What makes our trip a bit more of an adventure is a not having a set itinerary. A year gives us the flexibility of deciding when and where to go at a moment’s notice. But in Patagonia, the well-trodden route seems to be pre-determined for us. We are all here to see natures most beautiful extra-ordinary sights. Having had 5 ‘wow’ days on the Torres Del Paine trek we continue our excitement for the Argentine Patagonia we have heard so much about.
Though it seems remote and so far south on a map, the hordes of travelers here in high season allow a brilliant bus network to reach the bucket list destinations around this area. At the same time high season limits our last minute choices so it becomes necessary to pre-book buses and hostels at least a few days or a week out. Before embarking on the Torres trek we rush to plan for our next destination, El Calafate, which requires a border crossing into Argentina. We pay the reciprocal fee of $100 USD online and am now wishing I had my kiwi passport as there are no fees, only for Australia, United States and Canada.
Nobbies are not morning people at the best of times, but having arrived from the Torres del Paine the night before tired, smelly, cold and stiff we are regretting the early 8am bus departure from Puerto Natales. The morning is bleak, cold with heavy rain and it reminds us just how quickly the weather changes for the worst in Patagonia. Ben and I are just so grateful we had reasonable weather for at least a few days of our trek and feel sorry for the next trekkers leaving our hostel who may not see the mountains at all for the week ahead.
The bus is filled with tourists all heading into Argentina. It’s not long after that we arrive at the Chilean border. We head into a concrete building with only 2 counters open and queue to get our exit stamped from Chilean immigration. The rain is heavier now and we race back to the bus wondering what happens next. The bus then drives over the border and pulls up outside another small building in the middle of nowhere. Only this time we don’t need to disembark but place our passports into a box and the bus driver takes them into the office. Quite a bizarre concept and we are nervous handing over passports but the whole bus does this. About 15 minutes later all the passports are processed by the Argentine immigration without problems and the box is handed back to the passengers for collection. At this time of year there must be hundreds each day crossing this border all following the yellow brick road.
Arriving at El Calafate 5 hours later passing no other towns, I play my game again of finding similarities with other places I know of. Quickly the landscape reminds me of Lake Jindabyne in Australia or Twizel in the South Island of NZ or even a much grander version of Tekapo also in NZ. Golden colour hues of a baron windswept landscape with no vegetation except for the rolling brown clumps of tussock as far as the eye can see and a beautiful large aqua colour lake hugs the town. Such stark contrasts to our greener days in Chile.
Due to a busy festival weekend in town the only hostel we could book was about 2km out of the town centre. With no taxis in sight at the bus terminal and the skies looking ominous indicating heavier rain (unusual given that it has an average of 126mm per year), we decide to walk with our heavy packs filled with dirty wet laundry. I can’t believe how much heavier my pack feels, my shoulders are sore and we walk across town in the drizzle, cold and tired. I was not a happy chappy so poor Ben got an ear full of moaning Michelle and was relieved more than me to reach our hostel to throw me into a warm shower and stop me complaining. I do recall the words “suck it up girl!!” Our hostel is toasty and warm with each room fitted with a wall heater. Great to heat our damp clothes on. With average temperatures of 12C at this time of year we forget that this is a normal summer for this end of the earth.
The main attraction here is Glacier Perito Moreno. As the weather forecast for the next few days are bleak and wet, it’s not exactly the best to see one of the seven wonders of South America. So the ol excuse “oh we have a year what’s a few more days to wait for… (insert excuse word here)..sunshine, we decide to rest our weary bodies, catch up on washing, emails and check out the town. The hostel cooks up a delicious asado on our first night (Argentinian charcoal bbq). We kept hearing about the asados of Argentina so Ben and I are just in heaven after a week of camping food and are salivating at just the smell of this tastiest grill of succulent chicken, lamb, steak and the best potato salad I have had in 3 months along with beer and wine all for $15 each. Now this is what Argentina is all about…meat and more meat! Was a great introduction and enjoyed more socialising with our fellow hostel guests. The picture below is just one of the many Asados displayed at the front of the restaurants. Window shopping takes on a whole new meaning here.
