On South America’s southern frontier, nature grows wild, barren and beautiful. Spaces are large, as are the silences that fill them. For the newly arrived, such emptiness can be as impressive as the sight of Patagonia’s jagged peaks, pristine rivers and dusty backwater oases. In its enormous scale, Patagonia offers an innumerable wealth of potential experiences and landscapes.
Though no longer a dirt road, lonely RN 40 remains the iconic highway that stirred affection in personalities as disparate as Butch Cassidy and Bruce Chatwin. On the eastern seaboard, paved RN 3 shoots south, connecting oil boomtowns with ancient petrified forests, Welsh settlements and the incredible Península Valdés. Then there is the other, trendy Patagonia where faux-fur hoodies outnumber the guanacos. Don’t miss the spectacular sights of El Calafate and El Chaltén, but remember that they’re a world apart from the solitude of the steppe.
Introducing El Calafate:
Named for the berry that, once eaten, guarantees your return to Patagonia, El Calafate hooks you with another irresistible attraction: Glaciar Perito Moreno, 80km away in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The glacier is a magnificent must-see, but its massive popularity has encouraged tumorous growth and rapid upscaling in once-quaint El Calafate. However, it’s still a fun place to be, with a range of traveler services. The strategic location between El Chaltén and Torres del Paine (Chile) makes it an inevitable stop for those in transit.
Located 320km northwest of Río Gallegos, and 32km west of RP 11’s junction with northbound RN 40, El Calafate flanks the southern shore of Lago Argentino. The main strip, Av del Libertador General San Martín (typically abbreviated to Libertador), is dotted with cutesy knotted-pine souvenir shops, chocolate shops, restaurants and tour offices. Beyond the main street, pretensions melt away quickly: muddy roads lead to ad-hoc developments and open pastures.
January and February are the most popular (and costly) months to visit, but as shoulder-season visits grow steadily, both availability and prices stay a challenge.
Introducing El Chaltén:
This colorful village overlooks the stunning northern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Every summer thousands of trekkers come to explore the world-class trails that start right here. Founded in 1985, in a rush to beat Chile to the land claim, El Chaltén is still a frontier town, albeit an offbeat one, featuring constant construction, hippie values and packs of roaming dogs. Every year more mainstream tourists come to see what the fuss is all about, but in winter (May to September) most hotels and services board up and transportation links are few.
El Chaltén is named for Cerro Fitz Roy’s Tehuelche name, meaning ‘peak of fire’ or ‘smoking mountain’ – an apt description of the cloud-enshrouded summit. Perito Moreno and Carlos Moyano later named it after the Beagle’s Captain FitzRoy, who navigated Darwin’s expedition up the Río Santa Cruz in 1834, coming within 50km of the cordillera.
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