Patagonia Series #1: El Calafate
There are limited countries in the world where glaciers can be seen. Argentina is one of these countries. El Calafate is a small, cute, touristic city on the edge of Lago Argentino lake in Santa Cruz, Argentina. The most attention point is, of course, the national park that the Perito Moreno Glacier is located.
- El Calafate takes its name from the fruit of Calafate (Magellan Barberry). It is possible to find Calafate jams all over the city.
- El Calafate is located in Patagonia. Patagonia isn’t a country, city, or state. It is the name given to the geographical region in the south of Argentina, and Chile.
- In general, Patagonia is quite cold and snowy in winters, summers are cool and extremely windy.
- A small reminder: the cold winter months; June-July-August, the windy summer months; December, January, February.
- Life in Patagonia is expensive. Because of the climate and geographical conditions, transportation and providing the food are difficult. It makes everything expensive. Also, in the touristic points like El Calafate, prices can go up to one and half times that of Buenos Aires. So, it is necessary to prepare a budget accordingly for Patagonia trips.
- Perito Moreno Glacier is named after Francisco Pascasio Moreno who is the founder of the national park. The Fitz Roy Mountains in the back are named after the German explorer who first found the Glacier.
- The Perito Moreno Glacier is a UNESCO protected world heritage site.
As I said just above, the Patagonia region is unbelievable windy in the summer. I’ve never seen such a wind in my life. Therefore, we need to pay attention to how we will get dressed on the way to Patagonia.
- My suggestion is dressing in layers as much as possible. Because if you go with very thick coats or sweaters, it’ll be hot when you go to a nook that is protected from the wild. On the dates of we were in El Calafate, the weather was changing between 15-20 degrees. Our distress wasn’t related to temperature, but completely be due to the wind. Because the wind is blowing so cold, even if the weather is 20 degrees.
- Of course, warm and comfortable shoes.
- It is important to have cash with you to enter the park. There is no payment by card.
- Another thing you shouldn’t forget to take with you is suncream. I had no idea how much ice can give you sunburns. I ended up with a very red nose in El Calafate.
Transportation to El Calafate:
Airlines LATAM or Aerolineas Argentinas fly from Buenos Aires. The flight lasts nearly 3 hours. (It’s a huge country) There are flights from cities like Ushuaia and Bariloche to El Calafate. But there aren’t direct flights to El Calafate from a non-Argentina country. You can reach all of the nearby cities by bus. El Calafate is located on the famous Route 40 (La Ruta 40). It’s possible to take the whole Route 40 by bus or car.
Transportation to the airport:
As in Iguazu, there is a service company that dropping off you till the door of your hotel to 120 pesos per person. (2017 prices, definitely higher now.) We took our tickets and immediately got on the vehicle and got off right in front of our hotel.
Transportation to the national park:
There are several options to reach the park. The first of these is, using the buses of Taqsa firm from El Calafate bus station. Another one is, go along with tours. The last option is, going by taxi.
The taxi will be the most expensive option, as you can imagine. Because the city center isn’t close to the park. The road lasts 1 hour.
You can rent a car which would give you flexibility. Many of the attractions are outside of the city. If you want to have a detailed trip, renting a car may be the best option. Though it is not the cheapest.
The private tours are all over the city. In every step, you come across a tour agency. Your hotel too can probably help you with this matter. (In 2017) The tour prices were around 800 pesos per person. Our hotel had offered us the option of a shuttle service for 900 pesos. We chose Taqsa that is the most economical option.
The Taqsa buses depart from the terminal at 08.30 in the morning, and you return from the park to the city with the same bus at 14.30. The tickets cost ARS 600 per person. (again, 2017) It’s a little expensive…
Please remember that, due to the high inflation in Argentina, the prices may rise very quickly.
I think 3 days are quite enough for El Calafate. The first day for visiting the park and the second day for the city trip would be enough. It’s a tiny city anyway. On the other hand, because of the plane and bus hours, half of your day may be wasted. All vehicles arranged to make you stay there at least 1 night. After all, you have to contribute to the economy of Argentina while you are there. We stayed 2 nights in El Calafate out of necessity.
Things To Do:
The city center is quite pretty. On the main street Avenida Libertador, there is a small street with touristic shops. We sat in Borges & Alvarez Librobar. (book café) I liked it so much and I suggest to you to go and visit. (Librobar address: Av. Libertador 1015) We didn’t go to the Glaciar Museum because it is located quite out of town. You need to provide transportation from tourism offices to go there. So, we decided to skip it. As far as I know, it’s an informative museum about the formation of glaciers. Many people like it. If you want, you can spare time.
