El Calafate: ‘Las Malvinas [Falkland Isles] are forever Argentinian!’ a banner proclaims as we head out of the penal colony turned naval base of Ushuaia. The bus passes Malvinas Plaza and its memorial to the hundreds of teenagers who died during Argentina’s brief conflict with Britain in the 1980s. There is strong conviction in the town that the Malvinas are rightfully Argentine, but this has never interrupted the friendliness and hospitality that locals have shown us.
We’re travelling west over the vast desert of Patagonia, a desolate home to those escaping more usual human habitations. Butch Cassidy and his gang hung out in these wastelands, as did a variety of Soviet defectors, Welsh Christians and English fortune seekers. It’s a treeless, rainless, inhospitable place, boulder strewn, incessantly windy and freezing cold. But the skies are vast here, the austral light is incredible and the rocky desert is a palette of extraordinary colours.
Unsurprisingly, we pass few signs of life. But at the edge of the churning milk of turquoise glacial rivers, we see poplar trees struggling to protect a lone house, standing small-windowed against the chill. These are the estancias – farmsteads set up by the current occupiers’ grandparents or great-grandparents, who ‘pioneered’ these lands, clearing the rocks and natives to profit from a booming wool industry.
El Calafate, is a larger settlement on the edge of the beautiful Largo Argentino. It’s grown large on the back of tourism and most people working here are emigres from Buenos Aires. We sleep in a cute little A-frame which has an attached bathroom – no towel-clad dash in the freezing cold to a chilly outhouse here! Argentina is expensive, with even the cheapest hostels breaking our budget. But they have all been clean, friendly and with free internet and breakfast. Still, we can’t afford to eat out and besides, I’m craving some fruit or vegetables after our nonstop meat and potato diet. The supermarket is disappointing on the fruit and vegies front. What little there is, is rotten. There is no vegetable market. We cook a stew of tinned vegetables, cheap meat and potato. The carrots and onion are delicious.
This is President Christina’s home turf. She has houses, a nice big hotel and substantial interests in the oil, gas and minerals here. This is the reason, I’m told, that she won’t sign the Law of the Glaciers, a ruling protecting the region’s glaciers from devastation by industry. A massive hydrodam is planned further south, to power a new gold mine there. The gold has been discovered in a sensitive location between several large glaciers. Local people know that if there is gold in the rocks between the glaciers, then there is surely gold in the rocks that the glaciers sit on. Without a law to protect them, there is nothing to prevent companies from digging into the southern ice field’s precious glaciers, the world’s third largest freshwater reserve.
We set out to see one of the most spectacular of these, renting a car because it works out cheaper than taking the bus. Perito Morino is a hulking great field of ice that is in equilibrium – it’s losing ice (2 metres per day) at the same rate as it is advancing. This, in the current state of global warming, is pretty unusual, and so the glacier has been seized as welcome evidence by climate deniers, and also by that tiny cult of ice-age predictors who believe the earth is actually cooling.
Having seen nothing but retreating glaciers (or ‘retiring’ glaciers, as the Spanish translation so quaintly puts it) in the mountains of Europe, Asia and Africa – or, worse still, their graveyards – I am unprepared for the sight of an active one. It’s an awesome experience: the terminus is 60 metres high and 5 kilometres wide. The glacier is alive, perceptively advancing in great roars and cracks. Pieces of ice crash into the water, sending out tidal waves and emitting explosive gunshots that reverberate across the valley and reach our ears after the event. Bullets of ice are flung so far and so powerfully from the calving giant that spectators have been killed by them – 32 killed between 1978 and 1983, a sign tells us. We pass along a timber boardwalk that carries us though lenga trees to view the glacier from various angles. Below us, a ferry carries tourists as near to the glacier as is safe. Next to the ice, it looks like a toy ship, and even the waves from the smallest chunk of ice sends the ferry into hurried retreat. It’s possible to walk on the glacier at some point further back, but it feels dangerous. The ice is full of crevasses and we don’t have any equipment.
The next day, under the pink skies of dawn, we set off some 200 km north to the small village of El Chalten, crowned by the glorious Fitzroy mountains. The road across the desert takes us past glaciers and their lakes, rivers and just two estancias. We come across a bubbling carpet of sheep, herded by gauchos on horseback and their dogs. Above us, soar enormous black condors seeking death in the dusty grasses. Other birds of prey sit on posts or on the road, leaving it until the last moment before taking off in front of our wheels. We see guanacos (a type of llama) and a black and white skunk. The desert rolls on in valleys created by glaciers, and the expanse is broken by large incongruous boulders, called ‘erratics’ because they don’t belong to the rocky ground here. They were dragged down from the mountains and dumped here by ancient glaciers.
El Chalten is small and pretty with tiny houses made of corrugated sheet. ‘Chalten’ means ‘volcano’ in the indigenous language, and the Fitzroy mountains are actually volcanic plugs. We climb someway up the slopes, passing a small glacial lake of piercing blue that we can safely drink from, marvelling at the colours of the autumnal trees that cloak the base and the glaciers that creep down from the peaks. Young, sturdy legged climbers stride past us with large backpacks full of camping gear and dusty leather boots. There are week-long treks to be done here, and summits to reach. But we stroll down the slopes, happy with our views had and glad to be sleeping in an A-frame with attached bathroom.