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Trip Report El Calafate, Puerto Madryn, Iguazu, and Buenos Aires

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Thanks to everyone for their advice on this forum. It really came in handy and I hope I can give back. Warning, this is a bit long.

Our trip to Argentina began on December 17th, 2010. We flew into Buenos Aires and then flew immediately to El Calafate. Aerolinas Argentinas triple booked all 4 of our seats and two others, and it took them over 30 minutes to get it straightened out. This wouldn’t be the first time our flight was delayed, in fact out of the 5 segments we had with them there was only one that took off close to on time.

The airport transfer in El Calafate was by private car, but it wasn't big enough to fit the 4 of us and our 4 bags, so we had to hold one the huge duffel bags across our laps in the back seat. In general the private car ended up being about the same cost and more convenient than taking the shuttles in most of our destinations in Argentina. We checked into Hopsedeja Lautaro, where Belen was probably the most hospitable person we encountered during our entire trip in Argentina. The rooms were very simple, but the ones that had a private bath were nicer than others and worth the few extra dollars in my opinion. Breakfast each morning was an assortment of breads and she offered rice cakes and gluten free cookies for me.

The town of El Calafate has lots of shops and restaurants, and is clearly based on tourism. We ate at La Tablita our first night. For us girls this was our favorite meal of the whole trip. The Lamb is tender and moist iand unlike any other lamb I have eaten before. We also didn't find that lamb at any other Parillas on our trip in Argentina, so we were sad not to get a chance to eat it again.

The next day we took a bus up to El Chalten where we set out for our 3 day backpacking trip around Fitz Roy. The first night we camped at Camp Agostini near Laguna Torre. We were lucky to see the clouds clear relatively enough to see the top of the Cerro Torre spires for about 10 minutes until they were overcome with clouds again. Overall the view of them behind the glacier and a few small icebergs in the lagoon made for a beautiful sight. The sun finally set at around 11PM. The next day we woke up to rain, but we wanted to stay on track so we packed up our camp and headed out toward Camp Poincenot. We had hiked several hours in the rain before in New Zealand, and so we thought we were pretty prepared with all of our gear. We were surprised to find the wind and rain were unbearable after we came over the ridge of mountains that apparently were really protecting the trail that took us to Laguna Torre. Two of us had rain gear that failed miserably and were starting to shiver and one of us started showing a noticeably slowed reaction time (signs of hypothermia). So we opted to turn back and head down the mountain into town and look for an available room. Thus our planned 6 mile hike in the rain that day with our thirty to forty pound packs turned into 10 miles with an extra 5 pounds of water weight.

Of course last minute, there wasn’t much available and we didn’t want to continue walking from place to place in the rain to see who had space, so we ended up taking the first free room we encountered at the ridiculously expensive Hotel Los Cerros for $328. The upside is the rooms were quite large and allowed us to spread out all of our gear so that it could dry out. After a super hot long bath we were doing much better. We ate dinner at the hotel as we had no interest in going back out in the rain to dine elsewhere. Most of the food was good, but my lamb dish was a severe disappointment, especially for how much it costs here compared to other places in Patagonia.

The next day it was sunny again so we did a day high to Laguna Capri where we were supposed to be camping on the third night. We didn’t think we had the stamina to day hike all the way to Laguna de los Tres and back to town in one day unfortunately, as we had originally intended to day hike it from cam Poincenot. The views from Laguna Capri were incredible and we sat there and at lunch for about 2 hours before we finally hiked back to town. We were lucky to find a much less expensive room for that night at Hosteria Kalenshen. Nice comfy place with beautiful woodwork and antiques, and an indoor pool (unexpected!!). They also have a restaurant, but we only ate breakfast there. That night for dinner we ate at the Bistro and enjoyed all of our dishes and the friendly service.

The next morning we walked around town and shopped for souveniers before catching the bus back to El Calafate and we slept most of the way back. There are better souveniers and much more selection in El Calafate, so wait till then to buy what you want. That night we ate at a vegetarian restaurant that was pretty tasty (can’t recall the name, but it’s the only one in town). The following day we hired a private car to take us out to the Perito Moreno Glacier for 360Argentinian pesos. When we arrived at the park, it cost an additional 75 pesos per person to enter the park, and then 50 pesos per person to do the boat trip up to the front of the glacier (this was optional). The boat ride leaves every hour and lasts an hour. It was relaxing and not crowded at all (would hold likely 150-200 people, but there were only 20 of us on board). Afterward we went walking on the boardwalks and balconies. There are a couple miles worth of boardwalks that get you just as close to the glacier as the boat, and I wish we had allotted more time for that as we were rushing with the 90 minutes I had allotted for it. The nice thing is if you hire a private driver to take you there, you can stay as long as you want, we just didn’t want to get back to late because we had a plane to catch.

