El Calafate: National Capital of the [Selfie] Glaciers

The self-proclaimed “National Capital of the Glaciers”, El Calafate is kind of a one trick pony town. Everybody comes here to see one thing and that is the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. And we did not see it.

El Calafate which is located at the Southern edge of Los Glaciares National Park is the main access point to see the park’s glaciers, including the extremely popular Perito Moreno. So it’s no surprise that the town itself is pretty touristy, full of touristy shops and tourist offices offering expensive touristy glacier excursions.

Unlike in El Chalten where park entry is free and the trails are easily accessible, this section of the park charges a daily fee of 500ARS ($34) pp and requires arranging some sort of transportation/tour to see the glaciers. After looking at options for the various glacier viewing excursions, we decided to forgo visiting Perito Moreno glacier and signed up for a boat cruise for the next day on Lago Argentino (biggest lake in Argentina) with Solo Patagonia Tours to visit Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers. Our hope was to avoid the throngs of tourists that would surely be swarming the walkways of Perito Moreno. Or so we thought.

Glacier Cruise to Upsala and Spegazzini

So the day started out well enough. Sunny clear skies plus a van that wasn’t too full of people made for a pleasurable ride to the port. But our hope for a less crowded experience died when we saw that the dock’s parking lot was wall to wall tour buses. So much for avoiding the throngs. We paid our entrance fee and boarded the catamaran with ~100 of South America’s finest travelers.

After watching the obligatory safety video and listening to the ship’s “professional photographers” pimping out their services, we were finally on our way. The boat ride was rough going at first as the winds really picked up creating choppy waves on the lake. Along the way there was some commentary on the geology and landscape of the area but it was so noisy that they could have made an announcement to abandon ship and it would not have mattered. Once we passed through Boca del Diablo (devil’s mouth), the narrowest passage on Lago Argentino, we started to see snow covered mountains rising above the lake.

Argentina El Calafate

The Selfie Iceberg

As we got closer to Upsala glacier, they opened up the front deck and the party moved outside. But strong winds and water spray chased many people back inside. Eventually we slowed down and entered an inlet filled with the most vibrant blue icebergs ever and Upsala glacier in the distance.

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That’s when the hordes came out, pushing and shoving for the perfect viewing and selfie spot. When the boat parked in front of a huge florescent blue iceberg, the ship’s photographers took over and commandeered the catamaran’s bows so they can take passengers’ pictures with the iceberg. That’s when we understood what this tour was really about: Not the natural beauty or the geological wonders but about taking a “selfie” in front of an iceberg.

Argentina El Calafate

So for about an hour, we were held hostage until every group or single passenger took their turn while doing stupid poses in front of the iceberg. So glad we paid to see that. Though we got to admit it was a gorgeous setting for photographs.

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Once the “photo sessions” were done, we were finally able to get on with the tour to Upsala Glacier but with all the icebergs in the water we weren’t able to get too close.

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The next stop was at Spegazzini Glacier, the tallest glacier in the park at over 100 meters or 328 feet. We pulled close to the glacier wall this time and cruised along it, stopping to get more “professional selfies” but mercifully not as many.

Argentina El CalafateArgentina El CalafateArgentina El CalafateArgentina El CalafateArgentina El CalafateArgentina El CalafateWe could hear the sounds of calving echoing around the glacier and saw a few chunks fall into the water. Another quiet cruise across the lake and we were headed back into town.Argentina El CalafateArgentina El CalafateOverall the scenery was absolutely gorgeous but the tour itself was just a sad example of mass tourism gone wrong. We would have been better off walking the planks of Perito Moreno. At least we would have had a chance to find a secluded spot to ourselves. Live and learn I guess.

Mate and Museum

The rest of our stay in El Calafate was spent touring the town, visiting the local museum and shopping for mate kits. Mate is a traditional South American drink that is made by steeping dried leaves of yerba mate (a species of the Holly plant) in hot water. At an open air artisan market, we struck up a conversation with one vendor selling mate kits, and over the next 30 minutes he told us about the different qualities of cups/gourds (called mates), straws (called bombillas), and mate tea, and the ideal water temperature for preparing and drinking the tea. When we mentioned that we’d never tried it, he passed us his mate and allowed us a taste. It was very bitter, but not bad. Definitely an acquired taste. We bought a kit and later picked up a bag of suave mate (a less bitter version) to bring home.

