Imposing Patagonia

From Rio we took a long flight south, via Buenos Aires, to Ushuaia, the departure point for our Antarctic adventure. There is not a lot to do in Ushuaia, although our taxi driver from the airport was keen to point out the three casinos in town. Ushuaia is a bit of a frontier town where the main activities seem to be tourism and fishing. There are numerous tourist souvenir shops and restaurants to cater for cruise ship passengers in the summer season, but nothing was open the day we arrived. There was an ongoing protest in the town over the fact that some years ago, to attract people to move to Ushuaia, the Argentinian government promised people who went there would not be taxed. Now the government has retracted that promise and people were understandably unhappy. Ushuaia is a bit of a hardship posting.

 We stayed overnight at the Hakka Apartments, which proved to be a comfortable and welcoming home away from home. We stayed at the Hakka Apartments twice, once on our way to Antarctica and again on our return. The apartments are basic but very warm, comfortable, spacious and clean, and have everything needed. The owners/managers were very helpful and accommodating. Since it wasn’t peak season when we stayed, they enabled us to have early and late check-ins and check-outs to fit around our schedule, which was very much appreciated with the chilly weather. They also own the supermarket across the road so are easy to contact at any time. The apartments are a 15 to 20 minute walk from the town centre, or an easy and cheap 5 minute taxi ride, but the space, price and flexibility of staying at Hakka more than makes up for this minor inconvenience. Highly recommended.

 Mid-afternoon the next day we boarded our ship to set sail for Antarctica, which will be described in a separate post.

 We are pleased to be back in Ushuaia and cosy and warm in Hakka Apartments. We have a great nights sleep and next day head into town for lunch before our flight out.

When in Ushuaia it is time to turn the taste buds towards the Antarctic King or Magellan Crab, a specialty of the area, so one has to give it a go. We only have time for a quick lunch and Villagio’s is open at mid-day. The King Crabs look enormous and we take the cowards way out and opt for a couple of king crab casseroles. Some of the other customers were braver and opted for the whole crab. For the most part the crab seemed quite tasteless and rather stringy and dry, whether this is an innate characteristic or a function of storage or preparation is hard to say. Certainly the mushrooms accompanying one of the casseroles improved the dish considerably. A bit of novelty maybe but it is hard to recommend the King Crab, and the restaurant seems a work in progress.

 Next stop is El Calafate in Patagonia. El Calafate is definitely a tourist town and has quite good tourist facilities. We stayed at the Linda Vista apartments, which is well located in Calafate, just off the main street so it is fairly quiet. The apartments are reasonably well appointed and clean, but a little maintenance would have helped here and there. The very old shower head was cracked and sprayed water everywhere, amongst other things. Internet tended to drop out and the breakfast was one of the more Spartan that we encountered in Argentina. The managers tried hard to help but one got the impression they were newbies, and quite a bit was missed. But we expect it will improve. Kitchen facilities were more than adequate and it was good to be able to cook for ourselves again after 10 days on the ship.

 There is not a lot to see in El Calafate itself as it is a base for the National Parks and activities in the area, but it is pleasantly situated on a lake and has a bird sanctuary located within a short walk of the town which is noted for its flamingos. Unfortunately they were elusive while we were there. We spotted them from a distance but it was impossible to get close as they were well hidden behind trees.

 At Calafate we hired a car and headed to Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia for a few days. It is a long drive through country with very little in it. We spotted the very occasional sheep, some guanaco, two rhea and almost no people until we got to the border. The border crossing was not designed to be user friendly. On the Argentinian side we queued up at the immigration window, and then again at customs so that our rental car papers could be checked. Once through here there is a drive of several kilometers over a poorly maintained gravel road to the Chilean border post, where we queue up at three windows – immigration, customs (the car papers again) and quarantine, who search cars for fruit and dairy produce. After yet more driving we arrive at our accommodation, Hostelerea Lago Toro.

 A few signs might have helped us find this place, but with a rough idea of its location and a picture of it on the iPad we managed. Once found the place is reasonably well placed with a grand view into the “towers”. The in room facilities are rather Spartan and limiting and unfortunately there is not a lot of space for relaxing in the dining – common room. Internet was also slow and sporadic. The big downer with the place is that hot water and heat are severely restricted so that getting up too early means that there is no hot water for a shower and the room temperatures have plummeted to freezing. The evening meal can be had here also, but we don’t think the quality and price stands up very well, especially when there is a quite amazing restaurant just over the road at the Rio Serrano hotel. We had hoped to drive into the Torres del Paine national park, but the weather was against us – bitterly cold and raining heavily, so we were pretty much ‘cabin bound’.

