Sep 172010
Trekking on top of the Perito Moreno glacier

An Estancia in Patagonia

Donigan Merritt

Porteños, the people of Buenos Aires, like to refer to their city as the Paris of Latin America. It is not. (Neither was Prague when calling itself the new Paris.) Depending on one’s level of chauvinism, this may or may not be seen as a compliment, but what Porteños can accurately claim is that their city is the most European and the least Latino city anywhere in the Americas.

Buenos Aires is thought to represent Argentina, but it does not. At least Porteños should hope it does not. People outside of Latin America usually know five things about Argentina: Eva Peron’s crying song, the “dirty war,” the economic meltdown and debt default in the early years of the 21st century, steak houses, and Patagonia. Wise Porteños should claim that Patagonia is representative of the real Argentina.

Somewhat similar to “dude ranches” in the States, an estancia is a working ranch that now takes in guests to make ends meet. Although the word estancia simply means ranch, and many, if not most, are working ranches, not bucolic B and B’s with a few decorative cattle and sheep, plus a couple of decked-out gauchos strolling about in picturesque berets. Many estancias are huge, thousands of acres, particularly in the West Texas flat of the Pampas, where gauchos still work much as they have for two centuries.

The estancia at Nibepo Aike

Not all estancia guest ranches are alike. I have visited two. One just an hour and a half’s drive from the center of Buenos Aires, the other a long flight down the length of Argentina, to the bottom of Patagonia. The former is more hotel (two swimming pools, for example, one an infinity pool), with the only ranching activity being performed as a show for guests; their feature was horseback rides along the creek. The other was a working ranch with a large herd of range fed cattle, and even larger flocks of sheep. That one, Nibepo Aike, located a rough one hour slog on a ragged dirt road from the airport in the town of El Calafate, houses the few guests it can accommodate in a wing of the ranch house that used to bunk gauchos, and offers mainly one service: food and drink. Although they are helpful with directions and setting you up with excursions.

Joined by six friends from Europe, my wife and I spent a few days at Nibepo Aike this past January (mid-summer down here), using it mostly as a base from which to explore the nearby glaciers, in particular, the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the only glaciers in the world that is not receding rapidly; no one is quite sure why it is still expanding. The estancia is, convenient for explorations, on the far edge of the Glacier National Park, at the terminus of the dirt road from El Calafate – terminating because just past the estancia is the impassable Andes range and the border with Chile.

The view of the Andes and one of the small glacier lakes from the Estancia

The rooms are along each side of a narrow, creaking hallway leading away from the large main room, behind which is the kitchen, from where an amazing amount of food is delivered three times a day. Most of the décor remains from the days before guests were taken in, and the few additions fit nicely with what’s already there. My favorite piece was an ancient Underwood typewriter made into a lamp.

There is a large stone fireplace in the main room – a wonderful evening treat even in the middle of summer (it’s not much further down the road to the jump off to Antarctica, it’s worth remembering), to while away the late hours with a glass, or a bottle, of Argentina’s fine vino tinto – Malbec. When we were there, it was full, but that means only two other couples; with our eight people, that took all the rooms. One couple was Swiss, the other from Buenos Aires.

Gauchos bringing in the sheep in the afternoon

Awakening the first morning early, hoping to get in a long hike in the nearby hills, I encountered grazing cattle milling about on the lawn next to our room. The gauchos were already on their horses and at work. On the way in to have breakfast, two gauchos moved a group of fifty or sixty sheep along the road out front.

We spent that day hiking around one of the small lakes just a short walk from the estancia, and in the hills behind the estancia, that grow up to be the Andes on the other side. That night we were treated to a full Monty parilla (it means grill or BBQ), during which Malbec flowed through our glasses like water and burdened platters groaning under the heaping weight of cow and lamb parts, half of which I had never considered edible before. (I still hold that opinion about some of it.)

Only able to eat a bit of yogurt the next morning, we were picked up in a van and driven to the Glacier National Park, where we boarded a boat on Lake Argentina and wandered around among ethereally blue ice bergs and ice islands on our way to Perito Moreno.

Cooking up the lamb

There is no way to write about this that can come even close to what it looks like, up close and personal, and even less to be able to describe the sound of ice cracking within the glacier itself, and chunks the size of buses or houses exploding away from the glacier’s leading edge. The best I can do is say that ice cracking in a glacier sounds like a howitzer firing next door.

To come to Argentina and only see Buenos Aires, is like going to the United States and only visiting New York. What is best about this country, what is best about the United States, for that matter, is not to be found in its signature cities, but in the “out there,” and Patagonia is the most out there place I have ever seen.

—Donigan Merritt

  One Response to “What it’s like living here from Donigan Merritt in Patagonia”

  1. Love this. I want to go there immediately!


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