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


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.

Unfamiliar with the lexicon of geology, I was, at first, unable to clearly express the scenic wonders we encountered. Our guides and crew spoke of "moraine," "caving" and "crevasses" -- all references to the fine art of glacial creation -- and suddenly I was looking at the world through a new vocabulary.

A most compelling essay in this new vernacular was Garibaldi Sound, where the gleaming white Garibaldi Glacier bridges the flanking mountains to form a masterful cul-de-sac. As we passed between the converging mountains of the sound to approach the glacier, the brilliant, menthol blue of the crevasses became increasingly intense. And from time to time the roar of caving ice shattered the immense silence as the glacier deposited chunks of ice in the chill waters around us.

Waddling creatures abound

From November to early March, these waters are the preferred habitat of the Magellanic penguin, which settles in droves on Magdalena Island, a popular port of call with Terra Australis passengers who continually "ooh" and "aah" at the antics of these petite, distinctively striped, waddling creatures.

"Patagonia is, first and foremost, a vast expanse of virgin land, which you can now discover for yourself," the brochure said. And there's no better place to do so than Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, where, the brochure added, "every kind of sporting activity can be practised . . . amid a geographical extravaganza of channels, fjords, glaciers, lakes, steppe lands, woods and high mountains."

From the town of Punta Arenas, where the Terra Australis also takes on passengers, it's a rigorous but rewarding journey through the flat, eccentric beauty of Chilean Patagonia to the park. Photographers take note: Jagged, snow-dappled peaks bolt 9,000 feet straight up; numerous lakes glimmer a vibrant, cerulean blue or soft, "glacial milk" green; and as the fierce Patagonia winds toss the rain clouds about, frequent rainbows span the skies.

In recognition of an ecosystem little affected by the interference of man, the United Nations, in 1978, declared Torres Del Paine National Park a member of the international Network of Biosphere Reserves. Its landscapes seemed a cross between Switzerland's vertical majesty and Montana's vast expansiveness, and roaming its 100,000 acres are guanacos (a local variety of llama), rheas (a local variety of ostrich), condors, pink flamingos, two species of fox, puma, owls, woodpeckers and 100 other bird species.

After a day of trekking and another spent boating out to Grey Glacier, we made our way back to Punta Arenas. Near Puerto Natales we stopped at the Mylodon Cave, where, in 1896, Herman Eberhard, a German settler, found the first remains of the mylodon (a giant sloth that roamed these Patagonian plains some 11,000 years ago) in this unusual amphitheater of a cave.

Intrigued at an early age by a piece of mylodon skin in his grandmother's dining-room cabinet in England, Bruce Chatwin undertook the epic journey set down in his book, "In Patagonia," a stirring account of "adventure at the very ends of the earth."

L It's good to know that some brochures still speak the truth.

If you go . . .

For reservation in Ushuaia, contact the Hotel Ushuaia, Lasserre 933, 9410 Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina; call 54-901/22024; fax 54-901/24217.

For information and reservations on the Terra Australis, contact Cruceros Australis, S.A., Miraflores 178, 12th Floor, Santiago, Chile; call 6963211/337004; fax 6963211/331871; telex 340943).

For package tours featuring the Terra Australis and Torres del Paine National Park, contact South American Fiesta, P.O. Box 456, 31 Madeline Road, Ridge, N.Y. 11961; call (800) 334-3782; fax (516) 924-4266.

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