Patagonia: No Filters Needed
24 December 2014
Our first night at Estancia Cristina we went to our room around 9:30pm. It was still as bright as it is at 4pm at home in LA this
time of year. In Patagonia, they draw heavy curtains in the rooms to help guests transition to a normal night time but we were still wide awake. There is no television or internet in the rooms. I took out my phone to look at the pictures I took so far. I remembered I added several Apps on my phone to edit and enhance our photography. I played around a little to see what they can do then took out a book and read until I could fall asleep. The sky was still slightly light when I looked out the bathroom window after 11pm.
Patagonia had never really been on my short list of travel places. Somehow I have never been to South America before. Always wanted to. It was Brian that suggested this trip. Wow. What a place. Patagonia covers area in both Chile and Argentina. When looking at the map it was at first overwhelming to decide what to see and where to go for one week. Patagonia covers a third of Argentina (which is the 8th largest country in the world). There is the desert and the lake district. The Fitz Roy mountain area. The south most point where people gather before excursions to Antarctica.
We decided on Parque National Los Glaciares. The area of the glaciers. El Calafate is the small town (pop 16,000) where everyone flies in and out. We planned to spend one night (Sunday) there on our entrance before going farther in. As soon as I got out of the airport, my mouth dropped. The mountains. The grassy fields. The gorgeous BLUE of Lago Argentina.
On Monday we woke at 7am. We took a small transport bus to the port. It was cold and rainy. Cloudy. We had to take a 4 hour boat ride to get to our destination, Estancia Cristina. We decided to spend the majority of our Patagonia time out there. Far far away from towns and foot traffic.
After a pretty treacherous boat ride (apparently we lucked out with intense winds and consistently turbulent waters) we arrived at the ranch. Before going, I had not known too much about the area. It was a bit like going to a movie you know has incredible ratings, is up for a bunch of Awards (though is obscure and has a small audience) but you don’t read the synopsis or watch the trailer before going. New levels of wow unfolded into every day. I learned that our boat ride was nothing compared to the experience of the pioneers of this land. In the early 1900s, Argentina offered incentives to people to come and stake claim to the lands in Patagonia. They were in a dispute with Chile over the borders of the area and so they sought national and foreign pioneers to help watch over and develop the land.
Joseph Masters convinced his young new wife, Jessie, to leave Great Britain and go to a far away place. Knowing nothing about farming they left home, their family, and everything they had known up until then. They found an established Estancia and signed up to work there for a time to learn the skills they would need in order to pioneer a fresh piece of land. They worked and learned to farm and how to build tools and structures. They had two children. A boy, Herbert, and a girl, Cristina. When they felt confident in their skills, they set off to search for their own plot of land.
The Masters family searched for a year to find a suitable place to settle. In 1914, they set out on a 14 hour boat ride (they had to stop regularly to collect wood to fuel the fire of the boat’s engine). When they landed, Joseph instantly knew that he had found their place. A land today still only reachable by water.
For their first year, they lived in tents on the beach. (Remember temperature highs in the summer are 60s Fahrenheit in the days and 40s at night). They explored. They planned. And they began to build. First a small stone building for their living quarters. Then more buildings as they brought in sheep and horses. They planted and experimented with gardening in the harsh climate. At its height, Estancia Cristina was home to 12,000 sheep. Twenty staff would come in for two weeks in the sheering season to help the family collecting the wool. A skilled person takes 5 minutes with heavy metal scissors to take all the wool off a single sheep. Most important is to ensure the animal is able to remain calm and is not hurt in the process. A scared animal will fight, alert the other animals to the fear, and will keep the memory of the injury with them for future sheering seasons.
Cristina, the Masters daughter, grew up a natural pioneer. At 28, while working the land, she caught a flu which turned into a fatal pneumonia. When she passed away, the Masters decided to change the original name of the Estancia (Estancia Masters) to the current name, Estancia Cristina, in her honor.
Estancia Cristina predates the establishment of the town El Calafate and The National Park (Parque National Los Glaciers). The family had a long history of welcoming scientists, explorers, and trekkers. Joseph, Jessie, and Herbert all lived the remainder of their lives on the ranch and each of them died in their 90s. The last living family member, Herbert’s wife Janet, started the official guesthouse in the 1990s. After her passing in 1997, the land was turned back over to the National Park. The Estancia is now owned by a company that leases the land from the Park in order to provide the unique experience of staying on the ranch and exploring the incredible natural beauty of the land.
On Tuesday, we took the trip to the lookout. A 40 minute 4X4 ride took us up and up. Behind the truck as we traveled on the mountain we could see Lago Argentina, the waterway that brought us here.
While our journey in had been wet and turbulent, this day was much better. The area is characteristically windy but there was no rain and the sun warmed it up enough that I could layer with a windbreaker and leave my winter coat behind.
The trip up the mountain introduced us to the merging landscapes. Hills with trees. Small water spots. Dark rock. We stopped for our first picture taking. Behind us was a larger water way. As glaciers move, they bring with them the sediments of rocks. The force breaks this down to extremely fine powder. As the glacier recedes and the ice turns to water, this sediment rises to the top and creates the most amazing color. Like sea foam green and turquoise blue fused and sparkling. Like no color I have ever seen before. Lago Argentina is entirely this color. Most of the small waterways on the way up were this color too. Some were a deep deep blue grey because of the dark rocks underneath. All of the colors seemed otherworldy. I constantly and spontaneously had widened eyes and found myself mouthing “wow.”
