Day 5: Paine Grande across Lago Nordernskjold (George Sloan)
Which Patagonia did we encounter, the hard mistress, or the enchantress? Well, some of both. Since most of our time was spent exploring the area's national parks, we saw the best of what Patagonia has to offer. We reveled in the mountain scenery -- a majestic landscape. Angular rocks and needle-like spires were decorated with swirling clouds and the white caps of glaciers, or bathed in sunlight that created colors beyond description. The bright turquois of the glacial lakes provided stark contrasts to the grey and black slabs of rock. The massive glaciers with their spectral ice formations reflected a vibrating clear blue. Like the spell of an enchantress these images enveloped us and invited us to stay. But between the parks we traveled through landscape that could only be described in Darwin's words as ''wretched and useless,'' with no trees, no water, no habitation, devoid of color save for muted tans, browns and grays that resembled a faded photograph. Endless flat expanses of sameness. And the ever present Patagonian wind. As for Chatwin's ''eccentric personalities,'' we encountered a few. There was a Grizzly Adams look-alike we met at the brew pub in Chalten. Originally from Oregon, he visited the area 15 years ago and wound up emigrating to Patagonian Chile to start his own ecotourism business. One of our guides at EcoCamp found life in her native Germany boring and unsatisfying so she guides in Patagonia during the tourist season and then moves to Greenland for their tourist season to do the same thing. The bus driver travels the route from Calafate to Chalten almost every day, not for the pay check, but for the opportunity to see the spectacular view of Fitz Roy and the Torre. All these individuals fell under the spell of the enchantress. In attempting to describe Patagonia's appeal to the human psyche, Darwin finally turned to the power of the landscape itself as the defining reason: ''It would be difficult to imagine a scene where [man] seemed to have fewer claims or less authority. The inanimate works of nature -- rock, ice, snow, wind, and water -- all warring with each other, yet combined against man -- here reigned in absolute sovereignty.'' Ah, Patagonia!
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