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Frozen treat

Summertime in Patagonia on an ice-filled lake and working ranch

Email|Print| Text size + By Indira A. R. Lakshmanan
Globe Staff / March 25, 2007

EL CALAFATE, Argentina -- The first morning we awoke , a translucent iceberg the electric hue of blue food coloring was floating outside our bedroom window.

We had traveled to the end of the earth, to one of its southernmost inhabited corners, to gaze at towering glaciers dating from the last Ice Age. This inhospitable terrain had claimed the lives of early explorers. Yet from our cozy perch in an upscale lodge flush on the banks of the impossibly teal-green Lago Argentino , the stark, icy beauty of Patagonia was welcoming us before we had even strapped on our hiking boots.

It was a magical start to a thrilling journey. Having taken in many of the world's natural marvels -- from the frozen-in-time Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to the overgrown jungle temples of Cambodia, from the windswept Tibetan steppes to the deafening waters of Iguazu Falls on the Argentina-Brazil border -- I found this to be some of the most marvelous landscape I had ever seen.

We were surrounded by spectacular expanses of ice fields whose pointy tips evoked the turrets of enchanted castles. The sky was improbably azure, and because January is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, a golden glow lingered over the lake until almost midnight. We experienced most seasons in a single day, stripping off and replacing layers of clothing as if we were crossing both frozen tundra and desert. On a working ranch in the shadow of the snow-clad cordillera of the Andes, we hiked in the silent company of birds and animals, with not a human in sight. It was like entering the kingdom of Narnia.

During four days and nights, we surrendered to Patagonia's spell. From the deck of a catamaran that ventured up the branches of Lago Argentino , which dead-end in ancient glaciers the size of modern cities, we lost count of the icebergs that could have done in the Titanic. On a 9:30 a.m. boat ride to within 200 yards of the majestic north face of Perito Moreno Glacier, animated Japanese tourists decked out in the latest winter gear popped chunks of loose ice into glasses of whiskey and toasted our adventure.

Only Greenland's and Antarctica's glaciers are bigger than Patagonia's, but the 5,000 - square- mile ice field that straddles Chile and Argentina is far more accessible to tourism, especially from the Argentine side. Less than a 90-minute drive from the airport in the dusty steppe settlement of El Calafate, the spectacular Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding. Global warming and geological conditions are exacting a toll on glaciers elsewhere, but thanks to steady precipitation and a temperate climate, our guide said, snowdrifts here freeze and thaw and compress into glacial ice relatively quickly, and Perito Moreno gains as much ice every year as it loses.

A visit to Perito Moreno offers an opportunity to experience with all of one's senses the awe-inspiring force of nature. Massive chunks of ice calve and fall from the glacier's 20-story-tall north face every day, emitting the thunderous sound of distant cannon shot. The shock and suspense every time the ice cracked, the upward spray of countless shattered ice crystals, and the chilly mist on my face as newly formed icebergs plunged into the water were more heart-stopping than any soundstage special effects could have been . Before observation catwalks were constructed at a safe distance in 1988, dozens of incautious visitors had been crushed or swept away over the years by the crashing ice falls.

Today, travelers can safely commune with Perito Moreno, not only from splendid vantage points on catwalks and boats, but also by strapping on crampons for treks on the glacier's surface. We reluctantly gave the ice treks a pass since children are not permitted, opting instead for a full-day catamaran ride that took us to a handful of other glaciers, including Upsala -- which at four times the size of Buenos Aires and 24 stories in height is one of the biggest glaciers in South America.

The journey alone was incredible, not least for the turquoise-toothpaste shades of water and whimsically shaped icebergs that seemed to have emerged from the imagination of a cartoon animator. A physicist on the boat explained that the milky teal color of Lago Argentino is created by suspended mineral particles that glaciers sweep off rocks. The play of light on super-compacted glacial ice, we were told, accounts for the shimmering hypnotic blue of many of the icebergs.

We motored past hundreds of castoffs from the glaciers that resembled whales, swans, or modern sculpture, and tried to visualize the 85 percent of the iceberg's mass hidden below the water's surface. Finally reaching landfall at Onelli Bay, we strolled through an eerie storybook forest whose gnarly, finger like branches seemed ready to pounce. Emerging onto the shallow bay that had trapped scores of smaller icebergs, hardier tourists stripped to their swimsuits to be photographed crouching on a chunk of ice.

By evening, we relaxed in our soaring, postmodern ski chalet of a hotel lakeside in El Calafate . Carlos Ott, the Uruguayan architect who designed the modern Bastille Opera House in Paris, used floor-to-ceiling windows, timber, and smooth stones the size of ostrich eggs to create the stunning Design Suites. Soho-colonizes-the-great-outdoors is the theme, with white sheepskin rugs sharing space with cubist leather-and-chrome furniture. Morcheeba and Buddha Bar lounge music is piped into the open lobby restaurant , which boasts panoramic views of the lake and the Andes.

We decided to retreat for the next two days to one of a handful of family - owned working ranches, known as "estancias," inside Glacier s National Park.

