El Calafate and Ushuaia

Travel Notes

Here are some quick notes about a 10-day trip in February 2020 to El Calafate and Ushuaia, two truly wonderful destinations in southern Argentina 🇦🇷.

Antarctic Expeditions, Now and Then

In this trip to Tierra del Fuego, we learned quite a bit about the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, when brave men faced an hostile, frozen, windy continent on board of precarious wooden ships and making use of primitive equipment.

Nowadays, anyone with enough money1 can visit the white continent in a modern, safe ship with quite a bit of comfort. Present-day travellers still have to face some distressing matters, the worst of which is probably the Ezeiza Airport.2

Los Glaciares National Park

Everyone talks about the park and I’ll not repeat everything here. Here’s a suggestion instead: if you can, take the boat cruise on the Argentino Lake. It is pricey, but it is great. When visiting the National Park by land (which you also want to do!) you get to see the Perito Moreno glacier. By boat you can see other glaciers including, weather allowing, some impressive close-range views of them. The cruise also allows you to see beautiful icebergs and usually includes a short trek on the Bahía de las Vacas (Bay of the Cows).

Spegazzini glacier.

The Spegazzini Glacier. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness were rocky mountains in Antarctica, but an ice wall over 100 meters high like this definitely feels like the Mountains of Madness.

We took the cruise on the Maria Turquesa catamaran, offered by Cruceros MarPatag. We found them very professional and recommend them.

Bahía de las Vacas

How come there is a place called Bay of the Cows in a national park, located in a small peninsula completely surrounded either by water or mountains? It turns out that the whole region was extensively used as pasture before the creation of the park. People left, but some of the cattle stayed and became wild. They estimate 5000 heads of cattle living the area of the National Park (I didn’t see any in the Bay).

This has become a problem. They don’t have any natural predators (though I can imagine that pumas could hunt calves, at least). They eat saplings thus impeding new trees to grow (virtually all trees on the Bay of the Cows are very old!); and they compete for habitat with the native huemul which lives only here and is endangered.

The government hires people to roundup and tame cattle in the area of the Park so that they can be moved to farms. They are considering to allow hunting of wild cattle in the area.

Bahía de las Vacas (Bay of the Cows).

A view from the Bahía de las Vacas (Bay of the Cows). No cows in sight.

Punta Walichu

One could consider this a second-tier attraction in the El Calafate area (the National Park is undoubtedly the big thing there), but we liked it very much.

First, the location is great: beautiful landscape with the lake and nice rock formations, plus good opportunities for seeing the local flora and fauna.

Punta Walichu

Lago Argentino (Argentino Lake) and rocks at Punta Walichu.

Second (and what is really advertised as an attraction), this is a decent archaeological site with some very old cave paintings. In addition to the real stuff, they included some reproductions of cave and rock paintings from the region and reconstructions of a Tehuelche tent (kaú) and burial place (chenke).

They also provide a well-produced audio guide, available in Spanish, English, and French). Their website is nice, though available only in Spanish.

Borges & Alvarez Librobar

As lovers of both food and books, we were strongly attracted to this “book-bar” in El Calafate. To me, it was a disappointment. This is not a place for book lovers. Sure, they have a cute staircase imitating book spines and some bookcases around the place. But they also have loud music. Too loud. It has the mood of a bar, not of a booky place.

We had a cazuela de cordero (lamb stew) and a fresco y batata (fresh cheese with sweet potato jelly). Both were OK. Their IPA beer was better than the food. Service was so-so.

Malbec Wine Impressions

I am not really into wines (and particularly not into red wines), but we were willing to try a Malbec. We bought a cheap one from a supermarket in Ushuaia, chosen more or less randomly: Etnia Roble Malbec.3

I heard (through the grapevine – ba dum tss) that Malbec wines are not easy ones. My very first impression about this particular one confirms this. It felt like when a large dog tries to play with me: it was not deliberately trying to aggress me, but I felt aggressed anyway. It has something that remembers me spices… maybe not the taste itself but… I don’t know… the feeling. I guess this comes from the oak barrel where it supposedly aged.

