Patagonia: Wild, rugged nature via urban gateways

by Betsy Herbert

To venture into the wild, rugged, beautiful and remote Patagonia (the southern tip of South America), most travelers start out from either Santiago, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Typical travel photos of Santiago are taken on those rare clear days when deep blue skies contrast sharply with snow-capped peaks of the Andes. But most likely, what you'll find when you arrive in Santiago is smog so thick that those glorious Andes fade out from view in a yellow blur.

I approached Patagonia from Easter Island, 2,400 miles off Chile's Pacific coast. My flight was delayed twice for mechanical reasons. So I arrived in Santiago, the capital city of Chile, three hours late on January 28.

Santiago, with a population of about 7 million, is nestled between the Andes and the Pacific coast. The Andes do a great job of trapping all that air pollution to form a blanket over the city,

In 2010, the World Health Organization ranked Santiago as the third most air-polluted city on the planet after Beijing and New Delhi. According to a 2014 study in the journal Environmental Pollution, Santiago has one of “the most serious air pollution problems in the world." It's at its worst in the winter when people use wood-fired heat.

Santiago, Chile on a smoggy day in 2005, very much how it looked during my visit at the end of January 2016. Santiago has one of the worst air pollution problems in the world. [Photo 2005 courtesy wikicommons; CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=428144

Santiago, Chile on a smoggy day in 2005, very much how it looked during my visit at the end of January 2016. Santiago has one of the worst air pollution problems in the world. [Photo 2005 courtesy wikicommons; CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=428144

I was only in Santiago for a few days, trying to catch up on my writing before embarking on a tour of Buenos Aires and Patagonia. Though I had planned to visit a winery (Chilean wines are superb) just outside the city, it was so smoggy that I decided to stay in my hotel room. Lucky for me, there was a great restaurant called Liguria two blocks away from my hotel, where I sampled great Chilean wines and took most of my meals.

Buenos Aires.

I flew to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina on January 31 to join a 2 1/2 week tour of Patagonia. "Buenos Aires" means "Good Air" in English. Compared to Santiago, Chile the air quality in Buenos Aires seemed great.

When I checked the numbers, the World Health Organization describes Buenos Aires as having "moderate" air pollution (58 on a scale of 100), compared to Santiago's "very high" pollution ( 88 on a scale of 100).

My tour started out with some sight-seeing at the high-profile Recoleta Cemetery, which occupies prime real estate in Buenos Aires, housing memorials to some of most famous people in Argentine history, including Eva Peron, who was first lady of Argentina when in 1952 she died of cancer at age 33.

Eva Duarte was raised in poverty, but this beautiful and talented woman became a successful radio personality and actress. When she met Juan Peron, he was a rising political star. She married him in 1945 shortly before he became president of Argentina.

As first lady, she was beloved by many of the people of Argentina because of her outspoken support for women's rights and the poor; she was also hated by others who didn't share her views. The American musical "Evita" was based on her life. Below are photos of her memorial:

Our guide explains the significance of this memorial to Eva Peron.

Our guide explains the significance of this memorial to Eva Peron.

The marker on Eva Peron's tomb in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

The marker on Eva Peron's tomb in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

Time for some fun! I loved visiting the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires, an artist's haven where the Argentine tango was born. I strolled through its colorful streets, taking a few photos:

One of many murals on the streets of the La Boca District in Buenos Aires.

One of many murals on the streets of the La Boca District in Buenos Aires.

La Dorita Cafe in the La Boca district where this charming proprietor served wonderful pastries and coffee.

La Dorita Cafe in the La Boca district where this charming proprietor served wonderful pastries and coffee.

The buildings in the La Boca District are colorfully engaging.

The buildings in the La Boca District are colorfully engaging.

And there's more... next a visit to the Plaza de Mayo, the site of Argentina's presidential residence, the Casa Rosada (Pink House), and the heart of Buenos Aires' political life. The plaza is a buzzing center of outspoken politicos with petitions, tables and banners.

