Patagonia – The First Time Around
As long as I could remember I had always wanted to explore the mythical and magical region of Patagonia in Southern Argentina and Chile. I finally made my way there in early 2008 for three and a half months of crisscrossing these two countries from one side to the other. The first two weeks I had been traveling down the eastern coast of Argentina getting to see things like an odd welsh town in the middle of South America called Gaiman and one of the worlds smallest dolphin species known as the Commerson’s Dolphin which only grows to around 4-5 feet in length, just to name a few.
One of the highlights on this trip was trekking for 5 days in Torres del Paine (TdP) National Park in Southern Chile. When people think of Patagonia, they often think of one of two mountains, the Torres (actually a set of 3 mountains in the Cordillera Paine Range) in TdP or they think of Fitz Roy in Argentina. What most people don’t actually know is that the vast region of Patagonia is mostly large empty grasslands known as Pampas. The mountains most people associate with the region are actually a very small part of it on a whole.
I was trekking by myself – or as alone as you can be at a very busy national park with full campsites. There are no towns for a couple hours drive and the few stores they have along the trails are very expensive; $4 for a snickers bar expensive, so you want to carry everything you can. I was not only carrying my camera gear, but all of my backpacking gear and food for a week. I have lots of lightweight equipment so luckily this only came to about 80lbs. My total miles covered over the 5 days would be about 55-60 including small side hikes with the toughest ascent at the end to see the Torres. By putting this at the end I would have less weight in my bag for the climb because I will have eaten most of the food I was carrying.
The first day of hiking you are following a thin piece of land between 10,000ft plus mountains directly to your right and a large imposing glacial lake to the left. This glacial lake along with the glacier near my camp for the night are called Lago Grey and Glacier Grey. After three hours on a bus, a thirty minute catamaran ride and now eight miles of hiking under my heavy pack, I was tired and hungry. To save weight in addition to power bars, beef jerky and nuts I was living mostly off of soups or other things I could just add boiling water to. I set my pot to boil and started to get my dehydrated noodle soup ready when I noticed a swallow circling around the camp a few times. I watched this for a moment and before too long it headed for the tree about 15ft to my left. Keeping my distance I moved over to change my vantage point and saw two baby swallows waiting for their meal. I quickly grabbed my camera and tripod along with a telephoto lens and went to locate somewhere to photograph this scene unfolding before me. This is always the wildlife photographers struggle when you are truly able to get close to your subject – where is that limit that is not going to harass the animal and change it’s behavior, but how close can you get to the action? Luckily these little guys lived in the middle of this busy campsite so they were very used to humans being around them. I watched the adult approach a couple times to get a feel for its flight path and I settled onto a stump about 12 feet from the tree the swallows called home. They seemed to not notice me from this distance and carried on with their normal feeding. I photographed the feedings for a for a few minutes until the fading light of sunset became too low. I made my way back over to my now boiled soup to reflect on my first day in what would become one of my favorite places in the world.
I have been back to Chile – and more specifically the Torres del Panie region – multiple times now. With diverse and accessible wildlife and breathtaking landscapes around every corner, it is every nature photographers dream destination. The weather changes rapidly there, “Four seasons everyday,” is a saying around Patagonia. When you have weather that changes so quickly, you have mixing storms and sun that create incredibly dynamic images. No matter how many times you return, there is always something new for you to discover. On my second to last trip, then six years later, I returned to see if the little swallows still used that tree for a home. The park had changed the campgrounds to no longer sit on the shoreline and they were restoring that area of the grounds. You could still walk over to the tree though and the hole was clearly there, but the swallows had moved on. Later on in that trip though I did end up finding a few mountain lions to keep me busy, but that’s an entirely different story… These days I run a workshop to Chile that visits the Torres del Paine National Park and also visits The Atacama Desert in the far North of Chile. This gives me an opportunity to share a couple of my favorite places with a few people each year. If you’re interested in crossing one of the world’s premier bucket list destinations off your list, all while improving your photography, click here for more information.