Ever since the Argentinian economy went peculiar a few years ago, direct flights to Buenos Aires were withdrawn. So to start from the UK, you can either take the Spanish connection via Madrid, or take British Airways to Sao Paulo in Brazil for an on-the-ground stop. The latter feels more ‘direct’, so here I am thundering through the air at 35,000 feet on the way to that great continent South America.
As ever, squeezing 400 people into a steel tube creates a range of spatial awareness problems. If you sit in the middle of an aisle or by the window you are liable to be crushed by someone double your bodyweight. If you choose the aisle, a fair proportion of your time is spent with a range of arses poking in your face. I opted for arses, and sixteen hours later regretted it. Mid-flight there was an almighty blast of turbulence (not arse related)| which sent everybody and everything flying. During a particularly sustained bout, the passenger in front of me had the presence of mind to order a glass of water. The steward politely refused him, holding onto his toupee in the process.
In Buenos Aires we are met by the highly enthusiastic Paula who eulogises about the city as we drive from Ezeza international airport to the Claridge Hotel (no relation!). There are 3 million people in the centre with another 9 million coming in every day to work. We have arrived on a Sunday so there’s no one around as we glide past the Rio Plata, claiming to have the widest mouth in the world, although where the river ends and the estuary starts is a moot point.
The saying in Argentina is that there are four types of country in the world: developed; under-developed; those like Japan that have nothing but turn it into something; and Argentina who has everything and turns into nothing. Since a third of the country lives in Buenos Aires, it should be a fair barometer of how the country works. The locals, called portenos, are a mixed bunch, apparently dressing like Italians, eating like the French and thinking like the English, but that’s just a pat saying. They are all here because, Paula says, “This is where the yobs are”.
We dump our bags and take a stroll. Florida Street is unpleasantly like Oxford Street, full of hookers and McDonalds. The Plaza de Mayo, a massive square where they commemorate the “disappeared” people from the days of dictatorship, is little better. We cross it to avoid the Latino drunk swaggering down the pavement with his trousers down. A giant obelisk, perhaps a couple of hundred feet tall, dominates the centre of Avineda de Julio, which they claim is the widest high street in the world, and at eight lanes across plus a central reservation that is a small park, it could well be.
After a rather functional meal but some good wine, we repair to the hotel bar where we observe a cluster of dirty old men feeling up a clutch of teenage hookers. Charming. The following morning it is up early to the domestic airport for a flight down south to the glaciers. At the toll booth a large queue of cars is expressing its displeasure at the lack of open lanes. “That is why they are horning!” observes Paula enthusiastically. She is less spirited thirty minutes later when it becomes apparent that she has taken us to the wrong airport so we will miss our flight. We lose half a day in the process, eventually becoming airborne at lunchtime.
We are heading for El Calafate in southern Patagonia. Having nabbed a window seat, I am in prime position to observe the landscape from on high, starting with the vast width of the Rio Plata, whose banks cannot be seen from the other side. We climb west over La Pampa and head for the Andes, pit stopping at the charming San Carlos de Bariloche half way down this massive mountain range – the spine of South America. At this stage the scene is somewhat alpine – low slung mountains interspersed with a string of glacial lakes. Heading directly south now, the range becomes wild and jagged. This is Patagonia, although no one can really define where it starts – more of a concept or state of mind than a strictly delineated area. I down a Quilmes beer, named after the derelict town of the ancient indigenous people in the northern Tucuman area. Massive glaciers with their corresponding terminal lakes start to appear. We cross them one by one: San Martin, Viedma and Argentino, until banking in low to land in El Calafate.
A half hour drive takes us winding up the lakeside to the snout of the Perito Moreno glacier, named after the surveyor who discovered it. Large birds of prey – carancho or caracara – greet our arrival by dancing on the road as we pull up to our hotel, Los Notros, named after the local Chilean Firebush which produces blazing clusters of red flowers. With a tight valley at the head, the glacier looks as though a 200-foot wall of white horses are careering towards you. 5km wide at the mouth, this monster moves a metre a day. In the mini bar I discover a drinker’s delight: an extraordinary bottle of 6.5% malt liquor, schizophrenically sporting a macho wolf logo and bearing the effete name of Jerome. I immediately drink and ten minutes later when Sarah has emerged from the shower I have transformed into a man possessed, barking at the moon and snapping at flies. Excellent stuff and highly effective. I make a mental note to track some down in the UK.
After a superb meal overlooking this extraordinary scene, we awake the following morning to our first task – walking across the glacier. This includes a detailed lesson in glaciology. We start by taking a 20-minute ride across the lake. All glacial lakes are peppermint green and include “glacial milk”, a fine insoluble powder that the glacier grinds out and dumps in the lake it creates itself. Most glaciers these days are receding since we aren’t in an Ice Age, which means that the glacier has already carved the valley in front, dumped its terminal moraine (a huge wall of rocks pushed to the end), and filled it with melt water. We cross the milk, scratch along the moraine beach and are fitted with crampons to help us across the ice. There is a knack to walking with these things on – put your complete foot down for full grip, keep your legs apart so you don’t lacerate your calf muscles, lean backwards as though you are sitting down when heading down slope, and splay your feet like a duck when you go uphill. And so, plodding along like a cross between a mallard and a windsurfer, you begin your ascent of the monster.
