ARGENTINA: GLACIERS & FALLS, A Travel Diary by Subhash Motwani, Argentina Specialist

Argentina is truly an enormous country with great diversity and stunning landscapes. Being the 8th largest country in the world, it was not surprising to note that it takes 6 hours by flight to reach from Buenos Aires to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia – which is the capital of the province of Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia. Those who plan to take the Antarctica cruise can do so from Ushuaia- a hub for Antarctic cruises.

BEYOND BUENOS AIRES

Our next destination after visiting the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere and the capital of Argentina was the city of El Calafate which is half way to Ushuaia. It takes 3 hours by flight to reach El Calafate – the city better known for its spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier, an icefield which was created millions of years ago by a gap formed in the Andes Mountains.

Whilst flying within Argentina it is essential to note that one has to keep sufficient time between connecting flights as the domestic flights tend to get delayed and a 3-hour flight can at times take 3 hours and 30 minutes. Flights within Argentina can be quite expensive and at times if you are lucky you can get some good deals as well. A return flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate can cost you around USD 600 and there are several airlines which fly within Argentina such as Sol, TAM, Aerolineas Argentinas, Andes and LAN to name a few. So a specialist on the destination can definitely help you in getting the best deals provided you plan your trip well in advance.

LEGENDS OF PATAGONIA

The region of Patagonia is truly a delight for the adventure seeker and Cerro Castor which is 26 kilometres from Ushuaia is one of the most exclusive ski resorts in Argentina. It is located on the same latitude in the Southern Hemisphere as Moscow is in the Northern Hemisphere. This region receives the longest snow season in Latin America and one of the reasons being that the southern slopes do not receive direct sunlight. As a result skiing in Cerro Castor is a delight as it enjoys the best snow quality that you will find anywhere in the world.  Areas such as Cerro Chapelco, Bayo, Catedral, Las Leñas, Penitentes, Caviahue and La Hoya are regions where you can enjoy skiing across the region of Patagonia as well as other snow activities such as snowboarding, snow tubing, husky sledge rides and even golf as well.  From the green field and the fertile Rio Negro valley to the Andes Mountain range and the arid Patagonia plateau, the last home of the dinosaurs, to foots of hills and volcanoes, sport fishing and stays in estancias or large cattle ranches, one can spend days experiencing different activities in Patagonia and the 3 major cities worth visiting here are Bariloche, El Calafate and Ushuaia amongst others. The region is home to 13 glaciers including Uppsala – the largest of glacier in Los Glaciares National Park which derives its name from the Uppsala University which sponsored the first glaciological study in the region. Another glacier worth visiting is Spegazzini – one of the highest glaciers reaching a height of 135 metres.  The Patagonian region comprises of 17000 square kilometres of which 2000 square kilometers are in Argentina and the rest belong to Chile.

What we were to witness is the Perito Moreno glacier during our short stay in El Calafate. The Perito Moreno Glacier is located 80 kilometres from El Calafate and is the only glacier which can be viewed from a balcony stretching almost 4 kilometres.  As our flight approached El Calafate we noticed the turquoise colour of Lago Argentino – the biggest freshwater lake of Argentina in the Santa Cruz province of Patagonia. It is from this lake that the Argentinian flag derives it colour. The lake has a surface area of 1600 sq kilometres with a depth of 120 metres.



THE PRESIDENTIAL SUITE

Our hotel Los Sauces which incidentally belongs to the President of Argentina was located 20 kilometres from the airport in one of the most picturesque locations. In fact the entire drive was a perfect post card picture experience. Puerto Natales which is the Chilean border is 300 kilometres away and can be covered in a driving distance of 3.5 to 4 hours. So if you don’t have a Chilean visa but still want to get close to Chile, a day trip from El Calafate is a possibility.

The capital of Santa Cruz province is Rio Gallegos, located 300 kilometres from El Calafate. The town of El Calafate, known as the national capital of the glaciers has over 7000 inhabitants and is on the southern end of Lago Argentino (Lake Argentina) and a minimum 3 days stay is recommended to explore the region.

During our short stay we were highly pampered and taken care by the exceptional staff at Los Sauces – a world class luxury property with exquisite cuisine and suite style accommodation. Each room is tastefully decorated and the rooms are pretty spacious with wide windows and views of Mount Calafate or Lake Argentina. I was in one of the rooms which was roughly 40 square metres and the entire property is located in a traditional ranch estate in an area comprising of 4 acres of immaculate landscape giving you the feel of a country style accommodation. On a cool wintry day you can spend a couple of hours in front of the log fire and soak in some authentic local character with fine furnishings comprising of some striking Argentine paintings and sculptures.

