Pure air, tranquility and glacier-chilled cocktails - Andrew Benson sees Patagonia's icy wilderness in style.
An immense shield of pristine ice crowns the southernmost peaks of the Andes, where the Americas funnel down towards Antarctica. From this Southern Patagonian ice field gigantic glaciers toboggan into fjords and turquoise inlets set among the barren badlands of Santa Cruz province – forming landscapes that, when seen from the air, look like antique woodwork inlaid with semi-precious stones. As we descended into El Calafate airport, after a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires, we were treated to sweeping views of Lago Argentino, one of the continent’s biggest lakes, four times the size of Lake Geneva. A labyrinth of narrow channels wriggling at its western end forms a giant squid on maps. And after calving off glacial cliffs wind-sculpted icebergs bob around the lake’s chilly waters like toys in a giant bath.
The lower slopes of the Andes are cloaked in gnarled southern beeches, but not much else survives in these latitudes apart from the occasional bird and the descendants of hardy pioneers who barely a century ago battled the elements in the hope of making a fortune from sheep’s wool. Here and there wild fuchsias add a splash of crimson to the barren landscapes. This stark wilderness, and above all the drama of the glaciers, attracts thousands of visitors from around the globe in search of natural beauty at the far ends of the Earth. Whereas the most famous glacier in Argentina, the Perito Moreno, can be conveniently observed from the tip of a peninsula, just a short drive away from El Calafate, most of its counterparts are visible only from Lago Argentino – in other words, from a boat.
Photo: Andrew Benson
We went on one of the top-of-the-range two-night cruises that the Mar Patag company offers on this great inland sea, setting out on a long January evening from the company’s private jetty just west of El Calafate. By overnighting aboard their brand-new luxury catamaran, the Santa Cruz, you get to the sights before anyone else and, weather permitting, you can watch the sun rise and set over the lake’s mill pond waters. Moreover, Mar Patag take you to locations other operators cannot, plus the Santa Cruz, with its twenty or so snug cabins, has a capacity of only 44 – so no unseemly jostling to glimpse the breath-taking views. An added bonus is the delicious food – lovingly concocted in the galley by a master chef from Córdoba and his devoted team, who favour Patagonian products like venison, duck and trout.
Now you might think that once you’ve seen one glacier you’ve seen them all – but each giant tongue of slow-moving ice has its own personality. After a comfortable night at Bahía Alemana, we glided up Brazo Norte, one of Lago Argentino’s many tentacles, towards the Upsala glacier, a massive highway of compacted snow, with splinter-like seracs massed along its brittle front wall. Slaloming between bergs, we then sailed along the Spegazzini channel heading for its namesake glacier, a tumbling mass of Chantilly cream that foams into the lake seemingly from nowhere. On the way back towards the main body of the lake, the boat stops so that crew members can fish out great chunks of ice – kept aside to chill our pre-dinner cocktails later in the day. And, having anchored at Puesto Las Vacas, we disembark and hike up to an off-the-beaten-track viewpoint for superb panoramas of the Spegazzini glacier, building up our appetites for another spectacular dinner back on board the Santa Cruz.
Photo: Andrew Benson
As we savoured a creamy maize soup served with sheep’s cheese sorbet followed by succulent hake fillets in a saffron sauce, fellow voyager Carmen, a lawyer from São Paulo, agreed that the trip was worth every cent. Of course, there are no snow-capped mountains, glaciers or fjords in Brazil, and she and her husband were lapping up the pure air and tranquillity, far from the pollution and chaos of their home city. They had chosen the Mar Patag cruise because it also offered an opportunity to get some exercise on land and burn off the calories. The next day, after a hearty breakfast, Carmen was not disappointed – we were escorted off the catamaran and, having sped across gurgling rapids in dinghies towards the Mayo glacier, stomped over boulders and up a rocky path to another viewpoint, for a close-up vista of the majestic glacier itself.
The other glaciers may be stunning in their own ways, but the climax to our journey was inevitably our leisurely view of the imperial Perito Moreno from our boat. Its sheer mint-blue cliffs formed a suitable backdrop as we savoured our last meal aboard. Then, as we took in the frosty panorama for one last time, we toasted the crew with champagne from Mendoza and chewed purple calafate berries – El Calafate is named for Berberis microphylla, a native holly-like bush. Accordingly to Tehuelche legend, eating the purple fruit guarantees that one day you’ll return to Patagonia. Of course we all hoped we would.
Andrew Benson is co-author of the Rough Guide to Argentina