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Big Foot Country
by Lori Rackl
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 6.1

Where nature kicks your fleecy foreign ass, and you ask for more

images by Lori Rackl, additional images supplied by Southwind Adventures (http://www.southwindadventures.com)

It’s not easy to get to. And it’s not easy to get around once you’re there. At least if it were “Survivor: Patagonia,” you could claim you did it for the money.

One foot in front of the other. Baby steps. You’re almost there, almost to the top.

This admittedly tepid pep talk had been looping through my brain for at least an hour as I trudged up a steep, seemingly endless section of that day’s hike.

I’d traveled to the other end of the world to be here, in Patagonia, and I wasn’t about to hang up my hiking boots just because my quads wanted to call it quits. But I was tired, hungry and sick of swatting away the horseflies that had a hankering for my sunburned flesh.

One foot in front of the other. Baby steps. You’re almost there, almost to the top.

Ten hours later - okay, it was only 10 minutes... but it felt like 10 hours - I finally was there, at the top. I stood on the ridge, staring slackjawed at a milky turquoise lake. A pristine white glacier cascaded down to the water’s edge, like a giant tongue lapping at the impossibly blue liquid. Through a gap in the slow-moving parade of clouds, massive Mount Fitz Roy unveiled its granite face. An Andean condor gracefully glided overhead. I forgot all about my aching feet and rumbling stomach. It might’ve been a literal pain in the butt to get here, but what a visual payoff.

The same can be said of Patagonia itself. A massive triangle of land tucked way down in the south of South America, Patagonia isn’t a quick, last-minute getaway. It’s a Destination. It feels like the End Of The World, mostly because it is. It took my husband and me two plane rides and a long, bumpy van ride just to make it to the hotel.

This remote, sparsely populated region shared by Argentina and Chile doesn’t always make it easy on visitors. It has no qualms about battering guests with 60 mph winds or unleashing a snowstorm in the middle of summer. (Shove that up your guidebook, foreigner!) The weather has more whims than a Hollywood diva, the roads can be rough, and the hikes can be hard. But like a savvy seductress, Patagonia knows just how far she can push without driving you away. And she knows how to leave you wanting more.

THE WINDY CITY

Everything about Patagonia is big: the mountains, the lakes, the glaciers and the land itself, a sprawling 350,000 square miles - more than six times the size of Illinois. Even the name Patagonia purportedly stems from the natives’ big feet (pata meaning “foot” in Spanish).

Given Patagonia’s girth, it’d take months to thoroughly explore this diverse slice of the southern hemisphere. So we narrowed our focus and signed up for the 16-day “Paine & Fitz Roy Trek” with World Expeditions. The Australian-based tour operator runs its guided hiking trip during austral summer, from late November through February.

The tour is like a greatest-hits compilation (think the Stones, not Spears), covering some of the most renowned Patagonian highlights on both the Argentine and Chilean sides. It includes the stunning Perito Moreno glacier, one of the few remnants of the Ice Age that isn’t retreating; imposing Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounding snow-capped peaks (a massif immortalized on the clothing company Patagonia Inc.’s label); and the popular Torres del Paine National Park, site of some of the most classic treks in the world.

Armed with backpacks bursting with colorful fleece and woolen hiking socks, our group of nine flew from Buenos Aires to the touristy Patagonian town of El Calafate. Our Argentine guide, Gustavo, promptly herded us on a bus for the slow, six-hour drive north to El Chalten, a trekking mecca.

This tiny outpost of 200 residents survives largely on the hikers and climbers who make the long, bumpy journey over a potholed gravel road. They use Chalten as a base camp of sorts for journeys into the surrounding mountains, such as Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, giant slabs of granite shooting almost 11,000 feet into the sky.

Chalten is a charming, rustic place - a bizarre blend of the Alps and the Wild West. Youth hostels, pizzerias and cozy lodges line the dusty dirt roads. A bright blue can of Quilmes beer costs less than a bottle of water, and an hour-long massage will set you back all of $10. A church monument bears the names of climbers who died trying to summit the nearby peaks. (Hey, at least you’ll be immortalized somewhere.) An intimate, family-run inn served as our home here for the next four days.

Our first hike - a 12-mile roundtrip journey - started out easy enough. With fresh legs and virgin heels, we gamboled over gently rolling terrain, past the ubiquitous lenga trees sprouting their waxy green leaves. The summer sun soon had us shedding our fleece and slathering on SPF 30.