Someone has painted a message on the chain link fence surrounding the Casa Rosada (Pink House) : "Nunca mas familias en las calles," meaning "No more families in the streets," apparently criticizing homelessness in the city.

Someone has painted a message on the chain link fence surrounding the Casa Rosada (Pink House) : "Nunca mas familias en las calles," meaning "No more families in the streets," apparently criticizing homelessness in the city.

Los Desaparecidos. In 1976, after a military coup, a right-wing dictatorship took control of Argentina and began a full-scale terrorist campaign to secretly kidnap, detain, torture and kill many thousands of citizens. The families of the victims famously called their missing loved ones "Los Desaparecidos," or the "the Disappeared."

The activist group called "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo", formed by mothers of these victims, started demonstrating in Plaza del Mayo while the junta was still in power, demanding to know where their loved ones were. The group, who wore white kerchiefs, demonstrated everyday at the same time, 3:30 p.m. Several of them, including their founder, Azucena Villaflor de Vicenti, became Desparacidos themselves as a result.

In 1983, after democracy was restored in Argentina, the National Commission on the Disappeared was chartered to investigate the fates of Los Desaparecidos during the junta rule. After a lengthy investigation, the commission delivered a 50,000 page report detailing the widespread extent and hideous nature of the abuses, which included abduction, detention, torture and execution of people from all walks of society without any sort of due process. A summary was published in 1984. Some 8,000 Desaparacidos are still unaccounted for, so the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continue demonstrate and demand justice. The white kerchief has become an icon of the continuing quest for justice for the families of the Desaparecidos.

The white kerchief, a symbol of justice for the thousands of missing citizens or "Desaparecidos"  still unaccounted for. The white kerchief symbol is found throughout public places in Argentina.

The white kerchief, a symbol of justice for the thousands of missing citizens or "Desaparecidos"  still unaccounted for. The white kerchief symbol is found throughout public places in Argentina.

On a lighter note, we visited another iconic place in Buenos Aires, the Gran Cafe Tortoni, probably the most famous cafe in the city. It is known as a historical gathering place of artists and intellectuals.  We had lunch there and I engaged in a fantastic conversation:

My fantasy conversation with poet Jorge Luis Borges, tango legend Carlos Gardel and poet Alfonsina Storni at the Gran Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires. (They are actually wax figures memorializing these great figures who used to hang out at the cafe.

My fantasy conversation with poet Jorge Luis Borges, tango legend Carlos Gardel and poet Alfonsina Storni at the Gran Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires. (They are actually wax figures memorializing these great figures who used to hang out at the cafe.

I took this photo of my tango dance instructors, who gave me my first lesson in the back rooms of the Gran Tortoni Cafe. I'm hooked!

I took this photo of my tango dance instructors, who gave me my first lesson in the back rooms of the Gran Tortoni Cafe. I'm hooked!

Street art is common in Buenos Aires and often has a political message.

Street art is common in Buenos Aires and often has a political message.

Patagonia/Argentina

We would next begin our tour of Patagonia, a region of South America that encompasses the southern parts of both Chile and Argentina. We flew east to Bariloche in western Argentina.

Bariloche (San Carlos de Bariloche). Nestled in the foothills of the Argentine Andes, Bariloche is located at the edge of Lake Nahuel Huapi. The city is the gateway to Patagonia's Lake District. When you arrive in Bariloche, you might think you're in Switzerland. The city has a large Swiss and German population, and much of its architecture resembles Swiss chalets. Many Europeans came to this region in the 1930s because of its resemblance to the skiing areas of Europe.

Some of Bariloche's most infamous German immigrants were Nazis, who came here to escape prosecution for WW2 war crimes. In 1995, Bariloche was exposed in the international press as a haven for Nazi war criminals, such as the former SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke.