La Comarca restaurant serves some fine gourmet cuisine with the suckling Patagonian lamb being an absolute specialty. The Southern Hake (fish) is another specialty. And after a full day of adventure – be it visiting the Glacier or going on horseback, you can relax in the octagonal designed spa known as Las Piedras which is fully equipped with a state of the art gym, Jacuzzi, sauna and spa.

FOOTHILLS OF THE ANDES

After a sumptuous lunch, we left for an exciting 4×4 adventure to Huyliche, a working ranch which raises cattle and criollo horses and is barely 3 kilometres from El Calafate. We could hear the sound of the wind blowing and it was the end of winter with a temperature around 5˚ C. This was probably the highlight of our entire trip to get some stunning views as we moved up the foothills of the Andean mountains on our 4×4 overlooking valleys, creeks, rivers and as we moved higher in altitude we could see some snow across the horizon.

Not only did we get the opportunity to drive on the snow but also experienced a gentle snowstorm.The amazing landscapes and spectacular views made this experience much beyond the exceptional. The region of El Calafate is known for its tourism and meat produce and is one of the few places to experience some unique Farm Tours, sheep shearing, visits to the Eola and Cristina farms which are highly recommended for the discerning travelers. Whether it is horse riding, trekking or even visiting the 3 major glaciers of the region – Upsala, Spegazzini and Perito Moreno, the Santa Cruz province of Patagonia and the city of El Calafate should be right on top of your must visit excursions when you visit the South American Continent.

The following day we had one of the best and most efficient guides in Patagonia – Paula. Paula Podromos incidentally runs a vegetarian restaurant in Patagonia and given her knowledge and expertise, I do recommend the Indian vegetarian guests to visit Veggies Patagonicos. Incidentally Paula did tell us that Sri Sri Ravishankar is likely to visit Argentina this December and there are satsangs every Friday in El Calafate – surely an Indian connection out there to Argentina.

THE GROWING GLACIER

In winter, the sun rises around 0930 hours and we left for the Perito Moreno Glacier at the break of dawn (around 0900 hours) to see both ends of the Glacier which is located 80 kilometres or a 90-minute drive from El Calafate.  El Calafate is 400 kilometres away from the Atlantic Ocean and most of the drive is alongside Lago Argentino. Our guide Paula shared some interesting facts en route such as the temperature of the water is an average of 3°C all year around.  The Perito Moreno Glacier is part of the southern Patagonian Icefield camp and the average temperature in summer is between 16°C and 18°C. No doubt the period between September and April is the peak tourist season out here. It is remarkable to note that inspite of such high temperatures in summer, the glacier remains intact all year round.

There is just one hotel in Los Glaciares National Park and you need big pockets to spend a night at Los Notros which overlooks the Glacier. The Glacier can be viewed by boat from the southern side and from the balconies in the northern side. To enter the National Park, an entrance fee of 80 ARS (Argentine Pesos) – approx INR 1000 has to be paid by international visitors. This 250-square kilometre ice formation stretches 30 kilometres in length and is shared with Chile and is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the three Patagonian glaciers which is growing and scientists have to still figure out the mystery behind this.

LUNCH ON ICE

After a boat ride, we had lunch at the restaurant located at the north side of the Glacier. The restaurant known as “Nativos de Patagonia” serves a meal comprising of a starter, a main course and a dessert for 90 Pesos (approx Rs 1080) and for vegetarians there are options like the Cremosa Sopa de Calabaza or the pumpkin soup with red onions and chorizo, Ensalada Tibla de Vegales or warm salads and to finish a meal a chocolate y dulce de leche is the recommended choice and would cost you 18 Pesos.

After a good meal, we descended to go to the balcony comprising of 2000 steps and is 4 kilometres long. If you are lucky, you could see large chunks of ice rupture in front of your eyes, although the ruptures are not as frequent and at times it takes place once every 4 years. The rupture of the natural dam formed over the L-shaped Lago Argentino is a rare phenomena as the water level rises upto 30 metres and the enormous pressure produced by the height breaks the ice barrier creating this unique rupture cycle. These spectacular towering chunks of eroding ice is something you must surely look out for.

