Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia, Argentina
Patagonia's pioneering history has been preserved at this remote all-inclusive that offers a privileged location inside Los Glaciares National Park and thoughtful touches for nature lovers.
By the time Joseph Masters began searching for land in the Patagonian region of Argentina, European settlers had already snapped up most of the acres to establish massive sheep farms. So the determined English immigrant searched further and further afield, finally reaching a remote bay on Lago Argentina by row boat where he discovered 50,000 available acres. Over the years, the Masters family faced many challenges including devastating fires and the death of their daughter, Cristina (the estancia was renamed in her honor), but they ultimately made a success of their sheep farm.
Then, in 1937, Los Glaciares National Park was established and the estancia was included within park boundaries. The last member of the Masters family passed away in the 1990s and a group of climbers who loved the area formed a partnership which took over the property and transformed it into a tourism operation. Since 1999, Estancia Cristina has operated as the one and only concession within Los Glaciares National Park.
Your journey to Estancia Cristina will be distinctly more comfortable than Joseph's row boat arrival was. In 2019 a custom-built catamaran, the 198 passenger Chinook, was put into service and this comfortable and stable new craft now brings overnight guests and day trippers to Estancia Cristina from a small port near El Calafate (one schedule transports day trippers and another schedule is for overnight guests).
The 2.5-hour journey covers 30 miles across Lago Argentina and includes sight-seeing stops at the Upsala Glacier before arriving to the same small bay where Joseph Masters hauled his rowboat ashore so many years ago.
The green-roofed cottage-like buildings of Estancia Cristina occupy a bucolic valley meadow a few hundred feet from the lakeshore. Glacier-scraped rock walls and snow-capped mountains provide a rugged ring around the setting and serve as a reminder that you are inside a national park.
Each of the five cottages includes four identical rooms with a common sitting area in the middle. The carpeted rooms are sunny and spacious with large bathrooms with a shower/tub combo, antique furniture, and an inviting picture window and reading nook looking toward the mountains. There are no TVs and no cell service at Estancia Cristina, but there is satellite Wi-Fi in the main lodge building. A generator supplies power from 6:30 am to 11:30 pm and solar panels on the roof of each cottage provide limited light during non-generator hours.
Rates at Estancia Cristina are all-inclusive minus alcohol, with prices which reflect the remote location and a $25 corkage fee if you want to bring your own bottle. Travelers for whom food is a priority might be disappointed by the meals, which were hit and miss during my stay. The most successful meal was the lunch buffet which laid out well-prepared simple dishes like grilled vegetables, pasta, and salads.
The dinner menu was exciting to read, but the ambitious dishes (chicken confit on quinoa toast, lamb ribs with stout cream, and sweet potatoes with rosemary) never quite hit the mark. The estancia had just taken on a new chef, so perhaps these missteps will be worked out by the next season.
Packed lunches to be taken along on hiking, fly fishing, or horseback riding excursions on the estancia were a success thanks to a smart DIY packed lunch system. Guests make their own sandwiches from a wide-array of breads, meats, cheeses, spreads, and vegetables then choose homemade desserts (the brownies were excellent), fruits, and other energy-packed snacks to create the perfect personal picnic. Everything was then packed into leak-proof reusable containers and put into bags made from biodegradable soy, not plastic. A nice touch.
A few excursions take lunch at a new hut on Anita Lagoon that was built with an outdoor parilla that allows guides to grill up cuts of beef to serve along with salads and charcuterie.
The estancia's sheep are long gone, but they maintain a stable of more than 40 horses for guests to ride through the vast property including flat valleys, rolling ridges, and river crossings depending on your level of horseback experience. The fly fishing here is world-class and there are many self-guided and guided hikes to choose from as well.
If you do just one guided full-day excursion at Estancia Cristina make it the amazingly diverse Fossil Canyon and Valley Walk which includes a dramatic vista point over the Upsala Glacier, wildlife spotting, and (as the name of this hike implies) fossils. This activity starts with a one hour 4X4 ride up a dirt road to the Upsala Glacier Mirador for views of the various arms of this glacier which is large and impressive despite its increasingly rapid retreat.
From there, the 9-mile hike begins with a steep and sometimes very windy descent into a canyon (trekking poles and good boots are advised) where guides point out condor nests, millions of small fossilized squid, ammonites, and various types of rock. Further down, the trail passes small inviting lakes (perfect for a lunch stop) before reaching the valley where the route flattens out back to the estancia.
And don't miss the history tour offered every day at 6 pm to get the full story of the amazing Masters family and their Patagonia odyssey. The tour takes place in the atmospheric former sheep shearing shed which is now filled with artifacts from the estancia's founding including the issue of Popular Mechanics magazine that published instructions that the family used to build a boat, family photos, and much more from Patagonia's past.
Like many things in Patagonia, Estancia Cristina is not open year-round, so plan your visit between mid-October and mid-April.
Web Address: estanciacristina.com
Total Number of Rooms: 20
Published rates: $1,473 per person double occupancy 3-night all-inclusive program (minus alcohol)
Review by Karen Catchpole, photos by Eric Mohl