The thing about glaciers is the noise. We sat for hours in front of the awesome one at Lago Argentino, near the southwest tip of Argentina, trying to describe the various sounds.
A thousand lumberjacks breaking branches over their knees. Then trains crashing, or boxcars grinding together. A bowling alley, caged animals, and fearsome moments of total silence. Shrieks, moans, crackles, gunshots and rolling thunder punctuated by the dizzying spectacle of great slabs of blinding, blue-white ice breaking loose and roaring 200 feet down into the iceberg lake below.
The experience of a living glacier, the only one in the world that is advancing instead of receding, almost makes the trip to the end of the world in Patagonia worthwhile all by itself. But Patagonia, the size of Washington, Calfornia and Oregon, is a lonely land of surprises - lost magic crazy the Argentines say - and like much else in this tormented country, its beauty and its danger seem only appropriate once the context is understood.
The backpackers were here in force this summer, declaring Europe an over-touristy bore in their adventure-oriented approach. Here it is still necessary to exchange advice on cheap hotels, quick transport and undiscovered treasure sites, because the guidebooks haven't begun to get it all yet.
The non-tour traveler who comes here has to be flexible in shedule, patient in temperament, undemanding of personal comfort and more than a little athletic if the best parts are not to be missed. The only thing really dependable is the food, a consolation through fickle weather, vanishing ticket bookings and nonexistent transportation. Like the locals, travelers will dine daily on steak, king crab, veal and salmon washed down with excellent Argentine wine, at prices reasonable enough even for the backpackers.
Patagonia had lured me with its reputation for wild emptiness, weird wild-life and pockets of unexpected beauty, as well as for the kick of going just about as far south as one can get on this earth short of Antarctica.
That meant Ushuaia, a low-roofed coastal town hunched at the base of snow-capped mountains that keep it air-conditioned at about 55 even in summer. Here there are car trips available to see the penguin colony to the east, the wild mountain valleys inland and the great sheep estancias of the lowland scrub. Half an hour out of town our car rounded a bend and we beheld a tall, graceful camel-like guanaco a few yards off the road. He stood so still for a few minutes, we joked that he was stuffed for tourists' benefit. But tourism is still so disorganized that the name "Ushuaia" is often misspelled on the souvenirs.
Traveling alone, I joined various individuals and groups for different legs of the trip, an entirely practical method where groups can often rent a guide and vehicle more cheaply than one person. Striking up conversations in fragments of half a dozen languages seems to be the local specialty.
Mateo Karelovic, 67, came to Ushuaia from Yugoslavia when he was 16, one of the wave of immigrants who populated both North and South America. He now runs the world's southernmost gas station, the UPF state monopoly on Ushuaia's water front drive.
"When I arrived there was nothing here but the military outpost," he said. He worked as a sawmill hand, a store clerk, a mechanic and finally in construction, building his gas station himself.Now he's putting in a dock, sings at local civic functions and says he would retire if he could trust his four children to be as efficient as he is.
"This is progress now. Pretty soon they'll pave the road to the airport," he said.
Another day we hiked three hours up a muddy trail, studded with crumbling log bridges and following a tumbling river, to reach a glacier high above Ushuaia. We hadn't counted on climbing through snow to get there, however, and had to turn back at a new timber cut full of fallen trees. Even so, the view was spectacular.
We fantasized that we could see Cape Horn, an island 100 miles closer to Antarctica and offically the tip of the hemisphere. It is possible to fly over the cape, a Chilean possession, but one must make arrangements in advance and do it from Punta Arenas, the southernmost Chilean town. That's back on the mainland across the Straits of Magellan with its spooky natural gas flares that burn atop the oil wells all night long.
Failure to reach the Ushuaia glacier only made us more interested in the one at Lago Argentino, just outside Calafate. The road passes pools of what a native said were flamingoes, incongruous amid the parched desert fields alive with jackrabbits and occasional bounding sheep. The Moreno glacier, the world's only growing glacier, according to local propaganda, is one of seven here extending icy fingers down from the huge ice fields in the Andes to the west. As much rain falls there as in the jungle rain forests that begin 3,000 miles further north.
