Patagonia is like the Gobi desert except that in the desert there is more life.
Admittedly, the Gobi has no national parks like Torres del Paine. Then again Patagonia has that wind, that interminable blustery airstream. But the wind and the cold receded and that I saw TdP in perfect weather. Not many have. Bruce Chatwin, on whose footsteps I was following and who was my motivation to come to Patagonia, didn’t.
I joined Hector and his family, an air traffic controller from Punta Arenas. We went together on a tour, first to a cave that starts wide and narrows back like a gigantic half-open seashell, where traces of the mylodon, a prehistoric animal were found in the 1880s. This was the inspiration for Bruce Chatwin’s book In Patagonia. A madcap, papier-mache-cum-plastic lifesize mylodon statue greets you in the entrance and spoils any prehistoric effect.
On the way to the Torres del Paine, we spotted a pack of Patagonian foxes eat a sheep (yes, a pack) with vultures hanging around nearby and set the tone for the wildlife. The Torres (Towers) of Paine are eight peaks of very sharp granite stone formations over 2,000m high. The whole park is built around them and generally counts three lakes, a salt pan, two glaciers, many waterfalls, a population of 3,000
guanacos existing in natural equilibrium with pumas, Patagonian geese, foxes and, to top it all, a flamingo colony. It is a hikers’ paradise with superb camping facilities. I left the tourgroup and trekked for one hour through puma-infested territory hoping to catch one, but unfortunately they shun people unless they are very hungry. The tour leader was furious, but I wasn’t. Indian lore says that pumas like humans and help them in adversity, like dolphins at sea. Californians may disagree, but it is they who have encroached deeply into their mountain lions’ habitat.
On the way back, Hector’s family sang arias in the mini bus (Va pensiero from Nabucco). Oh, the incongruity of hearing Verdi in Patagonia sung in Italian with that Chilean pronunciation that drops the final ‘s’. Not all of his kids, though, were musically that highly developed. His 16-yr old son had an Erasure greatest hits CD and asked me if I knew them. When I told him I’d seen them live some time back, he would not leave me alone (“And what did they sing for their encore ?”)
Hector meanwhile filled me in about how the Chileans in Punta Arenas helped clandestinely the British during the Falklands War. Chileans supported the UK: as far as they were concerned we fought their war. If the Argentineans had won, they felt they were next. Indeed, Pope John Paul II averted in 1988 a war over three Chilean islands off Tierra del Fuego coveted by Argentina. Currently there is a dispute about a glaciated plain, the Campo del Hielo Sur. The Chileans want to divide it straight, but the Argentineans have drawn a curve which reaches the Pacific, thereby cutting Chile in two, leaving Chilean Patagonia off limits. When the Chileans want to say that someone botched a job, they say : “You are like an Argentinean drawing maps.”
Once in Punta Arenas, I rushed to the Zona Franca, its duty-free area. I spent four hours window-shopping – reflex action after all the wilderness. I bought a cagoul for $60 – if you can’t find a good windbreaker here, where then?