Patagonia…the name synonymous with vast and empty landscapes, blustery climate, and some of nature’s most beautiful attractions looks exactly like the end of the world from your imagination. Adventurers are drawn to the wildly unexplored region and absence of crowds where you can drive for hours without meeting much more than a guanaco and one or two estancias (cattle ranch) that dot the unspoilt region.
Such a huge area needs a getaway point though and the strategically placed El Calafate is the launching pad to all destinations and possibilities around Southern Patagonia (and home to the only airport too!). The town hugs the shore of turquoise Lago Argentino and is essentially a cute touristy village made-up of one main strip (Libertador) filled with rustic pioneer souvenir shops, restaurants and tour offices.
There’s not much beyond the main street though and a little wandering will lead you straight back to open pastures and ad-hoc developments. Most people only pass through El Calafate quickly on their way to one of the main attractions in the area whether it’s the glaciers in Los Glacieres National Park or the trekking town of El Chalten.
There are plenty of cute hotels in town as well as hosteria (like our B&Bs) or you could also stay at an estancia for a true taste of Patagonia. I opted for the charming Los Ponchos Apart Boutique just slightly outside of town.
This lovely aparthotel has eight two-storey apartments and one bungalow, all with views of Lake Argentino with a delicious breakfast served in your room every morning.
The stylish apartments feature Hispanic-American art and local textile for one of the warmest accommodations around.
Come dinnertime, the pleasant town center has a wide variety of restaurants catering to all tastes. I stumbled upon the cutesy Kau Kaleshen just one block south of the main street and got sucked into its little cottage feel.
Serving both as a restaurant, tea house, and beer garden, the inviting space will instantly warm you up after a day out on the glaciers or by the lake.
The food and presentation was exquisite, also the fact that they had a large vegetarian offering which was a nice change of menu.
El Calafate has been declared the ‘national capital of the glaciers’ since most people who make it to this latitude of Argentina’s Patagonia are here for one reason only: to visit Los Glaciares National Park and most specifically the great Perito Moreno glacier.
Located 80km away, El Calafate is the closest town and makes Perito Moreno glacier one of the most accessible ice fields in the world. It’s also one of the most fascinating in that it is still growing in size every day, a scientific rarity, adding to its already impressive 5km long front and 60 meters height above water.
Thousands of people come here every year to stare at the spectacle of the imposing mass of ice surrounded by endless forests and mountains.
Standing face to face at dusk with this fifteen-story tall wall of ice is quite something, especially when a part of it breaks and falls with thunderous sound into the water.
A network of boardwalks face the monster and allow you to admire the surrounding scenery.
Close-ups reveal the wonderful variety of colours of the ice, the streaks of muddy grey, the deep blue, waxy sheen.
If you really want to experience it up close though, there’s no better way than to go on a Glacier trekking day which is when you’ll really understand the majesty that is the Perito Moreno Glacier.
I joined the Big Ice Trek with Hielo y Aventura, the exclusive tour company that operates on the glacier, and got ready to step onto one of the world’s most impressive natural phenomenon.
After a quick boat ride, we did a brief walk through the glacial forests amidst small waterfalls, towering mountains, and large puddles.
Having fastened our crampons and put on our harnesses by the edge of the glacier, we got a little introductory discussion on glaciology before finally stepping onto the icy surface.
Walking with crampons needs a little getting used to…
We had a little over 4 hours of trekking and exploring the glacier, benefiting from our expert guides who explained the characteristics of the ice and the glacier we were on, blowing our minds with facts as surreal as the landscape surrounding us.
The purest and bluest of water was readily available to fill our empty bottles – can’t quite describe the amazing sensation of that icy treat in the middle of the hike!
Me, holding a tiny piece of the glacier, admiring nature’s beauty.
Besides the sound of falling ice blocks, waterfalls throwing themselves into sink holes fill in the silent gaps between our loud steps, showing how much of a living (and dangerous thing!) the glacier is.
Guides have to carve out routes in the always shifting terrain, trying to avoid deep cracks and huge drains.
The deepest we get into the core of the glacier, the more sensational the scenery becomes, uncovering blue lagoons set against the whitest of icy shores.
Perfect spot for a lunch break, we settled on the cold ‘beach’ for a contemplative break in this astonishing setting and to truly feel the chill of Patagonia, literally!
Back on firm ground with a new perspective gained on this majestic icon, we totally get the star quality Perito Moreno is known for. It might not be the biggest out there, but as far as glacier goes, it can’t be beat for its gorgeous looks and imposing presence.
We left extremely glad to know it wasn’t going anywhere for a while, and hope it keeps on growing forever…