END OF THE EARTH
Two small towns in southern Patagonia are a gateway to nature’s magnificence
The clues are there already: the rugged, windswept countryside, the enormous milky green or shimmering blue lakes, the snow-capped, skyscraping peaks, the howling gales, or any combination of these, give it away.
But still, confirmation comes via the simple slogan on a red T-shirt. It reads, in Spanish, “El fin del Mundo”. The end of the Earth. And so it is.
El Calafate is the quasi-base of southern Patagonia – it has an airport, and daily flights from Buenos Aires – and if the globe does have an “end”, then this is it.
It’s both hours and worlds away from busy, bustling Buenos Aires – the Paris of the south (if France’s capital was greener, sunnier, funkier). A day after sizzling in the streets of La Boca, walking down El Calafate’s main thoroughfare – all six or seven blocks of it – requires zipping up a polar fleece to keep out the middle-of-summer chill.
There are no prizes for guessing why people come to the end of the Earth, either. Every second store on the strip is a tour office, and nestled in between is either a gift shop or a vendor of adventure clothing and equipment.
It’s a tiny town, but it also manages to squeeze in its share of restaurants, cervecerias (pubs) and wine bars to cater for the throng of tourists who lob into El Calafate – especially in January and February – looking for adventure.
Walking past the ninth – or 10th? – adventure store, the words of the taxi driver from the airport return: “You must see two things in your short time here, the glacier and El Chalten.”
There are two ways to do things in El Calafate: book one of the abundant tours (small group, luxury bus, helicopter and more) or do it yourself.
An easy way to get to Los Glaciares National Park, home to the magnificent Perito Moreno, is to take the bus and, even at 8am there are plenty of options. It’s a 90-minute ride, with the drop-off point at the national park’s visitor centre. Here you can choose how to view the glacier in all its awesome glory: a gentle stroll to the viewing platform, a boardwalk almost right up to the edge, trekking on the ice or a boat ride across the freezing waters.
Polar fleeces are quickly covered up by all-weather jackets as a shock of chilly rain sweeps across Argentino Lake. The boat only comes within a few football fields’ distance of the glacier’s edge, but the ice – more than 70m high – looms terrifyingly large. And the extraordinary sound of the glacier calving, as huge chunks of ice break off and crash into the freezing water, is similarly unnerving. Afterwards, the kiosk is a warm sanctuary, with a hot chocolate a welcome companion for one final viewing of the glacier.
El Chalten is a longer trip, more than two hours from El Calafate via the famous Route 40, and regular daily buses service the two towns. A minibus tour is another great way to travel, especially if the host has a keen eye for nature. Less than an hour into the trip and he’s already spotted many athletic llama-like guanacos, several soaring condors, a scurrying armadillo and two circumspect rhea, the Patagonian cousin of the emu and ostrich.
El Chalten is the trekking capital of Argentina and, at first glance, the town is even more modest to look at than El Calafate. But it’s merely a base for the many hiking trails that traverse this stunning section of the southern Andes, punctuated like an exclamation mark by Monte Fitz Roy.
There’s a unique feeling when travelling the most southern parts of the world that Australians and New Zealanders will surely find familiar: seductive isolation, wide-open countryside and a big, bright endless sky. Never is this feeling stronger than when walking in the shadows of fearsome Fitz Roy.
There are hikes to suit every level of fitness and daring. In less than one non-taxing hour, you can wind your way up a hillside to gain a spectacular, panoramic view across the valley to Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, the neighbouring mountain.
There are more testing treks – a half-day hike can take in Lagoon Torre, while Fitz Roy itself tempts the most adventurous mountain climbers. Apparently if you can find an untried way to ascend it, the new route is named in your honour.
The crystal-clear water at Chorrillo del Salto Waterfall is another highlight, as is the guide’s insistence that it freezes solid during winter, allowing rock climbers to claw their way up it like an icy ladder.
The walking and the flowing fresh water are enough to stimulate a thirst and happily there’s more to El Chalten the village than first meets the eye. It punches above its weight when it comes to cervecerias and there’s no better way to finish the day than with a pale ale from Patagonia.
Cheers, from the end of the Earth.
THE PERITO MORENO GLACIER
El Chalten (above left), a base for the many hiking trails that traverse the southern Andes; guanacos, a relative of the llama, in Patagonia. GROUP OF GUANACOS
EL CHALTEN AT NIGHT