I found a happy spot for any nature lover at the “end of the world”, as it is called in Tierra del Fuego. Stop messing with your bad self and get on down here! Beautiful isn’t a long enough word to describe the natural wonder and dazzling settings between the Tierra del Fuego coast lines, Andean mountain range and Santa Cruz provinces of Southern Argentina. Stunning, surreal… to a woman raised in Los Angeles, it looks “like the movies” only better because you can smell and feel it, and it appeals to ALL of my senses. My eyes look out from our tiny, rustic cabin and I see such perfection - It does not look real.
So this post is ONLY meant to spark interest in planning your itinerary. I could wax on and on about the musings it has stirred, but suffice to say that it has inspired our entire family. My daughter did not want to leave Estancia Harberton, Calvin dreams of returning to Estancia Santa Teresita for a month, and Jack might join that crazy adrenaline fueled climbing community one day in El Chalten. The main towns, where we landed, Ushuaia and El Calafate, aren’t exactly my favorites, but they serve a purpose and I am intrigued. I'd love to get to know Ushuaia better – my over-active imagination suspects a darkness lurking in this port town that is drenched in wicked weather for 6 months at a time. Much more going on there than I was privy to, and the mere mention of Malvinas, a.k.a. the Falkan Islands to you Brits, strikes an empassioned chord in the hearts of every local. El Calafate caters to the tourist, but off the beaten track is where it's at. Both are the gateway to my most cherished days, and my carrot to return! See specifics below:
Ushuaia: Starving, we hit the first parrilla we could find to gorge ourselves (Casimiro Bigua, a well done chain restaurant). Hot off the fire, it did not disappoint and the friendly outdoorsman who attended us gave us great tips for the area which brought us to Glaciar Martial that same afternoon. Great day hike, relatively easy. Wish we could have visited Lago Esmeralda, but put that on the list for next time.
Parque Tierra del Fuego was a stunner, and I can understand why you’d want to camp or bike there. We spent a long day hiking along all of the trails we could cover and even stepped into Chile at one point!
Following the Beagle Channel on curvy mountain roads to the land closest to the Antarctic circle, I found my inner Laura Ingalls waiting at the infamously very remote ESTANCIA HARBERTON. This friendly, peaceful, independent ranch has a remarkable history that was shared with us and for a minute, we pretended to live there. We rode bikes in gale force winds, took a boat to Isla Martillo where Magellanic & King penguins colonized, handled the bones of marine mammals washed ashore in their museum, learned about the native flora, and shared tea on our porch overlooking the Bay. I would say that it felt like a honeymoon in our cabin that suited our family perfectly, but we did have three kids staying with us atop creaky floor boards. Still, it was that romantic. And their food, delish! Abby, the gracious hostess and great-great granddaughter (if I count correctly) of founder Thomas Bridges, would be the friend I'd choose for L. Ingalls all grown up. Both her fingertips and her father’s were worn thin of the lines of a fingerprint for all of their hand work. It was an honor and a privilege to be there for a hot second.
El Calfate: This is the toll gate city that you must pass through to an adventurers paradise. It is the only place for miles with banks, gas, and other necessary supplies, so nobody can escape its passage. Despite the feeling of being herded around as tourists there, the glaciers and natural beauty exceeded our expectations. We visited Perito Moreno, inside Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, first and it was staggeringly gorgeous, hard to believe our eyes! It really seemed to extend forever and was so unlike anything we’d ever seen before that we walked the catwalks stupefied. Even when I look at the pictures today, I can hardly believe that we saw it in person. The next day we took the infamous boat ride to Upsala Glacier, another must. Now I am embarrassed to say that at the end of the trip, I asked my kids where that glacier was? I remembered the others, but somehow I missed the crown jewel?!! They could not stop laughing - Apparently I was so awestruck by the iceberg below (for obvious reasons!) that I hardly looked up to notice the glacier from which it had come!! Ay yai yai!! Tunnel vision, have I! But the blues… crystalized jewel tones that sparkled under the sun. I was mesmerized as one becomes when watching a burning camp fire, and I couldn’t turn away.
My boys also went mini-trekking on top of Perito Glacier, which lent for a much more intimate and interactive glacier adventure. The minimum age requirement is 10 years for treacherous risk-taking, and they celebrated with drinks over 4,000 year old ice at the end (water for boys and whiskey for Dad).
I also happily recommend the Glacier Bar Branca, inside the Glacarium, as a hilarious "art" experience. Put on the requisite silver parka, dance, and drink in an ice bar – c’mon, no matter how cheesy, it is truly unforgettable and fun!
Our next excellent and most unforgettable day happened despite our natural inclination toward Clark Griswald. We got lost, a little, and a lot. There were a few words exclaimed that I don’t want my kids saying at your house, lest you judge us. And it got so bad, that the kids were actually super good and silent in the back of our car for the last 45 minutes of a 4 hour trek (which should have been an hour plus) as we debated how much longer we would drive down unmarked dirt roads. At times, the only thing we could see were S.O.S. poles erected on the side of the road. Miraculously, we made it and it was absolutely worth the drive and strife.
ESTANCIA SANTA TERESITA, what can we do to come back for longer? We rode caballos toward the Fitz Roy and El Chalten amidst stunning yellow ground flowers, hopping jack rabbits, the occasional stray sheep, and herds of guanaco’s. Cecilia and I rode with a small group to a rustic cabin whereby our gaucho/cowboy guide then cooked us fresh lamb sandwhiches and ribs. It was truly sublime, and I would bore you with the millions of photos I took trying to capture the peace and wild beauty that roared through this island set along Lago Viedma with the enormous Andes guarding it on the other side. My senses were kicked into high gear. My boys did a shorter ride with Joaquin, and they are in love – with the Estancia and Joaquin! They galloped and raced with this ex-polo player, helped round up sheep, and “played” with the sharpening wheel. Calvin is pretty much set to become a guacho for at least one summer before adulthood, and we kinda think it might do him good!
I am wanting to write more about the people that we met on this adventure because it is those people that made the greatest impact on us despite the natural world treasures we witnessed. So more to come about those (Elenilda, Abby, Nina, Juan, Joaquin, Natasha, Alexandra), but for now, our greatest thanks goes to Norma and Soledad of Telares Andinos. We were drawn inside for their textiles, and walked away with more than a purchase. They took the time to share felting techniques with Cecilia and explained more about Argentine recent history than I could digest as an uneducated North American. Such beautiful women, very proud and rightfully so of their gorgeous and strong country, artists, kind, articulate, sharp and very generous. We will stay in touch.
By Amy Conroy