Priebke had served as the director of the German School of Bariloche for many years. U.S. journalist Sam Donaldson famously tracked down and interviewed Priebke in Bariloche. Priebke had mistakenly thought that after 50 years, he would be safe from extradition, but that did not prove to be the case. He was extradited to Italy where in 1996 he was convicted of war crimes.

Roses grow everywhere in Bariloche, which is also known for its chocolate, its ski resorts, and for its past harboring of at least one Nazi war criminal, Erich Priebke.

Roses grow everywhere in Bariloche, which is also known for its chocolate, its ski resorts, and for its past harboring of at least one Nazi war criminal, Erich Priebke.

While one should be aware of Bariloche's bad and ugly side, one also needs to experience its good and beautiful side. And we did when we took the chairlift to Cerro Campanario for a spectacular view of the peaks and lakes.

At the top of Cerro Campanario, with views of Patagonia's Lake District. There's a cafe at the top where you can enjoy a ChoCognac, which warms you up in this cool climate.

At the top of Cerro Campanario, with views of Patagonia's Lake District. There's a cafe at the top where you can enjoy a ChoCognac, which warms you up in this cool climate.

After our descent from Cerro Campanario, we returned to the hotel to hear a lecture by an articulate spokesperson of the Mapuche, an indigenous, agricultural people in southern Chile and Argentina. The ongoing struggles of the Mapuche people are reminiscent of those of many native American tribes in North America. A primary issue is the dispute over title to the Mapuche's ancestral lands, which are currently owned by large timber and farming companies.

Next, we departed for the Limay River, where we took a raft trip for a close look at the landscapes of the northern Patagonian steppe. The Limay River is know for its large rainbow and brown trout; we saw several fly-fishers from our raft.

One of our hardworking river guides on the raft trip down the Limay River, which flows through the Patagonian steppe.

One of our hardworking river guides on the raft trip down the Limay River, which flows through the Patagonian steppe.

Enjoying a relatively calm raft trip down the beautifully clear Limay River.

Enjoying a relatively calm raft trip down the beautifully clear Limay River.

This is me enjoying the company of our two river guides after we landed alongside the Limay River. Behind us you can see some poplar trees, which are not native to Chile, but were planted by ranchers to supply much-needed shade.

This is me enjoying the company of our two river guides after we landed alongside the Limay River. Behind us you can see some poplar trees, which are not native to Chile, but were planted by ranchers to supply much-needed shade.

Just outside Bariloche, we visited a small craft beer brewery, and then hoisted a few for the road. Glad we had a designated driver!

Local craft beer brewer explains how he makes beer using the region's outstanding water and locally grown hops.

Local craft beer brewer explains how he makes beer using the region's outstanding water and locally grown hops.

Later, we visited a family who owned a ranch on the Patagonian steppe, where we went horseback riding to explore the property.

Horseback riding on the Patagonian steppe.

Horseback riding on the Patagonian steppe.

Patagonia/Chile.

Our next destination in Patagonia was Puerto Veras, Chile, where we would visit the active Osorno Volcano. We took a long, windy bus ride through a pass in the Andes to get to Puerto Veras, a lovely lakeside city near the volcano.

The Osorno Volcano is a glacial-topped, conical stratovolcano that rises 8,701 ft above Llanquehue Lake in Chile's Los Lagos region in Patagonia. Osorno is one of the most active volcanoes of the southern Chilean Andes. Eleven eruptions have been recorded between 1575 and 1869. Osorno is located inside Chile's Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park.

Osorno Volcano at the left, partly obstructed by clouds, in Chile's southern Andes. On the right are members of my tour group.

Osorno Volcano at the left, partly obstructed by clouds, in Chile's southern Andes. On the right are members of my tour group.

Me feeling lucky to have such a great view of Osorno. The clouds have partially cleared around Osorno's top.

Me feeling lucky to have such a great view of Osorno. The clouds have partially cleared around Osorno's top.

