27 Dec PATAGONIA: SOUTH OF THE SOUTH
Few years ago, I spent six months in Argentina. It was a difficult moment in my live, and I decided to leave my comfort zone for a while. Through my University, I could get into a mobility program to make additional academic formation, and I chose actually the further destiny in the list: Patagonia. I had read in many travel magazines about this remote region, although I later realised my knowledge was pretty vague, as I had in mind only few touristic attractions, as Perito Moreno glacier and Tierra del Fuego island.
I arrived to Río Gallegos late at night, in the 3-hour flight from Buenos Aires, the capital of the country, with a big suitcase and my mind in a blank state.
Río Gallegos is the capital of the Santa Cruz region, the most southern region of the mainland America (Tierra del Fuego is actually an island). However, Rio Gallegos is literally isolated. There is no other population centre in hours around. For a European mind, this is a very young city: it was founded 1885 to increase Argentine power over southern Patagonia (there have been many territorial conflicts with Chile), in the estuary of Gallegos River.
The “ría”, as called by locals, is the most beautiful part of the city. I loved to walk along, as the views were extremely changing everyday: the water, the light, the clouds… Río Gallegos has the most amazing sky I have ever seen, and probably the omnipresent wind has something to do with this! While a peaceful place during weekdays, the ría was extremely crowded by cars during weekends by locals who go there to have their mate. Note: due to the super wide extension of the city, nobody walks there; even the strolls are made by car (slowing its speed…)!
The economy of the city was basically dependent on sheep breeding from its settlement to the very beginning of the 20th century. Its port was also an exit point for livestock and mining products such as Río Turbio coal. Nowadays, economic importance of the public administration has grown considerably as the main manpower of the city, with a significant increase in oil and gas activity in the region. However, it’s not at all a wealthy city, and its infrastructure is pretty limited.
The University was located one-hour walk from the city centre, in a former building of the Argentinian Army (the name was still there!).
There is no tourism in Río Gallegos: as a young city, it doesn’t have an interesting heritage to visit. However, the stunning landscape of Patagonia is easily reachable outside the city.
Perito Moreno Glacier & Calafate
A lot of free time allowed me to travel around the south both of Argentina and Chile. I travelled always by bus: the distances are extremely long in Patagonia, but I really enjoyed that special landscape, so different from what I had known before.
The road that connects Río Gallegos with El Calafate, Ruta 40, is mostly unpaved, and the dust form the (few) cars passing though it gives the trip a very special character. The land is completely flat and remote: from the bus window you see nothing except earth, “pasto” (Orchardgrass), guanacos and sheep.
As you approach the Andes, the landscape becomes greener. Calfate is the basis for visiting Parque Nacional de los Glaciares. The town is completely orientated to tourism (the antithesis of Río Gallegos): there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, casinos… I didn’t explore them that much, but I truly recommend two places: Borges y Álvarez Librobar (library cafés are extremely common in Argentina, much before than in other hip neighbourhoods in the world), a perfect place to have an evening beer or even lunch, and Ovejitas de la Patagonia, a chocolate café and factory perfect to escape from the cold outside: order a “submarino” and you won’t regret. You can also buy there artisanal “licor de calafate”, a spirituous drink made by the fruit of the most typical shrub in the region (from which the town takes its name), which tastes extremely sweet (and good!).
* I was there few years ago, so you will probably be able to update this short list…
I didn’t explore the town that much because I was there to visit Perito Moreno glacier. I took whole day tour from one of the operators in the village: it included a boat tour in front of the glacier a short walk through it, and some free time to have lunch and stroll around the walkways where the views of the glacier are stunning: these easy accessibility makes this landscape so special (and so touristic at the same time). Despite the big amount of people you will have to share the day, the visit is really worth: the tones of blue, white, grey and even black of the ice will leave you speechless. If you are lucky enough (I was!) you will enjoy not only the views, but also the activity of the glacier in its process to break down.
Perito Moreno is only one of the glaciers forming the National Park, the most known of them. If you have time and feel adventurous, don’t hesitate to visit others. The landscape is really a natural spectacle, actually in danger because of climate change, which makes glaciers retreat at too great speed.