The Big South

The Big South

Magellan used the word patagóns to describe people he thought were giants when he explored this part of the world. It’s not surprising the name was passed on to the region taking up the southern half of Argentina. 
John Malathronas explores its changing moods.

Who would have thought a marine safari could be so exciting? I’m on a boat swaying by a rocky platform where male sea lions are guarding their harems with strangled croaks. The persistent Patagonian wind ruffles their manes – surprisingly dry, for the males dare not dive into the sea.

If they did, competitors would steal their females in a flash. The harems are delineated with virtual walls – should any other male step beyond an imaginary partition, a fight ensues. But not for long. Every macho on the platform is worried about the teenagers swimming in the sea below. Not as well built but horny and tenacious, they wait for an opportunity to pounce when a herder isn’t looking. Suddenly all hell breaks loose. One harem disappears under the manic flapping of a million seagull wings. A male chases them off only to be attacked by a flock of South American terns. Other males scoot away awkwardly on their flippers. Their females follow them with the pups flapping clumsily behind. The teenagers swimming under the rock ledge prick up their ears. A giant petrel dives imperiously, disperses the terns with authority and picks up something bloody with its beak.

It’s a sea lion placenta, and I’ve just witnessed a birth; Patagonia certainly humbles you in more ways than one.

It’s difficult to believe the pup hasn’t been pecked to death, but there it is, tucked safely under its mother. She’s pushing to birth the last bit of placenta under the hungry eyes of a kelp gull. In a week she’ll be in heat, her mate will demand her favours and she’ll conceive next year’s baby.

Watching wildlife is a big tourist industry on Peninsula Valdes and every season has something different to attract the traveller. Although the southern right whales that migrate between June and December to give birth in the safe waters around Valdes have disappeared by the time I arrive, Magellanic penguins are still feeding their chicks along the Patagonian shore. At Estancia San Lorenzo, at the northern tip of Valdes, the overwhelming smell of regurgitated fish makes me wish I had not stuffed myself with barbecued lamb an hour earlier. Here, the penguin parents are doing their silly walks to the sea to catch fish, and their chicks open their beaks trustingly at anything remotely big and black, like my Nikon camera. When the Almighty created birds, She certainly had fun fashioning the penguins.

Most other wildlife is best seen around the artificial irrigation systems of the estancias (farms). Apart from the ubiquitous sheep, the easiest animals to spot are the graceful guanacos, always eyeing humans curiously as if debating whether we’re harmless enough for a closer look. Rheas, the stumpy cousins of the ostrich, have made up their minds and keep a respectful distance.

The next day I’m on my way to the mountains, hitching a ride with Gustavo and Paula who are working in Puerto Madryn, the gateway to Valdes, and are visiting family in Esquel, the regional administrative centre in the Andes. Leaving Valdes, I become acquainted with the tinamu, a pheasant-like bird. Unlike rheas, tinamus don’t just cross the road in front of us – they panic and change trajectory halfway across. Gustavo slams on the brakes, raising huge amounts of dust so we can never tell whether we’ve dodged or flattened them. It’s hard to put hand on heart and swear we left the roadside tinamu population as we found it, but I promise we tried.

Ever since Bruce Chatwin immersed himself in its vastness and praised its beauty, Patagonia has had a permanent hold on our imaginations. Although geographically it includes the densely forested Andes and a coast that teems with life, it is the plain between that defines it. Focusing in the distance on this interminable stretch of land is akin to revisiting your childhood, when the world was a vast unknowable universe and everything seemed so far away – the future included.

Patagonia may be flat, dry and windy, but it’s certainly not featureless. Humans have played their role here. At Loma Blanca wind turbines break the horizontal monotony. Beyond the cities of Trelew and Gaiman the landscape becomes exciting, as the Ruta Nacional 25, which stretches from Rawson to Tecka, follows the Chubut River, the life-giving aquatic lord of the province.

The ever-present gold-and-green tufts of the coirón, a tussock that has been our main companion in the marine zone, are now giving way to the scrub of the inland steppe. Some of the plants are in bloom: for several kilometres a yolk-yellow carpet of buttercups presses from both sides onto the highway. They are called botón-de-oro and women collect them in baskets. The Tehuelche Indians use them in tea as a remedy against colds.

At kilometre 255, we stop by the Carbon Canyon to exercise our legs. The canyon, with its coal-black walls, is a newly protected area and the walk through the long grass to a small waterfall is short and easy. We find a flat granite surface with recesses clearly carved by humans. Here, the Tehuelche used to sharpen their arrows. It’s a choice location, because opposite grows a duraznillo bush, bearing highly noxious berries. After sharpening their points, the Tehuelche dipped them in its poison. Like a yellow danger sign, the decomposing carcass of a guanaco is lying by the bush.

At Los Altares, our journey’s midpoint, there are signs triumphantly announcing mobile reception: Acá hay siñal cellular. It is the clincher to whether we’ll have a sit-down meal or grab a sandwich and move on. We decide to stay and stare at our smartphones while we eat at Marta’s, the only village inn. There are just three options: chicken with fries, empanadas (meat pies) or hamburgers. Paula points at a recess above our table draped in red with an icon in the middle. She explains to me reverentially that it’s a shrine to Gauchito Gil. He’s a Robin Hood figure of the pampas, who has been performing miracles all over Argentina since he healed, from beyond the grave, the son of the policeman who killed him. Although not canonised, he’s the choice figure for prayer in Argentina’s vast interior.

