Nov ’09. Albion River Inn, Mendocino, California.
Five years ago, Kristina and I got married at the Albion River Inn on the beautiful coast of Mendocino in Northern California. It was a very spontaneous wedding at a hotel booked five days in advance following a short notice given to a few friends. Obviously most of them couldn’t make it. It was Thanksgiving weekend, after all, what I was thinking? So there were only eight of us, the family members and a couple of friends.
This was an epic day of my life with tons of memories to cherish for years.
One regret is that Kristina’s mom and dad were far away. This is where I could have planned better. There are plenty of ways to get married. Run to Las Vegas, organize a Hawaiian getaway for a hundred guests two years in advance, pretend you’re Lord of the Ring in the Redwood forest, or buy/re-sell a $20M all-inclusive package.
None of these fits my style or financial standing. On that windy day in November 2009, my good friend Mateo, who is a pilot, rented a four-seater plane for us. We flew over the Californian coastline for an hour through the turbulent air, enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the Golden Gate Bridge, hidden lakes and rivers, a hillside Buddhist temple in a massive forest, and the waves of the Pacific rolling over dramatic coastline.
That was an experience on its own, an unforgettable one.
Nov ’14. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Five years fast forward. We are enjoying our new life in Buenos Aires with our eleven-month-old Eva. She just started running around like she’s trying to make up for every minute spent in a stroller. We still hadn’t had a chance to visit Patagonia on the Argentinean side.
On this Thanksgiving afternoon, which marked our fifth anniversary, I said, why not go to Patagonia tomorrow? Next thing you know, we got our plane tickets, just minutes before Aerolineas Argentina’s office closed. I hadn’t bought paper airline tickets at an agency for well over a decade. However, a 40% discount on cash exchanged at the dolar blue rate would make a hefty difference one can’t ignore. Our flight was leaving from Buenos Aires for El Calafate at six o’clock the following morning.
Dressed for summer in Buenos Aires, with a backpack full of winter clothes, a suitcase full of Eva’s toys in one hand and Eva’s BabyBjorn Travel Crib Light in the other, and a pile of Argentine pesos in a pocket, we skip it through the priority line at the Aeroparque.
That was the most efficient check-in in my travel career. No more than 10-15 minutes from check-in counter to gate. Argentines love kids—so all doors are open in front of you, the traveler with a little baby in your arms.
Our three-hour flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate was eventless. As soon as we stepped down onto the ground, one thing became absolutely clear: This is a very different world from what we are used to. With less than three habitants per square mile living in the Santa Cruz province, the second biggest province of Argentina, it feels muy tranquilo! The vast abundant land, crowned by the snowy mountain peaks on the horizon, left me speechless for a few minutes.
Another thing that will steal your attention is Lago Argentino, the biggest lake in the country. In particular, its glacier-infused water. No photo can do justice to how beautiful the color of the water is. The water color in Lago Argentino is related to the glacier flow. The lake receives most of the ice from the glacier and thus absorbs most of the “rock flour”—rocks ground to white powder by the ice scraping against the rock floor of the valley. Depending on the concentration, glacial flour turns the lake waters a gray-green hue, or milky turquoise. Absolutely amazing! Then you will notice a tip of an iceberg stuck somewhere on the opposite shore.
El Calafate is a small Patagonian town. Nothing is remarkable about its architectural heritage, but if you have a lake view from your room it makes a ton of difference. We ended up staying in La Cantera boutique hotel. Although we hoped for the last-minute deal, our discount actually came from paying cash in pesos. A room with a lake view, top-notch service, and the convenience of a ten-minute walk to city center made it the best deal in town.
Many hotels are located very far from the center, so you need a cab to get around. La Cantera runs a shuttle service from 8pm till midnight to pick up its guests from the bars and restaurants. Nice!
Know Your Accommodation Options
We didn’t choose the easy way to come to La Cantera. We first went to Koi Aiken hotel which is quite far (non-walkable) from the center.
