You are ten years old. Standing at the edge of the diving board. Scared of jumping off. But enticed by the joy of that first splash of water, as you dive into the swimming pool.
Our thoughts were similar to the ten-year-old’s, as we decided whether or not to take the plunge. We had two options (like always, in life) – go north or go south. North would still give us a taste of the Andes. It would be “south-enough”, and make no mistake, cold enough as well.
South, on the other hand, meant going head on – at the peak of the southern hemisphere winter – into deep Patagonia. At kissing distance from the white continent of Antarctica. There would be no turning back from here. Enquiring how cold it would be was pointless. We had no previous parameters to compare it with. We were, to be honest, petrified of the winter.
We don’t know when we’ll be back here – sounded like a profound enough reason. We chose South. We would be visiting Patagonia in winter!
Our fear of the winter was validated on our first day in Santa Cruz. This is the state to which El Calafate, where we were headed, belongs. Our bus was stopped here for some paperwork. It was 2 PM, the time of the day we had so far associated with the warmest weather. The policemen outside, covered from head to toe, only their eyes visible through the thin slits between their huge mufflers and caps were puffing out clouds of mist with each word they spoke.
At the unearthly hour of 1.30 AM, when the bus reached El Calafate, we were dreading getting out. The stillness of the night seemed to elevate the cold. The wind sounded like the devil of a horror movie. It was alright being pulled by an explicable force, and getting to El Calafate to explore Patagonia in the winter. “Explore” was the key word here, and it meant stepping out. On that first night in El Calafate, we had no idea how we were going to do that!
A warm dorm, warm shower and a warm bed soothed our nerves. We decided to give El Calafate a shot in a new light of a new day.
El Calafate is your typical little “tourist village” in Patagonia
Yes, El Calafate is an entry point for deep Patagonia from the Argentina side. And Patagonia, in our mind was all things wild and natural. We had almost imagined a mountain side hostel surrounded by a forest.
To our surprise, El Calafate was anything but wild. The “main street” (yes, there was a main street which gave way to hotels, hostels and more hotels – no homes here!) was lined with warm and cosy looking stores. All made in wood. Selling the kind of stuff that serves no particular purpose. Something that is bought only when people are on a holiday high!
Our favourite part of the market were the restaurants. Emanating smells of asado, especially of the Patagonian lamb. The lamb is a special delicacy here. Steak to stew, it is served in every form and is just as delicious.
Apart from the food, there wasn’t much that held our interest in the El Calafate market. So when we saw a board saying bicycles on rent, we decided to check it out.
To cycle or not in El Calafate
We hadn’t cycled much (at all, actually!) since our college years. This would be our first time on geared bicycles. The weather forecast had said rains were likely. The guy at our hostel had translated this forecast to the local Patagonian lingo. “Be prepared for snow”, he had warned us.
For sure, the guy at the bicycle store who helped us choose the bikes had refused to charge us for the six-hour package. “You will not be able to stay outdoors that long, I don’t want to overcharge you”, he had confidently told us.
With this kind of encouragement, cycling around the lake Argentino sounded like a perfect plan! (Well, we had chosen to visit Patagonia in the winter. What was the point in shying away from some adventure, we reasoned!).
A fall and a crash into a parked car later, we had our bikes finalised. “See you in the evening”, we told the bike guy. “See you in a couple of hours” was the look with which he waved back.
El Calafate, lake Argentino and two ducks
The El Calafate municipality has built a paved road around the lake Argentino. This made our cycling experience a joy ride. The seven layers we were buried in, made us feel huge, but snug. The smooth ride had started to warm us up.
There were no shops or hotels around anymore. Just some fluorescent houses, adding a pop of colour to the greyness around. Near El Calafate, the lake started off as a lagoon. A flock of Andean flamingoes with their yellow beaks (a southern hemisphere characteristic) greeted us.
