If I were to tell you about a city named Strawberry, you’d be forgiven for your mockery and sniggers. And yet, when a name has a Spanish flair, rolling emphatically off the tongues of proud Patagonians, it sounds altogether more intriguing. The adorable little town of El Calafate serves as a base for most tourists heading towards the impossibly splendid Perito Moreno Glacier. Its name is derived from the Calafate berry, a local traditional berry, blue in colour and slightly tart. Myth suggests that those who eat the Calafate berry will one day return to Patagonia and this was all the evidence I needed to start sampling.
The novelty that this quirky anecdote has for tourists has not gone unnoticed by local traders with shops on every corner selling everything from Calafate jam and ice cream to Calafate chocolates; after an initial taster, my suitcase quickly went from overweight to obese, stuffed with these souvenirs. It is becoming a bit of a ritual of mine to buy specialty teas from my trips – this is entirely unintentional as I drink tea occasionally rather than habitually but I think it was the tea factory hotel in Sri Lanka that was the turning point. I honestly didn’t think it would be an issue on this trip as I’d never known of the Argentinians or Brazilians being famed for tea. But in Patagonia, tee manzana (apple tea) is almost more prevalent than water and the rest is….well the rest is sitting in my larder. You had me at apple.
The Best Restaurants in El Calafate
The town itself is quite small with a disproportionate number of restaurants all aimed at the tourist market. With little, wooden, rustic buildings, it had a similar feel to Zermatt, Switzerland, if a little more man-made. I cannot stress highly enough how helpful it is to book ahead if there is a specific restaurant you have in mind. The popular ones are easy to spot (as are the bad ones) and considering most people are returning from the same excursions at roughly the same times, you can see the potential for waits.
Pumpkin knows better than to risk the wrath of his wife when she is cold and hungry so all our bookings were done in advance with the exception of the fabulous Viva La Pepa Crepes, where the sugarcraft artwork really hallmarks the crepes. We kept things local by opting for a Patagonian lamb crepe with cream cheese, honey, rosemary and mint to share for mains and a delicious apple crepe with Calafate ice cream to finish.
La Tablita and Isabel – Cocina al Disco are great options for those looking for delicious food with an informal atmosphere minus the price tag. The “discos”, which are the specialty of the house, are essentially huge casseroles – the honey mustard chicken was our choice and we couldn’t even finish one between the two of us. It comes with a generous half loaf of bread with a knife wedged in the middle. No seriously.
La Tablita is an excellent-value parilla (Argentine grill-style restaurants,) serving authentic cuisine. My Patagonian trout was nice enough with perhaps one too many bones to fish out (sorry for the awful pun) but I enjoyed my Pumpkin mash (the nickname’s now so engrained that I forget it was an actual vegetable long before my husband got tagged with the label.) Pumpkin himself highly recommended his grilled lamb and fries with white wine, parsley and garlic.
The Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary
A stroll along the main street in El Calafate on our first day took little more than a meagre 20 minutes, allowing us ample time to browse the Laguna Nimez bird sanctuary. One of my good friends, a biology teacher, will tell me off for feeling almost embarrassed that we were bird watching. But for 45 Pesos per person and an afternoon to pass, it seemed worth a punt.
As it turned out, we could count on one hand the number of bird species we saw – perhaps they just weren’t there that day or perhaps our binoculars need upgrading, as we spotted some fabulous close-up bird photos on the laptops of fellow travellers the following evening. The lakeside scenery, though, was in itself worth a visit, the ambience so serene that we had actually forgotten it was about the birds. The lucent blue waters glistened under the low sun, pristine and with tones of jade that took me back to the Maldives.
The terrain beneath our feet varied rapidly in texture from small, gravely and superficial to a thickened, dense, yellow sand by the edge of the lake, where my calves met with resistance. The grass, where there was any, was barren with scanty tufts of long straggly wheat-like crops, as if shaving brushes had been embedded in the soil, doted around the sanctuary. Some interesting foliage and fauna can be seen here with numerous daisy bushes resembling lollipops, where the delicate “loves-me, loves-me-not” petals had been swept away by the blustery winds that were commonplace in Patagonia.
Thinking I could get away without a pair of trainers at the sanctuary was an ill-thought out move, as the varying textures of soil commanded a more sensible shoe. Patagonia in Autumn was not much different to a cold October day in England but you need at the very least, a scarf, sunglasses, ,a sensible pair of shoes and a waterproof. In the distance, we spotted flamingoes, ducks and a large vulture. If you own a super zoom lens, this would be the place to bring it.
The bird sanctuary is just a brief walk away from the main town area and quite reasonably priced so once you have tired of your share of jam and wool shops, venture down here to be at one with nature.
Have you come across any cities or towns with unusual names?
Part of the #SundayTraveler Link Up