Patagonia – a photographic journey by Christian Heeb

I admit it. I am a sucker for far-away places that take forever to get to. I love endless dusty roads and windblown empty wastes of sage and grass. Give me a really big country to photograph, a country like the US or Canada, or a continent like Australia with its burning red heart. Other photographers do books on Provence or Tuscany or Crete or the bars of Cuba. The publishers and editors that I work for send me to South Africa and Argentina.

South America, Argentina, Patagonia, Los Glaciares National Park, Andes mountains and Mount Fitz Roy

I like driving. As a young travel photographer I could go on forever: driving, shooting, stopping, driving, on and on. My wife would say “Christian!! I need to eat. I am hungry.  Please stop.”  But I just kept going and so I ended up shooting over 200 photo books mostly on big countries.

Even while starting my life as a travel photographer based in the US, I dreamed of going to Patagonia.  My inspiration was a photo I saw of the Perito Moreno glacier taken by Swiss photographer Max Schmid. Max was my hero. He did everything that I dreamed of when I started out: traveling and taking pictures of wild places. The photo, a rather grey affair shot on Kodachrome film, showed some wind-blown trees with exposed roots and a large glacier in the distance. The land seemed endless, wild and beautiful. I finally got there in 2006. Then I went again and suddenly I was leading photo tours in Patagonia for my European and American clients.

South America, Patagonia, Chile, Region de Magallanes y de la Antartica, Torres del Paine, National Park, Lago Pehoe and Los Cuernos

On our first month long journey, driving a sturdy pick-up truck, we got lost in the Andes somewhere between Argentina and Chile. I overshot the junction of two dirt tracks and ended up in a lonely canyon where a Gaucho who looked like Argentina’s version of Clint Eastwood delivered the dreaded sentence “una vuelta”…I had to back track for over an hour before finding myself driving along a forbidden dirt road in the dark, dodging hundreds of suicidal rabbits as I tried to reach the accommodation we had booked for the night at a remote Estancia. We finally made it to the place only to be sternly reprimanded by the owner for being late. “No es hotel, es una Estancia”, “This isn’t a hotel, it is a Ranch” delivered in his brusque countryman’s accent.  I blamed our late arrival on the Chileans which always works well in Argentina and so we got our room and all was well.

South America, Patagonia, Chile, Torres del Paine National Park, Gaucho on horseback

In 2006 most roads were still gravel in Patagonia.  Tourism in the region today is concentrated on two parks in the south, Chile’s Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares in Argentina. There is another tourist bubble in northern Patagonia at Bariloche which functions as a summer and winter resort for wealthy Argentinians. In between those places lies the real Patagonia of empty pampas, lakes, mountains and wind-scarped badlands of clay, mud and rock.

Many of my favorite images have been taken in Torres del Paine and at Fitzroy in Los Glaciares. The peaks of the Andes there are simply stunning and I can’t get enough of seeing, experiencing and photographing them. 

South America, Patagonia, Argentina, Los Glaciares National Park , Mount Fitz Roy and Chalten river

My most precious memories though are from other places like Lago Posadas, a secret lake near the Chilean border which has an island in the middle with a rock arch perched on top of it. I arrived there one day to find a stunning sunset with swirling clouds.  The beauty of the moment was so surreal that I almost stopped taking photographs. But then I remembered that I am a photographer and photographers take pictures and so I kept shooting. 

I also remember the strength of the gusts of wind at Mirador Salto Grande that literally blew my wife and one of my clients off their feet and left them both sitting on their backsides looking stunned. I remember the huge pillar of ice that came crashing down from the glacier at Perito Moreno sending a tsunami of glacial water across the lake. I have vivid memories of a herd of guanacos jumping the high fences along the road near Tres Lagos, and of a poor, weather-worn gaucho I met in Tierra del Fuego who seemed the happiest person in the world. 

Travelling in Patagonia makes me happy and that is a great reason for me to go back.

South America, Chile, Lake District, Patagonia, Puerto Varas, Osorno volcano, fishermen at dawn on Lago Llanquihue

About the photographer:  Christian Heeb is a Swiss/American photographer based in Bend, Oregon.  A lover of big open spaces, Christian is best known for his images of Native American people and the landscapes in which they live.  He has published over 200 coffee table books of his photography, countless calendars and numerous magazine articles.  When not photographing on commission he leads photography tours and workshops worldwide.

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