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Friday February 24, 2012. Back to Pto. Varas.

February 25, 2012

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Today was our last morning to wake up in Argentinian Patagonia.  Tucked deep within Valle Encantada (The Enchanted Valley), amongst the cypress trees and heavily eroded rock spires, I couldn’t have imagined a more magnificent landscape to take in while reflecting on the course of our journey over the last couple of weeks. After trading hugs and goodbye’s with our gracious hosts at La Confluencia, Leo and our guide Lorenzo, we boarded our buses and headed west, leaving the Patagonian steppe for what will be the last time for many of us. The upshot of this somber occasion was that the days’ journey back to Puerto Varas, Chile would take us through all of the ecotones we had studied over the last two weeks. The dry Patagonian steppe would give way to the slightly wetter eastern foothills of the Andes, at which point  we would climb into the spectacular southern beech forests (Nothafagus spp.) making our way into the alpine and above the treeline, at which point we would descend into the much wetter Valdivian rainforest of the western Andean slopes.

Appreciating such marked ecological transitions demands an understanding of  oceanic trade-winds and the orographic influence of the Andes. In the southern Pacific (barring El nino events), the prevailing winds sweep from the Australian continent eastward toward South America. As the clouds pass over the ocean, they wick up moisture off the warm ocean surface and upon contact with Chile, the moisture-ladden clouds condense as they are forced upwards. Rain prevails as the clouds climb over the mountains leaving only a violent wind to descend down the eastern slopes which then sweeps across the Patagonian steppe, only to terminate upon contact with the Atlantic Ocean several hundred kilometers eastward.

As we climbed up over the mountains, the deadly effects of the hot volcanic ash from the recent eruption became ever more apparent. As far as the eye could see, only dead trees remained as a sort of dusty ash plume lingered over the landscape. In some areas the ash looked to be over a foot deep on the forest floor, with only the hardiest of plants trying to eek out an existence. The entire landscape was cloaked in a blanket of ash, and the bus driver remarked how stunning the views had once been. But perhaps most interestingly, the Usnea lichens draped over every branch of every tree appeared to thriving; perhaps giving promise that all was not lost and that the forest would eventually recover.

That evening we arrived in Puerto Varas, Chile, under a steady rain. Without much hassel we checked into our Hostel (Hostal “Estrella de Belen”). The host and hostess were wonderful and provided us with excellent rooms and hot showers. We then quickly dispersed out upon the lakeside town and some of us found pizza while others discovered a local seafood restaurant where trout, salmon, and conger were the meals of choice. Afterward we made our way into the square to listen to a local band perform a sort of jazz-funk infusion. This was to be our last cultural experience in one of the world’s most beautiful places. I think many of us will leave as intrigued by Patagonia as when we departed, and I think maybe its because we try to understand the natural world by organizing observations into neat compartments. But down here, the immensity of the landscape makes it difficult for the mind to classify it into a discrete object, and so it can only marvel at its beauty.

Chris Baird. El Gaucho Canadiense


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