On the roller coaster to El Calafate

Visitors crossing the border on the road from Puerto Natales in Chile to El Calafate in Argentina are being greeted by a big, spanking new signpost reading “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” (The Falkland Islands are Argentinean). Whew, that’s quite a bold statement – however a bit pointless, since no British tourists were travelling on my bus. Instead of being intimidated, most passengers were bemused of this governmental declaration of force which evaporated into a void of pitiful smiles among the crowd. On a much friendlier and welcoming side, the customs officers proved to be very efficient and immigration was swift. It took merely ten minutes to process all the 50 people from my bus.

Near El Calafate

After leaving Puerto Natales, I did hesitate for a moment to go further South to Ushuaia. But this wasn’t really an option, since seats to that destination are scarce. They are sold out three or more days in advance in any major town around here. Since I needed to backtrack North anyway, I decided to skip Ushuaia for a later trip – and went to El Calafate.

In the dorm of the hostel in El Calafate was – among other travelers – an old drunk German who would moan all night about how sick he was. He kept everyone awake for most part of the night. Lacking sleep, I found myself roaming the streets of El Calafate being grumpy and cynical.

Many unimportant details of daily life caught my attention, for example: The local ATM (note, there is no plural in it) has a ridiculous withdrawal limit of 300 Argentinean Pesos (roughly 90 US$) per day. This will buy me either 6 nights in a dorm, or 7 lunches or 2 tour bus excursions to the nearby glacier. Unsurprisingly, many tourists milk the money machine with two or more cards at the same time. The resulting queue is very long for most of the day. Another detail is the omnipresent shortage of coins in town. Many shop owners would moan and roll their eyes – or give me the stare of death – when I didn’t have the exact change. Paying a can of coke (2.50Pesos) with a 5 Peso bill can be a frightening experience in El Calafate.

Perito Moreno glacier

To be fair, all these unimportant facts tell more about my mood than about Argentina. But the sudden shift from having probably the best and most memorable moments (on the “Navimag” ship and in the “Torres del Paine” National Park) to this low point of my round-the-world trip was very drastic and abrupt. But there is always room to learn and after hearing similar stories from other travelers, I was prepared having to face an emotional roller coaster potentially sometimes during my journey.

Unwillingly helping, the drunk German in my dorm would also moan and complain when being sober and awake. He constantly was bragging to anyone about how long he was stuck in El Calafate waiting for his bus. And how miserable he felt. Seeing this guy was like watching in a mirror – with the only exception that I decided that I definitely did not want to end up that way.

A visit to the glacier “Perito Moreno” would keep me busy with new perspectives. Being one of the major tourist attractions on the Argentinian side of Patagonia, this is one of only three glaciers in the region that are not retreating. The noise of breaking ice during the calving was amazing. what is more fascinating, is the fact that at times, the Perito Moreno glacier does form a natural dam – separating the two halves of the lake “Lago Argentino”. This creates a rise in water level of more than 20 meters on one side of the lake, subsequently resulting in an enormous pressure on the ice dam.

Perito Moreno glacier

When the water from the lake finally breaks this ice barrier, the rupture event is told to be spectacular. In fact, all over the town of El Calafate, I spotted various posters from the last couple of ruptures – the one of 2004 having been apparently the most photogenic one. This day trip out to the glacier was a bit touristy and I found the park entrance fee coming at 60 Pesos a bit steep (remember how many Pesos per day you can get from the local ATM?). But the weather was fine and seeing Perito Moreno glacier is definitely an impressive and recommended sight.

The town of El Calafate itself reminded me a bit of Pucón in Chile or Franz Josef in New Zealand. These are all very touristy places. They are nowhere representative of other towns in these countries. Most visitors love to stroll for a day through the streets shopping for souvenirs and having nice food and drinks in the restaurants and bars. But there is little to discover and explore. So I had little reason to stay longer than a day here. Luckily a lot of buses were heading north which meant that I did not have to wait days for my bus to leave. Definitely, there was no risk in ending up like the obnoxious German from my dorm room. And I spotted the first glimpses of a returning smile on my face in the mirror.