Patagonia Diaries – El Calafate

My travel bucket list is pretty long, and seems to get added to on a pretty regular basis. South America, however, wasn’t somewhere that was on it. Menno and I have this thing where every couple of years he begs his boss to let him use his full holiday allowance in one go, and we go on a big trip. In 2015 we travelled to Madagascar, somewhere on my bucket list and I told Menno that he had dibs on the next destination. Without much thought he suggested Patagonia. At first I was a little reluctant to fly half-way around the world to do the same things that we can do right on our doorstep; hiking and ski touring. But I started watching films and reading articles on Patagonia and it didn’t take long before I was very exited about our trip. So last January we booked flights and started planning our 4-week adventure in Patagonia.

Patagonia Diaries Part 1 – El Calafate

Patagonia is such a huge area, and we really wanted to take the time to experience it as much as we could. We didn’t want a whistle-stop tour of the main sights, but rather we wanted to spend at least a week in each location and really explore it. We flew in to El Calafate airport from Buenos Aires and picked up a hire car that would be ours for the next 3 weeks as we travelled around this part of Patagonia. When we collected our hire car from the airport we asked about whether car had winter tyres. The guys the desk laughed at us and told us that there were some snow chains in the car, but that in September it was highly unlikely that we’d need them.

Our first stop was the town of El Calafate in Argentina. This town sits of the edge of Lake Argentino, with nothing else around for miles. Maybe it was just because we were there in the quiet season, but driving around the streets of El Calafate, it felt like we’d turned up on the set of some kind of zombie movie, with dogs waiting to attack passing cars and half-finished houses lining many of the streets. El Calafate itself isn’t really a tourist attraction, but more a gateway town to the Los Glaciares National Park and a base for people wanting to visit El Chalten and Torres Del Paine on organised coach tours. We checked in to our first hotel and made a plan of action for the next few days.

Design Suites Hotel in El Calafate by Wild Connections Photography

The most popular place to visit around El Calafate is the Perito Moreno glacier. Even though we had pre-booked a glacier hike for the following day, we decided to go and check it out on our first day in El Calafate. The glacier is 80km from El Calafate, so we set off after breakfast. What started off as a light drizzle turned in to flurries of snowflakes and by the time we had entered the Los Glaciares National Park, it was coming down thick and fast, and cars were sliding all over the roads. So the snow chains that 24-hours earlier we had been assured we wouldn’t need, came in rather handy indeed! Finally we made it to the car park and we headed off on the walkways to the glacier. We didn’t get far before we caught our first glimpse of the enormous wall of ice, which was a striking blue colour. We followed the walkways all along the glacier’s edge, listening to the loud creaking and cracking as it moved. Every now and then pieces of the ice would break off and crash in to the water, but usually when we didn’t have the camera ready!

Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate Patagonia by Wild Connections Photography

For our second day at the glacier, we had booked a full-day glacier hike with a local tour company. We jumped on a boat across the lake and hiked for around 20 minutes until we reached the ice field, where we were given very retro looking crampons. Due to the snowfall from the previous day, we were mostly hiking through snow, but hiking over this enormous glacier was still pretty awesome.

Hiking in Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia to Perito Mereno glacier A glacier hike on the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia Ice caves on Perito Moreno glacier in El Calafate Patagonia

On our final full day staying in El Calafate, we decided to explore more around the town. We’d heard of some ancient cave paintings at an archeological site just outside the town, and also about a bird sanctuary down by the lake which was often visited by flamingos.

Cave painting in Patagonia outside El Calafate Patagonian Flamingos in El Calafate

We left El Calafate for a week to drive up to El Chalten, but 1 week later we stopped off here again for a couple of nights on our way down to Torres Del Paine. When we were planning our trip, someone told me that to experience real Patagonia, we should stay at an estancia. We spent 2 nights at the incredible La Usina, where we managed to tick off another traditional Patagonian experience, riding with Gauchos. And it really was an unforgettable experience.

Estancia La Usina in Patagonia Horse riding at Estancia La Usina in El Calafate A day with the gauchos in Patagonia Gaucho horse riding in remote Patagonia Horse riding Patagonia style in El Calafate

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Author: Cat Ekkelboom-White

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