In Patagonia, Part 3
Puerto Natales was actually much nicer and quainter than it seemed from the boat, but its tree-lined avenues of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and outdoor equipment stores had a decidedly abandoned feel to them, as the town's largest, itinerant population - the tourists - had fled north in the wake of Torres del Paine's forced closure. We found a notice fluttering in the breeze, stapled to our hostel's door, like a wild west wanted poster. It proclaimed that by decree of the President of Chile, at least part of Torres del Paine National Park would open by Wednesday, January 4th - two days hence. We were a bit skeptical. None of the staff at Hostal Nancy spoke English; despite my finally advancing Spanish skills, I couldn't get much information about the national park out of them.
We headed to Erratic Rock Hostel, widely considered the unofficial authority on all things TdP. Bill, the Oregon-born proprieter, minced no words. "Well it's dumb as hell that they're even considering opening already," he opined. "It's clearly all about money. This town is scared stiff about what happens if the Torres del Paine money dries up, and the government is responding to that." He noted that this was the second major fire in six years - another tourist inadvertently set a huge fire in 2006 - and so far as Bill was concerned, the rush to reopen TdP proved the authorities had learned nothing from either event. He doubted very much whether the French Valley would be open the first day, and in any event waiting until Wednesday would give us one night in the park. We decided to follow the herd north into Argentina, and immediately bought two of the few remaining bus tickets a nearby travel agency.
But before leaving Puerto Natales, we reunited with our shipmates for dinner at the Pizzeria Mesita Grande near the Plaza de Armas. Fabien, Tanja, Su-Anne, Uli, and Tobias were all there, & we had a wonderful time talking, eating, & drinking once more. We traded final goodbyes in the fading twilight as we walked back to our respective hostels after 11pm.
It was a short night, for the bus picked us up at Hostal Nancy at 7am the next morning. The normal bus tickets north were sold out for several days, so we had joined a daytrip to the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina with the intention of being dropped off at our destination, El Calafate Argentina, on the return leg to Puerto Natales. Our friend Uli was coming along on the daytrip, although he was returning to Pto. Natales that night. After looping around town picking up other daytrippers, the bus set off to the northwest, following Sono Ultima Esperanza for a while before climbing into the windcarved amber hills. The smoke from the fires hung thick, and we never did glimpse the Torres through the haze though we passed nearby. As we approached the Argentina border, the landscape reminded me a great deal of eastern Montana. Once the passport formalities were complete, we proceeded into Calafate, and then onwards to Perito Moreno.
Neither words nor pictures are sufficient to describe how magnificent the Perito Moreno glacier is. It was captivating; we could have spent all day simply watching and listening as it constantly calved off icebergs the size of large apartment buildings. It has two faces of three miles and two miles, respectively, and is 180' tall at its terminal base. It splits Argentina's largest lake in two, damming it until one side floods so high that the ice can resist the pressure no more, and the result is a spectacular, cataclysmic rupture every five years or so. There is a great deal of tourism business associated with leading people to, onto, around, and afloat near this glacier, but all this human activity is utterly puny in its shadow. We could have stayed all day, but because we joined this particular tour we had only 45 minutes on the balconies overlooking the east face, and one hour on a catamaran that toured the south face. What a shame.
We didn't linger in Calafate on our return; we purchased groceries and hopped a bus three hours north, to the hardscrabble little town of El Chaltén. This town is only about 25 years old, being hastily erected in the 1980s to give Chile pause regarding any thoughts of eastward expansion. It more recently became a climber's mecca, sitting as it does in the shadow of the famed and feared Fitz Roy Mountain, and more recently still a sort of boho hiker's alternative to Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine. I suspect that our visit saw it at its busiest time ever. The first night, we camped on the crowded grounds of a grubby little hostel and counted ourselves lucky.
