El Chalten, El Calafate, and onwards on Ruta 40
Drawing upon my many years of technical experience as a Marketing Coordinator for the lovely VSUW, I have provided you with a high tech map of my route. Rebecca, are you proud?? Beto and Corrinna, I couldn´t figure out the whole editing in Paint...as usual.
I left Bariloche at 7 am, just when all the bars were letting out streams of loud young people. The sun was just coming up over the mountainous cordillera of Bariloche and it was absolutely beautiful…and cold. Thankfully, I had bought not one but TWO ski jackets from the thrift store down the street so I was able to burrow myself in. The minivan that was to take me for a 2 day journey toward the south squeaked down the street. It was a block of rusty metal with two bullet holes in the windshield. The first bullet hole was at the eye level of the driver, and the second was at the eye level of the passenger (in case he felt left out). Neither party looked too concerned.
We boarded the limo and headed down the infamous and unpaved Ruta 40, which actually goes all the way from north of Salta (very northern Argentina) to the very southern tip of the continent, Ushuaia, a mere 4,000 km from the South Pole. Once out of the city, we were pretty much in the middle of vast, endless plains, with snowcapped mountains looming over the horizon. The whole ride was bumpy on gravel and mud, and at many points, we drove on the ditch of the road because it was smoother. After a few hours, our only companions were packs of wild horses, condors, hundreds of guanacos (relative of the llama) and the occasional roadrunner, (which for the record can run pretty damn fast when there´s a rusty minivan with bullet holes barreling toward it…but it doesn´t say meep meep, sorry Navoosh). I made the mistake of befriending a Swiss/Italian girl who insisted on keeping me updated about her digestive problems for the whole trip. That night, we camped out at the “city” of Perito Moreno, a dusty one street town. The next morning, we headed out to Cueva de Las Manos (Cave of the Hands), the archaeological jewel of Patagonia (southern region of Argentina). It is a collection of handprints, geometric figures, and drawings of guanacos on a side of a mountain that are believed to be 9,000 years old. The drawings were made with guanaco blood and calafate berry juice. Yum! To see the drawings, visit this place http://www.patagonia.com.ar/santacruz/cuevamanos.php. I met Orin, an Israeli hitchhiking his way around the continent. In true Israeli style, he kept insisting that the site was a fake, yelling “how do you say STENCIL in Spanish?!?” but lordy lord, I believe it. After that, dusty and content, we continued down Ruta 40 the whole day until we finally reached the town of El Chalten at 11 pm.
El Chalten, another one-dusty-road town, was actually not dusty at all, but rather under 8 feet of mud, because it just wouldn´t stop raining…EVER. The plan was to hike up Fitz Roy, an incredible mountain with rivers and glaciers, one of the most panoramic treks in Patagonia, but when we woke up the next day, rain and mud and mud and rain. Not just that but also fog and 50 mph winds, howling like a tornado, it took 30 minutes to walk down the one road because the winds were so strong. I had befriended some really good folks, two hilarious Irish girls named Clare and Siofra, so we spent the day visiting the one chocolaterie in town, playing cards and eating…well…chocolate of course. Any day which involves chocolate is a good day, I think. Chalten is overrun by Israeli backpackers so we learned the Israeli card game that is currently taking the backpacking world by storm, Yaniv. Very addictive. I also hung about a nice Argentian couple, Fito, a forensic pathologist and Miriam, a librarian, who decided to adopt me as their own, with Fito lecturing me about the dangers of travel and Miriam giving me perfumy kisses and empanada recipes. The next day, we had had enough of the rain so we set out for Fitz Roy anyway, me, Clare, Siofra, and a grumpy philosophy PhD student named Igor. It was sunny and beautiful for the first 3 hours of the trek, we marveled at our luck, drank from the river, took nice pictures of the far off icy plains and then all of a sudden, BOOM, the storm of all storms. Monsoon rain, howling winds, the whole shebang. We were one hour from the top (not of the mountain, mind you, just one of its peaks. I´m not that hard core), at the refuge camp, and just had to turn around lest we get blown off into the abyss. The journey down was hard but Siofra and Clare brightened it up in their usual way by trying to teach me Irish rebel songs. I know it´s English but I had no idea what those two were saying so I resorted to keeping the beat by energetically clapping my hands all the way down (which also helped keep them warm). We finally returned to the hostel 8 hours later, soaking wet and cold and very thankful for the hot chicken soup.
