A LOUD “crack” grabs everybody’s attention. Fortunately, my digital camera is turned on so I whip it up as I scan the horizon. Gasps of surprise come from those around me as fingers start pointing to a huge chunk of ice slowly plunging into the opaque water, accompanied by a steady “boom”.
I’ve been lucky enough to capture the rare moment on film – tonnes of ice, about 300 years old, breaking off the huge Perito Moreno Glacier and smacking the surface of Lago (Lake) Argentino in the Patagonia region of southern Argentina.
Visitors to Argentina tend to head to the famous Iguazu Falls west of the capital, Buenos Aires, the “Paris of South America”. I opted to stray from the beaten path.
South America has become much more accessible, thanks to Qantas late last year launching direct flights from Sydney to Buenos Aires three days a week.
By using the fuel-efficient Boeing 747-400 ER aircraft and bypassing Auckland, Qantas has chopped four hours from the flight. It is now a mere 13 hours there and 14 hours back.
Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1816 and Buenos Aires was created by immigrants from across the world, most arriving between the 1860s and the 1940s. Many of its trees – such as the curious “crying tree” whose leaves continuously drop moisture as if crying – are from Europe.
I took a three-hour walking tour of the city and learnt that the capital’s buildings and boulevards were influenced more by French design than Spanish. Many of the buildings are painted pink – the tint, originally, was a mixture of white lime and cows’ blood.
Keen to keep up with world trends, Buenos Aires developers changed the city’s skyline in the 1980s and ’90s by bringing architects in from the United States to design skyscrapers.
Argentina’s name comes from the Latin for silver, argenti, although there are no minerals of significance there. But plenty of silver came from neighbouring countries and was shipped overseas from Argentina’s once-bustling ports.
The political uncertainty that plagued Argentina now seems to be in the past and it is well worth a visit to central Plaza de Mayo, where all public protests were held. The main buildings facing the plaza reflect the city’s diverse history – the city offices (in Spanish white), a Catholic cathedral (of Greek design to shirk Spanish influence) and the federal government’s presidential palace (in traditional pink).
It was from the palace’s balconies that Eva Peron stirred huge crowds into a patriotic fervour during the 1950s.
The tour finishes with a visit to the city’s main cemetery. There lies Eva Peron in a nondescript tomb, a deliberate move by the post-Peron government to defuse her hero status with the working class. The city’s wealthier citizens have small but elaborate family crypts, some of which go down several levels.
From Buenos Aires, Patagonia is a three-hour flight to El Calafate airport. I go from a hot and humid climate to the seemingly barren, windswept bottom of the world.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is the smaller of the main three in the World Heritage-listed, 600,000ha Los Glaciares National Park and Reserve in Santa Cruz province.
It is also easily accessible for tourists, thanks to Argentina’s investment in El Calafate – about 70km from the glacier by road transfer – and, in particular, the Los Notros hotel. Expecting to “rough it” down there, I am surprised by the hotel’s luxury.
Los Notros, named after the red “flame bushes” that, along with the yellow buds of the calafate bush, are everywhere, is perched at the foot of a waterfall on the banks of Lago Argentino.
The hotel’s rooms, restaurant and lounge look out on to the southern face of the glacier. The view is stunning. It is perfect for an escape from the city grind, or for a romantic break.
While I was there, one couple celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary on their second night at Los Notros, with the help of the hotel’s excellent dining and a bottle or two of Argentina’s nice red malbec wine.
While you wouldn’t want to be a vegetarian in Buenos Aires, where residents seem to live on (tender and delicious) barbecued steak, the hotel’s menu is varied – surprising, given the remoteness.
A typical day’s dining: buffet breakfast with local fruit, nuts, seeds, cereals, cold meat (very Spanish), cheese, scrambled eggs and lightly fried prosciutto.
Lunch is entree of broccoli soup or deer carpaccio, or prawns; main is sole or salmon, beef steak, or pumpkin gnocchi and goats cheese.
Dinner is entree of soup or king crab crepe; main is fish, steak tenderloin or delicious hare-with-dried-fruits ravioli served with crunchy nuts and drizzled with olive oil; dessert is chocolate tubes with brandy, creme brulee or cheese. A bottle of malbec is 107 pesos ($46), a cabernet sauvignon is 80 pesos ($35).
But the reason we are there is the glacier. The hotel can organise many local activities and treks over the glacier and I choose a short bus ride to viewing platforms several hundred metres from it. I also do a cruise up to the glacier’s south face and, the following day, up to the north face.
The ice is a soothing aquamarine colour, varying in intensity, and small “icebergs” float on the lake.
The 250sq km glacier is only 30km long and starts to form along a jagged ridge just over the border in Chile, at the tail end of the Andes. What a sneaky way to nick your neighbour’s water.
There are 48 glaciers in the ice field, which is the world’s third biggest reserve of fresh water. The Perito Moreno has a 5km-wide front and rises 60m above the lake. It advances about 2m a day, but just as much breaks off.
There may well be global warming, but this glacier has neither advanced nor receded since 1917.