Patagonia is a land of unspoiled beauty At the edge of the world

August 16, 1992|By F. Lisa Beebe | F. Lisa Beebe,Contributing Writer

Was the brochure to be believed?

In alluring prose, it stated: "Magellanes, Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego . . . names which for centuries have fascinated the world and conjured up images of untold adventure at the very ends of the earth."

Shared by Chile and Argentina, Patagonia (which encompasses Tierra del Fuego) looms at the horizon of most travelers' knowledge and wonder. Precisely because we know so little about it, it is intriguing, like a flirtation ripe with daydreams and promise.

Armed with expectations based more on fantasy than fact, I took off for Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, places out of history books and poetry, lands of an imagined aspect sketched from bits and pieces of information gleaned here and there.

In his travel book, "In Patagonia," Bruce Chatwin wrote during the Cold War, "We fixed on Patagonia as the safest place on

earth, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up."

These words were enough to make Patagonia, for me, more than an armchair-traveler's destination.

My journey began in Buenos Aires and Santiago, capitals of the )) Grand Tour genre whose great sophistication, grace and charm proved as inviting as they were unexpected. Besides being immaculate, these cities are elegant, cosmopolitan and warmly receptive to visitors.

To my delight, at Santiago's Cafe Colonia I had the best cappuccino I've had in years, accompanied by pastries that would stir envy in the Viennese. For while the foundations of much of today's South America were laid by the Spanish, the Germans, British and French strongly brought their respective customs and traditions to bear in fashioning a way of life that is uniquely South American in the European sum of its parts.

A tango show is a must

Thus Buenos Aires sparkles with elegant plazas and a vibrant night life. A must here is a tango show such as that at La Casa Blanca, where Argentina's rhythm and passion are eloquently summarized in the undulations of the lusty bandoleon (a sophisticated concertina) and the intertwining legs of the suggestive dance.

Soon afterward the adventure began in earnest. "Located at the very southern tip of Chile [and Argentina]," the brochure continued, "Patagonia is a collection of hundreds of islands and channels; ice field, icebergs and glaciers; high rugged mountains; four national parks similar in area to Ireland or Portugal; and a vast variety of flora, fauna, lakes, lagoons and rivers. Rafting, trekking, mountaineering, navigating the channels, fishing, observing the flora and fauna . . . these are just some of the things you can do here."

I found one other -- cruising the tortuous waterways of the apex of South America in the comfort of the ship Terra Australis. From Buenos Aires, I flew to Rio Gallegos, to Rio Grande and then in a 40-passenger propeller plane to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and a departure point for the cruise ship.

Ushuaia: a bustling town

As the plane approached the airport, the restless, gray Atlantic and rolling green hills recalled corners of Scotland or the Pacific FTC Northwest. But down on the ground, Ushuaia was a bustling, frontier town. A former penal colony, it is now a city of 30,000 inhabitants (in 1972 there were 2,000), exploding in a chaos of haphazard construction fueled by oil and gas reserves and a budding tourism industry. Though the first five-star hotel is still two years away, the Hotel Ushuaia offers quite satisfactory comfort.

After a catamaran tour of the bay carried us to within a hair's breath of a rock swarming with sea lions and fur seals and of another bristling with cormorants and gulls, it was time to board the Terra Australis, which promised close-up encounters with glaciers and penguins. As the ship sailed through the Beagle Channel, along the Darwin Mountains and through the Magellan Strait, the historic import of the area took on more than a mere textbook reality. Here Magellan, in 1520, laid the first pair of European eyes on Tierra del Fuego (meaning "Land of Smoke" for what he first saw) and, three centuries later, Darwin detailed his observations while traveling aboard the HMS Beagle.

The cruise also provided glimpses into the harsh realities of the conquistadors, missionaries and pioneers who braved fierce winds and violent waters to settle at the southern edge of the world. A case in point is Harberton Farm, the first mission and white man's house in Tierra del Fuego, built in the late 1800s and now home to the fourth generation of the Bridges family.

Against all odds

Once the agile Zodiac boats had shuttled us out to the farm, Natalie Bridges, a native of Ohio, related the against-all-odds tale of the Bridges who came here to raise sheep and how she herself came to settle in this spot that is every bit as beautiful as it is remote.

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