EL CALAFATE

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Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

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abstract:  Calafate is a bush that bears berries and provides shade in the dry rain-shadow of the AndesMountains which is the Patagonian Steppe. It is also the name of a small Argentine town with shallow roots, barely older than a century, which emerged as a welcome oasis for the traders of wool produced by the millions of sheep grazing in that steppe. As the wool industry declined, El Calafate found its future in the glamour of the giant glaciers produced by the Patagonian ice fields of the Andes. It still manifests its dual character: if you look south from El Calafate you see the landscape of its past, if you look north you see the water wonders that attract so many tourists from afar. As a unique place and time in transition, El Calafate is a concept that engages imagination.

 

 

Outpost in Argentina

In her official portrait, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sitting in an oversized chair looked more like a casual housewife than the president of a country. Even her title was folksy: President of Argentinians (los Argentinos). I was in the Jorge Laguizamon Immigration and Customs Office, named after a simple uniformed officer, 215 kilometers south of the town of El Calafate. It looked like a small office in a bureaucracy of any third world country. The picture of Sofia Yasmin Herrerra on a wall competed for my attention with that of the President. Sofia’s image was a part of a public notice asking for help in finding her and others like her who had been lost in Argentina due to human trafficking.  The notice also had the picture of suspected offenders and offers of up to 100,000 US dollars as rewards. Our tour guide said: “Those girls were kidnapped probably for prostitution. That is a big problem in our country. We have thousands of  these cases. Some girls were as young as three years old. Because of the work of the organization that sponsors that notice, over 200 of the girls have been found.”  A banner with an image of the Andean Condor, a national symbol of Argentina, hovered over the counter designated for Customs. The customs official was not at his desk. When he returned from the back room, he put down the book he was reading on the counter between us. It was a novel by the lawyer-writer John Grisham in English.  The Customs officer’s question to me was not about contrabands: “Are all lawyers rich in America?”

Patagonian Steppe

Two motorcyclists, a man and a woman, fully dressed and equipped for a long journey, pulled out of the Custom and Immigration station’s parking lot just ahead of us. They were virtually the only persons we saw in the next several hours as we drove toward El Calafate. This province in Argentina was barely inhabited; it had fewer than two residents per square kilometers. Its population of 280,000 people was spread in an area the same size as the Province of Buenos Aires which had 2,000,000 people. That contrast was dramatized in the map we had seen in the Immigration office which showed the great density of the network of roads around Argentina’s Capital city compared to this part of its Patagonia.

Our driver was taking no chances even on these mostly deserted roads. He had hung over his seat an image of Gaucho Gill with his signature small red flag as a protector against road accidents.  To that end, furthermore, just a few minutes after we started our the trip, he stopped at a roadside shrine to Gaucho Gill and poured beer out of a can on the pile of items that had accumulated from the offerings others had made at the shrine.

The landscape around us was devoid of trees and animals until we came upon a pond where we saw Pink Chilean Flamingos . “They come here in the summer,” our local guide said. She also pointed out an Ibis on the other side of the road.  We were in the Patagonian steppe. The steppe is the part that is very dry, but like the rest of Patagonia it is also windy. The guide said “It snows once a week or so in the winter here, but it gets very cold and the snow freezes, so the landscape is white but that is ice. Then in September, the wind blows away everything.”  As they tell you in Patagonia’s museums, wind defines the environment of this vast region. Patagonian winds originate in the South Pacific, saturated with water. When they reach the Andes they release their moisture in the form of snow on the peaks or rain on the lower slopes. After passing the mountains the winds come down nearly dry and gain speed as they go east. The result is an uneven distribution of the water which shapes the different environments found within Patagonia. Where we were now was Patagonia’s “central zone,” consisting of plains and plateaus with few rivers or bodies of water.

Wind, rain, temperature, and altitude determined what could grow in the steppes. The grass that we saw grew close to the ground.  The guide said much of it was Patagonian Fescue grass. There were also bushes in this scrubland. The largest bushes were calafate. They were thorny and very branchy. “They grow everywhere here,” the guide said. “They have berries which are picked for jam, juice, etc.” Calafate berries are so ubiquitous that they have a legend of their own: “The locals have a saying: If you taste them you will come back because they are unique.”

