Why visit El Calafate?
El Calafate provided me with an epiphany; I’m a mountain person!
After a lifetime of putting myself in the “water person” category I was stunned by the joy of experiencing Patagonia’s mountains. Clear, bright skies, raptors swooping overhead, glaciers and clean air converted me. El Calafate provided several of the experiences which changed me in terms of how I now identify in terms of scenery preferences. Perhaps it could provoke a transformational experience for you too. Perhaps.
El Calafate is strategically located between El Chaltén, an Argentine center for trekking enthusiasts and Torres del Paine a Chilean trekker hotbed. (Well, the trekkers are not necessarily Chilean but the hotbed is. Or something.)
A lot of people who are making their way across Patagonia on their own see El Calafate as a good stopping point. But it deserves more respect than to be seen merely as a place where travelers sleep and leave.
Some snooty travel purists bemoan El Calafate’s “tumorous growth” and its touristy businesses. Would they prefer that every little business that sells day trips be spread along 100s of miles? That the restaurants be dispersed among the mountains? We say “Get over yourself and see it as an efficient hub of commerce and go have some barbecued lamb and a hearty glass of wine”. There are quite a few intriguing things to do in and around El Calafate but turning up your nose at it isn’t one of them.
Visit the Glaciarium Ice Museum in El Calafate
The prospect of a visit to an interpretive and educational museum about glaciers may sound about as appealing as a museum about dirt. But imagine if you will that after visiting the The Glaciarium you will know all kinds of interesting things about glaciers and why they are critical to the survival of earth as we know it (or did before the New Hampshire primary).
You can fill any awkward conversational pauses in your future by casually mentioning what follows the roar that accompanies a glacier when it calves. You can motivate guests who have over-stayed their welcome to quickly depart when you go on about “glacier budgets”, why glaciers look blue when they’re composed of colorless water, the significance of cryoconite holes, what nunataks have to do with Inuit Eskimos and other things that will be fascinating when you are actually at The Glaciarium. Most of the information will fall out of your brain but you will at least leave knowing that glaciers actually matter a lot.
The Glaciarium isn’t cheap at close to $16 USD per adult so don’t do what two unnamed travelers did recently and rush through it without allowing enough time. Plan to be there for at least 2 hours so you can see the exhibits, do goofy things at the interactive thingees, see the film, buy something in the small, appealing gift shop and have a coffee in the cafe as you look out at the mountains.
Tip Don’t bother going to the Glaciobar. It’s an extra $13 bucks to go very briefly into a bar where everything is made of ice – the bar itself, a faux heating stove and the tables and couches. It’s a small, very cold place with clumps of people who are there for the sole purpose of having their photos taken. The Glaciobar is an environmentally inappropriate feature for a museum that strives to teach people that human behavior is responsible for climate change. Massive energy consumption is required to maintain this frigid photo experience. Harrumph!
Use El Calafate as your base to explore the Perito Moreno glacier
We were fortunate enough that our guardian angels (really guardian travel agency) Swoop Patagonia arranged for us to do a day trip to Perito Moreno with Hielo y Aventura. Hielo y Aventura is a local company run by uncommonly nice people and well-informed, and more importantly, attractive guides. This outing was arguably the #1 highlight of our 2 weeks flitting about Patagonia.
A Mercedes bus picks you up at your hotel somewhere around 8:30 a.m. and drives you the nearly 50 miles to Los Glaciares National Park. You arrive at the park, have a bio-break, and go down to the lake to board a catamaran that passes in front of the glacier. If you’re lucky you can get a photo such as the one above. (Tip for getting a photo without other people in front of you; stay inside the ship, open a window and take it from there.)
After the boat ride you stash whatever you don’t want to carry with you in some little cubbyholes in a building where apparently no one ever steals anything. Then you toddle on down to the ice and get fitted with crampons that attach to the bottoms of your shoes (or better yet low boots). The guides, especially the really attractive one, explain how to walk wearing crampons (basically like Herman Munster) and they also give you safety advice. And off you go, clomping along while hearing interesting commentary about what you’re seeing.
All in you will probably be out and about trekking on the glacier for about an hour and a half. If you’re in reasonably good shape it isn’t difficult. (If you aren’t you probably aren’t in Patagonia anyway.) If you are like the previously unnamed travelers and didn’t realize that you were supposed to bring your own lunch you will be very hungry by now. But at least your thirst will be quenched at the conclusion of the walk when you are given Scotch on “the rocks” from the glacier.
You will make a second crossing on the catamaran back to where the bus is parked and then be taken to the official visitor’s center which has a massively over-priced cafeteria with unappealing food. If you forgot to bring a lunch you will probably buy some of this regrettable food. Then it’s time to head back to town.
Tips: For some odd reason you can buy the trip, ride out to the park, take the boat to the other side and only then be told you cannot do the glacier trek if you are pregnant or have a heart condition. Also, take your lunch!
Go on a horseback ride outside of El Calafate
On our last day in El Calafate the intensely customer-thrilling oriented people at Swoop Patagonia managed to book us for a horseback ride in the few remaining hours before our flight to Buenos Aires. A driver took us to El Galpon de Glaciar, a beautiful old sheep farm (the sheep aren’t necessarily old) on the edge of Lago Argentina and with spectacular views of the Andes Mountains.
We were fortunate enough that the owner of the ranch, an Argentine stud muffin of the highest caliber, personally took the two of us out for a ride. The scenery was spectacular but, truthfully, memories of Ricardo (or was it Marco?) will long outlive those of the scenery. He rode his very sassy horse in continuous loops, chain-smoked (not one of his attractive features), took photos of us and provided fascinating glimpses into his life.
An example is that a couple years ago he took up endurance horse riding because he thought that now that he’s 50 he needed to switch to a less strenuous sport than his previous horseback one, El Pato, that he used to do. He failed to mention that at one time El Pato was outlawed due to its danger and violence.
Endurance racing is riding a horse for anywhere from 50 to 300 miles in a competition. You know, the kind of thing you can do until you’re 80 as Ricardo/Marcos casually informed us. Glad he took up something easy-peasy.
We were probably a lot sadder than our host when the ride ended.
Never before has a shiningly-bald-domed man wearing leather chaps been so appealing to two heterosexual women! Yes, the views, bunnies, sheep, birds in the Natural Reservoir “Laguna de los Pajaros” and mountains were great but similar sights may possibly exist elsewhere.
Ricardo/Marco does not.
Tip: He is a more than good enough reason to visit El Calafate.