Part 5 : El Calafate
(For Part 1: Buenos Aires (i) click here, for Part 2 : Puerto Madryn click here, for Part 3 : Welsh Patagonia click here, for Part 4 : Ushuaia click here)
El Calafate lies 550 miles north west of Ushuaia and 1,729 miles west of Buenos Aires. It’s situated in the south west of Santa Cruz province close to the southern edge of Lake Argentino.
As a town, it’s only been around since 1927. It has the feel of being ‘new’, but there is no high-rise building and its role is very much to serve the nearby Perito Moreno National Park. It’s an extremely clean and functional town; a main street that extends from one end to the other and side streets that are mainly residential. With a population of 6,000, it’s not what you could call large, but numbers massively expand with the tourist season and backpackers who come to hike, climb and explore the region. There are regular daily excursions to Perito Moreno, Chalten and Cerro Torre.
We fly in to the International Airport. It’s very small and neat and set in the middle of nowhere in particular. The good news is that it’s barely a fifteen minute drive and you’re downtown in El Calafate.
The town’s nature reserve is an example of excellent Latin American municipal planning. People take their passaggio along a well-paved promenade to watch the flamingoes, geese and ducks that feed and breed in the reeds. Now, that’s a little too much rhyming so I’ll move on….
A free shuttle bus takes you a couple of miles out of town to the Glaciarium. It’s a stark building, reminiscent of the hospital in Coma. However, inside it’s a treasure trove of useful information if, like me, you dropped geography in school before it started getting interesting. I learn all about glaciated valleys, erratics, moraines, the differences between the types of glaciers : cirque, piedmont, hanging, rock, ice aprons, tidewater, valley, ice shelves, ice fields, ice streams, ice shelves…….I never realised there was so much to learn. It must be an El Calafate geography teacher’s dream!
To recover, I’d found another ‘local’. Mako Premium Bar turns out to be a little paradise. The food is excellent and beer is brewed locally. We sit in the window and watch the world go by. Next door is the butchers and there are always three or four large hairy dogs asleep in the sun, waiting for closing time when the assistant throws them large meaty bones and they slope off to do what they will with them.
El Calafate could be thought of as a little ‘touristy’. I suppose it is. However, it’s far more artisan craft than ‘tat’ and it does mean that there are good coffee shops, restaurants and bars.
There aren’t many hotels in El Calafate, most people want to hostel as they are backpacking. You can hire a cabine, a Toblerone-shaped timber cabin that will accommodate a small party. Alternatively, most hostels also offer private double rooms with ensuite as well as the usual bunk rooms with shared facilities.
We were at the Bla Guesthouse, just off the main street and ideal. A double room, private bathroom and full use of the communal lounge, kitchen, golden retriever and hammocks! It’s extremely clean and extremely warm. It’s perfect. Being so central means that a one minute walk brings you to a choice of restaurants. We go to La Zaina, a tin shack (as so many of the buildings are) that, I suppose, judging by the name, used to be a sauna. Inside, it is beautiful. Booking is essential as it’s welcoming and the food is excellent. A Korean couple we met thought that the food was better than some of the Michelin-starred restaurants they had frequented. Mind you, they had also picked a hostel with a shared bathroom and no lock on the door. Not ideal when you’re on your honeymoon!
We end a meal of fresh fish and a slab of steak you could cut with a spoon chatting to Wenceslas and Vera, a couple from Brazil. He is a history Professor specialising in the history of Argentina and she teaches Portuguese back in Rio de Janeiro. They are leaving in the morning so they donate a large percentage of their Malbec and we feel it would be churlish and rude not to drink it for them along with their share of the local liqueur, produced from the purple calafate berries, from which the town takes its name.
It’s an early start the following morning as we head up to the Perito Moreno Glacier in the National Park. It’s the Eighth Wonder of the Natural World and every bit deserves the honour. There are 48 glaciers within the Southern Patagonian ice field and this is by far the largest and most impressive.
It’s an unusual glacier in that it’s actually growing, rather than receding. It’s to do with the climate as it makes ice far faster than it would if it was in a colder clime. I’m not sure of the science behind this….but that’s what the man said. The glacier stands 74 metres above the water with a total depth of 174 metres.
