Argentina Part Four: El Calafate and El Chalten

Tuesday 4 February – Friday 7 February 2020

The flight between Ushuaia and El Calafate took less than 2 hours. We landed in another small, but less characterful, airport, and collected our bags. There were a few stalls in baggage claim, one of which sold taxi rides into town. We ended up talking to a couple whose hostel was close to ours and agreed to double up to save on transport costs.

The ride took about 20 minutes and we came to the couple’s hostel first. Since this was just around the corner from ours, I volunteered to hop out here and drag our bags along the road over to America del Sur hostel, where we would be staying for the next three nights. Since this was actually more of a dusty track, and My Friend had her 24kg bag, she was less than impressed.

America del Sur must have been the most expensive hostel we stayed in during our trip, by some way. We were each paying around £35 a night to stay in a 4-bed female dorm, with an en-suite. We’d booked it pretty much the day before, while we were in Ushuaia, but it wasn’t that there weren’t other nice enough looking, cheaper options, it was just that – based on the pictures we’d seen on Hostelworld – this looked the best by far.

Much like Ushuaia airport, America del Sur reminded me of the ski chalet I have never actually been to. The walls were wooden and there was lots of comfy chairs, a bar, hammocks outside and they served up food consisting of barbecued meat (which I regret not trying as it looked delicious) and cheesy pizzas.

Our dorm room was small but nice – the only annoying thing was that the sink was in the bedroom (with the shower and toilet being in separate rooms off the dorm room). That meant a certain level of noise while people were getting ready for bed/getting up while others were trying to sleep. It was also quite hot but tricky to sleep with the window open as there were dogs barking outside. Despite these hiccups (which also included some noisy roommates), America del Sur still turned out to be one of the best hostels that I have ever stayed in. It was just so nice.

Our first mission was to book a day tour to the Perito Moreno Glacier – we wanted to book an ice hike actually on the glacier and we could do that via our hostel. We booked a tour for the day after next and filled in a form. The form was pretty standard: “Have you ever suffered from one of these conditions?” was one of the questions. Now, I haven’t suffered from epilepsy since I was in my teens so I debated whether I really needed to check the box – there was zero chance of my epilepsy suddenly resurfacing but I figured that, if I didn’t check the box and, say, I had a fall and that triggered a seizure, that might mess with my insurance. Better to be safe than sorry I thought and, besides, I’d never had a problem with it before. As I’d find out in a few hours, that was a mistake.

Mission number one complete (or so we thought), we moved onto mission number two: finding food. We took a short stroll into town and quickly spotted La Zorra Taproom. It looked relatively popular so we stopped for beer, grilled sandwiches and chips. It might not have been the most cultural option but we enjoyed it.

We made our way back to our hostel and it was there that we were met with the unhappy news that I would not be able to go on the ice hike we had planned. As it turned out, checking the “epilepsy” box rendered me ineligible – despite the fact it hadn’t been an issue for more than a decade. Needless to say, I was annoyed. I was told to go to the tour company’s local office in town and chat to them in person. There I was told I had two options: either go to the local hospital the next day and ask them to write me a note confirming I was fine (I don’t know how they could have done that on the day, not knowing my medical history) or get a note from my GP in the UK. Neither seemed like particularly good options. There was no guarantee a visit to the hospital would end in me actually getting a note, even if they could see me on the day, and it would ruin our plans to go to hiking in El Chalten but getting a GP note from my doctor in London on short notice would also be easier said than done.

We decided to push ahead with our El Chalten plans. We’d had recommendations to visit the town and this would be our only chance to go. We booked a mini bus for the next morning; the drive would take us about 3-4 hours (including a stop). I woke up early – very early at about 5am – so that I could call my doctor surgery as soon as they opened and ask for a telephone appointment. I was on hold for a while but was thankfully told someone could call me back later that day.

A few hours later and I still hadn’t heard anything from the doctor. Our minibus to El Chalten arrived and I climbed in, hoping against hope I’d have signal long enough for the doctor to be able to reach me on the journey. It wasn’t a conversation I really wanted to have in a confined space, with a busload of people I didn’t know, but when needs must.

Unfortunately, despite my hopes, the journey took us through some pretty remote Patagonian landscapes where signal did not exist. As we approached El Chalten, I got a text message through; I’d missed a call. When we arrived at the visitor’s centre for the Los Glaciares National Park, I called the surgery again. A receptionist confirmed that the doctor had tried to call but I’d not picked up – and they’d now gone out on a home visit. It was up to them if they wanted to call me back.

My Friend and I continued with our day. We picked up a couple of maps at the visitors’ centre which set out the trails available to us. The main trail would take us up to Fitz Roy mountain, however, we were unsure whether that was the best route for us. Apart from having heard that it was a difficult trek, we would be cutting it fine time-wise, considering we were only there for the day and would be getting the mini-bus back to El Calafate that evening. If we got our heads down and hiked hard, we might have been able to make it but it sounded like it would be stressful.

We decided off the bat not to worry about pushing ourselves that hard. Another option would be to walk the trail up to Mirador del Fitz Roy and Laguna Capri, and then just turn around and come back again. That sounded more like the option for us. First things first, however, we needed something to eat. We came across a small restaurant where we stopped for spaghetti bolognese and Coca-Cola before heading off in search of the trail.

This was where we met our first challenge; how did we get out of town? We’d asked for directions at the restaurant but it still wasn’t particularly clear where the trail actually started. However, the mountain looming over the village gave us a pretty good idea of the vague direction we needed to be heading in. We came across a road lined with bars and places to eat and took this as the main road which we followed out of town, eventually ending up at the beginning of the trail.

