We are standing on a ferry cruising across the icy blue waters of Lago Argentina in southern Patagonia. We are in our underwear. Our thirteen shipmates—Germans, French, Argentines, Spaniards, and Brazilians among them—are also in various states of undress. We are alone on the water, two hours from any hint of civilization.
Somewhere ahead of us lies Upsala Glacier, the country’s second largest, and we have disrobed in preparation to kayak among the icebergs that have sheered from its face and tumbled into the lake. In the distance, a giant iceberg grows larger as we draw near.
Kayaking in such a place as this requires special gear. Each participant starts with a base layer, which is essentially a thermal onesie for grown ups, and then wriggles awkwardly into a dry suit that seals at the wrists, neck, and ankles with rubber gaskets. Next come a pair of neoprene booties, and finally kayaking skirts, which will stretch over the mouth of the kayak to seal out the lake’s icy water.
The guide gives careful instructions in both English and Spanish. He demonstrates how to squeeze out the extra air trapped in our dry suits. We crouch in the fetal position, knees together, elbows in, and pull at the rubber gasket around the neck of our suits, forcing the air out. We’ve become human whoopee cushions, and as the air loudly expresses itself between the rubber and our necks, we giggle. But the action is no laughing matter; if we were to fall in the water without performing this crucial step, our suits would be buoyant, but our heads would not, and we would drown.
The boat pulls ashore—a pebbled, black sand beach framed by rocky promontories. In the water, icebergs balance awkwardly, opaque limbs protruding in all directions. Upsala Glacier looms in the distance, partially shrouded by the rain that has begun to fall.
On the beach, in the gentle drizzle, the guide gives basic kayaking instructions and leads the group through a series of stretches. Moments later we shove off into the water and paddle for a giant iceberg that towers 20 or 30 feet above the surface.
The tempo is quick in an effort to experience as much of the area as possible in two hours on the water. With one eye on Patagonia’s ever-changing sky, the guides weave us around. Like a row of ducklings, we follow, gliding single file from berg to berg, pausing to admire each one’s signature look: this one, a half pipe for skateboarders; this one’s been shot clean through with a cannonball; this one has a lever you can push to make waves.
For the finale, the guide offers each kayaking pair the opportunity to enjoy a “Patagonian shower;” a glacial waterfall that flows over a rocky ledge and empties into the lake. We pull our kayak parallel to the cliff and paddle hard toward the falls. The water pounds down on our heads with a deafening roar, and time momentarily stops until the guides shouts of “Keep paddling!” cut through, and we emerge breathless on the other side.
It was an allegory for all of Patagonia, a place that takes your mind and body by force, and turns you out on the other side wide-eyed and amazed.
If you go:
- The glacial habitat is highly protected; our 15-person group would be the only one sailing that day, and departures are allowed only 4 days of the week.
- Mil Outdoor, in partnership with Viva Patagonia, runs the Upsala Kayak Experience from November through April. To book online, we used CalafateMountainPark.com and checked in at the Viva Patagonia office in El Calafate the evening before our trip. It sounds confusing but it all went very smoothly.
- The guides take plenty of pictures and at the time of our trip, provided them to participants for no extra charge. Bring a flash drive with; otherwise they’ll upload them to a website for a couple weeks, and you can download them when you have a chance.
- It’s a two- to three-hour sail to the icebergs, but time passes quickly, between taking in the scenery, getting into the gear, and learning about the ecological and geological significance of the region from the guide. I and many others passed out hard on the ride back but awoke to find a photo slideshow of our day playing on the ferry’s tv screen.
This past March, we spent time in southern Patagonia at the tip of Chile and Argentina, hiking in Torres del Paine, El Calafate, and El Chalten. Though those destinations offer some of the most epic scenery in the world, driving across the steppe to get to these destinations (around 20 hours on the road over 9 days) was an experience in and of itself.
The steppe are the rolling, wide-open spaces that dominate Patagonia. Set against the dramatic Andes mountains to the west, with their enormous glaciers and milky blue glacial lakes, it would be easy to overlook the dry, arid steppe. But in its endlessness, its remoteness, and its barrenness, it is equally dramatic.
The elements are simple: scrub, wind, sheep, and a thin line of simple fencing that traces along Ruta 40. (It became a game to scan the fence for skeletons of sheep who got tangled in the wire and were picked clean by birds of prey, such as condors, eagles and falcons.)
Guanacos and rheas are common roadside sightings, as well.
Even after 20 hours of driving across southern Patagonia, the steppe never got old. There was beauty in its sparseness, drama in its scope. To be on the steppe is to know what it feels like to be alone in the world. To leave all trace of civilization behind. No power lines, no airplanes, no exits, no lights, no traffic, and no buildings, except the occasional estancia set far off the road.
To be in a place so vast and so far from any elements of civilization, and to be able to look across hundreds of miles of nothing is just as inspiring as any mountain or waterfall. There is only the highway, the endless steppe, and you.