Part 4: Don’t Mention the War!

We took a 6 hour bus from Puerto Natales to El Calafate (Argentina) the next evening (the border turned out to be only 20 minutes away) and were welcomed to our 2nd country with a rather interesting sign. Andy had the window seat and had been pensively looking at something out of the window for a few minutes, unaware of what was outside the window I queried as to what extent we should advertise being English and whether Basil Fawlty’s pearl of wisdom “Don’t mention the war” would come into play. Andy almost audibly ‘clicked’ at the sudden realisation of the sign on the Argentinian side of the border:

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“The Falklands are Argentina’s”

We’re not sure if there’s one of these at every border entrance or just this one; it is possible that it is unique as this is likely the nearest road border to said islands. However, we have since observed this slogan scattered around the country in a few places, mostly bumper/ car window stickers (including a huge, driver’s-view-obscuring one on the windscreen of a huge fire engine in a big town north of Buenos Aires).

It might be worth mentioning at this point that Español is graced with 2 forms of the verb ‘to be’- in effect ‘Estar’ is for temporary things, such as ‘I am tired’ or ‘we are in Argentina’ and ‘Ser’ is for more permanent things, such as ‘I am English’. Needless to say ‘Son’, as featured on the sign, is from the conjugation for ‘they are’ from the more permanent verb ‘Ser’. My initial query was very much answered. Since this instant we’ve only had one person turn their nose up briefly when we said that we were Brits, so it’s clearly not such a big deal to most folks.

The remainder of the journey passed fairly uneventfully, though we did note the beauty of the very gradual Patagonian sunset which was a slow and subtle transition through almost every pastel colour until at last navy blue and black took over. ‘Unevents’ were replaced by ‘events’ as soon as we reached our destination as, literally less than 30 seconds after disembarking from the bus, the entire power to El Calafate went off. We were plunged into complete darkness in the almost deserted bus station and, with some rough directions from our driver, we ‘left the building’ and entered some even more deserted streets. We’d already been pretty much promised that we’d be ‘mugged’ in Argentina so the all encompassing blackness, in an unknown town in a new country lead us to the thinking ‘well, let’s get it out of the way early!’. NONE-sense, never once did we feel threatened in Argentina, but obviously at the time we were definitely on the anxious side (lit only by Andy’s rapidly dying head torch, which flashes SOS in morse code as the battery dies, hopefully this distress-call wasn’t to be necessary). Needless to say it wasn’t necessary and it was only the rather frequent barks of neighbourhood dogs that set us on edge. I’m sure in daylight the dogs were just as cute and friendly as their Chilean counterparts, but at that moment I wasn’t willing to risk finding out.

We required only two sets of top-up directions, perhaps not all that impressive as the walk was less than 15 minutes in good conditions. The first set came from a local in a bar just starting to light candles to drink by, unbeknownst to us these got us to within 150m of our final destination. Having left town and most of suburbia we bee-lined for the only building within sight that had lights on for the duration of the powercut, a 4 star hotel, which we wishfully hoped might actually be our hostel-bookers B + B. The first employee had no idea where ‘B + B South’ was, but, as those kindly upper-class establishments staff tend to do, he helpfully consulted colleagues until he found an answer. Response was, ‘leave this building, turn right, walk 100m, cross road, enter your hotel’. Peasy. We arrived at stupid o’clock in the morning after our half-hour jaunt around the town and fatefully, within 10 minutes, the power came back on everywhere- unfortunately just in time for Andy to nearly miss a light-pollution-less photo opportunity of the beautiful southern skies.

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Cheese moon over Lagoa Argentino immediately before power was restored.

Perhaps the only must-see in El Calafate is the Moreno Glacier (just under 2 hours drive from the town). We had a relatively chilled first morning in the town, shopping and trying to change money at the ‘blue market’ rate (more on this later). The afternoon saw us hit the Glaciarium, eloquently questioned by Mum: “is that a kind of epic ice cream emporium?”, alas the reality substituted calorific value for educational value and we spent a couple of hours learning the ins and outs of glaciers (more to them than just inny crevasses and outy seracs it turns out).

