Patagonia: South America's land of extremes
The film 'Patagonia', released this week, will bring this remote wilderness to the big screen – and inspire adventurous travellers says Lucy E Cousins
Wednesday 02 March 2011
What's the attraction?
Patagonia is an area at the southern cone of Argentina and Chile, which covers around 300,000 square miles.
It is dotted with deep blue lakes, white glaciers, endless grassy plains, long-forgotten roads and some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.
The immense space, dramatic ice fields and mountainous scenery have attracted travellers for centuries – Charles Darwin travelled through here in the 1830s, outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid bought a remote Patagonian cattle farm 70 years later and more recently, Bruce Chatwin's travel novel, In Patagonia, was set among the plains.
This Friday, Patagonia's dramatic landscape hits the big screen with the release of the eponymous movie starring Duffy and Matthew Rhys.
Fly me there
From the end of this month, non-stop flights from Heathrow to Buenos Aires resume with British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com); at present services touch down in Sao Paulo. Direct flights between London and Chilean capital, Santiago, have been abandoned, but there are connections on Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com/gb) from Heathrow via Madrid. Aerolinas Argentinas (0800 0969 747; www.aerolineas. com.ar), LanChile (0800 977 6100; www.lan.com) and regional LADE ( www.lade.com.ar) operate internal flights. Air gateways into Patagonia itself are Bariloche, San Martí* de los Andes, Trelew (in Argentinean Patagonia) and Punta Arenas (in Chilean Patagonia).
What better way to experience the wild heart of Chile than plunging down the white-water rivers near the small border town of Futaleufu? Bio Bio Expeditions (001 530 582 6865; www.bbxrafting.com) runs nine-day tours from December to March that incorporate rafting, kayaking, yoga, mountain riding, horse riding and fishing. Prices start at US$3,100 (£2,065) per person, excluding flights but including accommodation in a riverside safari-style tent. Alternatively, take a deep breath, adjust your crampons and climb out along the icy ledge of the enormous Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. This ice mass is over 19 miles in length and three miles wide. The Big Ice trek offered by Hielo y Adventura (00 54 2 902 492 205; www. hieloyaventura.com) from mid-September until the end of April will take you deep into the heart of it. Climb through ice crevasses and caves and enjoy magnificent views over a strenuous three-and-a-half hours. Prices start at 820 pesos (£125) per person, including national park entrance fee.
UK-based Swoop Travel (0117 369 0196; www.swoop-patagonia.co.uk) offers an array of adventurous options across the region, from kayaking to horse-riding and mountaineering.
The mighty Andes form a rugged, if slightly off-centre, spine down the back of Patagonia, creating some of the best snow fields in the southern hemisphere. Cerro Catedral (00 54 2944 409 000; www.catedralaltapatagonia.com) has a season that runs from mid-June to early October and offers more than 70 miles of slopes, more than 50 runs and an array of jumps, rails and obstacles for boarders. The exclusive Cerro Castor (00 54 2901 499 301; www.cerrocastor.com) is the southernmost ski resort in the world, located in Tierra del Fuego at the continent's tip. A five-day ski pass starts at 378 pesos (£58). In Chile, Big Mountain Trips ( www.bigmountain-trips.com) runs heli-skiing adventures on unexplored Andean terrain.
Ruta 40 is Argentina's "mother road", and runs more than 3,000 miles from north to south. When it reaches Patagonia, it travels through miles of desolate, grassy steppe and is only fully accessible in the warmer months. Select Latin America (020-7407 1478; www.selectlatinamerica.co.uk) offers an eight-day trip called "Driving the Legendary Route 40".
The price of £1,442 includes accommodation, transport, most meals and all national park entrance fees, but excludes international flights. Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) has a 14-day "Argentina on the Road" trip for £2,125 per person, which includes trips to the region's lakes, the Perito Moreno Glacier, as well as a stay on a working ranch. Flights not included.
Hike and seek
After exploring the pristine Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, stay close to the torres (towers) at the luxurious Explora Hotel Salta Chico (00 56 2 395 2800; www.explora.com). It has an indoor pool, bathhouse, and Jacuzzi. Meals, including Magellanic lamb and southern king crab, will satisfy the hungriest hiker. Prices start at US$2,780 (£1,850) for four nights' full board, including a private guide and transfers.
Península Valdés on Argentina's east coast is home to more than 1,000 fur seals, hundreds of sea lions, visiting southern right whales, herds of guanacos and more than 40,000 active Magellanic Penguin nests. See it and other local wildlife on World Expeditions' 18-day "Patagonia Parks and Wildlife" tour, which takes you from Tierra del Fuego to Puerto Madryn (the closest town to the peninsula). Prices from £2,990 include most meals, transfers, accommodation, guides and park entrance fees (020-8545 9030; www.worldexpeditions.co.uk).
What Google will tell you...
The town of Trevelin in the province of Chubut is the centre of Welsh culture in Patagonia. From organised irrigation methods and wheat production to Welsh tea houses and quaint B&Bs with rose gardens, Trevelin represents the hard work of its intrepid early settlers. A small group of Welsh immigrants, fleeing persecution in Europe, arrived in Puerto Madryn in 1865, then moved inland in search of arable land and potable water. They settled in the beautiful Chubut Valley, working the land and trading with indigenous tribes. The first flour mill in the area is now a fascinating museum; and don't miss the Casa de Te Nain Maggie tea house (00 54 2 945 480232; www.casadetenainmaggie.com
What Google won't tell you – until now
Despite what most guidebooks say, Patagonia is a year-round destination. Summer crowds at popular areas can be overwhelming and require early reservations and lots of planning. However, in spring and autumn there are fewer people, camping in Torres del Paine National Park isn't fully booked and most transport and accommodation options are still open. The weather can also be quite mild and pleasant. In winter, Patagonia's ski centres come alive and Perito Moreno Glacier looks magical covered in snow.
'Patagonia' is released on Friday
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