LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 44
Pags.: 28 - 33
By: Julia Caprara
Photos: Carolina Aldao
THE GLACIER IN FALL - SOMETHING NOT TO BE MISSED
We are heading for the glacier at night. We want to get there in time to see it gleam in the sun's first rays. We enter Los Glaciares National Park with the morning freshness of fall; reddish leaf tones begin to appear among the lush green.
The landscape is a succession of ņires, notros, calafates, lengas and matas negras. Our road follows the edge of the lake, and when we turn the so-called "corner of sighs" (not thus named by pure chance), we see the enormous white "tongue". Few of us can suppress the "Oooohs, Aaaahs and Wows" that this view elicits.
Some condors and brown eagles fly so high above that they seem tiny spots in the sky. Below us, the turquoise Rico Arm of Lake Argentino spreads like a carpet at the foot of the Moreno. "Mission accomplished!" On the horizon of ice, the first rays of daybreak appear.
A succession of walkways gets us closer to the glacier on the Peninsula of Magellan. "Wonderful, incredible", exclaim the Japanese, American and French tourists in unison. Ice reigns supreme. It reigns over a territory as vast as that of the Federal District of Buenos Aires on which, for millennia snow has been accumulating and compacting into walls that are 60 to 80 feet high.
The sight of that five-kilometer-long mass in front of us is enough to stupefy anyone. When we try to understand its origin, however, our wonder increases because a glacier, in the words of Miguel Alonso in his Manual of Lago Argentino is "not only a mass of ice, but above all a moving mass of ice".
A series of roaring reports alerts us to the fact that the ice wall is crumbling. The mass breaks off into chunks that hit the waters of the lake with a thunderous noise, producing gigantic waves. The water is a frothing maelstrom of broken off chunks of ice that bob on the surface and are submerged again, including miniature icebergs.
The dangers posed by this fury command respect. One must be prudent and not leave the authorized walkways that are provided in the Park. There have been several fatal accidents -32 deaths between 1967 and 1988- due to not judging the force of the waves properly or forgetting about the slivers of ice that are shot off the falling chunks and hit the surrounding rocks.
Although break-offs occur several times a day during the whole year, they have nothing to do with the so-called "breakthrough of the glacier", that used to happen regularly every three or four years. The last time was ten years ago, and since then, the channel communicating Rico Arm and De los Tempanos Channel (Iceberg Channel) has not closed again.
When this happened, a natural dyke formed, cutting off the outlet of Rico Arm, and the waters began to rise, exerting an ever-greater pressure on the ice wall, until they finally broke through it.
The walk on the glacier also provides unforgettable moments. In order to take tourists on this walk, a boat transfers them to the other side of the lake, and from Bajo de las Sombras Pier it crosses Rico Arm to get to the lodge: this is the starting point for the mini-trekking groups, that fit their shoes with crampons for walking on ice and are given instructions on ice-walking technique. At first, we seemed to be a bunch of "clumsy monkeys", but after a while of practicing, we began to climb and descend the ice slopes with greater agility.
The guides are young, and move self-assuredly around this kind of "open-door freezer" that constantly reveals ice caves and buried lakes. They seem to be created by the imagination of a Jules Verne, but are quite real, and within the scope of our curiosity. Gliding along the snow and ice gives us a weightless feeling. The blue of the ice gets deeper in the crevasses, and the seracs (points of ice) make a perfect combination with the sunny day and clear sky.
"Caro, let's toast to this - it's amazing!", I said to my traveling companion when we were back to the starting point. So we clinked our whisky glasses (a courtesy from our guides, gratefully accepted).
El Calafate and the "estancias" (ranches)
El Calafate has left behind its past as a covered wagon resting post on the shores of Lake Argentino. The name is derived from the action of calafatear (caulking), since the seamen of bygone days, when they ran out of tar for this purpose, used the resin from this bush with its dark little fruit.
Its proximity to Perito Moreno Glacier makes it the entrance gate to this attraction and, by the start of the new millennium, it will have an airport of its own. Thus the 320 kilometers separating it from Rio Gallegos will cease to be a disheartening obstacle for many people after spending three hours flying from Buenos Aires to Rio Gallegos.
On both sides of the main road of El Calafate, a wide range of businesses caters for tourists. There are top-level hotels and simple hostelries, and they all serve their guests in a very friendly way. Nothing is cheap here, but during the fall tourism promotion season, the prices become temptingly accessible.
There is no classy cuisine either -only some of the hotel restaurants offer a gourmet menu- however, none of them omits to offer fresh crab and trout. Six blocks from the center of town, along Avenida lies Lake Nimes. This lake is teeming with flamingoes, ducks, swans and silver macas. In winter, it freezes over, and is used as a skating rink. Nightlife finds its warmth and proper setting in the Don Diego de la Noche Pub, with piscos and timeless melodies played by its talented owner.
El Calafate's beginnings date from the late 19th century, as a wagon post on the so-called Wool Trail, coinciding with the foundation of the first ranches in the area. Baled wool was transported along this trail to the main Atlantic ports.
A few kilometers outside the city starts the "Trail of the Ranches". Some of these are open to all visitors, and others, such as Alta Vista, are more exclusive. The last team of shearers left Estancia Anita at the end of February after the "eye shearing", leaving the shearing sheds empty. Beyond the boundaries of this ranch, the ghosts of Patagonian tragedy bring back to life the events of 1921, an obligatory conversation piece when visiting this area.
At El Galpon de Atice -also become a hotel- there is a shearing exhibition including the sheepherding skills of Sheila, a highly skilled sheepdog. This hotel's restaurant seats 120, and offers its famed stake-barbecued mutton. Facing the ranch can be seen the waters of Lake Argentino gleaming in the afternoon sunshine.