I stopped looking for whales. Porpoising penguins were merely brief distractions from the dramatic landscape that towers over the sea in a seemingly endless glacially carved and capped maze that is the Southwestern tip of South America. The raw coastal grandeur of Patagonia is one of the most overwhelming and wondrous stretches of landscapes I’ve ever laid eyes on. And only now, months after flying away, up and over the Andes range have I begun to process everything I saw.
Never before has a place equally inspired in me a sense of awe of both the forces of nature and those of human exploration. The geographic scale of Patagonia is (to put it quite simply) ridiculous! Sailing through the complex fiord systems, I continually found myself dumbfounded that any early mariner could navigate them.
Antarctic-proportions of seabirds hover over and dive among kelp forests as rich as those of the Pacific Northwest, along a coastline of Norwegian-fiord vertical scale covered in beech forests reminiscent of New Zealand (but older and more diverse), all spread beneath a postcard alpine range littered with text-book stratovolcanoes. Overwhelming? Exactly. This is a place that posseses characteristics definitive of so many others, but because it is all of the them at once, is unlike any of them at all.
I didn’t sleep much over my time there, trying to take in as much as possible under the long daylight hours. Every minute revealed something different, the sun breaking through to light up features I hadn’t yet discerned from the rest. Ping-pong sized hail would be falling sideways one minute followed by crisp, calm blue sky the next.
But when cloud curtains did completely cover the mountains, I was able to also marvel at small forms of life.
Penguin colonies dot the islands and outcrops of the entire Patagonian coastline throughout the austral summer. Having spent most of the year at sea, mature birds return to meet their mate, burrow, and carry out the energy-intensive process of raising offspring together. Space is limited, so birds must communicate either over the volume of surrounding couples and families or use exaggerated body language. Where the penguins can’t burrow, kelp gulls keep their nests, seeking safety in numbers from the egg and chick-snatching tendencies of their cousin skuas.
Eventually, we rounded Cape Horn, leaving the Chilean fjords behind to tuck in behind the rain shadow of the Andes. In Argentinian Patagonia, the landscape is less dramatic in the vertical, but horizontally it’s vast and contains uniquely adapted wildlife like armadillos and guanacos.
I am not the first or only explorer to become infatuated with the stunning diversity of climate, landscape and resulting variety of flora and fauna found throughout Patagonia. The combination here is stunning, and while some diverse ecosystems around the world are vastly under-appreciated, this place has allured national and international travelers alike for hundreds of years.
And the capacity for future admirers to fall in love with the place is growing rapidly! Twenty percent of the natural landscape of Chile is currently designated among the National System of Protected Areas, with more proposed in the exciting recent efforts to expand them. Vast quantities of protected areas are appealing on a map, but for the public to truly appreciate their worth, they must be able to access them in some way. And that's what Chile has partnered with Parks Canada to do, to ensure the maintenance of these wild places while increasing the opportunity for people to experience them.
Finding the balance between conservation and recreation capacity is the ultimate challenge with developing parks. The author of a recent article in Patagon Journal detailing this challenge in Chile aptly referred to when American national parks were first being developed and John Muir said "people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is like going home.” However, this implies that to have this realization in a wild place, it has to be relatively comfortable for a person (why else are cruise ships the most popular and possible way to explore the Patagonian coastline?), and each person's level of comfort is different.
In our last few days in Chile, we visited Hornopirén National Park, with the intention of hiking the only trail found within the park. To say the trail wasn’t well maintained was a gross understatement, and we were turned around just a few minutes after we'd started. Had we all been better equipped as a group for the challenge and time it would take to slog through the muddy bogs and scramble over twisted roots, it probably would have been enjoyable. But like most other visitors, we were not prepared for that particular experience. Experience fosters connection. Without an adventure or even misadventure within the park, we didn't connect with it and it remains a less than memorable part of the trip.
Wilderness can remain wild, while still being accessible. You have to be able to access that point where you are surrounded by it, fully immersed. The level of comfortable immersion is different for everyone, but it definitely lies beyond the park boundary and usually at least a kilometer from the trailhead. Even for the most extreme of wilderness adventurers (and I’ve consulted with an expert on this one), every expedition is ultimately limited by access. And even the experts may agree they can’t value the unknown of a wild place without being able to get to it.
By contrast, Pumalin Park was one of the many protected areas in Patagonia readily accessed, that challenged us all to the varied limits of our comfort zones. We were completely surrounded with both grandeur and smaller curiosities; and those experiences we now cherish instilled in us its value.
Nearly six weeks was really only sufficient to study scratches on the surface of this complex and deeply scoured landscape, but was more than enough to inspire an intense desire to go back, A.S.A.P.
If you have the will and opportunity to go to Patagonia, do it. But travel responsibly; choose experiences that mindfully access the vast expanse of wilderness that remains in Patagonia, and (if you can) help fund the continued development and future designation of park land by the incredible conservation organizations driving these outstanding efforts.