be that if you’re pressed for time in Patagonia, Bariloche is probably not going to fulfill your romantic visions of this region. Patagonia is, for the most part, brutal. The wind absolutely whips through this part of the world; the land is dry and seems to go on forever with basically no living thing around save for the gauchos, who have to be some of the toughest, heartiest people in the world.

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That’s not Bariloche. It’s sunny and calm and comfortable. There are wildflower-covered pastures filled with dogs and horses. There are several breweries in town where people sprawl out on big green lawns instead of sitting at tables. On some days, the air is so still the water on the lakes looks like a mirror. It’s basically a Normal Rockwell painting goes to Argentina. It’s wonderful, but if you want big, bad nature, you have to keep going south.

El Calafate

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When I envisioned Patagonia, I imagined really dramatic landscapes that were so stark as to be intimidating. That’s El Calafate. I think the best view of El Calafate might have been on the plane ride in. The land is dead flat, covered in lakes turned milky blue from the glaciers, and then suddenly, it’s not. Like in the Himalayas, the peaks in the Andes violently punctuate the skyline. The enormous Southern Patagonian Ice Field near El Calafate is primarily granite and, wait for it, ice, so the sides of mountains rise out of the landscape at near perpendicular angles.

Aside from the small town that’s essentially a smaller version of Bariloche, there’s nothing here. The expanse of untouched nature can be almost too much to take in. It’s so mind-blowingly barren it is dizzying to look at.

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Conceptually, if I tell you El Calafate is at the bottom of South America, you think, “Yeah, that’s far south.” But when you look at a map, it’s pretty surprising just how far south it is. A point equally far from the Equator in the north would be approaching the Arctic Circle.

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As it’s summer here, that means this is the land of the near-midnight sun, which is such a bizarre phenomenon if you’ve never experienced it before. The photo below was taken at about 9:45 p.m., and by 11:30 it’s, finally, almost completely dark. There’s something kind of cool about that, though it does mess with your internal clock a bit, and I can’t imagine what this place is like in the middle of winter.

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Like in the rest of Patagonia, El Calafate is an outdoorsman’s paradise. The star of the show here, though, is the Perito Moreno Glacier. Before this, I didn’t totally understand the BFD with glaciers as a tourist attraction. How exciting is it to look at a bunch of ice?

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When you first see the glacier from a distance, it almost looks like an optical illusion it’s so incongruous. On either side you have two huge mountains with a beautiful lake at the base and then there’s just this enormous ice slick stuck in the middle where a valley should be. I’m finding it so impossible to accurately describe just how bizarre it looks. It’s like those scenes in Hercules when Hades (or one of the titans? I don’t remember) is flying around doing some evil shit and he spreads that layer of ice over everything and everyone freezes in place. (These are highbrow cultural references, try to keep up).

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The color blue you’re seeing in all these pictures is entirely real. I haven’t edited these photos. The glacier is blue because, you know, science. The layman’s version is the ice somehow filters out all the colors in the visible color spectrum except for blue. I think that’s right, but someone who knows better, please comment and correct me.

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The Argentinians have built this rather ingenious system of elevated walkways on the hill opposite the glacier so you can walk around and see it at different heights and from different perspectives. You can also head out on a boat and walk around the glacier, which is by far a better experience, though you’ll want to head to the lookout points after, too.

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The literature from the company that does these glacial excursions said something about how you get to see the glacier “crack and roar” as you walk around, which sounded like marketing fluff to me, but it’s absolutely accurate. It is constantly moving—the whole glacier moves three meters a day—so you don’t have to be lucky to see enormous sheets of ice fall off the edges and into the water. The whole thing is pretty incredible to witness.

While you don’t get free range on the glacier (thankfully, for environmental reasons), it’s cool just to strap on the crampons and walk around for a bit, even if you’re hardly going to be trekking off into the great unknown. The texture of the ice and how it changes from the edges of the glacier toward the center is fascinating, and I’m not really a science person so if I’m saying that, you know it’s cool.

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This helps give you an idea of how incongruous it is. On the adjacent shore across from the glacier, there’s a lush, green forest.

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As amazing as Argentina is, they really don’t know how to make a graceful exit. I drove between Argentina and Chile and to put it mildly, the situation at the border crossing demonstrates a level of incompetence heretofore unseen in this universe. All of my friends are now rolling their eyes because I hyperbolize like this on a daily basis. But seriously, you guys, I’m not kidding this time!

