Skip navigation

I have to be honest. For me or any other traveler to say that we’re really seeing a place from these hotels and bus stations is like a sailor saying he’s seen the world when he never gets more than two blocks from the dock. Sure we’ve been there, physically. We can see how the streets are different. We talk to some locals. But many of these places we go are like port cities—built for people to come, do their business, and move on. They are still interesting to visitors, but to claim that they are representative of a people’s way of life or achieve that elusive “authenticity” is a stretch.

In its extreme, this is like when I tell people I am from Atlanta and they say “Oh I’ve been there. Well, to the airport anyway.” More often, it’s the simple fact that that no one ever visits your local grocery store or your hometown elementary school. They probably don’t even get to your neighborhood. Still, I am no stickler for “authenticity.” The Venetian casino on the Las Vegas strip is not fake Venice, it’s real Las Vegas. Likewise, the cities on the well-worn Argentine travelers’ path I’ve visited since leaving Buenos Aires are worthwhile in their own ways, as modern sailors’ ports of call. Following are some of these in-authentic Argentine cities and towns I have visited in Patagonia, each listed with its primary occupation and a quick description.

Bariloche, Resort Town
The city is located in the middle of Argentina’s first national park, land donated by the explorer Perito Moreno. With some of the country’s best skiing in the winter and countless more outdoor activities in the summer, it’s filled with visiting Argentines and foreigners year-round. Many buildings are stone or timber not because it’s traditional Argentine architecture, but because that’s just what snowy mountain towns are expected to look like.

Perito Moreno, Wayside
The small town has a special connection to the explorer after whom it is named. In the late 19th century, Chile claimed all the land whose waters flow west to the Pacific. In response, Perito Moreno rerouted the river here to flow into the Rio Descado and on to the Atlantic. Today, this spot of sovereign Argentine territory is little more than an overnight stop for travelers on Ruta 40, an oasis in the steppe. Every night its two restaurants are filled with travelers who will be gone in the morning.

El Chaltén, Base Camp
The town is not yet 24 years old. Argentina settled it to claim the land before Chile did. Today it’s even smaller than Perito Moreno, but much more lively. Other than maintaining the integrity of Argentina’s borders, the town’s only reason for existence is to house the throngs of climbers, mountaineers, and trekkers before or after they head into one of the world’s most spectacular and popular outdoor playgrounds, the Fitz Roy range. Trails start from the center of El Chaltén.

El Calafate, Natural Wonder Gateway
The Perito Moreno Glacier (they just love that guy) is a short drive outside of town. The enormous river of ice is one of the country’s top natural wonders. El Calafate, while it has some activity of its own, basically exists to serve glacier visitors.

Ushuaia
, Geographical Oddity
As the southernmost city in the world (unless you count the village of Puerto Williams across the channel in Chile, which the Argentines do not), Ushuaia has built a healthy amount of “end of the world” tourism. It’s still closer to the equator than Alaska, Moscow, and almost all of Scotland and Denmark, but in the southern hemisphere it’s just about as far as you can go without a boat. Recreational activities like riding the southernmost train in the world, visiting the southernmost shopping in the world, or drinking the southernmost microbrew in the world occupy visitors’ time. The other Ushuaia attraction is its ships to Antarctica, which are carrying more and more tourists every year. People who pay many thousands of dollars for three weeks in a triple berth cabin on research vessels to the frigid continent get their last taste of civilization and relative warmth in Ushuaia.

(By the way, it could be debated whether the Antarctic cruises even leave the country. Maps that don’t exist outside of Argentina show the country’s borders extending south to a slice of Antarctica that extends all the way to the South Pole. These maps also label some south Atlantic islands “Islas Malvinas (Arg.),” even though everyone else in the world, including their inhabitants, knows them as the “Falkland Islands (U.K.).” You may be noticing a pattern of territorialism here. I can just imagine a young Argentina taking some advice from Spain. “Someday, you may be the eighth largest country in the world. But you’ll never get there by being shy about planting that flag.”)

Any good port city needs its sailors’ bars, and these cities have them too. They are the hostels and restaurants listed in Lonely Planet that backpackers gravitate to. Just like sailors, the backpackers sit around talking about other places they’ve been or telling tales about surviving the weather. Meeting these characters from all over the world is much of what’s interesting about traveling these routes. Many of the travelers I’ve met have a casual attitude that the world is theirs. They lead into conversations with “When I was in South Africa…” or “That reminds me of this place in Nepal where…” Surviving a typhoon or being held by border guards are badges of honor the backpackers use to size up each others’ credentials. Most of the time though, the talk is functional, an information sharing to help everyone continue on their way. What did that hostel in San Telmo cost you? Can you still get the morning bus to Rio Gallegos? How is the trail to Lago Torre?

It’s “I hear a storm is blowing across that route from the northeast” and “there’s a man a mile from here who can fix that rudder” at a bar across the street from the docks, not discussions of the place’s cultural nuances. But ports of call have their own sort of authenticity.

Advertisements