LATIN AMERICA 2011 | EXPLORER
In Argentina, Glaciers by Way of Patagonia
By BRIENNE WALSH
Published: September 16, 2011
THE boat slid across the teal waters of Lago Argentino, and soon we were 900 feet from the Perito Moreno Glacier. Through the morning rain, the glacier loomed above us — a jagged wonder glowing with colors: aquamarine, pure white, pale gray and an otherworldly, nearly fluorescent blue. Every few seconds there was a thunderous crack, and a chunk of ice, distant and unseen, went crashing into the ice field.
This was the end of a journey that had begun four days earlier in northwestArgentina. My friend Michael and I had arrived in the ski resort town of Bariloche laden with dreams of driving down Route 40 — the near-mythical highway that had been an escape route for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid more than 100 years ago — to the Perito Moreno Glacier, 50 miles west of the town of El Calafate.
I had just spent nearly two months in Buenos Aires and was tired of urban life, of nonstop human interaction. I wanted solitude and a dose of adventure before returning to my home in New York. Then it occurred to me: I would call Michael and we would go to Patagonia, the windswept frontier bequeathed with the earth’s few remaining glaciers. Adventure and solitude would surely be found there, I figured.
The agents at Hertz, where we rented our car, assured us the route hadn’t changed much since the days it was traversed by outlaws. Especially in winter, they said, it is covered with black ice and riddled with potholes. Hertz would rent us a car only if we promised not to take Route 40 the entire way.
So we mapped a new route, a 1,180-mile cruise along the paved highways that slashed across the lonely landscape of Argentinian Patagonia. It would take us east, to the coastline, and then south along the water, and then back west, to El Calafate, near the border of Chile.
We enlisted the help of our hotel porter the night before our departure. “The first afternoon, you’ll drive south to Esquel,” he told us, making notes on a piece of paper. Soon the page filled up with the names of sights: national parks, caves full of prehistoric paintings, estancias. He circled Sarmiento, the town where Bruce Chatwin, the travel writer, encountered amateur archaeologists collecting dinosaur bones from the banks of the Lake Colhué Huapi. He made a star next to Puerto San Julián, the harbor where Charles Darwin had gathered scientific data in 1834 as a member of Robert FitzRoy’s Beagle survey. If we made good time, the porter said, by the evening of the third day we would be in Río Gallegos, a hair’s breadth away from Tierra del Fuego. From there, we would make our way northwest to El Calafate.
Early the next afternoon Bariloche, with its tidal wave of tourists, slid behind us, and the Andes, black and speckled with snow, filled the horizon.
Patagonia is famous for being a magnet for wanderers. In 1977, Chatwin described the region as having “an effect on the imagination something like the Moon.” Occupying roughly 490,000 square miles, it extends from the Colorado River in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south. On the western side, it is bordered by Chile; in the east, it meets the Argentine Sea, which feeds into the Atlantic.
But Patagonia today is a different land from the one that Chatwin explored 30 years ago. Stretches of emptiness still exist, but it’s impossible to drive more than a few hours without coming upon a town ripe with three-star hotels, satellite TV and restaurants that accept credit cards.
If anything about Patagonia is still otherworldly, it’s the colors embedded in the landscape — teal, mauve, mahogany, jonquil, periwinkle, azure, lavender.
We arrived in Esquel, 120 miles south of our starting point, as the sun was setting over the mountains. The town is the home of La Trochita, a steam train line relegated to the tourist trail with hourlong journeys through the Andean foothills. But we were in Esquel only to sleep, and left early the next morning.
As we drove, the thermometer on the dashboard dropped to the freezing point. Ahead lay the low, tiered steppes that cover most of southern Patagonia. By noon, we were at Gobernador Costa, a town that looked like a John Wayne movie set, sleepy and seething with boredom. It was here that Route 40 intersected with Route 20, which we took east toward the coast.
Occasionally, we’d be startled by something unexpected — the viridian and turquoise of Lake Musters, framed by ocher reeds; the stratified rock formations of Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento, which presided over an abandoned realm of petrified wood chips deposited by a river that had carved out the valley 65 million years ago.