At a shallow water area, the rocks were dark brown and red and worn like ripples, the truck let us out to hike the rest of the way. It seemed as if we had been dropped off on Mars. Ahead I could see snowcapped mountains. To my right, I could see a valley and closer another smaller water hole. It was windy so I tied my fuzzy black hat with the cat ears (not worn since my winter in Uzbekistan) tight around my head to save my ears. The iron and minerals in the rock glistened in the sun. Sparkled. I smiled at Brian and said “This is the best thing that we’ve ever done!” He let out a long and a good laugh.
In about 10 minutes we had arrived at the top look out. Wow. I cannot exactly describe it. We had arrived on planet Venus. That seafoam torquise water was turned up about 5 more hues. It looked radioactive it was so brilliant. The wind had also been turned up about 10 notches. I had to brace myself to stay in one place and crawl sideways to edge up further. Then the wind would let down for a minute and we would all breathe and laugh and work at getting out our cameras. Turn side to side and take it in. Upscala Glacier was poised in view at about the 2pm location (of our circle view). It’s unseen depths go to 700 meters. It seems at a pause due to the slowness. At the 10pm and 12:30am locations are two smaller subsidiaries. Like the base of a river. Or like looking at ski slopes from a plane. With their fingers lightly dipped into this alien water.
We took photos and sucked in the air. Accepted the wind and all the reminders of how incredibly powerful and the extreme longevity of nature. We humbly bowed as teeny guests on the top of this mountain. Feeling our life force as it is connected to such a beautiful planet. I focused intently hoping to etch this scene and the expansive view into my brain and heart in order to carry it with me forever. I hoped that my photos would contain a small fraction of the “wowness.”
And then we set out for 5 more hours of hiking back. I could write a novel about it. More wow and then more again. Each section was uniquely beautiful and inspiring. An area with darker rock. We walked and could hear the crunching of the slate under our feet. We stopped to look at the dozens and dozens of fossils. Sea shells and mollusks. 300 million years old. We seemed to be edging along a scene on Pluto now. Then that would melt into another view of snow capped mountains and a valley of a dark part of the river. The wind caused constant mini white waves in all the water areas. Then a gust would whip through and lift the water into the air. It was like thin walls moving across. Then the water would fall again as the wind passed.
Pluto melted to Saturn. We moved slowly into another canyon. We stopped to watch a condor. The second largest bird in the world. They mate for life and only have a baby every two years. It takes a full year for that new baby bird to learn to fly. As we watched this solo full-grown Condor, he hovered high at the top of the cliff. Close to the rocks. At first he was slow and deliberate as he went against the wind. He flapped one stroke of his wings. Pause. Second stroke of his wings. Pause. Third stroke of his wings. And then he turned into the wind and into the valley. Beautifully he glided and gained tremendous speed and he was gone. Leaving us all with our heads craned towards the sky. Now just looking at the magnificence of the deep blue sky with giant white clouds moving slower than the great bird.
Into the canyon, Saturn revealed another dimension to our history. Rocks layered in orange, red, brown, siennas…I need more color names. The layers were thinner than I have seen before which contributed to the dramatic nature. And the canyon was more narrow than the others. We walked steadily. We paused to look at the rock area closer to this water. It was the same reds and oranges but nearer to the water it was swirled and circled. It shined in the sun’s reflection a bit. Beautiful. Our guide filled her water bottle and we moved on.
Around this next bend was our first glimpse of the grasses of the lower land. We could see two water holes with a small strip of earth between. The first had that sea foam and turquoise. The other was more brownish blue (being from rain water and not the glacier).
We stopped on that hill for a picnic lunch. Our spot was cut in enough to block the majority of the wind so we could take off our hats and gloves. We ate and talked. Our group included our guide, a woman from Buenos Aires that had moved here to Patagonia eight years ago. She works as a guide from October until April each year. Walking these areas every day. The others: A father and son from Brazil. The son, Nikolis, lived in LA for four years so it was fun to share stories of home. The last man was Argentinian. He was also originally from Buenos Aires and had moved to El Calafate about 14 years ago. He had worked as a photographer until his cameras were stolen. Now he acts as a guide and was here at Estancia Cristina with the Brazilians to help them with fishing. (They caught five Salmon in two days. The biggest being 18 and 23 kilos). Brian and I shared about our lives and we all talked about our impressions of this tremendous hike.
In the far distance (another 2 hours of hiking) we were able to see the green/yellow cabins of the Estancia. Our return to Earth. Still to come were the slow layers of this lower land area. Dark long green grasses. Mossy bright green circled patches of fern grass. The first flowers. Dandelions. Blooming white green tumbleweeds. Prickly green vines with purple balls that stay stuck to your pants as you walk through. Bushes of tiny yellow flowers like babies’ breath. Yellow buttercups. Teeny pink trumpet flowers. Soft bushes with dainty pink flowers. Then bright yellow/green grass. And finally in the fields leading into the main area of the ranch is more dandelions and long red grass that seems made to perfectly dance in the winds. The winds being as much of a presence in this place as any animal or tree or human.
And there is that word…it hit me as I was walking those last two hours. Digesting the visuals of this fantastic journey. I was struck by the blip that the human race is in the history of Earth. How fragile we are especially compared with glaciers and rocks and mountains and wind. And also how each unique landscape melts into each other with no borders and no fences. The story of how nature evolves. How collaborative and interactive. How nature is…..Perfection. Real and Tangible Perfection. So beautiful that no photographic filters are necessary.
A beautiful way to the end the year. A reminder to spend more time in the perfection of nature. And to create more moments when I call out: This is the best thing we have ever done!
Thank you, Patagonia.