In which we see and hear the mighty Perito Moreno Glacier, don't see any flamingoes and prepare to take on the 'W'
24.02.2013 - 27.02.2013 15 °C
Our flight from Bariloche to El Calafate was totally painless. The nice man at Aerolineas Argentina not only gave us seats on the right of the plane so we could see the Andes during the flight, but he also let Marcus off the extra weight in his bag - which was a whole 33% over the official weight limit. Oops. So after a lovely flight (with indeed, lovely views of the Andes) we landed in El Calafate. We'd been told by a few people that El Calafate wasn't worth visiting in itself, and it's true that almost everyone seems to be there to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, but we actually found El Calafate itself to be quite sweet. There's really just one main street, filled with tour agencies, shops and cafes, including a couple of little wooden arcades full of craft stalls. But the location is lovely, set along the shore of Lago Argentina with hills rising up behind.
That afternoon we had a wander around the town and visited a bird sanctuary which has been set up along the edge of the lake. As soon as you get away from the main strip the town is a lot more rural, with unpaved roads and seemingly random building sites and house plots. It's obviously a town expanding fast to accommodate all the people like us who pass through. The bird park was, to be honest, a bit boring. We went because they were supposed to have flamingos - but we counted exactly 'cero' flamingoes when we were there. Very disappointing! But it was pretty and an opportunity to stretch our legs for the afternoon.
Just like everyone else, we were really there to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. So, the next morning we got a bus to the national park. The glacier is absolutely spellbinding, much bigger than the glaciers we saw in New Zealand and really active.
Just to give you an idea of scale, the glacier is 5km long, 1km wide and 60m high. The best thing though is how much it moves. All day we could hear it cracking, groaning and shifting as it moves two metres a day (loads and loads in glacier terms). Every fifteen minutes or so, a chunk is carved off the end and crashes into the lake with a huge bang. It sounds like rolling thunder with a big crack that then echoes across the glacier. Really hard to take a photo of, you can just about make it out in this one...
There are a series of walkways with routes to different viewpoints so we spent a good few hours walking around and willing bigger chunks to come off!
Probably the best thing about our stay in El Calafate though was our hostel - Hospedaje Lautaro. Run by a young Argentine couple, Belen and Dario (who also have the cutest baby!) it has been the friendliest place we've stayed in. Belen was very excited that we were newly married, and when we got home after our glacier expedition we found a sweet handwritten note, strawberries and sweets laid out on the bed. Finding a place where you feel so welcome makes such a massive difference, especially now we've been away from home for almost four months.
The next day we said goodbye to Belen and Dario and got the bus to Puerto Natales, crossing the border back into Chile. The drive showed us just how stark and empty Patagonia is, we drove for hours with just flat plains of scrubland for a view. As we neared Puerto Natales, the landscape got a bit more mountainous, and from Puerto Natales itself we can just about make out some snow-capped mountains in the distance. The town itself has a totally different character to El Calafate, and is full of corrugated-iron roofed houses. You definitely get the sense you are in a remote place, although the town centre is quite big (in Patagonian terms) with lots of trekking shops.
Just like El Calafate, Puerto Natales is another town full of people on the move, but this time everyone is going to Torres del Paine. While it's possible to do day treks (and there are lots of tour groups doing just that) there are also some serious treks, and therefore lots of people in walking boots and Gortex around town. We're going to be joining them though and trekking the 'W', a five day trek through the highlights of the national park.So we've basically spent the last couple of days preparing for the trek - booking transport to the park, renting equipment (tent, stove, etc.) and buying up all the cereal bars and chocolate in town. We also went to a really useful information session at another hostel, Erratic Rock, where an experienced guide talks you through the different trails and advice on how to approach the trek. This included his opening statement - "your feet will be wet the entire time" and other gems such as "you can't beat the weather, give in to it, dance in the rain" and "wear your stink uniform [one set of clothes you wear to trek everyday come rain or shine]". Excellent.
And yes, you did read that right. We'll be camping. And Torres del Paine is famous for it's changeable weather and serious wind (they recently recorded 180 km winds). Wish us luck... and if I haven't updated the blog in a week or so, maybe send out a search party...