El Calafate, Patagonia

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December 22nd 2015
Published: December 22nd 2015
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In the rain Shadow east of the Andes the steppe reminds me of a cross between the tussock of the South Island High Country, a Yorkshire grouse moor and the Desert Road near Ruapehu. It certainly has the windswept feel of the Desert Road, but it's a genuine desert with only 250mm of rain a year. It is a land of wide open spaces, big skies and emptiness. El Calafate has a frontier town feel, there are roads and tin roofed buildings, some quite large, but the barren scrub continues through the town as if someone has scattered monopoly houses on the landscape.

El Calafate is closer to the equator than London, but with only Tierra del Feugo between here and Antarctica the wind can be bitter, even in summer. A short drive west are the Andes and the Patagonian ice field, at 12,500km2 the world's third biggest, after Antarctica and Greenland. The ice field sends out dozens of large glaciers including the Perito Moreno which is 30km long and ends at the Argentino lake where it calves icebergs. It is an awesome sight, I took a boat trip along the face of the glacier, which in places is a stunning blue colour. Unlike glaciers I have seen elsewhere it carries very little moraine and is glaringly bright as a result. The drive west to the glacier sees the steppe replaced by beech forest, the trees are only a couple of metres high and shaped by the wind.

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