GLACIER WALKS


Patagonia comprises of 5 provinces and 70% of the landscape is Patagonian steppes and receives 200 mm of rainfall every year. Incidentally the Chilean border from the Glacier is merely 20 kilometres away but you need to drive almost 400 kilometres from here to go to Chile. Another way to view the Glacier is to undertake a Glacier Walk comprising of 8 hours out of which 90 minutes is walk on the actual glacier. The boat trip is definitely a good option for the less adventurous and is an interesting 60 minutes ride and takes you very close to the glacier. The North side of the Glacier is 2.5 kilometres long, 60 metres high and 180 metres in water. The glacier stretches 30 kilometres into Chile. It was incredible to note that the total ice between Argentina and Chile comprises of 13000 sq.kilometres which is of the size of Belgium of which 80% is in Chile and 20% is in Argentina. The ice was supposedly formed 40 million years ago and is 2000 metres above sea level. There are as many as 200 glaciers in the area and the major part of the Chilean side of the ice formation is in the sea whereas the Argentine side is in fresh water and the Perito Moreno glacier moves 1.50 metres every day and is in balance and this is indeed an incredible phenomenon. The Perito Moreno glacier was named after the explorer scientist Francisco Moreno who incidentally did not see the glacier himself. For the adventure seekers, they can do a glacier walk not only at Perito Moreno but also at El Chalten which belongs to the Fitzroy Mountains and is the trekking capital of Argentina and at an altitude of 3400 metres above sea level.

WILDLIFE SPOTTING


As we head back Paula, our guide told us how El Calafate derived its name. It is from the Calafate plant which is grown on the Patagonian steppes. The Los Glaciares National Park is also home to several birds and quite often you spot the Condor – the biggest bird in South America – 3 metres long, 1 metre high and only eats carcasses of animals. We were lucky to spot a few Condors as we were traversing the balconies on the northern side of the glaciers. Besides Condors, one could also see the Caracara birds and Eagles and as one goes deeper into the National Park, one may be able to spot the Geoffrey’s Cat, South Andean Deer which is nearing extinction and the Mara-Hare or the Patagonian Hare which also is found only in Patagonia and nearing extinction as well. This sub-Antarctic forest is also home to lesser Rhea which looks like an Ostrich, the Guanacos from the Llama family though smaller in size than the Llama. The wool of Guanaco is supposedly the best wool available although quite often you find shops in El Calafate selling you wool of Merino Sheep which incidentally comes from Australia and New Zealand and not from Patagonia.

During our short stay in Patagonia, we got a glimpse of El Calafate, the capital of the Santa Cruz province, although Patagonia has lots to offer – from Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego province to San Martin los Andes in Neuquen, to Puerto Madryn which is well known for penguins, whales and seals in the Chubut province to Bariloche in Rio Negro.

HEADING NORTH


Our flight left at 1918 hours and with a stop at Bariloche, we reached Buenos Aires nearing midnight.  Our next stop was in the Litoral region and the province of Misiones to see the spectacular Iguazú Falls – the widest falls in the world bordering Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. After spending an overnight at Buenos Aires, we flew on LAN the following morning for a 90-minute flight to Iguazú Falls.

At Iguazú we were staying at one of the boutique properties – Loi Suites which is in a beautiful location in the middle of the jungle. The most striking part of the diversity of Argentina is that as we headed up north more towards a sub-tropical climate, the temperature in winter changed dramatically from 5°C in El Calafate to about 10°C in Buenos Aires and eventually to 28°C in Iguazú Falls. The falls are 22 kilometres from the city centre and is in the direction of Paraguay and Brazil. Iguazú receives 2300 mm rainfall per year and incidentally the minimum rainfall is in August. Between December and February it rains 1 hour every day. Iguazú Falls is barely 6 kilometres or an hour’s drive to Brazil. After arrival in Iguazú and checking into our hotel, we left to head to the Iguazú Forest and we were warmly received by Vin Diesel lookalike Jose who ensured that we could get the best of Iguazú during our short stay in this very interesting region offering a combination of rivers and forest. The plains and forests are surrounded by heavy flow rivers of which the Parana and Iguazú river are of great significance as they play an important part in the formation of the magnanimous Iguazú Falls. The Parana river divides Argentina and Paraguay.

