The wilderness of Patagonia Glacial overload
Cox & Kings’ Ariane Mick spent a quick 3 days exploring the wilderness of Patagonia and its glaciers.
Day 1 – Arrival
The wind whistled around the little airport at El Calafate and a sign informed travellers: Buenos Aires – 2,727km. In case the 3.5-hour flight had not already made that quite evident, it was just another reminder that this little Patagonian frontier town was a very long way from the vibrant capital city. In fact, Calafate is a long way from anywhere – 2.5 hours to the trekking mecca of El Chalten, a 6-hour drive to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, even an hour to the next petrol station outside the town.
I found the idea of such geographical solitude quite compelling, although actual physical solitude may be a bit more elusive, as the town is now a busy little tourist destination due to its proximity to the stunning scenery of Los Glaciares National Park, with plenty of visitors arriving from October to April.
I stayed in Los Sauces Casa Patagonicas, a delightful boutique property on the edge of the town, just a few blocks walk along peaceful tree-lined streets from the small town centre. A covered golf-cart whisked me from the entrance to my comfortable suite, through the large grounds filled with willow trees, ubiquitous lavender bushes and occasional squawking wild geese and teros (southern lapwings). Later, from the comfort of the cosy yet spacious club house lounge, I drank in the views across the vast Lake Argentino, to the sky and mountains beyond. While the wind rattled the window panes, I watched as the light changed and snow clouds scudded across the sky to the west.
Day 2 – El Calafate, Upsala glacier & Estancia Cristina
Limited time meant I had just two full days to get my first taste of the wilds of Patagonia, and my first morning started with a 6am wake up call. A 45-minute drive through the barren yet beautiful steppes , past bounding hares and dabbling flamingoes, revealed that the snow clouds of the previous day has dusted the surrounding peaks with white. At a small pier I embarked onto a sturdy motor cruiser, along with around 40 other passengers, for a 2-hour navigation along the northern arm of the lake towards the Upsala glacier. Just when patience was beginning to wane, the boat suddenly slowed – and in the distance loomed the icy front of the glacier. Despite its rather ominous majesty, I was somewhat more entranced to be surrounded by numerous blue icebergs, large and small, jagged, sculpted or fractured, offset by the milky white waters and the dark peaks behind.
The boat then turned and sailed along the peaceful Cristina arm of the lake, where we disembarked on a shingle beach and climbed into 4x4s for the ascent along a tortuously winding and bumpy track that clung to the valley side. Any discomfort was tempered by the breathtaking views of rugged peaks, shining lakes, forests and unexpected blue skies. At the end of the track and wrapped up against the bitingly icy wind, we took a short hike over striking sedimentary rock outcrops dotted with occasional marine fossil remains. A condor soared high overhead, the wind whipped more fiercely than before and then a spectacular scene opened out in front of us: barren rock, snowed covered peaks, a turquoise lake, the vast white expanse of the Southern Ice Field and the eastern side of the mighty Upsala glacier. The majesty of the scene was at once both humbling and exhilarating.
A boneshaking journey back down the valley was followed by a hearty Patagonian lunch of empanadas and lamb stew next to a wood burning stove at the remote and charming Estancia Cristina. Founded as a sheep farm by English pioneers in the early 20th century, a stroll around the grounds accompanied by an attention-seeking cat and a curious foal, followed by a visit to the former sheep-shearing shed, now museum, allowed us to learn about the hardships faced by such early pioneers. It was not without a good measure of reluctance that I walked back to the boat across the springy turf dotted with the little calafate blueberries that give the town its name. Spending a few days here would let one experience Patagonian peace and solitude, especially once the day-visitors have left.
Day 3 – Perito Moreno glacier
After the sensory overload of the previous day, I was foolishly prepared to be underwhelmed by the prospect of more ice on my visit to the Perito Moreno glacier. I was driven across the steppes again, this time through thick grey drizzle, which I perversely found rather atmospheric and enchanting. The road then skirted the edge of the remote Rico arm of the lake, offering glimpses of cloud swathed mountains to the left and dripping southern beech forests on the right, before twisting to offer a glimpse of a section of the glacier through the clouds.
The car park was surrounded by trees, and the first intimation of the glacial grandeur that awaited was a deep groaning noise, followed by a thunderous roar. I was clearly missing something exciting, and I scuttled as fast as was safe along the walkways and steps that threaded down through dripping trees and vegetation with little birds occasionally swooping past. The hillside dropped away and there was the glacier below me: amazing, vast, jagged, icy blue and white, its front almost touching the slope I was on, with only a thin channel of the lake separating it from the land.
Stretching 4km across, the actual scale was hard to fathom, until I spotted one of the boats that sail close to its southern face – a tiny speck against the 60 metre high wall. And then the sun came out, a rainbow arched across the crevassed surface and the surrounding snowy peaks were revealed, forming an amphitheatre to the drama. I stood open-mouthed and tense, listening as the force of the ice made the glacier creak and strain, and searching for where the next column or chunk might shear off the face and crash down into the milky blue waters.
The return drive to Calafate under clear blue skies and dazzling warm sunshine proved yet again why Patagonia never ceases to surprise.