Patagonia is famed for its spectacular scenery and extreme ruggedness. Big imposing mountains, wild terrain, unpredictable weather and world famous glaciers form the basis of most perceptions of the southern section of South America.
But amongst this maze of bewildering landscape small towns exist and thrive.
The most famous attempt to capture what it’s like to live amongst such wilderness is Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, which has become one of the most famous travel books of all time.
Purposely disjointed, the book brings together stories and real-life characters, which together gives Patagonia a sense of life, underpinned by a belief the people of Patagonia are formed by their rugged and extreme surroundings.
As a tourist in the modern-day, it’s difficult to get a sense of the Patagonia which Chatwin succinctly forms, mainly because in these days of cheaper travel costs, Patagonia’s human enclaves are more likely to be filled with backpackers than locals going about their daily lives.
So walk into the Unimart in Puerto Natales, Chile and the aisles are flooded with fresh-faced Europeans and Israelis stocking up for multi-day hiking at the Torres del Paine national park or walk down Ushuaia’s cosy main street and be inundated with shops selling hiking gear.
Mass tourism showing us its teeth perhaps. But this doesn’t mean a sense of place is lost or locals are distant.
Couchsurfing – an internet platform for travellers who wish to stay with locals – offers the chance to bridge the gap between traveler and local even if there’s something unnerving about mixing the internet and the depths of the southern Americas.
Hitchhiking as well is a relatively safe and cost effective way to skip from place to place in Patagonia. The friendly locals will be willing to pick you up after seeing your desperation after two hours waiting in the rain and enduring the famous Patagonian wind.
One of the striking features is the sense of normality in places so isolated. Punta Arenas, which is the only real town of note on the Chilean side lies on a narrow strip of land divided by water from Tierra del Fuego, while on the other side and to the south are 100s of mostly unpopulated islands.
But life carries on as if it was situated at the centre of the world. A central Government building is sullied by paint after student protests turned colourful. Protests which have gripped Chile in recent years. Patagonia isn’t immune from the wider political and social issues of the country.
The towns of Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales and El Calafate, which is situated in Argentina and is most famous for being the access town to the Perito Moreno glacier, look like a composition of run down shacks situated on dirt-filled plains which are surrounded by impervious mountain rock.
But these ostensible symbols of poverty, which one would believe would lead into villa 31 in Buenos Aires or the favales in Rio de Janeiro, are not what they seem. Inside are modern, contemporary homes hosted by shop owners, electrical engineers and tech savvy students. Patagonia’s weather and landscape may not have changed in thousands of years, but its people have.
Between the astonishing landscapes of the Glaciers National Park in Argentina or the Torres del Paine National Park over the border in Chile lay this incredible almost dead land between the two. The borders lay forth a barren landscape which probably explains why despite difficult relations – Chile supported Britain during the war against Argentina over the Falkland’s Islands/Las Malvinas – neither country decides to attack the other.
The borders seem like something out of the inner sanctums of outer Mongolia. A few sheep of note trundle about largely undisturbed, while an abandoned building blots the landscape. If you wanted a bit of quiet time, you’d be wise to head to Patagonia’s borders, because no one else would bother following you there.
The roads meanwhile go quickly downhill near the borders. Gone is the paved asphalt and is replaced by noisy, car-destroying dirt roads, where going over 40 km/h could see you slide off into one of the ditches on either side. Barely wide enough for two cars going against each other, these roads are used by trucks and buses going over the borders too.
But it all adds up to give you a true sense of what being In Patagonia truly means. Hike up to the Torres del Paine viewing point or watch in awe at ice breaking off at Perito Moreno and you get a sense of some of the most beautiful Earth-forms on the planet. But this part of the world is also brittle, extreme, varied and, above all, imperfect.
It is that contrast which endears us to it. Chatwin exuded Patagonia in lifeform. But he could never of done that unless Patagonia offered itself up in all its contradictory and emotional forms.