Director Simon recently paid a visit to southern Patagonia in Argentina and was lucky enough to be invited for a couple of nights to stay at the remote Estancia Cristina, close to El Calafate. Read on to find out more about this exclusive experience;
The lodge is accessed from El Calafate, which can be reached on a direct flight from Buenos Aires, Bariloche, Ushuaia and Trelew or equally easily by car from Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. The estancia is located outside of El Calafate and reached only by boat. A transfer will take you initially to the small dock at Punta Banderas where day cruises will take you around Lago Argentino and it’s here that Estancia Cristina operate 4 different boats to reach the lodge. The boat trip lasts around 3 hours, depending on weather, and takes you across a section of Lago Argentino which is the biggest lake in Argentina at 15,000 square kilometres, heading to the Brazo Norte (northern arm of the lake) and eventually to the Brazo Cristina.
The boat journey can be choppy in parts and there is the chance to stand up on deck for the views of the mountains. The highlight of the trip is halfway through the boat ride when the boat makes a small diversion up the Brazo Upsala where you encounter large chunks of ice which have calved off the Upsala Glacier and floated downstream towards El Calafate. The icebergs are hugely impressive and the amazing whites and blues of the ice are dramatic against the waters of the lake. The boat slows down significantly to enable you the chance to get good photographs before turning around and heading on to its final destination.
On arrival to the dock at Estancia Cristina, your bags are offloaded by one of the guides and transferred to the lodge while the passengers make the ten minute walk. The estancia is a collection of small buildings including a main reception building, a large restaurant for the day-trippers, a museum and 5 chalets, each of which contain 4 rooms, giving a count of 20 rooms at the property in total. All rooms are the same category with stunning views of Mt Norte, Pﬁfter and Moyano and its hanging glaciers.
At first, from the exterior, the chalets all seem quite simple with wooden panelling and corrugated roofs but the inside of the rooms are very well designed with either a king-sized bed or two single beds and a large bathroom. Without a doubt the standout feature of the rooms are the views. Draw open the curtains and you’ll uncover the most stunning view out towards the mountains that you’ll find from any hotel in Patagonia.
In the afternoon we were introduced to our guides and we set off for our first activity, a 4-kilometre trek to the Cascada del los Perros (the waterfall of the dogs). It was a relatively simple trail with a short climb taking you up to the cascading water. As with most treks in Patagonia, it was a linear walk so after spending a short time at the falls we return to the estancia the same way. We spotted a few birds on the walk, including a couple of condors.
Dinner that evening was served in the restaurant which offered a 3-course a-la carte menu full excellent locally grown or sourced options. There were a nightly choice of 4 starters; followed by 5 main course options, typically including steak, fish and pasta; dinner was then finished with 4 dessert possibilities. The menu tends to remain the same throughout your stay so if you are staying 3 nights, which is the average length for guests to stay at Estancia Cristina, then you can choose different options each night. For guests who are staying a little longer at the hotel, the chef is happy to take individual orders in case you feel the options become repetitive.
In the evening, the generator usually is switched off at around 11pm, so most people are in bed by that time, and power comes back on at around 6:30am in the morning. If you need to charge phones or camera batteries, then it’s best to do this during dinner rather than relying on charging anything overnight. Estancia Cristina offers Wi-Fi for its guests, however it’s only available in the main reception and restaurant area, and for clients who require consistently good connectivity then you will struggle at the lodge. Usually the signal was strong enough to download emails or allow you to post to social media however downloading any large files or uploading videos can’t be relied upon.
In the morning, the sun rises around 6am and during my stay created a beautiful light over the imposing mountains in the valley. The reception area only opens at around 7:15am and breakfast is served from 7:30am which is a buffet with hot and cold options including eggs and bacon, toasts, cereals, cold meats and cheese plus various pastries. Depending on what you are doing that day, you are likely to then be asked to make your own sandwiches and packed lunch box which you can carry with you on the trek or activity of the day. Lunch options are laid out on a large table and you create your own lunch and take it with you in the bags and boxed provided. Various cookies, energy bars and fruit are also provided.
Most visitors who stay at Estancia Cristina will take part in the most famous trek offered exclusively through the lodge, the full day trek to the Upsala Glacier, returning through the Valley of the Fossils. For guests who might not be physically capable of a full day trek the estancia offers the option to visit the Upsala Glacier and then return by road. The first part of the visit to the glacier is done by 4-wheel drive vehicles, which hold around 16 people, and the drive takes you up through spectacular landscapes to an eventual drop off point. For those who are just visiting the glacier, the vehicles will remain and you will return to this point. The journey then continues on foot, heading uphill to the first view point of the Upsala glacier and the only way to access Upsala is via Estancia Cristina which is one of its unique selling points when choosing a Patagonian lodge.
