February 10, 2004

Argentina flagChile flagUp at 6:30 am in order to have a quick breakfast before catching the bus to El Calafate. Rosemary had a bit of a stomachache, so she only ate some yogourt and a little bread. Hopefully that isn’t anything to do with our recent drinking water sources.

We hustled down the road to the Cootra terminal, arriving in plenty of time for the relatively new long-distance bus that was waiting there. It left just about on time at 7:35 am and made its way up the hill to the Chilean exit post at Dorotea. Here started an hour of bureaucracy; we all trooped off the bus so that Chile could check our passports and collect our tourist permits. Then we drove 3 km along the road to Argentina’s entry post at Río Turbio, where we all trooped off the bus so that Argentina could check our passports and give us our tourist permits. Finally we were on our way.

In the town of Río Turbio, our bus stopped at Cootra’s office to change drivers. Río Turbio is a mining town, although it also has a small ski resort right up by the immigration post. It has both an old ruined coal mine and a new mine that may even still be working, although it looks rather ruined as well.

The bus then headed out across the steppes, on roads that varied from two-lane asphalt (rarely) to good gravel to unfinished bedrock. And a lot of it was under construction, so there were a lot of detours. Our new bus driver was an extremely conservative driver, so on the paved roads he would speed up to maybe 60 km per hour. This was better than yesterday’s crazed minibus drivers but it did make for a long journey. The steppes were mostly dry grasslands, with the rare pothole puddle. By pure luck we both happened to be awake when we passed an alkaline flat with the first two flamingos we had seen.

We finally crawled into the El Calafate bus terminal some time after 2 pm. All the passengers retrieved their bags from the luggage compartments and proceeded to beat the dust from them. We didn’’t have any reservation, but there was somebody there from Hostel America del Sur, for which Rosemary had a recommendation from somebody on the Internet. So we decided to go there. It is about a year old and situated on a hill just outside the town, with a fantastic view of the lake and mountains.

The hostel only had 4-person dormitory rooms available, so we were sharing one of those with a German couple who arrived about the same time. Our next order of business was to get money, since we had exactly zero Argentina pesos. We hit all three ATMs in the town, and they were all empty. Not a good situation. One of the banks with the ATM had a currency exchange with a long line-up, so we joined that. Eventually we reached the counter and changed 20,000 Chile pesos into 98.80 Argentina pesos, which would last for a little while.

As we came out of the currency exchange, we saw people using the ATM, which had finally been refilled, so we went in and got a decent amount of money. Now we were ready for some real shopping.

El Calafate is very like Banff in that it has one main street about four blocks long, covered with shops and restaurants. Some of the souvenir shops had things that interested us, but we didn’t know whether we wanted to carry them for the next three weeks or wait to get the same things later in another place. We wandered up and down for quite a while before deciding to have dinner. We went to a corner restaurant and ordered a large pizza with ham, red peppers, and cheese, and we both had fruit shakes to drink. When our pizza arrived it was the wrong one, so the waiter went back and re-ordered the correct one, which we both enjoyed immensely once it arrived.

After dinner we stopped in at the Rumbo Sur travel agency to find out about flights to Bariloche, then we headed back to the hostel to book our trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier (which is what you do in El Calafate) and our bus to go to El Chaltén, which is where the treks around Monte FitzRoy are. Planning was somewhat tricky because we needed to return to El Calafate on a day when our hostel had space.

El Calafate actually has a bird refuge, the Laguna Nimez, which is at the edge of Lago Argentino. We walked over there (it was quite a distance) and had just time for a quick tour around it before it closed at 8:50 pm. Its brochure showed a flock of flamingos, but we only found one lonely flamingo! But there were a lot of swans, ducks, and Upland Geese with their chicks.

Back at the hostel we organized our stuff for tomorrow’s tour to the glacier, then went to bed.

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