By Thomas van Laake.

The grass on the roundabout is comically green, compared to inhospitable dryness of the Patagonian steppe all around, interspersed by haphazardly placed, half-finished buildings. Two desolate expanses of asphalt stretch away in either direction, centrally placed lighting towers falling off in the distance. While the Patagonian winds rage, the few cars that pass by only highlight the emptiness of the two roads.

At one end of Av. Jorge Newberry, the tarmac abruptly changes to gravel.

Most tourists arriving to El Calafate, Argentina, headed for glacier tours, will not see them. The town’s two widest avenues are not the most central, busy, or picturesque. But those few lost or wandering souls will wonder – what could possibly be the use of all that asphalt?

The entry sign to the new neighbourhood.

The crucial hint is the name – Barrio Aeropuerto Viejo, or ‘Old Airport Neighbourhood’. Calafate’s ongoing tourism boom was greatly aided by the opening of a new airport, located 16km outside of town. Its predecessor, still in use in 2000, has been rapidly urbanized as the city’s population has tripled in 15 years. Rapid growth has driven speculation on future prime locations – for instance, next to the finished, but as of yet unused new bus terminal, close by the intersection. Combined with a lack of planning, the result is a chaotic landscape of finished and unfinished houses, empty lots being (re)sold, and hotels with stunning views but unpaved access roads.

Advertisement for lot sale.

Indeed, what we have here is a pioneer town, a gold rush, and a planner’s nightmare. Yet disorganized though it may be, it is not without a structure:  the starkly linear order of two ex-runways, now serving as infrastructural anchors to new development, reminds all of how very recent this city is.