From the Land of Fire we have come to the Land of Ice - Los Glaciares National Park. This is where snow clad mountains meet the dry, arid Patagonian steppe, where glaciers calve icebergs into vast lakes, where mountaineers scale world renowned peaks accompanied by the circling condor.
We initially based ourselves in El Calafate on the shores of Lago Argentina, the largest lake in the country. Its waters are the same swimming pool blue of many of the lakes in New Zealand because this lake is fed by glaciers 80 klms away. There is a great wetland area here with many bird species, including the iconic Andean Flamingo. The bright flash of pink against the turquoise blue waters really is eye catching.
Our main objective here was to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier, though there are other glaciers and lakes that you can visit, so we hired a car. It's just as well that we had given ourselves plenty of time to explore the area as I went down with a stomach bug on day one Jane two days later. Of the three days for which we hired it our car more or less stood idle for two so it was a very expensive hiring. However, we did manage one trip to the glacier and it certainly wasn't a wasted day.
Perito Moreno is THE glacier that all visitors to Patagonia want to see so it does get crowded with tour buses and people but that doesn't matter for Perito is a fabulous sight. Whereas all other glaciers in the world are retreating due to global warming Perito is not. It gets enough snowfall every year to replace the ice which calves off continuously. It's only about 5 klms long and 50 mtrs high so it isn't the biggest glacier but it sure is pretty. To give the Argentines their due they have constructed a wonderful series of walkways and galleries from which you can view the glacier at quite close quarters and we were able to wander for hours just gazing at this spectacle of nature.
We've seen glaciers in various parts of the world, Nepal and New Zealand in particular, but this is by far the most beautiful and most pristine. And somehow this solid wall of ice, centuries old, seems almost to be a living, breathing thing. Every now and then, as the sun shone down on it, there would be a crack, like gunshot or canon fire, and a seeming small piece of ice would fall down, though I don't suppose it would be very small if you happened to be under it at the time. At other times a much larger section of the wall would give way and we were lucky to witness one of these calvings. Large splinters of ice spun off the face of the glacier into the cold waters below, crashing down and then bobbing up again. And then came the tsunami wave of the displaced water rushing past with a whooshing noise, travelling all along the face of the glacier. The ice which had fallen fanned out in many fractured pieces. Further along the lake you'd find icebergs drifted against the shoreline. Even 80 klms away in El Calafate we spotted one berg afloat in the distance. That must have been a really big calving.
To see one of the infrequent major calvings must be a true spectacle but you'd have to be really lucky to be in the right spot at the right time but the beauty of the glacier is not contained within these explosive detonations. The face of the ice is fluted and riven, like meringue but with deep holes in it and you can't help but be mesmerised by the deep blue glow within the holes, caves and crevasses. As the day wears on and the sun climbs it back-lights the glacier; and then the light within it becomes a deep, viridian blue.
We took a boat trip right to the edge of the glacier at this stage and it was staggering to see this 50 mtr wall of ice towering above our tiny craft seemingly lit up from the inside by the most intense blue light I've ever witnessed. It was like some vast, minimalist stage set just waiting for the actors to appear.
Perito is part of the vast Patagonian Ice sheet, the largest body of ice outside the poles and because of the shape of the mountains hereabouts there are any number of glaciers tumbling down into icy lakes. Many travellers come here to do glacier treks but we decided instead to walk the mountains and for this we took a 3 hour bus journey to El Chalten.
Chalten is nestled at the foot of some of the world's most beautiful peaks, the serried needlepoints of Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre. Our first view of these mountains was from the top deck of the bus as it motored down the arrow straight road by the side of Lake Viedma.
Chelten attracts hikers, walkers, mountaineers, rock climbers, anglers and anyone else who likes the great outdoors. It's been allowed to grow in a rather higgledy piggledy, unplanned fashion which is a shame but it does have a charming, laid back, almost hippyish air. Just our kind of place and the little cabin we have rented is just our kind of home for 6 days.
We were both still feeling the effects of our illness so on our first day only did three shortish walks which were not too strenuous, though the first one did give us a wonderful overview of the town and the snow covered mountains surrounding it. During the day we managed to spot condors, pygmy owl, austral parakeet, sierra finch and several birds of prey so it was a great introductory day and by the end of it we were tired but felt on the mend - fit enough to do a much more demanding trek the next day to get a close up view of Cerro Fitz Roy.