The grass was once only the food of Guanacos, the camelid natives of Patagonia. We saw a few guanacos in a group on the right side of our bus. It is hard to spot them because the steppes are so vast, our guide said: “The steppe is 673,000 square kilometers.” The guanacos’ food source here has been diminished in recent years as the vegetation has been seriously modified by the sheep. The grass and shrub steppes have been grazed by domestic livestock for over a century now. The numbers of sheep peaked in early 1950s, at over 21 million head. “They have fallen to fewer than half that,” our guide said. One reason is the shortage of water. “You must know how many sheep you can feed with the grass in your land.”  Underground water exists. Green grass we now passed by was a sign: “That grass is in the wetland, an indication that underground water is near here. But sometimes it is very deep. A windmill must be erected to bring the water up.”

Our guide said “the best lamb comes from here.” She said: “They are called corridos. They are low fat because the sheep needs to walk a lot to eat enough as there is not that much grass around. You cook them slowly with nothing added but just salt.” We saw fences marking large properties. They were estancias (ranches), extending east up to the mountains. “Some of these ranches are over 70,000 hectares,” our guide said. We saw only a few sheep. This being summer time, they had been taken to the “upper fields, higher elevation, where there is better grass now.” In winter they are brought down here to the “lower fields.” We could see a mountain on the west of us, called “the white horse” by the locals.

 

“Trees do not grow naturally here,” the guide said. “We must plant them in the steppes. So when you see trees, as we do now, people live there.” We could also see a large body of water in the distance. We were approaching Lake Argentino, the biggest fresh water lake in the country.

Lagoon

On the eastern edge of the Lake was a marshland that has been protected as a Nature Reserve by the students of Argentina’s National University. This Nimez Lagoon was where I saw the largest collection of plants and birds belonging to the steppes. The “always green” calafate bushes provided nourishment and shelter to “several species of small birds: grey-hooded Sierra-Finches, Rufous-collard sparrows, house wrens, Patagonian mockingbirds and Baringed Cinclodes.” In those bushes they find protection against other birds that prey on them: “the Chimango Caracara and American Kestrel.” The calafate which had yellow flowers in October bore its berries which fed birds and rodents in the summer. Another bushy plant with yellow flowers was Senecio which had small hairy grayish leaves. Elsewhere in this area were reeds where several species sought shelter, including coots and the loud Ibis. In the corner which faced the west wind, the soil was barren and there were only such plants as could adapt to the extreme weather conditions. These were “Paramela with tiny leaves, Neneo with thorny spine leaves and Coiron with rigid yellow leaves and thick roots.

On the edges of the bridge over the creek that emptied into the lagoon, “Austral Thrush and Patagonian Mockingbirds had left their white traces .” In the grassy islands in the middle of the lagoon Black-necked Swans nested, while in its irregular shores a variety  of  ducks  and coots found shelter and protection. I saw the famous Chilean Flamingos of the Patagonian steppe in a group as they strained water through their specialized beak, “filtering small crustaceous and macroscopic algae,” to quote the Reserve’s brochure.

Old El Calafate

El Calafate began as a sheltering place for wool traders. “They spent the night here on their way to the Atlantic Ocean,” our local guide said. In addition to the water of the lake, they found in the surrounding hills a natural barrier against the Patagonian wind. We saw poplar, pine, and willow trees in the old part of town which had been planted nearly 100 years ago, protected by those hills. Some of the estancias from that era still exist. I stayed in one of them, now turned into a hotel.  Our rooms were in what used to be the workers quarters, since then renamed Kau Yatun which means “the house of stone” in Tehuelche, the language of the original people of this area. The backyard still evoked a ranch scene .

The government of Argentina founded the Town of El Calafate in 1927 to encourage settlement by the European immigrants. When it created the nearby PeritoMorenoNational Park a decade later El Calafate began to grow. The 1970s were an especially important decade in that growth. As a paved road connected El Calafate to the  populous towns of Rio Gallegos and La Esperanza some 160 kilometers away on the Atlantic, a few hotels  such as ours were established here.   “A few tourists” who then began coming here “to visit the Moreno glacier in those days,” as the records in our hotel said, “went back raving about the adventures.” Calafate is the only town close to the Moreno Glacier, 48 miles northwest, which has since become one of the most important tourist attractions in Argentine Patagonia. The Glacier became world-famous especially after its last rupture in 1988 when its images “spread around the world. ”The Glacier produces these periodical ruptures when the pressure from the weight of its ice spectacularly breaks through the dam holding it back in its lake.

