Patagonia On Ice

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in the southern end of Argentina’s huge Los Glaciares National Park, is one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing instead of receding. The massive sheet of ice pours slowly out of the Andes into Lago Argentino, forming at its end a solid wall over three miles wide and taller than a twenty-story building. You can take a boat up to either the north or south face of the glacier, or watch it from a series of trails and viewing platforms where you can feel the ice-cold wind blowing off its surface and listen to the thunderous noise as blocks of ice the size of houses break off and crash into the lake.

We went twice.

A year of summer – that’s what we told ourselves when we left the United States in August. We flew straight to the tropics and as the northern hemisphere slid into autumn we traveled south into a second spring and then, of course, another summer.

We weren’t completely delusional. We knew that Patagonia was going to be frigid and arranged to have cold-weather clothing shipped to us in Chile. What we didn’t anticipate was that aside from a few warm islands here and there, the trip was going to be chilly all the way down the West Coast, that our “year of summer” was going to be dominated by the high altitude of the Andes and oceanic currents from Antarctica, and that the prolonged hours of sunlight weren’t going to do much at all to warm us up.

Oh well. We’ve been assured that once we get into northern Argentina, summer heat will become a sweaty reality. Until then, we still have several weeks to appreciate the harsh steppes of the South.

The launch point for trips to Los Glaciares is the little town of El Calafate. It’s not the kind of place where one generally spends a week, but we did. Ushuaia was too expensive – and boring – and El Calafate was the best place to rendezvous with Lea’s sister Lisa who will be spending the next two weeks traveling with us!

Me, Lea, and Lisa – not dressed for summer.

Staying in El Calafate for longer than normal gave us the chance to scope out tours and excursion options in advance while, as I said earlier, seeing the Perito Moreno glacier twice – something we haven’t been able to do with any other point of interest along this trip.

The glacial blue of Lago Argentino.

Other things to do around El Calafate: We visited the town’s amazing Argentine Toy Museum, with its huge collection of toys from around the world from 1870 to 1970. We visited the Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary right on the edge of town. We had unlimited drinks for 25 minutes in the Yeti Ice Bar, where the temperature inside is a balmy -17⁰C. We hiked into some windy, sandy desert formations 100 kilometers outside of town to see a petrified forest. Oh, and we Zip-Lined down the eastern face of Cerro Frias.

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El Calafate is a town of expensive hotels and cheap backpacker hostels, with nothing in between. Since we were staying for a whole week, we went for cheap – especially since the backpacker place afforded us the use of a kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat out. It did land us in a dorm-room situation, which we’ve previously endeavored to avoid. We booked an entire room for ourselves to avoid sharing bunks with total strangers, but even so our room in El Calafate wins hands down for the single most cramped accommodation we’ve had.

They call this a room for four people.

That’s a minor quibble next to the main difficulty Argentina has thrown at us this week. Last week I discussed the dearth of bus transportation in Argentinian Patagonia. This week in Round Two of “Us vs. This Country,” the point of contention is Argentina’s ATMs. We budgeted plenty of money to get through Patagonia, but the banks down here are making it annoyingly difficult to gain access to it. From our research we knew this would be a problem, but reading about it and experiencing the reality are two different things.

A long-tailed meadowlark at Laguna Nimez.

Imagine, if you will, that you were operating solely on cash, that the most you could get out of a bank machine at a time was $100, and that you got charged a $10 fee every time you made a withdrawal. To add insult to injury, imagine that the ATM then dispensed your $100 in a giant wad of $2 bills. Imagine paying rent in those conditions. Imagine saving up enough cash for a big purchase. Imagine buying groceries.

The Sci-Fi display at the Toy Museum.

Because of Argentina’s banking laws, the ATMs have very low caps on how much money you can withdraw and very high fees when you do. Compounding the problem is the fact that the ATMs in tourist towns in the middle of nowhere, like El Calafate, are continually short on cash. Rounding out the trifecta of annoying money problems is that Argentina has virtually no coins. Everything is done with paper money, so you end up carrying around thick stacks of bills that are not really worth that much but are difficult to hide without making giant bulges in your pockets.

Felled trees in the Petrified Forest.

We’re lucky that we were able to set up a bank account for this trip that refunds ATM fees – that’s been a life-saver – and also that we’re allowed to take up to three withdrawals a day. It’s annoying that we’ve had to do that. Because the banks here can’t be trusted to have sufficient available cash, the rule has been for us to take money out well in advance if we have an expensive tour or a week of lodging to pay for at once. It’s not fun to have to carry that much money, and it may not be the smartest thing in the world to be advertising that fact on this blog for all the world to see.

Rock formations near the Petrified Forest.

Thankfully 1) no one down here reads English and 2) by the time this is posted we’ll be well out of El Calafate.

Next up: caves, more caves, and… cherries? Stay tuned, dear readers.

Lea and Lisa at the Yeti Ice Bar, still not dressed for summer.

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