At the end of a dirt road that seems light - years from cities, crowds, and modern life -- but just an hour's drive from El Calafate -- is the unpretentious and magical Estancia Nibepo Aike. Guests occupy a rustic but fully renovated homestead with a Hansel and Gretel exterior that belongs to descendants of the original Yugoslav settler family who came to eke out a living from the harsh land a century ago. The 31,000-acre ranch existed before the land was declared a national park, and enjoys an unparalleled view of the forbidding, snow-capped mountains that divide Argentina and Chile, where a hanging glacier straddles the peaks.

Our inviting, vermilion-colored room had a picture window looking onto a perfect little garden of red poppies, purple Dutch perennials, and a rust-colored herb known here as "vinagrillo." It would have been enough to lie on a chaise lounge in the garden and read a novel while enjoying the silence and the view of the Andes, but homestays at estancias offer horse riding, sport fishing, hiking, and sheep shearing, in between breaks for home-cooked meals.

We decided to hike up one of the imposing hills that are covered with yellow and violet wildflowers and the local shrub with edible berries known as Calafate. Two golden retriever puppies appeared out of nowhere and nipped at our heels, rolling over one another as they escorted us up the mountain. From a 1,000-foot elevation, we gazed down at the confluence of blue and green waters where the spring-fed Lago Rico meets the glacial Lago Argentino. Majestic condors soared above the snow-capped mountains. Two black-chested buzzard eagles swept down and perched on a rickety fence to peer at us haughtily.

Early the next morning, we walked to the stables to meet the local cowboys known as "gauchos." Wearing black berets and candy-striped tights under breeches, these wind-bitten men attend to 1,200 head of cattle, 70 horses, and 250 sheep in all weather. They rode up the hillside to drive sheep that had been grazing back down to their corrals, and chose cows for breeding to visiting studs.

Delighted to be gauchos for the day, we saddled up, with our 13-month-old son strapped into his carrier, hooting in delight at his first horse ride up the mountainside and down again to the water's edge.

Along the path, we saw a carrion hawk devouring a dead cow. A flock of upland geese flapped over the lake's surface. In a shallow pond, incongruous pink flamingos bathed alongside black-necked swans.

Dinner that night at the ranch's "asado," or barbecue house, was the best meal I have eaten on a continent famous for barbecue. Smiling ranch hands roasted fresh meat on an open spit. There was course after mouthwatering course of chorizo sausage, succulent lamb chops, leg of lamb, chicken, juicy steaks, potatoes, salad, and of course, a nice selection from the wine cellar. By the time pancakes of caramel-like dulce de leche arrived for dessert, my enormous appetite was blissfully sated.

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, the Globe's Latin America bureau chief, can be reached at indira@globe.com .

If You Go

When to go

High season and higher prices rule from October through March, thanks to the region's Southern Hemisphere summer temperatures averaging 56 degrees.

What to do

Glacier s National Park

Local travel agencies offer full-day excursions to Perito Moreno Glacier , including round -trip bus transfers from hotels in El Calafate, an optional boat ride to the glacier's north face, and time for hiking and picnicking at lookout points. Day tour $30 per person; one-hour boat ride $13; admission to national park $10 .

Tour operators also offer half-day or full-day ice-treks on Perito Moreno's surface. Half day $83; full day $113 .

René Fernández Campbell's boat company runs full-day fast catamaran excursions to Upsala, Spegazzini, and Seco glaciers, and Onelli Bay , $70.

Ranches

Daytime excursions from El Calafate are possible through local tour operators . Estancias offer horseback riding, sport fishing, sheep shearing, hiking, and barbecues.

Estancia Nibepo Aike, an hour from town, offers outdoor activities, sheep shearing, and evening barbecue for $120 ( nibepoaike.com.ar ).

A boat ride up a northern branch of Lago Argentino ends at Estancia Cristina, which offers a trip past Upsala Glacier, lunch , and outdoor activities for $150 (estanciacristina.com ).

The more touristy Estancia Alice-El Galpón del Glaciar offers a full-day package including outdoor activities, ranching demonstration, and evening barbecue for $120. ( estanciaalice.com.ar ).

Where to stay

'Design Suites Hotel

Calle 94 no. 190, El Calafate

011-54-2902-494-525

designsuites.com

A postmodern variation on a soaring ski lodge perched on the banks of Lago Argentino. Splurge on a lake view or you'll be stuck facing the parking lot. High- season lake-view room $215 per night.

Estancia Nibepo Aik e

011-54-4794-8964/8200

nibepoaike.com.ar

A lovely, well-appointed homestay at an authentic working ranch, this was the prettiest and most off-the-beaten track of the estancias we passed. Two-night minimum stay, includes all-you-can-eat barbecue dinners. High season : Two nights room and half-board (dinner), $130-$156 per person based on double occupancy. Two nights, superior room and full board, plus transfers and unlimited outdoor activities, $318-$381 per person, double occupancy.

Information

elcalafate.com.ar

parquesnacionales.gov.ar.

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