- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

EL CALAFATE, Argentina — For our 6-year-old, it’s the whales — a mother and baby greeting us by raising their tails side by side out of the chilly South Atlantic.

Our 4-year-old votes for the penguins — thousands of them, teeter-tottering between their nests and the sea to answer the cries of their fuzzy newborns.

For my wife, it’s either the black-and-white dolphins racing past our speedboat or the awesome sight and thunderous sound of the Perito Moreno glacier spawning icebergs the size of city buildings.

For me, the highlight of our 10-day, once-in-a-lifetime tour through Patagonia, the extreme southern tip of South America, came on the back of a lively pinto named Caramelo as I rode through an icy rain.

My wife — a native of Buenos Aires — arranged hotel stays and tours in Puerto Madryn, Ushuaia and El Calafate, Argentine towns that serve as launching pads for Patagonia’s natural wonders. Some people thought we were crazy to bring two boisterous boys along, but they held up well, excitedly spotting guanacos (a cousin of the llama), ostrichlike choiques and rare Andean condors as our drivers zoomed along gravel roads at 60 mph.

We packed familiar toys and snacks to fend off tantrums, but wherever we went, our boys were entertained by adults who gave them candies and attention. It’s a wonderful thing about Argentine culture, this understanding that children need to be children, not miniature adults.

But we didn’t anticipate how the long summer days of December would affect their sleep. So close to the South Pole, with 20 hours of daylight, it was difficult to convince our 4-year-old that it really was bedtime after 10 p.m.

And just when the kids finally crashed, Argentines were hitting the town — restaurants busily set tables for families at 11 p.m., waitresses holding babies so mothers could eat.

Their secret is the siesta — a rejuvenating nap still respected in much of the country, with stores and offices closing each afternoon. We had no time for such rest, though. There was too much to see. So instead of late-night meals, we took to cafes for late lunches and then brought carry-out meals to our hotel rooms.

After our 17-hour flight from San Francisco to Buenos Aires, the other flights were short hops. From the regional airport in Trelew, Argentina, a driver took us through the desert to Puerto Madryn. We stayed at the Hotel Tolosa, a sleek place with excellent service. Breakfast included medialunas, pastries my wife had been craving.

Puerto Madryn is on the Golfo Nuevo, where southern right whales give birth each spring, just south of Peninsula Valdez, a land mass that attracts elephant seals, sea lions and other seals and birds. The world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins, at 800,000 and growing, is 125 miles to the south, on Punto Tombo.

Puerto Madryn is a growing city, with lower prices ($30 for enough llama wool to knit a sweater) and more opportunities to mix with everyday Argentines than in some other tourist spots. Window-shopping our way to the beach, we passed a joyful convoy of soccer fans celebrating the Boca Juniors’ latest victory, and just when our boys began to wilt in the heat, we found Helados Kebom, an ice cream shop with a small playground. Argentine ice cream is not to be missed — richer and tastier than anything in the States.

We also visited the Museo Egidio Feruglio in Trelew, which has impressive exhibits of dinosaur fossils pulled from the nearby bluffs. Then it was off to the world’s southernmost city, in Tierra del Fuego. Initially settled to assert Argentina’s territorial claims in border disputes with Chile, Ushuaia still feels like a remote outpost between the Andes and the sea.

We took a tour through mountain passes that included a stop at a lodge where sled dogs are trained; a hike to Lago Escondido; and a meal of cordero Patagonico, lamb roasted on iron crosses over a wood fire.

We worked off lunch by exploring a stream in the turba, a kind of peat moss that is 90 percent water, so thick and spongy that it feels like bouncing on a trampoline.

The children loved the next day’s trip, on the Tren del Fin del Mundo — the Train at the End of the World — a steam engine carrying tourists into the national park, through breathtakingly beautiful valleys, and past waterfalls and wetlands that provide a surprisingly green contrast to Patagonia’s stony dry steppes.

By the time we landed in El Calafate, we were tired of tour buses but eager to see the glaciers.

First, we splurged on an excellent meal at Barricos del Enopio — stuffed rabbit and Patagonian trout with a fine Argentine chardonnay, and delicious pumpkin soup for the boys. The chef also agreed to make an off-menu platter of breaded meat and mashed potatoes to calm their appetites after so many days on the road. All that for $42, the most expensive meal of our trip.

