On January 2nd we flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate. When we picked up our rental car in at the airport the first thing the rental guy showed us was where the spare and jack were, so we knew it would be a bit different driving experience than at home. Then we walked around the tin can of a car, a Chevrolet Corsa, and noted a chunk of exterior missing above the rear tire, a slight crack in the windshield, and splattered black asphalt marks. After running through the checklist the Hertz rep said, “Be careful of the animals and the wind, you have light until 11:00 and it’s beautiful country — have fun!”
Despite the hesitancy that the Hertz guy left us with, the drive into El Calafate was quick. There is a police checkpoint just at the edge of town though. That first time through we were not sure what to expect, and so when we pulled up to the checkpoint we had just about every available document we could get our hands on at the ready but when the policeman asked us “Where are you coming from?” (in Spanish of course) we just looked at him like idiots. We weren’t the first tourist idiots he’d seen (and it was pretty clear that we weren’t a threat to the security of El Calafate) so he waved us on, and of course shortly after pulling away Julie figured out what he was asking us. From then on we got the gist: if they stop you on the way out of town they’d ask “Where are you going?”, and then on the way into town would ask “Where are you coming from?”.
We stayed at Linda Vista Apart Hotel during our three nights in El Calafate. Our room, really two separate rooms and a small kitchen, was nice, and probably the largest we stayed in during the trip. The owners were friendly and helpful, and the location was close enough to the center of town that we could easily walk to dinner. The restaurants in town were better than we were expecting, if a bit more expensive than in Buenos Aires. In fact we had some of the best pasta we ate in Argentina at Casimiro Bigua Trattoria. Overall it was a nice town to spend a few nights in, and had a surprisingly familiar “Colorado mountain town” like feel.
Perito Moreno Glacier
The day after we arrived in El Calafate we drove out to see the truly impressive Perito Moreno Glacier. The drive was straightforward and took us a bit longer than a hour and a half. At the entrance to Parque Nacional los Glaciares, which you reach about twenty minutes before reaching the glacier, there is a ranger station where you stop and pay the entrance fee. The road from here becomes narrower, and begins winding through a forest of southern beech trees and crossing the occasional burbling stream. Eventually we were directed into a parking lot where we left the rental car and took a minibus that shuttled us to the top of the hill where we got the first expansive view of the glacier.
On one side of the small parking lot at the hilltop is a recently constructed and very nice cafeteria, gift shop, and public bathroom. On the other side a network of catwalks leads down the hill towards the glacier. They are still completing construction of the catwalks, but when we were there it seemed as though there was about a mile of catwalks spread across the hill. The lower levels of the catwalk are at least a couple hundred feet below the level of the upper parking lot, and feel amazingly close to the glacier. They also spread out far enough horizontally that you can both get totally different perspectives of the glacier and also can get away from the crowds. The most entrancing aspect of the glacier is the nearly continuous calving. Even the “small” pieces that fall off the face of the glacier generate a surprisingly hearty “boom”, and truly big chunks sound like what I’d imagine a head on collision between two freight trains would sound like. At the end of the day we really had to tear ourselves away to leave. Even standing at the top of the hill waiting for the minibus to take us back to our car we’d hear the booms of the ice being shed off the glacier, and it was difficult to resist the urge to run over to the overlook to try to catch another glimpse.