Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
We soon awaken to find that we are at the Chilean border. We step off the bus and have our passports efficiently stamped by smart looking officials. A few minutes later we arrive at the Argentinian border. There isn´t much to see in this barren landscape here although we do spot a huge blue sign which says "Malvinas son Argentinas" which John translates into English to read "the Falklands are Argentinian". Obviously Argentina still holds claim to the islands which it tried to annexe in 1982, and lost embarrasingly to the British.
The tarmac road soon turns to rubble and our driver presses the accelerator to keep the bus moving just below the maximum of 90 kmh
It is a pleasant suprise to arrive in El Calafate. The sun is shining, and outside it is a pleasant 18C which is the warmest temperature we have experienced since Santiago. The houses seem to look very new, well constructed using beautiful timber and all have green irrigated front lawns. Compared to the south of Chile, it feels as though we are in an affluent country which is a little suprising since the economic crisis in Argentina has left the country´s economy in tatters. I later suspect that the number of foreign visitors has not been affected by the country´s economic problems and El Calafate has received a huge cash injection from the tourists that come to visit.
Over the next days we set up our tent and rest our weary legs at Hostel Jorgito. At first sight the camp ground looks pretty dusty and grotty, but we soon meet Julie and Andrew from the States and begin to mix in with some of the nicest group Americans that we have ever met
One of the main draws to El Calafate is the largest glacier in the world outside of the poles. We chew over the options of visiting Moreno Glacier with our neighbours Andrew and Julie. The glacier is a must see but it sounds very expensive, particularly as the viewing area is all boardwalked and there are limited opportunities for any hikes in the wild. We find that the town operates an expensive guided tour for 120 Argentinian Pesos per person (20 pounds) which includes transport and the 30 APs entrance fee. A cheaper option is to hire a car and driving to the park after 7pm when the park rangers go home and entrance fees are not collected. This would cost 40 Ps per person. We are all excited about the option of having a car as we could have the added luxury of moving to a free campsite at the glacier and returning with some visits to an estancia.
Andrew and Julie investigate the car option and we agree to meet back at the campsite at 6pm with the intention of leaving that evening to visit the glacier. When we meet, our choices seem less clear as they bumped into an entrepreneurial American backpacker in town who is hiring a 15 seater mini bus to visit the glacier in the evening
The minibus arrives and we hear that there are 4 seats left. Everyone is happy and we all smile at John for suggesting the "sit back and do nothing" tactic. We clamber on the bus and meet some more backpackers. As it is a budget ride, there are of course some Dutch and Israeli travellers. The drive takes about 1 hour with a photo stop of the mountains mid way. The driver swerves recklessley all around the straight highway roads which reminds me of the driving in Vietnam. Eventually we reach the park. The driver slows by the ticket office
As we swerve around some bends we catch our first glimpses of the glacier. A huge glacier of blue ice meets the eyes. We stop for 2 hours and just in time to see the sun setting behind the snow capped mountains. Before us is a huge glacier which seems to snake high up into the mountainside.
We admire the spiky peaks of blue ice which are up to 60 metres high at the waters edge. Every 10 minutes we hear a gianormous cracking sound of ice melting and fracturing which sounds like a huge pane of glass shattering. This is followed by the sound of ice crashing. Most of the sights accompanying the sounds cannot be seen within the huge glacier and we all watch with anticipation, hoping to see a large chunk of ice breaking away from the glacier.
As I turn my back and rush up the 300 odd steps to visit the toilets, I hear loud splintering and cracking sounds. When I return to John, the water infront of the glacier looks a little different and I soon discover that I have missed a chunk of ice which was the size of a house break and fall off
The ice appears to fall from the glacier in slow motion due to the massive scale of everything. Initially the water is calm and smooth but as the ice hits the water surface, it sinks out of view and then reappears producing a big tidal wave. Circular waves ripple out from the floating ice chunk and forces smaller chunks of ice up onto the rocky shore where we are standing. Finally the wave subsides and the ice blocks are left perched high up on the rocks.
We spend the remainder of our time in El Calafate mainly relaxing. We visit the Reserva Laguna Nimez which is a green wetlands spot full of unusual birds of South America. The reserve is linked to the National University of Austral Patagonia and there is a wealth of information on the birds and fauna. Unfortunately the park is not very well protected from the stray dogs which we always see in Patagonia. The dogs are always friendly but they follow humans around the 3km circuit having lots of fun by chasing all the wildlife. Despite the doggies, we manage to spot sandpipers, upland geese, black faced ibis and lots of pink flamingoes.
Music is very important to South America and it is in Argentina that we finally find it. Don Diego de la Noche was recommended to us by friendly owner, Bill from the Erratic Rock hostel (Puerto Natales) for its good food and live music. John and I decide to go for the full works and treat ourselves to what we call ´a big blow out´. The last one (well, before arriving in Australia and leaving New Zealand where we seemed to have blowouts at least once per day) was probably at the Italian restaurant in Chiang Mai.
Our big blow out in El Calafate will be hard to beat. Our set menu includes a huge fresh salad for starter, tender beef lomo steaks which just ooze with flavour and melt in the mouth for mains and lemon ice cream topped with Pisco Sour (a light appetizer spirit) for desert. We down this with an extremely agreeable Malbec Merlot. The food tastes exceptionally good particularly everything in the South of Chile has been very bland.
As our food is served, a big guy from the bar moves towards the stage, another waif man who struts into the restaurant wearing heeled black boots, pleated khaki trousers, a white shirt and a black stetson hat joins him. The most amazing music starts with Don Diego´s amazing voice and guitar, and the dressed up guy playing an old fashioned side drum. The music is so beautiful that even John finds it difficult to concentrate on eating the food. The drummer stands upright and beats an irregular powerful booming beat whilst Don Diego´s powerful voice fills ever corner of the cosy small room.
The evening is topped off by being not feeling that we are alone but with good friends Ali, Servanna and Danny that we met on the Torres del Paine trek; Julie and Andrew who are our neighbours at our campsite; and Omar, a friend of Julie and Andrew´s that we find also shared a room with us at Erratic Rock. It seems like a very small world.. even more so when the next day Don Diego says hello to us whilst we are having lunch and Julie and Andrew meet the magnificent drummer serving coffee in the local cafe.
Soon it is time to pack up our tent and move on. We have a mad rush trying to find some camping food in town to take with us to the smaller town of El Chalten. Most supermarkets seem to be only half full of stock. It takes some time to even find a bar of chocolate and I can´t even find any instant noodles. I improvise with angel hair pasta and Knorr powder soups as they are fast and easy meals to cook on the campstove.
Feeling energised, we gather up our belongings and tent and board an afternoon bus to El Chalten. Here, hiking around Mt Fiztroy and Mt Cerro Grande awaits.