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Eight Days in Argentina, Part 3

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(Continued from Part 2.)

Buen día! Quick, what’s the southernmost city in the world?

Give up? It’s Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. And befitting the town’s honorable status, you fly over some spectacular terrain as you descend to the airport. The mountains rush up and you think this big plane you’re on can’t possibly clear the peaks.

 

 

But we were at the bottom of the world only for a stopover. From Ushuaia it was a short hop to our final destination, El Calafate, a bit to the north—the gateway to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (Glacier National Park).

There’s something different about the light down in Patagonia. I don’t know what it is, but this view from our hotel window captures a little bit of it, while also showing what a boom town El Calafate is: Observe the not-yet-paved street down the center, heading towards the lake.

 

 

It’s not that El Calafate is all that far south, objectively speaking; it’s at the equivalent latitude of London. Glaciers are here because of the specific geography and climate. They’re also the reason El Calafate’s population has grown from 6,000 to 20,000 in the past decade. Most of those residents, it seems, are in one way or another catering to people like us—visitors who want to see the majestic sights of Glacier National Park.

In this photo of the Perito Moreno glacier, you can see a splash of mist just off the water, right at the center—the aftermath of a calving (a piece of the glacier falling off into the water, and what a thunderous noise these make!). In this age of warming, Perito Moreno is a rarity: a glacier that is not retreating. It’s one tough-ass glacier.

 

 

Here the guides are fitting us with crampons in preparation for our glacier trek. In the distance you can see another group already walking on ice.

 

 

And here’s our group on the glacier:

 

 

At the end of the ice trek we were rewarded with—what else?—whiskey and alfijores, those delicious cookies filled with dulce de leche. Dulce de leche amounts to something of a national obsession in Argentina. Back home in New York you can get dulce de leche candies in Latino-run bodegas, and dulce del leche-flavored Haagen Dasz ice cream. But I’ve never seen it in the gooey spreadable form it’s found everywhere down in Argentina.

Anyway, bottoms up!

 

 

Another view of the glacier:

 

 

…followed by a short hike back through the woods. Lest we forget, with all the glaciers and icebergs: This is a temperate climate. Chilly, but by no means arctic.

 

 

The following day, a boat packed with tourists took us all over Lago Argentino (the country’s biggest lake) to see the other glaciers and get another look at Perito Moreno. Some parts of the lake are littered with icebergs. Here’s one with a boat in the background:

 

 

And another iceberg:

 

 

This one has a lot of deep blue ice, which means it’s more compact, and thus older—coming, presumably, from a deeper, older part of the glacier.

 

 

These glaciers are just tongues of a huge ice sheet that spreads over a section of Patagonia spanning both Argentina and Chile. Perito Moreno is the most famous of these tongues, partly because it’s the easiest to see; not only can you trek on it, you can walk on a series of balconies facing the glacier from a height across an iceberg-choked strait. To get a look at some of the others you really need to be on a boat. And it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of these things from photos.

 

 

The tallest, the Spegazzini glacier, rises 135 meters out of the lake, with a lot of it below the surface as well.

There are sights to see closer to the town of El Calafate too. A walk around the laguna—a nature preserve at the edge of town by the lake—provided a feast for birders. These flamingoes were a surprise:

 

 

And this shot conveys another view on that different sort of light and color that characterizes this part of the world.

 

 

Our final adventure was a trip in this crazy-looking 4×4 bus up the mountains, which look barren from below but are full of life—including finches, hares, pumas, and the calafate bush which gives the town its name—and strange rock formations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in town we got to know the delicious pinkish flavor of the calafate berry, which is used in ice cream, mousse, jam, etc. Little bottles of jam made great gifts to bring home—compact and sweet and definitely local.

Honestly, I expected the Buenos Aires part of our trip to be the food-centric one; I thought food would be secondary in Patagonia. But far from it. One restaurant brought us steak (a couple of different cuts) on a sizzling dish with a flame below. We didn’t realize the steak was still cooking until it got a little too far past the “medium” or “medium rare” conditions which seem to be the standard way of ordering steak in Argentina. Fair warning: depending on the thickness of the cut, “medium rare” can mean pretty darn bloody-red on the inside. But steak lovers, take note: Argentina’s reputation in that department is well deserved.

And I had the best lamb I’ve ever had in my life in El Calafate. At two different restaurants. And in addition to the famous malbec, there’s excellent local white wine, and really good local brews as well. We were indeed well stuffed by the end of our trip.

That’s it for now. Despite two earlier posts on Buenos Aires, I feel I gave the capital city short shrift. But other duties call. If I’m not back with more on Argentina, I’ll be back after the next trip!

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    What scenery, Jon! Fantastic. It reminds me my going to New Zealand years ago (another almost end of the world place).

    Fabulous series!! Thanks for stoking the fires of the traveler in me!

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    PS> The lamb is quite good there as well (best I ever had).

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    I definitely hope to make to New Zealand one of these years…

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    Shame you didn’t get to see more of Ushuaia, Jon, which is a pretty neat city in itself. There are a few more small glaciers knocking around in the hills above the town.

    Technically, the glaciers of Patagonia are part of an ice field, not an ice sheet.

    I made the mistake of going out for a morning walk in El Calafate without a jacket on. What a place… absolutely bone-chilling because of the winds from the nearby ice, but dry as the aforesaid bone because the high pampas are in the Andes’ rain shadow.

    Perito Moreno is awesome. We didn’t get to trek on it, unfortunately. We may be going back to Argentina later this year, though, so with any luck…!

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Don’t wait too long! I don’t know how old you are…but we gathered, from talking to an older couple we met in El Calafate, that they won’t take you trekking if you’re over 65.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    Ah, then I still have a couple of decades!

  • Terence Clarke

    Hello Jon,

    Nice piece, and a terrific trip. I’m frequently in Argentina (Buenos Aires, mostly) and always enjoy writing about it. I hope you’ll look at a BC article I did a few years ago about getting a cab in that city.

    All best,
    Terence Clarke

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    A great story, Terence, thanks for pointing it out! And I admire you for actually knowing how to tango. We had no violent weather on our visit to Buenos Aires. A few warm clear days, then overnight a blanket of humidity descended and the last day was extremely humid, but not raining.

    We took quite a few cabs in B.A. Some of the drivers went awfully fast. But then, you get some of those here in New York too.