Excursions, travel in Argentina, Patagonia

A trip to El Calafate


By | December 21, 2009 | Leave a comment

If you’re a nature fan and dig the untamed outdoors, I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to El Calafate. I recently took a trip to this place of natural wonders, and here’s what happened.

I left BA on a Tuesday afternoon, and returned on Friday, which provided ample time to explore the area of El Calafate and the nearby Torres del Paine. A direct flight from the Aeroparque was easy and affordable to book at the last minute. So, with my ticket reserved, I made my way to the airport, boarded my flight, and was off on a Patagonian adventure. During the flight I could see open land from horizon to horizon, spotted with a few small villages here and there. As we approached the airport, I got a spectacular view of a lake with a green and oxidized copper color. An awesome first impression. After collecting my bags, I was pleased to find that the airport provides shuttle service transportation to all of the hostels and hotels in El Calafate, most of which are within walking distance to the center of town.

El Calafate Glaciers and Adventure Traveling

While my last-minute planning proved perfect for my flight, I regretted not having booked my accommodation further in advance. In my typical laid-back fashion, I sent an email to the hostel the day before leaving and just showed up expecting a room to be waiting for me. But when I arrived I found out that the hostel was completely full, which created a few interesting and awkward situations — but I won’t go into that any further. So do as I say and not as I do, and make sure you get a confirmation email before departure!

After sorting out my minor panic at the hostel, I was free to explore. I found that El Calafate is a very small town — a dramatic change of scenery from the urban jungle and non-stop party of Buenos Aires. There’s one main strip of shops, and the rest of the town is residences or hotels and hostels. There’s only one grocery store and a few ATMs, but there’s no shortage of restaurants and souvenir stores to cater to the tourists. There’s even a casino, if you wan’t to try your luck at a little gambling. A non-Spanish speaker will not have any problems in El Calafate, as most of the shops owners, tour guides, and even some locals are multi-lingual.

Several tours and activities are available in El Calafate, all of which can be arranged at your hostel or hotel. With two full days to fill, I chose to do the Glacier Walk at Perito Moreno Glacier, and the tour of Torres Del Paine.

The Glacier walk was an all day event that started with catching a bus at 6 am Wednesday morning. I watched a very bright, red sunrise as I rode along for a few hours, while the tour guide informed us about the area and parks around El Calafate. We stopped first at a vantage point to view the glacier from afar, then took another short bus ride down to the dock to catch a boat to the glacier. After the guides gave us instructions and a pair of crampons, we set off on an long, uphill hike to the glacier.

Though getting to the glacier is a bit time consuming, this part of the trek is an adventure in itself. Once we were on the glacier, the guides took us to some of the most interesting parts of the ice mass. Pictures from such an awe-inspiring place don’t do it justice. The deep blue color of the compressed ice contrasted with the white ice and surrounded snow-capped peaks created a beautiful vista. The guides were not only experts in leading us around the cracks and crevices, but a few of them also had quite a sense of humor. After a break for lunch (which we had to pack and bring with us), and a bit more exploring, we headed back down. As a little reward for making it back to the docks in one piece, we were given a glass of whiskey with glacier ice. It was a great way to warm up and end a strenuous trek. Perito Moreno is a definite must-see attraction if you are in Argentina during the Spring or Summer months.

The next day I was up again early to check out the Torres Del Paine. This tour was much less physically demanding than the glacier walk, but it started with a 5:00 am bus ride. Heading toward the Chilean border, I enjoyed another beautiful sunrise and wide open pastures, some with a few sheep or cattle dotting the landscape. After switching buses and going through immigration into Chile, the ride to the park continued. The tour I took was a ride through the expansive park with frequent stops at various lookouts and vantage points. Lunch was provided on this trip, as all organic items had to be disposed of at the border. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in and hid the mountains most of the day. A very cold, windy rain storm stole a few hours of this excursion and soaked my camera, making it useless for a few days. With nature all around, eagles, alpaca and other animals were easy to spot on this adventure. Most of this excursion was spent riding, so there was plenty of time to relax, reflect and catch up on the travel journal. After the toll the previous day’s adventure took on my old bones, the long ride back to El Calafate was quite nice. I think the best part of this day’s journey, and about being in such a remote place, was seeing the sky filled with more stars than I have seen in quite some time. Awesome.

A few things you should know if you are planning a trip to El Calafate:

Many of the shops, hostels, and tours are cash only. The weather changes frequently and quickly so be prepared — a beautiful day can end with a violent windstorm. You will need to be well prepared for the glacier walk; it is a full and physically demanding day. Airfare and most of the tours are quite reasonably priced, but restaurant prices are a bit expensive. The food is excellent, though. All in all, trip to El Calafate is a great vacation from your vacation!

Marion Burrows
Guest Writer, LPBA

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