The first room we were given didn’t have hot water at all, nada! The receptionist looked at Eva, then at the dry faucet, and made a remark: That’s the problem!
The second room we were moved to had broken window frames. Let me tell you, the Patagonian wind is not a joke. With overnight temperatures dropping nearly to the freezing point, you don’t want to be stuffing your blanket into these holes in the frame. The receptionist suggested we keep the curtain closed, so the wind wouldn’t blow Eva out of her crib. Another suggestion was to turn the radiator up all the way. We panicked imagining Eva accidentally touching this scalding hot piece of metal. The hotel keeper exclaimed again, That’s the problem!
We decided to give another room a try. All we needed was hot water and no wind howling over our bed. The third room had water running from the faucet but it wouldn’t get warm enough. The hotelier promised again and again: It will get hot, just let it run. No luck! After five or seven minutes we lost hope and she admitted again, That’s the problem!
We called a cab to get away. On the way back in town I was thinking whether or not the tripadvisor rank of 55 out of 77 in El Calafate was fair for that hotel.
So check your accommodation options carefully!
Estancia is a word for many refuges built over time by Patagonian pioneers. They came down here from different parts of the world at the turn of the 20th century and gave this land a breath of new life.
Nowadays the Estancias are protected identities of the Patagonian landscape, and are still around, serving different functions. We were planning to visit two estancias.
Estancia Nibepe Aike
Estancia Nibepo Aike is named after its Croatian founder’s three daughters—Nini, Bebe, Porota—and the Tehuelche word Aike meaning “place.” Estancia Nibepo Aike presents visitors and guests with imposing view of Lago Argentino combined with the activities of an active sheep- and cattle-breeding establishment.
Estancia Cristina was founded in 1914 by an English couple, Mr and Mrs Masters. They lived in tents pitched by the lake during their first year. Their new home was named in honor of their little daughter Cristina, who didn’t survive pneumonia.
The Estancia stretches over 22 hectares of land surrounded by glaciers, snow peaks, and lakes of great natural beauty. Even up to today, there is no viable way to get to Estancia Cristina besides sailing on a boat to the most northern point of the Lago Argentino. Mr Masters had to buy and rebuild a steamboat to bring all his family and his cattle to this remote location. At some point the herd grew to also include 27,000 sheep, 30 cows and some 50 horses.
Due to our limited time in Patagonia, we decided to stay at Estancia Cristina only.
Random Recommendation from the Past
Almost a year ago, I randomly met a couple from New York wandering around Palermo Soho in Buenos Aires. They had just got back from Patagonia. We started talking about traveling Argentina and Alexander, the guy, mentioned that they had the best time at Estancia Cristina. I took a note of his recommendation and had it in mind to experience it for ourselves.
It’s totally worth talking with strangers. I get solid proof of this now and then. You never know how it will shape your future life.
Getting to Estancia Cristina
It takes a few hours to get from El Calafate to Estancia Cristina. Forty minutes on the Estancia’s shuttle to Puerto Bandera, then a couple of hours on a boat. Once arrived, we were astounded by its incredible beauty. There are many things to explore around the Estancia. Plenty of lakes, waterfalls, the lake shore—there is no shortage of things to do here. We spent two incredible days at Estancia Cristina exploring its natural beauty and eating well. Their regional cuisine, featuring slowly roasted Patagonian lamb and other local produce, is to die for. The staff was also incredibly friendly and attentive. The place itself, despite strong winds howling non-stop, is so peaceful and relaxing.
It inspired me to put a 24-hour moratorium on checking my emails.
We also saw some horses running around. They seemed to be wild. My understanding is that they belong to the Estancia and are used for horseback riding excursions. We tried to sign up for one of these tours but with eleven-month-old Eva that wasn’t a good idea 🙂
Discovery Tour to Upsala Glacier
Estancia Cristina also offers a Discovery adventure to Upsala glacier, and trekking activities. We signed up for the Discovery tour. You ride on a 4×4 truck up the mountain road through the rocks and ancient forest. The truck ride is a very exciting part of the tour. You will see many lakes, meadows and spectacular mountain peaks.
