Our trip to El Calafate began with a long drive from Torres del Paine on dirt roads across the open space to the Argentinian border. We cleared the Chilean border and drove 10 km down a gravel road to the Argentinian border check-point.
I speak only a small amount of Spanish, but the Argentinian guard there communicated to us that we must pay the reciprocity fee that is needed for US citizens to enter Argentina, and the only way to pay is on the internet.
This remote office did not have internet connectivity, so we must to go back to a restaurant in Chile to use the internet.
So back to Chile via the 10 km of gravel; luckily the border agent on the
Chilean side didn’t make us go through all of the formalities when I explained (in broken Spanish) our situation. The Chilean guard looked at his phone and indicated that we probably were not going to get internet in this little town because his cell phone wasn’t working. Yikes!
The cafe next door was indeed off-line due to an outage with the cell company. So, not having any better ideas, we ordered lunch. A little protein helps with the stress. After munching on hamburgers we started problem-solving again.
The owner of the cafe was very sympathetic to our situation and did his best to help. He explained, in Spanish, that he was not getting data service, so we couldn’t connect through his restaurant. Fortunately our Chilean cell phones were with another company and Les was able to get a data connection with his phone and use it as a hot-spot for our laptop. In keeping with our luck, Les’s phone immediately ran out of credit and we are off-line again. At this point, I’m thinking we may have to forgo El Calafate. But, the cafe owner came to the rescue, he called a friend someplace else in Chile who added 5,000 pesos to our SIM card and we were back in business in 10 minutes. After 20 more minutes entering our data and credit card number on the Argentinian website, we were able to pay our reciprocity fee. Now we needed to print it to prove to the border crossing agent that we had actually paid. We downloaded the information to a thumb drive and the nice owner of the cafe printed our receipts. The sun had not set yet, so we let ourselves back through the Chilean border crossing and crossed the 10 km of gravel road to try to enter Argentina again. Unfortunately this time we arrived at the little outpost just behind a large bus crossing the border and we had to wait in line for a bus load of tourists to be processed by the bored border guard.
We were finally through, although our gas tank read under ¼ tank and we were told there was one gas station on our route that may (or may not) be open. An hour later we pulled up to the lonely small building with a single ancient pump in front. Luckily for us a man came from around the back and fired up the generator to pump our gas. We were very relieved to not be driving on empty out in the middle of nowhere.
After a few more hours of driving through empty territory of scrub and gravel, we arrived in El Calafate, a charming lake side town with lots of shops and restaurants. Google Maps located our hotel in a soccer field, so we asked for help at a gas station – no help there; then we asked a soccer player walking to his game – no luck. On our way back towards town, as the sun was dipping behind the mountains, I caught sight of the sign of our hotel out of the corner of my eye. Score! We were finally here, and I’m not sure we would have ever found it in the dark.
Our cabana was a small but really nice place, with two bedrooms, a kitchenette, living room, and an exceptional buffet breakfast included. All for an extremely good price. The place is fairly new, very clean and the food was amazing. One “feature” of our cabana was that it came equipped with an alarm that we turned on every time we left, this was the first time we have had an actual burglar alarm in one of our rentals, and it made me suspect that burglary may be an issue. With this suspicion in the back of my mind, I noticed that most evenings there was a man hanging out in the little gravel street next to the hotel with his cell phone. I was very suspicious of him and came up with all sorts of scenarios (innocent and nefarious) for why he might be there. On the third night I was about to report this suspicious activity to the hotel management, when I realized that he was most likely just nabbing WiFi from the hotel. Not that stealing WiFi is OK, but I no longer felt threatened and slept soundly the next night. The kids were in heaven every morning with the wide selection of delicious pastries available on the breakfast buffet, and they soon became addicted to Dolce de Leche. One night we reserved diner at the hotel, and it was quite an experience. The chef schedules a table every 20 minutes, since he cooked and served each table himself. Our dinner was exceptional and it was really cool to have the chef serve the food, tell use something about the different dishes, recommend a wine pairing, and answer any questions we had. The kids felt like judges on American Iron Chef. This hotel turned out to be a great little find.
The main activity to do in El Calafate is to visit the glaciers. We chose to see the famous Pedro Mereno Glacier. Wow! What a sight. We walked on a glacier in Iceland, and walked around one in Switzerland and New Zealand, but this was by far the most spectacular. The blue color that emanates from the ice chasms caused us all to catch our breath. The park has a maze of over 2 miles of raised walk-ways that allow tourists to get many different views of glacier. We were there during the off-season, so the park was not crowded and we walked around at our own pace. As I walked around soaking in the views of the glacier, I became aware that Patrick was no where in sight. Normally he either stays within eye-shot or lets me know where he is going. My mother instincts kicked-in and I started playing scenarios of him disappearing into the maze of walk-ways, never to be seen again!!! So, in a bit of a panic I began to quickly walk up and down the steep staircases until I found him. I was red-faced and out-of-breath but I was quite relieved when I had him in-hand; and I made everyone stay close the rest of the day. It was too big of a place to get separated.
We were lucky and witnessed a few large chunks of ice slip off the face of the glacier and crash into the lake below. It also was pretty cool to hear the regular cannon-like sound of ice cracking, as it echoed from inside the crevasses. To complete our tour of the glacier we boarded a ship that cruised us along the face of the glacier, coming within 300 meters and getting us a few nice photo opportunities. We had an excellent guide who gave us lots of information about the glacier. He explained that the glacier is not retreating (as most glaciers are these days), because the snout of the glacier collides with a solid granite mountain, creating “back pressure” in the ice, causing the glacier to maintain it’s thickness, which prevents excessive melting. We were amazed by the beauty of the glacier and we were glad that we took the boat out to get a look at it from the water.
After leaving the park we drove to a lake that was part of the park as recommended by a lady at the tourists office. We drove, and drove, and drove down a dirt road. I really needed to use the facilities, but there didn’t appear to be any out here. We finally came across a campground with a little restaurant and bathrooms. We jumped out of the car and hustled towards the bathrooms, when a man came running after us. It seems the facilities were only for those people camping. Mind you the next closest bathrooms were over an hour drive away, so we paid the man $5 for a cup of coffee, which we declined to drink, so we could officially be customers. Quite the scam. We drove another 20 minutes and the road ended. We had our picnic among the cows (and cow patties) in the field. We’re still not quite sure why the lady at the tourist office sent us out there. The views were nice but they were nice from miles around. There was nothing out there, not even a place to sit down. Maybe she’s the cousin of the guy who owns the restrooms. Anyway, we had a nice picnic, a good laugh and a long drive back to El Calafate.
In El Calafate we found some authentic local art local shops bought some local crafts. A knife with a really cool carved handle and a decorative plate to hang up at home. We also went to a cafe and tried a local favorite Argentinian tea called Mate. Mate a very strong herbal tea that is often shared by friends who drink it from a decorative gourd through a metal straw that has a strainer at the bottom. It is traditionally a social drink that is passed around at a gathering of friends or family, where everyone has their own silver straw. A very nice lady sitting next to us tried her best to teach us the best way to drink the mate, keep putting in hot water, and sprinkle in just enough sugar.
She jumped up to help us several times since our Spanish wasn’t strong enough to take directions on tea preparation without demonstrations. She seemed pleased when we all appreciated a few sips. We thought the cups and straws were really cool so I went to a mate store and bought ourselves one to send home. But, to be honest, the tea itself is a bit strong for me. I think I’ll just use the cup to drink my favorite teas at home.