Patagonia's offerings entice visitors

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EL CALAFATE, Argentina -- Patagonia is a place that conjures up visions of snow-capped mountains, blue glaciers, beech forests, lots of sheep and hardly any people.

Going to Patagonia has become the thing to do for people who have been everyplace else, and indeed, South America's Austral zone, shared by Argentina and Chile, is a very special corner of the world. It includes North and South Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.

In different parts of the zone, visitors will find Andean massifs and peaks, glaciers sliding down from the Patagonian ice field, countless islands and fjords, and black and emerald lakes.

In southern Argentina, one worthwhile attraction is the Perito Moreno Glacier, the largest of the ice fields moving downstream from the inland ice masses; it covers some 40% of Los Glaciares National Park.

Lago Argentino is in the southern part of the park, the second largest in the country, and the gateway is El Calafate.

There is a small airport at El Calafate that is being modernized to receive flights directly from Buenos Aires. For now, however, access is by car or bus on a four-hour drive from Rio Gallegos.

In turn, Rio Gallegos is a four-hour flight from Buenos Aires, or an hour by air from Ushuaia at the tip of the continent.

While there is little of interest in El Calafate -- only the Chapel of Santa Teresita and the Bahia Redonda, a shallow part of the southern shore of Lago Argentino where flamingos, black-necked swans and ducks inhabit the nature reserve -- it is a comfortable place to relax.

A hotel in town is Los Alamos, an attractive, 88-room posada with a beautifully decorated lobby and bar. Across the street is a restaurant overlooking the gardens.

Another hotel choice in town is the Michelangelo, a small, moderately priced hostelry known for its good food.

In this corner of Patagonia, the real action is a full-day excursion to the Moreno Glacier on Lago Argentino. The glacier presents a massive stream of ice that treats viewers to an almost hypnotic experience.

Viewed either from walkways through surrounding beech tree forests or by boat, visitors can get close enough to hear the cracking ice.

Towers of ice can suddenly crumble -- almost noiselessly at first but then, following a loud explosion, bursting into a million pieces and crashing into the waters of Lago Argentino.

While most of the ice floe lies out of man's reach, the glaciers in the south are easily accessible at the edge of the glacier streams, where colossal icebergs come in shades of green, blue and gleaming white.

This is also the landscape one sees when taking a motor launch excursion toward the Upsala, Onelli and Spegazinni glaciers. The trip includes a stop for lunch at Onelli Bay and a short walk to Onelli Lake, where three glaciers spill into its waters.

A prime view is available to guests staying at Los Notros, which faces the Lago Argentino and Perito Moreno's glacier snout, which is two-and-a-half miles wide and 260 feet high.

The lodge offers comfortable rooms with bath and lake views: 14 doubles and six triples, with units being added.

The split-level restaurant-bar features friendly service and tasty fare.

In the upstairs lounge, naturalists offer evening presentations on the glaciers.

In all parts of Patagonia, it is important to plan client trips that do not spend a great deal of time traveling long distances for a brief look at the what the area has to offer, which includes wildlife or gauchos herding sheep across the roads. Wildlife includes the guanaco (cousin of the llama), Patagonian foxes, hairy armadillos, Andean condors, buff-necked ibis, black-chested buzzard-eagles and ashy-headed geese.

It takes time to get around, especially if clients are traveling overland between Argentina and Chile .

Because of weather, the season runs between October and April, and accommodations are at a premium. Advance planning is essential.

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