Parque Nacional Perito Moreno
The Sierra Colorada’s intensely colored sedimentary summits are the backdrop for the lake-laden, wind-whipped, and wildlife-rich high country of Parque Nacional Perito Francisco P. Moreno, named for the founder of Argentina’s park system. Possibly Patagonia’s wildest park, where Paleo-Indians covered cave walls with images of guanacos and human hands, it’s a major reason travelers are braving the rigors of La Cuarenta.
Comprising 115,000 hectares of Patagonian steppe, sub-antarctic forest, glacial lakes and fjords, and high Andean pastures, the park is 220 kilometers northwest of Gobernador Gregores via RP 25, RN 40, and RP 37. It’s 310 kilometers southwest of the town of Perito Moreno via RN 40 and RP 37.
At 900 meters above sea level, its base altitude is higher than Los Glaciares, and its is climate colder, wetter, and more unpredictable. Its highest summit is 2,254-meter Cerro Mié, but snow-capped 3,700-meter Cerro San Lorenzo, north of the park boundary, is even higher.
In the drier eastern steppes, the dominant vegetation consists of bunch grasses known collectively as coirón; to the west there’s a transitional wind-flagged forest of lenga and ñire, the ubiquitous southern beeches. In more sheltered areas, there are dense and nearly pure lenga stands along the shores of Lago Azara and Lago Nansen.
Troops of guanacos patrol the steppes and even some of the high country where there’s summer pasture; the huemul (Andean deer) grazes the uplands in summer but winters at lower altitudes. The puma is the alpha predator, but there are smaller killers in red and gray foxes. The pilquín or chinchillón anaranjado is a species of viscacha unique to Santa Cruz Province and southernmost Chile.
The largest birds are the Andean condor and the flightless rhea, but other impressive species include the águila mora (black-chested buzzard eagle), the large owl ñacurutú, Patagonian woodpeckers, and the carancho (crested caracara). The many lakes and streams support abundant wildfowl, including flamingos, black-necked swans, grebes, wild geese, and steamer ducks. Unlike other Patagonian lakes, those within the park have remained free of introduced fish species.
Sights and Recreation
While Lago Burmeister is worth a visit, the cave paintings have been closed to public access. There are large troops of guanacos on Península Belgrano, reached by an isthmus immediately west of Estancia Belgrano (which is not a tourist estancia).
One of the best day hikes is 1,434-meter Cerro León, a 2.5-hour climb immediately north of Estancia La Oriental, which offers the area’s best easily accessible panoramas (hikers must be prepared for the changeable weather). The volcanic overhang known as the Cerro de los Cóndores is the flight school for condor chicks.
Accommodations and Food
There are free but barren campsites with pit toilets at the APN’s Centro de Informes, at the park entrance; the more appealing Lago Burmeister campground consists of Tehuelche-style lean-tos in dense lenga forest. The water is potable, but no supplies are available; campers must bring everything.
Open November–April, on Lago Belgrano’s north shore, Estancia La Oriental (Rivadavia 936, San Julián, tel./fax 011/4152-6901 in Buenos Aires, elada [at] videodata [dot] com [dot] ar, US$90 s, US$115 d) has both conventional accommodations (seven rooms sleeping up to 22 guests) and protected campsites (US$22 per tent for up to 3 people, with hot showers) near the lodge. The US$10 breakfasts of homemade scones, bread, jam, ham, and cheese deserve a detour, but the dinners (US$28 pp) are nothing special.
Just outside the park boundary, Estancia Menelik occupies a windy, oddly exposed site—most estancieros chose protected valley-bottom locations—but the popular explanation is that its original German homesteader wanted to advertise his presence and spot the approach of any strangers. Despite the barren landscape, the welcome is warm at both the comfortably furnished farmhouse, which has ample bedrooms (US$100 pp with full board) plus a large sitting room (with library) and dining areas, and at its simpler Refugio Río Belgrano (a rehabbed bunkhouse, US$25 pp).
Though well off the beaten path, it does get tour groups, so reservations are advisable; for details, contact Cielos Patagónicos (tel. 011/4836-3502 in Buenos Aires, www.cielospatagonicos.com). Given Menelik’s isolation, the quality of the food (breakfast US$6, lunch or dinner US$18) is good. It’s open November–April.
Rangers at the Centro de Informes, at the park entrance, provide maps and brochures and offer guided hikes and visits; they can also be reached through the APN (Avenida San Martín 882, tel./fax 02962/49-1477, peritomoreno [at] apn [dot] gov [dot] ar) in Gobernador Gregores. You can also write for information at their postal address: Casilla de Correo 103, (9311) Gobernador Gregores.
Rental cars offer the greatest flexibility, though it’s possible to hire a car and driver in Gobernador Gregores or the town of Perito Moreno. Hitching from the highway junction is feasible but uncertain.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition