Pumping Adrenaline in Patagonia
"Sin miedo!" was the last thing I remember hearing. Pablo, my guide and an accomplished mountain-biker, meant it as a command. No Fear!
But fear was exactly what was pumping through my veins. From behind, he saw I was wavering as I entered the last bend on our epic downhill ride. So I pushed harder on the pedals and hit the hairpin bend at full tilt - my eyes blurred with water and g-forces. Somehow I made it to the bottom.
The next thing I heard was "Tinto o blanco?" - red or white wine?
We'd been trying out a new mountain-bike trip on an idyllic estancia and, as a reward, we were treated to a delicious lunch of lamb and trout empanadas, beef steak, Argentinian wine and some highly calorific desserts.
I needed the fuel. I was in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina's adventure-tourism playground. With 7,000 sq km of dramatic Andean peaks, crystalline lakes, glaciers and ice fields, it’s no surprise that this region is starting to attract hikers, bikers and climbers from all over the world. El Calafate is the hub for most thrill-seekers. The town itself has all the restaurants, bars and hotels you could need. On one side is the immense, turquoise-coloured Lago Argentino and on the other, a treeless, dun-coloured valley bottom rising to dramatic, arid tablelands: the definitive Patagonian landscape.
Pablo and I hooked up with Lucho, a former mountain guide and skilled 4x4 driver, who drove us out into this barren-looking plain, littered with huge "erratic" boulders dumped by receding glaciers aeons ago. Pumas live here, and although we didn't see any, we did make out some puma tracks at the bottom of a crevasse. At the edge of a high cliff we observed condors drifting past on the thermals.
El Calafate is only an hour's drive from the glaciers that emanate from the great southern ice field of the Patagonian Andes. The Perito Moreno glacier, named after the Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno, is one of the country's greatest natural wonders. To explore the glacier, you can take luxury cruises, do short treks or join groups on what is called the "Big Ice" trek: a tough, day-long hike over tricky terrain. I opted for the latter.
It was a wonderful, invigorating amble into the cold heart of the glacier - you can't but amble in crampons - and it took us across the weird wave-like surface, fording streams and leaping over the narrow fissures. The guides showed us how to climb ice walls using just picks and crampons. We ate lunch beside a sapphire-coloured lake in the middle of an icy valley.
After all that ice, it was time for a meltdown. I was staying at Casa Los Sauces, a newly-opened estancia-style hotel in El Calafate. My room was warm and snug, with a tiny coffee machine and a vast, 10-pillow bed. At its restaurant I indulged in Patagonian specialities: spider crab, smoked salmon, cold cuts of wild boar and venison, and (tastiest of all) Patagonian lamb.
My last stop presented several opportunities to burn it all off. It was the tiny village of El Chaltén, 110km north of El Calafate as the crow flies, but twice that by road. Founded only in 1985, El Chaltén is Argentina's official national trekking capital, in touching distance of the dramatic, spiky chain of Andean peaks, including he spectacular Mount Fitzroy.
Naturally, you want to get closer. So, the next morning I set off, with Pablo, trekking up to the Laguna de los Tres, a small lake in the glacial bowl at the foot of Fitzroy. Walking through forests, across meadowlands and up scree-slopes, we arrived at the laguna, just as a full-scale snowstorm descended. It was a reminder that Patagonia, for all its pretty flowers and smart lodges, is, in meteorological terms, a suburb of Antarctica.
Thankfully, that evening we were in another five-star lodge, Los Cerros, and it was a joy to be compelled to sit still, and eat and drink lavishly. One of the dilemmas of active tourism is that you can have such a wonderful, adrenaline-fuelled time that you forget to look around you. Through big, double-glazed windows, I watched the river valley turn white and leafed through books about FitzRoy, Moreno and Magellan.
Then, finally, as we left El Chaltén, the great Patagonian westerlies blew the clouds away and I got the ultimate, iconic view of the Fitzroy Massif against an impossibly clear, cobalt sky. I’d seen it in photos and even in logos - but the real thing has a hyperreal quality. I’d started the trip with a blur and now I had the ultimate postcard to look at. Awesome.
Travel writer Chris Moss