Fate had directed me to Estancia Cristina. A COVID-19 outbreak had cancelled my planned Antarctic cruise from Ushuaia, so my hastily arranged Plan B was to explore Argentinian Patagonia. At first, it felt like no more than a consolation prize, as I couldn't imagine replicating the beauty of the frozen continent. But I couldn't have been more wrong.
There are no roads to this estancia (ranch), just a lavishly scenic three-hour boat transfer from El Calafate to the western edge of Lake Argentina, where the preternaturally teal-blue water meets Upsala Glacier.
What was originally a sheep farm, created in 1914 by pioneers Jessie and Joseph Percival Masters, now lies within the boundaries of Los Glaciares National Park. It's a setting to savour. Like a South American Shangri-La, Estancia Cristina sits within a luminous green valley surrounded by snowy mountains.
A little museum in the original barn details the site's history; beyond this lie three cream-coloured guest cottages with green rooves that are cosy in a grandmotherly way. Their plump, patterned sofas face huge windows with million-dollar views towards the snowcapped Cerro Norte. From said sofa, I watched distant condors and impish caracara birds with beaks that shined like mother of pearl.
At night, walking back from the estancia's octagon-shaped, wooden restaurant-bar after a few glasses of malbec and some locally farmed produce, myriad galaxies and stars glittered in the sky.
By day, there are plenty of short walks around the estancia. During one hike to a chasm of fast-flowing waterfalls, I kept my eyes peeled for any nearby pumas. "During the COVID-19 lockdowns, with so few people around, pumas had started coming closer to the lodge," the estancia's gaucho had told me.
The same gaucho took me out on a fabulous horse ride on a hardy criollo steed, splashing through riverbeds and trotting the foothills of Cerro Norte to an old cattleman's hut for lunch. And what else would a true gaucho rustle up but steak? Yet it's the estancia's Fossil Canyon hike that will live with me forever.
From Upsala Glacier it's a 14km walk down the 65-million-year-old Fossil Canyon and back to the estancia. Glacial action has polished the purple and cerulean-blue bedrock as smooth as glass, and the descent enters a kind of palaeontological paradise: an evolutionary soup ofbulletshaped belemnites and swirled ammonites, sometimes thousands of them concentrated in cascades or infilled by glimmering iron pyrite.
"Your Patagonia trip isn't a bad Plan B," said my hiking guide, Mauricio, as the estancia came into view. Muchas gracias, fate; it turned out that my Plan A hadn't been Antarctica after all.
Booking information: Prices include meals, excursions and transfers. To find out more, go to estanciacristina.com
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