Lago Argentino is a quite huge and beautiful lake. A fascinating place with turquoise waters. If there’s no wind, going to the lake from the city center is very easy. As I said before, Patagonia’s summer is quite windy, and lucky for us, our days in El Calafate were the windiest.
Reserva Laguna Nimez
Reserva Laguna Nimez is located on the coast of Lago Argentina. This is a specific area that is protected around the lake. You can buy a ticket from here, and get closer to the lake, and observe the fauna and flora closely. It’s possible to see many species of plants and birds. If you find the wind hard and you want to go to Reserva, I suggest you choose the shortest way through the city. You’ll see on the maps, there is a long way that is suggested because it has more views. We tried to go the long way. The wind was so dizzying that when we arrived, I wanted to go back right away and rest a little.
Los Glaciers National Park
And, of course, going to Los Glaciers National Park and watching the glaciers break! What makes El Calafate a truly touristic place is the famous Perito Moreno Glacier. If you want, you can also rent a tour and do trekking on the glaciers. The tour companies provide you with ice crampons, all you have to do is watching your tour guide carefully on the ice.
Los Glaciares National Park, (or Parque Nacional Los Glaciares) is nearly 100 km out of El Calafate. I especially mentioned the original name, because it can be easily confused with Glacier National Park that is located on the border of the USA and Canada. This National Park is especially famous with the Perito Moreno Glacier.
Transportation with Taqsa
When you come to the park’s door, you don’t get off from the bus. A park officer comes, takes entrance fees and gives you your tickets. Then the bus continues on its way into the park. The point, where Taqsa drops off the passengers, is strategically very logical. It leaves you in the sub-point of the whole park, thus, you can get your tickets for the boat tour as soon as you get off the bus. Firstly, we boarded the boat, and it was a great decision to give priority to the boat tour. Most of the people put off the boat tour in the afternoon, so the boat was quite empty in the morning. We were only 5 people in the boat, there was only one other family except us. We could easily take many pictures. We didn’t have to grasp at from anyone’s shoulder to see the view.
While I was researching for the tour, I read that the boat tour is unnecessary, in many blogs. But I enjoyed it very much. If we were late and boarded with the crowd, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a nice experience. So, if you plan to include a boat tour, I suggest you arrange it in the early hours. After finishing the boat tour, we went to the closest section and started to walk around the park. Later, we decided that the route we followed wasn’t very good because we had to climb all the time and we got a little confused with the routes and in the end, we found ourselves very far from the stop where we need to take the bus. So, now I’ll explain the route that I think is better.
Taqsa drops off the passengers in the parking area where you can see it in the bottom-right corner. As soon as you get off, you can buy the boat ticket, then board from the pier. As I said, I think it’s very good to do an early boat tour, Taqsa helped us a lot with that. We didn’t have to lean on other people’s shoulders in chock full of a boat for watching the glaciers. I think that most people who say that the boat tour isn’t good, didn’t like the boat tour because they did it with a very crowded group. Otherwise, the view is fabulous, the glaciers are rising right across you, in the fresh weather easily enjoying the fascinating view is great. By the way, I’ll remark that boats never come too close to the glaciers. Because the glaciers are likely to break at any moment, so they trot round you from a safe distance.
It seems to me that many different tour buses drop off their passengers in a place that is the bus sign in the middle of the photo. Thus, they are moving more downhill compared to us. Firstly, we walked in the way indicated by the blue route and went to yellow and white respectively. The Taqsa would pick us up at 14:00, in the place where it dropped off us, we didn’t have time for red and green. In the end, we were at the top of the park but we had to go down to take our bus.
There are cafeterias and gift shops at the points where two parking lots are located. We entered, and asked how we could go down. Either we had to go the whole way back or, we’d wait for a shuttle. Luckily, the shuttles were passing often. A narrow road has been opened for shuttles from the upper cafeteria to the lower cafeteria. It is certainly forbidden to walk in this way. If you try to walk, the park employees will fınd you and there is a fee for it. Also, one of the shuttles may hit you on that small road, which is the reason for this rule in the first place. We waited for the shuttle. It took a maximum of 10 minutes to get down to the cafeteria after getting on the shuttle. In the end, we could catch our bus.