After being blown away (figuratively speaking!) by Osorno, we departed for a nearby island to to have lunch with a couple who had lived within Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park before it became a park. So, they were grandfathered in and they made their living by running a small campground.

This is the small private campground where we had lunch in Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park . Our Chilean hosts had lived here since before the designation of the park. Note the clear view of Osorno in the background.

This is the small private campground where we had lunch in Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park . Our Chilean hosts had lived here since before the designation of the park. Note the clear view of Osorno in the background.

Our Chilean lunch hosts on their campground inside Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park .

Our Chilean lunch hosts on their campground inside Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park .

Chiloe Island.

From Puerta Veras, we next took a 20 minute ferry to Chiloe Island. From there we visited Achao, the site of 17th century historic wooden churches. Some of the architectural details of these churches reveal that they were built by carpenters who had worked as ship-builders. Achao carpenters also specialized in making wood shingles of interesting shapes, which cover many of the old houses in the city.

An historic wooden church in Achao, Chiloe Island in Chile. The church was constructed by carpenters who were previously shipbuilders.

An historic wooden church in Achao, Chiloe Island in Chile. The church was constructed by carpenters who were previously shipbuilders.

Many of the old houses in Achao on Chiloe Island have wood shingles, in an abundant variety of shapes, such as in the house pictured above.

Many of the old houses in Achao on Chiloe Island have wood shingles, in an abundant variety of shapes, such as in the house pictured above.

Chiloe Island has a thriving market, with vendors selling produce, fresh fish, and crafts.

Chiloe Island has a thriving market, with vendors selling produce, fresh fish, and crafts.

This bag of potatoes at one of the vendor stalls in Chiloe's produce market shows the astounding variety of spuds found in Chile.

This bag of potatoes at one of the vendor stalls in Chiloe's produce market shows the astounding variety of spuds found in Chile.

From Chiloe Island, we drove a short distance to the Puñihuil Wildlife Sanctuary, where we would take a guided boat tour around the protected islands where penguins live and breed.

The gateway and boat-launch to view the protected islands of Puñihuil Wildlife Sanctuary on Chiloe Island, Chile.

The gateway and boat-launch to view the protected islands of Puñihuil Wildlife Sanctuary on Chiloe Island, Chile.

Two species of penguins reside at Puñihuil; the Humboldt penguins and the Magellanic penguins. We observed both species on our boat tour. They can be distinguished only by the markings on their chests.

Resident penguins in the Puñihuil Wildlife Sanctuary off the coast of Chiloe Island, Chile.

Resident penguins in the Puñihuil Wildlife Sanctuary off the coast of Chiloe Island, Chile.

Punta Arenas

From Chiloe Island, we took a ferry back to the mainland then caught a flight way down south to Punta Arenas, a busy port overlooking the Straits of Magellan. Punta Arenas has to be the windiest place in Patagonia. The wind was blowing 50 mph when we landed. When we got off the plane I was glad to be weighted down with a heavy back-pack; otherwise, I think I would have been blown off the tarmac! Some chains of passengers disembarked arm-in-arm, as if they were fiording a river.

On our way into town, we stopped to view a life-size replica of one of Magellan's ships at Nao Victoria Museum. Alongside was a replica of the HMS Beagle, Captain Fitzroy's ship that Charles Darwin sailed on during his famous journey to the Galapagos Islands and around the Straits of Magellan.

Replica of one of Magellan's ships, outside of Punta Arenas, overlooking the Straits of Magellan.

Replica of one of Magellan's ships, outside of Punta Arenas, overlooking the Straits of Magellan.

Replica of the HMS Beagle, which carried Darwin to the Galapagos Islands and around

Replica of the HMS Beagle, which carried Darwin to the Galapagos Islands and around

Me in the photo for scale.

Me in the photo for scale.

View from my hotel window in Punta Arenas, looking out at the Straits of Magellan, Chile, Patagonia.

