At the very farthest south of the Americas, where the seemingly endless Andes meet three oceans, lies a magical area of land known as Patagonia. An anomaly in this continent, perhaps having more in common with New Zealand or Tasmania than the rest of the Americas, Patagonia is absolutely nothing short of a natural wonderland to explore. Visiting here had long been a goal after so much hiking in Australia over the years and it was also the perfect excuse to finally get that tent out of the backpack which had been gathering cobwebs for a time now.
The thing about Patagonia is that there is just too much to see, so there is a real danger you could die from scenery overload. It's filled to the brim with the kinds of vistas that due to their their scale, aesthetic and tranquility can't really translate to a frame on a wall. There are dagger-like mountains of granite and slate that soar into the misty sky, rolling hills of green edged by cliffs of exposed swirling sedimentary layers of rock, incredible gnarled Nothofagus forests that resemble a gigantic bonsai garden, beautiful streams and rivers of crystal clear pure water, a sky resembling a science text book page on all the many cloud types, and snow melt lakes of the deepest aqua.
And this is just at the edges, in the centre lies the vast Patagonian ice field: the worlds third largest ice cap after Antarctica and Tibet. This ice is compacted deep and heavy here over the Andes here before it begins to slide inexorably down one of the many stunning glaciers throughout the region where you can hear the rifle-like sounds of them cracking before your very eyes. Patagonia is home to some of the world's very few advancing glaciers (most are melting and receding) and from time to time these glaciers can go a bit too far and collapse in spectacular fashion every few years or so.
Just Google Patagonia already if you've heard of it but never seen it, you'll get the idea of just how stunning this place is. You'll get the itch.
Trekking in Patagonia is also a survivalist's dream. The water is as fresh as it can be, meaning you can fill up your water bottle almost anywhere while hiking and there is an abundance of wild foods. While hiking in the warmer months there are wild currants and delicious Calafate berries in plentiful supply for a sweet hit, many types of dandelions and cats ears for salad greens, edible radioactive-orange fungi growing on trees everywhere, mussels along the shoreline and some rather plump European rabbits hopping around and juicy Canadian beavers who have been rather busy modifying ecosystems. You would be doing the region and immense favour to eat your fill of the latter two.
There is only one thing standing between you and the enjoyment of all this wonder. The weather. Forget what the forecasts say, they are wrong the moment they go to press. You can expect all weather conditions in one day, many times over.
And above all else you can expect wind.
Oh my lord, the wind.
The first clue you get as to how things blow here is when entering the rangers office at the national parks. When quizzed about the windy spots the ranger will point to a map and indicate that the wind is really strong "here, here, here, here, here" *pause* "here, here, here" *long pause* "and here, here here and here". At this moment you realise that the ranger has more or less pointed to the entire map except the ranger hut.
Another subtle clue is the fact that all rangers seem to be using broken tent poles as map pointing devices.
I think it is fair to say you just haven't truly experienced wind until you have been to Patagonia. It is ridiculous, relentless, ferocious and honestly drives people to mental breaking point. There are many times where you will simply be held up leaning in place against it, other times you will be thrown to the ground as if some invisible assailant had just pushed you over.
Sure, it can be fun at times to play with it, but it can be heart-stoppingly terrifying at others. There was certainly a genuine near death experience on one narrow, rocky scree mountain pass where the wind (which was howling at 100kph and gusting double that), required crawling on all fours to negotiate. It was an absolute do-or-die moment and the most dangerous part of this entire American adventure. It begs the question of what kind of conditions are actually worthy of track closure here. It is hard to imagine it being worse than that.
Besides being physically thrown around and being beaten to death by flying debris, the wind is capable of other fantastic effects upon you. Even though there are no clouds above you, it can drive so hard across such massive distances that you can still be rained upon if it is occurring anywhere upwind into the horizon. At other times, the gusts of wind can fill your lungs with air even if you don't inhale and you must constantly 'pop' your ears due to the pressure changes on your ear drums. I just never believed wind could do any of these things until Patagonia came along.
Needless to say, trying to sleep in a tent at night is not a comfortable experience either. At least when you are hiking you can duck down where you hear the gusts roaring towards you, but in your tent you are a sitting duck. Your tent has to be pegged down and then covered in rocks for it to stand any hope of survival and many tents never live beyond this place. The wind gusts during the night is like someone kicking your tent in, over and over again, all night. In between the big gusts you just sit there waiting for the next one, as the tent comfortingly whips into your head and body twenty times a second, wondering if changing from your dry clothes into your wet weather gear 'just in case' is a prudent precaution.
If you are planning to visit this place, be ready for one other thing in Patagonia: the number of tourists. Patagonia is relatively simple to fly directly into (if you like flights where the engines scream and the passengers pray during landing attempts), and lies within Chile and Argentina, two of the safest countries of South America. This level of accessibility opens the region up to the unwashed masses more than anywhere on the continent, making it a bucketlist item for people who otherwise normally probably don't give a toss about hiking or nature much in general. The biggest example is probably the famous Torres del Paine hike. The moment you enter Patagonia you are bombarded with phrases like "you have to 'do' Torres del Paine" or "you haven't seen Patagonia until you have seen Torres del Paine". Consequently (and excepting that one tourist who was eaten by a Puma), you can give up any pretense of being alone and personal with nature here on the main tracks, they crawl with people wearing conspicuously brand new hiking boots and equipment. These folk sadly have some lofty expectations and are often complaining how the views aren't quite stacking up to what they were promised off post cards.
Damn you nature and your inconsistency. These people paid good money for those North Face jackets, where is the return on that investment?
The other frustrating reality is that with so many non-hikers hiking a multi-day hike in one of the most wild and sensitive parts of the world, the effects on the environment become evident. There is little or no respect for any facilities or tracks provided, rubbish is left on the ground and at campsites all too often, people contaminate water and only a few years ago some idiots accidentally set fire to almost half of the park, the damage from which is irreversible - the unique and amazing forests have been replaced with burnt out husks and invasive grasses instead.
Despite being a victim of its own fame to a certain extent, Patagonia IS remarkably beautiful with an attraction unquestionably undeniable. It's hard not to be blown away by it all, one way or another.