"You should see it by moonlight when the spray from the falling ice is lit from behind," said Hector Mendez, chief of Interlagos Tours in Calafate. Only 7,000 persons visited here last year, he said, all in the summer. "If we built a big hotel, what would happen to us in the winter?" he said.
So toursits stay in the coverted backs of restaurants where the halls are heated but the rooms aren't, or in the one good hotel, the Don Quijote, where $15 a night for a double is skyhigh for the area. Every night tourists trudge along the single dusty main street to the O-key Pizzeria or to the lone discotheque, Tio Cacho, a rather sinister looking but very friendly place, where for $3 one gets a drink, dancing and a home movie of the last time the big glacier dam broke.
The Moreno glacier, discovered in 1877, extends back 22 miles. This tremendous mass comes squeezing down a mountain pass, groaning with the compression, until its 200-feet-high face enters and crosses Lake (Lago) Argentino. As it grinds into the opposite bank, it dams up the lake, which gradually gets deeper on the upstream end. Finally, the weight of the lakewater smashes through the ice dam in a colossal spectacle for which people here keep vigil for weeks. The last time it happened was in 1972, and it was expected to occur soon after our visit.
An attempted boat trip to another glacier showed the problems still current. One of the two launches broke down, stranding a boatload of tourists at a a godforsaken dock. Then the bus that came to fetch them hours later itself broke down, and the open truck that finally picked up the wayward hitchhikers got rained on.
For all that, we pressed northward.Traveling here one must stop overnight or longer on Rio Gallegos, notable mostly for its 40-feet tides and the incredile ferocity of its wind. Foreigners are those walking backward at a 45-degree angle, trying vainly to protect faces and cameras from being sandblasted, while locals are those who walk coatles with hair flying, seemingly oblivious to the icy gale.
Why do people live here at all? "It's partly the spirit of adventure," said Bishop Miguel Angel Alemann. "This is very much a frontier still."
By the Argentine military airline LADE it's a quick, cheap hop to Trelew 600 miles north, an old Welsh town where one can still get scones, homemade jam and tea on ironstone pottery for 50 cents a serving.South of Trelew, by a road through a picturebook desert where llamas and armadillos gambol over the hills, lies Punta Tumbo, the rookery of 4 million Magellan penguins from October through February.
Once one gets used to the smell and the ferocious heat, the penguins can be approached within pecking distance as they huddle in the shade under the scrub brush. Several tourist traps here and further south advertise penguin rocks, but some are the roosting places of cormorants, also black and white. Penguins don't fly.
Instead, solemn as a parade of judges, they waddle back and forth to the water, bringing fish to regorge for the squalling young in the hollowedout nesting holes. Some of them sounded exactly like braying mules. One old creature parked himself in front of the makeshift outhouse put up for visitors and would let no one enter. Finally he was driven off, and then resumed his post and wouldn't let anyone come out.
A large colony of sea lions and sea elephants lives further down the coast, but the most spectacular one is another day's drive north out on the Valdez Peninsula. Roaring and honking, the enormous creatures slide around Valdez Peninsula. Roaring and honking, the enormous creatures slide around below the visitors at the base of a bluff, bellowing outrage at the intrusion.
In contrast to these rugged pleasures, the resort area of Bariloche and Neuquen to the west offers international comforts, summertime boating the wintertime skiing and spectacular waterfalls, all at somewhat less than international prices. There are four chocolate factories, soaring peaks and bottomless lakes, all of which made a German doctor decide not to go at all. "I've been to Switzerland already," he said.
Argentina is busily promoting all its natural beauties, and tourists need not worry that the country's ongoing political strife will affect them. It is necessary to carry identification at all times, however, and long-haired travelers are advised to get haircuts before entering, if only to avoid border hassles.
"We're not paying much attention to all that," said a restaurant owner in Trelew. "We have all this empty land here, nothing on it but sheep and cows, why should we fight? There's room for everybody."