Posted by: robinson2000 | July 11, 2011

El Calafate, El Chalten & The Glacier Perito Moreno

5th – 10th July

Since arriving back in La Paz, I had only travelled south so it was good to turn around and start heading north to the town of El Calafate. The arduous journey from the Island of Tierra del Fuego began with the bus leaving Ushuaia at the unworldly hour of 5am. It was a bitterly cold morning as I hastily gobbled down some cereal and walked the 10 minutes to the bus terminal, passing the drunks that had just been thrown out of the towns clubs and strip joints. I fell asleep the instant I found my seat, but was awoken by a conductor for the first border crossing of the day. Since Tierra del Fuego is split between Argentina and Chile, to cross into mainland Argentina you have to exit the country into Chile, and then re-enter Argentina on the mainland. All it meant for the passengers was a lot of wasted time and hassle, as customs rifled through our bags and immigration scrutinised our passports. Finally at 10pm after two border crossings, a ferry crossing and a change of bus in Rio Gallegos, we arrived in El Calafate.

El Calafate sits on the south shore of Lake Argentino and exists almost entirely as a tourist centre for the Parque Nacional los Glaciares. A quick cab ride took me to the excellent America del Sur Hostel, which overlooked the town and provided an exceptional breakfast every morning. There wasn’t a whole lot to see in the town except for a small park with depictions of Darwin and the Laguna Nimez, which is a bird reserve with flamingos, ducks, black-necked swans and an abundance of birdlife. It didn’t take long to walk around the reserve so I was back in the warm hostel at mid-afternoon with a good book on the go, in front of the open fire. That evening, Argentina were playing Colombia in the group stages of the Copa America, so I went with a Belgium guy to one of the packed local bars. Argentinians, like most South Americans, are very passionate about their football and believe since they have the best player in the world, that they should be the best team in the world. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work that way and the contest was a disappointing draw to put them in 3rd place. Argentinians are generally really friendly people who go out of their way to help others. You often see them helping the old folk around an icy patch of pavement, or in petrol stations, they have people helping at the petrol pumps and giving your windscreen a quick sponge over.

My sole purpose for visiting El Calafate was to see the Glacier Moreno, one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing and not retreating. It meant an early start and another impressive sunrise to reach the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares found 50km away. The blue glacier was an incredible sight as it descended to the surface of the water with a 5km long frontage and a height of about 80 metres. The glacier can be viewed close up from a series of wooden walkways, which descend from the car park and provide breath-taking views of the blue ice. The highlight is to watch pieces of the glacier break away with thunderous crashes and float away as icebergs. The whole time your there you can hear the creaks and groans from the glacier as the ice shifts and cracks. Being winter time, there was only a handful of us in the park, which made it even more special.

217 km north of El Calafate is the small town of El Chalten, which provides a base for some of the country’s finest trekking into the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The town lies at the foot of the jagged peaks of the spectacular Mt Fitz Roy and is nicknamed the ‘smoking mountain’ or ‘sunrise of fire’ as occasionally, at sunrise the mountains are briefly lit up bright red. I, along with four other fine travellers were sold a bargain trip including two nights’ accommodation and transfers up to the town for 200 pesos, about £30. The tour rep failed to mention a huge snowstorm heading to the area at the same time. The bus collected us from the terminal at 8am and began the 3 hour drive to El Chalten. I got chatting to an English guy, called James, so the journey passed pretty quickly until we were engulfed by the snowstorm. There was a nervous silence amid the passengers as we peered ahead into the whiteness as the bus skidded its way to El Chalten. Luckily we were all dropped off at a hostel so we didn’t have to face the blizzard, but the afternoon was a write-off and the five of us spent most of the time playing cards and chatting. The next day the weather had cleared but there was at least a foot of snow on the ground and none of us had appropriate footwear. We ventured out as we were going stir-crazy cooped up in the hostel, so wrapping plastic bags around our feet we were able to do a short three-hour trek through the knee-deep snow. It was fun but we didn’t dare go very far in case the weather turned and covered out tracks. We attempted to follow a couple of paths but they were completely buried, leaving us lost most of the time. The last day was a little better and I was able to hike for five hours before my feet got too cold.

The next leg of the journey begins tonight with the 3 hour drive back to El Calafate. There I’ll spend the night and catch a 4 hour bus to Rio Gallegos in the morning, followed by an 18 hour bus to Puerto Madryn for some whale watching.               

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  1. Hello Ben, so moving south now (to warmer climes!) The glacier looks amazing and to have mostly to yourself, great. Snowstorm as well, and I can’t imagine how cold your feet must have been :S Great pictures, Ben. Hope you don’t mind me saving some to a “Ben” folder. Looking forward to Whale watching. xxColin & Carolyn.

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