After stocking up on glacier terminology and fun facts we went boldly to the Perito Moreno (the glacier, as named after the ‘expert’ or ‘perito’ Francisco Moreno, who chartered and explored much of Patagonia in the 19th century). We waited and we watched. Our tour allowed us 4 hours to ascend and descend the various boardwalks constructed directly in front of the centre of the glacier-face. (Here is my glacier face..)

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The very imposing and relatively rapidly encroaching wall of ice is any land-rover owner’s answer to the question of whether or not global warming is a reality. It is one of very few glaciers that are stable/advancing- centrally at around 2m per day and, at the edges, significantly slower at 40cm per day. The result of this is a rather pointy ‘tip’ to the ‘frying pan’ handle of the glacier structure and a definite increased likelihood of seeing chunks of ice drop off the central section of the glacier’s advancing front. You stand on a conveniently located island (central to the glacial valley), around which the glacier once straddled, willing it to self destruct and disappointed by any crash that wasn’t due to a lorry-sized chunk of ice dropping off.

We saw one gargantuan piece (seemingly only just out of reach) drop off with a creak, crack, swoosh and crash- it was at least as wide as half a football pitch! It sent a tidal wave of grey rock-floury water almost as high as us, looking down on the already 74m high glacier. It was impressive, tense, humbling and somewhat sad to watch millennia old compacted snow fragment and fall into oblivion before our eyes. The resulting ice berg flipped over a couple of times, to show off its impressive toothpaste-like striations of turquoise, baby blue and white- not unlike Argentina’s most delicately coloured flag.

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Mini berg formation

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Perfect camouflage

Unexpectedly El Calafate has not only satisfied our Geography-craving but has also provided for our animal interests too. We’ve been treated to quite an array of wild, tame and ‘neither of the above’ during our short stay. Prior to any major ice falls that we saw at the glacier we were entertained by a salami slice escaping from our picnic and within 5 seconds having attracted two critters to enjoy the spoils (I was just annoyed that the 10 second rule couldn’t apply in this instance).

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Meat vs mouse vs wasp

Almost immediately afterwards the sun was near blocked out by the majestic swoop of an Andean condor, just stopping by to say hello very shortly after we’d arrived- great timing. Perhaps he was hoping for some salami spoils too…

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Big bird

Our hotel also had 3 beautiful miniature dogs, no idea what hybrid of breeds; one brown, one white and one black (not unlike Sushi, Blanca and Negra, our Santiago cats).The brown one was our favourite, mostly because he looked like the victim of a freak perming chemical spill. It was like stroking a mop!

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Mini mop head

Our last night in El Calafate was the 2nd night of the town’s annual festival and hence we headed for the town’s showground… We weren’t told much about what to expect other than “horses”. Prior to the show we went to a genre-less restaurant… An all you can eat Chinese, come salad bar, come barbecue. I can thoroughly recommend patagonian lamb (effectively grilled from scratch, limbs akimbo, strung up in a shop window for all to judge the tastiness of before entering a given restaurant).

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Home-cooked version of what you see in half of El Calafate’s restaurants

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Before and after…

After our 3rd portion of lamb each we left the restaurant, entered the showground and stumbled around the 4-tiered hole-infested wooden step seating; past all the beret wearing, maté drinking, immune to the patagonian chill locals. We watched, unable to tear our eyes away, as semi-wild horse after semi-wold horse was blindfolded, tied to a post and generally smacked about for 30 seconds or so (on the arse, balls and legs). After this a ‘man’ (often looking no more than 17) quickly scampered onto its back and the tie to the post was severed. The horse then bucked his way away from the pole, sometimes into the crowd, while the man clings on to nothing but a rope in one hand and with nothing but a tiny cushion to absorb any unwanted impact. One horse bucked so hard that it landed on its back, sandwiching his rider to the floor (thankfully both walked away from that one).

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Andy tries his hand at rodeo.

Next day was our flight to Buenos Aires. You do question the quality of an airline (Aerolineas Argentinas) when the passengers feel compelled to applaud the landing of the aircraft; this is the absolute minimum I expect from a flight, but here it was cause for celebration. Hello Capital city numero dos!

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