We flew to Puerto Madryn and stayed at the Hotel Territorio. It’s nice and clean, but a little overpriced. I didn’t really realize that in Argentina there is a 21% tax that isn’t always added into the rate when quoted, so that can make things add up quickly. We arrived late, so the hotel didn’t really give us a full introduction. We didn’t even know there was a spa and a hot tub until the day prior to our departure. We learned that night there is a nightclub nearby that plays loud music until 5AM, so bring your earplugs! We did eat breakfast every morning in the hotel and they would make bacon and eggs for you if you asked otherwise there was lunchmeat and cheese, pastries, fruit, yogurt, granola and typical beverages. We ended up eating dinner there Christmas night, as nothing else seemed to be open. The food was ok, but overpriced.

We encountered a monetary mishap while in Puerto Madryn. On our way to the hotel we asked the taxi driver to stop by an ATM, only to find out that it was out of money, and due to the Christmas holiday likely wouldn’t be refilled for days. We tried changing in some USD at the hotel for pesos, but they too ran out of pesos. It turns out that in the province of Chebut, they have a serious money availability issue and don’t print enough pesos to keep up with demand out of fear of another crash and run on the banks. Sadly, this intended protective measure may be limiting spending that could lead to growth in the region. We were supposed to pay our tour operators in cash but didn’t have enough. Luckily the hotel opted to pay our operator for us and let us charge the cost to the hotel with an additional 12% fee. So of course we paid it because we didn’t want to miss out on our planned tours.

We arranged our tours with Tehuelche tours. On Christmas Eve, Popey drove us down to Punta Tomba. We took a couple hours to walk around watching the penguins and guanaco’s. It was pretty amazing having them all around you. Popey will say he doesn’t speak very good English, but I thought it was pretty great actually and he is really nice and interesting to talk to as he has done some amazing things in his life. After that we went to Gaimen for Tea at Ty Te Caerdydd, a place that Princess Diana visited years ago. They have a variety of memorabilia dedicated to her in the entryway. It seemed they opened up just for us as there was no one else there. There was a huge variety of things to eat, way too much actually, and my stomach got a little sick from all the sweetness. One thing to know is that it takes a while to drive from place to place and everything is flat, deserted, and dry around there. That night we ate at Placido for Christmas eve dinner. The food was good, wine was good and we had a great time. At midnight the whole city starts lighting off fireworks (some colorful, but mostly the noise-making kind) and it didn’t even slow down in frequency until about 2AM!!! That was pretty fun walking back to the hotel from town along the boardwalk, eating gelato and watching everyone out and about celebrating the birth of Christ. They don’t decorate much for Christmas and it is much less commercialized, but no less special to them.

On Christmas day we again took a tour with Tehuelche to Punta Ninfas. This was billed as a nature tour for those who like to hike and get up close to the animals. At the first stop we saw a few penguins (nothing compared to punta tomba), sealions, choike (large flightless birds a little smaller than a rhea or ostrich that ran away at the sound of our van), and a baby guanaco. There weren’t a lot of sea lions, so we didn’t have the opportunity to see any Orca. We probably walked for about a half mile on flat ground covered with small rocks that covered the shore. Then we drove another hour (which we weren’t aware of) to another beach on the point where the elephant seals were. There we sat and ate lunch while watching them for at least an hour. They are typically lazy and pretty much lie around and a couple of them entered the water for a couple minutes and then came out again. As the time went on they would gradually scoot their way closer to the water. We only saw a few small to moderate size males, some females and large babies. There weren’t any of the really large males around unfortunately, but it was still pretty cool. Then for the long drive back to town.

After a two days we were pretty tired of riding in cars so much that we opted not to do a whale watching tour on the third day and just stay in town. I am sure everyone will think that we are crazy, but that is how sick of riding in cars we were. The hotel had bikes you could borrow that were in moderate condition so we rode them around town and had lunch at Las Dunas on the beach. Then we rode them up to the Ecocentro which isn’t far from the Hotel Territorio and the hotel offers complementary admission to the ecocentro, so ask for tickets from the concierge. The Ecocentro was very interesting and they have some pretty cool exhibits. The beach in front of the ecocentro was covered with rocks and shells and isn’t at all like the sandy beach in town, but there were lots of people there too just like the beaches in town. We saw a bunch of jellies being washed up and it supposedly happens once a year for a few days and we just happened to catch it at the right time. They didn’t appear to have stingers though and none of the locals even paid attention to them like we did. They did have glowing greenish blue streaks in them that you could see if the light hit it just right, so that was pretty cool. That night we ate at Nautico Club, which had ok food at a good price.

