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One of the most spectacular destinations in the Patagonia region of Argentina is Viedma Lake. Locally known as Lago Viedma, this massive lake is formed by the Viedma glacier in Glaciers National Park. With an estimated surface area of nearly 270,000 acres, Viedma Lake is one of the largest glacially-formed lake in the region*. The lake is named after the Spanish explorer Antonio de Viedma, the first European to reach its shores in 1783. There are no large cities along its desert shoreline, and little vegetation grows on the steep dry hills along its perimeter. The wind blows, strong and constant, twisting the few natural trees into oddly-lopsided shapes. And at its western end, the Viedma glacier towers above the milky blue water, majestic both in size and in the array of mystic hues within the ice itself. No tour bus brings hoards of visitors to this remote lake and glacier; visitors must actively work for the reward of the vistas across Viedma Lake.
Most, if not all of Viedma Lake lies within Argentina. The western terminus has not been adequately surveyed due to difficult terrain in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Viedma Lake is the chosen destination of mostly active travelers, those intrepid souls who hike, bike and climb their way to viewpoints seldom seen. Fishermen sometimes seek out the shallower arms jutting from the main lake to angle for the three species of trout found in the waters: lake trout, rainbow trout and brown trout.
Not far from the western shore, the "Reserva Estricta" harbors a number of endangered species undisturbed by human interlopers in this restricted area. Lucky hikers along the shore sometimes catch a glimpse of one of the largest colony of "huemules" (domestic stags in danger of extinction) which dwell in Austral Patagonia when they come down to the lake to drink. The lake supports a variety of birds, waterfowl and wildlife, many endangered. Flamingos, eagles, condors, gray foxes, armadillos, the red dwarfed deer (called punu punu), river otter and the guanaco all live in the area and are sometimes seen. If someone tells visitors to watch for the calimayos, they are likely joking as the calimayo is a legendary lake horse which local native myth attributes to Viedma Lake and other lakes in the area.
Most visitors arrange lodgings at the one estancia (ranch) lodge on the lake. This hundred-year-old lodge lies along the western shoreline of Viedma Lake and is actually surrounded by California Redwood trees imported by the original settler! Built by a Finnish adventurer early in the 20th century, the lodge has developed into a respected destination resort that can accommodate about 20 guests. The lodge offers excellent views of Mount Fitz Roy, lovely sand beaches (often far too cold for swimming), and a variety of ways to enjoy and explore Viedma Lake and glacier. From here, lake tours can be arranged to cruise by boat to directly under the lip of the towering glacier.
Fit and energetic visitors can walk the glacier on hikes of varying lengths using equipment provided by the lodge. It is customary to chip off a piece of the glacier for icing down evening drinks when travelers return to the lodge. Boat passengers marvel at the varied blue colors of the ice, caused by pressure during formation. The glacier occasionally gives out massive pops, groans and cracking sounds as the icy mass moves slowly toward the lake. Ice floes often calve off the glacier to float in the lake which are an awesome sight. Guided hiking along the lake is also popular, as is horseback riding on the horses kept in the resort's stable. Guests also take tours of the actual operation of the ranch, view sheep shearing demonstrations, and enjoy barbecues during the lunch break daily. The combination of rugged outdoor exploration, majestic views, gourmet meals, a private wine cellar and comfortable rooms makes visiting Viedma Lake a bucket-list destination for a variety of summer visitors. The lodge closes in winter, usually March to October.
Getting to Viedma Lake takes planning. The international airport at El Calafate, 90 miles away on the southern shore of Argentino Lake is the usual means of arrival for visitors other than trekkers. Trekkers and hikers often call El Chalten home base. El Chalten is a small town north of Viedma Lake, geared to hikers with a few rough lodgings and campgrounds, offering supplies and guides for hiking and climbing the nearby peaks. A highway runs from El Chalten alongside Viedma Lake, connecting to other roads that lead either to the lodge on the western shore or to Argentino Lake and El Calafate. The road to Argentino Lake roughly follows the La Leona River, which drains Viedma Lake into Argentino Lake. Both lakes then drain into the Atlantic River via the Santa Cruz River. About 10 miles from the small village of La Leona, a 'petrified forest' of fossilized wood and prehistoric animals gives visitors a glimpse of a distant past when the area was warm and humid. During the summer season, visitors often encounter bicycle campers making their way along the roads in the area.
Organized tour groups going to Tierra Del Fuego often stop at El Calafate, but few visitors even know Viedma Lake exists nearby. Little activity takes place in winter in this area so close to the 'bottom of the world' Planning a trip to Viedma Lake means coordinating reservations and transportation from El Calafate during the summer months of November to March. Modern hotels and lodgings for nearly any purpose can be found in El Calafate, with more primitive accommodations at El Chalten. El Calafate holds a historical interpretation facility that offers exhibits of the entire Glacier National Park, animals and birds found in the area, and the history of the people of Patagonia-a must-see destination before heading to Viedma Lake. Several estancias in the area near the lake offer some form of lodging, although only the one lodge exists on the lake itself. The scenery is stark but beautiful, the lake pristine but cold. It is truly a different world, one that will remain in the visitor's memory for a lifetime.
*Most huge lakes in the Patagonia region have not been fully surveyed and sizes, so depths and shorelines are usually estimates.
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