Patagonia, at last

I wake up. It’s still dark, but I think I will soon start to hear noises from the other tents, as people will start preparing for the grueling hike up to the lake, to see the famous Torres at sunrise. I move around in my sleeping bag. My feet are cold, but this is hardly something new. I change my position, trying to get back to sleep, but I can’t. I take a look at the clock. I was wrong. It’s only 1 a.m. There are still many hours left until dawn, many hours of enduring the cold in this shitty sleeping bag that’s supposed to keep you comfortable at -15 C. It’s only -10 and it’s not pleasant. I stare at the tent walls for another hour or two until I manage to fall asleep. Luckily, only a few nights were like this.

Patagonia autumn winter scenery
Just a tiny bit of the legendary Patagonian weather.

I’ve been thinking for the last couple of weeks how to put in words the Patagonian experience. For a long time, I could come up with nothing but “It was amazing, really amazing!”. Maybe my engineering background is to blame, trying to make everything concise and schematic. Plus, the fact that Dorin already published a masterfully written article doesn’t help. 🙂 But help does come from him in the end. Or rather, in the beginning, because in truth, this whole trip was mostly about friendship. This is one of the first photos I took and it’s one of my favorites:

Dorin admiring the majestic Fitz Roy for the first time as we approach El Chalten by bus, early in the morning.

When you have friends you’d go to the end of the Earth with… well, that’s exactly what you do. Especially when it’s a journey you’ve been dreaming about since you were a child, when the name “Tierra del Fuego” used to light up your imagination. Then it became a dream for both of us. For many years it seemed like some unattainable target, the ultimate dream destination. Now that it became a reality, along with all the joy and amazement it brought, I am left with some kind of empty space. Or maybe it’s just a momentary lack of direction.

Although I’ve done some long solitary travels and I enjoy that state of mind (“20.000km Across Asia”), this was something different. I really wanted us to go together to Patagonia. I knew it was going to be beautiful, but the greatest reward was that we got to be amazed together by the wild beauty of those places. Every morning we would wake up before dawn and we’d go to photograph the sunrise (or rather the surroundings in morning light) somewhere in the area, no matter the weather. Without exception, every morning we would end up looking at each other in awe, hardly believing the wonderful show that was unfolding before our eyes.

Patagonia autumn scenery
The usual kind of sight in Patagonia: sharp mountains, glaciers in every valley and breathtaking colors.

While we both had this dream for many years, we could even call it a small obsession, we were lucky to have Aura with us, otherwise our admiration for the mountains might have taken some extreme forms. Maybe we would have jumped off a cliff in order to immerse ourselves in the landscape, or to avoid returning home. We were left with some kind of a depression upon coming back to Bucharest, firstly because Bucharest is a lot uglier than Patagonia, and secondly because now I don’t know how to follow this great adventure with something even better. Anyway, it’s useless to try and make sense of my thoughts for the moment, so maybe it’s better to tell you a few things about our trip.

The first proper day in the mountains: surprisingly good weather and killer views.

Just a week before, I was certain I had found the most beautiful forests I have ever seen, somewhere in Tenerife. But when we first set up the tents in the Argentinian wilderness, those were already dethroned by huge Lenga trees with leaves the size of a fingernail, colored more intense than I have ever seen. This was an adaptation to the fierce winds in Patagonia, but even so, there were many victims. The forests are full of twisted, fallen, dead and rotten trunks. On a side note, you should know that we also have similar, chaotic forests in Romania. They are the virgin forests and we’d better protect them while we still have them, learning some lessons from the rest of Europe that now regrets cutting theirs.

Forest in Patagonia

Back to South America, it’s fascinating to see how these forests transform radically over short distances. You go up on a hill and all the trees are small and twisted by the powerful winds, resembling beautiful bonsai trees. Descend in the immediate valley and they are straight, wide and 30 metres tall. In some other part they are the size of fruit trees, but thinner and wildly shaped. Everywhere among them, fallen trunks and huge rocks. It’s an incredibly beautiful chaos and extremely difficult to photograph. As Dorin said on a couple of occasions: “It’s so beautiful it makes me sick. I don’t know what to photograph anymore.”

The second most frequent dilemma after this (sometimes the first) was “Anything else to eat?”. We each carried a week’s worth of food, but in the end, both in Argentina and in Chile, we ended up rationalizing a bit, because we didn’t bother to make proper calculations at the beginning. We kind of eyeballed it and we were close, but there were moments when we wanted an extra bite or two, and Dorin and Aura were quick to give in to temptations. Anyway, I have to thank Aura for spoiling us with things like lemon, hot chocolate, tea, even avocado, and all kinds of other things I would never think of carrying with me for a week of “survival camping”, when I try to take only the essential stuff, to reduce the weight of the backpack as much as possible. I admit, sometimes they were worth the effort. I might rethink some of my rules in the future.

Change of weather.

Speaking of essentials, Romanian ham was the basis of our survival in the first week. That is, until it mysteriously disappeared along with some cheese, a couple of cans and some bags with dehydrated food, all found in a bag which I hanged from a tree to protect it from mice and foxes. Except that the tree was a few metres away from my tent, in some sort of intersection in the camping, so maybe somebody thought it was left for others, or forgotten. The consequence was that we ran out of food 2 days earlier than anticipated, so Dorin and Aura went down to civilization and bought some more. And had a hot, cooked meal without me. And I suspect they also had a beer. Anyway. On the second week, we did our estimates better and the food lasted until the end (with just a tiny bit of rationalizing).

But the main food in Patagonia was not that. It was the landscape, the wind, the water, the colors, the strange creatures we encountered along the way. We took so much in to last us a lifetime, yet we are still hungry.