ACTION BEFORE THE FALLS

En route to the forest we stopped on the way to see the Guarani Tribe – Guaranis are a group of culturally indigenous people of South America and they speak the Guarani language. They are spread across 4 countries- Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia of which over 1000 Guaranis are in Argentina. It took us 40 minutes from our hotel to reach the Iguazú Forest where we did a 4 hour excursion comprising of 3 adventure activities – Canopy, Rappelling and Hiking. We were asked to get into a heavy duty truck and our first halt was in the Forest where we would rappel down a descent of rocks of 15 metres tied to a harness and the experience was indeed very invigorating after which we hiked across the narrow paths within the forest and arrived at a waterfall. The last of the activities was the most exhilarating – the Canopy.  After climbing a treetop through a stairway, we slided from one tree to another fastened by a harness which was attached to a steel cable enjoying the views of the forest from a height and zipped passed a distance of over a kilometer in no time.

We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and if one has more time in hand, one could easily add an ATV ride experience to the four hour excursion comprising of 3 adventure activities. Later in the evening we visited Aqva – a restaurant which specializes in sea food and when in Iguazú it is recommended to try the Suruvy fish which is a local river fish. The restaurant itself is one of the best restaurants in the region and I would highly recommend a meal for anyone who plans visiting the Argentina side of the Iguazú falls.

THE ROAR OF IGUAZÚ


Next morning we were accompanied by our guide Miriam who quite resembled the President of Argentina and she took us to the Iguazú National Park where we spent the entire day to see what is undoubtedly the most spectacular falls in the world which borders 3 countries. Known as the Aguas Gerantes or Big Water by the Guaranis, the Iguazú Falls has over 275 falls and the border between Argentina and Brazil is marked by the most spectacular of them all – the Garganta del Diablo or the Devil’s Throat. The water from the falls plunges to 70 metres in the abyss below and the park besides the falls is also home to over 2000 species of plants and 400 species of birds as well. Iguazú Falls, which is one of the natural wonders of the world, has 2100 metres of the falls on the Argentina side and 600 metres on the Brazilian side. The Brazilian side is known as Foz de Iguazú and has a population of 350000 whereas the Argentina side known as the Puerto Iguazú has a population comprising of 50000 people. Paraguay, the Ciudad de l’Este which is located on the other side of the Parana River  from Argentina has 200000 inhabitants, a majority of them from the Guarani Tribe.

NAVIGATING THE DEVIL’S THROAT

The amazing part of the falls is that it changes every day as the rainfall in the area determines the falls. It was Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca from Spain who discovered the falls for the first time in 1542 and initially called it Santa Maria. Later in 1934, it was named the Iguazú National Park – one of the 32 National Parks in Argentina.  Today Iguazú receives almost 3000 to 4000 visitors a day and over a million tourists every year. To reach the falls one has to take a train which leaves every 30 minutes and takes you to the Devil’s Throat. Thereafter you have to walk over 1.3 kilometres on a walking trail known as the cat walk. En route, one can see lot of birds like we spotted the plush crested jay birds at various points along the way. Almost 80% of the falls are on the Argentine side and comprises of 3 horseshoe shaped valleys. It is a good idea to take Mate – the local drink made of herbs – along with you and the herbs, which act as anti-oxidants and has vitamin C, is a good thirst quencher especially as you are in sub-tropical climate and the average temperature is around 25 degrees Celsius with a very high humidity. It takes easily a couple of hours to see the 270 odd cataracts from various panoramic views and you have to spend almost the entire day to see the falls.  En route we also saw coaties which are type of raccoons and seem to be pretty friendly animals though it is best advised not to get very close to them.

Another activity which is worth doing is a boat trip on the gentle Iguazú river where you can view the falls and go in close proximity with the risk of getting fully drenched inspite of having a raincoat on. The boat trip in a large rubber-raft is worth it provided you carry a change of clothes or else you will come out soaking wet at the end of the trip. If you do have a Brazilian visa you can view the falls from the Brazilian side or else you can explore other exciting cities of Argentina.

SAY NAMASTE TO ARGENTINA

Argentina is truly a country of six continents and in my short trip of 7 days I got a glimpse of three unique experiences from the glaciers to the vibrant capital city and eventually the most majestic falls – truly the eight wonder of the world. I carried back pleasant memories of the land of Tango, Football, Wine, Adventure, Glaciers, Falls and much more.  From the Andes Mountains and Cuyo in the north to Patagonia in the south, Argentina truly attracts the discerning traveller. So pack your bags and get ready to say Namaste Argentina and explore a land full of varied experiences in one unique destination.

Plan Your Holidays  with the Argentina Specialists

Your Indian Connection to Argentina

http://www.namasteargentina.com

tours@compacttravels.com

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