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South Argentina: From Argentina's Glaciers to Tierra del Fuego

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

It's late February, and Argentina is right in the middle of the summer. Our Aerolineas Argentinas jet is brimful with people heading south to Rio Gallegos and everyone is in a holiday mood. The attractive blonde airhostess speaks excellent English and, when everybody is settled, comes to chat with us. "It may be summer," she says, "but there are only three temperatures down in Rio Gallegos -- cold, colder, and freezing."

I smile, remembering my last trip to Argentina when our aircraft stopped at Rio Gallegos to refuel. The "All Blacks," New Zealand's crack rugby team, were on our flight from Auckland. They had boarded wearing football shorts and T-shirts and now they wanted to deplane to stretch their legs. The plane door opened and an icy breeze engulfed the passengers. But the young footballers did not even consider backing down on their decision. As I watched them walk down the steps and into the terminal, I felt fortunate not to be in their place. Hypothermia sets in quickly.

That had been in May, but February seems only marginally warmer as we get out of the plane. Rio Gallegos is in its mid-summer heatwave, but people are still wearing their parkas and heavy boots. Our guide awaits us. We invite him to join us for coffee and then we are off in our minibus. Rio Gallegos, the Argentine base for the ill-fated Falkland war, is only a tiny township It is settled by sheepfarmers that are, ironically, almost exclusively of British ancestry. We leave the little township behind and head for Calafate across the arid, Patagonian plain.

Patagonia is a strange and inhospitable area. The rainfall is minimal, and if the land warmed up my guess is that it would very quickly become another desert like the African Kalahari. But, because it is always cool and the air is relatively moist, hardy grasses, shrubs and bushes eke out a bare survival, absorbing much of their moisture from the passing wind. Cattle could not survive here too easily, but sheep can, as long as there are only a few per square mile. In fact, there are only six per hectare! But this does not matter to the sheepfarmer, whose properties are of a size that often make larger Texas ranches seem like a backyard. Our guide tells us that Patagonia's seven million sheep have no natural enemies, except the cold, and protect themselves against this they grow dense with woolly coats. This does not displease the ranchers at all.

The road to Calafate stretches endlessly into the distance, disappearing into the horizon -- only more tufty grass, more bushes, a few more sheep appear in a seemingly never-ending replay of the view. We look out, mesmerized as our driver hums along to the tune of a crackly tango transmitted from some faraway radio station. There are four others on the minibus. Two can speak no English, but the other two are well-educated, middle-aged ladies, one a Professor of French at Buenos Aires University. Both speak good English and so an intermittent conversation informs us about life in Argentina today. After years of despair and mismanagement, people are again regaining their confidence in their country and in their government.

As we drive on our guide starts to tell us about the wildlife here. For such a harsh, bleak and inhospitable climate it is quite remarkable. Apart from the sparsely spread succession of sheep, he points out rheas, the large flightless South American cousins of the African ostrich and Australian emu. We see condors, Patagonian wild geese, hawks, eagles and the Patagonian cousins of the llama. On and on we drive. And then, on the far distant horizon, the outline of mountains begin to appear. These are the Patagonian Alps, the last southern remnants of the central Argentinean Andes.

Now we focus on the mountains and, after four hours driving along an arrow straight road, watch them change from a hint on the horizon to an interesting reality. Half an hour later we arrive in the township of Calafate, named after the Calafate berry bush. This little town is located on the third largest lake in South America, and its population of 4,000 in peak season is built around tourism, most of it from Argentina. Calafate Lake provides life-giving water and the locals have tried to make the lake as pleasant as possible. The hotels and motels are modern, but nearly everything else, from the unpaved, dust-blown streets to the horses which many use for transport, give the town a real wild-west atmosphere.

The hotel Los Alamos ("the poplars") is the best in town, and apart from beds that are on the narrow side for someone my size, it is hard to fault. Attractive Swiss-influenced architecture, rustic wooden-beamed ceilings, geranium patterned curtains, a breakfast room with small square windows and a large fireplace in an upstairs bar make this comparatively new hotel a good example of the high standards Argentina now offers the tourist. There is even a bidet in the modern bathroom!

Meals are great, the staff members are friendly and speak English well. Nothing is too much trouble. The only problem is that everything is expensive. The exchange rate one gets at the hotel is so bad it's laughable, and flashing a credit card is a waste of time. No one wants to accept it. Not that the banks don't have the system. The traders just don't want to pay the commission.

Prices in the small shops, which are all that Calafate can boast, are sky-high. Not really surprising once one realizes that every single item has to be brought from Buenos Aires, a distance of approx. 2,000 miles by road.

