Aside from the airport, El Calafate has probably become tourist central because its attractions are accessible without effort. The energetic head for El Chalten, a few hours north, where you need to hike to see the high points. In El Calafate you just book a tour and board a bus and a boat. I booked two, one for each of my days in town. I could have walked down the main street, and compared all the different companies, but instead I had my hotel book me, and their choices were fine.
My first day I took a tour to the Perito Moreno glacier, which involved a bus ride out to the southern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (100 pesos admission, I think, on top of the tour price), a boat ride along the south face of the glacier, and a further bus ride to where you could walk down to a series of balconies practically touching the glacier. (This trip has changed a bit recently. The Perito Moreno glacier is one of the few that is still advancing, and the south and north faces now require separate boat trips as the glacier has made contact with the shore.)
The Hosteria Hainen had provided me with a packed lunch (including an excellent chicken and cheese sandwich), and I ate it while sitting in the sunshine admiring the glacier – the rain had cleared overnight. The tour allowed for two hours on the balconies, and really I could have used more, but I also enjoyed the boat trip, which I don’t think I could have done with public transport. We got a long, slow, up-close look at the face of the glacier, a sweep of pinnacles and vertical crevices, with the colors shading from purest white to electric blue.
Perito Moreno is just one of the glaciers flowing down from the Southern Ice Cap, the world’s third largest (after Antarctica and Greenland), and the next day I took a much longer boat trip to see two more, plus the other face of Perito Moreno, and a whole series of smallish icebergs, gradually turning translucent and melting in the sunshine. Upsala, 10 kms wide where it reaches Lago Argentino’s North Arm, and Spegazzini, were just as fascinating as Perito Moreno – the colors were amazing, and the shapes intricate. The deepest blue was so intense as to appear unnatural, as if some kind of chemical spill had taken place.
If you’re planning a trip to Argentina the glaciers really are a must-see – just like the Iguassu Falls at the other end of the country. It’s hard to think of a bigger contrast than that between the arid steppes and majestic glaciers around El Calafate, and the hot, humid forests and roaring falls at Iguassu. But the power of water, liquid or frozen, is on full display at both. I enjoyed the glaciers so much that I moved Alaska and Antarctica further up my “must-see” list, where they had been languishing near the bottom. (I had figured I would save Alaska for when I was more decrepit, and Antarctica is just plain expensive.)
I had good luck with the weather. Although it was seriously cold out on the deck, and the wind was fierce when we were moving, the rain held off and the sun showed the glaciers at their best. I could hardly complain when it rained the next day, when I took the bus to El Chalten. I had enjoyed staying at the Hosteria Hainen, although it was a bit of a trek back from town, but it rose even higher in my esteem when the owner, declaring that taxis were unreliable, drove me to the bus station himself. I was half an hour early and able to claim the front seat. The bus left full, mostly with people in their twenties and thirties, toting hefty backpacks.