Wednesday, December 12, 2007

El Calafate

It's a mild but overcast early summer day in El Calafate, but having contracted bronchitis I'm pretty much spending the day indoors before I head for El Chaltén tomorrow afternoon.

When I first visited El Calafate in 1990, it was known as the gateway to the world-famous Moreno Glacier--it still is, of course--and one of Argentina's worst tourist traps, with particularly shameless merchants who expected to make a year's income in two short months (the January-February high season). At that time, after local banks closed on Friday afternoon, the merchants changed money only at rates highly disadvantageous to visitors--a dollar would buy 10,000 australs (the currency at the time) at the bank, but only 9,000 from any merchant who condescended to change your money. Service was almost unheard of--at one restaurant, the owner wanted to charge me for two beers after I asked him (quietly) to replace one that arrived with a fly in it.

All that's changed over the last 17 years as the town has grown and matured. Of course, the fact that foreigners can get money from ATMs and a formal exchange house helps, but the quality of services here has improved dramatically. There are hostels now that are better than the best hotels were then, and a boom of upscale hotel building has created some of Argentina's top accommodations, both in style and price (of course). An influx of immigrants from Buenos Aires and elsewhere has improved and diversified the dining scene and, although there are still tourist-trap souvenir shops, there's also some sophisticated shopping. That said, there's not much to see in the town itself, and El Chaltén is a better base for active travelers--however spectacular the Moreno Glacier, which some speculate might rupture next year, it's mostly for passive tourists.

While El Calafate may no longer be the ripoff capital it once was--after I had written that the late tourism director Mariano Besio assured me that "we're trying to do better" and indeed they have--it's no longer the cheap destination it was after the 2002 devaluation. Generally, though, you get good value for money.

I'll be heading to El Chaltén tomorrow afternoon, but my bronchitis won't permit me to do the hiking I had hoped. I may not even be able to add to this blog, as Internet access is limited there.

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