The next day it was off to Puerto Iguazu. We had to connect in Buenos Aires, so we spent pretty much the whole day traveling. We again took a private driver to our accommodation, Iguazu Jungle Lodge. I didn’t realize they were the same owners as the people who run a lot of the tours within the park. The accommodation was a nice 3 bedroom condo with 4 balconies facing the jungle, and a nice community pool. That night we ate at El quincho del Tío Querido, a tasty Parilla. I tried the Mollejas (sweetbreads) and they were tasty, but I wouldn’t eat them all the time. Everyone else ordered filet and chateaubriand, which were great too. There was a band that started playing typical argentine music at about 8, so that was enjoyable too.

The following day we got up early to catch the second city bus into the park. You can buy tickets and hop right on at the bus station in town. Someone said that Iguazu was like Disneyland, and I didn’t really believe it until I got there. I warn you that it is CROWDED, both on the buses and in the park. When we got there we bought our entrance tickets and headed right toward the train as we wanted to go early to the devils’ throat. What we didn’t realize is that the train stops at a central station prior to going all the way out, so we got off and then didn’t realize that we got off too early. So we then ended up walking the upper circuit, which was packed! It was kind of hard to jocky for photos actually. After that we wanted a little more peace, so we walked the path all the way out to devil’s throat instead of riding the train. It was pretty nice actually as we saw some large lizards lounging about and hundreds of butterflies that used the train track and walkway as a flying corridor. Out at the devils’ throat it was again crowded, but once you realize that the crowds ebb and flow with the arrival of the train, you can plan your walk on the boardwalks to avoid some of it. The devil’s throat is a must see, so one way or another, make sure you go out there. The amount of water pouring into it is astounding. Next we walked the lower circuit and took a jetboat ride into the falls. It was fairly fun, but also very short. Nothing stays dry, but they do give you dry bags for your stuff, one wasn’t really large enough for my husband’s backpack, so we put all the stuff in one, and the empty backpack in another. I enjoyed the lower circuit more than the upper circuit. We left the park at 6PM and the bus back to town was full without being overly-crowded. That night we ate at La Rueda. We were excited based on the reviews I read and the recommendations I received from people both in the US and in Argentina. Unfortunately, it was a HUGE disappointment. The service was unreasonably slow and our waiter forgot several things throughout the night including our salads. Then to top it off, two of the four dishes we ordered were totally inedible as the fish was so dry it could have been fish jerky. The other two fish dishes were mediocre at best. Needless to say we skipped desert and headed to a gelato shop instead.

The next day we ate lunch at Pizza Colore, which was ok. Then we went back to the park to hike the Macuo trail. Talk about hot and buggy! The waterfall at the end was briefly refreshing, but I would have said that it wasn’t worth, but we got lucky to see a few brown capuchin monkeys and an agouti on our way back. The pool at the lodge was a nice refresher when we got back and we made makeshift sangria with wine and lemonade. That night we ate at Aqua (The U looks like a V). The fish and service here was excellent!!! Thankfully we were able to taste just how good the local fish can be, if it’s cooked right. For the boys, this was their favorite meal of the trip.

The next morning we flew to Buenos Aires. Check in at the Marriott at 1PM was total chaos with other people also checking out. Their lobby isn’t really large enough to accommodate all those people and they have three people crammed behind the concierge desk working their tails off for the crowd that is practically pushing their way up the line to get service. Later that afternoon we realized our bags were never delivered to our room as we had to be there for delivery, so we went down to get them as it seemed to be less of an inconvenience. My husband had also shipped a package of camping gear to the hotel from El Calafate (so we didn’t have to lug it all over Argentina), and they initially told us at check in that they had received it, but then couldn’t find it later when we wanted to retrieve it. Turns out at the Marriott, if you aren’t happy with the answer you get, just ask someone else. This usually yielded a solution for us when someone else was not helpful.
We walked down Florida street and ate a late lunch at Café Tortoni, excellent cold coffee drinks! Then we took a free walking tour around the Aristocratic section of the city, the guide was great. Then we rushed back to the hotel and got ready for our Tango show. We went to El Viejo Almacen, and it was excellent and intimate. I drank a little too much champagne, so had a bit of a hangover the next morning. I opted to order room service for breakfast and sleep as much as I could prior to the noon checkout. Then we walked to Plaza Mayo and Puerto Madero and had lunch a Cabana Las Lilas. The breads were excellent and so was the octopus. The shrimp seemed to be old and mushy, unfortunately. Then we had gelato at Fredo’s and the line was crazy! Is it me or is gelato in Argentina way too sweet, at least the dulce de leche and chocolate mouse versions were, I couldn’t eat more than half of them. We shopped our way back to the hotel along Florida street for souvenirs and I bought a mate gourd with a straw. We stopped into a mall where we saw a huge Christmas tree decorated with 7,000 Swarovski crystal snowflake ornaments. A sparkling masterpiece!

After that it was back to the airport to head home on New Years Eve. Everyone on the plane clapped briefly when the clock struck 12, but then went back to watching their movies or went to sleep.

Next visit will be Bariloche, Mendoza and more Buenos Aires.

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