The next morning, Clare, Siofra, Igor, and I boarded a bus for El Calafate, 5 hours south and more “cosmopolitan” than our lovable one-horse town. We arrived at hostel America del Sur, a big open space of a thing with heated hardwood floors and huge bay windows facing the wonderfully blue lake, Lago Argentino. The reason people come to El Calafate is to see El Perito Moreno, the most famous glacier on the continent and one of the few accessible by land. Well, it turned out that the week we arrived was the week the glacier was supposed to BREAK. This happens only once in a decade. When we arrived, the hostel was desolate because everyone had headed out to the glacier, hoping to witness the momentous event. We quickly booked a bus and headed out.
I have never seen a glacier in my life and it is one of the most incredible sights. Perito Moreno is 20 km long, 4 km wide, and 120 meters high. It is a surface of thousands of 20-story high icy peaks, white and blue and turquoise, that change color with the sun and the rain. There are icebergs floating all around it, which Clare aptly called “Nature´s Margarita”. When you first arrive upon it, you´re left speechless. We took a boat out to the bay that gets within 30 meters of the glacier. Because a large part of the glacier was about to break, chunks of ice (weighing several tons each, some the size of houses) were falling rapidly off the glacier. Every 3 minutes or so, you would see this huge piece of ice fall off into the water and then 4 seconds after, there would be a huge thundering noise all around the valley. It was absolutely amazing. We stayed there in the frigid cold with the news cameras until 8 pm and then we had to leave on the last bus out. The glacier broke 3 hours later. Apparently, there were only a dozen or so people there to witness it. Ahh…nature does not follow tourist visiting hours J To see El Perito Moreno, visit this page. http://www.argentour.com/PeritoMorenoe.htm
Days 3 and 4 in El Calafate were spent walking around, eating calafate berry ice cream (tastes like a mix of lemon and cherries), and trying with no success to keep Clare and Siofra from buying up every “indigenous” piece of art in the ritzy downtown area (Siofra bought something that ended up being made in China). On our last night, we visited Nibepo Aike, an Argentinian estancia (ranch) nestled on the border of Argentina and Chile. We sat by the fire in front of a window overlooking the sun setting against Lago Argentino, snowpeaked mountains, and a sliver of the Perito Moreno glacier. We then went out for a horseride by the lake, which was a major event for me because I´ve been scared of horses ever since the infamous Italian horseriding incident of 99 (Melissa and me in the middle of a ranch in northern Italy, her champion stallion sees a dog and gallops off, throwing her off into a mud puddle) but Octubre was very well behaved and even let me pet his hair. We watched the gauchos (cowboys) shear a fuzzy sheep and ended the night with a big dinner with a French Canadian couple and a Spanish girl who did the dubbing voice for Ann Hathaway in the spanish version of Brokeback Mountain. The dinner was a typical estancia asado of beef, sausage, and cordero (lamb). They spread the lamb carcass over an opèn fire pit and let it cook and smoke for hours. I know I swore off asados but this was my absolute last one. For real this time.
The next day, I bid Clare and Siofra farewell (back to Ireland for them!) and caught the 4 am bus to Ushuia, the southernmost city in the world, where los penguinos and Antarctica and the Beagle Channel all hang out. The 18 hour journey consisted of 3 buses, 4 border crossings, and one very rocky boat ride across the stormy strait of Magellan, but that´s all in the next entry. (Is that building up suspense? Huh?? Huh?? I need to work on those endings...)