By CHANTAL COOKE
From Mars to Montana, the North Yorkshire Dales to the fjords of Norway, the lakes of Austrian Tyrol to the glaciers of the Antarctic. You can see it all in just a couple of days in El Calafate, Argentina.
El Calafate, in the Santa Cruz province, is the gateway to the Los Glaciares National Park and the famous Perito Moreno glacier – one of the many jewels of Patagonia.
The town was originally (and unofficially) founded around 100 years ago as European settlers came to the area to rear sheep. In the early days the Estancias had to be pretty much self-sufficient and cope with the harsh Patagonian climate and land that was suited to sheep and not crops. However, they did need a way to get their wool to the markets back home, so El Calafate was born as a staging area for the wool going out and supplies coming in. At this time the town was tiny, hardly more than a shelter for the wool traders.
El Calafate was officially founded in 1927 by the government of Argentina to promote settlement, but it was the creation of nearby Perito Moreno National Park in 1937 that sparked further growth and the building of better road access.
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner is also credited with helping to put El Calafate on the map. She owns the luxurious Los Sauces – Casa Patagonica hotel. Set in attractive gardens by the waterside, Los Sauces is a series of small residences with three or four elegant rooms in each. A golf buggy will take you around the grounds and ferry you from your room to the reception, restaurant and spa. It’s high-end, quiet and with a great location.
From El Calafate you can take a boat ride to Estancia Cristina through ‘Norwegian’ fjords and past the Upsala glacier, an active tide water glacier with a defensive line of icebergs.
Once you land at the Estancia climb on board a 4×4 and make your way through the lenga forests and along rocky paths up into the hills with panoramic views of the Lago Argentino and the mountains – think the lakes of Tyrolean Austria.
A short hike ushers you through a landscape that made my mind, fed so many science fiction stories, think of Mars. The dark red rocks were once the floor of the glacier, now they have been scraped smooth and glassy with small boulders and craggy edges giving the appearance of an alien land of unearthly colours.
As you climb higher you’ll get a view, from above, of the Upsala glacier disappearing into the vastness of the south Patagonian ice fields. If you can’t get to Antarctica then this is a pretty good substitute.
Back at the Estancia itself the land rolls away into distance reminding its early residents of the windswept Yorkshire Dales back home. But as you round a corner near the river the view changes and channels Montana. Where else could you find all this in just one place?
Stay at Estancia Cristina a few days, or take the boat back to town for supper in one of the many local restaurants (most of which seem to serve Italian food!)
If a sense of remoteness feeds your soul then a couple of nights in Eolo will satisfy your appetite. The hotel is set far off the road and is surrounded by hills on three sides. On a clear day you can see the rocky towers of Torres del Paine reaching for the sky. Eolo (named after the god of the wind) aims for luxury in the middle of nowhere – and that’s exactly what you get. It’s so quiet, so relaxing and so beautiful that there really is no need to move from your armchair in front of the giant picture windows. Relax. Soak up the view. Marvel at the deep red sunset. Take another sip of your cocktail.
It’s said that whoever eats a calafate berry will always return to Patagonia. I am pretty sure that has little to do with the berries themselves and everything to do with the incredible views and the feeling of being connected to nature. But I ate a berry anyway. I’m going back to Patagonia.
To arrange your tour to Argentina contact Argentina Travel Partners
To arrange a tour once in Chile contact ProTours Chile: firstname.lastname@example.org
British Airways flies direct to Buenos Aires. From there you’ll need to pick up a domestic flight to El Calafate.
About the Author:
Chantal Cooke is an award winning journalist and broadcaster with a passion for the planet. In 2002 she co-founded the award winning radio station PASSION for the PLANET and in 2009 Chantal was awarded London Leader in Sustainability status. Chantal also runs a successful communications agency – Panpathic Communications.