Monday, March 17th:
We woke at 3am (uggh!), checked out of our hotel, and took a cab to nearby Aeroparque Jorge Newberry to catch our 5:45am flight to El Calafate. On the very fast taxi ride we got our first, but by no means last, taste of the strange enmity between Argentina and Chile, when our driver asked about our itinerary, and when we said we were going to Chile from El Calafate, he shook his head, frowned, and implied that it is an awful, unsafe place (which is quite the opposite from our experiences there!).
Black-faced Ibis / Bandurria Austral
The flight to El Calafate was an uneventful 3.5-hour one (with, you guessed it, a ham and cheese sandwich served as the meal!), and we arrived, stepping out onto the tarmac to be greeted by a blast of the famed Patagonian winds. Although I’d arranged through our hotel for a ride from the airport, nobody greeted us, so we took a remise (a private, unmetered taxi, in which you agree to the trip rate before departing). El Calafate’s airport is located about 20 minutes south of the town, on the shores of Lake Argentina, an extremely long glacial lake that stretches for 30+ miles to the base of the Andes, where several large glaciers feed into it. Between our broken Spanish and our driver’s broken English, we managed to converse a bit about the history and features of the area, and before long we were at our hotel for the next three days, Kau Yatun Hotel de Campo.
South American Snipe / Becasina Común
Checkin was easy and painless, as we were greeted with a Pisco Sour (OK, so 10am is maybe a little early for a drink, but hey, it was offered!), filled out a couple of forms, and were shown our room. The hotel has very nice common areas, with big wood beams, a lovely rough bar, and elegant seating area. Our room was pretty no-frills, however, with blank walls. No matter — we didn’t come to Patagonia to spend time indoors!
Southern Lapwing / Tero Común
After settling in we walked around the grounds a little bit. The lawn next to the main building proved pretty birdy, and we quickly saw Black-faced Ibis (LIFER!), Southern Lapwing (LIFER!), Upland Goose (LIFER!), and South American Snipe (LIFER!). The Southern Lapwings were particularly beautiful, and have quite a loud call when disturbed (as these often were by semi-feral dogs).
Since we’d had a full day and good night’s sleep in Buenos Aires, we weren’t very tired, so we walked to downtown El Calafate, about 15 minutes from our hotel, to check it out. Just outside downtown we popped into a nice crepe place, Viva la Pepa, and had a tasty lunch (I’ll post separately later on about restaurants we ate at on this trip), then moseyed through the stores, many of which were closed for siesta-time. El Calafate was considerably larger and more developed than I’d expected. With a high-season population of around 20,000, the downtown drag is full of shops selling outdoor gear, artisinal products, souveniers, and many tour operators. There’s also a mind-bendingly-ugly casino smack in the middle of the main street.
Laguna Nimez & the Andes mountains
This seemed like a good time to check out El Calafate’s Laguna Nimez, so we walked to the shores of Lake Argentina, following the signs for the lagoon, and paid our AR$2/ea (aboutUS$0.60) entrance and got a map, which the lady at the desk marked up with the current trail closures, as the water was high, and the trail submerged in many places.
Red Shoveler / Pato Cuchara
Unfortunately we picked up 3 canine companions almost immediately, and they followed us around for our whole walk. This would have been cute, but having 3 semi-feral dogs around us didn’t help the birding one bit!
Yellow-billed Pintail / Pato Maicero, with chicks
The water-birding was pretty good, although the time of day had the light in the wrong place for much good photography. We soon saw Black-necked Swans (LIFER!), Red Shovelers (LIFER!), more Southern Lapwings, Black-faced Ibis, and Upland Geese, Chiloe Wigeons (LIFER!), and Yellow-billed Pintail (LIFER!).
We had to zig-zag a fair bit to avoid the flooded areas of the trail, and the whole place had an unpleasant smell of feces, thanks I suppose, to El Calafate’s large population of free-roaming dogs. As we got closer to the dunes separating the lagoon from Lake Argentina, however, the smell subsided, as did the winds.
Rufous-collared Sparrow / Chingolo
After walking to the shores of Lake Argentina at the dunes, we headed back the way we came – Laguna Nimez is a loop hike when waters are lower, but not on this day! Here I got my first look at a wonderful common ground bird in these parts, the Chestnut-collared Sparrow (LIFER!). A little patience yielded a couple of nice photos of this lovely little bird.
Red-fronted Coot / Gallareta Escuedete Rojo
I spotted a coot in the distance, and a little scanning found all 3 Patagonian coot species: Red-gartered Coot (LIFER!), White-winged Coot (LIFER!), and Red-fronted Coot (LIFER!).
As we finished our walk, I lost a screw in my eyeglasses, so our mission for the next hour was to find an optician. Although this entailed waiting in line at the world’s slowest pharmacy, and being directed up the road to an optician that was on siesta until 4:30, I got them repaired, and how – not only did they replace the missing screw, they replaced the remaining ones with Lock-tite’d screws, gave me new nose pads, and cleaned everything up nicely. This and a repair kit set me back only AR$40.
Glasses repaired, we stopped in at one of the many, many travel agencies in town and booked a bus trip to Glaciar Perito Moreno for the following day, then returned to the hotel.
The bar at Kau Yatun
Back at Kau Yatun, we partook of happy hour, then ate at the hotel’s restaurant, which was good, but at AR$300 for the two of us, rather expensive! A bottle of excellent Argentine Malbec at AR$30 (US$10) took much of the sting out, however 🙂 Sated, and glad that the major travel part of our trip was over, we retired at around 11pm.
Part 1: Getting to Patagonia
Part 2: El Calafate & Laguna Nimez <– You are here!
Part 3: Glaciar Perito Moreno
Part 4: El Calafate backcountry excursion
Part 5: Goodbye Argentina, hello Chile
Part 6: To Torres del Paine!
Part 7: Lago Pehoe and Paine Grande
Part 8: Mirador los Cuernos
Part 9: To Rio Verde and Punta Arenas
Part 10: Pelagic, Penguins, and farewell to Patagonia
Part 11: To Buenos Aires!
Part 12: BsAs’ Sunday markets and other diversions
Part 13: Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Part 14: Buenos Aires’ Jardin Botanico and Costanera Sur
Part 15: There’s no place like home