Before embarking for Ushuaia, we spent a few days in Buenos Aires (see "On the Way to the End of the Earth" on page 89) and detoured to El Calafate, a small town in Patagonia. Named for the local blue calafate berry, the town is surrounded by mountains on the southeast coast of Argentina. We went there because it is a short drive from the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is in Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We rode a van into town from the new airport. Out one side was a barren land backdropped by brown mountains. Out the other was the vast, many-colored Lago Argentino, the largest lake in the nation.
We arrived in El Calafate on a cloudless, springlike day. Its wood-framed storefronts, raised wood sidewalks, and wood support posts gave the town a distinctly Old West feel. But the gleaming facades betrayed its boomtown newness. The town bustled with outdoorsy-meets-bohemian energy. College-age backpackers typed e-mails back home from cybercafes. Foursomes of retirees huddled around menus serving New Patagonia cuisine - black hake in cream of saffron, lamb braised in Malbec, stuffed rabbit. Couples strolled into art galleries, jewelry shops, clothiers selling leather jackets and fur coats, and trinket stores.
Turns out one of the most remote places on earth is a lot like Santa Fe. Who knew?
We took a bus tour to the glacier through the Patagonia steppe, a flatland yellowed by a coarse grass known as broom sedge that shivers in the harsh, ceaseless Patagonia winds. After a while, the land became more hilly and forested. As we rounded a bend, a gigantic field of jagged ice glinted in the afternoon sun. It was Perito Moreno Glacier.
A tour boat took us so close to the glacier that we could scarcely take it all in. Perito Moreno is enormous. It stands some 260 feet tall and three miles wide. It is the biggest wall I have ever seen. And it is a color of blue I have never imagined - iridescent, crystalline chalk.
As we stared at it, mesmerized, a loud crack would occasionally sound, like a cannon shot, and a house-size iceberg would explode from the glacier and crash into the lake.
"It looks like Superman's Fortress of Solitude," Jessica said.
"Its power is so overwhelming," I said, "that it almost seems to pant."
"Pant?" Sam said.
"Yeah," I said. "Pant."
"You think the ice pants?"
"Well, I think it is so powerful it seems to have a kind of energy. And energy pants."
"I don't think the glacier pants."
"Neither do I," said Jessica. "If it pants, it is like an animal. And I think that diminishes it. I think it is more than that."
"I'm not saying it is human," I said. "I'm just saying that it seems almost to heave with energy."
"Heave?" Sam said.
"Oh, I definitely don't think it heaves," said Jessica.
And so we enjoyed the huge glacier.
The next day, we flew to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.