El Chaltén—a little village in the Argentinean Andes that sits at the gateway to that country's Parque Nacional Los Glaciares—is surrounded by such delicate beauty, such a vast and varied ecosystem of pine forests and rushing rivers, granite spires and tumbling glaciers, that when I came upon it at the end of a long dusty drive down the spine of the Andean Cordillera, I took one step onto the sagebrush desert by the side of the road and felt impelled to get back in my car.
This conflict bears mentioning because El Chaltén appears to be in a similar bind: uncertain whether to exploit its spectacular location or keep its head down, hoping that visitors just pass on by. In fact, all of Patagonia—which comprises the bottom third of Argentina and Chile, yet contains only 5 percent of those countries' citizens—is perched precariously between its past isolation and the onrush of development, while the specter of environmental peril literally looms from the azure skies above.
And yet how could I resist stepping toward that small cluster of buildings sitting just beneath the Fitz Roy range?In any setting, these peaks would impress, but rising as they do from the surrounding steppe, and mantled by the snowy tongues of the vast Patagonian ice cap dripping down through breaks in the mountain chain, they looked like a child's fairy-tale drawing of an enchanted land.
Until 1985, El Chaltén did not exist, and only four or five lonely homesteaders lived in this remote and rugged region, largely because the glacial torrent of the Fitz Roy River blocked most travel and trespass. At that time, however, Argentina was engaged in angry border disputes with its cheek-by-jowl neighbor, Chile, that verged at times on war—so the Argentinean government decided to create a town from scratch and implant it with public employees in order to strengthen its territorial claims. Up went 12 houses, one provincial government building, and enough flapping Argentineflags to power the settlement with wind. In the end, war was avoided, and El Chaltén was awarded to Argentina. During the next few years, new businesses opened, private citizens moved in, and the town grew to 350 year-round residents, some of them urban expats looking for an alternative, outdoorsy lifestyle, others looking to make money from alter-native, outdoorsy urban expats—each group warily eyeing the other.
I could feel El Chaltén's split identity on my first walk through town. It's still a half-finished place. Internationally known to climbers and trekkers seeking access to some of the most beautiful and dangerous peaks in the Andes, it has more than a dozen inns, a surprising number of good restaurants, mountain guides, and stores that sell smoked trout. In some ways, the town is following on the heels of El Calafate, site of the nearest airport and a tourist trap—one long strip of souvenir shops, "indigenous" jewelry boutiques, and tour operators selling overpriced bus-window views of the famed Moreno Glacier.
At the same time, El Chaltén remains uncorrupted, a lonely outpost with all its end-of-the-road, frontier rawness still intact: treeless vacant lots, dust storms in the streets, a center meridian with empty wicker baskets waiting expectantly for plants. It has the slapped-together look of an Arctic village without all the trash; at night and from a distance, with just a few phosphorescent streetlights piercing the darkness, it could be a landing strip in the Alaskan bush.
This part-Telluride, part-Nome identity has its advantages. One evening, after El Chaltén failed to receive deliveries of food and gas, my girl-friend and I sat down to dinner at Ruca Mahuida, a lovely restaurant of broad-planked tables and sheepskin-covered benches set around a barrel stove. Suddenly, the town lost its power, and everything went still. Candles began to flicker in windows up and down the street, and in the unencumbered darkness, the outlines of the mountains emerged like a developing photograph out of a deep blue, star-speckled sky.
For the next 10 days, we made El Chaltén our base, trekking each day into the surrounding national park. The south continental ice field, or Hielo Sur, is 5,500 square miles of ancient ice that runs north to south atop the high-altitude Andes straddling Argentina and Chile; after Greenland and the polar regions, it holds more freshwater than anywhere else on earth. From El Chaltén, and even at higher altitudes along the trail, we couldn't actually see the ice field; besides the visible glaciers that drain its outermost edges, it is, as the climber Gregory Crouch has put it, "one of the least knowable landscapes on earth." Still, like the poles themselves, this remarkable force of nature makes its presence felt.
One product of the ice field is the katabatic winds, high-velocity pressure systems that ramp up the Chilean Andes and come screaming through the passes, finally dispersing their energy across the Patagonian steppe. Another of the ice field's creations is the Andes' multi-tiered water system—ice field pouring into glaciers, glaciers calving into silty emerald lakes, icebergs melting and flowing into rivers rushing headlong toward the sea.