It’s quite striking to see how the glacier has receded over the last 80 years from a time when the glacier was within touching distance of this view point to todays views. Despite the glacier being slightly further away, the view is not diminished, and ice flows are far as the eye can see. In addition to Upsala, the viewpoint also affords view of Cono and Bertacchi glaciers, which along with Upsala form part of the 13 glaciers which make up the Patagonia Ice Field and stretch across Chile and Argentina. Chile has the majority of these glaciers however the most accessible glaciers are found in Argentina, including Perito Moreno and Viedma.
After spending around 30 minutes at the glacier viewpoint, we continued our trek which was to last for a further 4-5 hours. The trek is relatively easy although there are some steep parts to it, all downhill, and often on scree or gravel, so those who are not so sure footed should take a bit more care. The walk through valley is without doubt one of the best in Patagonia and rivalling anything that Torres del Paine National Park in Chile has to offer. It’s called the Valley of the Fossils due to the sheer number of marine fossils which are found in the area, especially squid, and there are endless long thin white shards, littered throughout the valley, dating back to prehistoric days.
Aside from the fossils, it’s the colours of the valley which make it so spectacular with incredible coppers, reds and yellows which combine with green trees, the bright blue sky and snow capped mountains to create a quite an unworldly sight. Condors fly overhead as you take the gentle trek through the valley, stopping for your packed lunch and refilling water bottles directly from the stream with glacial waters.
There are various other day treks available if you are staying at the estancia for a number of days and we did an excellent half day trek up to the Cerro Carnero which offered incredible windswept views of Lago Argentino and down to Estancia Cristina below.
The estancia has a team of horses, most of which roam freely around the grounds and so other people staying at the Estancia took the opportunity to head out on horseback with a gaucho on a half day tour ride through the many streams and hills. Estancia Cristina provides a magniﬁcent scenery and area for ﬁshing. At Estancia Cristina, the sport-ﬁshing season begins on November and ends on April inclusive. Pearson Lake and the Caterina River offer great opportunities to catch Chinook salmon and rainbow trout, and some whoppers at that! Estancia Cristina is a perfect destination for fly fishing in Patagonia.
Before we departed the estancia we visited the small but highly interesting museum which provides a fascinating history all about the Masters family which founded the estancia in the early 20th century. Estancia Cristina was founded in 1914 by Joseph Percival Masters, an Englishman who came to Patagonia with his wife in 1900. He decided to embark with his wife towards Buenos Aires, to later travel to Río Gallegos, where their children were born: Percival Herbert in 1902 and Elinor Cristina in 1904.
In 1914 the Masters family acquired the valley by means of a land occupancy permit and thus the Masters’ estancia became a reality. After some time, the family acquired the Herminita peninsula, expanding the estancia to 22,000 hectares where they raised 12,000 sheep and dozens of cows and horses. In 1924, Cristina, who was only twenty years old, died of pneumonia. From that moment, the estancia was named “Cristina”.
Our boat took us back to Punta Bandera at the end of our stay. The journey back is a shorter version of the transfer in as it doesn’t take the detour via the Brazo Upsala to see the chunks of floating ice. Sadly for us, the wind had picked up considerably on the journey back which made for a slow journey and some large waves which made many on board rather queasy. When the wind is really too strong, Estancia Cristina has a larger boat which is more stable, however the weather has to be quite bad for them to employ it. The boat gets back to Punta Bandera at around 6pm so it’s quite possible to catch the late flight back to Buenos Aires for those with limited time to explore.
I stayed there for 2 nights which was a good amount of time to really appreciate the estancia and enjoy the best day walks and some of the shorter treks too. There is also the option to visit the estancia as a day trip which is also recommended which, depending on your fitness levels, enables you to experience the Estancia. For the more adventurous the it’s possible to do the Upsala Glacier and Fossil canyon trek as a day trip which I consider to be possibly the finest day trek in Patagonia so it’s very much worth it. I was blown away by Estancia Cristina. It doesn’t have superb luxury accommodation but what it does have is one of the most unique settings in Patagonia and for that it certainly ranks as a 5-star experience. It’s the perfect addition to any luxury holiday to Argentina and I highly recommend it.
If you are interested in visiting Estancia Cristina, you can read more about the property here, or simply contact us and we can organise a tailor made luxury holiday to this beautiful part of Argentine Patagonia.