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Making a splash in El Calafate, Argentina

Submitted by on March 4, 2012 – 1:28 am |  
Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – commonly known simply as CFK –recently celebrated her 59th birthday at her multi-million dollar residence in a small Patagonian town of El Calafate. The celebration, still in the shadow of her husband Nestor Kirchner’s recent death from a heart attack, was a small family affair, but it gave an opportunity for some rather vitriolic attacks on CFK in the British press. Such attacks focused on the land and business deals that turned the Kirchners into multi-millionaires,  as well as CFK’s campaign to claim the Falklands – lying only some 400 miles east of El Calafate – as Argentine territory. She was also criticized for having “worn more than 200 different black outfits in the 15 months since [her husband’s] death”, using “science rather than genes” for improving her looks, and engaging in “retail therapy” while on a state visit in Paris.

The connection of the Kirchner family to El Calafate runs deep, as Nestor Kirchner was the governor of Santa Cruz, the province in which El Calafate is located. The residents’ opinions of the Kirchners are highly divided, as the couple’s financial and real estate dealings took away some of the best plots of land from the town residents who wanted to built homes or small businesses. But as governor, Kirchner also built an airport in Calafate in 2000, which allowed the town to further develop its tourism industry, practically its sole font of income. El Calafate’s main street, named after General San Martin, is lined with restaurants, tourist companies, souvenir and jewelry shops, catering to travelers, both Argentineans and foreigners. The latter, include many Israelis, some fresh-from-the-military backpackers, others older tourists, many of them Argentinean-born. There are so many Israeli visitors in El Calafate that some shops carry signs in Hebrew.

But it is neither CFK’s birthday party nor the touristy shops that have attracted an avalanche of visitors to El Calafate in the last few days. According to the town’s mayor, Javier Belloni, an influx of tourists is expected in the next few days, unusual for the early autumn. Hotels and flights to the town are at full capacity, leading the mayor and the president of the national airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, to consider adding more flights. These visitors are coming to El Calafate for an expected rupture of the Perito Moreno Glacier. The glacier, one of 47 on Lago Argentino (“Argentine Lake”), periodically advances over the L-shaped lake, forming a natural dam that breaks the lake into two halves. With no escape route, the water-level on one side of the lake can rise by up to 30 meters above the level of the main lake; eventually, the enormous pressure produced by the dammed water breaks the ice barrier in a spectacular rupture event. These ruptures occur at irregular intervals, ranging from one year to well over a decade. The last such event occurred in July 2008, just eight months after my visit to El Calafate. But even without the rupture, Lago Argentino, with its magnificent blue icebergs, is well worth a visit.

(Thanks to Vitaliy Rayz for taking the pictures linked to in this post. None of these pictures have been “PhotoShopped” – all the colors are authentic!)

Update: The spectacular Perito Moreno rupture happened on Sunday March 4. Some videos of the event can be seen here.


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