My Patagonian Adventure (Part One: El Calafate)

Part 1: El Calafate

Calling all adventure seekers! Are you looking for a destination that offers arid steppes, expansive lakes of various hues of blue, sprawling snow-capped mountain ranges and enchanting forests to explore? Look no further, because I have just the place for you!

Okay, so enough with the infomercial pitch. Let’s get down to business.

Patagonia, Argentina is the most beautiful place I’ve been to in the world as of now, and soon you’ll see why. Throughout my 10-day southern South-American expedition, I visited the towns and cities of El Calafate, El Chaltén, Bariloche, and even made a “quick” day trip across the border into Chile to visit the Torres del Paine National Park. Each site was more amazing than I could have ever expected, and I managed to capture some stunning photos from the experience. Today I will recount my voyages to you outdoor lovers looking for a unique experience, and as always, give you the inside details that will help you along, should you decide to disembark to this gorgeous land.

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El Calafate

The first stop was El Calafate, a very small city in the Santa Cruz province of Argentina. In other words, it’s really far south. I chose this spot first because I planned on working my way up and it’s a good “home base” for day excursions to other places. El Calafate is a relatively new city, (founded in the 80’s) and even by driving through, I could see that it was largely undeveloped. Many homes, hotels and buildings were in the process of construction and the quaint main strip of the town was small enough to have been completed within the last 30 years.

The name of this city/town/I don’t know what to call it comes from the native berry that grows there, called a “calafate”. I thought it was basically a blueberry, and yes it very similar; even the taste is the same for me. But there is a subtle difference. Being the uber-nerd I am, I looked up the scientific names of this berry and the common blueberry and discovered that they are indeed a different plant. In English, this fruit is called the “Magellan Barberry”. Well then, there’s that.

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I was immediately greeted with the chilly 30°F air, which I willingly accepted on my pale, European skin. If it’s one thing I learned about this study abroad experience is that I’m hot-blooded and suffer in the heat. So this place was a breath of fresh air for me, since my body is literally made to thrive in cooler climates. I’m not joking.

In fact, after *almost* slipping on an icy bridge, I noticed that below my feet and on the handrail was a thin layer of frost, to which I basically leaped for joy. Growing up in Western New York has admittedly left its mark on me.

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The bridge into town

Upon arrival, I took a shuttle bus into town, which is quite literally the only option. The company is called Ves Patagonia and there’s a goofy cross-eyed bird as its logo. Don’t question it. You’ll see the stand as soon as you walk through the security check straight ahead, as soon as the guards have confiscated all of your fruits and vegetables. (Good-bye apples…) If you give the company your return time to the airport, you can save a little money on a round-trip voucher. When I got my shuttle, I paid around 170 pesos.

While in El Calafate, I stayed at the America del Sur hostel. For the full review, click here!

My hostel was warm and cozy and had everything I needed in order to get a restful night’s sleep for the following day’s adventure. This hostel, as well as all the other hostels and hotels in El Calafate, offer an assortment of half day and full day tours, to which you can pick and choose tailored to your interests, budget and schedule. The hostels don’t actually conduct these tours, but they arrange everything with the companies that do, and all you have to do is be ready when the shuttle arrives.

Here is a fair warning: El Calafate (and the entire southern region) is not for you penny-pinchers out there. If you’re visiting, do it right and just hand over your money to the tour companies as you look away and cry into your 2 peso bill. Every tour comes at a price tag, and most of the time that price tag is a little steep. Budget accordingly! I knew that I would be spending the majority of my money on tours, so I ate cheaply during the week by making and bringing my own food, and got a cheap hostel.

On a side note, don’t buy any souvenirs here because as you go more north, you can get the same Patagonia merchandise for a better bargain!

The first day I went to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, which left from the bus station up the hill bright and early. There is an extremely limited schedule, so get to the station at 8:30am to get your 9am ticket—after that there’s no other rides up. For the review on the glacier, click here!

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For 200 pesos, I got a round-trip ticket to this wonder of the world. The ride up was roughly 1.5 hours and the sights on the way up are incredible. Pro tip: Sit on the left side of the bus. The entrance fee to the park is 260 pesos for foreigners (that’s you), and a mere 30 pesos for Argentine citizens. If you are a student studying at an Argentinian university, you pay the 30 peso fee. Luckily, I brought my carnet from the University of Córdoba, so I was able to get that rate. Bear in mind, a normal student ID won’t give you that discount; it must be from a university in Argentina to be valid for this wicked deal.

After getting into the park, we had 5 hours to do whatever we wanted until the bus left again. There are various paths with lots of steps and one path even going into the woods to keep you busy. The paths are clearly marked and fenced so believe me—you won’t get lost. There are a number of viewpoints for the glacier, so try to hit all of them like I did to get the full experience and to witness this marvel from every angle possible.

