Patagonia- The Last Refuge of Nature

From a tourist point of view, Patagonia is divided into two clearly distinct regions, on the one hand there is Patagonia of the Andes, a region of lakes, forests and glaciers where the necessity of conserving the environment and the existing rich natural resources brought about the creation of the first national parks in South America. On the other hand there is Atlantic Patagonia, which extends along 2,200 km of virgin coast land and whose principal feature is in the Valdes Peninsula. Between the two is the loneliness of the Patagonian Tablelands, a uniquely harsh territory, with fierce winds and an inhospitable climate where Rheas and Guanacos roam free and where huge flocks of sheep are bred at ranches as large as a European province.

One of the ways of getting to know the history of this region is to investigate the origin of the names of its cities, towns, rivers or mountains.
Torres del Paine

Thus one discovers that the denomination of the hospitable and very beautiful city of San Carlos de Bariloche, a centre of tourist complexes and international winter sports, is connected to the warlike indigenous tribe of the Vuriloches, which in the Mapuche language means "people who eat people", that the names of the lakes Gutierrez, Mascardi or Guillermo, of serene beauty and surrounded by lush vegetation, bring to mind some of the Jesuit missionaries who, in attempting to convert this region, became victims of the lances and arrows of the Araucans; or that the imposing glacier, Perito Moreno, located in the National Park of Los Glaciares, declared as a Natural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, has the name of an extraordinary investigator, a tireless explorer and defender of nature in our country.

There are other anecdotes, like the Cañadon de los Bandidos, which refers to the travels through these lands of the legendary bank robbers Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Etta Place who, after making off with a substantial amount of loot in the town of Nevada, in the United States of America, ended up in this territory with the double purpose of fleeing from the Law and to continue their criminal activities in a place which was presumably less risky.

Using the same technique one discovers that one of the principal colonial settlements in the Atlantic Patagonia was made by a group of Welsh men and women who arrived at the coast of Golfo Nuevo in 1865. These pioneers demonstrated that it was possible to adapt to the harsh conditions of the land and the climate of the region, live peacefully with the aborigines and plant ones roots in this land.

The names of the towns that they founded, today important cities in the South of Argentina, bear witness to their origin: Trelew from the Welsh words tre, "farmhouse" and lew, short for Lewis referring to Lewis Jones, the promoter of the emigration to this region; Rawson, the Argentinian minister who patronized the settlement of the Welsh colonialists; Puerto Madryn, a name which recalls a castle in a place in Wales of the same name and Gaiman, behind its native name there still is today the most typical Welsh village in the area.

Probably none of those hard working pioneers would have imagined their influence upon the growth of the region and, less so, that one of these cities with agricultural origins would be the most important of the principal tourist centres of Patagonia because of it being next to the Valdes Peninsula and Punta Tombo, among the most important marine fauna reserves in the world.

Those who are lovers of Nature in its purest state, of exotic animals and different seascapes have the unique opportunity to see in this part of the Patagonian coast the native species which live there in complete freedom. Seals and elephants seals, penguins (in Punta Tombo), an incredible variety of birds and the overwhelming spectacle that the Southern Right Whales give, making for an unforgettable experience.

Amongst the characteristics which mark the personality of the Patagonia of the Andes, the relatively recent presence of civilized man is one of the outstanding ones. It was at the end of the XIX century when these lands were no longer vast unexplored areas and started to become part of the country in an active and tangible way.

A clear example is the city of San Carlos de Bariloche, founded in the XX century and until a few decades ago a scattered hamlet isolated from the rest of the country. First came the railway, followed by different means of communication and then most important of all, the growth of tourism which converted the city into what it is today, the most important tourist city in Patagonia of the Andes and an international ski resort, where whilst practicing your favorite sport, like golf or rambling, one has the possibility of enjoying wonderful natural surroundings, mountains and lakes of the Nahuel Huapi National Park. One of the reasons that have caused this rapid transformation of Bariloche is that it is in one of the regions that has an all year-round season.

