Patagonia is not for the fragile. From the animals and plants to the human inhabitants, you wonder why would anyone choose to live here, a place where surviving seems like a test of will. From the gauchos on horse-back, to the young woman park ranger in El Chalten; Patagonians share a silent self-confidence and a deep respect for what surrounds them. The scale of everything will impress you – steppes and lakes and mountains as far as your eyes can see. The history of the place is fascinating, from the wool trade with England, to the tales of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry delivering airmail, to the past and present territorial fights with Chile. As for myself, I discovered a great travel partner and hopefully a lifelong friend.
With only 4 days to spare at the end of December, we chose El Calafate as our base to go on multiple day trips to explore the surrounding region and visit the infamous Perito Moreno glacier.
Your experience here will depend on the trips and excursions you choose so here is the round-up of the do’s and dont’s:
Horse back riding: Our introduction to the region was a four-hour horse back ride from the town up to Lake Argentino. You may be tempted to choose a two-hour ride but do not do it, the four-hour excursion is usually done in smaller groups and gives you a more complete perspective of the sheer scale of everything here. You will not see any human settlements for most of it, just the expansive sky, the steppe, and the milky blue lake in the background. If you are lucky, the dogs that live in the Estancia will escort you and you might catch a glimpse into their wild side as they chase and hunt hares. The trip includes a stop over for lunch in a shack which would not be out of place in the film Nocturnal Animals.
Trek on Glacier Perito Moreno: Aside from the obvious beauty and awe-inducing scale of the glacier, its low altitude makes it accessible for treks. Unlike other melting glaciers, the high humidity coming from the Pacific Ocean results in continued snowfall as it passes over the Andes. You can drive yourself to the national park and visit the viewing platforms which are packed with people but worth visiting given the unobstructed views to the glacier’s different sides. Trekking on the glacier can be done on a 4-hour trip or a longer 6-hour excursion; space is limited so best to reserve ahead. After a quick boat ride, you reach the glacier side and the expert team provides you with crampons and gloves for those who forgot them (i.e. the likes of me). Walking on the glacier is an unforgettable experience, its shades of blue and white undistinguishable from the sky. Peppered with the good humor of the guides and a whiskey at the end, you cannot miss this.
El Chalten: Called the hiking capital of Patagonia, this area is home to the highest peaks such as Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitzroy. If you intend to go there, I strongly recommend an overnight stay in the small town rather than a day trip from El Calafate. Once there, we did a 30-minute hike up from the Glacier viewpoint to get a gorgeous view of the lake and the surrounding mountain ranges.
Laguna Nimez: If you have a couple of hours to spare, a walking visit to the bird sanctuary is worth your time – even if you are not a birdwatcher or think this is something for those over 60… The sanctuary is maintained by local students and it provides you with several panoramic views of flamingos, several types of ducks and other species.
I can recommend Posada los Alamos which is conveniently located at walking distance to the town’s restaurants and to the bird sanctuary. Rooms are basic in a Swiss chalet style but the real draw is the adjacent building where the spa and the heated pool are located. The wood and glass design looks over the perfectly manicured golf course outside. This is where you come to relax after all the hard work you did all day.
Lunch is usually eaten picnic style while you are going for your daily activities. Most of our packed lunches consisted of carbs on carbs and a lonely piece of cheese or ham. Vegetarians and celiacs, you are in for a tough time over here. If you are on special diets, suggest you make arrangements to avoid going hungry. For dinner, we went out every night and for a small town, El Calafate has its fair share of good restaurants – and although offering a similar menu, they make up for the lack of variety with plenty of character and high quality and reasonably priced wines. My main piece of advice here is to make a reservation for dinner.
La Zaina: The exterior of this restaurant is very unassuming but inside you will be entertained by a hodge-podge of memorabilia which remits you to its origins as a stable. If you show up without a reservation, they will try to turn you away but offer to wait and your patience will be rewarded. Order the lamb dishes and gorge on the ubiquitous lentil-salsa dip.
Mi Rancho: Another small and cozy restaurant with standout lamb dishes. If you cannot get a table at the original location, walk across to their newer and larger place.
Pura Vida Resto Bar: Walking into this place feels like a deja-vu. It may remind you of somewhere you have been to in Costa Rica or Thailand. The quirky decor and brightly painted walls make the space warm and inviting. The menu focuses on a series of stews served in hollowed out pumpkins. Food is good and service is friendly. As with the other places I mentioned, do not leave if they tell you the restaurant is fully booked. Patience pays off.