Big feat: Tour of Patagonia featured wildlife, stunning vistas, volcanoes

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Editor’s note: Local paleoclimatologist Peter Link filed this report on a recent trip to Patagonia. His photographs accompany the article.

By Peter Link

For the Courier

Patagonia! Whence the name? All attempts to determine the origin of the name are virtually assured of apocryphal results. In sequitur, here is another:
A story relates that the early settlers of southern South America encountered natives with large feet. The Spanish word for animal foot is “pata.” A large animal foot might be called a “patagon,” the “gon” suffix referring to large or big. The area of South America where big people with big “paws” live could then be Patagonia. End of idle conjecture.
My brother, sister-in-law, some Houston and Shreveport friends, and I returned to mainland Chile from Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in February 2009. A night in beautiful Santiago, and then it was off to Puerto Varas and the Lake District, at the northern edge of Patagonia.
Puerto Varas, a lovely German town, basks on the southern shore of Lake Llanquihue and features beautiful views of the lake, several volcanoes, including the majestically symmetrical Osorno, German architecture, good restaurants and friendly people. The prosperous area supports British and German immigrant farmers who provide Americans with wintertime fruits and vegetables.
After several days of climbing volcanoes, visiting national parks, beautiful countryside, pudus (miniature deer), llamas, perfect weather, and too much food, we flew off to Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan. By carefully selecting a left-side seat aft of the wing, I was able to photograph the still-erupting Chaiten volcano.
Greeted by a roaring Punta Arenas gale, we took refuge in the van that was to take us where we would stay while in southern Chilean Patagonia. First,
however, we visited some very suave Magellanic penguins who were oblivious to the wind.
On the way, we stopped for lunch at Casa Posada Rio Rubens, which is located near absolutely nothing and the motto for which read: “Here we are open when we arrive and closed when we leave. If you come and we aren’t here it is because you can’t find us. Thank you.” The lunch was excellent because they were there.
Back on the road, we stopped briefly in Puerto Natales, walked through the town, hopped back in the van, and headed for Estancia Tercera Barranca (the Third Cliff Ranch), the operating sheep ranch where we would stay while in southern Patagonia. The “Third Cliff,” of three, is capped by thick volcanic rocks, and is about 3 miles northeast of the ranch.
We settled into our rooms in the main house of the estancia and met in the living room before dinner with some fine Chilean red wines; then dinner and more wine. A walk amid the sunset and to bed on a clear, chilly night. Tomorrow would be the start of several long, strenuous days in Torres (Towers) del Paine National Park.
Day one provided wonderful vistas of glacially sculpted mountains, lakes, glaciers and waterfalls. Condors, vulture hawks, rheas, Andean flamingoes, guanacos, a skunk and geese with chicks presented a kaleidoscope of wildlife.
Next day consisted of an all-day 12-mile round-trip hike, with a 2,000-foot vertical climb. The last 600 meters required clambering over very large glacial boulders to see the beautiful spires of the Torres del Paine. At nearly 79 years, I was the oldest hiker on the trail, which was gleefully publicized to all other hikers by Rodrigo, our 21-year-old quick-as-a-rabbit guide.
The Torres are three considerably glaciated 2,000-foot vertical granite monoliths of remarkable scenic beauty. They were first climbed in 1958 by a British team who woke up early to precede an Italian team, who were convinced they would be first. Something about the “early bird.”
After the hike, a cold beer awaited our return at the end of a very photographically productive day. Back to Tercera Barranca and another fine dinner.
Early came the morning and the van trip to Punta Arenas to fly to Santiago and catch our respective flights back home from Patagonia, the land of big feet.