The Magazine

Homage to Patagonia

High adventure at the bottom of the world.

Jan 25, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 18 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Mountain guides, park rangers, credentialed photographers at viewpoints—all have great hair, cool shades, sharp uniforms. They are, Anne says, “gorgeous”—Ché without the murderous sociopath business—whereas the male norm in our group is nerd. Nerds lengthily discuss timber and mining potentialities; optimal siting of electrical generating equipment; durability and maintainability of various road surfaces; water seepage through moraine and earth dams.

The Cuernos del Paine overlook our first camp in Chile, a stunning sculptural group of mountains that’s like an assemblage of colossal chessmen. We plan on the “W” route up and back three valleys to (weather permitting) spectacular views of mountains and the Patagonian ice cap.  One leg ascends a steep moraine to the base of the Towers of Paine (pronounced “PAH-ee-nay,” though “Towers of Pain” doesn’t seem inappropriate), thousand‑meter blades of vertical granite. The central tower was not climbed until 1963. We’ve packed in bottles of Argentinean wine and hold a cocktail hour beside the tents, Dana pouring the malbec into our canteens.

It takes 500 miles, not all of them paved, and another double border-crossing to reach Ushuaia. We see condor (10-foot wing span), caracara (a mere four feet), rhea (New World ostrich), ibis, flamingo, and guanaco (related to llamas but, we’re told, good for nothing). Signs warn of land mines—the Argentina/Chile border has been fraught—but we see no direct evidence, such as exploding guanaco, of their presence. The proprietress of a roadhouse shows us her pet condor; blind in one eye, it bobs and weaves to take us in, ignoring the cat tearing strips off its dinner, a sheep’s head past its prime. Heaps of bottled water are shrines to an unofficial local saint, Deolinda Correa. She died of thirst in the desert, the story goes, but her infant son was found alive, days later, miraculously nursing at her breast.

After the hypnotic hours of semi-desert, a pageant of magical names and half-remembered history unfolds: Straits of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego (passing from steppe to wetter, greener mountains), the Gari-
baldi Pass, the Beagle Channel—where Ushuaia, ringed by snowy mountains, sits on a bay—and over the horizon, beyond the island cluster that defines Cape Horn, the Drake Passage.

For a few hours we cruise the Beagle Channel. The water, surprisingly, is calm, the sky sunny, and Mount Darwin, normally hidden by clouds, in full view. A camera pulling back would disclose our small knot of tourists standing on a hill, that sits on an island, that lies in a channel, that has a different ocean at each end—and would stop, having reached an unobstructed view of the end of the world.

David Guaspari is a writer in Ithaca.

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