.All Trips / Argentina / South America

Nowhere is a Place: Visiting Patagonia, 1) El Calafate, Argentina

074 Sunset in El Calafante

While they look extraterrestrial, those aren’t flying saucers or wormholes in the sky; rather, they’re some of the most unusual cloud formations I’ve ever seen.  The above image (and more in the photos below) was captured at dusk my first night in Patagonia and it affirmed my desire to visit this corner of the world.  It had taken 20 years, but I finally made it!  The breath-taking and sometimes surreal and barren landscapes of Patagonia are unlike any other!

Many people don’t know where ‘Patagonia’ is, or consider it just the name of a famous outdoor clothing brand.  My first in depth exposure to Patagonia (the southern portion of South America) came from reading the book, “Nowhere is a Place“, written by well know travel writers Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux.  The book and its images of Patagonia fascinated me.  It’s now long out of print, but inspired me through word and pictures to visit one of the most isolated places in the world and to see and walk through some of the most spectacular mountain and desert scenery anywhere.

Calafate Berry, Laguna Nimez Preserve, El Calafate, Argentina

Calafate Berry, Laguna Nimez Preserve, El Calafate, Argentina

As our plane took off from Buenos Aires for El Calafate, the adventure began!  El Calafate is a small town that’s the gateway to Argentina’s Patagonia, especially Glaciers National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It’s only about a two hour flight but traversing from the sprawling populous city of Buenos Aires to the small town of El Calafate is almost like going to another planet!  (note:  for those on a limited budget, you can also get there via a long bus ride, but if you can afford it, the scenery and introductory views of Patagonia from the plane, not to mention time saved, are worth paying for).  We were part of a G Adventures tour and were traveling with a nice international group of fellow adventurers, making it all the more pleasant a travel experience.

El Calafate is situated about an hour’s drive from the Andes and adjoins the southern shore a large milky blue glacial lake, Lago Argentino, one of the largest lakes in South America.  The town’s name, “El Calafate”, is derived from a bush with yellow flowers that yield dark blue berries which is very common in  Patagonia.  The calafate’s fruit looks like a blueberry and it is also commonly used in making jams and syrups.  It’s a flavorful berry that to me tasted more like a Saskatoon berry than a blueberry; unlike the blueberry, the calafate berry has scanty flesh and consists mostly small seeds that would prevent most folks from eating many.  But when you visit you’ll have to try calafate berries because tradition has it that if you eat the calafate fruit, you’re guaranteed to return to Patagonia some day.

The town of El Calafate began in the early twentieth century, originally as a tiny village of wool traders.  The town was officially founded in 1927 by the government to promote settlement in Argentinian Patagonia and help define it’s territory (some if which is still in dispute with Chile).  But it was the creation of nearby Perito Moreno National Park in 1937  (now part of Los Glaciares National Park) that sparked the town’s growth by bringing with it better roads and flocks of tourists.  El Calafate, now with about 8000 residents, is also a gateway to El Chalten and Torres del Paines.

Wine tasting, La Tienda de Vinos, El Calafate, Argentina

Wine tasting, La Tienda de Vinos, El Calafate, Argentina

El Calafate’s main strip, Ave del Libertador, is dotted with souvenir and candy shops, restaurants and snack bars, and tour vendors.  January and February are the most popular (and costly) months to visit because the weather is at it’s best, although it’s almost always windy here.  In January and February it’s a cool wind, rather than a cold one.  It’s cheaper at other times of the year but as the town is remote, prices are higher than you’d be paying elsewhere in the country as everything needs to be shipped here.  You can explore the town on foot — which means a lot of walking as it’s sort of spread out, or you could rent a bike in the city to get around or go for a tour around the lake.  There’s an interesting nature preserve at the edge of town, Laguna Nimez, which we’ll look at more closely in my next Patagonian post.

We spent a few nights at El Calafate, exploring the town and it’s lagoon (replete with hundreds of birds including swans and flamingos).  But as a gateway town, it’s mostly lacking in tourist attractions — just providing services.  People go through El Calafate to see the highlights of Patagonia.  There is a newly built museum dedicated to glaciers, known as the Glaciarum, several kilometers outside of El Calafate enroute to Perito Merino Glacier. This museum provides exhibitions and information on the makeup, history, and importance of the glaciers in this region, but we did not have time to visit it.

The food in town was good, if not exceptional.  Patagonian lamb (“cordero patag√≥nico”) is popular and very tasty.  Typical Argentinian beef barbecue (asado) is also very good.  The town is not far from Mendoza, the capitol of Argentinian wine production, so you’ll have a fine selection of wines available such as Malbec.

(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)

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