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Published: March 5th 2019
Poet, novelist and travel writer William Graham holds a BA and MA in English and a MS in Communication from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He lives in Stowe, Vermont. His most recent travel book is Border Crossings: Travel Essays and Poems.
“Patagonia.” The word conjures up images of jagged Andean peaks, fierce winds, gauchos and vast emptiness. The adventurer Bruce Chatwin put it best: “The word 'Patagonia', like Mandalay or Timbuctoo, has lodged itself in our imagination as a metaphor for The Ultimate, the point beyond which one could not go.”
I followed the siren call of this stunning region of Chile on a recent trip to the Aysen region of Patagonia. The origin of the words “Aysen” and “Patagonia” are themselves worth mentioning. The best guess is that the word “Aysen,” a sparsely populated region encompassing over 42,000 square miles, is a Spanish corruption of the words “ice ends.” Mariners who successfully navigated the ice-choked Strait of Magellan while rounding Cape Horn found the fjords in the region free of ice flows—thus, they had come finally to where the ice ends (Aysen).
The word “Patagonia” comes from the word “patagones,” (meaning “big feet’) which was the name given
by the Portuguese mariner Fernando de Magellanes to the native people whose large footprints he found in the sand on his 1520 expedition around the world.
My journey to the land of big feet and where the ice ends began with a two-hour flight from Santiago to Balmaceda, followed by a bone-shaking six-hour drive on the Carretera Austral’s (Southern Highway) rutted gravel road to my base at the Mallin Colorado Ecolodge on the shore of Lake General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca. The lodge itself sits on over 250 acres of land with stunning views of the lake and Andes. While on the property, I went on several hikes on its trails that looped through pleasant forests.
The Aysen region offers a vast array of outdoor activities. I took advantage of three activities. First, I went kayaking on Lake General Carrera to visit the marble caves, a unique geological formation that features a number of caverns, tunnels, and pillars of marble. Even if you have never been in a kayak before, the two-hour round trip is eminently doable, especially on a calm day.
Second, I went white water rafting on the
Baker River, a fast-flowing glacial river in the heart of the region. The river features several Class 5 (the most dangerous) rapids. With our guide and rafting companions, we navigated several Class 3 rapids, which were enough to get us all drenched and to feel the power of the watery beast beneath our inflatable raft. In short, the trip down river was a blast; I highly recommended the journey for anyone visiting the region.
Third, I took advantage of the many hiking trails in the newly established Patagonia Park. This park, covering over 200,000 acres, was dedicated on January 29, 2018. The park was part of over 10 million acres of land that Tompkins Conservation donated to the Chilean government to create five new national parks and to expand three others. Tompkins Conservation (which was founded by the late Douglas Tompkins who established the North Face clothing company) and Conservacion Patagonica are dedicated to creating national parks in Patagonia that save and restore wildlands and wildlife, inspire care for the natural world, and generate healthy economic opportunities for local communities.
I went on a memorable and moderately difficult hike on a 16-kilometer (10 mile) trail in the Rio
Aviles valley. The trail featured a steep, narrow switchback that had sharp drop-offs to the valley below. I had to maintain my concentration on the gravel trail or one false step could send me plunging into thorny plants, or worse. But the magnificent views of the Andes swept away all anxiety of the trail’s most challenging sections.
The Aysen region is very remote and difficult to get to. But the opportunities for adventure there are many and varied. The landscape’s raw, unspoiled beauty rewards the intrepid travelers many times over.
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