An everyday flight in November 2013 — from Salta in northwest Argentina to El Calafate in the south — signals a journey into the unknown. For in South America, over 15,000 km away from home in Bengaluru, I know just three people in real time. A voice intrudes on this dream space between two continents, “Signora, do you plan to trek on the Perito Moreno glacier?,” asks my fellow passenger Franco, a pharmacist from Uruguay. With a high beam on life at 22, he is a perfect fit for the fabled landscape of Patagonia that occupies southern Argentina (and neighbouring Chile), much like my favourite travel writers Paul Theroux (The Old Patagonian Express, 1979) and Bruce Chatwin (In Patagonia, 1977).
His partner Annette, a schoolteacher in Montevideo, leans across to add, “Even as teenagers, we dreamt of Patagonia. We saved for a year, trained for over three months, to now climb 3,359-metre high Cerro Fitz Roy from El Chalten.”
Dozens of questions draw them into my reality. Of a bank-busting, 99-day solo trip through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador and Brazil. A gift to myself to celebrate my sixtieth year of life, uninhibited by a mere smattering of Spanish. But trekking is not an option. Not since a close encounter with the ever after in Ladakh’s stark Markha Valley in September 2009.
The myth of Patagonia is a throwback to my childhood. To evenings when Baba played 78 rpm records on a turntable, tuning us in to samba and tango. Who created such vibrant music, a far cry from Rabindra Sangeet or baul songs? My presence on Aerolineas Argentina flight AR 1694, slated to touch down at El Calafate — a tourist town of 22,000 — at 1530 hours, was sparked at six or seven. As is a conscious month of wandering around Argentina (‘the land of silver’).
“Did you know that the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, where the Perito Moreno is, covers 16,800 sq km? It is 355-km-long and 48-km-wide,” Annette reads aloud from the in-flight magazine. “About 18,000 years ago, a thick sheet of ice covered southern Argentina and Chile, right across the Andes mountains. Perhaps over 480,000 sq km.”
Walking towards the small El Calafate airport, fifty shades of blue cast a spell. For placid Lago Argentino lies close to the runway. The lake captures the eye, the imagination, the heart.
Perky and caffeinated by 7 am the next morning at the log cabin- style Calafate Hostel, I board the Viator tour bus headed for Routa Provincia 11, which runs on to El Chalten, then 5,000 km north to Bolivia. Rumbling on, we gather travellers from the US and Germany, England and France.
Our dapper guide Juan tallies heads, then picks up the onboard mike: “We are going to see the 8th Natural Wonder of the World, the Parque Nacional los Glaciares. Since 1981, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site.”
How large is the glacier, asks a French-accented child’s voice. “The famous Perito Moreno glacier, which may mean little black dog, is named after the 19th century explorer Francisco Pascasio Moreno, who first identified it. It covers 250 sq km and rises 74 km above the L-shaped Lago Argentino, across a stretch that is 30-km-long and 5-km-wide. Below the water, the glacier could be 170 to 700 km deep.” The little voice rises, “I told you it was very very big! So many huge kilo… kilo… meters. Is that as high as the moon, Papa?”
Minutes later, our bus draws up by the luminous blues of the 1,415 sq km freshwater Lago Argentino, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean through the Santa Cruz river. I shiver at the prospect of icy waters, unmeasured depths, as our mini-yacht — Victoria Argentina — veers away from the shore. Inside the covered cabin, overlooking lapping waters, towering icebergs appear to be at arm’s length. Rosy-cheeked Angela, wrapped in a geometric native stole, sits by me, with cheerful Carlos by her side. Just over 30, they are from Colombia. She is a Peru-based marketing wizard. He is working on a dissertation in International Relations from Buenos Aires.
Responding to the silent call of the ice floes, we scamper up the iron ladder to the deck. An iceberg shaped like a giant sleeping swan (to my overactive mind) floats by, its open crevices a near-inky blue. Like the shape-shifting clouds above, our water-craft dodges a taller floe, resembling a downsized castle with the lake as its moat.
