On The Rocks: El Calafate. Deep in the Patagonian Steppe between where the Santa Cruz plateau meets the Andes is the cowboy town of El Calafate. Maybe it is the clean air of the veiling mountains, the pure water of the grand glacier, or simply the customs check as you enter the periphery of this 84-year-old pearl, but there is something truly different about this place.
The town is a bustling gateway to the Los Glaciares National Park. The thriving main commercial street is a hive of activity from the break of dawn right through to the wee hours with trendy bars, cosy restaurants and inviting shops decorating the way. At one end of the street lies the south shore of Lago Argentino and looming at the other end are the hillsides of the many mounts. Additionally, a relatively new attraction to visit in El Calafate is the impressive Glacier Museum, where one can learn all about Patagonia Glaciers.
Originally a shelter for wool traders, it was born in 1927, but didn’t really catch global attention until 1937 when the foundation of the Perito Moreno National Park sparked a huge growth in the area. The town is named after a thorny bush commonly found in Southern Patagonia, which blooms in spring with small yellow flowers and produces bluish-black berries in the summer. Legend has it that those who eat this fruit (often made into jam) will always return to Patagonia.
The fruit is not the only reason to come back to this enrapturing region, but perhaps to see if the rather large ice-field has managed to reach the shores of the town yet. From the banks of the lake, it is an 80km journey until you finally turn the corner and see a mini piece of Antarctica before you. One of only three glaciers in South America that is in a state of equilibrium, the Perito Moreno is also the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. And if you’re not taken in by the enormity of it, then the floating icebergs that drop into the lake in an attempt to escape from the freezing field, are a hypnotic sight.
From a purely artistic perspective, your compelling vision is enhanced somewhat by the black and white of the towering mountains, the lush green of the thick forests and the vast expanse of the deep blue lake. From El Calafate the long and winding road eventually leads to this huge sugar coated iceberg, teasing you at intervals with glimpses through the protective branches of the trees. As the plains grow around you, stretching to the snow-capped peaks of the mountains rising on the horizon, the vantage points along the route should be ample acclimatisation for this awe-inspiring natural wonder.
However, nothing can prepare you for the persistent rumbling sound that accompanies your effort to find a peaceful beauty spot along the steel grate viewing path. After staring mesmerizingly at this nineteen mile long and three mile wide mass of beautiful blue and white, intricate details stand out such as the thin coating of dust lying silently on the surface. As well as the solitary Argentine flag flying proudly, you become an expert at predict where the next crack or crash will ring out from.
Beginning in the heavens of the Andes, the constant snowfall compresses the lower layers into ice, eventually pushing the thick block of ice downhill. Like a slow river or a slow-motion bobsled, the glacier is advancing four metres per day and as it does it creates an ice-storm at the head.
For the daring of us, a glacier cruise under the shadows of the glacier reveals the sheer immensity of it, whilst the icy remains dropping from the insurmountable 60m ice wall, cause tremors tantamount to a mini-earthquake in the rocky waters. If you’re feeling like a real challenge then get your trekking boots on and join one of the many glacier hikes along this giant snow cone, minding out for the occasional hole filled with some of the purest water in the world. As well as an introduction to glaciology you spend an hour snowshoeing across the body of ice, with the reward for your troubles being a glass of glacier iced Scotch.
At the moment this UNESCO World Heritage Site lies far enough away from the bounds of civilisation and urban dwelling to preserve its splendour. However, if the glacier starts advancing then maybe in a few years (centuries more like) hikes will start from El Calafate you will only have to walk to the glacier and not only the whisky will be on the rocks.
Summers in El Calafate are very pleasant with ample amounts of sunshine and dry weather complimented by gusts of wind from time to time. The winters can be cold with freezing temperatures. The most important factor of the area is the wind that picks up force as it arrives from the Antarctic, therefore in the winter it is advised you bring wind-proof clothing and multiple layers in order to survive your visit.
This gateway to Los Glaciares National Park offers more than just snow and ice, although the glaciers of Perito Moreno, Upsala and also Spegazzini and Onelli do offer the opportunity to walk on water (well, almost). If you’re not iceberg gazing then take in a trip to a typical “Estancia”, where you can see the work of the first white inhabitants of the area – developing sheep rearing in the 1950s. Or if a faster pace of life is your tipple then try your hand at horse-riding round Redonda Bay or up to Frias Hill or of course the thrill of a 4×4 excursion.
Written by Andy Buswell – Freelance travel writer.