El Calafate now calls itself the “National Capital of the Glaciers.” The population of the little settlement reached 5,000 by 1991. In the next ten years it increased by 20% and by 2005 it was 8,000. The expansion was due directly to the increase in tourist traffic made possible by the opening of an airport in Calafate. Buenos Aires is 1750 miles north of here, and air travel was the only practical way for a large number of tourists to reach the Glaciers. In the tourist season “We have 14 flights a day here!,” our tour guide exclaimed.

 

Living in El Calafate

Many of the new residents of El Calafate are employed in the tourist industry. That includes construction workers, restaurant employees, shop clerks, hotels staff, and tour guides. My tour guide provided a profile.

Maxima (not her real name) was just 31 years old and originally from Buenos Aires. “I love Buenos Aires; it is a city that never sleeps. But I don’t like to live there now.” Her tour company sent her to El Calafate in September of 2003. That was a month before the tourist season began and she was “shocked because there was nothing here.”  Now, however, “it is different.” This was after she went back to Buenos Aires first and found out that she really wanted to return to El Calafate. She made it her home this time. Her boyfriend is in El Calafate now. June to August are quite time. “El Calafate is not a place for skiing. Tour guides take those months off as holiday. I stay here and I like the winter time.” Last year, she worked with her friend who taught online classes, and did secretarial work in the evenings. “We have a social life, parties, etc, which we could not do in summer time because we are too busy with tourists. Calafate has grown and now has cultural activities, including musical events.”

She said “El Calafate is the only place in Argentina where there is no unemployment, because of its tourist industry.” She said: “Tour guides have an association to fix the rates for our services. Some labor unions in this country are political, especially in Buenos Aires. El Calafate is not like that; it is not a political town.” Indeed, on the pavements of El Calafate I saw no white scarves with the names of those who were “disappeared” by the military governments in the recent past, signs of protest so emblematic on the grounds of the main plazas of Buenos Aires and Bariloche at this time. This ingenue town did not have a historical memory of political conflicts still fresh elsewhere in the country. Characteristically, Maxima considered herself “in the middle” politically. She liked “some things the President is doing” and did not like “some other things.” She continued: “But the government does not want something in between: it says ‘you are either with us or against us’.”

Maxima said, somewhat wistfully: “We can have agriculture here but we don’t because it requires big investments of money in irrigation and for protecting against the wind and the ice.”

The nearest big city is a four hour drive from here, “so it is cheaper to bring food than to grow it here,” she said. “In the last 2 or 3 years, however, young people have started composting and growing vegetables in their backyards.” The guide believed that El Calafate now had more than 10,000 permanent residents.

The sparse farm-like entrance to the town from the south reminds the visitor of just how provincial El Calafate still is. In the old square of town I noticed the busts of two persons memorialized as they were, in different ways, prominent in the life of El Calafate.  One was, not surprisingly, Francisco Pascasio Moreno , the Argentinean explorer who in 1877, as he navigated the Santa CruzRiver, discovered the lake he named Argentino and after whom, in turn, the Perito (Expert) Moreno Glacier has been named. The other bust was that of Don (John) Bosco, a 19th century Italian Roman Catholic priest. El Calafate is the headquarters of the Don Bosco Missionary Group whose mission is “to assist those most in need, especially the children of farm workers in the surrounding Patagonian estancias.”

The modern shops catering to tourists are on Avenida del Libertador, the town’s main street. We crossed over into the neighborhood where the local old-timers ate.  El Cucharon (The Bucket) was a barbecue place with a red-hot charcoal fire grill inside which served you three huge pieces of lamb on a simple plate as you sat at plain tables around a salad bar. Then the waiters moved the whole salad bar out to make room for a couple to stage a tango dance for customers as they ate. My Argentine guide was explaining the intricacies of the dancers’ moves when my cell phone lit up. It was an email message from a friend who was bringing a group of dignitaries to El Calafate next October when they were promised a meeting with the President. She wanted to know if the five-star hotel they would be staying was owned by the President as rumored. I showed the email to my local guide. She raised her eyebrows and lowered the corners of her lips: “Yes, and she owns almost everything else in town.”  The guide added: “October and November are when big corporations have their conventions here. We get many visitors from Europe and South and Central America, but North America is a difficult market for us.”

