Catching the travel bug again in El Calafate

It took us a really, really long time to get to El Calafate. A rail replacement bus service meant that we had already been travelling for 4 hours and made 5 changes by the time we reached Gatwick airport. This was our first experience flying Norwegian, which was by far the cheapest option, and we were pleasantly surprised. They have cut out all of the fluffy extras (blankets, pillows, baggage, feeding people) but you can opt to add most things on and the price is still reasonable. We chose to have meals and our dinner of some kind of slow cooked beef with mash was the best plane food that we have ever had, and the dessert was macarons, just amazing. We arrived safely in Buenos Aires and survived the interminable progress through immigration. Our biggest concern in planning had been getting to Aeroparque Jorge Newbury for our next flight, which necessitated crossing the city during rush hour. Everything we had read advised that you don’t arrange your transfer in advance and just ask at the desks in the arrival terminal for the next available transfer. This sort of laid back approach is not our forte, but as it turned out it was very simple, we hopped on to a Tienda Leon bus, crawled through town and arrived two hours later. Aeroparque is a bit frantic and there seemed to be people everywhere but the Aerolineas staff were lovely and we even scored emergency exit seats for the final leg of our trip.

This is when things got funny, or perhaps we were just sleep deprived. As we were boarding the plane a woman was invited to crouch underneath one of the engines to secure the lid of her cat’s cage which was coming loose, the ground crew were evidently keen to avoid having a feline strolling around in the hold. The lady was provided with a length of baggage tags to wrap the crate in, the cat looked less than impressed.

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Once on board we realised that the lady sitting next to us on the plane was a friend of Cat Woman and she went up and down the plane constantly during the flight for long loud chats in Spanish. When she was sitting down she was either eating cake, reading a bootleg translation of the Diary of Anne Frank which looked as though it had been printed off the internet, or pulling an alarming number of plants out of her bag like some kind of horticultural Mary Poppins.

The landing in to El Calafate is absolutely spectacular and all of our apprehension disappeared as we gazed out of the window.

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The wheels had barely touched the tarmac before our neighbour had launched herself out of her seat, climbed up on to it and started rummaging enthusiastically through the overhead locker. She wasn’t the only one, clearly Argentine indifference to time-keeping does not extend to getting off a plane. She was, however, the only one to be mentioned specifically over the cabin’s PA system and asked to sit down. We had arrived in El Calafate and the very last thing to do was get into town. We booked seats on the cheapest transfer bus and then waited the 25 minutes until the bus was due to arrive, and then we waited another 30 minutes, something that we would have to get used. The bus then stopped halfway to town for 10 minutes, we have absolutely no idea why, and then at a checkpoint just outside town we had to hand our passports over to Interpol, which we are pretty sure isn’t normal.

Once in town we were quickly dropped off at our hostel where we had plumped for a private room for the first couple of nights. It was a timely reminder of the level of luxury that we should expect whilst travelling; the toilet door didn’t close, the shower sprayed the floor more than anything else, the radiator leaked if we tried to turn it on and we were sleeping in (admittedly comfortable) hobbit beds.

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Having laid down it was hard to get back up again but we forced ourselves to the local mini-market to pick up a hearty backpacker dinner of packet noodles and diet Fanta. We aren’t sure what we expected in El Calafate, but it certainly wasn’t what we actually ended up with. Our hostel was on the edge of the town centre so we had clear views of the sparse landscape of mountains all round.

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The scenery we had expected, it was the town itself that surprised us. El Calafate is the launching point for one of Argentina’s most famous tourist attractions, Perito Moreno Glacier, and the main port of entry to El Chaltén, hiking capital of Argentina, and so we thought that there would be a lot of tourist money around. Now perhaps this would be more evident in other parts of town, but what we saw on that first evening did not strike us as particularly wealthy.

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We stopped in at the bakery for some road snacks to sustain us for the 300 metres back to the hostel, we are already enormous fans of chipas, cheese bread ball creations that are super tasty.

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We woke up to glorious weather which had turned into sideways rain within 30 minutes and then cleared again within the hour. Later in the afternoon we would be blasted sideways by freezing wind, baked by a blazing sun and then pelted with hail. This is a Patagonian summer’s day.

We wrapped up in multiple layers and spent the day exploring the town which, once we wandered more than 500m from our hostel, turned into what we had expected; lots of outdoor shops and travel agents in the style of a mini ski town.

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After a quick tour of the shops we strolled out of town and around the edge of Laguna Nimez, a natural reserve that was full of all manner of birdlife. We chose not to pay to enter but it looked as though there were a couple of hours of diversion on the trails and boardwalks.

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We continued on to the shore of Lago Argentino where James had to test the water, naturally. It was bloody freezing.

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El Calafate has the feel of a town that is constantly and rapidly expanding but only a few developments have made it as far as the lake so far. The road looks like a highway to nowhere.

