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A Wild Paradise and a Luxury Hotel in Patagonia's El Chaltén

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

Outside the airport in Calafate, the skies are gray, the wind is strong.  A van is waiting to take us north to El Chaltén, an Argentine town close to the Chilean border. Five members of a Brazilian family are already ensconced inside; their luggage and equipment for a vacation of “Adventure Tourism” takes up much of the storage area. We squeeze into the front seat beside Fabian Golzales, the driver. Directly behind him is Paolo Martinez, a university student from Buenos Aires. Both young men are on the staff of Los Cerros, the hotel in El Chaltén we’re headed to this late afternoon.

Every day they make the round trip to the airport to pick up or return guests. It’s a long ride, at least three hours each way, but since the sun won’t set until 10’clock, plenty of daylight hours are left. We drive along a road paved only part of the way; the rest is a rough surface of rocks and sand alongside a landscape that could be on the moon. No sign of life, only vast, dry stretches of desert and an occasional truck passing by from the other direction. In the far distance, mountains loom up; some are covered in snow. Closer to the road, the vast Lake Argentino, in the absence of surrounding greenery, seems like an apparition in aqua marine.

click to enlargeAfter an hour and a half of this desolate scenery, our mood enlivened by CDs of tango music, we come upon a roadside eatery. “Everyone who goes from Calafate to Chaltén stops here,” Paolo says as we struggle through gusts of wind to the little shelter. Inside are a few booths, small tables and a counter with sandwiches and cakes; a slate board detailing the day’s specialties hangs on the wall. A pair of motorcyclists are getting ready to leave. We ask how they are faring driving through the wind. They laugh and pretend to fall from side to side.

click to enlargeWhen they open the door, a small llama squeezes in. He’s very friendly and goes from table to table until the disgruntled owner, who has just brought us cups of espresso and surprisingly delicious lemon cake, shoos him out. Paolo tells us the owner lives in an apartment behind the café with his wife and children. He’s the third generation of a family who run this little place, and they make everything they serve. Where do they buy foodstuffs in such an isolated area, we wonder.

“I didn’t know Los Cerros existed,” Paolo tells us when we get back in the van and continue along the bumpy road.  “I responded to an ad in the newspaper, was interviewed by the general manager in Buenos Aires, and here I am -- away from my family, my girlfriend, taking time off from the university. But it’s a great adventure. When I get my degree, I want to work in a place like Chaltén. In Buenos Aires, it’s too crowded. Here it is completely different. There are no villages nearby, only nature, animals, I like this more.”

The mountains are getting closer, the scenery more dramatic. Another vast waterway, Lake Viedma, appears; it runs nearly parallel to the road. We learn both lakes were formed by the thawing of giant masses of ice; they flow into rivers that wind east across the width of Patagonia, ultimately emptying into the Atlantic. Paolo points out the stunning white peak rising above the horizon to the northwest. “That is the Viedma Glacier, the largest in Argentina,” he says.

The Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (created in 1937 and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981) encompasses mountains, lakes, forests and thirteen glaciers. It runs from Calafate to just beyond Chaltén which spreads out before us now, the foreground to towering Andean peaks, principally the 11,209-foot Monte Fitz Roy (named after the captain of the Beagle which brought Charles Darwin to South America) and the 10,263-foot Carro Torre. The town itself, however, is – at first glance -- unimpressive. If not for the cars and pickups, hikers and bikers, it could be mistaken for a dusty frontier settlement from the Old West. There are some dirt roads, a collection of campsites and cabins, and wooden structures, no more than two stories high. Building materials lie around; rough garden patches are being scratched by dogs. It seems a work-in-progress. “When I first saw Chaltén, I thought it was strange,” Paolo says. “I didn’t imagine it like this. But you get used to it. Then  you begin to like it. Finally you love it.”

The van turns up a hilly road. At the top is a broad, stark structure of stone and wood with pointed red-shingled roofs interspersed with skylights. This is Los Cerros, the biggest, tallest, and newest building in town. Its interior is rugged, alpiney, with  tall A-frame ceilings, walls painted a warm shade of orange, textured fabrics, and strips of leather hanging from  banisters. The king-sized bed in our third floor room looks out through enormous windows to a spectacular mountain view. The futuristic bathroom has a Jacuzzi tub and a sink that, oddly enough, evokes a Philippe Stark creation in one of Miami’s South Beach hotels. After a rough ride and a rougher first impression of Chaltén, we are so seduced by the ambience of casual luxury, we fail to realize our room has neither a telephone nor a television.

