There were two possibilities for stops before we hit the tip of South America (Ushuaia): El Chaltan and El Calafate. We decided to skip El Chalten because it is mainly a hiking destination, so we booked the Andesmar bus to El Calafate to see Glacier Perito Moreno. As it turned out, the reason why we’d been given 2 tickets each was that the bus had to stop in El Chalten where, after having to take all our stuff off, the bus drove away to refuel. It was 6:30 am, the station didn’t open until 7 (resulting in a bit of a rush on the bathrooms at 7) and the bus would not leave until 7:30, but we were thankful for the stop as we bore witness to a breathtaking view of Mount Fitz Roy as the sun rose to light it up in all its glory.
We had a little trouble getting back on the bus because the girl issuing our tickets in Los Antiguos thought it was OK to cross out the dates and seat assignments that she’d messed up on and pen them back in. A few minutes in the El Chalten office and we were back on the bus watching as a backpacker took apart his bike to store in the hold along with his backpack…and a basketball. It always amazes me what people will travel with (says the woman who travels with a kettle, French press, coffee beans and grinder).
We arrived in El Calafate about 2 hours later and walked the dusty 5 minutes to Hosteria Los Gnomos. Since the room wouldn’t be ready for an hour or so, we dropped our stuff and walked the 10 minutes downhill to a covered bridge and then into town. El Calafate is pretty much the epitome of tourist towns. The Moreno Glacier is a huge draw and the town caters to the tens of thousands of tourists that come to see it. The town was quite pleasant, a divided Main Street with a lot of shade trees in the middle and small shops and restaurants on either side.
Having not had coffee yet, we made a beeline for Olivia Bagels & Coffee Shop where we enjoyed a prosciutto bagel and couple lattes. A little more awake, we searched for a bank. We’d read that we might have troubles taking out cash and here we did. In Bariloche we were able to withdraw 7500 from the Galicia bank but we didn’t see a Galicia here and didn’t yet know to look for the ATM symbol of a red “B” preceded by 3 horizontal stripes (the green “LINK” ATMs would not give us money anywhere we tried in Argentina). After asking a security guard at one bank (he wouldn’t let us in but was kind enough to answer our questions) and again at a tourist information building where no one spoke English either, we were able to figure out that most banks in town would only let you withdraw 1000 at a time with a max being 4000. With the ridiculous ATM fees, 1000 would only be about $20 and taking such a small about out would be, well, ridiculous. Finally, the ATM at Banco Patagonia gave us 4000 and went back to the hotel, stopping at the La Anónima supermarket on the main drag for sandwich supplies for the park, which the hotel kindly put in their fridge for us. That evening we bought all our bus tickets (to the park and Puerto Natalas) and made our way back to town, stopping at the outdoor beer garden style La Zorra Taproom for a happy hour beer. We also used the WiFi there to call the “Avis affiliated” Emsa to confirm the reservation on the car in Puerta Natales because it was not clear from the email confirmation whether it had unlimited miles or not. We were assured it did and our reservation was confirmed. At this point, we didn’t realize how lucky were that we’d also reached out to Rent A Car Newen…
Heading to La Zaina for dinner, they were booked, so made reservations for the next day and on the recommendation of the server, we checked out Mi Rancho and Buenes Cruces menus and decided on Buenos Cruces because we saw trout on the menu. Cynthia nervously called and was able, in Spanish, to secure a reservation for 7pm that evening. We killed 20 minutes at a small spot where the draft beer wound up being a sour that Warren just could not finish. Fortunately, he was able to get the taste out of his mouth with a delicious dinner of lamb stew and trout. We were awed by the cloud formations on the walk back to the hotel.
During the hotel supplied breakfast the next morning, we made sandwiches after a staffer kindly retrieved our bag from the fridge. We caught our 9am CalTur bus to Moreno Galcier national park. All buses charge the same 800 for a round trip ticket but the CalTur had the best times for us. Sitting on the right side, we got views of the lake and delighted in seeing a couple of rainbows along the way (until Warren had to mention that it meant it was raining at the glacier). An hour and a half the bus stopped at the park entrance where a park person entered the bus to collect 700 ARP cash for each ticket to the park. He entered our nationality into a computer tablet which they print on the tickets they generate inside the office. Returning with the tickets, we were also given a map (useless for the trails, but otherwise informative) and a plastic bag to bring any trash back out that you produce. A few people didn’t have cash so they had to leave the bus and go inside to use a credit card. About 25 minutes later we arrived at the lower parking lot where you can catch a boat tour to the glacier. We were instructed us to remember bus number 7 since it was the only CalTur bus we’d be allowed back on.
A quick stop at the cafeteria restrooms, we decided to take the blue trail up to the main viewing area instead of getting a shuttle up to the upper lot and coming down. We were thankful the rain was holding off at this point. We were awed by the constant views of the glacier as we hiked in this direction. We then took the yellow trail to the red trail (none of which were hard to miss as the trails were laughably overmarked with colored circles on every other post of the handrails) and back around to the upper parking lot. The glacier was making all sorts of noise with its constant calving, and although it had begun raining, we waited patiently on the trail and were rewarded with quite a large calving that made a tremendous booming noise.
With a couple of hours to kill, we sat down in the cafeteria trying to use up the last of our expiring cell data. We made it into the cafeteria just in time as the sky opened up to a torrential down pour. Around 2:30 we got two of the last 4 seats on the orange shuttle bus, at the north end of the parking lot, back to the lower lot. In order to sit at a table in the fancy cafeteria there, you had to order something, so we got a white wine and a beer and enjoyed a view of the glacier while waiting for our CalTur number 7 return bus.
We made it back to town (where, of course, it wasn’t raining) in time to clean up, grab a beer at La Zorra and make it to dinner at La Zaina by 7pm. We enjoyed sharing a very nice salad, a delicious steak and a bottle of wine. We stopped by La Zorra one more time and then walked back to the room to prepared for the 7:30 am Cootra bus departure to Puerto Natales.