Patagonia: The Last Wild Place

The new book, Unknown Patagonia, tells the story of the precious and unexplored region of central Chilean Patagonia and the environmental threats it faces

Lenticular clouds above Lago Carrera in central Chilean Patagonia. Lenticular clouds are common in the far south; stacked and layered lenticulars only occur a few times each summer. The clouds are evidence of intense winds aloft and often of changing weather.

 


A clearing storm reveals secondary towers and spires that crowd around Cerro San Lorenzo on the border between Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. These peaks are an hour south of a town named after Lord Cochrane, a British naval hero who also fought for Chilean independence and whose swashbuckling career was the inspiration for Patrick O’Brien’s famous series of seafaring novels.

In South America, "south" means more than a direction, more than a description and more than a mere adjective. It means Patagonia. A majestic place of fjords and forests, ice fields and icy lakes, wind-scoured skies and wind-combed steppes, this is the “south” that we fell in love with on our first trip to southern Chile in 2002. After a month of traveling through central Chilean Patagonia, in the region known as Aysén, we left promising to return as soon as possible to the most beautiful landscape we had ever seen. Doing so was easy. We started thinking of Patagonia as our second home and began sharing our passion for one of the last perfect places on Earth.

Geographically, Patagonia is puzzling. There’s much debate over where it begins and ends. No one denies the peaks and glaciers, but is the dense green Valdivian rain forest part of Patagonia as well? Locals on both sides of the Chilean-Argentinean border stake their claim to the area’s mystique. Our focus is on Palena and Aysén, two neighboring regions in southern Chile. Palena is in the lower half of Chile’s 10th Region, also called the Region of Lakes. You can’t drive there directly because the national road network is cut off by the peaks, fjords and impassable cliffs that plunge into the Pacific Ocean. Ferryboats take you south to where the road begins again and continues onto Aysén, Chile’s 11th Region, which is cut off from the final and more famous 12th Region, Magallanes, at the very bottom of the continent.


One of the three species of southern beech trees that dominate Patagonian forests, the ñirre exhibits a rich spectrum of colors in autumn, ranging from yellow through orange to deeper reds. The beech forests are often festooned with a kind of Spanish moss, known as barba de viejo, or Old Man’s Beard.

Isolated from the rest of Chile and safe from too many people or too much development, the natural beauty of Palena and Aysén has stayed intact. An unrelenting and complex coastline is part of what has kept this part of Patagonia unknown. If this region is the wildest landscape in all of Chile, it’s not because of a steadfast conservation effort by the Chilean people to protect the land from modern industrial-scale development. It’s mostly because no one can really get there and especially not in great numbers. The region is one of the most sparsely populated in all of South America. The terrain is so rugged that building roads just isn’t possible. The Southern Highway, or Carretera Austral, is the only road that crosses this landscape from north to south. The best way, and sometimes the only way, to really see the land is to fly over it. So the rough terrain of northern Patagonia and Palena, with its twisting fjords, hanging valleys and nameless lakes, is kept safe by its sheer steepness.

But there are troubling signs ahead that threaten to harm the landscape’s purity. Along the coast, careless salmon farming threatens many of the pristine fjords. A number of deals made during the Pinochet regime gave control of Patagonia’s free-flowing rivers to foreign energy companies. Arguing that Chile faces a critical energy deficit between now and 2025, an energy consortium has lobbied for five years to build five hydroelectric dams on the pristine Baker and Pascua rivers, producing 2,750 megawatts of power to be sent north to central Chile. To carry all of that energy, 200-foot-tall transmission lines, which would require a clearcut some 400 feet wide for 1,500 miles, would be constructed and run through 64 communities and 14 protected areas. Completion of dams on these two rivers alone would submerge 5,910 hectares of Patagonia’s remaining wild lands.