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Back in town, we booked ourselves on to a glacier tour and our onward tickets to El Chaltén the next day. Then we chanced upon this sign:

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Caro was figuring out how to adjust our plans to be in town on the right date and making a mental note to look up the Spanish lyrics for “Hero” before James had even registered what was happening. James was not so quite so sold by the idea. The concert was part of a free festival celebrating the 142nd birthday of El Calafate but, perhaps fortunately, this particular event turned out to be the only one that was ticketed and Caro jettisoned the idea, but it was touch and go for a while. We stuck our noses into the amphitheatre anyway, it is ridiculously large for a town of the size.

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On our way back to the hostel we stopped in at La Zorra for some artisanal Patagonian beer, where James was impressed with the American Pale Ale. We were also keen to sample the region’s famous lamb and were directed by our hostel to the parilla restaurant Don Pichon. The restaurant is perched up on the hill so offers a free transfer service from your hotel, we booked in and waited, and waited, and waited. We were still knackered from our journey and we had purposely booked an early dinner so were on the verge of cancelling when the transfer showed up 45 minutes late. We decided that we had better go for it and we were soon installed at a table that would have had a fantastic view if it hadn’t been entirely shrouded in cloud. We ordered the Patagonian lamb for two and waited with great anticipation.

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The portion size was certainly generous and the meal was tasty, perhaps not as good as it had been built up to be but still good. We devoured our dinner and asked for the transfer back to town. We were promised that it would be 10-15 minutes max. 40 minutes later and with our heads practically on the table we were told that our bus had arrived. We think that had it happened when we were less tired it would have bothered us less but as it was we felt that the whole operation hadn’t really been worth it, particularly with an early rise ahead to get to the glacier.

The following morning, surprise surprise, our transfer was late to pick us up which, naturally, made us anxious that the bus would leave without us. In the end, it worked out for the best because the bus that we were picked up in turned out to be the one that we would be going to the glacier in, so we scored good seats, and we had been able to wait in the warm hotel rather than freezing outside the bus station. We sat on the right-hand side of the bus because we figured it would have the best views and we were absolutely right. (Please excuse window glare)

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The journey along the edge of Lago Argentino is stunning: mountain backdrops, bright blue water and a few horses, sheep and cattle grazing.

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Once we had paid our entrance fee to the National Park the bus wound its way towards Glacier Perito Moreno. Now, the best views are out the left-hand side windows but you are going to get close to it anyway so we still think that the right-hand side was the best overall choice. The fleeting glimpses that you get are pretty epic, even Caro was floored by it and she’d not been impressed by the glaciers we saw in New Zealand. We think that the fact that the lake hides the scarring of retreating ice makes a big difference.

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We were dropped off at the lower car park and then wandered the many boardwalks. Our first proper view of the glacier was definitely a wow moment.

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We loved the far less populated “de la costa” boardwalk facing the Northern side of the glacier. We were a bit further away but the walk is lovely and it is much more peaceful. The view towards the mountains is also spectacular from here.

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We’d decided not to go on a boat trip, we felt like we were getting a plenty good enough view from the boardwalks and the people on the boats were rather packed in like sardines. That being said, we are sure that the view looking up from water level is pretty astonishing.

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There are a lot of boardwalks so you can easily fill a couple of hours wandering around those, but really what everyone wants to see is the glacier calving, when big sheets of ice fall off in to the water below. We got our first view within about 10 minutes, from a distance on the northern side, but we also got three or four calvings up close and it was super cool.

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We had brought books with us because we thought that looking at ice was unlikely to engage us for a full day but really, it’s enthralling; you just sit and stare, listening for the tell-tale cracking and hoping that a really big bit falls off next. It makes such a racket when it does. Also, as the light shifts you get a better view of the glacier as a whole and it stretches back for miles, it was quite beautiful just to watch.

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Some bloggers that we follow had taken a bottle of red along with them, which with the benefit of hindsight was a fantastic idea. We settled for sandwiches with a view.

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It was a really fantastic day and well worth the bus ticket and entry fee (we went with Cal-Tur and got a discount because we booked our onward trip to El Chaltén at the same time). We will join the throngs of other converts who say that it should definitely be on your agenda, even if you don’t really like glaciers!

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By some small miracle, the bus only left 15 minutes late and our driver was crazy and got us back to town in half the time it had taken in the morning, and we saw a Patagonian fox just chilling in the car park.  We were back at the bus station with 45 minutes to spare before our next bus to El Chaltén, and feeling truly hyped up for the next adventure.

So a quick summary; our observations from our first days in Patagonia were:

  • It’s absolutely bloody gorgeous
  • People are generally incredibly friendly and helpful
  • Timings mean virtually nothing
  • Rusty GSCE Spanish is a far more valuable tool than we had ever anticipated (James would have managed to achieve everything solo but it would have taken considerably longer)
  • There are cute dogs everywhere

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It really is hard to believe now that we were ever reluctant to book those flights.

 

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