In mid-March, the start of autumn in Argentina, I read from Darwin’s still-vivid journal as I sipped a cortado in Ushuaia, capital of Tierra del Fuego, southernmost city on the planet and self-proclaimed “end of the world.”
Behind me, a wall of saw-toothed peaks towered over the town. Out the window, I could see gray waves churning the Beagle Channel, which links the Atlantic and the Pacific, and snow-capped Andes soaring skyward across the strait in Chile.
My wife and I were at the start of nearly three weeks of hiking, glacial kayaking, white-water rafting, horseback riding and more in Patagonia, the wild bottom third of Argentina. It was our 20th wedding anniversary and my 70th birthday, and I had somehow convinced her that we should celebrate with a far-flung adventure.
Given the occasion, we had decided to go all in. We hired Travels with Tesa, a custom travel adviser based in New York, to help plan the expedition. The founder, Tesa Totengco, is an old friend, and after multiple phone calls, she sent a 43-page proposed itinerary.
I’d never used a concierge travel service before, but letting the pros handle our logistics let us focus on enjoying the magnificent landscape. Tesa and Loli Marino, her colleague in Buenos Aires, booked all our internal flights, hotels, private guides, drivers and transport, activities and even our nightly dinner reservations.
Patagonians say they enjoy all four seasons, often in one day, so we packed lots of layers and rain gear. We wound up wearing it all on our first day in Ushuaia, which dawned cold and drizzly.
Our guide, Maia Muryn, picked us up at our hotel, and after a 90-minute drive, we were racing down the Beagle Channel in a rigid inflatable boat, headed to the penguin rookery on tiny Isla Martillo.
A vast flock of Antarctic cormorants crowded the shingle, each one swathed in black and white. It took a moment to spot the tuxedoed penguins waddling among them. But then we did: dozens of Magellanic penguins, which have white stripes near the eyes and down the chest, and gentoo penguins, which don’t.
Both species swim 1,800 or so miles north in the Atlantic each year to feed, then return six months later to this barren little island — indeed to the same mates and same nests — to breed, raise their chicks and molt.
A day later, we took another boat past the Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse to a cluster of rocky outcrops in the channel that were carpeted with dozens of female Patagonian sea lions and their pups. Not far off, scores of huge fur seals, which are more closely related to sea lions than seals, jostled atop a single islet.
As rain pelted down, they huddled together in bobs of five or six, occasionally barking or baring sharp teeth, then curling up again. A few clambered around the rocks or dove in the frigid sea. They ignored a yelping pup who struggled to climb up from the water. Survival of the fittest, indeed.
Sea lions provided food and pelts to an Indigenous tribe called the Yamana for thousands of years. Their bonfires lit the rocky headlands when Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to sail these waters, landed in Tierra del Fuego in 1520. Accounts from his visit led to the name Land of Fire.
Like many aboriginal people, the Yamana were wiped out by European diseases and genocidal policies. Or so I informed my wife after reading a local brochure.
“The last Yamana died last month,” our guide, Mauro Guimaraenz, corrected me. He pulled out his phone and called up a local news clip. Cristina Calderón, age 93, “the last full-blooded Yamana and the last native speaker of the Yamana language” died in February of covid-19, it read.
Tierra del Fuego National Park is only about eight miles from Ushuaia, and one day, we hiked on its misty shore, past mossy middens where the early Yamana dumped shells, crude harpoons and other detritus. A soft, golden light filtered through twisted trees draped with a straggly yellow-green lichen called “old man’s beard,” giving the glens a magical air.
Years ago, Argentine officials introduced Canadian beavers, minks and rabbits in a misguided effort to build a fur trade. It was a disaster: The industry failed, beaver dams flooded fragile areas, minks ate local birds, and gray foxes were imported to cull the rabbits, putting pressure on other fauna.
We saw some of the beaver damage on a long afternoon’s hike on Gable Island, which was lined with peat bogs and deciduous beech forests. It was eerily silent, because there are almost no insects and few song birds this far south. There are also no poisonous insects or plants. So we felt at ease eating so-called Indian bread, a fungus that grows on trees, and prickly heath berries, which taste like apples, along the trail.
Several days later, we flew about 550 miles north to El Calafate, and a driver took us the 133 miles to El Chaltén for some more serious hiking. He pointed out wild llama-like guanacos grazing on the steppe, a gray fox running across the road, and caracara falcons perched on the fence posts.
We lucked out the next day. We were facing our most ambitious hike, to Mount Fitz Roy, named for the captain of Darwin’s ship. The Indigenous Tehuelche people called it Chaltén, or smoking mountain, because it is usually shrouded by clouds. But we set out under clear, sunny skies, giving us stunning views of the 11,171-foot-high pinnacle and other needlelike peaks as we approached.
It was 14 miles round trip, a grueling day of knee-pounding on glacial moraine, but it was worth the effort as we downed our sandwiches on a high ridge overlooking a glacial lake, awed by the majestic spires.
Two days later, we hiked 11 miles up to Laguna Torre, where glaciers collide and form a milky lake filled with icebergs. Our guide for both hikes, Juliana Eguia, described nearly every bird, bush and bug on the trails, as well as the history of local explorers.
She also shared her own family history, one that reflects Argentina’s more recent past.
