The final stop for us in Patagonia was El Calafate. The bus takes us from El Chaltén across the flat sweep of Patagonian steppe: barren scrubland and big skies whilst the mountains line up behind us like an army on the skyline, marching behind us, the end of the long Andean backbone. The tarmaced road takes us 200km south to the small town which, on first impressions, is touristy and expensive but pretty nonetheless with souvenir shops and fancy places to eat. We’re staying in a sweet hostel that will go down as amongst my favourites’, pitched ceilings with lots of common room, free tea and coffee, jigsaws laid out for you to attempt and reading lamps alongside comfy sofas.
We’re here to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier, the main attraction in the area. It’s an hour and half journey to the glacier and it’s a bit of a grim day when we head off, the wipers constantly swishing away droplets from the windscreen. The day is grey and we’re layered up well. I do, somehow, manage to forget my rainjacket, poncho and hat so it’s a bit of a chilly experience but once the bus drops us off we zip up our coats and march off down to the boardwalks.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is 35km long and sweeps around a mountain valley to end, almost perfectly, at a rocky peninsular where the national park has built a series of boardwalks where you can get get up close to the huge ice monolith. We’ve seen quite a few glaciers in Patagonia already, but never this close and this one beats them all. 5km wide at the “snout” and 70m tall, the glacier is a huge frozen mass, suspended, as far as the eye can see left and right and hazing into the distance. It’s hard to find the words to describe such a huge and awe-inspiring natural sight, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
The only way of getting any scale is to look out for one of the tour boats that sails along the front of the glacier. We walk along from one end to the other and then back, staring out at the mass of ice. It’s incredible, especially when you hear the creaking and cracking of breaking ice and see chunks falling off into the water, followed seconds later by thundering gunshots.
We try to take as much of the detail on the information boards in as we can but it was getting windier and I was cold. We make a quick birthday video for Fabs then head to the cafe to shelter from the cold with hot chocolates and illicit homemade sarnies, smuggled in and eaten conspiratorially under the table.
That night we relax in the hostel and Moz cooks up a storm – huge £4 steaks that we bought in the supermarket and homemade chips. Yum! We drink wine and chat with Tasha, Alan and Joris who started a month ago in Rio and are travelling in the opposite direction, swapping tips and funny stories about dorm room experiences.
The next day we’re up early to head to the airport. I’m sad that our Patagonian adventure is over; we’ve had the most amazing time, seen incredible things and I’ve felt so free and relaxed, but I’m excited to see more of Argentina accompanied by Davo who will be with us the following morning.
Our flight goes south first to Ushuaia where we change plane, it’s the most southerly town in South America and the jumping off point to Antarctica, just 600 miles of freezing water to the south. We fly over the Tierra del Fuego, a land of rock and ice and fjords and skim low over the whitecapped bay before we land in the small airport.
We have a short layover but head out into the six degree temperature to say we’ve stood on Ushuaia soil. The airport is full of Aussie, German, British and American voices, people who have come off the boats from their expeditions to Antarctica, settling them back $3,000 USD. They’re all wearing branded jackets from the tour companies and queueing for expensive coffees.
Patagonia has been such a contrast: moments and mountain tops of complete peace and stillness to tourist towns filled with alpine coffeehouses, vast expanses of wild windswept mountains to dense forests, bedding down in wild campsites to curling up in blanket-covered hostel beds, sideways rain and ponchos to burning sunshine and shorts. We’ve experienced such kindness from everyone we’ve met, people who have given us lifts and who have spent time with us. It’s been incredible and a time I will never forget.