After Los Altares the road becomes narrower and distinctly worse. There’s more foliage than dusty rock and the sheep herds are larger. By kilometre 411 the mountain ranges first appear, yet they’re still 350 kilometres away. At Tecka, we can finally discern snow on the mountaintops. We fill up at the last petrol station before Esquel. It’s around here we finally lose the quilimbai, a thorny thistle with yellow flowers that’s followed us all the way from the ocean. The sky is cloudy and grey and, for the first time, we notice cows in the fields. The only thing that disturbs the serenity of the uniform, green landscape is the occasional row of cypresses announcing an estancia.

We have been travelling for nine hours when, just before sunset, we reach the gate of the Los Alerces National Park. Gustavo and Sandra drop me off at Hosteria Futalaufquen, a 1940s stone-built hotel that looks upon a glacial lake surrounded by southern birch and cedars.

I’m here to see some giants, but unlike the Patagons of lore, these ones are real.

When the Spanish arrived, this region was full of enormous trees they casually dubbed alerces (larches). The local Mapuche Indians called them lahuán (grandfathers) because they were the oldest and grandest beings in the forest. The Mapuche were right. These titans are closely related to the Californian redwoods and are some of the oldest living things on the planet. All too predictably the Spanish felled them, since their timber was perfect for shipbuilding: tough, yet pliable and light. In 1937 the park was established to protect them, but the trees were still being cut; the last conviction for illegal felling was in Chile only three years ago. Nowadays they are endangered. Although the odd tree might grow alone in some solitary spot, the alerce forest, called the Alerzal, exists in a remote corner where a restricted number of visitors may enter every day.

There is no walking path to the Alerzal, so I board a boat from Puerto Chucao, a small harbour on Lake Menendez. Our 50-strong crowd must dip our shoes in an antiseptic bath before we’re allowed on board. There are deadly fungal spores in the forest and someone has finally started caring about the health of the trees that remain.

It’s a 45-minute trip on the lake to the rather grandiose-sounding Puerto Sagrario, consisting of a single hut where a solitary ranger keeps watch over the forest. This is also Patagonia, captain, but not as we know it. The weather is as changeable as on the plains, but any sunny interludes alternate with dark, saturated clouds that spit their load on us and move on. Patagonia’s landscape varies dramatically because so does the rainfall. On Valdes it’s only 200 millimetres per year. As we go west it rises exponentially: at Esquel it’s 700; at Puerto Chucao 2500; and at the Alerzal it’s 4000.

The alerce that welcomes us is 57 metres high. It has us craning our necks and moving back in a vain attempt to capture its majesty with our cameras. This colossus was alive when Homer wrote his epics; its age is estimated at a whopping 2600 years. Another alerce lies on its side, the hollow of its trunk gazing at us like a haunting museum exhibit. We pass it and follow the path under a gallery of colihue, a perennial bamboo that flowers every 70 years. The stems are brown and withering, because the last time this happened was the year before. At the time, the park was invaded by rats that consumed the seeds covering the forest floor. The rats disappeared as mysteriously and suddenly as they’d arrived when there were no more colihue seeds.

At the end of the trail, we reach a waterfall at Lago Cisne. Several alerces stand around the lake, as they have for centuries, but the ranger draws our attention to a small sapling, no more than 60 centimetres tall with leaves that look like basil. It’s a baby lahuán, only 12 years old. Will it survive the next century? The next millennium? It could, but I know I won’t.

Patagonia certainly humbles you in more ways than one.

Get there

Air New Zealand is our preferred airline to Buenos Aires. From Buenos Aires there are two ways to get to Puerto Madryn, the gateway to Peninsula Valdes. You can catch the bus, but that’s a 20-hour ride (about US$29-85 each way). Alternatively there are five flights a week with Andes Lineas Aereas, which wills get you there in just under two hours and cost about US$86 each way.

Stay there

In Puerto Madryn, Hotel Territorio is laid out on a promontory four kilometres outside the city and is surprisingly affordable considering the luxurious ambience and stunning views on offer. Double rooms start at about US$120 a night. In Esquel go for the charming and comfortable boutique hotel Las Bayas – it’s right in town and has an excellent restaurant. Double rooms from about US$86 a night. If you want to stay inside Los Alerces National Park, try the imposing Hosteria Futalaufquen, designed in the 1940s by Alejandro Bustillo, one of Argentina’s national architects. Double rooms from about US$88 a night.

Tour There

There are many tour companies in Puerto Madryn offering trips to Valdes and the Andes, but check they have an English-speaking guide. Argentina Visión has a huge number of excursions ranging from kayaking with sea lions (about US$103) to whale watching from a semi-submersible vessel called the Yellow Submarine (about US$150). Gales al Sur runs a number of tours in Los Alerces National Park.

Photos John Malathronas


Tags: argentina, into the wild, latin america, Los Altares, patagonia, peninsula valdes, Puerto Madryn, south america, wildlife

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