So it comes as a surprise when Diego Patrón Costas asks us what time we want get up the next morning. “We’ll wake you by knocking on your door,” says Los Cerros’ astonishingly young and handsome general manager who has invited us to join him for drinks soon after our arrival. We’re seated in the hotel’s comfortable lounge still streaked with sunlight at 7 in the evening and enjoying tart Bloody Mary’s made with our choice of a premium vodka from an ample selection, while Diego, who has a gentle demeanor, soft voice, and head full of curly hair, writes down answers to questions he’s posed about our dietary preferences and expeditions we’d like to take. He explains tomorrow’s expedition has already been arranged. We must be ready by 8:30 in the morning. We’ll be provided with a knapsack, a substantial lunch, and anything else we might need and not have brought along, from mittens to hiking boots. 

“El Chaltén is still very new,” he tells us. “It was built in 1984 during a border conflict with Chile when the government had the town created to firm up the borders. And almost immediately people began to arrive. Chaltén is the national capital of trekking. There’s also bird-watching, horseback riding, camping, and boating. For the most part, tourists stay in hostels or pitch tents in campsites. There are some small hotels but until we opened last September, there was nothing luxurious. Now there is Los Cerros in its first season. It has an excellent restaurant, spacious rooms with great comfortable beds and greater views, state of the art bathrooms. After a day outdoors, our guests return to a place of serenity and comfort. There is nothing else like it in all of Chaltén.”

 Diego Patrón Costas, the astonishingly young and handsome general manager - click to enlarge
 Diego Patrón Costas, the astonishingly young and handsome general manager

He went on, “All of the staff come from someplace else. We live either in the hotel or in nearby houses. In April, we’ll close down for the winter season, and everyone will go back to home or to school or to Buenos Aires to work in the business of the hotel.”

Diego was born and grew up in Salta, a beautiful mountainous region north of Buenos Aires. He comes from a large family of hoteliers, but the experience of running Los Cerros is of a different order, an adventure of sorts for him and his dynamic and enthusiastic team -- all of whom seem to be under 30 and possessed of the idea that they  are striking new ground. Their enthusiasm is infectious. You too feel you are part of a unique undertaking under the careful eyes of your attending hosts.

A stay at Los Cerros comes with daily expeditions and full board, the latter bringing to mind  (for those who remember) the erstwhile resort scene of New York State’s Catskill Mountains* where when a guest leaves after a typically sizeable lunch, he or she is sent off with a care package “in case you should get hungry on the way home.” Every Los Cerros day begins with breakfast in the lovely airy dining room -- an appealing buffet of fresh fruits, baked goods, yogurts, and cereals amplified by hot dishes made to order. If you’re off on an expedition during the day, and generally you are, multiple sandwiches, fruits, drinks, and cakes are packed in the knapsack you’re handed as you board the van. Dinner is a leisurely and elegantly-served affair with a menu that features grilled fish from the local lakes, excellent Argentine beef and equally excellent Argentine wines.

Los Cerros’ dining room team;  Chef Mariano Salaberry is center - click to enlarge
Los Cerros’ dining room team;  
Chef Mariano Salaberry is center
From left: Nancy Kitayama, restaurant manager; Betiana Gil,food & beverage manager, Lorena Papasergio, executive chef - click to enlarge
 From left: Nancy Kitayama, restaurant manager; Betiana Gil,
food & beverage manager, Lorena Papasergio, executive chef

Our first morning at Los Cerros, a van emblazoned with “Fitz Roy Expediciones” was waiting for us at 8:30 sharp. It then proceeded around the town picking up others until little our group of North and South Americans, French and Dutch was complete. Off to trek the Viedma Glacier, we ride along a route where the barren stretches of yesterday have given way to lush green fields – at last we can believe it’s midsummer -- dotted with hopping hares. On the shores of Lake Viedma, we are joined by other groups in a motorboat that steams down the waterway past pillars of glacial ice that have broken off from the mass and stand in pure ice-blue formation. Soon we reach a massive rocky formation, golden red and gleaming brilliantly in the morning sun. Viedma Glacier rises above.