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Take your time and enjoy this experience. Soak in the sounds, the marvelous colors of the glacier, the sight of huge chunks falling into the lake. This isn’t the type of activity to rush through! Be patient with your camera or phone as it records nothingness, and eventually you’ll get the breaking glacier on film. I was so amazed, I gasped and freaked out like a 14 year old girl at a One Direction concert. If you’re a mate drinker, bring your kit and sip away on one of the conveniently located benches on the balconies.

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So about the glacier. This is one of the only two glaciers in the world (other than the one in Norway) that is still growing…or rather, grows at the same pace as it breaks away. It’s a beautiful equilibrium and being able to see it in person makes you feel like the glacier itself were a living entity. With each thunderous rumble, a cracking echo would run across the surface, the sharp sound of a gunshot piercing the air. It was as if with each sudden inhale, the glacier would exhale in a resounding roar. If I had closed my eyes, I would have reminisced about a storm with distant, rolling thunder. This splendorous site struck my eyes with electric blues contrasting against dazzling whites, with some jagged earthy brown stripes to indicate sediment under the surface.

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I found myself constantly wondering about the life of this glacier, what did it look like 1, 5, 10, 100 years ago? What is in store for it 100 years from now? This natural wonder is perpetually changing, as it lurches forward then peels back simultaneously during each day. In fact, the façade is completely different every day due to the rate of its variance. Basically, I was getting a unique perspective of the glacier that very few people would ever see, save the others that were there that same day. With each collapse of an ice chunk, splashing, rolling waters applauded the glaciers performance as the massive creation haughtily stared down.

For a change of scenery, there is a quaint path that runs through the woods, where the tumultuous roars of the glacier become muffled and are overcome by the gentle chirping of native birds. I spotted a Magellan Woodpecker (the link picture is much better than mine was!) fervently chipping away at a tree for his afternoon snack, and let me tell you: this bird is huge! Being a huge nature lover, I thoroughly enjoyed this peaceful, mini jaunt in the wilderness.

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Moving back to the bus pick-up area for lunch, you will be pleased to know that there are actually decent public bathrooms. I would go as far as to say they are luxurious, since they are stocked (*gasp!*) and clean. Plus, they are FREE. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, keep those monedas and 5 peso bills in your pocket, because there is no one demanding a tip for folding up a piece of scratchy toilet paper for you.

Actually, just kidding, take back out those pesos because you’ll need all the money you can get for lunch, given the exorbitant prices of the “snack bar”. My advice would be to save your money and bring a picnic, because these prices are crazy even by the tourist “I’m-on-vacation-so-#yolo” standards. A meager meal will run you 20 USD easily. If you do get anything, try the spinach and cheese empanadas. Just trust me on this one.

After lunch, I went back out into the cool afternoon air to get a final vista of the glacier before catching the bus. Like many of the other views on this trip, it’s one of those sights where A) you don’t ever grow tired of it, 2) you don’t want to turn around, knowing it’ll be your last time to see it and 3) gets more breathtaking each time you look.

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Needless to say, the Perito Moreno was a success, and it’s one of those “must-do” activities in El Calafate. If I ever return, I’ll do the ice trekking, where you put crampons on your shoes and traipse around on the glacier itself!

The next day I did the 4 x 4 tour. I was picked up at my hostel in a land rover and along with a Brazilian couple, we bumped and jostled around over the rugged terrain in the fields to pass by Lago Argentino, the crystal blue lake adorning the outer corners of the city. The lake itself is surrounded by beautiful rocky mountains as well, making for some tranquil and memorable views.

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Off the beaten trail

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We circumnavigated the lake on the way to a marshy steppe where we enjoyed “carne al disco”.

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If you are seeking a half-day mini-adventure through grasslands and marshes, this is the tour for you. If it’s even possible to “get away from it all” in El Calafate, this is it.  

I saw flamingos gracefully grazing in the wetlands, skittish liebres (lee-ay-brays) leaping away from the vehicle, a few lazy cows and sheep, and some horses on this tour.

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As we waited for the steaks to cook, I leaned against the rover and just took it all in. I first closed my eyes to welcome the gentle breeze and hone in on the variety of birds harmonizing as they flittered about. I close my eyes while I observe so the other senses stand out, because sight tends to steal the show. The view was still and serene, the rhythm of nature steadily beating and humming with the wind, water and wildlife in sync. Sheep and lambs blissfully nibbled away at the grass as the glittery surface of the stream flickered like Christmas lights. The sun high in the sky subtly heated the plains and the steady breezes perfectly counterbalanced the sun’s warmth.

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I realized how much of a country girl I really am, as I admired the stillness and tranquility nature provides. In fact, this entire trip certainly solidified that notion. I assuredly know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that I need nature. I crave it. I require its sereneness to quiet my anxious thoughts and my pulsing heart. Nature is the one thing on earth that doesn’t disappoint me, and always leaves me stronger and calmer than I was before. This trip worked wonders in quelling my inner storm and I’m sure it could do the same for you if you give it the chance.

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That was part one of my Patagonia journey! Follow me on Instagram for a sneak-peak at the other pictures I’ve taken, along with their stories! (@eaustin192)

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