roadtochalten-1280aWe saw them on Ruta 40, ragged in the gravel at the side of the empty road. It was our first encounter with bike tourists since July, but we shouldn’t have been surprised: a fair few cyclists make their way down this road towards Ushuaia, usually billed as ‘the city at the end of the world’. Many are on the last legs of rides they began in Alaska, rides that will eventually take them the entire length of the Americas.

We saw them not at close quarters but through the windscreen of a coach. For various reasons – time, timing, money, the fact that Ruth’s cycled in the area before – we decided not to ride down here. Instead, our bikes back in Buenos Aires, we flew south on Tuesday for a week in and around El Calafate and El Chaltén, twin towns in the way they attract tourists but some 220km apart. The spaces between places we came across in Uruguay are as nothing next to those in Patagonia.

 


 

chalten-1024El Chaltén was founded less than 30 years ago by the government, twitchy about the possibility of neighbouring Chile making a claim to what was then empty land. (The two countries have coexisted uneasily at times in Patagonia, squabbling for years over the ownership of nearby Lago del Desierto until a neutral international panel ruled in Argentina’s favour in 1995.) Even now, the town is defined by its isolation. The spectacular coach trip from El Calafate, proud possessor of the area’s airport, takes nearly three hours. The only business en route, halfway between the two settlements, is a magnificently isolated roadhouse that’s recently been revived. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

house-1024The town still feels unfinished. Houses are currently being flung up all over the place, builders taking advantage of the improving weather following the bleak midwinter, and many streets remain unpaved. Even some of the houses that are complete and occupied seem temporary, their haphazard, improvised construction lending them the character of folk art. Many appear to have been thrown together from whatever materials were available at the time, which down here isn’t much of anything very often.

Like El Calafate – larger, older, tidier, more refined – El Chaltén is now a tourist town. There are more microbreweries than supermarkets; hosterías and hostels on every corner; a chocolatería but no banks. Few businesses are open beyond the six-month spring/summer window that started a fortnight ago, and few of the young men and women who staff them hang around long after autumn has arrived. Off-season, the population drops below 1,000. You’d have to treasure solitude – indeed, you’d have to have more or less opted out of society – to make this your permanent home.

 


 

snow-1280Of course, people don’t come here for the restaurants (though you can eat better here than you can in the average European ski resort) or the chocolate (which is excellent) or the beer (which isn’t, though it’s good enough). El Chaltén is on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and its glacier-carved landscape is an extraordinary sight.

perito-1280People come first to El Calafate to see, hear and perhaps walk on the majestic Perito Moreno glacier, part of the unromantically named Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Somebody is making phenomenal amounts of money from the tours here, but the operation is run well and the experience indelible.

Those who take the trip to El Chaltén, meanwhile, do so for its climbing opportunities – climbers have been coming to the region since before there was a town to support them – or for its self-described status as ‘the trekking capital of Argentina’. Surprisingly, perhaps, there are relatively few accessible hikes from the town, and some of those are rendered off-limits when the wind picks up (which is often). Spend a little while here and you’ll see the same people from day to day on the trails and in the bars, a rainbow catwalk of outdoor brands: Mammut and Marmot, The North Face and Northland, Columbia and Patagonia.

mountains-1280And yet the tourism industry can’t overwhelm the landscape, which far better writers than us, and far, far better photographers, have failed to capture in words or pictures. Above the glaciers and beneath epic skies soar towering, aggressive mountains; the largest, Mount Fitz Roy, remains a challenge too far even for expert climbers. Below, the water in the glacial rivers and lakes takes on an otherworldly milky turquoise colour; the trees are an equally unexpected combination of deep greens and steely silvers. And, of course, the panorama changes as often as the weather, the play of light and clouds and shadows painting the landscape anew. Perhaps we’ll come back one day to take another look. We like to think we’ll have the chance.

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from El Calafate, SC, Patagonia, Argentina