Nearly three decades ago, when I first visited El Calafate, the gateway to the Perito Moreno Glacier was a compact village of just a few thousand people with a modest selection of hotels, restaurants and other services. The nearest airport was in Río Gallegos, at least three hours overland.
|El Calafate's core is compact and even sheltered, but the town is spreading onto the steppes and along the lakeshore.|
The glacier’s presence, though, incentivized a tourist boom that, coupled with a new state-of-the-art airport, has resulted in a sprawling town with many new hotels, restaurants and other services—not to mention housing for an increasing number of permanent residents (one of whom is my cousin, Elisa Rodríguez, who’s a tour guide in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and elsewhere in Patagonia). The town center is still compact, but the old hilltop airport runway is home to a new bus terminal and is gradually filling with new houses, as is the Lago Argentino lakeshore west of downtown.
|The wild Río Santa Cruz, whose source is Lago Argentino, is under threat from two large hydroelectric projects.|
That sort of growth—the population now exceeds 20,000—requires a larger food supply, both seasonally and throughout the year, and supermarkets like La Anónima (linked to the historic Braun-Menéndez wool empire) have picked up the slack. It helps that roads have improved dramatically, and that flights from Buenos Aires are frequent but, in an area where environmental issues are paramount—global warming directly affects the glaciers and two large dam projects on the free-flowing Río Santa Cruz are highly controversial—sustainable food might be included among them.
|Grilled lamb, on a stake, is a stereotypical Patagonian entree.|
In southern Patagonia, the stereotypical diet is meat and more meat—traditionally it’s lamb, grilled on a stake over hot coals. Historically speaking, that’s a by-product of the huge sheep ranches that have occupied almost every acre of land since the “wool rush” of the 19th century. To be sure, are some cattle, but getting fresh fruit and vegetables has always been an issue here. With low temperatures and short growing seasons, root crops like potatoes were viable, along with soft fruits like raspberries and gooseberries, but many items, such as grapes and even fruit trees, were restricted to limited production in conservatories.
|The approach to Chacra Las Moras|
|A row of poplars protects the cherry orchard from fierce Patagonian winds.|
That said, on my recent visit to Calafate, I saw the largest fruit and vegetable production I’d ever seen in the region, at Chacra Las Moras, a literal garden spot where my cousin shops for much of her produce. There’s an orchard of cherry trees, sheltered by poplars, similar to what I’ve seen in the more northerly “banana belt” climate of Los Antiguos (Argentina) and its cross-border sibling of Chile Chico.
|Currants do well outdoors here.|
|Strawberry tunnels forever?|
There are also currants, raspberries and blackberries outdoors, but most of the cultivation takes place within the largest poly-tunnels I’ve ever seen, where strawberries, lettuce and tomatoes thrive. The warm temperatures inside seemed positively subtropical, but these are vulnerable structures that Patagonian gales can shred in minutes—as has apparently happened. Still, it was refreshing to see this intensive horticulture test the limits to find a niche in a town that needs what it can offer.
|Jams and liqueurs on display|
|More local products at the checkout display|
Chacra Las Moras also sells products from other nearby farms, such as calafate jam and liqueurs, and serves afternoon tea. Even for those who don’t purchase anything, it’s open for self-guided tours of what can be done under such challenging conditions.
They do not, however, grow cannabis, which my nephew—soon to leave for Australia—was cultivating on the window sill of his Calafate residence.