Gustavo warned we might encounter some wind when we reached that day’s destination, Lake Torre. Maybe “wind” is the Spanish word for hurricane, because that’s what it felt like. A particularly violent gust ripped my baseball cap off and sent it flying like a Sammy Sosa homer. My husband and I scurried for shelter behind some rocks and crouched, munching trail mix like a pair of squirrels. This was Patagonia’s way of telling us not to get too comfortable - foreigners!

And again the weather changed. A half-hour later we were the picture of serenity, eating a simple lunch of sandwiches on the banks of an ice blue river. The sun came back, and the lenga trees’ little leaves were as motionless as a still-life painting.

ICE COLD DRINKS

After three days of similarly breathtaking hikes, we had one more stop in Argentina before crossing the border into Chile. And it was a doozy: Perito Moreno glacier.

While most other glaciers in the world are busy receding, Perito Moreno, until recently, had been growing. Now, it’s holding stable - not an easy feat in an era of global warming.

Nearly three miles wide and rising 200 feet above the surface of Lake Argentino, this mammoth mass of packed snow and ice covers as much ground as the entire city of Buenos Aires. Crowds of admirers come from El Calafate to view this awesome spectacle, waiting patiently for a chunk of ice to calve off the glacier and plummet into the aquamarine lake with a thunderous splash.

Our group wanted to get up close and personal with Perito, so we boarded a boat, strapped some spiky crampons to the bottom of our boots and hopped on.

Sinking their metal teeth into the icy surface of the glacier, the crampons held us steady as we peered down dizzying crevasses, blue as robin’s eggs. We greedily drank from the glacier’s streams, laughing at how much a bottle of this stuff would cost back home in Chicago. Before we abandoned our footgear and headed back to El Calafate, our glacier guides poured us a farewell drink from a makeshift bar set up on the ice. Tumblers in hand, we savored those last quiet moments on that surreal landscape. Whiskey on the rocks like never before.

SUMMER CAMP FOR ADULTS

An other long van ride separated us from Chile. But the prize waiting on the other side of the rugged border was Chile’s spectacular Torres del Paine National Park.

Hikers flock here to do one of two classic treks: the Paine Circuit or the so-called “W.” Both meander around the Paine (pronounced Pie-nay) mountain range, through alpine forests and along glaciers, rivers and formidable rock formations jutting to the heavens.

Our group was to do the W trek, a five-day hike between rustic mountain huts called refugios, where we would spend the night. Think summer camp: bunk beds, eight or nine to a room, communal meals, shared bathrooms. (Thankfully, no singing.) Strong-backed porters would schlep our backpacks between refugios; all we had to do was schlep ourselves.

Getting to Torres del Paine park was, of course, not simple. From the Chilean town of Puerto Natales, we boarded a boat that snaked through emerald fjords and past colonies of seals and cormorants. A smaller boat took us to our lunch spot, where an even smaller boat then raced us up the river. Then we got on a bus that took us to... another boat. As we sailed the home stretch to our first refugio, our solemn faces betrayed what we were all thinking: this park had better be good.

Over the next five days, we basically hiked a giant W, past thundering waterfalls, glacier-fed lakes and mountains looking like huge hunks of chocolate dusted with powdered sugar. Tree branches dripped with lichen (aptly named Old Man’s Beard), an abundance of which means the air quality is pristine, boasted our Chilean guide, Juan.

We watched the bright red heads of Magellanic woodpeckers hammer away at tree trunks. And we scrambled up countless boulders to the base of the famed trio of towers, or torres, that give the park its name. The clouds, as they’re wont to do, refused to cooperate and only gave us a partial glimpse of the granite spires. Even with our obstructed view seats, the spectacle was worth the price of admission.

Each night, we filed into the next green-roofed refugio and recapped the day’s highlights over supper and a box or two of Chilean wine. We compared casualties - sore knees, aching backs, blistered feet. We were a motley crew in desperate need of a Laundromat. But we’d witnessed some of the most spectacular scenery we’d ever encountered. Without a doubt, Patagonia had seduced us.

On our last day there, a local pointed to a bush full of Calafate berries, tiny purple fruits that dangle off branches like Christmas ornaments.

“Legend says that if you eat a Calafate berry, you will return one day to Patagonia,” he told us. I ate two, just to be sure.

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