Argentina – El Calafate in Patagonia

Patagonia is wildlands, magnificent ice landscapes, majestic mountains, and enchanting fjords. Located in the south of South America, straddling Chile and Argentina, it was one of the distant destinations that made me dream.

So many reasons that made me want to discover it. As we were in Argentina, it was unthinkable not to go there.
We only had three days and had to pick among the possibilities available. Our choice fell on El Calafate, in the province of Santa Cruz, at the foot of the Andes Range.

So we flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate and booked three nights there and two organized tours.

  • Visit to Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park
  • Hiking around El Chaltén

And for the last morning, we decided to go and visit the Laguna Nimez Reserve at El Calafate.

Patagonia

For starters, where does the name Patagonia come from?

It comes from the Spanish word patagón.
The explorer Magellan used this term to describe the indigenous tribes of the region, considered then as giants. The Patagón were the Tehuelche, who were apparently taller than the Europeans of the time. Thus a hypothesis says that patagón would be a derivative of pata or foot and that Patagonia would mean Land of the big feet.
Historians have still not validated this supposition! However, on the first maps of the New World, this land is mentioned as the land of the giants.

El Calafate

El Calafate is a charming village located near the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in the Argentine province of Santa Cruz. It is known as the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. People come here to experience the Perito Moreno Glacier and the El Chaltén region.
If previously the area lived from sheep breeding for wool, tourism has become the main activity there.

The city’s name comes from a plant, the calafate, which grows in abundance in the region. The calafate berries resemble the blueberries, and in the same way, locals use them to make jams, liqueur, sweets, and pastries.
It is a symbol of Patagonia.

The region also has its proverb…

Quien come el calafate vuelve por más – Whoever eats calafate comes back for more.

…which has its story, or rather its two stories.

The first is about an older woman from the Tehuelches tribe, nomads who roamed Patagonia, living by hunting and gathering.
One winter, when the clan was preparing to leave, the older woman, too weak, was left alone to endure the cold season. She thought she would freeze to death when she turned into a calafate bush by magic. The birds found refuge in its branches and ate its berries in the summer.
And since then, they have been coming back every year to enjoy this succulent fruit.

The second one, the most famous, is that of a beautiful young woman, Calafate, daughter of Chief Aonikenk. She was said to have eyes of beautiful golden color.

One day, Calafate met Selknam, a boy from a rival tribe. They fell head over heels in love, but knowing they could never marry, they hatched a plan to elope together.
When Aonikenk discovered the scheme, furious and convinced that the evil spirit Gualicho possessed his daughter, he went to a shaman, asking him to thwart the escape. The latter then transformed Calafate into a bush, whose yellow flowers were the color of his golden eyes.
On the day of departure, as Selknam was looking for Calafate, he realized she had been turned into a bush. But the scrub was made of thorns, and he could neither approach nor touch her. An immense sadness seized him, and he died with a broken heart.
The shaman, repenting of the pain caused to the young lovers, took pity on them. He turned the yellow flowers into purple berries, a symbol of the heart of the Selknam, so the two could stay together.
The legend came from this passion, because anyone who eats the berries falls under the timeless charm of these Patagonian lovers and is bound to come back.

Nothing like a beautiful love story to make a legend unforgettable!

After these beautiful stories, it is time to return to our visits.

😍 A day to discover the Perito Moreno Glacier

The Perito Moreno Glacier

Our program:

  • 9:00 a.m.: Departure from El Calafate towards Los Glaciares National Park
  • Photo break on the road.
  • 11:30 a.m.: Boarding at the port of Muelle Bajo Las Sombras for a boat tour on the Rico arm of Lake Argentino
  • 1:00 p.m.: Lunch break and walks facing the glacier at the Perito Moreno Glacier Footbridges
  • 3:30 p.m.: Return to El Calafate
Curva de Los Suspiros, Curve of Sighs, where we first saw the Perito Moreno glacier

A little about the Perito Moreno glacier

The Perito Moreno Glacier is located in Los Glaciares National Park, in the southwest of the province of Santa Cruz. It was named after explorer Francisco Moreno, a pioneer who studied the region in the 19th Century. He then played a significant role in the dispute over the border between Argentina and Chile.
Due to its size and accessibility, Perito Moreno is one of the main tourist attractions in southern Patagonia.
It measures 30 km for an area of ​​250 km² and is one of the rare glaciers to maintain a state of equilibrium; it accumulates mass at the same rate as it melts.
Its fame comes from its continuous movement, a cyclic phenomenon of constant advance and retreat with spectacular falls of gigantic ice blocks into the waters.
Another peculiarity of the glacier is that it cyclically creates a dam that divides the fjord of Lake Argentino in two.

The formation of the dam

Between June and April, the weight of the ice causes the glacier to advance about two meters per day on the fjord.
When it reaches the coast of the Magallanes Peninsula — the “rupture” point on the map — it divides the lake into two parts, the Brazo Rico (Rico Arm) and the Canal de Los Témpanos (Iceberg Channel).
The level of the Brazo Rico then rises and can go up to 30 meters above its standard height.
The pressure of the water on the dam will gradually create an outlet, a small passage which will turn over the weeks into an ice bridge, which will finally collapse with a crash. The spectacle is renowned as one of the most awe-inspiring natural spectacles globally.
This dam-ice bridge-rupture cycle occurs naturally.

But the glacier is capricious. On March 11, 2018, the ice bridge collapsed during the night. No one could take advantage of it!

