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January 4, 2013 / JustinKays Porter

El Calafate: Patagonia and Unpredictable Weather

This morning started with an early cab ride to the domestic airport in Buenos Aires and an uneventful flight south to El Calafate, the gateway to Argentinian Patagonia. After some napping on the flight, we woke up and looked out the window of the plane. We both thought we were over the ocean, and got thoroughly confused. The pilot said we were about 20 minutes from the airport, so there is no way we should be over the ocean! After a brief moment of panic (did we get on the wrong plane? where are we going? is our pilot crazy?!), we realized that the “ocean” was a rather peculiar shade of blue. Actually, come to think of it, the “ocean” looked a lot like the typical blue-green of glacial melt lakes. And, oh wait, there's the shore of Lago Argentino. Welcome to Patagonia, where the lakes are big enough to be oceans!

Our first experiences in Patagonia proved what we had heard so much about prior to our trip: everything is BIG. And spread out. With lots of open spaces in between. And it's beautiful and wonderful and better than you could ever imagine, even on the typical drizzly day. We found out way to our hotel, a cabin-like hostel up on a bluff, about a 10-minute walk from town. When we checked in, our host assured us that the weather was abnormal, and normally you could see the beautiful snow-capped mountains just across the lake from the front room at the hostel. Yeah right…

Not to be deterred, we put on our waterproof hiking gear and headed into town. It was a little chilly, a little windy, and a little rainy, but nothing too terrible. Our first stop was the bus station, to buy tickets to go into El Chalten the next morning. After that mission has been accomplished, we meandered through the outdoorsy and artsy stores in downtown and found a suitable lunch establishment. Suitable meaning open and serving drinks and food. We had chosen siesta time to go through town, but we found a place anyway!

As a side note, I should clarify that “downtown” El Calafate is really just one street that goes through town and takes about 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. While everything in Patagonia is big, the towns remain quite small. Walking through El Calafate is reminiscent of walking through downtown Truckee: lots of art galleries and showrooms, lots of Northface, Columbia, Patagonia, and other outdoor big name labels, and lots of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. It's pretty commercial, but rather pleasant.

We decided to take a detour off the main road in town, trying to find access to Lago Argentino, and ended up at the Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary. Apparently, this is a favorite stop for birders in Patagonia; but we, not being birders, thought it was a good place for a walk and a view of the lake. And a chance to see wild Chilean flamingos up close. Yes, that's what I said: flamingos. We began our journey around the lagoon while the sun was shining. After about 10 minutes, the clouds rolled in. And after about 5 more minutes, the rain started. Not to worry! We devised an ingenious way of taking photos in the rain without getting raindrops on the lens, tested our waterproof gear, and actually got great views of some birds and the lake. The rain came and went, but we were not to be scared away by the characteristically unpredictable Patagonian weather.

After birding, we made our way back to our bluff. By the time we got there, our host proved to be right: the sun had come out, the weather cleared a bit, and we could see the beautiful mountains across the lake. And they really were stunning. In our attempt to adjust to local time, we watched the sunset (at about 11 pm) from our dinner table over a bottle of wine and Patagonian lamb stew. And yes, it was delicious!


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