The houses receded as we moved away from El Calafate. Would there be people inside, we wondered. Would they have gathered around a fireplace, reading a book? Watching TV and sipping a hot drink warming them from the inside? Is this how people who lived in these hardly inhabited cold regions spent their time? Did they romanticise the remoteness of their lives, as we did, gliding across the lake that was a part of their daily lives?
Off the road we went, up a hillock. Turned out, this was the real local El Calafate. Away from the tourist market, we saw the real face of El Calafate here. Each house had huge mountain dogs guarding it. Some even chased us on our cycles! The “road” here was covered in sludge. We couldn’t make much of a higher ground and missed the golden light opportunity.
But we could now say, we had cycled to the far corner of the earth!
The lone warrior Perito Moreno: the real reason for coming to El Calafate
We had first heard of a glacier called Perito Moreno from our Couchsurfing guest. In the pictures that she showed us, the humongous Perito Moreno hadn’t looked like any of the glaciers we had seen earlier. The photo had stayed in minds since. “The only growing glacier in the world resides in Patagonia – the largest cover of snow in the world after Antarctica and Siberia” – our research on Perito Moreno had come up with these glorious findings.
You start when it is still dark. A bus takes you to the Los Glaciares National Park. You are now surrounded by the monstrous Andes mountain range. These Andes are now following you on both sides of the road; some of them are even Chilean! There is fresh snow on the sides of the roads.
Every once in a while, the Perito Moreno glacier gives proof of its growing nature. As it moves ahead and hits the barrier, parts of the glacier come tumbling down and hits the lake with a thud. The sound we heard was louder than the loudest fireworks we had heard so far. The ripples caused took a long time to pacify, making the lake around resemble the sea!
We felt enamoured and dwarfed by the Perito Moreno glacier. We had witnessed the most glorious representative of nature’s ultimate supremacy.
We now began to comprehend the overpowering pull that had compelled us to choose South. That had made us decide to visit Patagonia in winter. Yes, we had missed the treks and walks Patagonia is fondly known for. Someday in the future, we may even return in the Patagonian summer.
Until then, in our hearts, we will hold this visit to Perito Moreno, El Calafate, Patagonia as our privilege.
How do you get to “deep Patagonia”?
- El Calafate, 1400 km away is a 32-hour journey in the winter from Puerto Madryn.
- Other times of the year, it is accessible via Ruta 40, the national highway of Argentina which goes through the Andes mountains. However, in the winter months Ruta 40 is closed for traffic.
- You travel through the coastal highway via Commodore Rivadavia all the way south to Rio Gallegos.
- After a change of bus at Rio Gallegos, you cross over from the East to the West. Nestled in the middle of the Andes, is a tourist village of El Calafate.
Top tips for visiting El Calafate and deep Patagonia
- In the summer months, trekking on the Perito Moreno is possible. The trekking company arranges for crampons needed to walk on the ice there. Moderate fitness levels are necessary to participate in this trek.
- El Chalten is to the north of El Calafate. The companies which conduct tours to El Calafate also offer a combined tour to El Chalten.
- This is especially for Indian passport holders (or travelers who need a visa to visit Chile). If you plan to visit Ushuaia by road, you will need a visa for Chile. The state of Tiera del Fuego to which Ushuaia belongs is across a strait which is shared by Argentina and Chile. When going overland, the bus gets on a Chilean boat which goes through Chilean waters. Which means Chile asks for a visa from Indians to go to the Argentinian city of Ushuaia. Most people couldn’t believe we needed a visa to go from Argentina to Argentina. One of the guys at the bus company actually made five phone calls to his final call being to the border police! We heard him say “transito! transito!” several times, his body language indicating it was a ridiculous rule. But a rule it is and there isn’t much anyone can do.
- Winter is the off season for Patagonia. Many activities will be closed for the winter. There are still plenty of options for things to do if you visit Patagonia in winter.
- The weather in Patagonia in winter obviously severely cold. But with appropriate warm clothes, the cold is manageable.