The clean waters of Patagonia.

During these weeks we drank water from every little river that crossed our paths. And there were many of them. And each one was crystal clear and the water was perfectly clean, as was the rest of the environment. We walked hundreds of kilometres and we didn’t come across any plastic bottle or any can “forgotten” behind. I was so used to their presence from the trails back home, that I almost felt something was missing. That would be education in our own backyard. Also, I didn’t see any dogs on the footpaths, not even near the lodges. Another thing to note. Pets do not belong in natural parks. Except for the trails that see millions of tourists every year, Patagonia is mostly intact and wild. Especially considering that national parks like Los Glaciares and Torres del Paine are just tiny pieces in a much larger wild and inaccessible area.

The beautiful Pygmy Owl.

All this minimum human intervention allows for an abundant and diverse fauna. And we got lucky with a few encounters. The most surprising was the first one, on our first camping evening. After eating we were looking for some branches to hang the food from, and right next to one of our tents, 3 metres high in a tree, I spotted a pygmy owl, which Dorin had just described to me earlier that day, as we entered the forests that he said seemed like the perfect habitat for them. He was thrilled about the possibility of seeing them, so at first he didn’t believe me when I told him there’s one just sitting a few metres away, looking at us. As the name suggests, it’s a tiny, tiny owl, extremely cute and difficult to spot. And very patient with us photographing it for 10 minutes or more, as the light quickly faded away.

After that, we looked for it every day in the coming weeks, in every forest we passed through, and Dorin probably in every tree. We never saw another one (although we heard it one night). But we did see guanacos, rhea birds, foxes, condors (from afar), rabbits, Magellanic woodpeckers, an armadillo, and, most thrilling, some puma tracks, on two occasions. We took some photos and a biologist later confirmed they indeed belong to a puma, a young one. We kept looking for pumas as well, but never saw one. Thus, we referred to it as “the elusive puma”.

Fairy-tale landscape.

Instead, we got lucky with the weather. We were prepared (we’d like to think) for rain, wind, snow and cold. We had the last two, but even those in minimal form.The wind in Patagonia is famous (for sometimes throwing people off trails and climbing walls), but it seems it’s more aggressive during the summer months, not close to winter, when we were there. We did hear it on a couple of nights, gradually building up into the distance and coming ever closer like a giant roar that’s getting bigger and bigger, that you think would level you and your tent. But in the end it would pass above the forest that was sheltering the camping with only a swish in the leaves above. And it wasn’t the only noise during the night. Most times we camped close to huge glaciers and from time to time we could hear something like a distant thunder, as ice would break away and come rumbling down the mountain walls. It’s sad that in a few years those sounds will be heard no more.

Glaciers in every valley. For now.

As for the wind, we only truly felt it on a single morning, when we went shooting at sunrise, after clearing a few inches of snow off our tents.

We left the shelter of the forest and we went on an exposed hill nearby. Soon we were caught up in a blizzard. My two sets of gloves (an improvisation, I admit) couldn’t handle the cold and pretty soon I had to stop for about 10 minutes behind a tree, sitting with my hands in my down jacket to start feeling my fingers again and be able to continue shooting. It was the most unpleasant morning, but also the most beautiful.

After a few hours it was quiet all around and the world was looking spectacular with a thin sheet of snow on it, especially on those crazy beautiful red trees.

And I didn’t tell you anything about the mountains, did I? Simply amazing. They rise suddenly with vertical towers to which glaciers still cling to. They are quite temperamental and stay mostly hidden in the clouds they create for themselves. The fierce winds are also their creation, maybe a way to feel the surrounding landscape with invisible fingers.

I didn’t tell you much about the clouds and their colors either. But I don’t know how I could describe the way the entire sky lights up in the morning in vibrant colors every direction you turn your head to and stays like that for tens of minutes, then disappears, only to come back shortly after, before fading away until the next day. It’s a truly jaw dropping show and, as a photographer, it’s hard to concentrate on one subject.

Patagonia autumn scenery

These were simple and beautiful days, with a natural rhythm of life, waking up at sunrise and going to sleep soon after sunset and walking hundreds of km through amazing scenery, with clean air in our lungs and zero modern interruptions and stress. Life reduced to simple stuff. Somehow, this way it’s possible to be happy even while carrying 20kgs on your back on a slope that seems to have no end. It’s the kind of inner peace we’re robbed of in the cities. We’re tricked into not having time for it, in our quest for things that end up ruling our lives and emptying them at the same time.

There’s a lot more that can be said, but I can’t give everything away, as Bowie would say (though a couple more articles will follow). I don’t know if Patagonia was more than we hoped for, or less, or different from what we imagined. But I know it was real, it was hard, it was extremely beautiful, it transformed us in ways we don’t know yet, and it will never leave our memories.

Patagonia autumn scenery
Fire and ice.

A part of my soul remained behind, hanging from these windblown trees, admiring shapes and colors never seen before. And this part left behind is growing with every day spent in cities filled with noise, pollution, haste, anger, hustling, long after hours and other unnatural things. It’s amazing how much we stray away from the things we really need for our well-being.

Absolutely worth the effort of waking up every morning before sunrise.

I was listening to a song the other day and heard this line: “Instead of moving mountains, let the mountains move you.” Indeed, we didn’t shift those beautiful mountains in the slightest, but they moved us in so many ways and will continue to do so even from afar.

Patagonia is a hard place to survive in.
We had a couple of fun moments crossing rivers. Aura had a custom-built bridge just for her.
Happy nature photographer.
Patagonia autumn winter scenery
It’s probably the colors that I’ll remember the most from this trip.
Adventure of a lifetime and corresponding smile.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed the images, you can have them on your wall as prints.