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Thursday, December 13, 2001
Trekking to the end of the world: Patagonia, Argentina.

Tackling Patagonia means hit-and-run plane trips into desolate and wind-swept airports plus time and energy-consuming struggles involving dawn flights, poor connections and unpredictable weather conditions that can play havoc with even the best laid plans.

Glaciers dot the mountainous interior, which stretches all the way to the Atlantic. There is the famed Moreno Glacier, the pinnacles of the Fitz Roy range and the Andean National Parks, which have helped to develop a major tourist industry, to check out. However, Patagonia's major economic institution is still the sprawling sheep estancia. But don't be fooled - despite the burgeoning tourist industry, travelling conditions in southern Argentina can be frustrating as tourists are often seen as a cash crop to be fleeced, but it will be worth it if you make the effort.


Argentina's vast Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, in the south of Santa Cruz Province, straddles the Hielo Sur. This is the largest icecap outside the polar regions and is thought to be the greatest single tract of remaining wilderness in the country. It's worth noting that the Fitz Roy sector, at the northern end of Los Glaciares, is the only significant area where trekking is permitted.

Comprising an area of 4,460sqkm, the park stretches 200km north to south along the eastern edge of the southern continental ice sheet (Hielo Sur).


One of Argentina's most famous natural wonders, the Glacier Moreno, lies in the southern end of the park, near the Chilean border.

This solid mass of ice, rock and water had been, until recently, one of the earth's few advancing glaciers. Though it's a one sight attraction, it's well worth two days to see the spectacle from the land and water.

Each year, more than 20,000 travellers come to gaze at the 1.5 million acres of ice, water, mountains and virgin forest that make up Pargue Nacional Los Glaciares. A two-hour drive from Rio Gallegos by bus gets you to the park's gate and, after a few bends down the road, one of the sights of a lifetime appears. You get out at the tip of Peninsula de Magallanes and walk 46m to the guard rails where you can look across the Canal de los Tampanos, or Iceberg Channel.

Here you'll see the 3.2km wide channel with a 60m high wall of ice opposite, parts of which crack and tumble before your eyes, producing a thundering sound of cracking and splashing turned up to rock concert volume. Getting to the glacier can be an arduous exercise taking up to five hours across desolate plains filled with sheep, but occasionally you spot a nandu or a herd of llama-like guanaco.


While the more sedentary tourists enjoy the Glaciar Moreno, the area's mecca for hikers, climbers and campers is the Fitz Roy Range. At the far northern end of Los Glaciares lies one of the most magnificent and famous areas in the Andes, where the legendary peaks of Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy rise abruptly from the flat Patagonian steppes.

Short lateral valleys lead into the ranges to the base of these peaks, giving trekkers relatively straightforward access to the best scenery. The jump-off point for all activities is tiny El Chalten, a village north of Lago Viedma on an exposed floodplain pummelled by incessant winds.

One of the most popular hikes goes to Laguna Torre and the base camp for climbing the spire of Cerro Toree (3,128m). After a gentle initial climb, it's a fairly level walk through beech forests until a final steeper climb up the lateral moraine left by the receding Glacier del Torre.

From Laguna Torre, there are stunning views of the principal southern peaks of the Fitz Roy Range, but allow at least three hours each way. The variety of treks in this area is great, so do a thorough check before heading off into the wilderness. As Getaway's Sorrel Wilby explains: "You have to experience both sides of Patagonia" from Torres Del Paine in Southern Chile to the Glaciers National Park in Argentina." This area, says Sorrel, is so "untamed and untainted by tourism. It really is a fantastic place."


Patagonia, Argentina

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