Beards of Patagonia

February 8, 2010

I woke up, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and walked out onto the balcony. Scratching the scruff on my cheek, I took a hearty sigh. Today was the day: the day I would shave off La Barba de La Patagonia. I had mixed feelings about removing my beard; I had grown a tad attached to it. But I was entering a new phase of my trip and I felt that it was time for a change. As the intense morning sun of Buenos Aires revived my senses, I reflected back on the month that I had just spent in Patagonia.

Patagonia is enormous. The southernmost region of South America traverses Chile and Argentina and covers over 402,700 square miles. Yet it is sparsely populated, with less than 2 million people who can rightly call themselves Patagonians. I would be descending into this remote section of the planet right in time for the holidays.

Christmas in Bariloche, Argentina

After spending a few days in the pleasant tree-covered city of Mendoza, I started my explorations of Patagonia in Bariloche, the hub of Argentina's stunning lake district. I spent Christmas at a homely bed and breakfast, where the company of other friendly travelers helped dull, but not completely remove, feelings of homesickness intensified by my first ever holiday season away from family. But the heavenly beauty of Bariloche inspired me to instead focus on how fortunate that I am to be able to travel and see so much of God's great creation.

An awe-inspiring two hour bus journey from Bariloche brought me to the funky town of El Bolson. I had heard from others that the hiking here was fantastic, and it didn't take long to encounter another traveler eager to experience the outdoors. Within 24 hours of arriving to El Bolson, Leire, from San Sebastían, Spain, and I were heading off for a breathtaking but demanding four-day trek. We immediately found that over a week's worth of persistent rains had raised water levels and turned trails into mud. Although this was occasionaly frustrating for us, the vivid green forest was clearly content!

When not wading through freezing cold knee-high streams, or marching up thick mud inclines, I stopped to look up at the pristine surroundings, absolutely teeming with lush vegetation. During the entire trek, we saw nary a sign of human civilization and came across very few other hikers. But neither was camping neccessary; a network of refuges around El Bolson offer a roof, shower, and foam mattress on which to lay a sleeping bag. One refuge in particular was spectaculary situated on the foot of a magnificent lake. At "Refugio Los Laguitos", we had some memorable evening chats with the jovial innkeeper, Sergio, under candlelight in the charmingly spartan lodging.

On New Year's Eve, we woke up before dawn and were hiking by 6am. 12 hours of demanding hiking later, we arrived back to El Bolson, exhausted, but ready to celebrate the closing of 2009 with the others at our hostel. In four short days, we had walked over 46 miles with heavy loads on our back and in very challenging weather conditions. A glass of champagne had never been more well-deserved!

USA, Colombia, Argentina, and Spain bring in the New Year!

Two days later, it was time to move forward again. On the night bus from El Bolson to Puerto Madryn, I arose just in time to witness a fiery sunrise over the plains of Patagonia.

Puerto Madryn is a beach town well-known for the southern right whales that seasonally visit a nearby peninsula every year. They had already passed through when I arrived, but three hours outside of Madryn lie Punta Tumbo...a penguin colony with nearly a million penguins. This, I had to see!

The penguins are desensitized to human presence and show no fear, even if you walk up close enough to touch. Watching them awkwardly waddling on land, only to gracefully dive and dart in open water, was humbling. Pictures can't replicate the sensation of seeing it with your own eyes.

It had been over 10 days since I had last shaved, and my face felt uncomfortably scratchy. I needed a distraction for the nearly 24 hour bus journey south to El Calafate. You see, the vast majority of Argentinian Patagonia is actually quite boring, consisting of little more than flat plains of unremarkable shrubs and the occasional Guanaco (a cousin of the llama), so I had little to observe out of the window. Thankfully, another young passenger took out a guitar, out came mine, and soon the lower deck of the bus became a concert hall. A older gentleman joined in and began playing folklore.

There would be little time for music in El Calafate, because here awaited what some say is the highlight of Patagonia: the incomparable Glacier of Perito Moreno.

The Glacier extends as far as the eye can see. And every so often, a large chunk of it breaks off and puts on a show for spectators. At one point while I was marveling at the size of this wonder, I heard a thunderous crack in the distance. A gigantic piece of ice, probably the size of a ten story building, suddenly crumbled and exploded in the lake below. The spectacle sent my heart racing while people around me audibly gasped and began clapping!

The real adventure began later that day. Our tour group boarded the ferry, crossed the lake, and landed at a piece of land adjoining the ice. I strapped crampons to the bottom of my sneakers and clumsily started stomping towards our destination. Why just look at a glacier when you can walk on it?

From El Calafate it is a three hour ride to El Chaltén. This sleepy village has become a hot spot on the tourist trail due to its proximity to Cerro FitzRoy; a majestic mountain reachable on a day hike. However, gale force winds and piercing rain persuaded me to stay indoors for my first three days in El Chaltén. Thankfully, by this point I had overcome the uncomfortable "second week" phase of beard growth, and was now becoming quite intrigued by my new look. I also welcomed this downtime to spoil myself with some deliciously frigid Quilmes cerveza, accompanied by some divinely thick and juicy Bife de Chorizo. Argentina: where you can get the best sirloin steak of your life for less than $10!!!

Finally, the winds subsided and the sun shined through the clouds. Fitzroy beckoned. The pilgrimage to to the peak grew both in beauty and difficulty as the day wore on. But I will never forget the views from the top...the wait had been well worth it!

It was time to hop the border into Chile and visit a park known for some of the best trekking in the world: Torres Del Paine. I would spend four days completing the popular "W Circuit", where every day brings astonishing changes in landscape.

Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worst on the final two days of the trek. But during lulls of the storm, unique perspectives presented themselves.

My exploration of Patagonia was coming to an end. One final leg remained: crossing into the end of the world, Tierra Del Fuego, by ferry through the historic Magellan Straight. From here it was another long bus ride to the southernmost city on the planet, Ushuaia.

I rubbed my beard while sitting in the Ushuaia harbor and admired the cruise ships headed to Antartica. One day, perhaps, I might be on one of them. But not today; a planet ticket to Buenos Aires was burning a hole in my pocket. I had traveled by bus from the northern border of Argentina to its southernmost city, covering a distance of over 3000 miles. The past month had been spent amongst some of nature's great marvels. But I was ready to return to the urban world, ready to experience one of the world's most alluring cities. And perhaps, ready to look in the mirror and see the reflection of a familiar clean-shaven face.


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