The next morning we rise early and after an excellent breakfast we board the bus to follow the dirt road along the lake and then inland and up into the mountains. Visibility drops as we reach the low cloud and a fine drizzle sets in. On and on we go, reaching the National Park restaurant around mid-day for our lunch stop. By this time visibility is down to about 100 feet, and the restaurant's picture-windows might just as well be fully curtained with a thick layer of cotton-wool. For all we can see, we might be looking out at New York or Tokyo -- as long as these are fogged-in also!

And then, right in the middle of eating our soup, it happens! The light gets stronger, then stronger still. Suddenly the fog and drizzle outside are gone, moved aside like a curtain on a huge stage. And before us we can now see the whole breathtaking panorama -- a flat, grassy slope leading down to a lake, the other side of which has the most breathtaking blue glacier, its river of ice going on and on into the distant background. This is Perito Moreno, the only inland glacier in the world that is still growing. The lunch is excellent, but we cannot wait to finish it. While we are doing so, our guide tells us that this glacier moves 30 feet each year -- incredibly fast for such a phenomenon.

There are in fact two lakes, he tells us, Lago Argentino and Brazo Rico. They are separated by the river of ice that comes down the glacier, damming the water of Brazo Rico with a barrier of ice. Every five years or so, the weight of the water gets too great, it undermines the ice, smashing it, and empties into Lago Argentino. The damming by the ice once created a record difference of 31 meters in the water level; and when the weight of water finally broke through, Argentines say that it was the biggest natural spectacle ever seen in their country.

Lunch finished, we pile back into the minibus and head for the lake's edge. Now we can clearly see where the ice has divided the two lakes. The ice wall is the bluest blue imaginable. Our guide explains that the color is caused by the oxygen trapped in the ice when it falls as snow. The beauty of the scene is almost indescribable -- what can one say about a scene that must be one of the natural wonders of the world?

As we look at the icewall, there is a loud crack, and suddenly a huge sliver of icewall has a collar of ice and snow. It looks as if it has been created by dynamite charges blasting the segment away from the main icewall. As if in slow motion, the snow collar and the segment of icewall that has broken away slide slowly into the lake, sending up a small tidal wave that moves out in a semi-circle, heading for our side of the lake.

"Now you see why we can't take a boat and go right up to the icewall," says our guide. "Some people have tried this and been lucky. Others have had the icewall collapse on their boat or been swamped by the wave. In this temperature you can only last a matter of a very few minutes before the cold kills you." Suddenly the light dims again. We look up. Fog is again drifting in and starting to block out the sun. It's time to go back to Calafate. We have been lucky indeed to have had such a magnificent view of the glacier. Others sometimes come here, driving up daily from Calafate for a week and seeing nothing but fog and drizzle.

From Calafate we return along the road we came. Half a day in Rio Gallegos gives our guide time to take us to the Museum of the Pioneers -- originally the home of his grandmother. Most of the Estancia owners here are of Scottish ancestry, our guide explains. We ask if we could meet one of the families. No problem! It turns out that our guide is related to many of them. Late afternoon we pay a visit to one of these families. Grandma speaks perfect English with a Scottish accent. Her daughter's English is also excellent, but there is a hint of Spanish accent under the pronunciation. And the young fifteen-year-old grandson is also fluent in English but speaks like an Argentine who has learned English at school as a second language.

Grandma explains that, though she was born in Argentina, her parents originally came from Scotland to work on a three-year contract for the pastoral company that held the sheepfarming lease for the Malvinas (as the Argentines call the Falkland Islands). With nothing to spend their earnings on, they saved enough money to start a small sheepstation on mainland Argentina. The sheep numbers grew, the family prospered, but the last few years have been disastrous. Only now have wool prices risen sufficiently not to run at a loss. The young boy might well be tempted to give up the family lands and move to Buenos Aires. We share a pot of tea with the family and bid our farewell. It has certainly been an interesting day.

The following morning it is time to head for the airport and fly to Ushuaia, the southernmost town in South America. Once again, we board a modern Aerolineas Argentinas jet, and we are on our way.

The approach to Ushuaia is dramatic indeed. The aircraft drops down over the southernmost tip of the Andes mountains that curl down from the Chilean coast, and drops onto an airstrip that borders the Beagle Channel. The airport is on a flat stretch of tundra-like grassland and the terminal, although functional, also has that strong frontier feeling. Again, our travel agent has arranged for a guide. We collect our luggage and soon our car is speeding into town.

