Monday, January 20, 2014

Trekking Patagonia

Patagonia looks like nature the week after God created it. Land swelling like it had been lifted upward by some great surge, snowy mountains like fortresses, rivers that run as far as the eye can see, vast open skies that make you want to lie on your back and just absorb it all. Breathtaking nature that reduces us to a state of wordlessness. It fills you up inside and there are no words to contain what you see, no pictures to capture the sense of awe that stops you in your tracks and makes your whole body say WOW! 

Awakening to the view of Paine Massif mountain range along the shore of Lake Sarmiento in a dune-shaped hotel and spa was a perfect way to start the year. Clad entirely in bleached lenga wood to blend unobtrusively with the spectacular landscape, the eco-friendly lodging hugs the earth's contours.

You come to Patagonia to walk. It is one long endless walk surrounded by snow-capped mountains, glacial lakes and skies so full of fluffy clouds you hardly see the blue between. You fill your water bottle from streams, hike for hours to stand in the shadow of majestic mountains, hear the thunder of avalanches up in the peaks and struggle to walk in whipping winds that blow snow sideways. 

There is only nature to fill your attention span and make you lose your sense of time and space. To climb a mountain ridge where condors nest, watch them at close range as they teach their young to fly, and crane your neck to see them swooping over you as they surf in the wind currents was glorious! 

I attempted a 21 km eight hour hike to the base of the famous Torres del Paine National Park. Halfway through, desperately gasping for air, I accidentally sucked in an insect. The uphill struggle through mud, running water, slippery rocks involved crossing rickety bridges and balancing on rotten logs, trying not to fall off the edge of the precipice while finding a toehold on rocks. My thighs were quivering with exhaustion but I kept going till I reached the top.

Every misstep was recorded audibly when pebbles and rocks rolled down the cliff, echoing reminders that falling was not an option. Clambering over huge rocks, pulling myself up with my walking poles or grabbing branches worn smooth by others who had to do the same, I was less than graceful but was rewarded by the sight of this glacial lake and mountain fortress at the base of the Towers (massive stone fortresses). 

Unique Patagonian wildlife includes the nandu, a flightless long legged ostrich like bird that is the fastest runner; the guanaco, a sweet creature that looks like a camel or llama without a hump; the condor which has the largest wingspan of any bird (about 9-10 feet) except the giant albatross; the huemul which we never saw a glimpse of but is of the deer family. We saw a falcon strutting along beside us and watched an eagle guarding its nest and taking flight. Flamingos also flocked in water holes. While we never saw a puma, we had evidence of its presence from the bones of sheep it had preyed on. 

Heading back to civilization, the sight of gauchos on horseback driving their sheep to the shearing station stopped traffic as shepherd dogs kept the wooly pack in tightly controlled groups. Our last night was spent in Punta Arenas, where we dined at one of the oldest Belle Époque mansions owned by a Latvian Jewish heiress named Sara Braun Hamburger, whose family owned most of the land. She married a scion of one of only three of the richest families in Patagonia. When her husband died at 48 of tuberculosis he left her the entire fortune.  

As Patagonia's foremost philanthropist, she donated land to the cemetery, which has beautiful ornamental mausoleums, with a stipulation that when she died, only her body would ever pass its gates. Since her death the gates have been locked and remain rusted for eternity. All lesser mortals enter through the back door. 

Tomorrow, we head for the blue ice of Antarctica.