Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg
Since we’ve already explored a bit of the Chilean side of Patagonia with Torres del Paine in the November 2016 issue of NANPA e-News, let’s now take a look at the Argentine side. This vast, fabulous and still wild region occupies virtually a third of South America.
The Patagonian steppe is largely pristine wilderness filled with serrated peaks, glistening lakes and vast blue-white rivers of ice. Here, the winds blow incessantly and both the climate and life itself can be harsh.
As its name — Las Glaciares — implies, the calling card of this big park is its glaciers. Two of the most well-known and accessible are the Perito Moreno and the Upsala. The Moreno Glacier is about three full miles wide. It is easily photographed from a multilevel observation deck, which provides plenty of room for your tripod. If you arrive and get set up before dawn, you might be rewarded with light that is nothing short of magical as the sun begins to rise.
You may also be able to catch a boat ride across the snout of the glacier right up close and personal. Like most big glaciers, calving is frequent but always unpredictable and not easy to capture. If you have the option to shoot video and are looking in just the right spot at just the right moment, you might come home with some dramatic footage.
Ask at the national park visitor center in El Calafate about the boat rides and the possibility of a hike on a glacier. For the greatest mobility, this hike is best done handheld with just a single body and short-medium zoom lens.
The other big draw in this Yellowstone-sized park is the area containing famed Mt. Fitz Roy. In addition to needlelike Fitz Roy itself, other dramatic peaks include Cerro Torre and Cerro Electrico (cerrro = peak), so named for its bright red color. Mt. Fitz Roy and neighboring Cerro Torre are often included in a single composition. Hiking up to one of the many vantage points to catch the earliest morning light on these towering spires can be either very rewarding or a total bust. The atmospherics here are dramatic but often impossible to predict. The old chestnut “f/8 and be there” still prevails. Get up early and go for it!
Another not-to-be-missed section of Las Glaciares is the Valley of the Vueltas River (Valle de las Vueltas). I have seen Andean condors here using their enormous 8-to-10-foot wingspans to glide on the updrafts and air currents high in this canyon and almost right alongside the rim trail itself. The condors are fascinating creatures — graceful and elegant fliers. Yet, as the king of the vultures, they are ungainly on the ground. These scavengers have the largest wingspan of any such creatures. Males and females have distinctive gender-specific markings.
Take the easy hike past two good overlooks and along the high rim of the canyon to Laguna Capri. Along the edge of this sparkling blue lake there is a small trail that provides a great view of Mt. Fitz Roy with a waterfall in the foreground.
If you are coming to Las Glaciares National Park from the United States, you will probably fly to Buenos Aires where you will transfer from the international to the domestic airport. The two airports are a distance apart, so allow at least 90 minutes for the taxi ride. You will then go through the whole check-in process a second time before boarding a domestic flight for El Calafate. The gateway to Argentine Patagonia, El Calafate is a tourist-friendly town offering a good national park visitor center and lots of restaurants and facilities.
The drive from here to the immense Perito Moreno Glacier will take about an hour, so you need to head out in the wee hours past midnight to be ready for the first rays of light. As always, scouting the facilities at the glacier before nightfall the day before will prove helpful.
The next stop is the very neat mountaineering town of El Chaltan, headquarters for exploring Mt. Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and the other photogenic mountains as well as the great Valle de las Vueltas. To reach El Chaltan, drive south from El Calafate for about four hours. By the time you first sight Mt. Fitz Roy in the distance — if the clouds allow — you are more than halfway there.
As with anywhere south of the Equator, the seasons in Patagonia are the reverse of the Northern Hemisphere. That likely makes January through early March the best time to enjoy the most hospitable weather.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry has been a national park artist in residence at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.