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El Calafate

Written on: Tuesday February 26th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: El Calafate, Argentina 

Author: Julie 


With boots packed safely in my backpack, we took the 7:30 AM bus to El Calafate, Argentina, located 362 kilometers away to the north. The 11 hour drive was similar to the one we had taken a few weeks before from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas with long never ending yellow Patagonian cattle ranches and bright blue skies. It was beautiful to see and occasionally the mountains would rise afar and we would glimpse a snow capped peak. We quickly passed through customs with no problems and no bag checks. Our passports are quite colourful these days with various entry/exit stamps from the countries we?ve visited. We finally arrived in the small tourist town of El Calafate at 5:30 to really hot weather. We had pre-booked a well recommended hostel but found out quickly that it was located at the top of a steep hill and there were no taxis to be found anywhere. Heaving our backpacks on, we walked for the next 20 minutes in 30C blazing hot sun to find out that they didn?t have our reservations although we had received confirmation they did. All the beds were already taken so there was nothing they could do for us. A quick look at our Lonely Planet showed that the other hostels in the area were, of course, back in town, down the steep hill. With nothing to do for it, we headed down the hill and looked for a room. We stopped at 4 hostels and none of them had availability. I was getting worried that we would have to stay in a 200$ night place when we finally saw a small sign above a door announcing a hostel, although the place looked like a family home. We knocked and the door was answered by an elderly lady and young girl of about the age of 10. The hostel owner was gone but they could show us an available room. The young girl professionally showed us around, listing the amenities, the kitchen, and the price for the night. We agreed to the 40$ CAD a night price and dropped our sweat-drenched bags on the bed. We were home for the next couple of night. 

Kevin was starting feel like he had a head cold so we decided to take it easy the next day by spending part of the day loafing around the hostel. When he was feeling a bit better we ventured into town in search of the best bus prices to the park. The name of El Calafate comes from a little bush with yellow flowers very common in Patagonia, with dark blue berries. It is located beside the beautiful fresh water lake of Lago Argentino Argentina?s largest lake at 1,466 km˛, itself partially located in the Los Glaciares National Park, and is fed by glacial meltwater from various streams within the park. Tourists come here to see the world famous Perito Moreno glacier. Our search for bus tickets took us from various tour agencies to the bus station where the best price was 60 pesos (about 20$) for a bus ride there and back. 

The next day we got to the bus station at 10:30 for our 1 ˝ hour bus ride to the glacier. Our entry into the national park was marked with a gate and an entry fee of 40 pesos (13$). A few people on our bus tried to pass of as students and were caught in their lie when the guard started asking them which program they were in and and who was their department head. When they couldn?t asnswer the questions they were charged the full adult fee. Smart park rangers! The national park, created in 1937, is the second largest in Argentina. Its name refers to the giant ice cap in the Andes range that feeds 47 large glaciers, of which only 13 flow towards the Atlantic Ocean. The ice cap is the largest outside of Antarctica and Greenland. In other parts of the world, glaciers start at a height of at least 2,500 meters above mean sea level, but due to the size of the ice cap, these glaciers begin at only 1,500m, sliding down to 200m AMSL, eroding the surface of the mountains that support them. 

Our first sight of the large advancing glacier was from a look-out along the road. The bus stopped for a photo opportunity. We had left a sunny El Calafate to find a glacier covered in heavy rain clouds. Our view was less than we expected but it was still gorgeous to see a large heavy glacier coming down a valley between sharp peaks as far as the eye can see. At 257km˛ and at 180 meters in depth, the Perito Moreno Glacier advances almost 2 meters per day in the center and 40 cm on the sides. The terminus into Lago Argentino is over 5 kms wide. Although it advances 2 meters per day, the glacier also calves off about the same amount of mass daily therefore it?s terminus has not advanced or receded in over 90 years. On several occasions, whenever the ice mass advances with greater force down the Canal de los Tempanos (one of the sides of the L-shaped Lago Argentino), the glacier moves on to the rocks at the edge of the Peninsula de Magallanes forming a natural ice dam cutting off the natural flow of the water from to the other side of the lake named Brazo Rico. The water accumulates in Brazo Rico exerting enormous pressure on the ice wall, finally bursting through the natural dam. The last time it occurred was in March 2007.  

Our final stop was at the large parking lot built to accommodate all the tour buses that arrive each day ferrying the hundred of thousands of tourists that visit each year. The operating budget for the national park is a million dollars each year, which gives an indication how important the tourism business is to Argentina and this area of Patagonia. There was a large cafeteria-style restaurant serving up hot foods, although there was no seating allowed for those who had brought their lunch. We made a bee-line for the look?out terraces giving us different levels of view to the glacier. We descended to the lowest look-out which in our opinion was the closest. It was raining quite hard and we were huddling deeply into our rain jacket to keep warm. The view of the glacier was shrouded by the low lying clouds but we could still hear the heavy fall of water coming off the glacier into the lake and the intermittent loud crack of ice falling. We braved the rain for about an hour at which point I was frozen and occasionally falling asleep from staring at the glacier. 

We returned to the cafeteria restaurant and ordered a couple of hot chocolates to warm up. There were lots of people there and only a few tables were still free for us. We sat for a few hours waiting for the rain to abate when looking out we saw a small glimmer of blue in the sky. We quickly grabbed our stuff and headed down to the glacier. There were only a few people still there, most of the tour buses had already departed for their next destination. Our long wait was awarded with great views of glacier against blue skies. The best part was the emerging sun heated up the glacier which in turn caused the glacier to start melting and large pieces to fall off. It was fantastic. One large piece melted from the interior and all of a sudden emerge from under the water. It was fantastic!