The glacier from the Curve of Sighs

Our boat tour

The tour lasted an hour. The boat took us to the glacier’s edge, which we sailed along. The good news was that we could go outside on the deck to enjoy this incredible show.

The different shades of blue that appear on the glacier are intense and unique. The cracking of the ice, the shocks of the blocks that break off and fall into the water, and the underground noise that escapes from the subglacial caves as it advances brings it alive. I could have watched it for hours if the cold hadn’t caught up with me.

The edge of the glacier is 5 km wide…
…with a height of about 170 m, with about 80 m above the water

Two glacier hiking options could complement this boat tour — a one-and-a-half-hour “mini-trekking” and a “big ice” version that usually lasts five hours.
On the other hand, I found it extremely expensive, even if it seems that a “whiskey on the rock” with ice cubes from the glacier awaits you at the top!

The start of the hikes to the left of the glacier

The Perito Moreno footbridges

The best views of the glacier. There is one trail for everyone, each walkway offering a fantastic panorama.

The gateway map. The journey times are exaggerated, and the challenge is stairs.

We walked through them all, with long stops on the balconies situated at different levels, hoping to catch a glimpse of a large block of ice breaking off and crashing into the milky water. This color is due to the sand created by the friction of the glacier on the ground and which it carries along as it moves.
But we only saw small dips, which nevertheless produced beautiful eddies. I imagine the happiness of the witnesses of the ice bridge collapse!

It must be magical!

The Iceberg Channel
Blocks ready to fall!
The place where the dam forms

We struggled to get off the catwalks to go back to the bus, as we still held out hope that our patience would be rewarded.

😍 A day in the mountains of El Chaltén

Our program:

  • 8:00 am: departure from El Calafate towards El Chaltén
  • Breakfast on the road.
  • 11:30 a.m.: arrival at El Chaltén – Choice between exploring the surroundings by bus with small steps or free hiking.
  • 3:30 p.m.: return to El Calafate

We chose the free ride.

El Chaltén, Argentina’s trekking capital, is a small mountain village of 350 souls in Los Glaciares National Park.
It is located on the shore of the Rio de las Vueltas and is dominated by two massive peaks known for climbing, the Mont Torre and the Fitz Roy.
It is also a popular base for hiking. Many trails exist, some of which offer more or less developed camping areas. There are rudimentary toilets!
In winter, snow and ice isolate the city, and few tourists venture there, fleeing the very harsh climate of this time of year.

The name of El Chaltén

Before becoming the name of the village, El Chaltén was the old name of Fitz Roy.
In Tehuelche, Chaltén means smoking mountain. As the top of the mountain is almost always under the clouds, the first inhabitants thought it was a volcano. So they baptized it El Chaltén.
But in 1877, the Argentine explorer Francisco Moreno renamed it Fitz Roy in honor of Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the second voyage of the English ship HMS Beagle in the 1830s.

Our hike

We hiked the Fitz Roy trail loop to Laguna Capri, passing the Fitz Roy viewpoint.
Then, we went to the Cascade del Rio de la Cascada, (which is not on the map) whose trailhead is to the left of the sign above.

The weather was erratic the day of our trip to El Chaltén. We started our walk in a slight cold drizzle interspersed with rays of sunshine, but as we progressed, the snow began to coat the path, and the rain turned into showers. April here is the beginning of winter.

But we were well equipped, which allowed us to enjoy the hike.

What we should have seen…
… what we saw!

Of course, the panoramic views were blocked entirely, but the discovery of the lake, our destination, was a pleasant surprise. It looked like a black and white decor.

We sat down for a few minutes, but the cold forced us to leave as soon as we swallowed our sandwich.

As if by magic, the clouds began to rise during our descent.

Back at our starting point, we then took the waterfall trail.

The end of our day was coming, and we still hadn’t seen the Fitz Roy, still hidden in the fog. We were disappointed but had no choice but to go home.

I admit that the path itself does not have significant interests. It is in the valley with no views, and much of it is along a dirt road that leads to the waterfall.

After 3 km of walking, we finally reached the waterfall, and we took a little break with the sound of the running water in the background — a zen atmosphere.

And eventually…

… when we were on the bus, the sky cleared to allow us to see the long-awaited summit.
Our driver stopped for us to admire the impressive mountain range, with the unique Fitz Roy at its center.

It would have been a shame to miss this panorama
The surrounding mountains

😍 The Laguna Nimez reserve, a site for bird watching

We took advantage of our last morning in El Calafate to discover the flamingos on the shores of Lake Argentino.

In the background, the first snow-capped peaks of the Andes Range

We are not bird fans but rented binoculars anyway. Armed with a guide on the fauna and flora of the reserve, we set out for our exploration.
The landscape was sublime, the sun radiant and strolling while scrutinizing nature, a unique moment.
An easy-three-km path winds through this wetland. It is enhanced with explanatory panels and watchtowers that allow the walkers to stop for studious breaks.

We took a chance, but we didn’t see much. We indeed had a good time. We walked around this calm and relaxing place for more than two hours.

And the flamingos were there.

Final word

This outing was fantastic!
However, in hindsight, we should have planned an extra day to have the opportunity to do another hike around El Chaltén. As we made the round trip from El Calafate during the day, we only had 3h30 to walk around.
It was a bit short to enjoy the mountains fully.
Especially since it is straightforward to find a bus from El Calafate to El Chaltén and spend the night there. Also, the trails are very well marked, so there is no need for a guide.

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