First of all, this is the border control on the Argentinian side, so this is the customs clearance for leaving the country, which seems like it should be relatively straightforward. This is about as rural as it gets, so I was not expecting any kind of sophisticated operation. What you get is a guy in a hut with a pen and a ledger book. Without a scanner, it definitely takes a little longer to check everyone’s passport, so fair enough (why there is no scanner, who knows).

So this should be slow: one guy hand-checking passports. I did arrive on the heels of a few tour buses, so the queue is about 70 people. Imagine the absolute worst-case scenario for how long that would take. The guy has to handwrite everyone’s name and passport number, but this is no more than 70 people, max.

Four hours. It took four hours. That is 100 percent not an exaggeration.

I really don’t even know where to begin with this because trying to explain the logistics of this, or rather lack thereof, is an impossible task. How could it even possibly take that long? You could have carved everyone’s information onto a stone tablet in that amount of time. I watched the guy check my passport and I still don’t understand it.

Even if someone were actively trying to do this at an impossibly slow pace, I don’t think that level of inefficiency could be achieved. I truly have no explanation for it. The coup de grace was when the imbecile with the ledger book turned to a new page and proceeded to draw all the lines with a ruler and meticulously write in the column headings while I stood there and contemplated putting my fist through the window.

I would like to give a shout out to the 10-year-old behind my in line who sat patiently during the insane wait like it was nothing. I don’t even understand how he managed that. I should have thrown a tantrum for both of us. Hats off to you, sir.

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View from the border control hut. There are worse places to spend four hours, but honestly, what the hell

Of course, when I arrived at the Chilean border—entering the country—it was a breeze. The Argentinians and the Chileans have a rivalry that is one part joke and one part serious, and on this one, Argentina failed with flying colors.

Puerto Natales

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On the Chilean side of Patagonia is one of the more famous national parks in the entire region. If you’ve seen a picture of Patagonia in a travel magazine or something, odds are it’s of Torres Del Paine. I’ve never seen Lord of the Rings and I don’t understand how that has become some kind of catch-all to describe any natural landscape that is cool, but this seriously looks like something from Lord of the Rings.

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These are the Torres—the towers—and they are innovatively named North, Central, and South Towers. The one on left is in fact the tallest. The hike to get up here is fairly evil and special thanks to my hiking shoes, which I have worn on hikes for years, but suddenly decided to turn on me and attack the backs of my feet and my toes like a pack of rabid dogs. If anyone is in the market for a pair of size 7 hiking boots that were surely fashioned by the hands of the devil, let me know.

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View of the valley leading to the Torres

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Revenge of the bad prom pose

Conservatively, this is a seven-hour round-trip hike, but you would be a fool to come all the way to this part of Chile, truly the end of civilization, and not make the climb up. Torres Del Paine is beautiful in its entirety; just the drive to get to the trailhead is absolutely stunning. The surrounding area is full of tons of hikes that offer some really incredible views, but having hiked in the Alps, in the Himalayas, in the Andes in Peru, in the Rockies, in Hawaii, in the Tanzanian jungle, in a lot of really incredible places, I’m having trouble coming up with a long list of views that are more amazing than the one at the base of the Towers.

Still, you can do a hell of a lot worse than some of the other hikes in the area.

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For most of us, myself included, Patagonia is as much a clothing company as it is a place (Patagucci, as a friend of mine likes to call it). I can see why the people who founded the company were so inspired by this. Like in Bhutan, I couldn’t get over how prelapsarian it felt, a word I know I used to describe Bhutan back in October (thank you, Professor Cutler). When you’re hiking in Patagonia, you can refill your water bottle in the glacial streams, something that most of us would totally recoil at. I’ve hiked in Switzerland, which is pristinely clean, and I would never drink out of a river there.

On the one hand, you really do feel like you’re at the end of the earth. On the drive between Argentina and Chile, there is so much nothing. Absolutely nothing. The only wildlife to speak of are a smattering of guanaco, a cousin to the llama, condors, and rheas, which look like tiny ostriches, in addition to the sporadic groups of horses that are somewhere between wild and domesticated.

But it’s not nothing in a barren, desolate, depressing Nebraskan way. Patagonia is barren in a way that feels profound. The emptiness somehow means something. You can’t get much farther south in the world before you hit Antarctica and the setting reminds you of that. It’s humbling and haunting and really, breathtakingly beautiful.

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I spent a quick few days in Santiago, which I’ll be writing a short post about imminently, and I am now over in Australia, where I’ll be setting up shop for the next few weeks.

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