Patagonia! - Michael Burke


February 19, 2017

Allow me to state the obvious up front — Patagonia is a place of astonishing beauty, with snow-capped mountains, glaciers, rivers and lakes. For those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, the sights are familiar but decidedly more dramatic.

The Torres del Paine (pronounced pie-nay) massif is a spectacular collection of peaks that stand separate from the Andes Mountains further to the west. They rise up out of the earth in sharp peaks (cerros) and towers (torres) resembling spears of the gods. And because of their prominence and isolation, they are readily visible from all directions, with each part of the park presenting a uniquely captivating view.

One thing that will forever characterize Patagonia in our minds is the wind. Especially in summer, it sculpts clouds into fanciful layers and permanently deforms trees as if they had been pruned by a demented arborist with a leaf blower. On the windiest day, we struggled against 40-plus mile/hour winds to remain upright as we traversed a half-mile sand spit to reach a boat taking us to the Grey Glacier. Meanwhile, another group from our camp was hiking to an exposed viewpoint, where they had to lie on the ground to withstand 60-plus mile/hour winds buffeting them. 

During a week-long visit to Patagonia Sherry and I had a chance to visit Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina and Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Every day we hiked, took a boat ride to a trailhead or bused to a remote location to access the incredible sights that define this part of South America.

Glaciers are as much a part of Patagonia as its mountains and winds. Outside of the Polar Regions, the Southern Patagonia Ice Field is the second largest in the world, with glaciers that are particularly accessible. The massive Perito Moreno glacier, our first stop in Patagonia, is 240 feet tall at its face, occasionally cracking and booming as pieces calved off into the water during our visit. We also visited the Grey Glacier, only 90 feet tall but calving icebergs of mesmerizing shapes and colors.

The Three Towers are an iconic part of the Torres del Paine massif and are generally considered the centerpiece of the national park. No less impressive are The Horns (Los Cuernos), a different set of three peaks with dramatic dark caps of sedimentary rock overlaying lighter granite below. In total, there are twenty-four named peaks in the park.

As fascinating as the majestic scenery were the animals and birds that inhabit the park. Around every turn in the winding roads (and often in the middle of the road!), we encountered guanacos, a relative of the llama. Unlike llamas and alpacas, guanacos will not mate in captivity; therefore, they run wild over this part of the continent. Rheas, large, flightless birds related to the ostrich, were also in abundance.

Our visit to Patagonia ended in Punta Arenas, a Chilean port city that was our jumping off point for Antarctica. Stay tuned for images from the most remote continent in the near future.

To view all of the images from our visit to Patagonia, click here.

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