Though it is midsummer, a light snow has fallen on the low hills surrounding the little township, giving the scene a festive feeling. The air is cold and crisp, the sun is shining and it is hard to avoid a real feeling of adventure. We are, after all, at Tierra Del Fuego -- the "land of fire" -- so called because the sailors aboard the ship of Fernando Magellan rounding the Horn for the first time in 1520, saw the fires that local Indians had lit along the coastline.

The Indian tribes -- the Onas, Haush, Yamana, Alacaluf and Yaghans -- are gone, their last two survivors having died in the past few years. And it is questionable if Ushuaia could be a viable settlement for modern Argentines without strong incentives of one kind or another.

The earlier incentives were compulsory. The government built a major penitentiary there in 1896, but English and Italian missionaries had preceded that move by ten years. Subsequently, the bottom tip of South America was in constant dispute over ownership, many parts being claimed by both Argentina and Chile, and so the Argentine government also made Ushuaia into a military base.

When border tensions eased, manufacturing companies were given substantial incentives and duty-free status to build factories there. Companies like Germany's Grundig and Japan's Sansui have been producing TV sets and other electronics here from imported components. It needed all these inputs to persuade people to live in such a harsh and inhospitable climate. Agriculturally, the areas only viable endeavor is -- you've guessed it -- sheep ranching.

The weather is sunny, and as we drive the few miles into town, Ushuaia is picture-postcard-pretty. A couple of small freighters and some Argentine Navy ships lie along the wharf, not far from where an old rustbucket has run aground and been abandoned. Soon we check in at the Antardida Hotel, a spotless but otherwise unexciting hotel that could hardly be called five, or even three-star, yet is more than adequate. Then our guide takes us on a ten minute sightseeing tour of the town. He covers all the sights pretty well in that time.

Though small, Ushuaia is interesting. The town has grown in a topsy-turvy way, without any central planning, and that is made clear by the layout -- or lack of it. Solid mansions are interspersed with what can only be described as shanties. Many of the buildings in both of the two main streets have been prefabricated in Europe or Buenos Aires, then dismantled, transported to Ushuaia, and re-constructed on-site. Some are clad with metal sheeting on the outside. Our guide says that this is to protect the inhabitants from the fierce seasonal winds that one gets here. There is even a house that has been imported from Switzerland. I cannot think of a less-likely source.

Shops carry a remarkable variety of imported merchandise, a legacy from the period five years or so ago, when import restrictions applied in the whole rest of Argentina but not here. Consequently, people would choose Ushuaia as a holiday destination with the knowledge that they could also go on a shopping spree for imported merchandise. The import restrictions have been removed in the rest of Argentina, but tourism is now so strong that the momentum has not slowed.

The one place we do not explore thoroughly, since it is already closed for the day, is the Museum at the End of the Earth, officially known as the "Museo Territorial." It is located in a building that was built by convicts around the turn of the century, and we will certainly visit it tomorrow. We also look at the relatively huge penitentiary, now used as an Argentine naval station. Before one visits this town, it is almost mandatory to read Bruce Chatwin's book Patagonia. Seeing all the things he writes about certainly helps add even more interest to the town.

The next morning, our guide takes us back to the Museo Territorial. What a fascinating place! There are relics of the Tierra Del Fuego Indians, and the original Indian/Spanish Dictionary compiled by the early missionaries. But perhaps the most fascinating exhibit is the gold mint in the form of a small crucible to melt the gold and a die press to make it into coins.

There is a unbelievable story to the Ushuaia gold that is more compelling than any fiction. A Romanian engineer, Julio Popper came to Ushuaia to establish a telegraphic network. In his travels around the countryside he discovered a gold deposit so substantial that the gold that he brought into town warranted building the mint and bank building that now houses the Museum.

Regardless of the number people who tried to follow him into the wilderness, and spy out where he was finding his gold, he never disclosed the source of his wealth. A whole goldrush took place, with hundreds of would-be miners fanning into the countryside to look for gold. But to no avail! While Popper was coming in with enough gold for regular coin-castings, the others came in empty-handed.

Popper kept the flow up until, at the age of 36, he died of a sudden illness and the secret of the source of the gold went with him to his grave. In spite of further explorations, no one has since found any gold in commercial quantities.

In the evening we dine at Tante Elvira, arguably the town's most popular restaurant. Here we discover a local, mouthwatering delicacy, Centolla -- southern king crab. The next morning we decide to find out where these are caught.