For the last ten years, the glacier has touched the peninsula, which means that you can actually walk out onto the ice, rather than having to transfer by boat. Mind you, you arrive by boat from the dock in the national park and should you be on board when a chunk of ice detaches itself from the glacier and falls into the lake, the thunderous roar followed by a mini tsunami means a swell too large to enable you to land. It’s park up, hold on and wait for the water to settle.
Once you’ve fitted crampons you step out onto the ice and are awestruck by the magnificence of the whole scene. As far as you can see is glacier and ice field. Streaks and holes in ultramarine are caused by ice of a lower pressure being able to reflect blue wavelength light. We wander through dips and cracks, step over crevasses and holes going deep into the glacier. It’s a world of blue and white ice and blue sky. The water is pure and clear. The ice is often speckled with twigs and dust blown in from the peninsula and its on this detritus that the stonefly feeds. It’s the only creature that lives on the ice. Even the German wasp, a nasty little creature, and the native puma don’t venture out onto the ice.
You receive written and verbal warnings about the puma which can grow 2.4 metres and weigh 100 kg. It might live on hares, mice and guanaco but if you see one, the advice is not to turn and run away. Instead you are supposed to face it down, raise your arms and shout! Yeah, right! Shout? Shout what? In English or Spanish?
Before we leave, we all enjoy a final moment drinking Scotch with ice, freshly broken from the glacier and served in dimpled glasses. It’s a moment that will stay with us all for ever, no doubt. It’s Vitor’s birthday and we sing to him, as one does. He’s here with his girlfriend, Andressa, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and they’re as blown away with the whole day as we all are.
Tourism is tightly controlled in the National Park which means that it is in pristine condition. No litter is allowed. What you bring in, you take out.
Further down the valley, they’ve set up balconies from which you can observe the majesty of the glacier in its full glory. It gives you spectacular views of the ice field and the edge of the glacier is the same height as a fifteen storey building. ‘Calving’, the word given to when chunks of the glacier break off and crash into the lake, is followed by a thunderous roar and a great cheer from the onlookers. The water boils as the ice creates its own wave, rippling out until it hits the shore. It’s formidable.
On the two hour drive back, we pass forest after forest of dead trees, grey statues in a climate where decomposition takes considerably longer than elsewhere.
The following day, it’s another early start. We’re to go horse riding, cabalgatas del glacier, Luciana collects us at 8 a.m. in a battered old four wheeled drive. He looks every bit the gaucho with leather chaps, tied scarf at the neck and sporting a woollen boina, a cross between beret and a flatcap. There are six of us, a lawyer and his wife from Buenos Aires and, coincidentally, Vitor and Andressa from the previous day. It’s curious how small a world this is becoming.
Way out in the National Park we stop at an estancia and eat churros, drink mate and saddle up. The saddles are covered in sheep fleeces which make for a very wide seat but it’s comfortable enough for the first few hours. I’d like to think that I was in control as I plod along, reins in the left hand, right fist on right thigh, gazing out across the pampas; remembering The High Chaparral and Big John Cannon. However, Marelito, (rather than Manolito), a grey horse of some considerable size, has his own script – stops when he wants to, eats when and what he wants to and follows on with the crowd. There is no way I’m going to get lost or be able to make any sort of executive decision!
No matter. I was the gringo, we were the muchachos. The two amigos. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? The Lone Ranger and Tonto? Not really, more like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, I’m afraid.
At lunchtime, we stop at a small hut and a fire from fallen wood is prepared. Luciano uses an old cast iron disco, a handle-less frying pan that stands on its own legs over the fire. He fries onions and steaks which are handed around buried into fresh crusty baguettes dipped in thick black and salty gravy. The Malbec is opened and it’s a glorious picnic out in the open. Mountains behind, the lake in front and the all you can hear is the sizzling of meat and the birds wheeling overhead. 15 miles away is Chile and 7,792 miles away, as the crow flies, is home.
On the way home, we stop to pick the calafate berry. It’s purple and sweet, rather like a wimberry. The legend is that he or she who eats of the calafate will always return to Patagonia. Lovers give calafate berries to each other as a sign of their love and devotion.
I spent most of the afternoon trying to get the seeds out from between the fillings…….
It was time to leave El Calafate. Our time in this part of Patagnia had come to an end and we were almost at the end of our travelling.
We would be flying back to Buenos Aires for a few days and then, that would be it. I’ll miss this part of the world. It’s truly beautiful.
For Part 6 : Buenos Aires (ii) – click here