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Several hundred meters beyond El Chalt�n, a tiny frontier town in southern Argentina, a sign marking the trail to Mount Fitz Roy warns hikers: “If you see a puma, you’re lucky. To prevent a bad encounter, wave your arms, yell and throw rocks aggressively.” After I read the sign, I turned to my husband and said, “If we see a puma, I’m out of here.” “We won’t,” he promised. “Well, put a rock in your pocket,” I said, “just in case.” Eight hours later, we returned to our hotel, happy, hungry, and puma-free. As it turns out, visitors to Argentina’s Parque Nacional los Glaciares are more likely to be overrun by boisterous groups of summertime backpackers than wild animals. Larger than Rhode Island, the park is a region of mountains, lakes, and hundreds of glaciers, situated in the southwest corner of the country’s Santa Cruz province, on the border with Chile. Its remote location hasn’t always lent itself to tourism. Ten years ago most visitors to the park were scientists, serious mountaineers, or intrepid world travelers. But about six years ago a modern airport opened in El Calafate, a sleepy town outside the park’s southern edges. For the first time, travelers could take a three-hour plane trip on a major carrier from Buenos Aires to the area. Argentina’s economy then collapsed, which, ironically, boosted the area’s tourism even more — Patagonia, although still one of the country’s most expensive regions, was suddenly affordable. Argentina’s peso went from a 1-1 ratio with the U.S. dollar to a 4-1 ratio. (Today it’s about 3-1.) Dinner at an elegant restaurant in Buenos Aires or Patagonia rarely exceeds $10 to $15 a person. Most visitors use El Calafate as a starting point for visiting the southern portion of the park, which is home to several of the country’s most famous glaciers, and then travel 220 kilometers (about 136 miles) by bus — a four- to five-hour ride — to El Chalt�n, the gateway to the northern section. SOUTHERN SECTION: ICE, ICE BABY Perhaps in response to the tourism boom, glacier visits in the park, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981, are regulated and conducted with Disney-like precision. Tours leave each morning through private tour companies, although reservations are recommended. One of the park’s main attractions, the Perito Moreno glacier, is one of its most accessible. Each morning during the high season, buses shuttle tourists 80 kilometers (nearly 50 miles) from El Calafate to the terminus of Perito Moreno, inside the park, where a series of catwalks on a peninsula across from the glacier make up an extensive, multistoried lookout point, complete with nearby restrooms and a cafe. Icebergs continually split off from the 250-square-kilometer (100-square-mile) glacier, making thunderous sounds as they fall into a branch of Lago Argentino, a mineral-dense lake. Other excursions, including boat tours and treks across the top of the glacier, are available as well. Even larger than the Perito Moreno glacier is the 595-square-kilometer (238-square-mile) Upsala glacier. Most visitors see the glacier from the decks of sleek catamarans outfitted with bars and concession stands. These catamarans pass dozens of blue-gray icebergs the size of sailboats and small yachts as they approach Upsala. Up close, the glacier, which changes from white to turquoise based on the light, looks like an entire continent of ice, with jagged peaks extending as far as the eye can see. The trips include a stop for a picnic lunch next to Onelli Lake, where hundreds of opaque icebergs surface like marshmallows in a cup of hot chocolate, all the while creaking and groaning as they move, almost imperceptibly, through the frigid water. It’s also possible to see the glacier on different land-based excursions organized by local tourist estancias (ranches). NORTHERN SECTION: HIKER’S HEAVEN Although tour operators also operate packages for the park’s northern sections out of El Chalt�n, many visitors tackle the area on foot and without the aid of a tour group. That’s mainly because, although horseback riding, trekking, and overnight camping are popular, trails are so well marked that it’s possible to wander through much of the park on your own, returning each night to the cabanas, hotels, and hostels that now flourish in town. The four- to five-hour hike to the base of Mount Fitz Roy is particularly scenic, providing panoramic views of the sprawling, flat valley below as you pass beech trees, cacti, low-lying shrubs, and colorful flowers, including the occasional orchid. The trail’s last 400 meters are unwieldy and discouraging, sometimes forcing hikers to their hands and knees, dodging loose rocks and mud patches until they can finally stare at Fitz Roy’s vertical rock face, directly ahead, and the cool, mineral-rich waters of Laguna de los Tres, the turquoise lake at the foot of the mountain, below.
Mary Westbrook and her husband, Roberto, live in Buenos Aires. Roberto Westbrook was formerly the photographer for Legal Times . His photographs can be seen at www.robertowestbrook.com.

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