We made the slow dry journey across the southern Patagonian landscape to a town called El Calafate. Expanses of empty scrubland go to the east, icy peaks loom in the west and El Calafate lives in the middle. Along the main streets tour operators, souvenirs shops wedge between restaurants and sweet treat parlours, with an occasional empanada stall too. Unfortunately, the centre isn’t too exciting, as there’s only so many key rings you can buy. Restaurants in this area can be very expensive, with the double whammy of being a popular tourist destination and extremely remote. Out of town is where you’ll find a better taste of local life, and see a true Parilla lamb barbque. Walk down to the lake too, for some fresh polar air and a pretty view.
The reason for all the fuss? The glaciers on their doorstep (80km is relatively close for Patagonia). Buses leaving daily from El Calafate give access to the magical Los Glaciares National Park, with 47 big glaciers, 200 small glaciers, dozens of mountains and the incredible Perito Moreno glacier. One of the only growing glaciers in the world -and the number one on Lonely Planet’s guide to Argentina-, it produces great cracks as ice pieces fall off into the lake below and thunderous booms from the caverns somewhere deep inside. Chunks of ice fall almost constantly from its 5km wide, 70m high front, as pressure forces it forward. We waited for a monster to fall but you’ll be lucky to get one of those. Although the glacier is unbelievable, be warned, the day bus leaves a five hour window before pick up, which leaves even ice enthusiasts twiddling their thumbs. The only way around it would be to drive there yourself, or be prepared for the long wait.
There’s more to the national park than Perito Moreno if you’re up for it. Access is limited to two entrances as it’s ice, ice and more ice. For mountaineering or climbing, you’ll need permission before you go. For overnight hikes, check the weather and make sure your equipment covers all conditions. It would also be worth speaking to the rangers when you enter the park; they want you to be safe and it’s they know the ins and outs. The third option is taking a day trip from Calafate, on which you can walk the boardwalks opposite the glaciers face of fork out for a boat below it. I wouldn’t recommend the boat, as it can only get as close as the boardwalk does for safety reasons. See the national park in one way or another, it’s an overwhelming experience.
From Argentinas beloved Route 40 in the north, of from Calafate in the south, you can get to El Chaltén. On the road, the emptiness is interrupted by rock shaped like broken glass, that form the peaks of the Fitz Roy range. They are disctinctively harsh but insanely beautiful too.
This part of the world is truly remote, but the town still seems to have a little life, with a sprinkling of bakeries and craft beer houses. The town is inextricably linked to tourism, as it was set up in 1985 to claim the land as Argentinian and create a base for the climbing industry. There’s a rich history here too, but not in terms of the town. The locals were mostly farmers of the surrounding area, following the lead of a Dutch man and his family who was the first to settle here in the early 20th century and lived in solitude for forty years. The landscape has always been linked to the wandering gauchos, and the farmers here take on that wildness, battling the remoteness and difficult landscape. Climbers stared coming in the fifties, but long before that was Fitz Roy, the explorer who took it upon himself to go inland and was the first to ‘discover’ the southern Andes. He saw the mountains here and named them El Chaltén, the smoking mountain.
This is the hiking capital of Argentina, where climbers from all over the world try their luck with the sheer rock, and travellers like me come to walk among the giants. The rangers will give you a mandatory briefing as you enter town and the national park, with all the routes, timings, distances, recommendations and weather forecast. In El Chaltén we finally experienced a spot of the legendary Patagonian weather, with dark clouds and some snow! This cancelled out the best walking track to the viewpoint of the mountains, so instead we walked the six hours to Laguna Torre. The forests were autumnal, the walk gentle and the air fresh. We didn’t get the great view at the end, as the snow had set in, but we saw the edge of Glacier Grande and the moraine lake below. If you get a good day, the walks are brilliant, and well worth the haul to El Chaltén.
*Fitz Roy explored much of Patagonia in his lifetime….. Perito Moreno is a national hero, who took on the ice and mountains, studied the landscape, established the borders with chile, and set up national parks. You’ll find lots of places in Argentina are named after him, and he himself named the Fitz Roy range after the explorer, in his honour.*