El Calafate – Sleepy Town meets Minnie Mouse

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El Calafate, avenida San Martin.  Courtesy of HeretiqOur flight from Ushuaia to El Calafate, Argentina, was like crossing over into another world, another culture altogether. The land was barren and desolate compared to the wild backdrop of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. The lakes were turquoise milk, cloudy with glacial sediment, but they were surrounded by dry gray and mustard-colored bushes that huddled close to the ground to get out of the wind.

As we drove by taxi from the small airport into El Calafate, passing the fields of parched grass contrasted against the clear cool blue of the sky, my friend Ellen commented that it looked more like the end of the world than Ushuaia did and I agreed. Unlike Ushuaia, I couldn’t imagine anyone living in the distance between the mountains or at the shore of the lake. This was the end of the world with no Antarctica on the other side. Although there were roads and houses scattered across the hillside in the distance, there were no signs of life and the narrow highway was completely empty. Every few miles a shrine with a picture of the Virgin Mary surrounded by rocks stood out against the sand-colored mountains, but each seemed to represent someone who once cared but had long forgotten.

Eventually the tiny city came into view. We drove down a dusty gravel road to our hostel and moved into our bare, wood-paneled room before walking around the town. It looked like it was built over night. The one main street resembled a Colorado ski town with its buildings of stained wood and shops of glass trinkets and Argentine jewelry, but the rest was dirt roads. Lanky backpackers wandered alongside native Indians and everyone was dusty and exhausted-looking. El Calafate was simply a stop over for tourists who wanted to visit the glaciers; people stayed the night here, left their trash and shook off their dirty clothes, and moved on to the next place.

We were stuck there for four days, stranded in the middle of high tourist season without a bus ticket or cheap flight up to north to Bariloche, our next planned destination. Ellen and I didn’t have an opportunity to connect with the cultural character of El Calafate until the last night when we decided to go to a dingy bar near our hostel. We had avoided the bar before because of the Argentine men perpetually standing in front of the dim neon sign and beckoning us inside. But it was costume night. Teenaged girls dressed as Minnie Mouse or cheerleaders huddled in the bathroom primping before heading out to dance around the tables to American music. Ellen and I ordered Capirinhias — a sweet drink made from Brazilian rum — and sang the familiar songs while the girls flirted with the costumed guys. Soon Minnie Mouse offered to paint our cheeks with hearts. While she got to work with the face paint, we asked her questions about El Calafate. “I visit my grandparents here every summer because it’s so much fun! There’s always something to do here and never anything to do in my hometown.”

To Ellen and me, El Calafate was the dullest place we visited. The nightlife faded by two in the morning — early by Argentine standards — and people packed the bus station, trying to get to another city. No tourist we encountered voluntarily stayed a day longer than necessary in El Calafate. Nevertheless, for Minnie the town was a bustling and exciting hotspot. Tourists brought variety and flirted with the beautiful Argentineans while the bars and a pool hall attracted all the local teenagers. Our expectations of a well-developed city-town like Ushuaia distorted our perceptions; were it not for Minnie we would have been completely unaware of the excited buzz surrounding small-town Argentina.

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