Calafate: About As Cool As It Gets Posted on 22 Dec 02:09 , 0 comments
Article by Anna Lowe.
The run-up to Christmas in Buenos Aires is strange for its total lack of commercialism and anticipation. Down in the Southern hemisphere, the city is deep in a humid summer and most Argentines are keen to escape for family holidays. Those who stay in BA usually continue working (and sweating) right up to Christmas day, just like any other summer month. And although you can buy tinsel and plastic trees at the Easy, I’ve yet to witness any being purchased or decorated.
I’m a bit fanatic about tradition and festivity. In spite of my love for Buenos Aires, I miss the Christmas build up in London. With freezing temperatures and a sky the colour of gunmetal, Londoners don’t wait for the day but start celebrating in November. Hot mulled wine down the pub, awkward office Christmas parties, my brother’s awful reindeer jumper and humungous piles of Quality Street chocolates you don’t particularly like but have bought in bulk from Tesco nevertheless. Strangely these customs make me immeasurably happy. By contrast, last year I spent Christmas day itself melting by a hotel pool in BA, trying to avoid the typical Argentine Christmas dish ‘Matambre’ (cold meat and veg rolled up in sticky, paper thin, bread and soaked in mayonnaise). For me, Buenos Aires just isn’t a Christmas city.
But what this longish intro is heading towards, what I’ve been avoiding due to feverish delight, is telling you about the weekend I’ve just spent in Calafate, Patagonia. I don’t even want to start on the great stuff for fear that I’ll spill my licuado with excitement all over my Mac, and have to get a new one at huge tax-inflated expense, and that while I’m doing so the ‘moment’ will pass and the piece will never get written.
Tell you what, let’s go through the bad things. Calafate is far away, overpriced and touristy. Pretty much all of my holiday money was spent on flights down to Patagonia “the end of the world” and the price of restaurants, hotels and tours are exorbitant. But, Patagonia is also home to the immeasurably beautiful Perito Moreno Glacier, cold, clean air, delicious slow-cooked lamb and an undeniable Christmas spirit.
When visiting the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, many people prefer to stay in El Chalten, a smaller and far more picturesque town with hiking options and access to the Northern part of the ice park. But with just one long-weekend to spare, I was desperate to see the famous Perito Moreno Glacier (accessed via the South in Calafate) and determined to discover the best of this imitation winter village…
With ‘insider’ knowledge via Trip Advisor, I booked ‘the best’ budget hostel in Calafate –Hospedaje Lautaro. Located three blocks away from the main street, it has a perfect location close to a few nice restaurants. While there are certainly newer, larger hostels in Calafate, Lautaro is special for the amazingly welcoming owners, Dario, Belen, their beautiful children and friendly dog Vienta. They provide delicious food, a warm, clean home and endless help in organising your trip. Their kindness even extended to giving my sick friend bottled water free of charge, lending me waterproof trousers for ice trekking and going to a restaurant to find a travel journal I’d accidentally dropped. Seriously thoughtful and caring people.
After a long day trekking across the ice, you’ll be in need of a hot, hearty meal. There are many overpriced and unexceptional eating options on the main high street. These provide the typical Argentine fare of pasta, pizza and parrilla to feed the masses. Three other, more interesting restaurants are just a short walk away and are certainly worth checking out:
La Zaina is the only self-proclaimed ‘wine bar’ in Calafate and presents a striking contrast with an unassuming corrugated iron appearance, but surprisingly snug and rustic interior. The place reminded me of an old English country pub and held a treasure trove of antiques and wooden furniture. As well as a great wine menu, they serve various accomplished cocktails including my favourite Argentine gin ‘Apostales’ and another with absinthe. The food is bold and hearty with chunky lamb empanadas, slow-cooked Malbec lamb and various stews. All very tasty and served up in an atmosphere that is very ‘19th-century farmer chic’ – hipster without trying too hard.
El Cucharon, like most places in Calafate, specializes in lamb stew, steak, fish and pasta dishes. Here the stew comes as a large portion, served with little spinach dumplings and isn’t heavy or fatty. Cucharon is a cosy, simple restaurant with friendly, fast service and reasonable prices – hard to find in Calafate!
Pura Vida is a little bit further out of town but is worth the walk for the huge pies – perfect after a day of ice-hiking. The restaurant is bright purple outside and feels a little like a bohemian festival tent indoors – as well as the pies they have lots of vegetarian options like whole grain oriental woks, gnocchi with saffron or a pumpkin stew. The easy-going atmosphere and casual staff give this place a ‘traveller’ vibe but with big flavours to back it up.
Oh and the glacier? It’s stunning. The tour to the Perito Moreno Glacier (a block of ice bigger than the city of Buenos Aires!) is run by Hielo y Adventura and you can choose either the Mini-trekking or Big Ice trip. Both tours include the rare opportunity to walk on flowing ice. Although Hielo y Adventura were unwilling to let me reserve in advance (necessary during the Summer) without using the ‘official’ exchange rate, and also refused to refund any money to my extremely sick friend, the English-speaking guides and trek itself were outstanding. As you stand below the rugged face of the glacier, the serene silence is suddenly broken by thunderous cracks as huge detachments fall into the turquoise lake. A unique and beautiful site.
If you have an extra day in Calafate you can visit the Cerro Friars hill or walk around the nature reserve on the edge of the town. For about 500 pesos the staff at Cerro Friars will take you zip-lining down 2500 meters or hiking, horse-riding or 4×4 ‘safari’ options. Another way to experience the dramatic and barren Patagonian landscape is to walk around the 3km circuit Laguna Nimez Reserve. This costs just 35 pesos and includes great views of Calafate, various interesting wild birds and access to a sandy beach on the edge of Lake Argentino.
El Calafate is a typical tourist town. Most bartenders are eager to serve drinks with added calafate liquor (a berry the town is named after) and most shops sell ‘typical’ Patagonian chocolate or overpriced hiking clothes (remember to bring waterproof, warm clothes!). Nevertheless the magnificent surrounding landscape makes a little tacky kitsch more than bearable. And if, like me, you approach December with expectations of freezing cold, huge meals and buying tasteless souvenirs as presents for your unfortunate relations, you should love it.