Walking through El Calafate now feels like Queenstown, New Zealand with major growth resulting from natural tourist attractions. It has an alpine feel about it with poplar and fur trees, timber and log cabin dwellings with a main street filled with quirky cafes, bars, chocolate shops and upmarket restaurants. Of course a tourist town wouldn’t be the same without the necessary souvenir shops to cater to the thousands that pass through here stocked with t-shirts with sheep jokes, sheepskin products, ugg boots, leather products and even lanolin creams. In fact I think the products must be made from the same factory only the word Queenstown is swapped with El Calafate and kiwi key rings are swapped with lamas. There are also some exquisite authentic Patagonian arts and crafts and Ben gives me that stare of ‘it’s yours if you can carry it’. Hmm.. my pack already too heavy, I look to something I can eat instead.
We catch up for a few Artisan Patagonian brews with our Navimag mates Pete and Karin who are also in town and the 4 of us spoil ourselves to a delicious dinner at Pura Vida of tasty hearty casseroles and large home made lamb pies perfect for a cold night oh and not to mention a yummy Argentinean red wine. We have been so spoilt for choice of wines in Chile and Argentina and the fact that there is less alcohol tax means a decent wine can be picked up from $5 upwards. As a Chileno said to me “We only have good and better wines”.
Monday arrives and it’s a beautiful day just perfect for our trip to Perito Moreno Glacier. We decide not to do a tour and take the regular tourist coach from the bus terminal. It’s 80 km from town and the hour journey is simply spectacular. Again I am reminded of Mackenzie country and the mountains of Mt Cook in New Zealand. So many similarities but only on a much grande scale.
Arriving at the national park we pay the park entrance fees by cash and Ben suddenly realizes he doesn’t have enough money in his wallet. We are able to cover the park fees but not enough to do the glacier cruise and learn the park and the tours within don’t accept credit cards. Ben felt so bad and of course I didn’t help the situation by showing my deep disappointment (in Ben’s words “whinging like a little girl who didn’t get what she wanted for Christmas!”). Since we decided not to spend the money on the glacier trekking we thought the cruise might be an alternative. What sort of tourist attraction doesn’t accept credit cards? Cash is king down here. We watched everyone get off the bus and on to the boat while we continued to the glacier viewing platforms. Ten minutes later as the bus pulls up our disappointment vanishes when we catch our first glimpse of the glacier. Now that’s one big block of ice I say.
The last bus back to town was to leave in 3 hours and this seemed a long time to observe a glacier but what we had’t anticipated was the 3km of new metal walkways to explore and how quickly time flies when one admires a glacier that is 5km wide and 30km long. It is one of the three Patagonian glaciers that are advancing and this one is the most accessible glacier with the peninsular so close for viewing.
The walkways allow you to see both north and southern viewpoints and halfway down we ended up running into an English couple that we met in Punta Arenas as well as on the Torres trek and laughed how we were always stalking each other. So we stayed with them witnessing the spectacular ice calvings dropping into the lake and taking bets when the next one would be. Ben sets up his tripod patiently anticipating the next calve trying to achieve that perfect National Geographic shot.
With the sun shining, clear crisp blue skies and not a whisper of wind, all the whites and blue colours of this glacier are simply breathtaking and majestic. The usual cliches come to mind like ‘words cannot describe this’ and ‘pictures don’t do this justice’ is exactly that and after a while we stop finding adjectives and sit in silence while we are rewarded with three glorious hours admiring another one of mother natures showcases. The only sound occasionally are the ice calvings crashing seventy metres into the lake which thunder like 100 canons firing off at the same time. Glancing across the lake I notice the glacier boats and realise that we are much closer than they are. They have a restricted area due to the dangers of the ice falling into the lake and am grateful for how the day turned out. It would have been disappointing to only have had an hour here after the cruise.
There are only so many photos one can take of a glacier and as amateur photographers we still haven’t achieved a balance of quality over quantity yet. Especially with the abundance of landscape opportunities here in Patagonia. We practice trying to put our creative hats on like everyone else at the glacier and do the best with our minimum lens types we are travelling with. At the end of the day we are happy to capture a few close ups and several panoramic shots to remember it by.
Time flies and hypnotised by the beauty around us we forget how far down the walkway we are and quickly pack up our camera gear to race back to the bus. Seems in this last week we have been so lucky to have experienced many ‘wow’ days and no doubt there will be more. Patagonia is turning out to be a very special place to visit and just as the legend of the Calafate berry states ‘if you eat the berry you are sure to return’. No doubt we will one day but in the meantime we still have more of Patagonia to explore, next stop El Chalten.