Early departure from warm and sunny BA for a 9:00 flight to El Calafate in southern Argentina, in an area known as Patagonia.
Neither of us are great flyers – which given the amount of time we are spending on airplanes over the next 6 months may seem a bit odd! Maybe we will become blasé by May time? Anyway, when the pilot pops on the tannoy to say “its a bit windy out there” is doesn’t necessarily help.
He actually put her down smoothly, no worse than any other normal flight. Before they opened the doors, he came back on the tannoy to say the usual thank you and enjoy your day etc. but also to be careful when leaving the plane on the steps as the winds were at 49 knots (55 mph). Outside the winds were indeed ferocious and we were both in admiration for the skill of the pilot. Good work sir, good work.
Airports are generally not attractive places. To steal from Douglas Adams, no language on earth has the phrase “as pretty as an airport” in it for good reason (and in particular Geneva airport deserves special mention for its ugliness in my opinion). El Calafate does a good job of trying to overcome this stereotype with exposed stone walls, carpets, light and airy glass / steel atriums and a view out over the runway of a strikingly blue glacial lake.
Our hotel arranged to collect us for a reasonable fee – I was quite excited to see someone stood there with my name on a piece of paper like in the films (never had it before) – and on the way the driver pointed out that the presidents plane was on the runway as she was down in the area for a mini-break and in fact has a house about 300 yards from where we were staying.
The hotel is a little out of town – perhaps 10 to 15 minutes walk – but it is near the shores of Argentino Lake and therefore the walk is worth it for the beautiful vista from our window.
El Calafate is a different experience to that I have had in South America before – on this trip or on a previous trip to Bolivia 10 years ago. Its very clean and tidy, has a wide roads built on an American style grid system, and resembles a north american small town crossed with a ski resort. There are outdoors shops everywhere with opening hours designed to be there when the tourists are back in town after days out on tours etc to the local scenery. Blimey are they expensive though – a pair of branded gloves costing the best part of £80 that would be probably half that in the UK. To be fair this place is a long way from anywhere and does not have an international airport so the costs of getting stuff here must be high, but even still you feel as though they are making a fairly hefty profit from the un prepared (which we are not – though Niki does spend a lot of time trying on bobble hats).
The area is famous for a glacier that is 80km away, but there isn’t time to do that today. After a wonderful lunch of savoury crepes (lamb, creamed leeks and honey) courtesy of Niki and the Lonely Plant we do have time to visit the Glaciarium though.
This is a museum that opened 3 years ago that is focused on all things ice related. I would say that this part of the world is not short of land – a look at Google Maps will show you its an exposed little place – which makes the decision to put the museum 5km outside of town a little hard to understand. There is a bus service that shuttles you there and back but you do wonder why it is where it is. The bus is now free but previously you had to pay for it – I presume that they made it free as they weren’t getting the numbers of visitors.
It is an imposing structure. All white concrete and glass in a irregular structure we presume in an attempt to look like a glacier / iceberg. Inside is a very modern audio-visual experience type museum that takes you through the science of glaciers (erratics etc) and icebergs using touch screens, video screens and a 3D theatre and finishes off with a thought provoking sensory overloading view of the environmental future of the planet that had us thinking about how we can offset our carbon on this trip. A brilliant experience.
In addition to the scientific and educational exhibits, the Glaciarium also hosts a more basic attraction – an ice bar! Yep for 100 Arg Pesos (about £10) you get to don a ridiculous silver insulated set of over gloves and fur lined poncho and enter a bar made of ice for 30 minutes. You get a glass made of ice, you can sit on chairs made of ice, and order drinks from a bar made of ice served by a S.American version of Lister from Red Dwarf (complete with what looked like a iridescent blue spacesuit). Whilst you are in there you can drink as much as you like for the entrance money – I did my best to get our money’s worth 😉
Post the Glaciarium we need to wait outside for the shuttle bus and its a bit cold and wet. Soon the numbers of people begin to exceed the capacity of the next bus and there is concern from one visitor about the people getting back in the correct order – thankfully you can rely on the Professional Queuers of the World and some fellow Brits quickly recount the order that people joined the group outside. This didn’t stop one lady jumping the queue which exposed a cultural difference – in the UK nobody would have said anything but we’d have all have a good old mutter about it under our breath, but here the lady was challenged by a fellow S.American immediately (thankfully a second bus arrived immediately afterwards and prevented a fight breaking out).
The change in climate from BA means we won’t be needing our shorts etc for a few days. It gives us chance to get some washing done at the hostel – so the key to packing light is to change your climate as often as you need to wash your clothes!