Jeremy Head finds it cool to glacier walk in Patagonia
It’s 7am. At this time of year in Patagonia, as autumn sets in properly, it’s still pitch dark. We bump along a dirt track in our 4x4, plumes of spray splattering the windscreen as we bounce through puddles. We’re following the course of the Rio Norte some 30 miles or so from the sleepy little town of Puerto Tranquillo to the beginning of the Exploradores Glacier.
Patagonia is a massive chunk of land that takes up the bottom quarter of South America stretching across Chile and Argentina. It’s always been a bit of a final frontier place, but the Aysen region in Chile is perhaps the most off the beaten track part of all. It’s a land of vast lakes and ancient glaciers with the mighty Andes providing the most spectacular of spiky backdrops.
And even at this hour of the morning, it’s incredibly beautiful. On either side of the valley vast lumps of snow-patterned granite begin to fade into view as the cloud lifts and light drains in. Patagonia is formed by glaciers. And you see them everywhere. Huge spiky mountains shelter vast blue-green rivers of eons old ice. At times the river is a thick flowing torrent, at others it stretches out more - where the mountains allow it. Spooky forests of dead trunks push up out of the glassy water here. “Their roots get flooded when the water level rises and it kills them,” explains Leo our guide.
At the trail head we get kitted out. Leo shows us how to put on crampons and we pull on warmer gear – over-trousers and woolly hats. And we slap on sunscreen, it will be bright out there. An hour or so of puffing and panting through verdant scrubland and over massive boulders – a pick and mix assortment of boulders - dusty brown, black, marble white shimmering in intense sunlight and we reach the glacier. There’s a constant backing track of the rush and trickle of melting ice. It’s oddly soothing. We’ve been walking on what I thought was a vast bank of mud at the fringes of the ice. Leo scrapes off an inch or so of dirt and there’s super thick ice below it. “We’ve already been on the glacier for a while – we call this stuff dirty ice,” he explains.
We stop to fix our crampons. I expect them to be difficult to walk in, but they are easy to get the hang of. Leo shows us how to just push down a little harder with each step to make sure we have a firm grip. Over the
next hour or so we wander across this vast field of sparkling brightness – dazzling in the sunshine. There are sinewy caverns in the ice worn out by the running water – sink holes that descend way down into the ice pack with streams rushing down their middle. Confident now in my crampons I bounce across the ice – great swirling hillocks of the stuff. The curves
and bowls remind me of a skatepark. The wind whips around us rippling the surface of pools of water lying on the glacier. Leo kneels down and scoops out a handful of shimmering ice crystals. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he laughs. “I love it here!”
Everyone I meet in Patagonia says similar things. They love their amazing landscape and want to share it. Something this incredible isn’t for keeping locked away, hidden for yourself. We drive further south, almost to the endof the road – quite literally. To a tiny former logging village called Tortel right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean; a tangle of narrow wooden boardwalks and lodges perched precariously on the steep hillsides, boats bobbing in the cove below. Noel and Maria Paz run a cosy, refined little guest house here called Entre Hielos. Maria Paz designed its cute, comfy rooms and runs the kitchen. Noel takes guests in his little boat to see the massive expanse of the Steffen glacier, several hours up the coastline.
Unfortunately our arrival coincides with bad weather warnings, so next morning when we set out to explore on his little boat we’re restricted to coves and islets closer to the village. Oddly the weather’s quite still. You wouldn’t imagine it was blowing a gale out to sea. Here, surrounded by steep-sided mountain islands, smothered in rainforest-like greenery it’s utterly tranquil. Occasional strips of milky sunlight flood through the cloud revealing snow-capped mountains in the distance with vast green-white glaciers sandwiched between razor sharp peaks. I sit on the roof of the little boat and feel the breeze tug at the bottoms of my trouser legs. The hush and slap of the waves against the bows and the low burble of the outboard motor are all I can hear.
Upriver the water is smooth velvet. More sunshine now, bouncing off its surface. The boat bumps up against Isla de los Muertos. Noel makes us strong local tea called mate on his little wood-burning stove inside the boat. We take a wander through a small glade to reach a tiny overgrown cemetery with ancient wooden crosses sticking out of the ground at odd angles. Legend has it that a group of local labourers were left to starve here by their western paymasters who’d sent them to blaze trails for the log trade. It’s movingly atmospheric.
Back at the guesthouse I chat to Maria Paz. “We both love this place and love sharing it with other people,” she says. I’m glad they feel that way. It’s been a huge privilege to be part of it. I don’t want to go home.
Getting there: Return flights from Heathrow to Santiago via Sao Paulo with TAM Airlines (tam.com) and internal flights to Balmaceda with LAN Airlines (lan.com) from £1,023 per person. LAN and TAM form part of LATAM Airlines Group, the largest airline group in South America.
Do the trip: South America specialist Pura Aventura (01273 676712, pura-aventura.com) offers a 13-day self-drive trip to Chile’s Aysen region from £2,398 per person including 3 nights at Parque Patagonia Lodge and 2 nights at Entre Hielos, a private guide at the Parque, excursions to Exploradores Glacier and the Icefields, 5 nights at family run lodges, 2 nights in Santiago (B&B accommodation) internal flights between Santiago and Balmaceda, 4x4 hire.