The city of EL Calafate is the tourist gateway to the Argentinean side of Patagonia. The landscape is mostly scrub covered undulating plains with cattle, roaming guanaco’s and anchored by the majestic Andes in the distance. We were surprised at how “touristy” El Calafate is. The main road through the town is lined with upmarket restaurants, gift shops, little arts-and-crafts walkways and stalls, and numerous hotels, hostels and travel agencies. The homes in the neighbourhoods are mostly well kept and set further apart from each other than in the Chilean cities. It reminded us of a weekend destination close to a major city such as Knysna (South Africa) or Noosa (Australia).
We were hosted by a lovely couple in their home on a quieter section of the main road, ten minutes from the main bus terminal, two minutes from the tourist section and right next door to a bakery, which we discovered, had the best empanadas. An ideal location for the always-hungry van Rensburg clan!
The picture our hosts painted of Argentina was, however, very different to what we saw. It seems that El Calafate received special attention from the President a number of years ago, with a lot of money spent on the town to upgrade infrastructure, establish new neighbourhoods and boost the economy. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the region and have resulted in an influx of people lured by the apparent opportunities. The town is solely dependent on tourism, but with double digit inflation, prices are high (even in US$ terms) and business is slow. People are generally struggling to make ends meet. Most people are holding down two or more jobs, but with prices increasing markedly every month, even this is not always enough.
We took a bus to the Perito Moreno glacier, about 90 minutes from the town. Although it started to drizzle while we were there, the 120m high wall of ice was still a spectacular sight. We walked around the northern flank admiring the different hues of blue of the cracks and crevices and occasionally, witnessed large pieces of ice break away and cause waves in the lake at the foot of the slow moving mammoth.
After the afternoon out in the cold, we were glad to get back to our lodging and a few yummy empanadas!
– Jarik –