After a while, the road ends, and you walk a little further to the vista point. The view of the glacier, the channel, the colors of the rainbow above it and snow peaks are splendid.
From the top, Upsala Glacier looks amazingly peaceful. Be prepared to be blown off the cliff if you don’t pay good attention to the wind gusts.
Upsala Glacier by Boat
Upsala Glacier is one of the biggest glaciers of the Patagonian Icefield. It recedes very quickly though. Ten kilometers (six miles) of its body length have been lost in the last twenty years.
All orphan icebergs floating in Lago Argentino were once a part of Upsala Glacier before chipping off and running away from home. Estancia Cristina offers a chance to see the icebergs from a boat. On a clear day the colors will amaze you!
Perito Moreno Glacier
Perito Moreno Glacier is what most of the people come for in El Calafate. The glacier is unique because it is one of the three glaciers in Patagonian Icefield that is stable. This means that over time it doesn’t reduce in size. However, the ice is being pushed out from the glacier and collapses in a spectacular way.
The glacier can be observed from many platforms or from the boat. It’s one of the most amazing natural wonders I’ve ever seen. The light reflecting in massive chunks of ice, sticking up to 200 feet above the surface, is something that will stick in my memory for a long time. The glowing blue color of the ice is mesmerizing.
This is the most popular attraction in El Calafate area, a.k.a. a tourist trap. Being on a boat with a couple hundred people who ran simultaneously from one side to another while taking selfies was not necessarily the experience we were looking for. If I had to choose the same tour again I would totally skip the boat part. Or perhaps select a smaller boat tour.
We found it’s much more interesting to gaze at the glacier from land. There are several balconies that allow you to observe the entire glacier from different angles and elevations. The most exciting part was seeing small ice ruptures, when a chunk of glacier chips off the wall and collapses, with cheerful excitement from the crowd.
Here are ten interesting facts about Perito Moreno Glacier.
1. Perito Moreno Glacier is located in Los Glaciares National Park in southwest Santa Cruz province of Argentina. The province is part of the Argentine Patagonia.
2. The glacier is an ice formation that measures 250square kilometers (97 square miles). The Glacier is 30 kilometer (19 Miles) long.
3. Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the 48 glaciers in Patagonian Ice Field. It is an extension of the Andean Ice that is shared with Chile. The Glacier is the third largest reserve of Fresh water in the world.
4. The Los Glaciares National Park, of which Perito Moreno Glacier is part of, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1981 by UNESCO
5. Due to its accessibility and beauty, Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the biggest tourist magnets to the Patagonia region. The glacier is barely two hours away from El Calafate by bus.
6. The Glacier is surrounded by scenic ice-capped mountains and forests such as lengas and ñires.
7. Rapture – Pressures from the weight of the ice slowly pushes the glacier over the southern tip of Lake Argentina damming the section and separating it from the rest of the lake. With no outlet, the water-level on the dammed side of the lake can rise by as much as 30 meters above the level of the main body of Lake Argentina. This eventually causes rapture and the huge block of ice tumbles down on the lake. It is one of the most beautiful sights to see.
8. The glacier extends to the Chilean fjords and in the east to the Argentine lakes.
9. There are two types of trekking available to tourists on the glacier. The first one is the mini-trekking option that takes about an hour and a half and the other is the big ice option that takes about 5 hours. It is up to you to choose how long you want to remain outdoors on ice.
10. The raptures on the Lake Argentina come in 4-5 years intervals. The last to occur happened on March 2, 2012.
We didn’t have much more time left to explore other areas of Lago Argentino.
Is there anything else equally exciting that we should see on our next visit?
Please share in the comments section.