January 22, 2023
We spent a few hours wandering about Ushuaia in the morning. The sky was clear, the air crisp and the streets largely deserted.
It was a Sunday and most of the Antarctica cruises had departed the day before and it felt like we had this odd little town at the end of the world all to ourselves.
After, we boarded a plane in the tiny airport for El Calafate, almost 600 miles northwest of Ushuaia but still part of Patagonia. The two-hour flight offered exquisite views of Ushuaia and the Andes.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the rental car counter to pick up the car we’d reserved months before and reconfirmed weeks before, only to find the counter empty and the door locked. Sensing our distress, a neighboring rental company offered us a small pickup for US$1,500 more than our reservation price for the week, which was half that. The agent shrugged as we declined. Instead, we found a number on the locked door to call. Our AT&T cell plan gave us free calls, texts and data in nearly all of South America though nearly everyone in South America uses WhatsApp for messaging and calling—which was the only way to reach the rental car company. The person who answered said they’d be there in a half hour or so. Susan muttered nope, it’ll be at least twice that. We knew nothing happens that fast in this part of the world. So, we sat on the floor and waited, watching a few travelers walk by. Unlike most airports, no one here was in a hurry. A little over an hour later, the apologetic agent showed up.
We rent cars several times a year and marvel at how easy it is the U.S. Five minutes would be a long time to get a car from say, Enterprise or Avis. But in Argentina, as in many Latin American countries, things take longer and you simply build some time into your schedule. At the counter, there was no computer and our agent Ignacio spent a good 40 minutes filling out the extensive paperwork (some of which was to give us authority to cross the border into Chile) but he was very nice and explained everything to us. Susan, as Master of Paperwork and Navigation, listened intently as he told that there would be four different rental car documents (in addition to our passports) to present to the Argentine authorities to leave the country by car and then the same to enter Chile.
Our car would be a relatively new (thank goodness) Renault Logan, with a stick and no frills other than air conditioning, which we wouldn’t need. Argentine law required the rental car companies to provide liability insurance as well as some other insurance that included minor collision and limited rollover coverage (our U.S car insurance wouldn’t cover us here). It wouldn’t be long before we’d see why the rollover coverage was included. Ignacio also told us about some roads we should not take, that the wind could be fierce where we were going, that gas stations were sparse and that there was a whole ‘nother procedure to return the car in a week, preferably not rolled over.
As we walked out to the parking lot, Ignacio pointed to the row of nondescript rental cars—all of them were white. When we reached “our” white car, he showed us the spare tire and jack (some of the roads we’d be on were unpaved and rocky) and the required first aid kit.
He also warned us that if we broke down or were in an accident in Chile they were not responsible and we’d be on our own to get the car back across the border. We looked at each other a little nervously. But we were starting a road trip in a foreign country (two, really) and were excited to get going. And not roll over.
We drove for about 25 minutes along a nice two-lane road to the pretty town of El Calafate, where we tried to check into our hostel, but weren’t terribly surprised that no one was there. Several other guests told us in various languages that they’d already been waiting 45 minutes for someone to appear. So, we went to find some food, hoping someone would eventually show up at the hostel.
In surprisingly warm weather, we wandered the charming little town that seemed to be full of Argentine tourists. There were lots of hiking enthusiasts and shops catering to them, as El Calafate is one of the few gateways to hiking in Patagonia.
We checked out a small park in the middle of town that serves as headquarters for the nearby Parque Nationales Los Glaciares.
El Calafate derived its name from a bush that has dark blue calafate berries that look a bit like blueberries but taste more like blackberries. The park had an interpretive path through local flora but the calafate bushes had no flowers or fruit.
The park also had statues honoring early explorers of the area and their discoveries, including Perito Moreno and Charles Darwin. Moreno is famous in Argentina as a scientist who explored and surveyed Patagonia. He made defining surveys that helped establish the boundaries between Argentina and Chile and in honor of his work the well-known Perito Moreno Glacier was named after him. Darwin explored Patagonia in the early 1800’s and discovered giant Pleistocene mammal fossils and collected Mesozoic and Tertiary fossils and others that inspired his Theory of Evolution.
Eventually, we found a pizza restaurant where we chatted with a couple of twenty-something girls from Nova Scotia who were celebrating the end of their trip with a huge bottle of beer. We decided share one of the giant bottles of Patagonia Amber Lager too and found it to be excellent.
Back at the hostel a couple of hours later, our host Charlie arrived and showed us to our modest room, while Porter the golden retriever escorted us. We were surprised and happy to see that we didn’t have to share a bathroom this time and opened a window to let the cool clean air in.