Every breath is invigorating at a nippy 11 degrees Celsius, a call to don gloves. The snow-iced Southern Andes loom ahead, wedged behind the 61-metre south face of the Perito Moreno. Tall lines, as if weather- etched on an ancient face, stretch across its towering height. In the blinding pre-noon glare, the glacier seems close enough. But the Perito Moreno remains a defiant 300 metres away when I stretch out my arm.
“I just overheard some Peruvian tourists,” Carlos interrupts. “On January 19, 2013, the Perito Moreno advanced so much that it created a dam along the Brazo Rico or southern arm of Lago Argentino. The water pressure was so high that giant shards of the glacier fell off, causing a rupture.”
“The first rupture ever recorded here was in 1917,” adds Angela, checking her smartphone. “Be careful, mi amor,” says Carlos tenderly into her chestnut hair, “more than 32 people have been killed since 1968 by post-rupture shards thrown metres away.”
Once we are back on terra firma after an hour on the lake, the time feels right for a meditative stroll down the railing-edged wooden walkways that trace a scenic route about 500 metres from the glacier face. Bypassing disembarking tourists who part with Argentinian pesos for barbequed steak or the traditional mate herbal brew, visitors whisper in clusters at every balcony overlooking Lago Argentino, like worshippers at a natural shrine. Our eyes wander past tall rows of mainly deciduous southern beeches like the lenga and nirre (in Spanish), towards the mighty Andes.
Uneven patterns atop the glacier capture my roving eye. As the Perito Moreno moves about a metre daily, its surface ridges and trenches resemble an otherworldly quilt. Its dense ice carves out crevasses or seracs. Over natural debris, over rocks, it forms cirques or moraines. Distant ice- trekkers, including Carlos and Angela, move like tiny aliens across this terrain. Wrapped in the unearthly silence that blankets us, an almost mystical landscape pulses to life.
Settled on a wooden bench, I watch natural whites and greys play over the towering wall of ice. My eyes stop at a pocket of intense kingfisher blue. In the lake below, paler floes drift through slightly muddy waters.
A sharp crack, like that of a shotgun in a western movie, shatters the silence. Gooseflesh covers my arms as my sandwich lunch tumbles to the ground. On the Perito Moreno, the kingfisher blue ice cave has vanished. It has ‘calved’ naturally, fallen into Lago Argentino in the sunny haze. A crowd cheers the natural phenomenon lustily.
Grateful that the November windspeeds are not at their peak of 130 kmph, I run towards the gaggle of strangers. It seems almost karmic that I skipped the mini-trek on the glacier because the crampons issued by Viator would not fit my size 3 L L Bean comfort moccasins. Scanning the other visibly blue Perito Moreno caves heightens all my senses. Over the next two hours, five more gigantic blocks of virgin ice calve into the lake from the sharp glacial tongues. I am, however temporarily, Aditi in wonderland.
Arms draped over the railing, unselfconsciously rocking on my haunches, I overhear a guide addressing English-speaking tourists: ‘The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. The other two are Antarctica and Greenland. Why is the Perito Moreno still advancing, while most of the world’s glaciers are retreating? Glaciologists are still trying to figure it out.’
Four hours later, sunburnt but inspired by the secret life of the glacier, the exit point calls. Carlos catches up, feet thudding behind me, “Where have you been, Indian lady? Angela was searching for you…”
“Look,” Angela waves her left hand, with a delicate diamond on her ring finger, as she hugs me. “Throughout our week in Argentina, Carlos was waiting for the right moment.”
Carlos steals the story away: “We fell back from the others atop the Perito Moreno. At the entrance to an ice cave, I knelt and proposed to Angela.”
Both dazed and dazzled, tears fill my eyes. Because I believe in true love, in bonding with total strangers — and in dreams that come true if you will them to life. Mine, long cherished, brought me far, far away. To beautiful Perito Moreno in Patagonia. And to South Americans who accept me as one of their own, not merely a stranger from a distant land.
Cheers to happily ever after, beyond the pages of fairy tales.
Pictures by Aditi De