Tales of underrated pleasures: Forest Walks and Turquoise Lakes in Patagonia
“Puerto Panuelo” I said, trying my best to get the name right in my non existent Spanish.
The driver merely nodded, probably having seen this charade being played countless times and swiped my SUBE card. The bus was already full with travelers mostly headed to Cerro Campanario, the place for stunning views of Lake Nahuel Huapi.
I was headed further to the last stop to cycle around Cerro Llao Llao, which is a short trail through the Andean — Patagonian forest. The name Patagonia comes from the word patagón used by Magellan in 1520 to describe the native people that his expedition thought to be giants. This perception of natives being giants persisted for centuries, until Charles Darwin, visiting in 1834 during his five year round the world voyage of scientific research aboard H.M.S Beagle provided the final blow to the tale — Taller than most Europeans, at any rate, but scarcely worthy of inclusion in any Mandevillian book of wonders.
The Andean — Patagonian forests meanwhile have a much more solid history — These are the southernmost forests in the world, and have their origin 45 million years ago on the Gondwana supercontinent, where the forests of South America, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and South Africa have their ancestors. The Patagonian forests can be considered a “green island”, as they have been isolated from other forests for the last 10 million years, resulting in a high degree of endemism.
I got off the bus, hoping to hire a bike to cycle the roads around the forests, only to realize that there were none to be hired within walking distance. Undeterred, I settled on hiking Cerro Llao Llao instead, and took the road which led me to the trail head.
Despite being a popular hiking trail, it was eerily devoid of people. For the most part of the hour, I was the only person hiking either way. I was rather pleased, for there is a certain narcissistic joy in being solivagant, in a world obsessed with being forever connected. It is only when your cellphone network disappears, when you cease to crave a human connection, when you do not want to fill every waking second with chatter and small talk, does one really find time for oneself — time which we owned when we were born, which today is bargained in the marketplace of relationships, at the expense of the most intimate relationship we must seek — with ourselves. So no wonder they say — travel far enough and you will find yourself.
As I was reflecting on this realization, I could hear the elemental sound of wind in the primeval wood — the wind bringing with it tales from yonder and the trees moaning in approval. These decades old trees have seen it all — the changing seasons, the folly of man, the ebb and flow of nature and the ephemeral presence of the traveler. And yet each time the wind blows, the trees creak — as if raising their arms and straining their ears to listen to the tales of lands unknown. This camaraderie, this banter between the elements is punctuated by a ruffle in the leaves making you jump out of your reverie — for within a moment — your mind races through the most primal emotion known to man: Fear.
There is a French saying “L’heure entre chien et loup” and it refers to the moments after sunset when the sky darkens and vision becomes unclear, making it difficult to distinguish between dogs and wolves, friends and foe. The hour in which — and it’s a space rather than a time — every being becomes his own shadow, and thus something other than himself. The hour of metamorphoses, when people half hope, half fear that a dog will become a wolf. The hour that comes down to us from at least as far back as the early Middle Ages, when country people believed that transformation might happen at any moment.
As you walk alone, the ruffling of leaves in a forest is akin to the hour between the dog and the wolf: the space where the redolent joy of discovery and a foreboding narrative of fear coexist. It’s the tango of danger, characterized by equal parts of sin and seduction, teetering on the unknown, carrying that unnerving feeling of being an insignificant player in the grand dance of nature — you could very well be someone’s meal or you could encounter the millions of everyday marvels — A bird hopping to find seeds on the forest floor, a squirrel hiding nuts in grass, dead branches falling off trees and little reptiles scurrying around. And each time that happens, your fear will return, keeping you on your toes and bringing alive your instincts, which evolution bestowed upon you but are now dumbed and numbed by urban civilization. It is this see-saw of anticipation that makes a forest walk engage the five senses, and enraptures the most inaccessible of them: our minds.
As I walked the woods, the proverbial two paths diverged, and I had to make a choice.
But then whatever Robert Frost may say, I decided that I need to take both paths and it actually made all the difference.
As I ascended the last few minutes of the climb towards Cerro Llao Llao, I came upon an opening in the woods.
The mountains looked resplendent surrounded by the turquoise Nahuel Huapi lake with the sunlight shimmering off its surface. With not a soul in sight, I came to realize that nature is not a place to visit, it is home where the soul, tired of the tribulations of life, rests.
Reinvigorated, there was a spring in my tired step, and I gingerly began my descent, wanting to discover what lies at the end of the other path. I was driven by a restlessness, as if I was running out of time, of space in my heart and mind to store this experience. And half an hour later, I came upon the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi. I was not alone anymore, but as I approached the few people who sat at the shores, we just smiled at each other — demonstrating an unsaid understanding of appreciating nature in silence — devoid of our voices, and allowing us to listen to the voice from within.
As I pen this down, I am reminded of these lines by Ruskin Bond.
‘Nature doesn’t promise you anything — an after life, rewards for good behaviour, protection from enemies, wealth, happiness, progeny, all the things that humans desire and pray for. No, nature does not promise any of these things. Nature is a reward in itself.’
We travel not to escape life, but for life to not escape us.