I stepped off of the plane in El Calafate, Argentina, day pack and shoulder bags stuffed full and betraying my regret at not bringing my good pack down to South America. I was squeezing a trip down to Patagonia just before taking my leave of Argentina, where I had been living for the preceding 4 months. There, amongst the friendly and effusive meat-eating and fun-loving Argentinians, I had been learning Spanish and working with my church. A trip down to Patagonia would be a perfect place to try out my newly earned language skills, as well as enjoy some scenery unlike anything I had ever seen before.
You could immediately tell that El Calafate was one of those types of places, near the middle of nowhere and a rugged haven for nature enthusiasts and multi-day hikers. If you were to read a guidebook, it may tell you of the fierce wind that whips across these seemingly barren plains almost every day of the year, unencumbered by large shrub or tree to stop it. I had the good fortune not to experience the strong wind or below freezing temperatures for which the region is so famous.
Nearly everyone that lives in El Calafate either works in the tourism industry or lives with people who work in the tourism industry. I would be staying with a friend of a coworker of a friend, a typical traveller’s connection, and there was no surprise when I arrived in front of the cabin-like house to see that she was ready with suggestions, advice, the willingness to call the tourism companies to arrange for me a place with the activities that tended to fill up fast. The people here have a warmth and zest for life that contrasts with the glacial surroundings. Well, at least they do when talking in Spanish. Although there is much more of a culture of people who know how to speak English in large tourism areas like El Calafate and El Chaltén, it still would be a good idea for the non-Spanish speaker to come with a Spanish phrase book, or ideally with someone who at least knows a bit of Spanish.
El Calafate as a town is named for the berry ‘el calafate’, of which it is said that one is ensured to return if he or she should eat of it. Did I try it? Of course. Why would anyone not want to return to a place of larger-than-life mountains and larger-than-life people? I heard, while I was in down there, that Patagonia was the runner-up location for the filming of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, and after being there I can completely believe it.
Anyway, back to my arrival. I had a couple days in El Calafate before I would head up to El Chaltén, the hiking capital of Argentina. Possible things to do included a boat tour on the lake to see icebergs, a tour to the nearby glacier Perito Moreno, hiking for 2 or 4 hours on the aforementioned glacier, a museum about this glacier, or staying at home and walking around the chintzy tourist stores downtown. I chose to go view the glacier from the boardwalk the next day and booked my ‘big ice’ experience, a 4 hour glacial hike, for the day after. That afternoon I walked up to the Laguna Nimez Reserve, a bird sanctuary with a short walking loop.
The next day, after a pleasant hour long bus ride where I met people from Australia, Israel, France, Germany, Argentina (of course), Canada and a few other European countries, we arrived at the boardwalk in front of the glacier. Perito Moreno is one of the only glaciers in the Patagonian ice fields that is growing. As such, it advances until it hits the opposite shore of Lago Argentina (Argentina lake), cutting off some of the water, which bores out a tunnel that will eventually fall with a resounding crash. While we didn’t get to see one of these tunnels, I was amazed at just how auditory an experience was visiting the face of the glacier, when sheets of ice 60 feet tall split, popped, and fell with a resounding crash, forming giant ice cubes that would float down the lake. Seeing the face of the glacier, with it’s variegated blue hues and it’s top that looked like a combination of whipped cream and snow roughly indented by tire treads, I was eager for the glacial walk that I would take the next day. However, that must be a story for another time. Hasta Pronto!
The Outdoor Adventure Team
Colleen is a Physical Therapist, runner, all-round adventurer and world traveller