26-30/11/14 - Glaciers National Park, El Calafate

Not shy, very noisy Black-faced Ibis

On Wednesday morning we flew out of the beautiful, award-winning timber and glass airport in Ushuaia half an hour early and reached an equally fine, modern structure at El Calafate just one hour later.  The only drawback with this airport is that is is made of steel and glass and inclined to give you an electric shock!  The atmosphere in Patagonia is extremely dry and being spring, Martin's suffering a bit from allergies.  Fortunately, half our luggage is made up of medicines for every eventuality.

El Calafate was originally built as a centre for the very prosperous sheep farming business in the 19th century, but the wool industry collapsed in the last century and the town's fortunes have been very mixed since then.  It now exists purely to support the tourist industry, but expands and contracts with the fluctuations in the world and the Argentinian economies.  Right now, it seems to ber growing, with construction everywhere, mostly of very nice looking houses and wide new roads with, joy of joys, beautifully paved sidewalks!  Our hotel is in one of the developing areas, surrounded by half-built homes and a little further from the centre than we had anticipated - about 15 to 20 minutes walk.  But the up-side of that is that we have a great view over Lake Argentina and are a stone's throw from the Lagunas, a lake-side nature reserve, which I visited on Thursday, while Martin had a rest day.  It was really lovely - a bit like Slapton Ley, but with more birds!  In British nature reserves, the birds mostly seem to hide in the reeds and trees, but here they all come out to perform and pose nicely.  When I remarked on this to the young man in the ticket office on my way out, he said "We have touristic birds."  Among the many species flaunting themselves were Chilean flamingoes, Andean ruddy ducks,chimangoes (hawks), harriers, sobrepuesto, which is a delightful little bird that looks like a back to front robin and most common of all and way the most noisy, black-faced ibis.  And lots more.

We were warned by the South American Handbook (don't leave home without it if you are coming to this part of the world) that El Calafate is the most expensive place in Patagonia and we have certainly noticed that restaurants are less good value than in Ushuaia.  The food has been less good too.  The other night we made a slight error of judgement choosing a restaurant.  Looking in from outside it looked lively and cheerful, with plenty of locals, and we were sitting at a table with our menus before we realised that the reason it was full of locals was because it was teeming with young families, due to the presence of a large Kiddies Play Area at the back!  The evening resounded with merry shrieks and shouts and children whizzed back and forth down the central aisle and were still bouncing happily off the walls when we left after our rather tense meal!  A great idea, I'm sure, but we probably won't be returning.
Here are a few random odd facts about Patagonia. 
1) There are dogs everywhere.  They roam all around the town, completely unsupervised, sometimes chasing cars, but mostly just visiting friends, tagging along with pedestrians and enjoying the occasional town-centre scrap.  They must have homes to go to, because they all look quite well fed, but they take their walks without their owners. in fact, in our developing area of town, which has a lot of open blocks of land, we came acros a group of horses taking themselves for a walk the other day.  There are lots of horses, mostly tethered by the side of the roads, but these were wandering free.  The next day we saw their owner rounding them up for the night with a motor bike.
2) El Calafate is where old cars go to die.  There are so many ancient bangers roaring around, some of them really battered, but not, apparently rusty. It must be the dry atmosphere that preserves them.  When was the last time you saw a Mk3 Cortina or Renault 18?
3) When we first saw the garden at Estancia Harberton full of English flowers, we assumed they had been grown because of the British connection, but then we noticed that Ushuaia, too was full of pansies, marigolds and, most especially, lupins and lavender.  And so is El Calafate.  No idea why - maybe the lupins are a variety native to here, but they are certainly popular! 
4) Wind!  The breeze of the morning from west to east is lovely fresh air on the way to breakfast, but by lunchtime, it's built to a constant stiff wind and by 16:00 almost a gale, dropping away rapidly by 20:00 - just in time to walk into town for dinner.  Despite being a daily occurrence and always from the glaciers, the temperature varies greatly from mild to bitter.

As I mentioned, El Calafate exists only for the tourist industry and the reason tourists come here is to visit the Glaciers National Park, so the rest of our stay was devoted entirely to visiting and learning about glaciers!  We walked into town on our first evening to book a couple of tours.  Although this town is the base for visiting the glaciers, they are over 50 km away, so if you don't have a car, you have to join tours.  There are trekking and camping opportunities too, but trekking on the ice is not permitted for persons over 60 years of age.  Imagine our disappointment!  We had to settle for two tours, visiting three large glaciers.  On Friday we went to the Perito Merino glacier, which we first viewed from a boat, then landed and walked along a huge series of balconies, from which we could see it from many levels.  The other tour, on Sunday, was all by boat, to the Uppsala and Spegazzini glaciers and included close encounters with lots of icebergs.

We're not going to give a geography lesson about how glaciers are formed and how they behave, although, having visited the most excellent "Glaciarium" on Saturday, between the tours, we probably could.  The Glaciarium is a brilliant interpretive display, housed in a splendid building built to bring to mind the pillars, shards and surfaces of a glacier's face.  It's a fine example of how these things are done well, with detailed information in Spanish and English, set out so visually and imaginatively that people who choose to  skim could get plenty from it, but those pedants who like to read every word get a really in-depth account.

The knowledge and understanding does enhance the experience of sailing to within a few metres of a 60m high glacier and gazing up at the extraordinary shapes and patterns, the vivid blues (an optical effect), gleaming white and weird trails of brown.  These look as if Jeremy Clarkson has driven an enormous 4x4 down the ice-field and straight over the edge.  If only!  They are simply the result of earth and rock picked up along the way as the ice flows down the mountain.  But I think in this case pictures will speak louder than words.  So here are some pictures to give you a flavour .......

Next stop Bariloche by way of the two day bus trip along Ruta 40!  Were we mad to book this rather than fly?  Watch this space!!

Perito Moreno Glacier

Yes, they really are this colour! Iceberg from Upsala Glacier

Spegazzini Glacier

Us (again) with ice at Perito Moreno Glacier