Changing Landscapes: A Journey Across the Wetlands of Patagonia

12 February 2018

Gabriel Mejia was the winner of the Global Wetlands Youth Photo Contest 2017, themed “wetlands that help us cope with extreme weather events.”  An avid explorer, Gabriel decided to use his main prize, a free flight courtesy of Star Alliance, to travel and visit the Glaciar Vinciguerra y Turberas Asociadas Ramsar Site in Argentina. His travel took him more than a month, from December 18, 2017 to January 26,  2018. He recounts his adventures and exploration in this story and through photographs.

Changing Landscapes: A Journey Across the Wetlands of Patagonia

By Gabriel Mejia

It was only a far off dream for a young Filipino boy to ever travel 16,000 kilometres away from home to witness the ever-changing landscapes of renowned Patagonia. But through a single image submitted for the Wetlands Youth Photo Contest in 2017, this dream wasn’t far off anymore and it came true for me in December 2017.

It was a 60-hour transit journey that would take me from the bay of Manila to the southernmost city of this planet courtesy of Star Alliance. The end of the world as they call it, Ushuaia is a cold port city of large fleeting ships and seagulls gliding through the freezing winds of the Beagle Channel. This was the gateway to the frigid continent of Antarctica, as snow-capped mountains of Cordillera Martial surrounded this quaint city where snow and rain drizzles from the clouds despite it being summer.

In this part of the world, there is no guessing what the weather will be, rain for an hour, snow in a minute, sunny in a second, everything changes so rapidly, it’s so volatile, that the landscapes have been shaped by the great forces of time and weather. As I slowly adapted to the frigid temperatures of which the tropical country of the Philippines had never prepared me, I then began my journey to the prominent mountains of Cordillera Martial, encountering breathtaking lakes, peatlands, wetlands, and of course none other than what I came to witness— the blue and daunting glaciers of Patagonia.

Glaciar Vinciguerra is listed as a Wetland of International Importance, under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. It was my first encounter with this blue and white sentinel. It took a four-hour hike across Lenga trees and yellow flower fields to climb to this mountain, where Glaciar Vinciguerra sits upon surrounded by a turquoise lake and a snow covered valley. Reaching the turquoise lake also known as Laguna de los Tempanos, there I stood, staring at this massive glacier before me, as sounds of calving ice and melting snow whispered to my  ears, inviting to closely witness this grand marvel of nature. I picked up my ice axe and crampons, climbing my way to this barren field where gusts and winds so brutal that they make one’s spine shiver in cold.

As I got closer and closer to the glacial peak, I encountered a cavern. It felt like time stopped within the cave, as the winds ceased to exist, and only the sound of falling droplets of water from the melting glacier echoed within its hollow chamber.

Glaciar Vinciguerra is a living testament that mundane as it may seem, frozen ice and soil entrapped for years, can be the most amazing thing one’s eyes set upon. At that moment is   when reality struck. I realized that this sentinel, no matter how massive it seemed, is vulnerable to climate change and increasing temperatures. Indeed, even the greatest can be brought down.

I pressed on for hours in buses and terminals, crossing the border of Argentina through the cities of Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales in Chile, all the way to the city of El Chalten where the famed Perito Moreno Glacier closely sits. A local bus was needed to go to the Los Glaciares Park where this colossal field of glaciers can be seen within arm’s reach, and as I got closer to this frozen mass, there was nothing I could do but stare. Stare at this seventy-meter wall of solid glaciated ice in front of me. Face to face with this mammoth, hundreds of acres spread across, tucked frozen shut beneath Southern Patagonia. The Perito Moreno Glacier has not moved for centuries but continuously melts within. Witnessing a part of the glacier calve, crashing in the blue water is a sound so loud and intense almost similar to a thundering sky. It was the most dramatic scene, and at that exact moment seeing and hearing a part of the glacier calve- was a great reminder of the immense power and vulnerability of nature faced against climate change and humans.

Venturing further north, the journey then continued to the scenic mountain town of El Chalten, where the prominent Fitz Roy rises gloriously, seen long before dusted and deserted roads of Patagonia. Clouds loom over the skies covering the shark-tooth summits of this mountain range, a clear starry night can be so rare for a short visit, but I was determined to see all its glory. The blessing of dawn can paint Fitz Roy in fiery hues of red as the first rays of the sun touches the distant peak over the horizon. This beauty of wetlands and mountains of Patagonia is teeming with wildlife in every corner. I saw woodpeckers bustling in trees and condors soaring high above the sky, grey foxes crawling on rocky valleys and Guanacos grazing on barren hills. The wetlands of Patagonia are home to the most diverse avian species, migrating from different corners of this planet, settling in its untouched environment.

Last but not the least, my journey took me  to the notorious and picturesque Torres del Paine of Chile, a hundred and plus kilometre circuit mountain range where the ‘cuernos’ and ’torreses’ rises above last night’s snowfall, that will soon be slowly swept away by the summer winds. A steep and rolling hike usually done in eight to nine days, I was forced to do it in just six, encountering the most pristine and other worldly trees and glaciers of Patagonia’s ever-changing landscapes.

Change is the only constant here in Patagonia. Stories were shared of glaciers receding faster in the past ten years,  of rivers changing due to invasive species such as the  beaver brought by humans not so long ago. These changes to the landscape very different from those shaped centuries ago by the forces of nature.

One can observe that the most beautiful places of our planet are changing, maybe for the worst. There is still hope for Patagonia, I believe, just like the photograph of a landscape that changed the life of this young Filipino boy and made a far off dream come true.