After the terrible hostel in Punta Arenas, we decided to treat ourselves in El Calafate. We had found an online deal which meant we could stay in a 3-star hotel (with a bathtub! Such luxury!) for the same price as two dorm beds in town. It was a very easy decision to make.
After a few hours on the bus we arrived at Puerto Natales and had 30 minutes to grab a coffee before our next bus. The view from the bus station stretched over the town to a fjord and mountains beyond which shimmered in the late-morning heat. Our connecting bus was due to take 3-4 hours to El Calafate, passing the Torres Del Paine national park, and crossing the border into Argentina. We should be at our destination around 17:30. The TDP park was glorious, the mountains towering and grand on the horizon, rising from the Patagonian steppe that continued unbroken in all other directions. Clouds hugged some summits while others gleamed in shattered rays of sun light. Our border crossing was the easiest so far – a cursory glance at our passports, and we were through.
At about 18:00 we stopped at a gas station, and confused about where we were, loaded up google maps, where we discovered we had overshot the turn to El Calafate, and were half-way to the coast! Luckily as we left the town, we did start heading in the right direction, but we had no idea why we’d ended up so far East.
The sun had almost set, it was cold and we were ravenous when we finally arrived at 20:00. We had been excited about spending the evening with beer and take-away in our luxurious hotel room. But here we were, on a dusty gravel road as night was falling, just hoping we could find something we could eat. As luck would have it, one of the first places we passed was open, and had a sign outside advertising vegan food! It was lovely, and after feeling refuelled following a day of only having crisps and biscuits, we set off in search of our hotel. We finally found it at 21:30, bought two ridiculously priced beers from the bar, soaked away the day in a hot bath, and were asleep before our heads hit the pillows.
The next day our plans didn’t quite work out as anticipated. We woke late, found little we could eat at the hotel breakfast (despite being assured there would be plenty for us), and had no luck getting any info about hikes from the woman at the tourist info office. Eventually we found a National Parks office and it became clear we were in the wrong town for easy hiking. From where we were, all the walking routes required transport to access. Scuppered, but with a hotel for a few days, we just planned to take it easy, soak up the sights (we could at least see the nearby mountains), and use the time for organising our remaining months in South America. We booked an intensive Spanish language course in Bariloche for a week later, still in Argentina but on the way to Santiago. This was a real source of excitement for us. We’d planned since leaving the UK that we would do this the moment we arrived in South America, but Jay’s head injury had delayed that, as he wasn’t able to concentrate on learning anything without it bringing on concussion symptoms. This felt like a step toward fulfilling the plans we’d had all that time ago, and it was great for Jay to finally feel able to do it.
We went to buy our bus tickets to El Chalten, and found that we would get a significant discount if we paid in cash. We didn’t have nearly enough cash, as we’d avoided using ATMs since Buenos Aires, when we’d been stung with 10% fees to withdraw cash. We quickly learnt this was standard for using foreign cards in Argentina, so we’d relied on paying for everything by credit card. A few weeks earlier, someone working at a hostel had suggested we use Western Union to get cash, as they don’t charge the extortionate withdrawal fees. We hadn’t managed to sort this out before, but it seemed worth it to get these cheaper bus tickets. We were astonished to learn when logging in to the app that WU were offering an exchange rate better than the official rate. In taking out cash, with the various fees, we were getting approximately 60 Argentine pesos to the pound. By paying with our credit or debit cards we got nearer 75 pesos. The official rate was about 80 pesos, but from WU we could get 106 pesos to the pound! We have always been of the impression that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, so we were very sceptical. But we spoke to other travellers who confirmed they had taken advantage of this and it was indeed real! Things would suddenly cost close to half the amount that we had paid before! So we transferred money to WU, and then we had to wait. The next day from 1-4pm we could collect the money from one office in town. Apparently it could run out of money quite quickly, so we would need to be there early to queue, but we’ve had lots of practice at waiting around on our travels, so were prepared for that.
Over dinner, we heard chanting and shouting coming from outside the restaurant, and soon a procession of women came down the street, holding up placards and singing. It was International Women’s Day! We paid up quickly and ran out so Maeve could join in. Jay walked with some other men at the back of the group, but it became clear that there were men in the main body of the march too, so Maeve came to get him. It was wonderful to mark the day with this group, to be able to take part, and stand in solidarity with women in Argentina. Later in our trip we learned that one woman is killed by her partner every 30 hours here, and so protests like this are essential. Protesters were wearing green bandanas, marking them as members of the pro-choice movement in Argentina, who are currently fighting for legal abortions, and are winning the fight. Maeve managed to get hold of a couple after, making a donation to the cause in the process. At one point, walking down the street we both turned to look at each other. We had just walked past a guy who was the spitting image of one of our friends back home. It was uncanny. Later on we passed him again sat outside a bar. We just had to ask for a picture, and ended up having a hilarious and slightly drunken night with some new friends.
We lost most of the next day to a bit of a hangover and queuing up at Western Union. However it was all worth it. Everything we’d heard about the exchange rate was true, and we came out feeling flush with cash. We bought our bus tickets to El Chalten and our onward tickets from there to Bariloche with our exciting new cash, saving us a full days budget compared to if we’d paid by card, and we went for a walk at the lake the town nestles alongside. Flamingos wheeled above the water and we sat on swings in a beautiful wooden park at the waters edge, watching the birds soar like strange arrows.
That night we again met up with our new friends, and ended up dancing until 02:30 at a local bar that we wouldn’t have found if we didn’t have the language skills of our new Basque friends to draw on. The next morning was a blur, and we stumbled to the bus station at dawn to catch the first bus out of town. It had been a strange visit to El Calafate, as we hadn’t managed to do any of the hiking we’d anticipated, but we had relaxed, enjoyed new company and made some happy memories. We were now looking forward to moving on and finally getting out into the mountains.