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.