 We were just wandering into the Rio Serrano Hotel over the road for a bit of a warmth, Internet and solace, when we discovered their amazing restaurant. The menu is quite innovative and surprisingly well priced. Restaurant space is largish, in that Patagonian way, and the view into the Towers is fantastic. A simple house salad is brilliantly fresh and delicious, but the Magellan King Crab with avocado and artichokes, octopus carpaccio, with mango purée, and green pepper ice cream is simply stunning. A collage of vibrant flavors combining superbly. And then for the main it is local Patagonian lamb. Lamb this good should not be found this far from the Shaky Isles. But it is! Roasted Patagonian lamb with spearmint pesto and chickpea purée with crunchy bacon and pesto, is a perfect tender and tasty combination. We could sit down to more of this. Young chef Evans Saavedra is to be commended on her brilliant and innovative artistry.

 The weather showed no signs of improving so we called it quits in Chile and headed back to Argentina. The trip back was pretty much the same, with a half hour delay at the Argentinian border crossing, waiting for the customs officer to start work for the day.

We have had to drop back to El Calafate for just one night, so we try a well reviewed place, Santa Monica apartments, at the other end of town. Mistake. It is not nice being ripped off on the tariff. Management attempted to overcharge by 25% on the Bookings fee. Also, twin beds were tiny, not for normal people, even in Argentina! Floors squeaked and unit layout quite eccentric. Manager tried to have us sign our existence away in the morning, for no apparent rhyme or reason. 

 The must see attraction when visiting El Calafate is the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is quite a tidy drive out from El Calafate but well worth it. Our rental car serves the purpose well, but some of the “special tours” look rather expensive. It is quite easy to do the glacier privately. The drive is easy and the glacier can be seen from the moment you reach the car park. The extensive walkways enable superb views from many angles. And the glacier is rather impressive. Lots of noise and action when we visited. Huge slabs falling off to a resounding chorus. It is a popular tourist attraction but it does not feel crowded as there is plenty of space. A good many hours can be absorbed here watching and listening to nature grind by. Some interesting bird life as well. 

 April 8. We leave El Calafate and drive to El Chalten. El Chalten is quite a frontier town, but it is pleasing in a rustic touristy way. The main attractions of the area are hiking and climbing, and the scenic views of Mt Fitz Roy. We stayed at the delightful Latitud 49 apartments. Latitud 49 is quite easy to find on the edge of town and our apartment is well organized, clean and tidy. The owners are very helpful and thoughtful and everything in the apartment works well. The locale is reasonably quiet, except for a surprising number of wandering dogs, and sleep comfort is pretty high. Highly recommended.

 In the afternoon we walked for a couple of hours to some viewpoints, Los Condores, which had good views of El Chalten township, Mt Fitz Roy, and some condors, and then on to Las Aguilas, with views toward the lake and river. It was quite a steep climb, and cold and windy at the start but very attractive.

 April 9. We are fortunate to wake up to a stunningly beautiful day, with clear blue skies and no wind. Drove to Hosteria del Pilar to the start of the track to the viewpoint for Glaciar Piedro Blancas and Laguna de los Tres. Beautiful walk up a river valley with Nothofagus trees and a climb up into the hills for some spectacular mountain and glacier views. Stopped for lunch in a stunning spot where the trees opened out. The glacier obliged by having some ice falls to entertain us. Didn’t go all the way to Laguna de los Tres but it was an amazing walk with beautiful views in all directions. On the return walk we saw some Magellenic woodpeckers quite close up, and several varieties of small insect eating birds, one with a little tufted crest.

 April 10. Back to El Calafate to return the rental car and fly out to Buenos Aires (again). While looking for a restaurant for a long lunch before our flight out, we were very pleasantly surprised to find Mako. A cut above the average tourist restaurant, menus at Mako feature local produce, particularly innovative lamb and fish dishes. And the prices are quite reasonable. After a delicious and elegantly presented complimentary salmon mousse starter, we had mains of lamb and sweetbreads, and trout wrapped in proscuito, both served with a variety of grilled vegetables. Definitely worth a visit if you are in El Calafate.

You can see the chef at work on

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1cRFVCNI7y8

 

 

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