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A Study of Opposing Landscapes: Amazon vs. Patagonia

Perito Moreno Glacier

I’d hiked on a glacier before – but this time was different. As I dug my spikes into glistening Windex-blue ice and stared at a massive crevice that a yeti would love to call home, I felt as small as the frozen crystals beneath my feet yet as large as the vast blue Argentine sky above my head. This is why people climb mountains, I thought.

Staircase into Perito Moreno Glacier
A staircase descends into the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia.

I was with a group of fellow adventure-seekers on the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate in Argentina. Every moment on our 10-day hiking tour had been spectacular. Just days before, we’d trekked up a steep ridge to one of the most serene lakes imaginable. Its glacier-fed water was a surreal milky blue, and nothing but an occasional wind gust and a lone Andean condor circling overhead interrupted the stillness.

Not so at Perito Moreno, where we scrambled down from our icy perch and walked along the pebbly moraine to a viewing platform. There, right in front of us – like an Imax 3D movie come to life – large chunks of azure ice creaked and cracked and plummeted with a thunderous rumble into Lago Argentino below. More, please!

Cerro Torre
A sunrise view of the celestial Cerro Torre mountainscape.

Heavenly Torres del Paine

When we crossed the border into Chilean Patagonia, I discovered that you don’t need a close encounter with a calving glacier to be wowed. There, as dawn painted Lake Pehoe in Torres del Paine National Park in luminous shades of purple and mauve, I decided that I’d finally found the most beautiful place on earth.

Torres del Paine
Wild horses graze in the lush landscape of Torres del Paine.

I could have stared at that view of the Paine massif from the Explora Lodge forever. And hiking there, amid herds of grazing guanacos and beneath skies filled with the wispiest, day-dreamiest of clouds, I realized that Patagonia has a pure and visceral beauty that defies description. It needs to be experienced.

Macaws in the Amazon Rainforest.

A River of Amazement in the Peruvian Amazon

From feeling this close to heaven to swatting mosquitoes in the rainforests of Peru, my next South American adventure was also a game changer. I’d feared I would hate the jungle and all the creepy, crawly, potentially lethal things that live there: spiders on steroids, poisonous tree frogs, giant anacondas and dagger-toothed piranhas.

But there I was, standing in a small skiff with a fishing pole, casting a line into murky green water. My guide, Roger – one of several aboard Aria Amazon, a 32-passenger river boat operated by Aqua Expeditions – assured me that he would handle whatever happened next. I felt a tug and reflexively jerked my pole upward, startled as my catch flew through the air, thrashing from the hook, its jaw lined with menacing teeth.

I’d just caught my first piranha.

Roger grabbed my catch and asked if I wanted a photo with it. I nodded yes, handed him my phone, gingerly grabbed the line and dangled one of the Amazon’s fiercest predators just inches from my face. As nervous dread welled in my chest, Roger smiled and said, “Queso” – and I smiled back, giggling at the craziness of it all.

The Amazon River
Sunset on the Amazon River.

The Sunset to End All Sunsets

There were dozens of reasons to smile on this four-day cruise from Iquitos through the isolated tributaries of the Amazon: pink river dolphins with long pointy noses swimming alongside our ship, sleepy three-toed sloths and adorable Capuchin monkeys perched like acrobats on tree branches, the laughter of indigenous children playing near the riverbanks.

And then there were the sunsets.

The Amazon River basin
The sun sets on a lagoon inside the Amazon River basin.

The one on our final evening just might be my favorite ever. Roger had navigated our skiff to a spot where a patchwork of lavender-flowered lily pads carpeted parts of the river as if painted by Claude Monet. He popped open a bottle of bubbly and we clinked glasses as the dusky pink-and-tangerine sky was reflected in the mirror-like water. Piranhas and mosquitoes be damned – this was perfection.

Have you traveled to South America? Tell about your trip in the comments!

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