At this point the friendly sales person at the town's major tourist agency lets us in on a marvelous secret. "Why don't you take the Tres Marias?" she asks. "It's a small wooden-hull fishing boat that takes tourists out on weekends. The owner is Hector Elias Monsalve who knows these waters quite well. He's also a keen diver, loves photography, fishes for Centolla crab, and was an underwater photographer for Jacques Cousteau when he came here to make his underwater film."

We arrive at the wharf to find that the Tres Marias is a small blue wooden-hulled trawler that looks quite unimpressive. Five other passengers are on board -- a young Uruguayan of German/Paraguayan parentage, two Swiss teenagers from Zurich, and an Argentinean couple who, having lived in Sweden since the 1960's, have returned on a holiday to tour Argentina. The sun is shining and the sea is calm as we chug into the Beagle Channel.

First we come to an island made up of rocky crags that look as if they have been whitewashed and then flecked with black. On closer inspection, the rocks have indeed been "whitewashed," courtesy of thousands of cormorants who, wing-to-wing and toe-to-toe, cling to every available square inch of the guano-painted rock. The black we have seen are the bodies of the birds against the white background. Every now and then, two or three of them would leave their perches and dive into the water, to be replaced by another group that, on landing, lift their wings to dry, looking comically as if they are airing off their armpits.

The next island has no cormorants at all. That's because it is covered by wall-to-wall seals with cute faces and bodies that are generously proportioned, to say the least. Their calls may sound musical to other seals, and their smell attractive to their kind also. However we mere humans find the fresh air upwind a great deal more pleasant. The next island has yet another population, penguins, and when we look into the water we notice that there are hundreds of other penguins swimming all around us. "There is quite a variety of animal and bird life here," says Monsalve, "and it is amazing how they keep to their own groups. Perhaps each is nearest to the feeding grounds that most suit the particular species."

Now it is late morning, and we are approaching some large red floats that are bobbing in the Channel. Monsalve cuts the engine and he and his helper reach over the side with a grappling hook, lift the float into the boat, and pull on the rope. Eventually they lift a large wicker basket. Inside, some of the biggest crabs I have ever seen scuttle around. They are pillarbox red and have huge, spidery legs which are the most sought-after crab meat.

Monsalve's helper takes the Centollas out of the basket and throws them in a large, bucket-shaped container. Basket and float are jettisoned back into the water and we move on to the next float, to repeat the performance. Then we head for one of the islands where we tie up for an impromptu lunch. In the meantime the helper has boiled water, dismembered and cooked the crabs, cut up fresh bread, and prepared some flagons of excellent Argentine wine. Over this basic but fantastic lunch, Monsalve tells us more about the crabs and the island where we are moored.

"When I first started fishing here," he says, "it was not unusual to catch many that measured over a meter from the tip of one leg to the tip of another. Now we are lucky to get ones that are much more than half that size. They have now become very popular on the tables of top Argentine restaurants, so much so that some 300,000 are being taken from these waters each year, and that's madness. If they keep being commercially over-fished like that, their survival is doubtful." On that note we go ashore. He is about to show us a relic from the past, a species that has not survived the changes that have taken place in this area.

As we walk across the top of the flat, wind-swept island (which is covered with low berry bushes, grasses and all kinds of wildflowers) we walk very carefully to make sure that we do not damage any of the fragile environment. Monsalve has made us very aware of this. A little further along we come to an indentation in the island's flat area. It looks like a natural, round depression that will hold around 100 seated people. In the center of this are pieces of charred wood and old, caked, ashes. All around that are thousands of oyster and mussel shells and hundreds and hundreds of bird bones. "This is a midden used by Indians who came here regularly. They were excellent sailors and gathered shells and mussels around the island. They also caught many birds by trapping. This is where they had some shelter from the winds to light their fires and cook their catch. They discarded oyster shells and bird bones, and these tell the story."

The midden looks as if it had been used a week or so ago and I asked Monsalve about this. "I would guess that this island was last visited by the Yamana Indians around 100 years ago. Soon after that, their numbers dropped dramatically from diseases to which they had no resistance. But there has been nothing to disturb this site since they were here. I do not believe that anybody else knows about it, and I make sure that the people I bring here disturb nothing. It is all part of our heritage."

Silently, we cross the island back to our boat and silently, we climb down the cliffside to reboard it. As we chug back to Ushuaia, it occurs to me that nobody on the boat has uttered a word for nearly 15 minutes. All are deep in thought. Perhaps, like myself, they are thinking of the Indians who once lived, laughed and loved sitting around that fire, but have now left nothing more behind them than midden. Some societies rise and some fall. I guess nothing can stand in the way of "progress." But someone has to pay the price, and here in Ushuaia it was the Indians who once feasted around that fire.

Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.



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