The shore and lake excursions which start from San Carlos de Bariloche, such as the international Lake Crossing to Puerto Montt navigation, or the local ones to Puerto Blest or to Victoria Island, or the land Circuito Chico and the Circuito Grande excursiona are the best tourist ones that can be made in the region. Nevertheless, this area may still provide some surprises, like Estancia stays, river rafting, horse riding, biking, etc.

The trip through Patagonia of the Andes would not be complete without a visit to one of the most imposing natural monuments in the world, the Perito Moreno Glacier.

It is famous because of the colossal wall of ice which seems to rise from the lake and forms a front of 4 km in width and up to 60 metres in height. Its ice face, scultptured by wind and time, forms irregular shapes and is remarkable for being one of the few glaciers in the world which advances over the water.

For the delight of visitors it is possible to get close and to view it from a natural observation point. The slow and imperceptible movement makes the impressive mass of ice press against the shoreline at the very point where the visitor is on the observation platform and intrudes into the Argentino Lake which is divided into two arms. The pressure produced by this phenomenon, together with that of the waters and the filtration, undermines the ice until the barrier weakens.

This is the moment when the walls of the glacier break off and crumble with a loud noise giving rise to a spectacle of awesome magnitude. One after another these impressive masses of ice fall into the waters which are stirred up in search of their natural course until, after a short time, everything returns to normal giving place to an unsuspected calmness in the water which is only interrupted by some of those immense pieces of the wall which frequently fall from the front of the glacier, a spectacle which is both overwhelming and unforgettable.

The climate changes of the planet have altered the regularity of the breaks in the barrier which used to occur in cycles of approximately 4 years. But this does not stop one enjoying the magnificence of the spectacle which is permanently present in this great natural scenario.

When the blocks of ice weighing several tons have fallen and, after bouncing on the lake and producing huge waves, sink and later re-emerge, long silences then occur and the bluish icebergs float about on the occasionally tranquil waters.

It is possible to programme, with the help of specialized guides, alternative and adventure walks on top of the ice, the glacier (Minitrekking) or by simply take different options for a full day sailing over the lake (to the Upsala and Onelli glaciers). These are fascinating attractions and more than sufficient to visit this wonderful called Parque Nacional Los Glaciares which has been declared a Natural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

For mountain climbers and trekkers, Mount Fitz Roy, located in the northern section of Los Glaciares National Park, is close to a village called El Chalten. The village is a mecca for hikers and climbers wishing to trek to or to attempt the climb of Mount Fitz Roy. Due to the very changeable weather conditions, climbers can have a long wait or have to abandon it if they don't have time on their side. Others want to walk the trail to be as close as possible to Mount Fitz Roy without technical climbing. The primitive inhabitants of the area venerated Mt. Fitz Roy and called it Chaltén, which means "mountain that smokes" as they believed it to be a volcano, probably because its summit is always covered with a layer of clouds. Its summit, that can be easily seen from far beyond, must have served them as an orientation signal during their annual migrations from the Atlantic Ocean to the Andes. You can follow a trail straight to the Base Camp, or take an alternative through forest alongside the Rio Blanco River from the north on a circular route, with. views of Mount Fitz Roy and the lower glaciers. After two hours, you will reach the Base Camp. You follow a good path up about a thousand feet on scree slopes to Laguna de los Tres, a tarn named after three members of the French expedition who first climbed it about fifty years ago!. You can have a pleasant half hour stop for meditation surrounded by the awesome slabs of rock, glaciers and snow fields. Another stunning trekk upwards and through the forest will take you to the feet of one of the world´s most challenging mountains in the world, Cerro Torre. Arrive at a lookout from where you will get a breathtaking view of the rest of the circuit up to the bottom of Fitz Roy River Valley, facing Mt. Torre Range and the Adelas Range. A walk through young moraines with no vegetation will lead you to the coast of Laguna Torre and to another extraordinary panorama which has rendered this area a "must" for trekkers and climbers from all over the world: Mt. Torre flanked by Egger, Standhard and Bífida spires and the Adelas Range, Mounts Ñato and Grande, both with their respective glaciers spreading down towards Laguna Torre.