She was born in 1977, a year after a U.S.-backed military junta launched a reign of terror. Thousands of students, artists, trade unionists and other civilians vanished forever. Investigators later found that hundreds of infants were taken from murdered parents and often given to childless military couples before democracy was restored in 1983.
Juliana discovered in her mid-20s that the military officer who raised her was not her biological father — but he refused to say more before he died. She has been haunted ever since trying to learn whether her birth mother was among the “desaparecidos,” as the disappeared are known, she told me.
We returned to Calafate a day later, and another guide drove us to the Perito Moreno glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third-largest area of continental ice in the world after Antarctica and Greenland.
The leading edge rises 18 stories from the water and is more than three miles wide. It is one of the few major glaciers that is not receding from global warming, although scientists believe it is getting thinner. It is also among the world’s most accessible glaciers.
On a clear day, you can see a vast expanse of giant meringue-like whirls and peaks — and hear the constant boom of fresh cracks and calving — from passenger boats, from two miles of raised walkways on a nearby shore, or even by donning crampons and taking a guided hike on the ice.
To my astonishment, the company that leads the glacier hikes doesn’t allow people older than 65. So we called Loli in Buenos Aires, and she quickly booked us with another company that leads two-person kayak trips near the glacier’s south face. Along with three other couples, we were soon squeezing ourselves into sealed flotation suits designed to keep you alive if you were to fall into the frigid water.
Halfway out, the wind picked up sharply. Icy whitecaps broke over the bow, and we could see water spouts spitting in the distance. We nervously rafted up with another kayak until the group leader called it quits and we turned back.
“Can the vacation be over now, please?” my wife muttered.
Hardly. We still had the Upsala Glacier to visit and a rainy trudge in a canyon lined with marine fossils. Plus, after flying to Bariloche, we had a day-long hike through Douglas firs and then bamboo glades to the summit of the Goye mountain, which offered views of the azure lakes and snowy peaks of the so-called Switzerland of Argentina, and a white-water rafting trip down the Rio Manso Inferior in a gorge so steep horses are needed to bring the rafts back up.
We also did another kayak paddle in a glacial lake and watched loons dive for fish and caracara falcons circle over the reeds. The leaves were turning yellow and orange, and the morning was unforgettable.
When we reached the far shore, our guide, Leticia Bocos, spread a lavish picnic on the beach — homemade pumpkin soup, three local cheeses, four kinds of empanadas, dried pears and more — and as I sat back in the warm sun, a glass of Malbec in hand, I reflected on Darwin.
As it turned out, he was a grouchy guide to Patagonia. Sure, he correctly theorized about the tectonic plates that created the Andes, collected fossils of extinct mammals that made him ponder the origin of the species, and ate a puma. (“Remarkably like veal in taste.”)
But he was notably unimpressed overall.
“The zoology of Patagonia is as limited as its flora,” complained the naturalist who would redefine our understanding of the natural world through variations in the beaks of Galapagos finches. “Everywhere we see the same birds and insects.”
And yet, in his final chapter, Darwin singled out his visit to rugged Tierra del Fuego as a high point of his voyage on the Beagle.
“No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved,” he wrote. He got that right.
Drogin is a writer based in West Tisbury, Mass.
De La Ermita 3462, Ushuaia
Cozy hotel and spa beside the picturesque Beagle Channel. Rooms from about $190.
Los Cerros del Chaltén Boutique Hotel
Av. San Martin 260, El Chaltén
Comfortable hilltop hotel in a tiny town famed for trekking and climbing. Rooms from about $205 per night.
Pres. Julio Argentino Roca 470, Ushuaia
Chef Ernesto Vivian and his wife run this award-winning restaurant that overlooks the port. The walk uphill is worth it to try the Antarctic scallop ceviche, baked Argentine hake and Beagle Channel crab legs. Open 8 to 11 p.m. Closed Sundays. Reservations recommended. Entrees from about $11.
José Antonio Rojo 50 74, El Chaltén
La Tapera doesn’t take reservations, but what do you expect from a restaurant in a log cabin? We liked the home cooking so much we lined up twice to get in. Leave room for the Volcán de Chocolate dessert. Open daily 7 p.m. to midnight. Entrees, from about $9, include steak and trout.
Coronel Rosales 28 El Calafate
Grab a table by the kitchen window to watch chefs grill slabs of beef and racks of lamb over a wood fire at this classic Argentine steakhouse. Open daily noon to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight. Reservations recommended. Entrees from about $16.
Calle 20 de Febrero 451, San Carlos de Bariloche
It’s a bit hard to find but worth getting to this funky family-run steakhouse. The vibe is laid back, and the dishes are huge. (Half-portions available.) Reservations recommended. Open Monday, 8 p.m. to midnight, and Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday. Entrees from about $9.
430 Lafayette St., New York
After extensive discussions, this custom travel service arranged our itinerary and booked all of our hotels, guides, transport and more in Patagonia. Founder Tesa Totengco designs personalized trips around the globe.
Roca 136, Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego
Canal operates private and group excursions across Tierra del Fuego, including into the Beagle Channel to watch penguins on Isla Martillo and hike on Gable Island. Full-day trips about $127 per person.
Pasaje Gutierrez 828, San Carlos de Bariloche
This company runs rafts down the Manso Inferior rapids in the Andes to the border of Chile. Trips from about $125 per person. Minimum age 14.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.