We disembark and struggle up the rocks, some with more agility than others, watched over by the amiable and able Fitz Roy staff – there is a pair of guides for each group of eight trekkers. At the foot of the glacier, we are personally outfitted with cleats that fit over our shoes and helped across a narrow ravine to the slopes of an ever-changing, powerful, and magnificent world of ice and snow. It is a gorgeous day, and the sunlight captured in crevices, chasms, dips and bends, turns the snow into a shade of blue matched only by the cloudless sky.

We proceed in single file across an area that during the last Ice Age, which ended 10,000 years ago, was part of a glacier that covered the entire Patagonia region. Our sure-footed and trustworthy guides, Christine and Mattais, provide spirited encouragement for the more trepid among us with cries of “You can do it! You can do it!” as well as (more often than not, for some) a helping arm. The effervescent and energetic pair are on the glacier every day, and every day, they say, it is different. Glaciers are like living things, continuously shifting as they sink. Pathways ventured down yesterday have disappeared, and our guides search for new ways to ascend and descend. An unsettling moment comes when Mattais instructs us to approach him one at a time to peer over the edge of a sharp cliff. The skeptics among us fear our guides have lost their way and are testing our ability to traverse a new way down. But the more trusting are confident they are only pointing out a spectacle. Our optimism is rewarded when we take Mattais’ hand and look down into a chasm hundreds of feet deep, glistening, sparkling white. Every now and then, a seeming apparition appears poised precariously at the edge of a high cliff. But it is only Virginia Zapana, Fitz Roy’s photographer, nimble as a mountain goat, camera at the ready. Who can resist her offer of a CD of photos for only 10 US dollars, if for no other reason than to prove we really were there.

Nearing the end of the two hour-trek, Christine stops suddenly. With the ice pick she’s used to clear paths, she now shapes a rectangular indentation in a snowy slope. Mattais sets down his knapsack and removes a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream and plastic glasses which he sets into the rectangle. Each trekker is then presented with a glass filled with  liquor poured over millennia-old ice. We toast the Viedma Glacier, our patient, kind, and accomplished guides, and our accomplishment in having survived to tell the tale.

On the way back to Chaltén, we find ourselves in a van with thirteen members of an outdoor club from Avignon, France. They’d been out on the glacier for four days, trekking during the day and sleeping in tents at night. A few of their group are still up there, determined to climb Monte Fitz Roy. Winds on the peak can be so fierce, the Frenchmen will have to sleep in a standing position harnessed to the mountain’s side.

Thirteen Frenchmen after spending four days on the glacier - click to enlarge
 Thirteen Frenchmen after spending four days on the glacier
The peak their friends have yet to climb - click to enlarge
The peak their friends have yet to climb

The next day we get to see Monte Fitz Roy from a safer, albeit far more distant, vantage point. This time, our “Fitz Roy Expediciones” van heads north through lush countryside crossed by silvery streams and verdant forests. At the long, mountain-ringed emerald swath that is Lago del Desierto, we get on a boat that powers up the lake. Its shores are lined with wooden formations that look like enormous coral walls. Monte Fitz Roy is behind us, and at the northern point of the lake, we turn and see the massifs in all their splendor. The highest peak pierces the perfect blue sky like the spire of a Gothic cathedral.

“Fitz Roy Expediciones” was founded by Alberto Del Castillo eighteen years ago. A Buenos Aires native, he was smitten with Patagonia as a young man, became one of Chaltén’s first residents, climbed both Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre in a single season, and created the company which prepares custom tours of varied degrees of difficulty that plunge one (under the expert care of guides like Christine and Mattais) into the very heart of the Patagonian wilderness.

It operates the Fitz Roy Camp, a bucolic stretch of land with campsites, trails for hiking and mountain-biking, lakes for canoeing, meadows where wild horses and llamas graze. A rather elaborate duplex log cabin/tree house with eaves open to the glorious outdoors is used for lunches and dinners. After the Lago del Desierto expedition, our group repaired there to a welcoming fire and grilled steaks prepared by Sylvana, an attractive blonde who brought the young Simone Signoret to mind.

