Two small towns in south­ern Patag­o­nia are a gate­way to na­ture’s mag­nif­i­cence

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION SOUTH AMERICA - DO­MINIC BURKE

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.




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


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