It was at the entrance to this prehistoric forest that we encountered our first loner, a man who lived with his dog in a trailer in the visitor parking lot. He was there to guard the landmark from looters who had all but stripped the landscape of its relics. Eager to talk, the man shared his woes. Work was hard to come by in Patagonia, he told us, unless you were employed by the oil industry. But it was to oil that people around here gave up their souls, he said, and he preferred to keep his, even if it meant policing a site devoid of life.
We left the park, our fingers numb from the cold, and soon encountered fields of oil drills burrowing into the tundra, just as the ranger had indicated. By the time we reached Comodoro Rivadavia, a city on the east coast, the landscape had been claimed by cheap hotels, fast-food joints and car dealerships.
The evening upon us, we turned south down Route 3. A full moon appeared, illuminating the Atlantic Ocean, and revealing the sleek outlines of five southern whales. The cars in front of us stopped, one by one. We pulled alongside them and joined the small crowd that had gathered on the cliffs to watch the whales slip through the water.
Early the next morning, we arrived in San Julián — the port where Ferdinand Magellan had landed in 1520. Today, Puerto San Julián has the feeling of an impermanent town trapped in permanent dusk. With only seven hours of sunlight left, we changed our trajectory, and turned northwest to El Calafate.
Accustomed to coming upon a town every 30 minutes, we hardly flinched when the gas light on the dashboard flickered red. But as the road stretched before us with no signs of civilization, and the sun starting to set, we began to panic.
Just as we had given up hope, a rest stop appeared in the distance. It looked like a trucker stop from the 1950s mired in the American Badlands, and consisted of a diner and a gas pump. The outside of the diner was plated with tin. The gas pump had a manual lever. In the throes of impending doom, we felt both saved and spooked.
We swerved into the lot. From the windows of the restaurant, four sets of eyes followed us. They belonged to the owner of the place, his wife and two truckers who, like us, were making their way across Patagonia. We asked for gas, only to be told that the pump had been empty for years.
My friend went outside with the owner to check the gas tank while I stayed at the counter. His wife watched me as I sipped a Coke, sizing me up as if I were a girl who had gone and gotten herself into trouble with the law. A few minutes later, her husband returned, informing us that we had just enough gas to get to the next pump, 37 miles down the road in Esperanza.
Esperanza turned out to be another frontier town consisting of a strip club, a bar and some ramshackle houses. We careened into the station, and promptly ran out of gas. After our heartbeats had steadied (and I had downed a beer), we headed off into the dusk to El Calafate.
El Calafate is the gateway to the 1.5- million-acre Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, where the Perito Moreno Glacier resides. While 95 percent of the earth’s glaciers are retreating, the Perito Moreno Glacier has remained stable, making it a unique phenomenon in a world transformed by global warming.
Until recently, El Calafate was a sleepy town, a trading post for the ranching industry that dominates the area. Access to the glaciers was difficult until 2000, when an airport opened 10 miles outside town. In 2001 El Calafate had a population of 6,500 people. Today, it is estimated to be 22,000.
“Without the glaciers, all of this would not exist,” Bruno Lamenti, the owner of a wool goods store, told me, gesturing at the Avenida del Libertador, the main street of town, which is exploding with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. On the outskirts, luxury homes are sprouting up so quickly that the roads around them have yet to be paved. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, has a country house on one of these streets. Originally drawn by the splendor that surrounds the valley, the Argentinian jet-set continues to flock to the town, which has developed something of a trendy life of its own.
At sunrise the next morning, we departed for the park, where we boarded the sightseeing boat that brought us to the southern face of the ice mass. Later, a tour bus took us to a visitor center. High in the hills behind the parking lot, Los Notros hotel, where rooms with a view of the glacier begin at $450 a night, was obscured by pines.
The visitor center was the entranceway to a maze of footbridges that snaked down the side of the embankment on the east side of the glacier. I began walking down the pathways alone, and as I got closer to the glacier, I heard the dull rumbling of shifting ice. I hikedfor almost an hour before I found a bench overlooking a particularly beautiful vista of the jagged ice field. Exhausted, I laid my head against a post, and allowed myself to revel in the solitude I had sought — and at last found.