Vizcachas Basin, Patagonia

Kindly contributed by writer and photographer Macduff Everton from his book Patagonia, La Ultima Esperanza, in which his spectacular photographs are paired with the meditative prose of book artist Mary Heebner to present a portrait of a lesser-known, but sublimely beautiful region of Patagonia: Chile's Last Hope Province. Everton has also written extensively on contemporary Maya culture in his book The Modern Maya.

 

  Most Travelers to Torres del Paine stop in the village of Cerro Castillo, 40 miles north of Puerto Natales. There is a border crossing to Argentina here, and the two restaurant-gift shops are a good place to stretch, eat, shop and use the restrooms. The road north passes through the Vizcachas Basin, crossing Río de Las Chinas and continuing to a junction where most drivers head west to the park, skirting the shore of Lago Sarmiento. A series of mountain ranges forms a horseshoe around the Vizcachas Basin. Starting along the Chilean-Argentinian border and running clockwise, the basin is bounded by Sierra del Cazador, Sierra del Toro, the Paine Massif, Sierra Contreras and Sierra de Los Baguales. The open end is pampas that stretches across to Argentina and the horizon. The Río Vizcachas and Río Baguales join Río de Las Chinas here before meandering to Lago Toro. There are numerous streams, creeks, and lagunas, some of which disappear during the dry season.

 

I haven’t read any guidebook that mentions the Vizcachas Basin. Most travelers are oblivious to it, as they look west to catch a glimpse of the Paine Massif. Hurtling along in their vehicles at 60 miles an hour, there isn’t much to see or smell, except plumes of dust and gravel. Occasionally some will slow or even stop if they spot a fox, a Darwin’s rhea, or a herd of guanacos. Francisco Blanco was the last Indian chief to live in the Vizcachas Basin; he was there until 1905. His ultimate camp had never been found. My friend Max Salas (who was soon to become governor of the province) was keen to discover it. In the spring of 2008 we spent a week exploring the basin, staying at an estancia whose owner lent us a pair of excellent horses. We looked at the land as if we were hunting wild horses and guanacos ourselves, and we scouted for a place that could provide water, shelter from the wind and preferably a good view of the surrounding countryside while one remained hidden. Early on we found a laguna in a basin at the foot of Sierra del Cazador that included all these attributes. We got off our horses, and within minutes Max found an arrowhead and I found a stone scraper for cleaning hides. Although this wasn’t Blanco’s camp, it confirmed that prehistoric Indians had once camped here.

 

We continued our search. We would ride all day and return an hour or two after nightfall. Our horses were surefooted as we rode them up hills, across marshy, boggy areas and rivers, in and out of arroyos, and through the brush. They didn’t shy when a hare or bird jumped out. There was a lot of mata negra, the black bush that covers vast areas of pampas and hides the features of the land. Where the terrain appeared unbroken and flat, we often found clearings, meadows, lagunas and creeks. We saw birds everywhere—ibis, austral negrita, blue heron, grebes, coots, swans (both white- and black-neck), myriad ducks and geese, southern lapwing, crested caracara, red-chested lark, flamingos, cinarios harrier, condor, American kestrel, Darwin’s rhea, Dominica and cahuil seagull, southern thrush, Chilean-crested sparrow, Sierra finch, oystercatcher and snipe. Hidden in the mata negra, we found several nests of Darwin’s rheas, one with fifteen large eggs.

 

One evening, heading back to the ranch house—we were still miles away—there was just a hint of light in the west as the gloaming turned to night. We’d been riding for eleven hours, and it was cold, but there was no wind. When we came upon a shallow laguna, it was so still that the silhouette of the Torres del Paine floated on the surface. We splashed across as if mounted on Pegasus, the sky both above and beneath us.