When I first laid eyes on Patagonia after having lived in the Rockies, I knew I’d found the wilder West. A vast empire of shifting landscapes, the very sight of it sets off a pressing itch to go exploring. Golden steppe, glaciers and deep forest wrapped around countless unnamed peaks, these landscapes are larger than life. To be there, immersed, is to belong to something greater.
It’s a sense of possibility that endures. In Patagonia’s recent frontier history, the homesteaders of the early twentieth century crossed the Andes to Argentina for provisions and bandits herded stolen livestock via hidden mountain passes. Crossing Jeinimeni Natural Reserve to Patagonia Park, the Smuggler’s Route is one such fabled place. The reserve is part of an ambitious project that is set to combine three contiguous parks into a reserve of nearly 1,000 square miles* protecting herds of wild guanaco, a South American camelid, puma, Andean condor and other native wildlife rarely seen elsewhere.
With a group of friends, I set out to get a glimpse of this wild territory on a four-day adventure. A 4x4 bounced us through the parched landscapes of Jeinimeni, an open landscape of rusty mineral tones. Tucked into the landscape are cave paintings by bands of native Tehuelche, nomads who also passed through here, albeit 7,000 years ago.
Once on the trail the scenery turns alpine. Austral lakes have a tendency to take on flamboyant tones, but little prepares me for the electric hue of Lago Verde, bearing a mirror image of its bulky mountain backdrop. We cut a direct path through the cursive loops of a river, wading upstream across the shallow ice-blue ribbon, boots slung over one shoulder, teeth gritted against the cold. By the third crossing the sensation of pins and needles numbs, leaving us awake and acutely alive. Water created this route. How could we have hoped to avoid it?
Compared to other parts of the world, trails are relatively few here. They bear historical links to indigenous migration routes or to the pioneers. This one, so well hidden, reveals itself to be more clever than dramatic. My thoughts drift to my crafty predecessors who managed to find the ideal slip between two rugged ranges. Its difficulty lies less achieving the mountain pass, known as Paso de la Gloria, than negotiating the wild terrain that surrounds it. Rain and snowmelt control the rivers, and their runoff often determines a traveler’s progress. Luckily, the only delay this time is caused by our enjoyment.
Along the way, we bathe in the trickle of a stream warmed by sunshine, cross a thigh-high tributary to the Aviles River and gaze up at distant glaciers beyond the reach of any existing path. Weather-beaten shelters of old still provide service to hikers: a rustic lean-to of split logs tucked discreetly into lenga forest and a weathered shingled cabin with meadow views down the Aviles valley. Yet the pièce de résistance is a new hanging bridge strung over a narrow chasm of the frothy Aviles River, roughly 100 feet up and across, providing sturdy but shaky passage.
When we leave behind the mountains for the steppe of Chacabuco Valley the contrast is clear. A former sheep ranch, its fences have been removed and native grasses have been restored. Before us herds of guanaco feed with their coltish, doe-eyed young. Known as chulengos, these downy creatures are notably new to the world. They are both curious and a heartbeat from bolting.
But they don’t. Keeping our distance, we are eventually forgotten. The guanacos revert to feeding and cavorting so we watch. The end of the trail is near, but none of us seem to be in much of a rush to finish. For this moment we are part of the landscape.
Patagonia expert Carolyn McCarthy has documented life in the most remote corners of Latin America, contributing to travel publications, newspapers and numerous Lonely Planet guides, including Chile & Easter Island and Argentina. Check out her website at www.carolynmccarthy.org.
Join Mountain Travel Sobek on the Smuggler's Trail in Jeinimeni in 2017. One departure has already sold out and the other two are filling up fast!