The moment my husband and I arrive in El Calafate, an oasis town in Southern Patagonia’s desert, we know that our decision to travel to Argentina’s outback wilderness was right. It is exotic and exciting. Birds dig their webbed feet into the sand to keep from being blown away. Clouds swirl past the snow-capped Andean peaks. We came to explore remote hiking trails, gawk at wind-hewn icebergs, and walk on Perito Moreno – one of the southern hemisphere’s few advancing glaciers.
“That’s Cristina’s place,” announces our driver. He points to sprawling bungalows and an enormous villa. They are surprisingly lavish in this frontier town of slapdash clapboard buildings with corrugated metal roofs.
“Who’s she?” I ask.
“The President. She vacations here. Owns the hotel.”
Los Sauces belongs to Argentina’s first elected female leader, the glamorous and tough Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. I hadn’t realized that our accommodations and her private home would be so close together, sharing an elegant décor of British hunting lodge-meets-hearty ranch. The property originally belonged to her late husband and political predecessor, Néstor. The goal to transform the remote location into a premier travel destination is ongoing. Progressing from a one-runway airport to a four-terminal stop opened in 2012, all signs point to their success.
After checking in, we bundle up for the trek to the hotel bar. Sand hits our faces like shards of glass. There’s an eerie quiet. We are aware of the things that are missing more than what is there: An absence of city lights and neon signs leaves us in unfamiliar darkness. Because we are traveling off-season, the staff has time to chat while plying us with drinks. Chef Carlos whips up a parilla that includes a lamb chop the size of a rib steak and a steak resembling an entire side of cow. Excited by my limited Spanish, he rambles on about the region’s world-class cattle culture.
In Argentina, animals roam great expanses of open land, chewing thick grasses and grey-leaved desert thorns. It takes six years – compared to one year in North America – to bring the meat to market. We savor the results – a reduced-fat beef with melt-in-the mouth tenderness.
In the morning, we’re ready for our first excursion. Our journey to the hard-to-reach glaciers begins each day as bits of dawn poke through the night sky. Long bus and boat rides are du rigueur in this remote land. We board the touristy Estancia Cristina (the only way to get to our destination) and glide between iridescent icebergs floating regally on the waters of Lago Agrigento. From the outer deck of the government-controlled concession we get our first glimpse of Upsala, a massive 37-kilometer frozen wonder. Cold winds sweep off the ice fields, stinging our cheeks.
As the boat swings around, Los Glacieres National Park’s largest glacier comes clearly into focus. A panorama of white, grey and shimmering blue, draped like a tablecloth over the turquoise waters, is protected on either side by sentinels of icy peaks.