In the heart of Argentinean Patagonia at the end of Route 40 lies El Calafate at 50?20' latitude, the gateway to some of this country's most amazing natural wonders. El Calafate, meaning blueberry in Spanish, is home to around 25,000 people and nearly 1000 species of birds and unique geographical features including steppes, valleys, mountains, forests, lakes, lagoons, wetlands and glaciers.
We arrived in El Calafate one afternoon, after a very long 26-hour bus ride (the company, Marga) from El Bolson. The further south we go, the less money it seems is invested in the country's bus network, and unlike buses in the northern half of the country (i.e. closer to Buenos Aires province) food and drink weren't offered onboard.
Previously we had signed up for membership of the Ho.La chain of hostels in Latin America. Ho.La is a chain of hostels with an eco-conscience that encourages environmentally sound practices through leaflets and public signage like "save water", "turn off the lights"...you get the point. Though not specifically labelled 'eco' they usually practice what they preach and provide the opportunity for recycling and compost. Free membership gets you 10% off at any Ho.La hostel.
Hostel i Keu Ken is part of that chain and that is where we headed. I Keu Ken has to be the best hostel we've stayed at to date in South America. The large bay windows in the cosy, rustic living areas give onto the best views in the town, where you can see both sunset and sunrise over the mountains and Lago Argentina.
Laguna Nimez is a protected wetlands sanctuary most famous for its Chilean pink flamingos. In wintertime they can't always be easily seen out on the lagoon, but we were lucky enough to have spotted them, before they flew away.
The species of flora and fauna in this region are abundant. From Redunda Bay to the southern lapwing you can cross paths with flamingos, grebes, ducks, coots, armadillos, guanacos (related to camels), condors, eagles, falcons, foxes, skunks, hares and even pumas and American lions (though the latter are a little more shy). The weather is harsh and can change in the blink of an eye, from sunny blue skies to fierce gale force winds and rain. Typical flora in this region is resistant to this unforgiving Patagonian climate.
We hired a car with some very nice Israeli travellers we met. One guy, Yatir, was staying at the same hostel as us, the other two were friends Yatir had made travelling in Bariloche beforehand.
We left early in the morning when the sun was just rising overhead. Right the way along the 80km to the entrance of the park, the reflections on Lago Argentina were stunning. All shades of blue were contrast against the snow-white of the lofty mountains beyond.
Arriving at the entrance of the national park, we each paid the entrance fee of 100 pesos and continued on our way. A few minutes down the road, suddenly it hits us and we get a glimpse of the magnificent Perito Moreno glacier. From this first lookout point, it's almost like a far-off mountain. It's easy to get an idea of the sheer magnitude of this ice rock, but impossible to envisage the way this feat of nature will leave you in awe once up close.
The Glaciers National Park was founded in 1937 to preserve the immense icelands within its borders. Declared a patrimony of humanity in 1981 by UNESCO, it has a surface of around 742,000 hectares and is home to both the country's largest lake, Lago Argentina and its most famous glacier, el Perito Moreno.
Perito Moreno was named after explorer Francisco Pascasio Moreno. With a massive surface area of 297 km2, 5 kms wide and a height of 60 metres, this mass of ice is in constant movement. The life of this glacier can be heard in the creaks and cracks of the ice, which produces alterations in its body from the constant movement. Through scientific investigations, is estimated that Perito Moreno has moved approximately 8 km over the past 20 years.
When the sun comes out massive chunks of this mass can be seen falling into the waters below, which is both a magical sight and a wary reminder of the changes happening in our climate.
Before the paths (los pasarelas) were created for visitors to get up close and personal to the glacier, many people either drowned or fell to their deaths when the break-offs of ice would create dangerous waves that engulfed the surrounding area.
We dropped Lena and Emmanuel off at the port to take a boat for a 'mini'trekking' excursion - a full day of walking on ice on the far end of Perito Moreno - and we continued in haste to finally see the beast up close and personal.
When we arrived at the carpark to the viewing balconies we were literally gobsmaked. At one point a condor flew overhead and we marvelled at the magestic bird before returning our gaze to the creaking ice in front of us. These paths are called the bend of sighs in Spanish (Curvas de los Suspiros) and its easy to see why when your confronted face to face with the vast natural wonder...you're left speechless, with your jaw hanging at its hinges!
We took the path that leads from the balconies to costa and back, which is meant to be a 40 minute walk, but we must have stood in awe of this glacier's majestic beauty for a good long time spending 5 hours in front of the icy landscape before heading back to El Calafate early evening.
Most travellers that pass through here also go to visit El Chalten, famous for its oddly shaped summit of Cerro Fitzroy and world-class hiking and trekking. It has been described as paradise on earth during the sunny, summer months, but as its winter, most paths and refuges are closed so we decided to skip the 2-hour bus ride just to see the summit.
Our last day in El Calafate, we wanted to see more of what nature has to offer and cruise through the vast, turquoise lake alongside glaciers and icebergs. So we reserved a full day boat excursion 'Todo Glaciares' to visit all the glaciers in Lago Argentina.
There is a monopoly of the tourist market here, which means that one company dominates for each different excursion. In this way, there is almost no price or other comparison to be made. However we managed to find one agent that was 20 pesos cheaper than the rest (345 pesos) - Cal-Tur on Avenue Libertador.
The only disappointment was the size of the boat. It was more like a ferry that can hold several hundred people, which made for a less-than-tranquil cruise along Lake Argentina. The day before we had spotted a much smaller catamaran on the waters, and this is what we thought we would be taking. Nonetheless, the awe-inspiring scenery made up for it. It was a full day tour leaving from Punta Bandera, sailing along Lago Argentina to Brazo Norte to the first glacier, Upsala Glacier, along the Spegazzini Channel to the Glacier of the same name, and finally on to the Iceberg Channel to see the grand Perito Moreno from a head-tilting angle.
What a way to spend our last day in this place that will stay in our hearts and minds forever!