Fitz Roy, at 3,405 mtrs high, is the tallest mountain in the area. It is a large, steep sided, slab of rock with smaller, more serrated peaks either side. It was named after the Master of the Beagle and so is yet another connection with Darwin. He seems to get everywhere, that bloke! On the advice of our landlord, Hugo, we took an early morning bus 17 klms out of Chalten to take the footpath back. We initially trekked up by the side of Rio Blanco through some really wonderful forest.
The woods here are not what we are used to at home but consist mostly of a type of beech tree. These are mostly of stunted growth, reaching no more than 20 ft or so, due in part to the high winds and savage winters but also due to the thin, sandy soil. The trees are twisted and gnarled, with many dead branches and many fallen trees. Not so great for the trees maybe but for walking it means that there is no dense canopy and you get wonderful views of the mountains through the branches and when there are clearings.
The first notable landmark on the walk is the Piedras Blancas glacier which you can see sweeping down the steep mountainside into a lake. After a while you come to Campamento Poincenot, named after a French climber who lost his life attempting the climb of Fitz Roy. Here you get great views of the peak and its surrounding snow field.
After this there is the hour long climb up a very steep ridge to get the closest view possible of the mountains. This is the most badly eroded and exposed trail in the whole national park and as Jane was still feeling the effects of her illness she sensibly chose to sit it out under the shade of a tree whilst I went ahead.
I've been on a few pretty tough walks but this was certainly up there with the likes of Tongariro in New Zealand. A very steep zig-zag path had you gasping for breath every 100 yds and wondering if it was all worth it. Added to that it was incredibly hot - one of the very few days of the year in these parts when the sun beats down from a cloudless sky and there is little or no wind. That just doesn't happen very often, according to the locals.
I was just about spent when I eventually got to the top but the effort was well worth it. As with the glacier, you felt that you were within touching distance of the mountain and the blindingly white snow glistening in front of you. OK, I had to share this view with several hundred other people but it was still quite magical and oddly quiet, as though the mountain was just absorbing us. You did feel in the presence of something so much larger than you - the elemental forces of nature. There were several climbers out on the mountain, tiny ant-like figures in the vastness of snow and rock. It was one of those awe inspiring moments.
When I eventually got back down to Jane an hour and a half later I found her chatting to a Spanish teaching graduate who was like-wise waiting for her friends to return. Later on Jane was able to regale me with some interesting and juicy differences between 'Spanish' Spanish and 'Argentinian' Spanish. Even the teacher from Bilbao has trouble understanding some Argentines because of their accent and the speed at which they talk.
The walk back to Chalten was not especially difficult but by then we were both very tired and it became a bit of a trudge back home. However, on the way we did see one of our wish list birds - the Magellanic Woodpecker which we had been searching for since Tierra del Fuego. We eventually got back in some 10 hrs after we'd started out - a long, tiring, but very succesful day.
The other notable mountain around here is Cerro Torre an incredible, finger like needle of a mountain. Fitz Roy was summited by a French team in 1952 but even they thought that conquering Cerro Torre was an impossible task. Not because of its height but because of the shape and formidable weather - a spire like a glass splinter, an almost vertical 2 klm drop into glacial ice and battered almost constantly by 200 kmph winds. It has killed many a great climber. like the Austrian Tony Egger and was only definitively conquered in 1970 by Maestri who took a 150kg machine for drilling bolts into the rockface. It was thus conquered by man and machine though more recent climbers using modern materials and techniques have been able to achieve the climb without resorting to pneumatic drills.
Climbing esoterics aside, it's hard to imagine anyone actually scaling this vertiginous rock. We got a good look at it on a walk towards Laguna Torre, which is the closest that any non-climber can approach. Still tired from our exertions of the previous day we chose not to do the whole 22 klms, 6 hr walk and instead contented ourselves with walking in the sunshine, through the trees and getting to the viewpoint from which we could see the whole Torres range.
We've had a superb time in Chalten. Walked through some glorious scenery, been blessed by near perfect weather on most days and are now ready to move on to our final destination on this trip. If you mix fire with ice you get water. So we are now going to the Lake District of Argentina - Barriloche.