“Fitz Roy Expediciones” also runs Los Pumas, a bed and breakfast close by Los Cerros, and our last night in Chaltén, Diego drove us over to have dinner at its three-month-old restaurant Terray. (Only later were we struck by the irony of being driven to a destination just a few blocks away after having trekked for miles over the past few days.) Named for the leader of a French group which, in 1952, was the first to reach the Fitz Roy peak, the casual dining room is the province of Mauricio Millikonsky, the only person we met in Chaltén who is not a climber (yet). The architect-turned-chef claims his inspiration comes from his grandmother. Whatever its source, the dinner of  fig salad with grilled chicken bits and baby tomatoes, mushroom soup made with red wine and peppercorns, trout caught that day from Lago del Desierto, split open, grilled with a little lemon and served with served with small herbed potatoes, and artesianal sheep cheese with local berries was inspired. This chef designs the menus for Terray, the Camp, and camping expeditions. When you spend the day trekking on the mountains, you want simple things, he says. Simple, yet sensational.

 A combination tree house/log cabin - click to enlarge
 A combination tree house/log cabin
Sylvana -- she reminded us of a young Simone Signoret - click to enlarge
Sylvana -- she reminded us of a young Simone Signoret

On the other side of the dining room, a group of middle-aged Canadians were having dinner while Cecilia Costa, an attractive dark-haired young woman was preparing them for a fourteen-day excursion to begin early the next morning. They will be visiting lakes and glaciers, hike a mountain trail, go bird-watching.

 Meanwhile Cecilia’s husband, Diego Punta Fernández, the Fitz Roy sales manager who is also a trekking guide, joins us for a glass of Malbec rosé from the nearby Rio Negro. “The company plans trips on five levels of difficulty,” he tell us. “Although we never say something is difficult. We say it is more demanding or less demanding according to your experience and expectations. Some of our trips include stays in comfortable hotels like Los Cerros. Others require camping out. We have training seminars for glacier walks and trips where we spend one to three days on the glacier. It is a windy area; the weather changes very quickly. But we know where there are big rocks and it is possible to make a shelter with tents. We have good sleeping bags, big tents, nice lunches and dinners.”

He continues, “Cell phones don’t always work out in the wilderness, but we have radio contact so  we are all connected. The French group you met were very experienced hikers and campers. They were not on a Fitz Roy trip, but we knew they were there. If there was difficulty, we would have been able to help.”

Happily married trekkers: Cecilia Costa and Diego Punta Fernández - click to enlarge
Happily married trekkers: Cecilia Costa and Diego Punta Fernández
Mauricio Millikonsky – the architect-turned chef - click to enlarge
Mauricio Millikonsky – the architect-turned chef

By now, Cecilia has finished her talk and comes over to our table. We ask this charming couple -- who unlike the others we met, live in Chaltén year round and are so addicted to trekking, they spent every day of their vacation in Spain at it -- why would anyone want to camp out on a glacier, harness himself to the side of a mountain, climb an 11,000-foot icy peak.

“I think people are drawn to wild places,” Cecilia says. “They come here because they want to get away from the stresses of their everyday life. If they want a strenuous mountaineering experience, they can find it here. But you can come here and just sit and look at the glaciers. Or take an expedition that is suited to your level. The only requirement is you have to love the outdoors.

“For people who like to go trekking, this area of Argentina is paradise. There are glaciers to the west, glaciers to the east, more than 300 lakes, more than 300 glaciers. Lots of space and few people. In other places you might arrive at a camp and find 200 tents and a big building with 200 beds to spend the night. Here it’s possible to walk for three or four days and not find another person.

She continues, “Everyone is talking about how the glaciers are melting. Even without human interference, there would be a melting. But we are changing the environment so much, we don’t know what is going to happen. We do know that Viedma Glacier is moving very fast. Maybe that is part of the reason people want to come here. They know what they experience now is going to change.”


Los Cerros 2
El Chaltén
Pcia. Santa Cruz, Argentina

Phone: 54-11 4814-3934

Fitzroy Expediciones, Patagonia
Lionel Teray 212, El Chaltén  9301
Santa Cruz, Argentina

Phone: 54 2962 493017

 Photographs by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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