View from my hotel window in Punta Arenas, looking out at the Straits of Magellan, Chile, Patagonia.

Torres del Paine National Park.

Torres del Paine National Park is one of the most remote and beautiful places on Earth.

Wild guanacos, which are related to llamas, are native to Patagonia. Here they are grazing on a hillside in front of the snow-capped peaks of Torres de Paine National Park.

Wild guanacos, which are related to llamas, are native to Patagonia. Here they are grazing on a hillside in front of the snow-capped peaks of Torres de Paine National Park.

In the foreground is a rhea, a large ostrich-like bird native to Patagonia.

In the foreground is a rhea, a large ostrich-like bird native to Patagonia.

View from the van as we drive through Torres de Paine National Park on the way to the hotel.

View from the van as we drive through Torres de Paine National Park on the way to the hotel.

View of the peaks at sunset from the hotel in Torres de Paine National Park.

View of the peaks at sunset from the hotel in Torres de Paine National Park.

Approaching the Salto Grande waterfall in Torres del Paine National Park.

Approaching the Salto Grande waterfall in Torres del Paine National Park.

Salto Grande falls in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

My fellow hikers in guanaco country in Torres del Paine National Park

My fellow hikers in guanaco country in Torres del Paine National Park

Near the end of the hike, we had a view of these rugged grasslands and an Alpine lake with peaks looming behind in Torees del Paine National Park.

Near the end of the hike, we had a view of these rugged grasslands and an Alpine lake with peaks looming behind in Torees del Paine National Park.

Our hike's destination was these ancient petroglyphs or rock art, which were painted on these sedimentary cliffs thousands of years ago.

Our hike's destination was these ancient petroglyphs or rock art, which were painted on these sedimentary cliffs thousands of years ago.

Patagonia/Argentina again!

It was time to leave Chile and head east to Calafate, Argentina to visit Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. A few thousand years ago, glaciers covered the entire area of today's park. They advanced like gargantuan Caterpillars, grinding and shaping the rocky landscape and carving out huge, steep-sided valleys. As the glaciers moved, they pushed this eroded material in front of them at their snouts.

After arriving in the park on February 13, 2016 we took a boat ride up close to the world famous Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the few glaciers in Patagonia that is still growing in the midst of global warming.

Approaching the Perito Moreno Glacier. Its front is 5 kilometers long, and it rises 60 meters (the height of a 20 story building) above the water.

Approaching the Perito Moreno Glacier. Its front is 5 kilometers long, and it rises 60 meters (the height of a 20 story building) above the water.

Taking a boat to get closer to the glacier...

Taking a boat to get closer to the glacier...

This is about as close as we got, because the glacier was calving. . .and a major collapse was expected at any time.

This is about as close as we got, because the glacier was calving. . .and a major collapse was expected at any time.

Looking down at the front of the Perito Moreno Glacier, you can see how massive it is and how far back it goes.

Looking down at the front of the Perito Moreno Glacier, you can see how massive it is and how far back it goes.

This is where the front of the glacier attaches to a rock face, forming a dam that periodically collapses when the weight of the water overcomes the ice.

This is where the front of the glacier attaches to a rock face, forming a dam that periodically collapses when the weight of the water overcomes the ice.

On March 10, 2016, just three weeks after I visited the glacier, this section did collapse. The dam burst and the water on the other side rushed through. See a video below:

Chunks of Argentina's Perito Moreno glacier collapse on Thursday as large chunks of ice break off and crash into the water. The Patagonian glacier known as the "White Giant" is one of Argentina's biggest attractions.

After this gran finale of our Patagonia trip, our group flew back to Buenos Aires from Calafate, but we had to make a stop first at Ushuia, at the very tip of Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, and where most people stop before going to Antarctica.

After relaxing for a few days in Buenos Aires,  it was time to get ready for my next adventure in the Galapagos Islands,  Ecuador!