Saturday, December 21, 2013

Our Honeymoon - Day 3 - El Calafate, Argentina & the Perito Morino Glacier

Today we crossed the border from Chile into Argentina with our
rental car and visited the Perito Moreno Glacier just outside of El Calafate where we would spend the night at our Bed & Breakfast Casa De Grillos.  Today we saw a ton of wildlife and the biggest glacier we had ever seen.  Click the title to read on....

What a day.  Our day started at 8am with an amazing breakfast including fresh eggs, juice, cereal and breads at the Erratic Rock II.  We then walked through Puerto Natales to the Europcar location where we found a woman sitting there who told us in Spanish that the agent would be returning soon.  At around 9:15am the agent walked in and asked for Ellinger which was a good sign.  He thankfully had all our paperwork ready for crossing the border into Argentina and after a quick check around the car (which had no hubcaps) for damage (big dent from a guanaco running into it) we were ready to go.  When we got into the car we were both surprised to see it was standard - no Emily driving.  I thought this was great fun as I love driving standard.  

We returned to the Erratic Rock, packed up and hit the road on highway 9 out of town towards Cerro Castillo and the border crossing into Argentina.  It was a quick hour drive with beautiful views across the water towards Torres Del Paine and we stopped several times for photos.  When we got to Cerro Castillo we could barely tell it was a border crossing by the small building and simple swing gate used to stop vehicles from continuing on the gravel road ahead.  We pulled over, entered and struggled to find the correct words for where we needed to go.  We presented our passports and our rental agreement and were quickly approved to leave Chile.  Then it was off down the dirt road towards Argentina for 10 minutes... 

Unfortunately, when we got to the Argentina crossing (barely a shack and the gate was wide open) we were turned away because we didn't have paperwork showing we paid our Argentina entry reciprocity fee.  We were sent back to the Chilean border where the agent told us we had to pay for the reciprocity fee at the restaurant next door.  So.... we left our care in Argentina, walked down the sidewalk back into Chile and entered the restaurant.  No one thought this was unusual at all apparently.  Unfortunately, in the restaurant tourist shop we needed to connect to the internet to buy the passes and the lady couldn't connect.  After about 20 minutes of waiting we were passed off to a man named Carlos (who had a very funny Star Wars ring tone, wore a foofy french painters hat, and who seemed to be friends with everyone) to help us.  Fortunately, he was very patient and worked very hard to get the internet running for us so we could purchase our passes.  

After about an hour of struggling with several other Chileans translating for us and several failed attempts on my part to contact Laura we were finally online and buying our passes.  This whole ordeal took about an hour and half but we would have had to drive all the way back to Puerto Natales if they hadn't been able to get online.  We bought a poster, a book and some post cards in appreciation before continuing on to the Argentina border again which was a joke to pass through with no concerns about our bags or car at all.  The gate was wide open... we could have just driven right through.  We learned several things from this experience.  Borders around here are a joke and they just want money, and Chilean generosity and patience is amazing.  We definitely imposed on the workers of the tourist shop and they went far out of their way for a full hour trying to help us, expecting nothing in return.  Americans, including myself, could take a lesson from the wonderful people of Chile.  Carlos pretty much saved the day.

From there it was a long 3 hour drive across vast high Patagonian desert towards Calafate.  We perhaps could have taken a faster route but it was a dirt road and decided to ask Laura at Dittmar via email before attempting it later on our way back through.  We saw a ton of sheep, horses and cows roaming the barren hills and even some large flightless ostrich looking birds.  We also saw several groups of guanacos but every time we pulled over to try to take pictures we spooked them like elk and they ran off.  

One of the key things I noticed about the drive was that there were absolutely no cops and everyone drove literally double the speed limit.  If 70km was posted I was driving 140km per hour to just keep up (85mph roughly).  Also - the wind... holy crap the wind.  Patagonia wind is no joke and trying to hold the wheel against the strong gusts at 80mph definitely kept me alert the whole drive despite the long previous travel day.  Seriously.. we had to keep a tight grip on all our paperwork and passports because if the wind took them, forget it... they are gone... no Olympic sprinter would be able to run them down...

When we got to Calafate we didn't have a map and the gps in both the iphone and ipad couldn't find any satellites to help us locate our hostel, Casa de Grillos.  Thankfully, as we pulled into town I spotted a turismo info center and pulled in to get directions and a very rough city map.  After one wrong turn we found our way and I luckily spotted the hostel set back off the street.  We parked as best we could off the street and entered to find a very nice Argentinian woman named Hannah who told us we should continue on towards Perito Merino before returning to "make chicken" (check-in to our room)... so we headed off.

An hour later, some fast driving, then some tight turns, and a 42 USD National Park Fee and we were at the Perito Merino Glacier.  I had seen photos but nothing prepared me for how massive this thing was.  It seemed about a mile wide and the ice towered 100 to 150 feet above the water below.  It had receded enough over the past decade to open up a passage between the two lakes it separated and water was running from one lake to the other like a river.  Every time ice fell (ice chunks the size of buildings) it sounded like thunder... and this happened every 15 minutes or so.  

We took a bunch of photos and tried to get some of the calving ice on video before it really began to pour rain and we decided to leave.   The park closed at 8pm and we were leaving around 7pm after spending an hour there as the only people in sight on a Saturday at the start of summer... odd.   Before leaving I saw what looked like a big hawk but acted like a chicken hopping around on the ground in front of the gift shop.  It was odd to see something that resembled a red-tailed hawk so fearless of me approaching.

On the way back into town we passed several tourist buses filled with people our age.  It has become clear to us that the easy way out for many travelers in Patagonia is to take bus tours and guides everywhere.  Emily and I are happy to be beating our own path in privacy, free from sardine-can-fart-filled busses full of tourists.  :)  Back in Calafate we found our way back to the hostel and Hannah shared a local beer with us in the main lodge.  She gave us kisses on the cheek as we entered and was very excited to suggest lots of plans for our trip.  She also helped us find a terrific place for dinner just up the street called La Tablita.

The restaurant was primarily a grill and with the exchange rate so good for USD Emily and I ate like royalty.  We ordered Hare with onions, carrots, vinegrette for the starter dish and a varied meat platter for the main dish consisting of Patagonian Lamb, a rump of something and a loin, all local, along with mashed pumpkin and potatoes.  We also took the servers suggestion of a nice Malbec called Primogenito.  The restaurant was super packed and we had to wait in line to get in..  Before sitting down we drove through downtown and picked up some chocolate and Calafate Liquor.  The were other restaurants with plenty of room but we decided that the locals must know best and returned to La Tablita.  
The dinner was a amazing and we really enjoyed the wine and Calafate berry ice cream we had for desert.  There was a table next to us, clearly wealthy Germans, who asked us about the wine and what the word for "red raspberries" was.  Our server was top notch and when we got the bill after thoroughly stuffing ourselves (no food since 8am in Puerto Natales) we left him a $100 USD bill.  It was well deserved as it was the best service we had ever had anywhere despite the communication difficulty.  For a town with minimal internet and cell phone service in the third world our meal and experience was amazing.  In the US our bill at a similar place would have been $250+.  

We finished our meal just before midnight and headed back to the hostel for bed in our comfy room (which even had a bide´? - Emily sprayed it everywhere fooling with it).   Despite the crazy number of stray dogs roaming the streets and chasing cars Calafate is a really cool town and we look forward to exploring it tomorrow before heading to Chalten and when we return on Christmas Day.  

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