Published: May 24th 2011May 24th 2011
Icebergs are not all white (or blue)
This one is part of the ice barrier in front of Uppsala Glacier
There is a pretty good argument that mountains, gorges and rivers have it easy in the scenic stakes. They just have to be. Even deserts have the chance to stack up fairly well – although, as far as I know, there are no actual deserts in Patagonia. But flat, brown expanses of plains covered with short shrubs have a very tough time of it. For a region that includes Torres del Paine, the Lakes District , the Perito Moreno, Upsalla and Spegazzini Glaciers as well as part of the Andes, it is probably unfair to take away an overall impression of Patagonia being flat and uniformly brown. But that is what most of it is. And, for me, it's up there with the most beautiful parts of the world.
Flat, brown lands do need be something special to compete with the mountains, rivers and those picture book farmlands and villages. The good ones get most of that special something from the size of the sky and the land that hangs underneath. The Canadian and US prairies are pretty substantial as are the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan. The outback of Australia has many such areas with the Barkly and the
From the catamaran on Lago Argentina
Nullabor up there. All are big, brown and beautiful. Patagonia is a legitimate inclusion in the list of the best.
The best way to see the plains of Patagonia has to be by road. But it is a very big place so we did fly over some of it. First, we flew into Punta Arenas in Chile and had a bit of a look at the Andes from the air. Our first bus in Patagonia was around 12 hours from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia – which is covered in our post on Tierra del Fuego. Included in that one was a wild and woolly crossing of the Straits of Magellan – Patagonia has a lot of little extras that the other great plains don't. Another plane ride was from Ushuaia to Calafate. We took that after hearing that the bus journey on this road was a 24 hour mongrel trip and to try to pick up a little time. The plane took a little over an hour with beautiful views of the East-to-West part of the Andes.
I have to say that there is not that much flat about El Calafate. It is brown though, except, that is,
for the largest lake in Argentina, which is an attractive shade of glacial cloudy blue, and some spectacular glaciers. On the ride in from the airport, 22 kms out of town, via a handy shuttle, I was a little doubtful about this place. A few mild hills certainly, but there was no evidence of water or ice – or anything much really. El Calafate itself is basically a tourist town. Plenty of accommodation, souvenir and artesania shops, bars, restaurants and the like. And most of it priced to deliver a handy profit to the investors.
The Hosteria San Julian was a little walk away from the main street but it was excellent quality and good value for money. We shouldn't whinge too much about the cost because we probably found the cheapest place in town to eat. Just after we ordered our beer and pizza, though, the place filled up with masses of people who made us feel decidedly youthful. The entire group ordered what we later realised was a set menu on a blackboard out the front – one should always pay attention to such things. I have to say that our pizza and beer more than stacked
not just glaciers at the edge of Lago Argentina
up against the spag bol, soft drink and some sort of postre that was served up to the 'oldies'.
The only reason to come to El Calafate is the glaciers. They all feed Lagos Argentinia. Uppsala, covering 550 square kilometres and one of the only glaciers in world that is growing, is the largest in South America. That, I suppose is one to the climate change sceptics. The other major glaciers: Seco, Spegazzini and, the daddy of them all, Perito Moreno, are, however, disappearing at an alarming rate. I won't go into the statistics here, primarily because I can't really recall them with any accuracy, but I don't think my grandchildren – in the event that I am so blessed – will see these sights.
There are a number of ways to experience these glaciers. You can fly over them and that would be a lot of fun. We didn't. You can travel out to Perito Moreno on a bus which deposits you at a wharf where you catch a boat to the glacier. This option has the advantage of allowing you to see the glacier from the water and from above, more or less. We opted for
from the bus, south of Rio Gallegos
an undoubtedly expensive trip on a large cataraman that left nice and early and visited all of the major glaciers during the course of the day. We didn't see Perito Moreno from above but the other glaciers and the boat ride weaving through icebergs made up for that.
I will mention that we debated strongly whether we would bother with El Calafate. We did like the idea of following the coast road – Ruta 3 – from Ushuaia and, if we had a vehicle, we may have taken that option. We have also seen glaciers before in North America, Kyrgyztan, Europe and New Zealand. After Alaska we felt we had seen the best so we wondered whether South America could really compete. It did and it does.
Uppsala was a mild disappointment but only because our craft was a large cataraman and couldn't make it through the ice barrier that regularly forms across the stream below the glacier wall. You can't get much of a feeling for the massive size of this glacier from the water but the amount of ice in the water is impressive. Hitting one of those lumps would have put a nice hole in
Reversed out mountains
On the edge of Lago Argentina
the big cat. We definitely weren't up for the whole Titanic experience and weren't too bothered when the captain announced that he would not be able to make it through today.
