Patagonia comes to a crescendo in the south, where the dry empty steppe in Argentina runs into Chile's complex of peaks, glaciers, lakes, fjords and ice fields. Here the Andes have lost none of their power to impress, but they are much, much lower.
Torres del Paine
The huge Southern Patagonian Ice Field, held aloft between Andean sierras, stretches south losing height as the mountains descend into lower and lower stages to reach Chile's extreme tip. But geology holds a final surprise: a collection of great peaks thrown up from deep inside the earth, daunting pinnacles and spires of granite, defiant and forbidding, an icon of Patagonia-the Towers of Paine.
The Torres del Paine massif gives its name to Chile's most spectacular national park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The park and the areas around it are a stunning destination that draws adventurers from around the world.
The massif is a complex collection of peaks. The towers stand majestically in their own group to the east. An equally striking pair of peaks, the 'horns' of Paine, rise over a long lake to the south, between the hulking Paine Grande and Mt Almirante Nieto. The Grey Glacier pushes down from the ice field on the west of the massif, spilling icebergs into Lake Grey. Beyond, peaks furl off the remaining Andean sierras as they stream south. If you feel the need to climb them all you should put aside a lifetime.
Torres del Paine is hallowed ground for walkers with less time than that. There are beautiful day walks all around the lower levels of the park. In the pure clean air you stretch your legs with stunning views of lakes, glaciers and peaks following trails that lead across low hills and valleys, through beech woods alive with birds and meadows grazed by guanacos. With more determination you can take challenging hikes into the massif itself, ascending to the base of the Towers, into valleys that penetrate deep into the centre, or skirting the mountains to glacier lookouts.
You needn't exert yourself at all. You could drive through the park stopping at viewpoints, or take the boat that sails up the long lake to the very snout of the Grey Glacier. Or simply relax in a spa at one of the top expedition lodges that serve the park.
These lodges offer the ultimate experience. Their architecture is stunning. Their rooms, food, and facilities are all first rate. They send you out into the park with the best guides on daily expeditions of your choice, leaving the spa to others until the evening. You emerge renewed: rested, nourished and exercised.
Wildlife is, of course, superb. Pumas are the highlight, and are reliably seen in the right seasons with suitable effort. You will certainly see elegant groups of guanacos dotted around the hillsides, deer, flightless rheas (South America's answer to the ostrich), eagles and condor soaring above, and black-necked swans and a host of other waterbirds on the lakes.
The park holds plenty of treats for geologists. A small example is thrombolites: extraordinary boulders of light limestone around the shores of some of its lakes. Produced by cyanobacteria they are now extremely rare, but once these bacteria created the first oxygen on Earth, for which we are all grateful.
Not quite so far back, around 10,000 years ago, the park was popular with giant sloths, or mylodons. Some lived in a particularly large cavern that you pass on your way to the west of the park, now open to visitors as the Cueva de Milodon, where their fossils were found, and even pieces of skin.
The small port of Punta Arenas looks across the widest part of the Strait of Magellan to the shores of Tierra del Fuego.
The town has an air of breezy remoteness, an outpost at the end of Chile. It was founded to safeguard Chile's claim to its southern territory, grew with the boom in sheep farming, served for a while as a nest of spies keeping track of passing shipping, and now enjoys a comfortable time with a bit of this and that.
There are mansions built by sheep barons, an artful cemetery, a naval museum, and the wood-panelled bar which welcomed Ernest Shackleton to the town in the period after the wreck of the Endurance. A few doors away stands Castillo Milward, the gothic fantasy where Bruce Chatwin's great uncle (the discoverer of the Milodon) had Shackleton to stay while he arranged the second and third attempts to rescue his ice-bound crew.
Punta Arenas has the best air connections to Santiago, and is the jumping off point for most trips to Torres del Paine, Tierra del Fuego, and expedition cruises into Chile's southern fjords and Cape Horn.
Tierra del Fuego
Across the water from Punta Arenas lies Patagonia's final twist: the 'Land of Fire'-a romantic name some attribute to a Spanish king who thought 'Land of Smoke' seemed dull, and others say was inspired by the sight of fires aboard native canoes.
The main part of Tierra del Fuego, Isla Grande, is mostly steppe. A straight line separates Chile from Argentina. Sheep are reared on isolated ranches down to its southern coast at Estancia Harberton, the last ranch in the world, along the coast from Ushuaia, the last city in the world.
Ushuaia, which is on the Argentine side of the line, is the starting point for most cruises to Antarctica. The ships sail out on the Beagle Channel, where in 1833 the young Charles Darwin saw his first glacier and 'Jeremy Button' a young Fuegian taken to London in the Beagle's first voyage was returned to his family.
Gold was discovered in 1884. Enthusiastic coverage in the Buenos Aires press led to a fevered gold rush as more finds were made and a thousand miners arrived. Punta Arenas did nicely at the time, but the sources were soon exhausted and Isla Grande returned to a quiet life.
Patagonia's dramatic western coast is a labyrinth of wild islands, sheltered channels and awesome fjords below dramatic mountainsides and rows of glaciers that descend from the Andes' ice fields and high peaks. This world of rugged powerful beauty that began in the Aysén continues all the way into western Tierra del Fuego. Separated from the placid Isla Grande by a narrow isthmus, the Darwin range of low icy volcanoes-the last gasp of the Andes-spills its glaciers into the Beagle Channel. The last of the maze of islands beyond it to the south is the Cape Horn archipelago, the stuff of mariners' legends.
This extraordinary world can be visited during the Fuegian summer by expedition cruise ship: short cruises that complete a visit to Patagonia.