The Whispering Land
By Nick Dall
The brownish stretch of windswept beach at Punta Norte is not much to look at. The colony of sea lions does add some interest, but all my brother Alex and I can think of is putting our feet up at the hostel after a long day of touring. And then, out of nowhere, a pair of massive dorsal fins scythes towards the shore and banishes any thoughts of chilling out.
Admittedly, we’re at that beach where orcas temporarily beach themselves in pursuit of juvenile sea lions, but we’re still extremely lucky to be seeing them in January. The massive killer whales zoom through the shallows, their black and white flanks almost fully exposed, while on the shore, hapless sea lions clumsily retreat further up the beach. After a few forays into the knee-deep water, the orcas decide that the tide isn’t quite right for a terrestrial attack and disappear towards the horizon…
The cherry on top of our bucket-list itinerary is a visit to the immense Perito Moreno Glacier.
It’s time for us to leave too. As we drive back to Puerto Madryn, I think back on our day exploring Península Valdés, the anvil-shaped peninsula described so eloquently by the English writer and naturalist Gerald Durrell. ‘It is almost as if the Península and its narrow isthmus are a cul-de-sac into which all the wildlife of Chubut has drained and from which it cannot escape.’ Durrell was right. With guanacos (wild relatives of the llama), ostrich-like rheas and vast colonies of grunting, writhing sea lions, elephant seals and fur seals, there sure is a lot to see on the peninsula – even if you aren’t lucky enough to glimpse the mammoth orcas.
Much like Hermanus in South Africa, the waters near Puerto Madryn are a popular calving ground for southern right whales, and boat-based whale- watching is very popular in the winter a permanent fixture in the central plaza. But it is the surrounding Lake District which will really take your breath away. It shouldn’t even be legal for one small region to be the home of such abundant picture postcard perfection. Everywhere you look, there’s an extinct volcano or a pristine glacier-fed lake, a soaring stand of conifers or a babbling brook that’s so clear you can make out every last pebble on the streambed.
Alex and I rent a car to explore the region. The only problem we encounter while driving the ‘Route of the Seven Lakes’ that runs between San Martín de Los Andes and Villa La Angostura is that we have to stop for photos a heck of a lot. And every time we stop, we say to each other ‘Surely it can’t get better than this?’ And every time, we’re wrong. After a few days based in and around Bariloche, we decide to take things up a notch by going camping in the Parque Nacional Los Alerces, a couple of hours south of Bariloche. En route, we stop at the hippy enclave of El Bolsón for a pint of raspberry beer; it’s the local speciality. Suitably refreshed, we carry on to the park itself, a slice of pristine paradise that distils everything the region has to offer into one blessedly uncrowded package.
For us, it’s the world-class trout fishing – in pine-fringed lakes and rollicking rivers – that keeps us busiest, but you may well be more taken by the hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails that wend their way through remote Andean ranges, or the prospect of a serene sundown cruise that traverses a necklace of interconnected lakes. In addition to several gorgeous lakeside campsites, the reserve also has a number of accommodation options ranging from cosy to downright opulent, so there really is something for everyone.
Torres del Paine National Park comprises unspoilt mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers.
The cherry on top of our bucket-list itinerary is our visit to the immense Perito Moreno Glacier. The glacier is accessed via the town of El Calafate, a full 1 400 km south of Los Alerces. Even though we arrive at the height of summer, we still find El Calafate scraggly, frigid and windswept… Little wonder if you consider that it’s located on the 50th parallel, nearly 5 600 km south of the equator.
Sparsely vegetated and dusty, this is Patagonia proper.
El Calafate may be drab, and the two-hour drive to the glacier slightly repetitive, but all of this is forgiven the moment we set eyes on the glacier, a massive, craggy edifice of bluish ice beneath leaden skies. A sequence of tastefully designed wooden walkways and observation platforms invite us to appreciate the glacier from every imaginable angle, and we certainly take up the challenge.
Perito Moreno is one of the world’s fastest-moving glaciers, and every seven years or so, it encroaches all the way to the opposite shore of the Argentino Lake, causing a difference in water levels that eventually results in one of the most deafening and explosive natural phenomena on the planet. You’d have to be exceptionally fortunate to actually be there for the ruptura, but Perito Moreno is nevertheless amazing 365 days a year.
And it’s not only a visual experience. We sign up for a boat cruise that takes us almost to the face of the glacier. Every so often a massive chunk of ice calves from the frigid wall of white above us, plunging into the turquoise depths with a thunderous crash.
‘Was it worth 40 hours on a bus?’ I ask my brother, but he’s too transfixed to answer.
The other side of the mountain
If you want to do Patagonia properly, you should probably also check out a couple of attractions on the Chilean side. Fortunately, the numerous border crossings are all reasonably low-key … provided there’s no snow!
With its iconic granite pillars and azure lakes, Torres del Paine National Park is torn from the pages of a fairy tale and its wide network of refugios (shelters) makes it ideal for hassle-free multi-day hikes.
The four-day ferry ride from Puerto Natales and Puerto Montt traverses spectacular fjords and pristine forests and is a highlight for many a traveller.
With hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, ice climbing and more, Pucón, just over the border from Bariloche, is Chile’s self-proclaimed adventure capital.
The town of Bariloche is located in the foothills of the Andes.
Good to Know
South Africans can visit Argentina for 90 days without a visa. the same goes for Chile.
The long-distance buses in Argentina are excellent (research some of the options at www.plataforma10.com.ar) and one of the best ways of getting around. Aerolineas Argentinas (www.aerolineas.com.ar) flies from Buenos aires to all the popular touristy places.
When to go
Most people visit Patagonia in summer, when the weather is at its warmest, although school holidays (December and January) can also get very busy. The area around Bariloche has several ski resorts, which are popular in winter.
Where to stay
All of the touristy places have a wide range of options, although for the best lakeside locations, you’ll probably have to either pitch a tent or splash some cash on a five-star establishment. Hosteria Hueney Ruca (www.hosteriahueneyruca.com.ar) in San Martin de Los Andes is pleasant, in a good location and affordable while El Aura in Los Alerces National Park is something truly special (www.elaurapatagonia.com). Generally, the further you go from Buenos Aires, the more expensive everything gets.
Taking care of all your outdoor meals
Source: AA Traveller