Finding Solitude in the Patagonian Steppe

IMG_6858 The approach to El Chalten, Argentina.

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.

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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.)

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Guanacos and rheas are common roadside sightings, as well.

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Guanacos are as common as deer are in the states.

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A gaucho surveying his terrain.

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.

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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.

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Carrying extra gasoline in a “bidon” was a necessity due to the lack of gas stations between destinations.