Glaciers

We were at the gate to The Glaciers National Park and Reserve a few minutes before 9 in the morning. We had woken up early for the longer than an hour drive from El Calafate so that our visit would not be crowded by too many other tourists.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, this Park has 48 large glaciers covering nearly one-third of its 600,000 hectare area. One of those glaciers, the Perito Moreno is among the most visited in the world in part because it is one of the most easily accessible. In the parking lot where we stopped to buy entrance tickets to the Park there were already five other tour buses . The occupants seemed to be from Europe, Asia, and Latin America. I heard no North American accent.

The glaciers of the Park are fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water, located in the AndesMountains. We were now climbing out of the steppes in the rain-shadow of those mountains. Greater precipitation in the Park had produced areas of Southern Beech forest. As the Park brochure informed us the trees we were seeing were of three types of such beech or Nothofagus: the tall deciduous Lenga, the small deciduous Nire, and the evergreen Guindo. We looked for the “hard-to-see wild cats and huemul (Andean deer)” and “easier to see red foxes and pumas” and black-faced ibis. We saw none of these. “Magellanic woodpeckers with the double rap sound” were the only native animal we found in this Park. Even this sighting was so uncommon that our driver joined us to take pictures of them. There was a male woodpecker, red-headed, on one tree and a female on another tree with yellow eyes and black head.

A glacier (Latin for ice) is a river of ice, formed from compacted layers of snow, slowly moving in response to gravity. All but three of the glaciers in Patagonia are retreating. The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of those that advance. It moves forward in the Argentino Lake periodically creating a dam which splits the lake. In the Park’s Magellan peninsula where we now stood we could see on our right the southern arm (Brazo Rico) of the lake which the glacier’s dammed water would lift as high as 90 feet above the rest of the lake. The force of such mass of water eventually destroys the ice barrier causing an outpouring of water over into the main body of LakeArgentino.

The Glacier itself essentially ends up remaining in place. Although it advances at a speed of up to 6 feet per day, it loses mass at about the same rate. As we compared a picture of the Moreno Glacier taken in 1946  with what we saw today we noticed no change except for small variations. It has been the same in the last 90 years, we were told.  We were walking on a metal bridge built for the better viewing of the Glacier. “In return for constructing this bridge and the roads in the Park, a private company has received an exclusive concession to have shops and restaurants here,” our tour guide said. To our right was LakeArgentino with an elevation of 614 feet. Facing us was the Perito Moreno Glacier which had an average height of 240 feet above the surface of the water of its Lake. The Glacier’s front wall we were seeing here was three miles long, but only a part of its 18.6 mile length.

This great mass of ice moved at velocity that was faster at the center than the corners, as we felt we could notice . The friction with the sides of the mountain made noise which was the sound of cracking. We also heard sounds from the ice hitting each other in the narrow channels. We saw black spots which were sediments on the sides and the top of the

Glacier. “The Glacier is moving from the bottom to the top too,” our guide said. “That is why you see mixed ice in the front. The youngest ice is 10 years old and the oldest can be 500 years old.” She said “cloudy days like today are the best to see the Glacier because there is less glare and distraction from the sun, so you can see all shades of colors.”

The movement of the Perito Moreno Glacier often forces it to “calve,” give birth to smaller chunks of ice separating from it. This breaking off is sometimes thunderous. The four calving we saw made only modest noise. We did see many icebergs in the lake which resulted from such calving in the past. This was from the deck of a boat we took to go closer to the Glacier. Another boat that was standing nearer to the Glacier gave us a comparative basis for comprehending the immense size of the Glacier. Yet it was dwarfed by the much taller dark mountains we saw in the background.

As we sailed back, we noted that a few more curious souls were trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier to our right. We ourselves focused now on the Glacier’s work as the sculptor of the landscape. The ridges of lateral moraines on the sides of Argentino we were seeing had been deposited by the Glacier as it was receding from its past intrusions. The Glacier had also carved out large steep-sided valleys. At its snouts before its retreat to those dark mountains it had left the eroded material which it had carried as terminal moraine. Those valleys were then filled with Lake Argentino’s glacial-melt waters. Their milky turquoise color came from the powdered particles which were held in suspension, as the Park brochure explained.

What Perito Moreno Glacier has wrought is due to a process that would continue for the foreseeable time. Nature held the future as it controlled the past. This was true, especially with regards to the destiny of El Calafate in transition.

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