After leaving El Chaltén we headed to the commercial town of El Calafate where we now, to our delight, had a spacious room with a king-size bed courtesy of our travel agent’s recommendation (Agent: Swoop Patagonia, Hotel Kosten Aike).
Because we hadn’t been able to get up close to any of the glaciers we hiked to in Torres del Paine or Los Glaciares national parks due to water levels, rain, and wind, Bert and I decided to do the tourist thing and experience from a different perspective what all those gorgeous postcard photographs kept telling us Patagonia is all about. So far it felt like we were missing quintessential elements of traveling in Patagonia: glaciers, estancia, and local food, particularly the asado lamb barbeque.
Perito Moreno Glacier, Magellan Peninsula
Overheard a British dad to his teenage boys: “Cheer up! We’re on holiday!” British mum to the teenagers: “Hey guys, that sounds good to me! Hiking on a glah-cier! With crampons!”. Teenager: “Can I get something to eat. Can I see the menu.” It made me smile. We were deep in tourist country and ready to embrace the scene.
Cristian, our guide in Chile, had told us to go see Perito Moreno by telling us that it is spectacular. As usual, he was right. Suprisingly, there weren’t many visitors and the place was pleasantly quiet.
Spegazzini Glacier and Upsala Glacier
We took a boat tour deeper into the channels for closer views of two other glaciers that calve into Lake Argentina, one of the largest lakes in the country.
Taste of Patagonia – jamón y queso
El Calafate resto-bars offer a variety of yummy salads and good quality produce on the menus. I’d forgotten from my last trip in South America about ham & cheese, jamón y queso; even dishes listed as “vegetable” would be presented with this favorite combo. It’s interesting to me, this national preference, because although the Patagonian menus were heavy in cow dairy and ham, neither industry prevails here. The typical restaurant queso is commercially produced sliced white cheese that bears little resemblance to Andean mountain cheese. I’m not sure how jamón y queso came to be… But it sure does preserve well. We carried ham and cheese sandwiches (with mayo packets) for a week in our backpacks. They are very heavy.
Taste of Patagonia – calafate berry
The other foodstuff of pride is the calafate berry. It’s processed into liquor and jams and ice cream, tea, etc. that appears to be for the benefit of selling gastronomic souvenirs to tourists in… El Calafate. The taste here runs sweet, with lots of wheat flour products. Tarts, tortes, alfajores and pastries filled with jam or almond and coated with chocolate abound – and that’s a good thing!
The calafate spreads and treats I tried were sometimes mixed with raspberry or other fruit, and the berry itself is hard with hard nubby seeds. It’s the approximate color and size of a blueberry.
I find the plentiful pink heath berries much more delicious, but of course El Calafate is not named after heath bushes. The town got its name, according to a tour guide, because it was a meeting place for caravans heading to the coast. The drivers would arrange to meet at the tall Calafate bushes. As it happens, this meeting place is on estancia (ranch) land, so the town is actually located within private estancia land. The estancia and sheep farming dominate the history here. More on that later.
Taste of Patagonia – asado
Speaking of sheep farming, it’s all about the wool. And also the lamb barbeque, which is done on a special frame and, importantly, over open flame. The lamb’s served with chimichurri and other acidic salsas, which so perfectly brighten the meat. Of course we can’t talk about asado without deference to celebrity chef Francis Mallmann:
If you look a bit into my background, I was raised in Patagonia in a house that was ruled by fire. As kids, having a full shed of wood of every size for every different fire was very important… I just went down to my knees, looked around and remembered all the tools from my childhood. I looked around a bit into the mountains and saw what the natives had been doing.
…Fire is such a fragile and beautiful thing. People think that it’s a manly thing — fire and you burn things. But it’s, on the contrary, very feminine…
We had a very nice dinner at the Estancia 25 de Mayo, the estancia on which the town of El Calafate sits.
Patagonia History Lesson – Estancia 25 de Mayo
This was a nice little tour – albeit a bit pricey in my opinion – and clearly designed to enthrall the tourist, what with the mulled wine by the stream, rustic equipment on display, and petting and feeding of baby animals whose mothers seem to be missing. We learned a bit about El Calafate, sheep farming history and current challenges, and a bit about the food and greenhouse, and the tour included dinner in the adjacent restaurant. We didn’t stay for the folkloric dancing and evening show, preferring to catch up on some sleep! Tourists can easily arrange tours to other estancia in the area, where horseback riding, hiking, and ATV activities are on offer.
Tour packages are easy to book from kiosks and tour offices when in El Calafate, even on short notice, although it’s also nice to have pre-scheduled days to make best use of your time. Most tours include transport from hotels but do not include National Park entry fees or meals. The public bus to popular tourist areas is also easy to book, and cheap, safe, clean, on-time/ reliable/ efficient. Over the course of our trip we used several operators (Cal-Tur, Cootra, Bus Sur, Fernandez) arranged by Swoop Patagonia’s local partners; they all leave from the main terminal in town and they are more or less the same in price and service.