Sunday, January 24, 2016

El Calafate, Argentina

Argentina- the first South American country we visited this past November. First stop in Argentina was the town of El Calafate in the Patagonia region. Known for its glaciers, lakes and mountains, it is a clean, touristy, one main street kind of place that still retains its small town charm. But, I'll never forget the nonstop howling wind. I think I've enough wind blown at me for the rest of my life in the 4 days we were there. I asked a local and he said that's how it was during the spring and summer season.  30 to 40 km/h winds are common during these months. Anything not tied down were blown everywhere. Every day was a bad hair day. Just let the wind does its job in whatever direction it wants. Of course, most pictures of me had my face covered by my hair due to the wind.
First day in Argentina, we didn't have our luggage. LAN Airlines left our luggage in Miami during our connection there. First time in the 10 plus years of  travel, the luggage didn't arrive with us at our destination. Gave us a taste of travelling light with no change of clothing at all. The airline compensated us US$100 and promised to deliver the luggage to our accommodation in La Leona the next day. Oh well, we thought we would use that money to buy some underwear. We asked at least 10 people in town where to buy underwear and hardly anyone knew the answer. I didn't see any department stores, mostly shops that sell outer wear or kids clothing. Ended up buying a fleece sweater and warm socks instead.
Driving our rental car and walking around town looking to buy underwear on our first day in Argentina was not the way that we had imagined our vacation would start. Finally, gave up and decided hand wash it is for the one pair that we had on.

Main street of El Calafate. Lots of shops, restaurants and one casino lining the street. We were asked to pay a small entrance fee to use the casino's restroom.
Whole lambs roasting over an open pit- a common sight at BBQ restaurants or parillas in El Calafate.

Dogs were everywhere but friendly enough. Locals were friendly, too except for one guy that blasted his car horn at me and shouted, "No photos" as I was taking pictures of a neighborhood.

Birds catching their dinner at Laguna Nimez Reserve. It took us about an hour wondering around taking pictures and spotting the different birds there. Not a must do, just a place to kill some time while waiting for restaurants to open for dinner.

Our first meal in Argentina was at Mako Fuegos y Vinos Restaurant. Unseasoned roasted lamb that went well with the accompanying chimichurri sauce and salsa. Crispy skin with tender and dry meats depending on which cut you picked but without the gamey smell. Not bad at all.

If I remember correctly, this was king crab ravioli. Couldn't finish this dish as we were stuffed from the lamb. A quarter of a whole roasted lamb proved to be too much for the 2 of us.
                                      Excellent deconstructed creme brulee completed our dinner.

The second day in Argentina we headed to the majestic Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the 3 moving glaciers in the world. It's about 1 1/2 hours drive from our hotel, the Esplendor in El Calafate. Easy drive to the park entrance and once inside the park, we took a free 10 minutes shuttle bus to the viewing walkways. There is a restaurant with a nice view of the glacier at the visitor center/ shuttle bus stop where we dropped in for lunch. Don't come here for the taste, it's just to fill up one's stomach.
The viewing walkways provided easy access to see different angles of the glacier. Lots of climbing up and down steps but the views were just amazing.Spent about 2 hours walking around. Couldn't hang around any longer as we didn't have our warm clothing with us. Very windy and cold even though it was a sunny day.

Second night in Argentina, we moved to La Estela Estancia, located about an hour and 10 min easy drive from the El Calafate airport. The office couldn't find our reservation that was booked 5 months ago even though I had their email confirmation. But, that was no problem as they only had one other couple staying. Room was comfortable and cozy. Bath tub was slippery. I slipped and fell without sustaining any serious injury the first night there. No phones, Tv and sporadic wifi connection. Quiet, tranquil, no howling wind and completely submerged in a natural surrounding.
Views out of the room's window was just stunning. Mt. Fitz Roy was visible, so was the mouth of Rio La Leona converging with Lake Viedma. Could easily stay here for a few days if one bought food from town as a small kitchen is provided or buy their 3 course dinner at $40 per person which includes a small salad, meat and potatoes or grilled vegetables, desserts and alcoholic drinks. Complimentary breakfast in the morning was lright with pastries, coffee, tea and eggs cooked to order.
First night at the estancia, we dined with a lovely couple from England and the second night, a Swiss couple joined us. It seemed our travel styles were alike as we all had rental cars and liked self adventures. It's funny that all 3 cars were the same tiny silver colored Chevy Classic that had manual transmissions, manual windows, radio and no A/C. It actually took my husband and I a while to figure out how to use the manual transmission. Not knowing how to put the gear in reverse the first day, my husband had to physically push the car backwards for reverse until the receptionist at the first hotel pointed out the safety button on the shift stick. Press that down and voila, we've reverse gear. What a relief! Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to travel the distances to do the things that we had planned.

                          La Estela Estancia compound with La Leona River in the background.

Mount Fitz Roy as seen from our room's window. Feeling blessed to have all these views to ourselves.
Third day in Argentina was the most memorable of our trip- ice trekking at Viedma Glacier. To get to the glacier, we had to take a catamaran ride for an hour from Bahia Tunel. It took us an hour and 20 minutes to drive there from La Estela Estancia. Weather was nice and not too windy when we arrived at the dock to board the catamaran. 20 minutes into the boat ride, we had a taste of how quickly Patagonian weather changes. It turned nasty just like that without warning. I had to close my eyes for the rest of the ride as I get motion sickness easily. Due to the strong gusts and rain, the once calm lake turned tumultuous, crashing waves against the catamaran's windows. As the catamaran stopped a few kilometers away from the glacier, I went outside and snapped a couple of pictures then turned back in as it was freezing cold even with my hat, jacket, sweater, vest, base layers, gloves, socks and boots.
Crampons hooked up, ready for our first ice trek tour.

The catamaran dropped us off at a rocky promontory. The next 30 minutes had us climbing up smooth, large rocks leading to their station to put on the crampons. The walk on the ice was easy. It was climbing the rocks that was energy consuming. Plus the strong wind was no help at all. What was supposed to be a 2 hours trek turned into 3 hours. There were around 20 of us with 3 guides. Wonderful knowledgeable guides, always ready to lend a helping hand to hoist us up rocks or jump over icy crevasses. Uneven terrain means having to climb, jump or slide on these huge smooth rocks. Not only that, we had to deal with the strong wind that was pushing and pulling us in different directions. At times I felt like I was going to be blown away. This ice trek is only recommended for someone in good physical condition. For somebody like me who exercise occasionally, this was not an easy task. My legs almost gave out on the walk back to the catamaran. Having said that, everyone ranging from age 12 to 70 in the group had a great time.
Views of Lake Viedma from the glacier. I felt a sense of accomplishment once we were on top of the glacier looking down at Lake Viedma. I was stunned by the vastness of the glacier itself. What an amazing experience walking on 500 years old glacier that is still inching forward daily. Couldn't pass up the chance to drink icy water from the ice pools- so refreshing and clean.
A group of ice climbers on the other side of the glacier. Not something I would do in the very near future.

Glacier looks dirty as it picks up dust and dirt along the way- flows like a river into Lake Viedma.

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