By Melissa and Scott Singer
Immediately after school let out for December break, our family of four headed to the airport for the first leg of our Argentinian/Patagonian adventure. While the flight to Buenos Aires is long (11 hours), a late night departure and minor time change (two hours) make it feasible to disembark without jet lag and start exploring on arrival. During our two days in the city, we visited the Plaza de Mayo, where we imagined Eva Peron on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, and explored the Metropolitan Church – former pulpit of the current Pope.
We walked the festive La Boca neighborhood, home of the famous Boca Juniors soccer club. We enjoyed its bright yellow stadium and the “Caminito” street lined with brightly colored houses. A creepy and cool stop was La Recoletta cemetery, the final resting place of Eva Peron and many other prominent men and women. We ended our day of city sightseeing with a delicious meal at Elena in the Four Seasons Hotel, which had more ambiance than a typical hotel restaurant and delicious food. We had our first of many Dulce de Leche pancakes for dessert!
On our second day, after driving through the beautiful suburb of San Isidro, we took a boat ride through the canals of the Tigre River Delta. This unique area has a fascinating and intertwined mix of weekend homes from grand old mansions that have been turned into beach clubs for union laborers to modern landscaped estates to ramshackle wooden huts. All have a wide range of people relaxing along the river’s extremely brown waterways. Hard to describe or explain, but an entirely unique experience in our opinion.
We capped off our time in Buenos Aires at the La Ventana tango show in the San Telmo neighborhood where tango originated. It was a night of delicious local food, passionate dancing (onstage, not us), singing, and even a little slapstick comedy (all in Spanish!). If you come to BA, don’t miss the tango show. However, our overall feelings about BA were a bit mixed. The city contains a remarkable mix of cultures and many interesting/beautiful sights. We were able to communicate in English almost everywhere, and we had entirely pleasant interactions with everyone we encountered. That said, precautions about security (from theft, not terrorism) was a constant theme with tour guides and hotel staff. We were discouraged from exploring the city on our own (such as walking home from dinners late at night), which we generally love to do, and which has led us to some of our most interesting and memorable interactions in other great cities.
From BA, we took a 2.5 hour flight to the small city of San Carlos de Bariloche in the heart of the Bariloche region of Northern Patagonia, almost all of which is within the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. The area is dominated by the snow-capped mountains surrounding the large and multi-branched Lake Nahuel Huapi. Our first day was spent driving the “Grand Circuit” which is an 8-10 hour tour through remarkable valleys, gravel roads, views of the Andes Mountains at the Chilean boarder, and remote mountain villages. Our spectacular return drive was filled with panoramic views of the mountains that surround Lake Nahuel Huapi. Highlights included the towering (natural) stone spires and vistas in the Valle Encantado (“Enchanted Valley”) and the tiny Villa Traful along the spectacularly deep blue waters of Lago Traful. Throughout Bariloche, the waters have a deep blue color that defies belief, and the waters are so clear that you can see the bottom at 60 feet.
Our second day in Bariloche was much more active. We began with a moderately challenging hike up through a uniquely Patagonian forest to the Cerro (hill) Llao Llao with truly breathtaking views of several branches of the lake. This was followed by a kayaking trip in the crystal clear Lago Gutierrez. The lake (and the region) have constantly shifting winds (sometimes blowing two directions at the same time!) and that made for some challenging paddling, but was super fun.
Our reward for all our hard work was an exquisite dinner at Il Gabbiano, where we dined on homemade pastas, delicious burrata, incredible desserts and other delicacies. The little Italian restaurant was a welcome respite from the endless parades of meat! Which brings us to…
Food break: Argentines consume meat. Lots of it, in cuts we know, and even more we don’t. The famous Patagonian Lamb was a hit with Scott and our older daughter, while our younger daughter loved the empanadas. Melissa’s favorite was the Bife de Lomo (tenderloin) although most Argentinians seem to prefer the Bife de Chorizo (rump steak – not chorizo sausage!). Both Melissa and Scott sampled various delicious Malbecs each night. However, potatoes appear to be the primary vegetable in Argentina and they don’t seem to consume much water, so plan ahead and bring your own fiber! Interestingly, Argentinians use cream cheese instead of butter. At the end of your meal, if you don’t get the dulce de leche crepe (which was our favorite), be sure to try the Alfajores – the ubiquitous dessert of dulce de leche sandwiched between two cookies. Luckily, we were able to sample all of the local delicacies despite our daughters’ severe food allergies. Our laminated, preprinted cards with their allergies clearly stated in Spanish were extremely helpful as many waiters and chefs outside of BA did not speak English.
Our last stop was the small city of El Calafate in Southern Patagonia, about a 90 minute flight south of Bariloche. Calafate is dominated by several glaciers located on the outskirts of town. On our first day we drove approximately 90 minutes, then took a short boat ride to cross the Rico arm of Lake Argentino. We then took a short walk to the edge of the Perito Moreno Glacier, strapped on crampons and headed out for an hour and a half trek on the glacier.
The scope of the glacier is impossible to fathom, and it was an incredible experience to be able to explore it. After returning, we walked along the boardwalks (which our guide referred to as “the Balconies”) across from the glacier which afforded us different viewpoints to witness the unbelievable calving that was occurring every few minutes. Huge pieces of the glacier were frequently breaking off and falling into the water with a booming thunderclap sound and a roar of falling ice. Our entire family was transfixed and could have watched it for hours! We ended the day with a delicious dinner at La Tablita when we returned to town. Be sure to check out the multiple Patagonian lambs flayed on the spit when you enter!
Our final day was spent visiting the Estancia Cristina – a sort of living museum at the site of a ranch set in a truly epic location at the end of a branch of Lago Argentino, within the Parque Nacional de los Glaciers. The main ranch area is surrounded by the enormous snow- and glacier-topped peaks of the Cordillera de Los Andes stretching into the distance. The 3-hour boat ride to reach the Estancia went thru the blueish-white “glacier milk” waters of Lago Argentino – including an area of truly enormous (several times larger than our 50-passenger boat) deep blue icebergs. Upon reaching the ranch, we were loaded into 4WD vehicles for a 50 minute ride up the mountain through varying (except always paralyzingly steep) terrain, eventually turning into an otherworldly area of multi-hued rock polished smooth by the glacier pushing past.
At the end of the ride we made the 30 minute trek to the Upsala Glacier lookout for a truly stunning view. The remainder of the day was relaxing, but long – we were pretty worn out by the end of the 45 minute return trip to the main ranch, followed by a three hour semi-interesting tour of the museum within the former ranch buildings. Upon leaving, we had a two hour return boat ride and a 45 minute bus trip back to the hotel. An alternative second half of this day was a nine mile, three hour trek down from the lookout to the ranch, and for any group in good-enough physical and mental shape to handle a really steep and incredibly windy beginning, and then a very quick-paced long hike, that would have been a much more exciting finish to the day. Unfortunately, we were not sure if our 11-year-old could have kept up the pace necessary to make it back in time for the boat.
Packing note – Patagonia is windy! Every single day! While Bariloche was windy, but warm, the weather in El Calafate and the surrounding regions seemed to change every few minutes. Pack multiple layers – we wore windbreakers layered over warmer jackets and fleeces as well as hats, gloves and hoods in El Calafate! Scott even wore his rain pants (to the chagrin of our teen and pre-teen!).