Favorites in Patagonia: "The Ice Mermaid," Bárbrara Hernández

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By Sofía Anich
It was after Bárbara Hernandez’s first trip to the Aysén region in Chilean Patagonia in November 2015 that the nickname began to echo in the media. She went there to train prior to competing in the Winter Swimming World Championships. After crossing the frigid, powerful, and fast flowing waters of the Baker River, the locals and journalists came away flabbergasted and began to refer to her as the “Ice Mermaid.”
It’s a nickname that has spread internationally, and she now considers it “her brand.” She says she identifies with the more powerful side of mermaids, with their strength and connection to nature, and not with the aesthetic symbolism.
Wherever she goes to compete in open water swimming the Ice Mermaid adds to a long list of record setting achievements (See also "Barbara Hernandez: Against the Current" in Issue 21 of Patagon Journal). Last year, to raise awareness for the protection of the Antarctic Ocean, she set a new Guinness World Record by becoming the first person to swim 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) in the frozen waters of the Antarctic, and she did so wearing only a simple swimsuit with no protective clothing.
Hernández does not forget that it was Patagonia that gave her that name and her connection with the territory has only grown ever since. She says she nows feels like a "Patagonian by adoption.” In this interview, this Chilean psychologist, one of the best open-water swimmers in the world, tells us her favorites in Patagonia.
Where did you go on your first trip to Patagonia?
I went to the Aysén region, because my boyfriend's family is from there. What surprised me most was the green, the different types of green and above all, the different colors of the water. I, as a good swimmer, saw this different tonality in the lakes and rivers, such as the Baker River or Lake General Carrera. Seeing those places, it was a defining moment for me.
The perfect album or song to accompany a trip to Patagonia.
It is relative to what I like, I always hallucinate with Depeche Mode. I get songs stuck in my head on long swims, it can be anything from a little piece of Mohana's song if I'm swimming in Hawaii for 20 hours to different types of music. But, I really get stuck with images more than music and I really like to feel the sound of the water. That's what I like the most, that connection. Some people avoid it, but I think it's vital for me to be very connected to what I'm doing, so I feel the sound of my heart, the beating and the water as it goes by. I also turn to images and many of them are in Patagonia, in the glaciers, in the different regions and places where I have been. That's what nourishes me.
Why do you like to evoke images when you go swimming?
I know that most of the time people associate glaciers with cold or ice, but for me they mean that warmth of affection, of adrenaline. And they also remind me a lot of all the people I've met on my various trips to Patagonia, it's a family that I visit at least once a year and those memories give you strength.
Your favorite encounter with an animal and where was it.
At Laguna San Rafael with a leopard seal when it was swimming and came back to look at me. That I think is my favorite memory because they are families of seals that I've been getting to know since 2015, which was my first trip to Laguna San Rafael. We were filming and the seal swerved toward me, and they had to pull me out of the water almost immediately.
What other kind of animals have you come across while swimming?
In Patagonia with toninas. The "Chilean dolphin" they call it, it's a different dolphin, chubbier and darker too, but it's really cute. Crossing the Strait of Magellan twice they have accompanied me and when we swim in other places in the world, they also accompany me, but my memories are of Chile.
The most challenging swim you have experienced in Patagonia.
We have already swum in almost 8 glaciers, but I think, without a doubt, the Steffen glacier. You get there from Tortel, you have to sail and hike a long way, where it is only meltwater. It is a beautiful glacier that created a lagoon, but the water in that place reaches 0.5 degrees Celsius in the middle of summer. It is crazy and has a lot of sediment. It is a very nice swim, but because of all the logistics involved in getting there, it is one of the most difficult.
When you are swimming, is there time to contemplate the nature that surrounds you?
I love when I'm swimming there, whether we're looking to complete a certain distance or a training swim. I really enjoy being in that place, I always stop to look at the glacier, even if it's just for seconds, I need it. So I feel that these places, these shades and these glaciers stay with me and finally, a part of me forever belongs to them. And I think that's why I have this connection with the waters of Patagonia and its people.
All these glaciers or all these routes teach you to be very humble. How you get to Patagonia from "patagonia chica," as they call the region of Aysén, or all that is Magallanes, Tierra del Fuego. In fact, people always think that I am from these places or was raised there, and the truth is that I am Patagonian by adoption.
A non-touristy place in Patagonia that everyone should know.
Tierra del Fuego definitely, from sailing all the way to Caleta María, everything it means to go into these fjords, which is much more of an adventure at that moment, because they are not places where one arrives and everything is programmed. It implies being very connected with the weather, with everything that one admires about these places, but I think it is a must, to cross to Porvenir and from there, to go on a journey.
The waters that have had the greatest impact on you in Patagonia.
I think the waters that have impacted me the most were the ones I encountered on my first trip to Patagonia, when I crossed the Baker twice. It is one of the largest rivers in South America, it is very dangerous, but the color of the water is impressive.  It was my first trip to Patagonia. I think I could not believe that the water of our Chile could look and have that strength, and those tonality of colors.
Swimming is a way to learn to connect with the waters where you are. Nature reveals a very personal inner strength of yours, and a capacity to be humble before nature, which I believe is something that we are sorely lacking. It is a good reminder.
A must-try dish from Patagonia and where is the best place to eat it.
I think that in Patagonia, wherever you go you will always have delicious food. And well, for people who are carnivores, of course, you're going to love all the meats. I'm a vegetarian, so it's been hard for me, but lately they're more accommodating when they know I'm coming, but I love it all. For me, anything with potatoes is fine, and also desserts. People in Patagonia love to eat desserts! Kuchen, pastries with cream, the tortillas, the homemade bread, the potatoes that are made right there with the embers, for me all that is delicious.
If you had to recommend someone the best place to swim, you would say...
I think Lake General Carrera is beautiful. It is a giant lake, so you always have to be respectful of nature. In summer, Natales also has very good temperatures, so places there like the Sofia Lagoon and the Señoret Channel. I would not recommend the Strait of Magellan yet, because there is always a lot of wind there, but all these places are really wonderful.
That said, I would recommend to be very careful when swimming, those waters are ever changing, so always stay close to the shore in the places that are authorized. I think that is also what Patagonia teaches us, that it is untameable. Patagonia is wild, so we must always be very respectful of everything we see and everything it has to offer.
A moment you will never forget in Patagonia.
Being with my mom in Laguna San Rafael. She accompanied me on my first swim, and its now something we do almost like a tradition. I am an only child and she has accompanied me every time I have had to go swimming or filming at Laguna San Rafael, so I feel that this is our place. It was her dream to know this place for the past 40 years, so it was nice to give that as a gift and see with her the unique sunsets that Patagonia has, it is something that is in my heart forever.