On the edge of the world

18/07/2019 16:12

The vast region of Patagonia, shared by Chile and Argentina on the southern end of South America, is a land of majestic and primordial beauty.

Its vastness goes beyond words, with a magic that seems to bend notions of physical space: that brilliant sapphire lake seems just a stone’s throw away but is in fact kilometers off in the distance. Those mountains that seem to barely rise above hills are in fact thousands of meters high and blanketed in snow all year round. As the intense winds sweep across Patagonia, a force here reminds you of your tiny place in the vast universe.

Europeans arrived in Patagonia in the 1500s, right after they found the Americas. But in this barren land there was no fertile soil for cultivation nor gilded kingdoms to plunder. Patagonia was ignored by settlers for over 300 years, inhabited mainly by nomadic native tribes who hunted guanaco llamas and rhea ostriches for food. It was not until the early 19th century that Europeans started to return and chase after two of the oldest goals of humankind: freedom and profit.

The Argentine government promised to hand over large plots of land to anyone who attempted to reclaim this dangerous land before neighboring Chileans could seize their share. Shepherds from all corners of the earth, as far as Scotland, Wales and Switzerland, seized the opportunity to eke out a living and in some cases escape  religious persecution at home. They found ways to successfully raise sheep on this arid lands of Patagonia to export wool to the world. Today you can still enjoy fondue and chocolate from Switzerland or sip some afternoon tea in an authentic Welsh teahouse right in the middle of Argentina’s mountains. And there are still gauchos tending sheep and cattle, spending half their time on horseback, and the other half in their wooden huts removed from the outer world by days of traveling and living without internet or cellphone reception. In exchange for that remote and isolated life are emerald lakes unlike anywhere else on earth, forests studded with wild blossoms and crystal-clear springs that seem to have emerged from a fairytale, and sunsets that cast their golden glow over distant peaks.

Of course, it is impossible to discuss Patagonia without mentioning its majestic glaciers, dozens of meters high and spanning hundreds of meters, even kilometers, carrying millions of tons of ice. The glacier Perito Moreno near El Calafate, far from the largest one in Patagonia, still has an area larger than Buenos Aires, home to about 3 million people. And fortunate travelers who stand near this glacier may catch the booming, thunder-like sound of an ice fall, as icebergs sometimes sever themselves from their larger bulks and crash into the water, sending up waves many meters high.

However, the overarching sentiment in Patagonia is still utmost serenity and deeper sense of the grandeur of our planet.  In the midst of our rapidly changing world, Patagonia is a glimpse of earth’s primordial power, which existed before we humans ever appeared on the planet and will exist after we are gone.    

Phillip Nguyen

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