Travel Tale: Getting Down to the Bones in Patagonia

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 23, 2014 12
Geologists believe that at one time, Patagonia was part of the Antarctic continent. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Geologists believe that at one time, Patagonia was part of the Antarctic continent. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Bones are everywhere in Patagonia. They dry on the brown steppes and jut up from the desert’s gray floor. They protrude like blue spikes through the surface of lakes and bleach white on the ocean’s shore. And, right now, mine are shaking.

I’m just barely managing to hold on to the side of a mountainous cliff in Argentina’s La Leona Petrified Forest. Being from Wisconsin, I don’t believe anything technically called a “forest” should be as windswept, thirsty and barren as a lunar landscape; nonetheless, it is. And I’m hanging on to this hard-rock surface for dear life.

Bones are everywhere in Patagonia. They dry on the brown steppes and jut up from the desert’s gray floor.

Bones are everywhere in Patagonia. They dry on the brown steppes and jut up from the desert’s gray floor.

Our small group of eight is taking a tour of this place of beating sun, high winds and tree-rocks with a local guide who is part Argentinean and part mountain goat. The forest was here at a time when South America was tipped farther north; thus this area was once leafy and green and home to dinosaurs. Their petrified bones and the bones of the once-breathing trees here are 65 to 90 million years old.

Our guide strides up the rocky contours with the ease of one born to it, leading us over narrow footpaths that sheer off on either side into steep canyons and slots. Climbing up and climbing down, switchback after switchback, I think I’ve put on a strong and brave front so far. My backpack is heavy; determined to capture this once-in-a-lifetime trip, I’m hauling two cameras and several weighty lenses, as well as the usual fleeces and rain gear. It’s been an hour and a half of dizzying height after dizzying height, and even though I’ve been afraid of heights for as far back as I can remember, I’ve hidden my terror. On the final, straight-edged climb up, however, I lose all footing and resort to grabbing on with all fours. I am now the one who’s petrified. Once I find the nerve to release my hand from the prickly bush I’ve taken hold of, our van driver hoists me up the rest of the way.

Petrified forest

Being from Wisconsin, I don’t believe anything technically called a “forest” should be as windswept, thirsty and barren as a lunar landscape; nonetheless, it is in Argentina’s La Leona Petrified Forest. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

For three days prior to our visit to La Leona, our small van had shuddered and shook over the washboard highways of the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve of Peninsula Valdés, almost as if we were traversing the rib cage of some sleeping giant. Small dust devils followed our vehicle down the gravel roads.

On the peninsula, there is no freshwater. Showers are taken in saltwater, and electricity is turned on only at night. We sleep in a remote, lighthouse inn. On a beach at Punta Norte, my footsteps make the sound of tinkling, shattering glass as I step on the bright shells. Magellanic penguins are everywhere, and I photograph them standing under the hot sun, bleating from their shallow burrows in the ground or hurrying down to the waves.

I eat my sandwich lunch in front of the Atlantic Ocean. Along with the bread and meat, I swallow dust. We take a walk to look for orcas that will sometimes beach themselves intentionally to hunt baby sea lions. We do not see them; instead we find elephant seals lying along a sandbar. A gray fox wanders nearby. I didn’t know beaches could sound that way; that they could clink and bay, bark and bleat.

Guanaco on mountaintop

Guanacos are found throughout South America, living in dry, open country in the mountains or on the plains. A domesticated version of the guanaco is the llama. Another branch of the family tree is the alpaca, also a type of domesticated guanaco raised for its soft wool. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Riding on steppes and hiking on glaciers

On my last evening on Peninsula Valdés, I go horseback riding on the steppes of Patagonia. My horse is big and fawn-colored, like the dust. During a slow sunset, we ride the narrow trail that sweeps down to the ocean on one side and stretches out to the horizon on scrub plain to the other. A few sheep and an occasional brown hare share the expanse with us. I look down and see tiny bones of other animals in the dust. A skull here; a perfect, complete hare skeleton there. Life is harsh, elemental and beautiful on these steppes, and I think I am falling in love with the bones of Argentina. On the ride back to our lighthouse home, we listen to tango music on the van’s CD player. Argentina—heat, death, passion.

After our stay on Peninsula Valdés, we make the three-hour drive to Trelew, followed by a two-hour flight to El Calafate and the now infamous La Leona Petrified Forest walk. If that walk was testing my mettle, the walk on Viedma Glacier near El Chaltén and Bahia Túnel took the measure of my soul.

A boat transports us to the rocky front of the glacier, and after scrambling up the huge boulders, we sit down to put on our crampons. Stepping from rock to ice is stepping back in time. There are billions of years under my feet, when Pangea was new. We walk among the glacier’s caverns, peaks, hollows, crevasses and formations for two-and-a-half hours. We take a moment to sit down on this unfathomable landscape to drink a toast of Bailey’s Irish Cream, chilled by the glacier’s ice. It is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a holy drink.

On our way out of El Chaltén back to El Calafate, I see Cerro Torre coming out of the clouds for the first time. Cerro Torre juts out of the young Andes Mountains, like a splinter from the spine of the continent, picked clean and worn shiny by the Patagonian winds.

Magellanic penguins

Magellanic penguins live along the coastlines of South America, on both the Atlantic and Pacific shores. During the hot South American summers, they cool off by panting and standing with their flippers extended to catch a breeze. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A floating cemetery and a very rare deer

In Punta Bandera, there is a blue cemetery. An iceberg cemetery. On the teal blue of Lago Argentino, the cerulean of hundreds of icebergs floats, backed by the ultramarine of the mountains. Through my camera lens, I see these bones of ice close-up, poking through the skin surface of the lake.

In Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, we can see the French Glacier. It looks gray, like slippery skin newly shed from the vertebrae of the mountains. Standing in an alpine meadow, I can hear the avalanches on the other side of the mountain and see the Andean condors soaring overhead.

Southern sea lion

The southern sea lion (or South American sea lion) is found throughout the South American coastal region. In the past, they were hunted for food, oil and hides. Today, the threat is conflict with fisherman, who will shoot sea lions that enter their fisheries. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

My last night in Chile, I take an early evening walk with our guide out to a peninsula, located a short distance from the lodge, which promises a direct view to Grey Glacier. I decide to take this last walk unencumbered, without my heavy backpack and camera. The sun will be setting soon anyway, I think. At the start of the path leading down to the water, which winds through a small forest, we spot a huemul, a Chilean deer. There are only about 20 in the park and less than 2,500 left in the world. I begin to rethink my decision to leave my camera behind. The only thing to do now is drink in the moment and try to burn the image into my memory.

The peninsula is made of stones blown there by the winds. Just as we come down the path out of the woods and onto the peninsula, the setting sun illuminates the three needles of Torres del Peine. It is the first time during our stay in Patagonia that we can clearly see all three. From our vantage point, Grey Glacier slides out below them, and icebergs float all around us. It is a perfect moment.

A perfect moment, that is, except I don’t have my camera. But maybe that’s what was meant to happen. I was meant to see this last evening as a writer, not as a photographer. It’s something I’ve felt in my bones for a while now.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

gray fox in Patagonia

On Peninsula Valdés, a gray fox wanders. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Horses in Patagonia

First brought to Patagonia by Spanish settlers, horses have become as much a part of the landscape as the Andes Mountains. Gauchos later bred a powerful, sure-footed horse called the “criollo” to help herd livestock. Hundreds of these hardy horses now roam wild. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Walking on a glacier

A walk on the Viedma Glacier is stepping back in time. There are billions of years under my feet, a time when Pangaea was new. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Perito Moreno Glacier

The Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina, is one of the largest glaciers in South America. Its terminus is three miles wide, and its average height is 240 feet above the surface of the water of Lake Argentino. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Flying bird in Patagonia

The birdlife of Patagonia is rich and diverse. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Patagonia landscape

Patagonia is still the unspoiled frontier of South America. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Guanacos on walk

A pair of guanacos greet me on a mountain hike. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Road sign and peaks in Patagonia

The views on a Patagonia road trip are unparalleled; I highly recommend one. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Woman riding horse in Patagonia

A traditionally dressed woman rides her horse on the Patagonia steppes. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Steppes of Patagonia

The mesmerizing landscapes look like paintings. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Patagonia reflection

Perfect moments seem to come often in Patagonia, camera along or not. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

 

12 Comments »

  1. Luis Bueno Sorolla October 28, 2014 at 4:47 am - Reply

    muy buen trabajo, muy recomendable.

  2. Beverly Burmeier October 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Candice, you’ve written beautiful descriptions. I enjoy reading your travel stories; they inspire me to think about traveling to less common places.

  3. Mary Kuppenheimer October 26, 2014 at 10:20 am - Reply

    FABULOUS photos and stories as always. Thanks!

  4. Shinann Earnshaw October 25, 2014 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Hola Candy, I just returned from a cruise with Cruceros Australis–four nights and almost five days through the Beagle Channel and other waterways of Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego. Afterwards to El Calafate for two days and then 6 hour bus trip from Calafate to Puerto Natales. Flew home from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt. Then three hours home by car. The cruise was fantastic and the company great; trying to preserve, conserve and educate people re Patagonia and the end of the world.
    I saw Rheas, lots of geese, a few flamingos, a couple Guanacos on the bus trip. I love that land. Enjoyed your photos and comments–brought back memories of my scrambles through at least a part of that area. The cruise is better for us “seniors”–but been there, done that!

  5. PROF. PARTHASARATHI CHATTOPADHYAY October 25, 2014 at 9:42 am - Reply

    Marvelous photography backed up by extremely interesting and equally informative text.The photograph of Patagonian road just below the photograph of a pair of guanochos is unparalleled.
    Thanks Madam Andrews.

  6. Steve Curtis October 25, 2014 at 5:31 am - Reply

    Some great pictures Candice.

  7. Nicolo Famiglietti October 24, 2014 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    Very well done, Candice.
    Having only recently returned from Argentina, I thoroughly enjoyed this travel tale.

  8. Candice Gaukel Andrews October 24, 2014 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Thank you for the compliment, Sara. — C.G.A.

  9. Sara Vitali October 24, 2014 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Wow! what a place! and your style is great!

  10. Joan October 23, 2014 at 9:44 am - Reply

    Fabulous photos, Candy, but even they don’t do the place full justice. (You also didn’t mention that our “mountain goat” guide through the petrified forest was smoking most of the way!)

    • Candice Gaukel Andrews October 23, 2014 at 10:52 am - Reply

      Joan,

      She certainly was a “full-color,” local character, wasn’t she! All part of the adventure.

      —C.G.A.

  11. Travis October 23, 2014 at 5:40 am - Reply

    That Guanaco is a great photo.

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