Mid-morning flight from Ushuaia to El Calafate brought me into Patagonia proper and the main location for seeing one of the world's most accessible glaciers. It's also one of the only glaciers in the world that's STILL growing at a steady rate (I think something like 2m a day!) so it's possible to see huge shards falling off into the icy water below... I can't wait.
On arriving at El Calafate airport I got a tourist bus into town for around 20 peso (pick up a ticket at the desk inside the terminal), instead of a taxi which can set you back around 100 peso.
First course of action was of course to find a place to stay and I selected a random hospedaje (basically a family home that has a separated section with bedrooms and showers for guests) called Hospedaje Allejandro. On arriving, I was greeted by a rather large, heavily made-up, officious elderly woman who showed me a tiny room with twin beds that she was offering for 80 peso. Not bad. She seemed rather miffed that I'd "had the cheek" to call to her door while she was in the middle of her lunch so she disappeared off rather quickly. I had a quick explore and noticed that the other rooms (for which the doors were open) were noticably bigger and brighter. I waited for around 20 mins, politely to allow the mistress to finish her meal, then approached her to ask if I could change room.
My God, if looks could kill. She completely flipped.
Hands on her rather large waist, she proclaimed loudly that all the other rooms were "reservado" (as if, you don't reserve "specific rooms" in these places) and then she got in even more a fit when she thought that I had gone wandering around all the rooms (I'd just peered in). She said I should go to a hotel if I was going to be so demanding. I didn't say anything. I just got my bags and up and left. She was all up for a fight and even started complaining that I'd left the towels she'd given me in an un-neat pile. I held back the laughter, although this was hard, but I just said "No habla espanola" and left. She shouted something to the effect of "oh you don't understand Spanish when you feel like it"...
And so went my first introduction to the "El Calafate Argentinian".
They're a rather pompous lot. The people here sort of remind me of the Canadians I met in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Don't take too kindly to outsiders, etc
Aaaaanyway... as it happened I wandered onto another Hospedaje (making sure to be on my absolute BEST manners this time, so as not to offend.. something that is so easy to do in Argentina it seems) and they were offering a full room for, get this, 30 PESO! That's about 6 euro a night!
It's actually a dorm price, but the landlord (a lovely Argentinian gent in his 80s, I must say) ensured me that I could have the whole room to myself.
After my brief experience of being in a 6-person dorm the previous day, I gotta say I'm absolutely DEMANDING I have a private room from now on!
Accomodation sorted, next course of action was to find out how to get to the glacier, how to get up to Santiago Chile for my flight to Easter Island in 4 days, and where to get some damned lunch! (the latter was easily rectified when I went for lunch at "La Tablita" restaurant opposite the tourist info office ... delicious huge steak with chips, glass of red wine and soup to start .. but a tad "expensive" at 100 peso (20 euro))
My plan for getting up north to Santiago was originally to fly from Punta Arenas, across the border from El Calafate. I had even found an excellent cheap flight for 65 euro while I was doing my "mega-flight-booking session" in Cusco, Peru, but the damned airline website (skyairline.cl) wouldn't accept an international credit card so I gave up and decided "ah sure I'll just try bussing it". I kinda wanted to try one of the ultra-luxury cama buses that everyone has been raving about back home (they even have waiters apparently... and gold toilet seats of course!)
So today I went along to "book" my bus ticket to Santiago. I imagined it would be a bus that you stay on for the entire duration, sleeping comfortably the whole way. Boy was I dreaming. Here's the itinerary I was offered:
8th April - 3am: Leave El Calafate .. arrive Rio Gallegos at 7.30am
8th April - 9am: Rio Gallegos ... arrive some small town at 8pm
8th April - 10pm: small town .. arrive Mendoza at 8am NEXT DAY
9th April - 10.30am: Mendoza ... arrive Santiago at 4.30pm
(I neglected to qualify each stage with "...tired, aching, pissed off...")
And the price? A cool USD 200! (760 peso)
Here's where I got really confused, as I thought that bus travel was supposed to be cheap?!? Not only that, but this setup would only afford me one day in El Calafate and I kind of wanted 2 days (1 to see the glacier, and another for something else, perhaps El Chatlen... or just a day to relax and write up the blog)
"Sooo... a flight sounds like a really good idea at this stage", I think to myself. I wander on down to the travel agent to see what they can offer me. I suspected all flights leaving in the next 3 days would be rather expensive but as it happened the travel agent mentioned there was a flight leaving from (surprise surprise) Punta Arenas with Sky airlines that was going for USD 299. When I later checked the Sky Airlines website I saw I could get the flight for around USD 200... same price as the damned nightmare bus... score!
By now I'd realised that it's possible to book with Sky airlines using an international credit card ... the caveat being that you have to call their office in Santiago to make the transaction. Alas I wasn't going to get the cheap 70 euro deal I'd seen earlier, but this was the same price as the bus, plus I'd get an extra day in El Calafate so it evens out!
I had to get a bus to Punta Arenas of course, so I've booked a bus to leave El Calafate on the 9th April at (a reasonable) 9am, arriving in Chile at Puerto Natales where I need to get a connecting bus to Punta Arenas for one overnight stay. Following morning I fly to Santiago. One night there. Then off to Easter Island on the 11th April !!! So $204 for the flight, another $13 to Puerto Natales, and then hopefully a cheap bus to Punta Arenas. Certainly beats $200 for "the bus from Hell" anyway.
Oh ... and I've booked a glacier hike for the 8th April. Bit expensive at 130 euro, but with 4 hours on the ice, it'll be worth it!