Each day, on one of a dozen different trails, we would hike up these tiers in reverse, starting in the desert, with bleached cow skulls at our feet and the occasional black-winged condor floating kitelike on updrafts overhead. Upriver, we'd pass through lush valleys reminiscent of Italian apple groves and on into windblown fields of scattered, twisted tree trunks.
On one of our favorite hikes, two trails converged where a tree had fallen and cracked in half; we made our way through the split trunk and onto a driftwood footbridge over a stream that followed towering walls of reddish, striated rock. Finally we passed above treeline and scrambled up boulders to a glacial lake where icebergs floated like dinghies, pushed this way and that by the ceaseless wind. Here the trail ended, and from the lake's shore we could see the clouds upwelling over the entire Fitz Roy range and the summit overhead, lost in smoking mists.
On the Chilean side of the Hielo Sur is the world-renowned Torres del Paine National Park, which has followed the U.S. model of contracting the park's management to a private company and opening it to roads, tour buses, boats, and hotels. Torres del Paine—which in the summer has begun to resemble Yellowstone on the Fourth of July—is a cautionary tale for Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Because Glaciares has strict rules regarding camping, as well as a ban on buildings, private huts, and even bathrooms, it remains surprisingly untouched. Even in the January high season, traffic on the trails was light, and we had some stretches to ourselves. But the park's growing popularity has its rangers worried, especially because of the delicate topography: much of its surface area is rock and ice, and only a narrow band of vegetation separates the surrounding steppe from the foot of the mountains.
The remoteness of Patagonia has long been its best protection against development. But the threats bearing down now include more than lax building codes and messy campers. The ozone hole that was first discovered over Antarctica in the mid 1980's has been growing, and it migrates over the bottom third of South America in the Southern Hemispheric spring. In Punta Arenas, the region's largest city, television and radio stations carry color-coded warnings of the level of ultraviolet rays, and nearly everyone wears sun protection before venturing out.
There is also the problem of global warming, which may affect places like Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and El Chaltén more acutely than other environments. Along with the polar ice caps, the Patagonian ice field serves as both a giant reservoir of freshwater and a mechanism for the earth to vent its heat. Such a massive covering of ice reflects solar radiation back into space while insulating the earth's surface from further warming. When the ice melts—as it has already begun to do—the earth begins to lose one of its primary methods of regulating its temperature, which also triggers feedback loops that will make the warming worse.
The people of Patagonia are not unaware that they live at an epicenter of environmental risk. In El Calafate, there is a concrete wall that schoolchildren have painted with murals of the planet. One shows a globe with an animate South America bursting into tears while a crack spreads ominously up from the South Pole: save what we still have, they have written.
And yet, with the Argentinean economy in ruins, no one here can afford to turn down the adventure-seeking traveler, no matter how much trash he may leave behind. It is the bind of Patagonia, and the bind of a place like El Chaltén, which seems both to welcome and to shun. On our last walk through town, we savored its inner Nome and ignored its encroaching Telluride. Change was coming—from tourism and beyond. We felt lucky to have found El Chaltén when we did.
DARCY FREY is the author of The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams and a forthcoming book on the environment.
El Chaltén is a four-hour drive from the airport in El Calafate. You can rent a car there from Localiza (687 Avda. Libertador; 54-2902/491-398; www.localiza.com.ar). Go to elchalten.com for more information.
WHERE TO STAY
Hostería El Pilar The region's top lodge, with front-door access to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares trails, 10 miles north of El Chaltén. DOUBLES FROM $65. 54-2962/493-002; www.hosteriaelpilar.com.ar
El Puma The best hotel in town. DOUBLES FROM $100. 54-2962/493-095; www.elchalten.com
WHERE TO EAT
Ruca Mahuida For fantastic Argentinean steaks. DINNER FOR TWO $25. 54-2962/493-018
La Aldea For good pasta dishes. DINNER FOR TWO $15. 54-2962/493-040
Patagonicus Excellent pizzas served beside floor-to-ceiling windows. DINNER FOR TWO $10. 54-2962/493-025
WHAT TO DO
Parque Nacional Los Glaciares Dozens of trails can be taken as day hikes or multi-day treks. El Chaltén's ranger station has information and maps. 54-2962/493-004
N.Y.C.A. Adventure A reputable local guide service. TOURS FROM $80. 54-2962/493-093; www.nyca.com.ar