The El Calafate Historical Interpretation Center is in a fairly small building but it’s crammed full of cool stuff. You just follow the set path and read the mostly Spanish text at each exhibit. It starts with the paleontology and geology displays and moves on to human migrations in South America and Patagonia, the entry of Europeans and vivid displays and videos about the slaughter and cruelty perpetrated by the settlers on the natives. The difference between Patagonia and the rest of the Americas is that Patagonia was settled so late that news agencies and photographers were able to document the mistreatment far better in this region. At the end, we were offered a free taste of mate and a little bit of info on the history of mate in Argentina.

Transportation:

Chalten Travel
1pm El Chalten to El Calafate

We picked up empanadas (of course) for the ride to El Calafate and boarded the Chalten Travel bus, the same bus company we took from El Calafate to El Chalten. The uneventful trip arrived at the El Calafate Bus Terminal around 4pm.

Accommodation:

Patagonia Queen
Room 204
El Calafate, AR

A beautiful, reasonably priced hotel with nice polished wood walls and floors throughout. The receptionist who greeted us was very friendly and was constantly joking with us while we checked in. The hotel was a mere 15 minute walk from the bus terminal and a few blocks from the main tourist area. The room was spacious, clean and quiet. The breakfast buffet was pretty good and consisted of breads, pastries, cold cuts, fruit, cheese and eggs to order. As part of the tour of our room, we learned that one of the TV channels is a 24 hour live feed of the Perito Moreno Glacier. We didn’t even have to leave our room to enjoy the main attraction, but we did anyway to see what the town had to offer. There was also a game and exercise room on the third floor.

Tour:

Solo Patagonia
El Calafate, AR

One of the many tour operators that offers cruises to Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers which are only accessible by water. The boat departs from Puerto Punta Bandera, about a 45 minute drive from El Calafate. The tour travels to the northern arm of Lago Argentino to Canal Upsala passing through Boca del Diablo then stopping at a big iceberg where you spend an hour watching the ship’s photographer yell at potential photo buyers to do stupid poses. Afterwards you travel to Spegazzini glacier where the process is repeated before heading back to the port.

On the plus side the boat was modern and clean and can accommodate about 300 people. I guess you can say we were lucky as there were only 100 people so it could have been even more crowded. There was no food service so bring your own food/snacks.

The costs for the selfie experience was 1,650ARS ($110) pp. The costs does not include park entrance fee or transportation to the pier. You can drive yourself to the pier or pay additional for bus transfer. We paid for the bus transfer which picked us from our hotel around 7:30am.

Bus Transfer to Pier:      300ARS ($20)
Park Entrance Fee:         500ARS ($34), good for a day, cash only.

Opt for a smaller cruise experience if you want to see these glaciers or just skip it and visit Perito Moreno, an easy bus/taxi ride to the entrance. Pay the 500ARS entrance and once there you are free to roam at your own pace. There is an option for an hour cruise to Perito Moreno which is probably way cheaper than the selfie cruise we just took.

Eats:

La Tablita
El Calafate, AR

A typical Argentine Parilla serving all types of grilled meats and Patagonia lamb. Nice cosy atmosphere. The food was OK and it was apparent that it is used to catering to large tour groups. We split the short ribs, salad and chocolate Marquis. The short ribs were not as good as La Estancia in Ushuaia. $$$

Don Diego
El Calafate, AR

We went here for lunch and had the menu of the day which was grilled chicken and boniato mash. The food was OK nothing exciting. The flan was good though. $$

Mako
El Calafate, AR

We had dinner at Mako which is located on the corner from our hotel. How could we not since it was the name of our beloved deceased kitty. Unfortunately other than the name, there wasn’t much going for it. The food was just OK. The restaurant served modern Argentine cuisine in a very nice and cosy atmosphere. There was a lamb puree amuse bouche that was fantastic. $$$

Argentina El Calafate

 

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