As with all ice structures, there’s much more below the surface, so this 200-foot glacier is also 300 foot below the water line. What appears to be a uniform piece of ice from miles away is actually a maze of ice pillars and crevasses, lakes, pools, gulleys, rivulets, and mixed colours. This isn’t conventional ice – it’s compacted snow that fell 400 years ago on the mountains above. It grinds out lateral moraine at the sides, and creates medial moraine in the middle where two glaciers join from different valleys. Like a river, there is much motion, with the sides moving much slower than the centre. This creates stress, which explains the ripping of crevasses in the line of flow. So we go, literally, with the flow as we work out way across the structure. Suddenly you are confronted by ten-foot ice walls and, armed only with a pick and some crampons, you have to find a way around. In every undulation there is a new scene – bright, luminous blues of heavily compacted ice, translucent glass pools, rivers, sink holes, and weird shapes carved by wind and water. Because anything that lands on a glacier is warmer than it, the shapes of small rocks and even leaves are etched into the surface.
After a couple of hours we finish our expedition with a scotch and ice – scraped from the glacier of course. There’s no need to take water up here – you just drink as you go along. It’s beautifully clean, and nothing lives here – with one exception – a bizarre insect that looks like a cross between a cricket and a beetle. Apparently it survives because is has no blood – just a weird internal system based on glycerol or ethanol or something that doesn’t freeze. They potter about feeding off microorganisms on the glacier surface. It’s a superb experience. After lunch back on the rocks we move on to the ‘balconies’, a viewing platform directly in front of the glacier face. In a strange twist of physics, the glacier from time to time blocks the flow of water between the two lakes. After a while, the lake fights back, applying huge pressure, which eventually ruptures the ice dam. This hadn’t happened for 16 years until 2006 and last year. Photo sequences show the build up and the explosive breakthrough moment. As one sits in front of the monster, blocks of ice calve off (just like giving birth to calves) plunging into the water with delayed booms that sound like thunder. Even the smallest pieces are huge boulders, and when a significant chunk goes, it creates a huge wave that takes its time to progress up the lake.
The next day we opt for a different approach to viewing all this by taking a large boat into the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Boarding at Puerto Bandera, we set off through Boca del Diablo (the devil’s mouth) and up the western channel of Lago Argentino. Here the icebergs are vast, averaging the size of a cross-channel ferry, and sometimes reaching the size of a shopping centre. Seriously, 100 metres is quite normal for these giants. Frequently blue but varied in hue and shape, from time to time they shatter in half, rolling and billowing like a breaching whale before settling into their new position. Access to the channels depends on their being free of ice, but we successfully make it to the very edge of the Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers. The first is compact and steep, enabling us to get very close and experience the calving booms that are becoming familiar. The second is the biggest in South America at 37 miles long. This is strangely more impressive from a distance where the joining of several medial moraines delineates the journey for miles and clearly shows the joining of all its tributaries.
Stopping for lunch at Bahia Onelli provides a contrast. Attempting to avoid the hordes trekking toward this small lake, we came across feral cattle left behind by settlers evicted from this national park. The deciduous woodland here struggles to keep a hold on the thin glacial soil in the face of severe 100-mile-an-hour winds that whip off the glacier. Icebergs pile up at the river mouth which speeds into the Brazo Spegazzini, sometimes finding a way through only to become snagged on a rock. Swifts dart in and out as cattle feed at the waterline.
This network of massive lakes forms the backbone of the South American icepack, the third longest in the world behind the Antarctic and Greenland. They are truly vast and one can only scratch the surface in a day. The day after, the weather turns to pouring rain and it is time to go. It is summer in Patagonia from December to February and the days are long – sunrise at 5.30 till sunset at 10.30. After one last look at the glacier we return to Buenos Aires – the hub of our Argentinian activities.
Iguazu Falls Argentina
The Iguazu falls lie on a three-way intersection between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. The huge Rio Parana flows north/south with Paraguay forming the west bank. Argentina holds the eastern bank below the Rio Iguazu tributary. Wandering up from the hotel, you can sit and stare at all three countries at the same time. The Iguazu river looks harmless enough from here. Off in the distance is the high bridge joining the Argentinian side with Brazil: the Puente Internacional. Tancredo Neves, painted in each country’s national colours up until the very middle. The falls really need to be seen from both countries: Argentina has about three quarters of them and allows you to get up close and personal. Brazil has fewer but allows the entire panoramic view.
We begin in Argentina, entering the Parque Nacional Iguazu. The whole thing is tastefully done, with rain forest sensitively preserved all around. A small train run on natural gas takes visitors into the depths, and we begin by walking over low walkways to the Garganta del Diablo, the devil’s throat, where billions of gallons of water plummet in a circular shape. A green hue provided by algae provides a sensational experience. Black kites and turkey vultures love to nest here, and provide a lost world feel by soaring overhead. Walking the lower circuit, still through dense forest, reveals a myriad of mini falls and improbably constructed bridges. The jewel in the crown is the San Martin falls – a steep, wide drop, then a marshy plateau and deceptively placid holding lake, then another drop down to the churning pool below.
There is more action in store than simple watching, however. Opposite the Isla San Martin we board a boat with a bizarre purpose. The plan is to drive right up to the base of the falls and get the boat under the torrent. We have all secured the ornaments and placed our cameras in waterproof bags – then the driver picks up speed and drives us straight under. It’s the most comprehensive power shower ever. We repeat the trick at Salto Escondido and Salto Dos Mosqueteros (the Two Musketeers) before running the rapids down river and grabbing a lift back in a truck.
This trip continues in Brazil, so if you are interested, read that report too. It includes final thoughts on Argentina overall.