Into Argentina: Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

Of all Argentina's impressive landscapes, the sight of the immense glaciers stretching out infinitely and silently before you, may stay with you longest. This is the second largest national park in Argentina, extending along the Chilean border for over 170 km. Almost half of it is covered by the Southern Ice Cap; at 370 km long, it's the third largest in the world. From it, 13 major glaciers descend into two great lakes: Lago Argentino in the southeast and Lago Viedma to the northeast.

There are two main areas to explore: the glaciers can be visited by bus and boat trips from El Calafate, while from El Chaltén, 230 km northwest, there is superb trekking around the dramatic Fitz Roy massif and ice climbing near its summit. The central section, between Lago Argentino and Lago Viedma, is the Ice Cap National Reserve, inaccessible to visitors apart from a couple of estancias.

East of the ice fields, there's southern beech forest before the land flattens to the wind-blasted Patagonian steppe. Birdlife is prolific; often spotted are black-necked swans, Magallenic woodpeckers, and, perhaps, even a torrent duck diving in the rivers. Guanacos, grey foxes, skunks and rheas (a large flightless bird) can be seen on the steppe, and the rare huemul (a deer-like animal) inhabits the forest.

Getting there

Access to the park is via El Calafate, 50 km from the park's eastern boundary, for the glaciers, or via El Chaltén, 230 km northwest, for trekking, near Fitz Roy on the northeastern edge of the park. There are buses from Río Gallegos and Puerto Natales. El Chaltén is three hours' drive north then west, with several buses daily from El Calafate and Río Gallegos. El Chaltén can also be reached from Villa O'Higgins on the Carretera Austral in Chile.

Best time to visit

Although this part of Patagonia is generally cold, there is a milder microclimate around Lago Viedma and Lago Argentino, which means that summers can be reasonably pleasant, with average summer temperatures between 5°C and 22°C, though strong winds blow constantly at the foot of the cordillera. In the forested area, around 1500 mm of rain falls annually, mainly between March and late May. In winter, the whole area is inhospitably cold and most tourist facilities are closed. The best time to visit, therefore, is between November and April, avoiding January and early February, when Argentines take their holidays, campsites are crowded and accommodation is hard to find. For further information contact see www.losglaciares.com.

Río Turbio

A charmless place you're most likely to visit en route to or from Torres del Paine in Chile. The site of Argentina's largest coalfield hasn't recovered from the recent depression hitting the industry. It has a cargo railway connecting it with Punta Loyola, and visitors can see Mina 1, where the first mine was opened. There's a small ski centre nearby,
Valdelén
, which has six pistes and is ideal for beginners; there's also scope for cross- country skiing between early June and late September. The
tourist office
is in the municipal building on San Martín. For more information, see www.welcome argentina.com/rioturbio.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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