Given the dollar’s strength in Argentina — $1 buys 3 pesos — we were surprised to encounter no Americans. But we were also saddened to see few Argentines in the national parks. The country is slowly emerging from an economic crisis; most locals can’t afford to see their own Yosemites and Yellowstones. Instead, tours are packed with French, Italians, Spaniards and Germans. The euro is worth four pesos, which makes high-quality leather and wool sweaters a bargain.

The Perito Moreno glacier rises 200 feet above the water and pushes against a rocky peninsula, creating tremendous pressure. It’s hard to imagine a land form three miles wide being constantly in motion, but every few minutes, we heard the pistol cracks of icebergs breaking off. To the sound of rolling thunder, we saw a huge blue iceberg rise from the lake and launch itself off the glacier’s face.

The next day, we rose at 5:30 for a spectacular boat trip on the Upsala Explorer to another glacier and the Estancia Cristina, a former sheep ranch frequented by scientists and trekkers.

Our boys weren’t old enough to ride the horses, so they explored the gardens with my wife while I climbed onto Caramelo and headed into the Andes with other riders. An icy rain blew through. Then the clouds parted, revealing the imposing heights of the 8,956-foot Cerro Norte.

Deep in a valley, a wild horse approached, snorting and dancing as he took our measure. It was everything I’d imagined and more. When we reunited in the estancia’s grill house for another unforgettable meal, the boys excitedly displayed old sheep bones they’d found. For the whole family, it proved to be a grand adventure.

• • •

November through March is the best time to visit Argentina’s Patagonia. The international telephone country code for Argentina is 54.

Crime is so rare in Patagonia that a fistfight was front-page news in Ushuaia. Hustlers were nowhere to be seen.

United Airlines flies nonstop between Washington Dulles International Airport and Buenos Aires; American Airlines flies to Buenos Aires from Miami and New York.

Through www.viajarporpatagonia.com.ar, we booked the Patagonia Clasica package, $3,679 for four people, including 10 days in Puerto Madryn, Ushuaia and Calafate, with connecting flights from Buenos Aires, hotel stays, breakfasts and a prime excursion in each area.

Extras included a car and driver for the 250-mile round trip to Punto Tombos penguin colony, which cost $100 for the family, as did a tour-bus ride into the Tierra del Fuego backcountry.

The Upsala Explorer cost $100 per person for a daylong expedition including boat rides, breakfast, lunch, horseback riding or other trekking; details at www.upsalaexplorer.com.ar. Round-trip flights between San Francisco and Buenos Aires, off peak and bought well in advance, were $800 a person.

In Puerto Madryn, Hotel Tolosa offers great service and breakfasts; Ave. Roque Saenz Pena 253; phone 54/02965-471850; visit www.hoteltolosa.com.ar.

In Ushuaia, Hotel Monaco is friendly, with the feel of a youth hostel. San Martin 1355; phone 54/02901-432359.

In El Calafate, Hotel Bahia Redonda is clean and modern, with great service. Padre Agostini 148; phone 54/020902-491743; visit www.hotelbahiaredonda.com.ar.

In Puerto Madryn, Nativo Sur serves great seafood near the beach, child-friendly service. Blvd. Brown 1950; 54/02965-457403.

Helados Kebom, ice cream with a playground, is just off the beach. Ave. Gral. Roca 540; 54/02965-470704.

In Ushuaia, Opiparo was packed at 11 p.m., serving great pizzas and pastas, Maipu 1255; 54/-02901-434022. Bananas serves great burgers and lomitas, and offers internet access and a pool table. San Martin 273; 54/02901-1556-9887.

In El Calafate, Barricas de Enopio offers impressive wines and interesting twists on traditional Argentine dishes. Ave. Libertador 1610; 54/02902-493414. Borges & Alvarez Libro-bar, a literary refuge from the town’s smoky restaurants crowded with tourists. Ave. Libertador 1015; 54/02902-491464.

Museo Egidio Feruglio in Trelew: Ave. Fontana 140; 54/02965-432100. The Tren del Fin del Mundo near Ushuaia includes hikes through the national park to beautiful LaPataia Bay on the Chilean border; 54/02901-431600; visit www.trendelfindelmundo.com.ar.

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