First Leg to the End of the World Buenos Aires to El Calafate
By Carol L. Bowman
While planning our recent odyssey to the tip of the South American Continent, I found Cape Horn referred to, in a romantic sense, as “the end of the world”. I pondered that there is no end when going east to west or west to east; just round and round. When traveling north to south, however, there comes a point where one can’t go any farther as the solid Antarctic Polar icecap prevents further navigation.
The excursion began in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after a necessary, ten hour overnight flight from Houston, Texas. We roamed around this beautiful Argentine capitol with its European flair for a few days before flying another 1700 miles southwest to El Calafate, the gateway to southern Patagonia in Santa Cruz province, Argentina.
The only runway at Calafate International Airport can accommodate 727 and 737 aircraft. With a mere, thin sliver of land separating touchdown from the glacial blue, Lago Argentino, I held my breath, anticipating a ditch in the icy waters ahead. Whew! Close one. I knew the time to turn my total trust and being over to the experts of Patagonia had arrived. We entered an eco system, a landscape, a way of life completely foreign to anything I had ever experienced.
The main street of El Calafate, Avenida la Libertador, looked strangely similar to the set of Northern Exposure. In the distance, snow capped Andes mountains groaned from the weight of the fierce winter, but signs of early October, southern hemisphere spring showed. Originally settled as a shelter for wool traders at the turn of the 20th century, El Calafate experienced its official Argentine founding in 1927, when the government offered land deals to settlers to populate the town. The harsh climate and complete isolation required hardy souls with guts and determination to survive there.
The calafate bush, the town’s namesake and only vegetation dotting the barren landscape, budded with delicate yellow flowers, making way for future dark blue berries. It is said that if you eat a calafate berry, you will return. I plan to consume many.
El Calafate’s population, tripling over the past 10 years, shot up from 8,000 people in 2000 to 24,000 as 2010 nears. The interest in global warming, the massive Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, 50 miles from town and the fashionable trend toward exploring Patagonia spurred this growth. The town now boasts lodges, ecotourism companies, hiking gear shops and even a casino to entertain and prepare travelers for their Patagonian expeditions, guided or independent.
The expanse and desolation of the Patagonian steppes, where only scrub grass grows, felt formidable. The land, beaten by dry winds, its atmosphere depleted of all moisture while crossing over the Andean range, shouted with emptiness. Only the very young and courageous or incredibly crazy would tackle this hostile environment alone.
The estancias or sheep farms range in size from 10,000 to 70,000 hectares (2.5 acres per hectare). An occasional gaucho, mending fences with his border collie or kelp dogs trailing along, Andean condors soaring overhead, llama family guanacos and of course sheep by the thousands stood out as the only living things.
Andean condors, the largest flying land bird in the Western hemisphere, with an average wing span of 10 feet, filled the sky. The first one that soared above without so much as a flap of a wing thrilled our inners. Then the sightings became so common that the “wows” trailed off, but we respected the bird’s majesty every time one circled above.
A hike along El Calafate’s coastline brought us to Redonda Bay. Fronting Lago Argentino, the first unlikely discovery of this trip unfolded. Pink flamingos, scattered about the bay in huge numbers, live here all year without migration. Wind howling against our three layers of clothes, we watched as these normally tropical, rosy birds danced in the icy, glacier fed water.
Patagonia, 540,000 square miles of wonderment, a quarter of which belongs to Chile and the rest to Argentina, acquired its name from the Spaniards. The original inhabitants, the extremely tall Tehuelches, left giant footprints in the snow from covering their feet with animal skins. The Spanish explorers called them “Patagones”, after a giant named ‘Patagon’ in a popular novel of the time. The vastness of Patagonia amazed us, but Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park waited to weave its spell. Stay tuned.