Our first stop in Southern Patagonia was El Calafate in Argentina.
The words spectacular, dramatic, astonishing, jaw-dropping, and stunning still don’t quite capture the scenery, which made Mark and me feel we had somehow magically stumbled into the pages of a glossy coffee table book.
So thank goodness for Mark’s camera.
The Perito Moreno glacier is 250 sq km (97 sq mi), 30 km (19 mi) in length, and more importantly, stable.
Look at the tiny person on the viewing platform, to give you an idea of how vast this glacier is.
The sounds here were as impressive as the sights – the peace would be broken frequently by eerie noises of the ice creaking and groaning as it cracked deep inside the glacier, or as chunks larger than family cars broke off at the edges to crash and splash into the water. It was as though the glacier was a living, powerful being.
El Chalten is a charming hippie village at the foot of the mountains, full of picturesque, shanty-style buildings in pastel colours. It’s properly remote; just 400 inhabitants (the population grows to around 2,000 because of visitors in peak hiking/tourist season) and there is a very shaky satellite connection for Internet. We were a bit alarmed to see this sign warning us that there were no more pubs for miles (I thought my father would appreciate this).
Luckily there was enough trekking and more beautiful scenery to quench our thirst instead (not to mention a great microbrewery and pub on the main street).
The wind in Patagonia is notorious – the multitude of coastline, lakes, peaks, and glaciers all near each other create many different microclimates which cause powerful and unpredictable bursts of wind.
This isn’t an ocean, but a mountain lake.
On this day, all but one of our group of five were literally swept off their feet by the wind. All you can do is drop to the ground and clutch while at rocks or bushes to avoid getting blown away. We attempted to reach the peak of Lago de Los Tres, but couldn’t fight the wind even crawling on our hands and knees. The very next day the same lake was as calm and still as a mirror.
One of my favourite things about hiking is how it sharpens your appetite and gives you a great excuse to feast. Not only do you deserve a hearty meal after ten hours of stomping around mountains and hoisting yourself up steep slopes, you can indulge merrily knowing you’re in no danger of putting on weight.
A local specialty is Patagonian lamb, barbecued in the traditional way and served in huge portions.
I also learnt about the local calafate berry, which is part of the barberry family (Persians – barberry is zereshk) and resembles very tiny blueberries. You can find all sorts of things made with these berries: jams, jellies, booze, cordials, salsas and sauces. There is a legend that says that if you eat calafate, it means you will one day return to Patagonia.
Knowing this, I tucked in to this calafate ice cream with gusto; I would definitely love to come back.