Patagonia has mountains on such an epic scale that it is reminiscent of Switzerland on crack. It has its own Swiss, Welsh and German communities to prove it.
The first thing to know about Patagonia is that it is huge – 260,000 square miles and sparsely inhabited. Due to the adverse and seemingly unpredictable weather conditions, only 5% of Argentina’s population live there.
The name is actually Spanish and ‘patagones’ means ‘big feet’ as colonisers thought that giants lived there. Clearly, their imaginations were rather overactive after so much time at sea.
There were dinosaurs that roamed the land once upon a time and excitingly, it was home to Argentinosaurus huinculensis or the Argentine lizard. It wasn’t the most successful dinosaur as it was recorded as the heaviest land mammal ever at 80 tonnes so it couldn’t run or get up hills. It laid eggs the size of rugby balls and there are queries as to how something so massive ever managed to actually mate.
My absolute favourite fact is that there are nearly as many penguins as people in Patagonia. The population of the region is 2 million and there are 1.7 million Magellanic penguins living there.
San Carlos de Bariloche
Bariloche was our first point of call in Patagonia. A pleasant place in a beautiful setting, very much set up for rich Argentine ski-lovers. Less set up for skint backpackers.
We fancied some walking in the mountains so we got several buses and walked around the mountainside in order to see some of the European colonies. I remember we found a mountain graveyard which wasn’t quite what we were looking for.
After all this poorly-planned trekking, we were starving and found our way to a hotel where we accepted a four-course meal, having absolutely no idea what it was.
We ate loads of bread to begin, then soup, then spaghetti bolognese, then steak and then a pudding. It was an exhaustive experience and Steph kept trying to force her steak on me as she is really funny about meat. Stuffed to the brim, we found the Swiss colony and it was very pleasant. How we managed to walk after all that food I do not know.
The founding members of Colonia Suiza (the Swiss colony) had originally settled in Central Chile after crossing the Atlantic but then headed to Argentina to work the land. Patagonia is so similar to Switzerland that the settlers felt at home in its icy green beauty.
The Swiss really made the land work for them and they set up a sawmill, grew various fruits such as apples, pears, plums, cherries and peaches and set up a trout farm. In true Swiss style, they also milked goats and used them to make various dairy produce.
The family also introduced the Chilean art of curanto to Argentina. This traditional meal preparation involves digging a hole, filling it with hot stones, covering them with leaves and then filling the hole with different meats and vegetables and covering the top with wet cloths. This makes the meat very tender and et voila you have a meal for the whole family.
The settlement has lots of wooden sheds that sold different fruits, wooden crafts and many of the things that you would expect to find at a farmers market. It was a highly productive area and yet seemingly relaxed at the same time which is the ideal way for a community to live and prosper. Maybe there’s something in the mountain air that makes food grow and people happy.
There was definitely something in the air when we visited a lovely place called El Bolson, a village in Patagonia beloved by hippies and blessed with its own microclimate – strawberry anyone? We stayed with a lovely couple who’d opened a hostel and all the guests had a steak dinner with them that night. Classic Argentina.
Steph and I had yet another ‘lost in translation’ moment where we bought some beers from the supermarket and paid a deposit for the bottles after much gesturing. However, when we returned them they didn’t give us our deposit back. As we didn’t understand what we needed to do we just abandoned the whole thing, we were very bad backpackers.
The El Bolsonites were so nice that it made me wonder if microclimates correlate with people’s loveliness? I like to think so. There wasn’t anything particularly to see or do here, it was just nice. Steph and I went for a walk along the river, which was such a wholesome activity compared with some of the partying we did in Buenos Aires.
There was an Australian couple who were there for a week and I have no idea what they filled their time with, although they did apparently go fishing one day.
After this enjoyable interlude, it was time to visit Esquel for a night as we journeyed down the country.
Esquel and Trevelin
We stayed in a fairly uninteresting place called Esquel. We used this as a jumping off point for the Welsh mountain town of Trevelin. It was named after ‘Trefelin’ which means ‘mill town’ as a flour mill was established here in the late 1800s.
In this Welsh town, we went for afternoon tea in a cafe. The cafe had a massive teapot outside just in case you should miss it. We had eaten pizza for lunch so it was a struggle as there was so much cake but somehow, we managed.
We had another wholesome day as again, there wasn’t much to do. We went to the park and fed some horses that we found. There was a church inside a field and a friendly local got the key and let us in for a look around. Trevelin was the quietest place we went in the whole trip as we barely saw a soul all day.
It was at the bus station in Esquel that I started questioning those little bong things that everyone carries around with them – what were they? It was of course mate, the national drink obsession of Argentina and Uruguay.
Mate is a bitter tasting tea drank in metal cups with connected straws and filled up with a flask of hot water that is carried around in a metal holder. It is a social thing as people pass them around. It is a wonderful part of Latino culture and better for you than sharing cigarettes or alcohol.
El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier
This was one of the parts of the trip that I was most excited about. We were headed for the Perito Moreno glacier and staying in the nearby town of El Calafate which is the jumping off point.
El Calafate is a fairly innocuous place itself but it is very petite and we met lots of backpackers in our hostel including the Australian couple from El Bolson who weren’t anywhere near as annoying as we thought they were when we first met.
We all enjoyed some card games together and we were joined by a young Canadian guy who we started chatting to about travelling goals. I told him that I really wanted to travel around Africa because quote I love Africa unquote. This was a bold statement and he absolutely ripped me for it.
He was correct that ‘I love Africa’ is quite a reductive statement when I had only visited one African country at this time. Especially as Africa is so oft referred to as if it were a country and not a continent. He was right to rip me. I would still love to visit the many countries of Africa.
The next day we went on our glacier trip and it did not let me down. It was definitely a highlight of South America for me. It is great when you drive up to it and you stop atop the hill and look down on it. The ice is like a barricade across the bottleneck of the lake.
We went on a boat up to this end of the glacier but it was so cold that I sort of wished we hadn’t – good for photographs though. I would have been less inclined to go had a known that in the 90s over 30 people were killed by falling shards of ice.
This chunk of ice which is the three-mile-wide star attraction of Los Glaciares National Park, it is fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field from the Andes which holds the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. The glacier calves noisily and regularly which is a very exciting spectacle for the tourists stood on the platforms next to it.
It is beautifully blue with brutally ragged edges and when you are next to it, the ice seems slightly ethereal and unreal. Every 4-5 years it ruptures due to the build-up of pressure on the ice from the water that is effectively ‘dammed’ by the presence of the glacier.
The PM glacier is an anomaly in many ways as it is one of two South American glaciers that is actually growing along with Pio Xl in Chile. A scientific hypothesis for this phenomenon in a time of climate change is that the equilibrium line of the glacier is roughly on a par with the snow line, so the ice below is melting and the ice above is gaining due to snow.
Another potential reason is that as the lake is shallower than many other glacial lakes, there is less of the ice in the water to lose and its height means that it is able to gain more from snow. The conclusion put forward for the growth of the Pio Xl is a possible glacial surge but there really is no answer from scientists as yet.
The glacier was named after Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno and ‘perito’ means ‘expert’ or ‘specialist’ which is how he was affectionately known. He was so revered because he explored the Rio Negro area, Patagonia’s rivers and ‘discovered’ Mount Fitz Roy (Chalten to the locals who had previously noticed the mountain’s existence).
He was also very popular because his surveys contributed to the boundary arguments between Argentina and Chile. Other achievements included being a founder of the Argentine Scientific Society and founding the La Plata Museum of Natural History.