LEFT: These yellow chocho lupine are found only around Puerto Tranquilo at the western end of Lago Carrera. CENTER: Small “hanging” lakes dot the granite peaks of northern Patagonia in the province of Palena. Most, like this one, have never been visited by fishermen or hikers or climbers because it would take some serious bushwhacking, then rock-climbing, to reach its shore. The only way to see and photograph such hidden lakes is from a small plane.

 


A fiery cloudscape above Lago General Carrera, the largest lake in Patagonia and second largest in South America after Lake Titicaca. Behind the far peaks, an enormous ice field, the Campo de Hielo Norte, slopes down to the Pacific.

The heart of Chilean Patagonia is water. Each river has its own color, which is usually some shade of turquoise. The water is crystal clear and so blue that the color looks like the work of Photoshop. The most intensely colored rivers and lakes that we’ve seen anywhere in the world are in Patagonia. Our favorite lake, Lago Carrera, is the jewel of Aysén and the second largest in South America. We love this lake because of its deep and beautiful color. At the lake’s western end sit sculpted marble caverns eroded by centuries of waves at the base of steep cliffs and stone stacks. Real marble is fairly rare in nature. The combination of marble and turquoise water is even more so.

While they’re now protected from logging, the famous alerce trees are diminishing in number. Alerces are a kind of cypress that stand more than 100 feet high and are centuries old, making them the largest and oldest trees in South America. Thousands of hectares of native forest stretch from the deep fjords of northern Palena to the giant ice fields that separate Aysén from Magallanes in the far south. Along the Enchanted Forest Trail, twisted trees are covered with a layer of smaller green plants and climbing vines, covered and re-covered by moss.


Alerces, a species of cypress, are the largest and oldest trees in South America. Some are estimated to be more than 3,000 years old, and they often reach 130 feet tall. Now protected, only about 15% of Chile’s original alerce stands are left.

Perhaps most identified with its mountainous regions, in Patagonia, even those are different. The peaks of the Andes aren’t as high as those closer to the Equator, but they’re still enormous because they rise some 10,000 feet from near sea level. Some peaks in the far south rise straight from the sea. More than the peaks, Patagonia’s mountain landscapes are defined by ice fields. Much bigger than simple glaciers, they’re formed by years of snow compressing, freezing and turning to ice. The 1,500-mile Northern Ice Field is mostly unseen behind the big peaks. The fields play a big role in the region’s unusual geography. When the winds get going, they pick up clouds of moisture vapor and huge storms form from the vast plains of ice.

In Eastern Aysén, the dry terrain looks more like Argentine Patagonia, the side most often photographed and displayed in climbing magazines. Vast semi-arid valleys cover the landscape with spiky, thorny plants and fast-moving clouds that don’t often bring rain. Beauty here takes on a minimalist tone with stunted, windswept trees and wide, open grasslands.

All of this is southern Patagonia. And because so few have seen this land in person, its beauty remains unknown and unspoiled. Nature put up roadblocks, effectively keeping developmental threats out for a long time. But now there’s pressure. Even the most beautiful and poetic landscape can’t defend itself. So those who know and love this place have to tell the story, show the pictures and tell others to explore it while it’s still perfect.


To see more of Linde Waidhofer’s photography, visit www.westerneye.com. Unknown Patagonia is available as an ebook that can be copied and shared, free of cost, on the Western Eye Press website. A deluxe, large-format hardbound edition, limited to 500 copies, is also available.

4 Comments

    Thanks for sharing this great pictures of that magical place called patagonia. I??m chilean living in england, so i really felt your pictures being so far of my country. Try to keep helping to the cause “Patogania sin represas”. We mustn??t let them kill this place for some dirty money.

    Patagonia, the legendary land of wildness, fierce winds, and hardy gauchos, easily lives up to the allure of its iconic name. The future Patagonia National Park lies in one of the most ecologically critical areas of this region. Exploring the unique geography, geology, ecology and history of this place deepens our respect and understanding of its critical global importance.
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