Seco and Spegazzini were also impressive. Eerie and spectacular. We moved in relatively close to Spegazzini. Seco was well up on the side of the mountain.
Perito Moreno is the most spectacular of them. I will let the photos tell the story of the ice though and content myself with talking about the people. We tend not to spend too much time in large tour groups so the experience of being with a very large group of people looking at the same thing was a little different for us. I have to say it was fun this time. The Argentinians we have talked to so far seem to be among the more approachable of nationalities and more ready to make the effort of communicating with people who possibly can't deal well in Spanish. People on the boat were prepared to speak slowly, articulate clearly and even change their accent to try to ensure that we could understand. Most of the time it worked. I had some interesting
on the edge of Lago Argentina
discussions about places to go in Argentina, what the glaciers looked like and how Italian footballers tend to do a lot of diving – too many frustrated actors. A mix of Spanish, English and, in one case, a few sneaky words of Japanese, worked really well.
On the bus from El Calafate to Rio Gallegos, on the coast, we had a close encounter with a man in gaucho regalia. Nothing like that you might see in the books or on the movies. This gentleman of mature years was as flash as a rat with a gold tooth. His baggy pants were pleated and pressed and nice shade of dark mustard, and held up by a belt with plenty of silver on it. Great shirt and well polished comfortable boots. I was a little disappointed he didn't have a hat but perhaps he wasn't planning on walking in the sunshine. Dressed more for charm and the night time I suspect.
We drove to Rio Gallegos through flat, brown land. Large estancias and very few villages or towns. At Rio Gallegos we climbed on to a flash Andesmar bus for the 1300 km to Puerta Madryn. If you are going
to do a big overnighter then I can recommend this as the way to do it. Seats that can recline to any angle (up to 160 degrees, unless it's a 1st class bus), food and drink at regular intervals, a working toilet on the bus, smooth driving and a minimum of stops. We nodded off to sleep looking at the darkened plains and woke up to the same view. Nothing much changes out here except the strength of the wind. The wind comes off the Andes and howls across the plain attracted, I suppose, by systems that form off the coast. The wind is always from the west or northwest and it can be very willing.
Even though Puerta Madryn is about wildlife and May is out of season for just about everything, we decided to visit anyway. There is always a chance and, anyway, 48 hours straight on a bus to make it to Buenos Aires or Mendoza, even one as good as Andesmar, is more than I can reasonably face.
We had booked a hostel that looked OK on the net and that didn't seem to be too far from the bus station. The Hostal de
Tounen turned out to be a gem. A couple of hundred metres from the bus station and a few blocks from the beach, this hostel has only been open a couple of months. It is run by Vincent – a Frenchman – and his wife Gilda – an Argentinian. Only a small place but very well run and very welcoming. They even invited all of the guests, admittedly only 4 of us, to join them for a meal one night – and it was a good feed that gave us a taste of the local seafood.
Peninsula Valdez is the national park where you get to see the guanaco up close, sea lions, sea birds and, at the right time of the year, orcas and whales. The whales that they spot here are the Southern Right Whale which you also get to see off Australia's southern and east coasts and which we have seen before. We have also seen Orca before. They are around here most of the year but are apparently not spotted all that much. Our guide, a moonlighting marine biologist, said he had seen them just 5 times in a year.
Today was the day.
from the bus
There is apparently a pod of 7 that frequent this area. There were 5 here today. They were patrolling up and down the beach between 2 separate sea lion colonies. No beaching – which would have been worth seeing – but very cunning behaviour. A couple being very visible some way out off the beach while the others submerged for long periods very close to the shore, no more than 3–5 metres. The beach drops away quickly here and they could come in close without problems. There was a tense period when they almost herded a sea lion away from the beach. They had him all set up but he/she suddenly swerved for the beach about 50 metres from the colony and made it. The two Danish girls we were travelling with thought we were terrible to be disappointed that the orca didn't make their kill.
A visit to the Hombre y Mar Museo rounded out our excellent few days in Puerto Madryn which, just by the way, is where a substantial group of Welsh immigrants originally settled. There is a village down the road a little where Welsh is still the language of choice.
We will leave
Patagonia and most of southern Argentina there. Next post should be from Buenos Aires and should appear pretty quickly if I get organised.
There are more photos below