It took us a few of days to finish the bottle (drinking one small glass a day). On the third day I wasn’t feeling aggressed anymore. I can’t say that I like it, but again, this is a red wine, and I don’t really enjoy red wines.4

Museo Marítimo y del Presidio de Ushuaia

This is a cluster of museums in Ushuaia, all sharing the same location: the old prison of Ushuaia. I think they are nice, but visiting them was quite tiresome. There is a lot to see and, especially, a lot to read. I love reading signs in museums, but here (especially in the Prison Museum) there are lots and lots of signs, with long texts, many of which are typeset quite uncomfortably, with too long lines.

Anyway, a good visit. Check their website for a list of exhibitions, which include maps (I love maps 🙂), art, miniatures of ships, naval artifacts and a full-size replica of the lighthouse that inspired Jules Verne.

The tickets are valid for 48 hours. If this fits your schedule, consider splitting the visit in two consecutive days. I guess you’ll have a more enjoyable time this way.

Tante Sara

We had food on various different restaurants in both Ushuaia and El Calafate and I can say all of it was good. There was one place, however, that was beyond good: Tante Sara in Ushuaia. This is one of these places5 whose food fills your taste in breadth without saturating it. Wonderful flavors beautifully combined.

In a breakfast, I had their revuelto gramajo with a lemonade (which contained ginger and, I guess, some salt). In a lunch, we had a club sandwich with their Chocolate Tante Sara (hot chocolate with Baileys, which ended up working as a dessert). Both the revuelto and the sandwich were seasoned with (among other things) a very tasty olive oil, which added a nutty flavor. Yummy!

Antarctic Experience in Ushuaia

Near the touristic pier of Ushuaia, we found a questionable attraction: Experiencia Antártica. I call it questionable because it was subsidized by a good amount taxpayer money but can only receive a small number of visitors (30-minute sessions for 12 people at a time, starting at noon). Entrance is free of charge.

It is touted as a Virtual Reality-based visit to Antarctica, but it also has a small antechamber with some artifacts and a guy explaining things about Antarctica, focusing on the Argentine interests in the continent, the Antarctic Treaty and the most important expeditions. They also played an intentionally-over-the-top, not-very-educative-but-slightly-entertaining video with actors portraying an imagined conversation between explorers Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, and José María Sobral.

The guy who gave the talk in the antechamber was good. I liked his lecture more than anything else here. The VR stuff was meh.

The “pre-experience” wasn’t good. According to the sign on the door the first session was scheduled for 12:00. We were among first to arrive to the line. Noon came but the door remained locked. Someone called them and was told that the first session was only at 12:30. So we waited for half an hour outside, freezing in the windy Ushuaia. I was all the time wondering: maybe this is the real Antarctic Experience!

Not really recommended, but if you are around the area, have half an hour free and there are no lines, you’ll not lose much by giving it a try.

Cerro Martial

A popular attraction even among the locals is hiking up the Martial trail. Me and my wife are not exactly fit (to say the least) and were not sure if we wanted to face it. We did, going very slowly, stopping frequently and being overtaken by all those white-haired ladies and gentleman with twice our age thrice our endurance.

The first part of the hike6 was quite extenuating but already offered some nice views. Then we reached a plateau from which two other trails start. One is the Glacier Trail, that goes to the Martial Glacier and which we decided was too difficult for us. The other is the Del Filo Trail, which we hiked almost to its end, for even more gorgeous views.

Cerro Martial.

A view from our hiking in the Martial trails.

In our descending trek we did part of the way through a parallel trail that goes through the woods, following a cute stream that flows downhill from the glacier.

We are glad that we decided to go. It was beautiful. (In retrospect, trying this is a no-brainer. You can go on your own pace, and don’t have to go beyond your own limits. It is worth it even if you don’t go very far.)

  1. Unfortunately not my case yet! 🙁 ↩︎

  2. To be fair, the airport was going through renovations so things will hopefully get better soon. But this time it was just like five years before: crowds, confusion and bad food. ↩︎

  3. Someone who is not a big fan of wines, tasting a random cheap one. You are not giving much credit to this review, are you? ↩︎

  4. Incidentally, we tried another Argentine Malbec at home, a few of days after coming back: Cafayate Malbec. I liked this one much better, didn’t have all that oak/spice feeling. ↩︎

  5. Or rather “two of these places”, as Tante Sara has two restaurants in downtown Ushuaia. We tried and loved both. ↩︎

  6. There used to be a chairlift in this first part. It seems to be closed for years now. ↩︎


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