What is Patagonia? A country? A clothing brand? Prepare to be dazzled.
Patagonia is a breathtakingly scenic region located in the southern part of South America. Its boundaries are vague but include both the Chilean and Argentinian sides of the Andes Mountains, the longest continental mountain range in the world. In Patagonia, the Andes signals the end of the long spine of peaks that start in the far north of the Canadian Rockies. Combined, this almost consistent chain of mountain ranges called the American Cordillera, constitutes the western backbone of the North and South American continents.
As much a state of mind as a geographic region, Patagonia and its expansive terrain offer unforgettable hiking opportunities to travelers intrepid enough to venture toel fin del mundo - the very ends of the earth. As Backroads Walking and Hiking Tours in Argentina and Chile superbly demonstrate, setting out on foot in Patagonia is often the best--and sometimes the ONLY -- way to access all that this spectacularly remote area has to offer.
Travel times and trail miles stretch long in Patagonia. This means that putting in the extra effort - often through multiple plane / bus / shuttle transfers - to reach iconic destinations like Argentina's base-camp town of El Chalten or Chile's lakeside hiking-mecca town of Puerto Varas, becomes instantly worthwhile when you step onto their famous hiking trails like those to Laguna Torre or the Osorno Volcano. (Of course, be sure to plan ahead in order to secure the required permits when necessary!) To me, the journey is just as much a part of the adventure as is the destination. In Patagonia, this means taking the time to stop and sip mate with fellow travelers, sample fresh empanadas at rest areas and relish the unique pace of life you can find in this incredible region.
Encountering the intersection of seemingly disparate cultures of Patagonia is part of its immense charm. Cattle-herding gauchos, the Argentinian version of the American cowboy, still traverse the sparsely populated pampas (arid grasslands) alone and on horseback. Rock climbers sporting shiny new gear and ropes while outfitted head-to-toe in Gore-Tex, congregate in frontier towns hoping for a break in the weather to test their abilities in an attempt to reach one or more of Patagonia's legendary summits. College-aged backpackers from across the globe slumber in bunkbeds of popular inexpensive hostels while travelers accustomed to more luxurious accommodations sip local Malbec in Relais & Chateaux collection hotels. At the same time on a neighboring hillside, a farmer continues the tradition passed down by his great-great-grandparents, of herding the sheep whose wool he will later sheer and process for his livelihood.
There is one aspect of traveling to Patagonia that cannot be avoided. It's the stuff of legends and there's no escaping it. The locals call it Viento. Mucho viento. "Wind. Lots of wind." Everyone who goes to Patagonia experiences it. Why? At this particular latitude nothing but the thin strip of land that is Patagonia stands in the wind's way on its ferocious journey around the globe. And when it hits, it's full of wild and unyielding energy. Believe me, there is no exaggeration to the stories of hikers being brought to their hands and knees on a trail or climbers being blown upwards while attempting to descend their ropes! Now, don't allow such stories of Patagonia's temperamental wind and weather dissuade you; this unabashed natural force is equally embraced by locals and travelers alike as a rite of passage for all hikers who venture to this desolate place. Wind is a vital part of Patagonia's personality, often taking center stage in folkloric songs and stories, adding flavor to a hearty meal at day's end and ultimately encouraging tightknit communities to become even closer.
If you can embrace the weather of Patagonia (though maybe invest in a sturdy windbreaker, some solid waterproof hiking shoes and some high quality lip balm) you will find yourself also embracing the vibrancy and resiliency of a unique South American culture. Because, at the end of the day, this is a place that owes everything to the natural world and its stunning natural features... the wind included. From the sheer granite spires of Torres del Paine and Fitz Roy National Parks that tower over turquoise lakes and deep fjords and the hulking Southern Patagonian Ice Field that feeds dozens of glaciers (like Upsala, Perito Moreno, Viedma, O'Higgins, Grey and Tyndall), to the thunderous glacial calving events, where skyscraper-sized chunks of ice fall from these frozen rivers to leave behind silent wind- rain- and sun-sculpted icebergs that float silently in the meltwater and the endangered condors that soar overhead while guanaco herds (a wild camelid related to the domestic llama) graze on rocky moraines, this region offers you the rare chance in this modern world to experience true wonder... the kind that shakes you awake, sparks joy within and soothes frayed souls. You would be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend a vacation than by trekking through the unparalleled landscape of Patagonia.