El Calafate is a cute town and it seems to be thriving! It reminded me of the quaint shopping areas of Sedona, Arizona and other popular hike/ski resort towns. According to the locals we spoke with a lot of the restaurants and shops are on the newer side of things as tourism has increased. It’s not too big and spending a couple of days here would keep you busy, especially if you’re off to see the Perito Moreno Glacier (more on that in a different post!). I really liked El Calafate and we had a great first Argentinian meal at La Zaina, one of the more popular restaurants in town. We didn’t have a reservation (would probably recommend it) and walked in around 6:30 pm and got seated in the back. The highlights here were the steak and the lamb braised in Malbec sauce. I am not a huge fan of lamb (I find it to be too gamey for me) but the lamb here didn’t have that texture/aroma that usually puts me off.
We only spent one night in El Calafate and stocked up on some snacks to bring with us to our bus ride to Puerto Natales the next morning. As I mentioned in a prior post, we took Cootra down to Puerto Natales and the ride was smooth and easy. We left at 7:30 am from El Calafate, got to the border around noon, and the entire security check on both sides and border crossing took about an hour. There are clean bathrooms on the Chilean side of the security check, none on the Argentinian side. And the Chilean side is the only side where they scan everyone’s luggage (yep, gotta take all your bags with you off the bus). From there, the bus ride to Puerto Natales was another 45 min. or so.
Ironically, if you look at the map, if they created new roads the drive from El Calafate to Puerto Natales could be much shorter! And if they created more roads near the border of Torres del Paine, Chile and Argentina, you would never have to pass through Puerto Natales, which is more further south. But, this probably won’t happen for years, if it happens at all. It’s probably for the best though as I don’t think the park could handle the influx of large tourists.
Puerto Natales is much smaller than El Calafate, and though it’s not as built up yet, I was impressed but some of the new buildings and designs flickering around town. We had two great meals when we arrived in Puerto Natales, one at Kawesqar Cafe and the other at Santolla (which means king crab). Since we got into town around 2 pm, we had a late lunch and got the meat platter which was freshly grilled for us at Kawesqar and included everything from chicken, steak, blood sausages to potatoes.
After our protein-rich meal, we walked around town and then went to our briefing at the offices of Chile Nativo to meet our trekking guides and the rest of our group. Yes, Chile Nativo does exist! It’s always a bit apprehensive to book with a tour operator you can’t find much information on but they were really great to organize with and I can’t recommend them enough.
Afterwards we walked down to the lake to check out views of Torres del Paine from afar. Excitement ran through my veins as I thought about what the next few days in this park would bring.
Our hotel for our first and last night in Puerto Natales was at Hotel Vendaval. The staff here is so friendly and leaving our luggage here while we were in the park was safe. Love the shipping container structure. There’s also a rooftop bar which was great to hang out in at night. You must try Chilean wine! It’s called Carménère. I didn’t discover it until our last day in Chile when the bartender at the hotel served it to me and now I’m sad I could’ve been asking for it every night while we were in the park too. It wasn’t as common in Argentina. It’s a nice red wine, different and seemed lighter than Malbec.
Our ‘light’ dinner at at Santolla, which is known for all the king crab dishes. So cozy and modern inside. The highlights were the seafood stew and the crab meat (there are different variations you can get). Too bad we were so full from lunch as I wish we got to try more dishes.
One last thing about Puerto Natales/Chile in general—where has merken been all my life??? It’s a special spice only produced in Chile. It’s like paprika, but smokier and a bit spicier. If you like spices, pick up some merken in Chile before you leave! We found a few locally made ones in the Puerto Natales supermarket as well as a commercially produced one at the international duty free shop at Terminal C in EZE for $5 USD. I don’t think it’s carry in the U.S. at all and would make for a great souvenir.
I had very low expectations in terms of the quality of food in El Calafate and Puerto Natales but everything we tried in the restaurants we checked out was so good. Wish we had a little bit more time to explore but I think the amount of time we had was sufficient for both.
We ended up doing the Perito Moreno Glacier tour from El Chalten (since we were heading there) but recommend people stay two days if you want to check that out. We saw the glacier after our 5 day trek and both were incredible to see but for different reasons which I’ll discuss later!