It was a lovely day; the sun was out and the sky was blue. I kept an eye on my phone as we climbed uphill and was surprised to find my signal seemed to be holding out. We took our time as we walked, we would have had to push it to do the whole trail but we had more than enough time for what we had in mind instead. We came across a couple of stopping off points where there were views of the surrounding valley and as my signal slowly crept down, I stopped to call the doctors one last time.

Long story short, the receptionist couldn’t put me through and the doctor never called me back, which I thought was a bit harsh considering they hadn’t given me any idea when to expect the call in the first place. That meant no ice hike for me, and My Friend didn’t want to go solo. I was disappointed. I wanted to go on a ice hike when I was at the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand but didn’t have time. Now again, I was ice hike-less but I did not regret my decision to visit El Chalten instead of the hospital in El Calafate – and I don’t think My Friend did either – because this turned out to be one of our favourite days of our entire trip (for reasons that will shortly become clear).

We walked until we reached Mirador del Fitz Roy and Laguna Capri, where we had lovely views of the lake and Fitz Roy mountain. We could even spot a glacier up in the mountain (which looked more like an actual block of ice and less like the snow-capped mountain we found at the Martial Glacier). That would have been cool to see up close but we’d made our choice and, importantly, we’d been enjoying ourselves.

We stayed around there for a little while, taking some pictures, and enjoying the views, before starting to make our descent back to El Chalten. We reached the main strip with a while to spare before our bus would be leaving; time enough for a drink.

We walked down the road until we came across the Bourbon Smokehouse and we pulled in for a glass of wine. As we perused the menu, we spotted nachos on the list and decided to order a plate to share. It was this stop that made this day one of our favourites on our six week trip – if not our absolute favourite day.

When I am travelling, I often find that it is not the days when I do something particularly big and bucket list-worthy that turn out to be my favourite. It’s the days when something small makes me feel completely content. I think that’s how we both felt as we sat in the Bourbon Smokehouse in El Chalten. We’d had a nice stroll in the sun while chatting away, found great views of the beautiful Fitz Roy mountain and now we were sitting in a bar, with the sun still pouring in, with a nice glass of (cheap) white wine and a delicious plate of nachos, covered in chilli con carne, cheese and guacamole. Life was good and I still dream about those nachos.

Eventually we had to admit that it was time to find our bus. I was sorry not to be spending more time in El Chalten. It had a relaxed vibe and it would have been nice to spend at least one night exploring more of the bars along that strip – and ordering another plate of those tasty, tasty nachos.

Retracing our steps back to our drop off point, where we’d be meeting our bus, was easier said than done as everywhere looked the same to us but thankfully we reached it and saw people we recognised, confirming that this was indeed the right spot. After wine and hiking, we inevitably fell asleep on the way back to El Calafate but I did wake up long enough to see the sun setting over the Patagonian plains.

Back in El Calafate, we had to decide our plans for the next day – given that we would not be getting up early to go ice hiking. We could have gone to the Perito Moreno Glacier using local transport and wandered around the site by ourselves but we decided to book a boat tour so we could still get closer to the glacier, even if we couldn’t be standing on it.

The boat tour didn’t start until the afternoon, so we had the next morning to relax and get some food. We ended up back at La Zorra Taproom for a grilled sandwich and chip-based lunch before making our way back to the hostel to be collected for our glacier trip.

Like Fitz Roy, the Perito Moreno Glacier can be found in the Los Glaciares National Park, in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. While most glaciers are sadly retreating thanks to global warming, the Perito Moreno Glacier is an exception. While the glacier does have major ruptures every few years, and frequent smaller ruptures on a daily basis, it is actually still advancing.

The Perito Moreno Glacier was nothing like the Martial Glacier or even the glacier we’d spotted on the slopes of Fitz Roy. This one even exceeded the iceberg images I had in my head as it was no mere piece of ice, floating in the water – this was an ice wonderland. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

The boat tour took us to one side of the glacier, however, we could only get so close due to the mini-ruptures. Although these were only “small”, the sound erupted like cannon fire. Even when we couldn’t see pieces of ice breaking off and falling into the water, we could hear bangs and echoes that sounded like ice cracking within the glacier. I was jealous of the hikers we could see on the glacier but being on that thing with those sounds going off must have been unnerving.

We spent a while on the deck of the boat, taking a million basically identical pictures of the glacier. When the boat finally turned to take us back to the shore, we got back on the bus and were taken to the start of the walkways (raised metal paths, much like those we’d found at Iguazu Waterfalls, that wound their way along the shoreline) from which we could see different sides of the glacier. Again, these could only get us so close but I did actually prefer them to the boat. Although I didn’t regret the boat tour – this place was incredible and I wanted to see as much of it as I could – I’m not sure it is something I’d specifically recommend. The views from the walkways were great.

After we’d walked along the various routes, we headed back to the pick up point. Our bus stopped off at a lake on our way back, where we could watch the sun start to set, before we were transferred back on our little minibus and taken back to the hostel.

That night, we chilled out in our hostel (so different from every other night of our trip, I know) ordered some pizza and got ready to depart the next day. We were set for another early start. This time our bus would be taking us out of Argentina as our next stop was the town of Puerto Natales in Chilean Patagonia, from which we would be embarking on a five day hike through Torres Del Paine National Park. Hopefully, our stroll to see Fitz Roy would have us adequately prepared…

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