We wandered to the park by climbing after getting off the boat, but climbing was tiring. Therefore we were slow. Instead of starting the blue section quickly after the boat tour, you can go with park shuttles to the part where the white section is located. Also, here is the highest part of the park. Here you can look to the glaciers from above and you can see the top of it.
You can start wandering to down, from this point. The white section is suitable for wheelchairs and strollers. We couldn’t do red and green because we didn’t have time. The green route only passes through the forest, and red is the most difficult section; it requires some effort. The yellow route is closest to the Perito Moreno and overlooking the area where most fractures observed. The blue route is the lowest section, you go down to the water level. As you know, it’s already boarded to the boat from the end of the blue route. If you start from the white route, then you can go as green, red, yellow, and blue routes respectively.
The white section is quite small, it won’t be difficult to go green one. Thus, first, you see the glaciers from the bottom of the boat, then you see going upmost while continuing to water level. At the same time, this route will require relatively less climb. (except the red section) You may need to go back to the car park in the center of the white route to return to the city center after all the sections over. Again, you can use the shuttles at the end of the blue section.
Why Is Perito Moreno Glacier Breaking?
Let’s get to the subject that makes this place so interesting. Why is Perito Moreno breaking? Because Perito Moreno is an alive glacier. An active glacier that is on the move constantly. These glaciers are essentially ice-river that consist of the water that comes from the mountains that receive continuous rainfall. With the added snow and ice, the glacier continues to flow and progress. Perito Moreno is the extremum point to the whole glacier and the closest point to the land. At this point, the glacier is no longer can progress and breaks because it is leaned to the land. There are fractions in Perito Moreno every day. You can hear the fraction sounds while you are in the park during summer. At irregular intervals, the land and glacier can merge fully. In this case, the glacier is completely stranded and Lago Argentina and Brazo Rico are completely separated from each other. But, of course, the water is continuously abrading to the glacier, thus forming an ice bridge that connecting the glacier with the land as follows. As a result of the heat received from land, naturally, the ice bridge is continuing to braking.
It isn’t easy to coincide with such a big fracture. The latest fracture in 2001 was filmed by several news channels. We weren’t very lucky that day, we couldn’t see many nice fractures. But we could hear the fracturing sounds all the time.
Lastly, here is the link for the website of the National Park. Although ıt is not the best website, it does give some information about the park and the Perito Moreno Glaciar.
We preferred Kalken Hotel because it’s in the city center and it seemed so close to the old bus station. Though, we learned that the bus station is moved out of the city after we arrive at El Calafate. Although that was our primary reason to choose this hotel, we were still to stay there. It was clean, the breakfast was nice and varied for a standard 3 star Argentina hotel. It was easy to visit the city center because it was located in the heart of the city.
In the morning, we had our breakfasts in the hotel. Just like I mentioned above, the breakfast of our hotel was good. At noon, we always had bread with some cheese that we bought from a local supermarket. In the evenings, we tried to have a nice feast as much as possible.
The first day, we went to the Mako Restaurant at the recommendation of a friend who has visited El Calafate. It was a very elegant restaurant. Before the main meal, we ordered soup to warm up. There were corn and pumpkin soup on the menu, we ordered one for each. I cannot say I’m very satisfied with the soups. Because the soup came with something like cheese-ice cream.
Assuming we had to, we mixed it into the soup. It didn’t look good. But I liked the taste of the corn soup before mixing ice cream. As the main meal, we ordered a portion of the lamb that is famous for Patagonia. On the suggestion of our friend, we ordered a red tuna. The tuna was really good, I loved it. The lamb was also quite tasty. The second day we had dinner in La Marca. This was sort of a shabby restaurant in a beautiful garden. Here, we ordered the lamb. We decided that La Marca’s lamb was more delicious than Mako.
Adventures in Latin America
Our trip to El Calafate was just as adventurous as Iguazu. This time we went without any trouble. But the next day we arrived at El Calafate, we learned that all airline employees decided to strike for the next two days. Our plans to move from El Calafate to Ushuaia suddenly came to the naught. We went to Rio Gallegos (capital of the state of Santa Cruz) by bus, and then returned to Buenos Aires with an additional flight they added.
Rio Gallegos isn’t touristic. However, if you happen to pass by, you can contact me for suggestions. I can suggest hotels and give you some suggestions for transportation. It was kind of lucky that we had to go to Rio Gallegos. For the first time, I’ve experienced Argentina’s famous intercity buses and I’ve seen a classic city of Patagonia.
Dates of Travel: December 17-19, 2017
Translation Date: December 15, 2019
Translated by: Acelya Yildirim
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