The journey to the end of the earth begins in Buenos Aires with the destination of rugged Patagonia, a geographic region containing the southernmost portion of the vast continent. Mostly in Argentina and partly in Chile, Patagonia has the Andes Mountains to the west and south and plateau and low plains to the east.
The three-hour flight from Buenos Aires takes you to the shores of Lago Argentio and little village of El Calafate, the gateway to the Glacier National Park. It is an important tourist destination thanks to being the hub for visiting many parts of the Los Glaciares National Park.
You will hear the ice crack and plunge into the water as it breaks away from the 35km-long and 3km-wide glacier, one of few in the world which is advancing.
A five-hour, visually rewarding drive takes you across the border to the magnificent Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia. Sitting on the edge of the southern Patagonia ice field, it offers some of the world's most diverse scenery. The Cordillera del Paine is the centrepiece of the park of mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers. It lies between the Magellanic subpolar forests and the Patagonian Steppes.
You camp out among dramatic scenery and very different wildlife. Torres del Paine National Park was once a sheep ranch and while there are some farmers still eking out a living that way, you will see more condors and pink flamingos than sheep. Sparkling lakes and waterfalls provide perfect breeding conditions for some of the world's best trout and salmon.
The park is dominated by the dramatic Paine massif, an eastern spur of the Andes. Small valleys separate the spectacular granite spires and mountains.
Torres del Paine translates as "towers of blue". These are three 1000m granite monoliths, created more than 12 million years ago. Some say they present the most difficult climb in the world.
Stuart Shieder climbed the three towers in just 48 hours and became a legend among climbers. For the rest of us, there are plenty of well-maintained and marked trails and hikes around the base of the peaks, but even in spring and summer winds can whip up to 100km/h. Trails are moderate with some challenging sections and views are rewarding.
Mammoth grey glacier cast-offs provide a spectacular contrast. The ghostly, glowing icebergs make you wonder if you have reached Antarctica. As the compressed ice has no minerals or gas, the result is a brilliant blue.
The park is open year-round. Winter is cold and sunny with less wind, spring is the time to see baby animals, summers are hot and autumn offers striking foliage colour.
Punta Arenas, once an important stop along the Californian goldrush route, is Chile's southernmost city. It is an attractive city with elegant plazas and there are boat excursions to visit penguin colonies.
Next stop is Ushuaia in Argentina, the world's southernmost city, gateway to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. For the first half of the 20th century this was a prison. Escape was impossible and the prisoners became colonists who used wood from surrounding forests to build the town and railway. The End of the World Train is now a tourist attraction.
Cruising Beagle Channel, named after Charles Darwin's vessel, to see marine wildlife along the park's small islands and inlets is a must. Darwin sailed through here and believed the Yamana Indians who inhabited the area were the "missing link".
Ushuaia's history includes being a missionary settlement and base for the Argentine navy. It is now a major tourist town, complete with casinos and good restaurants. Ships head for Antarctica from here.
Kuar Bar and Restaurant is above the rocks by the sea and has breathtaking views, day and night, accompanied by live music. It always has a good gathering of locals and travellers swapping stories.
The Lago Grey Hosteria is an up-market accommodation with bar and restaurant. It provides front row seats to the Grey Lake and its ever-changing ice sculptures.
The tour ends with a return visit to Buenos Aires. This elegant city has grand boulevards and attractive neighbourhoods. Take time to explore the Casa Rosada, the pink presidential palace where Evita Peron stood on the balcony in front of her adoring fans in the 1940s.
Argentina and Chile.
Intrepid travel has 15-day tours to the End of the Earth from Buenos Aires. They cost $2360 per person twin-share plus a local payment of around $530. Experienced guide, all local transport, accommodation and some meals are provided. They depart most weeks between November and April.
Torres del Paine National Park entry is around $30 in the high season and $10 in the low season.
Hosteria Lago Grey rooms start at around $125 a single. They are open year round.
Prices correct at June 12, 2008.
For further information
Ph: 1300 364 512
Fax: (03) 9419 4426
Torres del Paine National Park
Ph: +56 61 360 361
Hosteria Lago Grey
Argentina and Chile
It is recommended visitors to Argentina and Chile see their doctor at least six weeks before departure as there are specific vaccinations recommended. Other health precautions and preventions may also be recommended and are best discussed with your doctor. For further information, visit www.welltogo.com.au.
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