The next morning we set out into Los Glaciares National Park, and quickly discovered what's making El Chaltén an increasingly popular destination. The path winded upward and a verdant valley unfolded below in spectacular fashion, its bottom-river shimmering in the morning sunlight. We ground our way up the trail for nearly an hour before topping a ridge, and there it was, the Patagonia label in living color: the majestic Fitz Roy massif. From the overlook, the trail meandered into a wide valley for another hour, at the bottom of which was our destination, the suddenly crowded Poincenot campground.
After pitching our tent, we set off on a dayhike down the nearby Rio Blanca, a glacier-fed north-flowing torrent. The trail was less traveled than that we'd taken from El Calafate, and it rolled and rolicked along the banks, meandering into the trees and out onto the gravel bars. A mile from our campsite, we took a left fork into a side valley, traversing an enormous boulder field marked haphazardly with cairns. Eventually we gave up trying to follow the trail and scrambled our way upward to our destination, Laguna Piedras Blancas. It was a small lake, bounded on all sides by steep rocks and fed by an enormous glacier that peeked over a cliff and regularly dripped ice into the cerulean waters. I put my feet in and lost all feeling within seconds; the water couldn't have been more than one or two degrees above freezing. Fierce williwaws regularly blew down the hillsides and whipped the water into a frenzy, one even nearly pushing me in with its fury. The sky was clouding over, and threatening cumulonimbus peered over the peaks above. We hurriedly scrambled our way back down towards camp. This time it was a false alarm, and we ate our meal in pleasant sunshine and then watched the sun set over Fitz Roy.
The wind came back up through the night and blew ferociously, which is hardly noteworthy in Patagonia except that our tent was positioned near a dead and rotting tree, a fact I scarcely noticed during the day but recalled vividly in my sleeping bag at 2am. I slept fitfully and rose at 6am to look at Fitz Roy and the trail up to Lago de las Tres. I was planning to hike it early to watch the sun rise from the lake, but there was no point as it was clouded over. I went back to bed for another two hours and woke to clearing skies. I ate a quick breakfast, kissed Dawn goodbye - she had no desire to go up and down 1800' of mountainside before our hike out - and set off up the trail. Once across the Rio Blanco, it was a steady upward slog up switchbacks that alternated between clambering over basketball sized rocks and slipping on loose scree. I was to the top an hour after setting out from the campsite, and noted that only a few other people were there although the mountain was clearing off nicely. I talked to an Australian girl who'd been at the top since sunrise and had spent a chilly few hours huddling in the ferocious wind and mist. Now the wind-whipped lake was turning from steely grey to inviting royal blue before our eyes. I scrambled down a scree slope, refilled my canteen, dipped a tentative toe in the water, and abandoned any thought of taking a quick swim. I once skinny-dipped in a high mountain lake in Norway for five minutes and couldn't stop shivering for two hours; this was colder.
By the time I headed back down the trail, the mountain had cleared, the day had warmed appreciably, and hordes of Gore-Texed hikers were grinding their way up the trail. Stopping my descent every twenty feet to let hikers by was exhausting, and it took me longer to come down than go up. I was already sore when I arrived back at camp, but had only ten minutes rest before shouldering my pack and heading down the trail to town; Dawn had broken camp while I was gone. I was a bit disappointed to be leaving the Fitz Roy area after only one night, but it was better than nothing and what we did see was incredible. Actually, some of the very best views of the entire trip were enjoyed on our way out. We kept stopping to turn around and stare.
The trail out was a bit longer than we remembered and I was proper tired by the time we ambled back into El Chalén. We quickly revived ourselves with beef empanadas and a delicious local brown ale at a cute pizzeria/brewpub along the main drag. We had enough time before our bus to El Calafate to sample some ice cream made with that town's namesake berry, the Calafate. I slept solidly for the entire three hour bus ride, waking once near El Calafate to note with satisfaction that Fitz Roy was still visible in the stunningly clear air and warm evening light. The sun was finally beginning to set when we arrived around 10pm. We walked up to the America del Sur Hostel on a mesa overlooking the town from the east, and had just settled into their lounge with a nice Malbec when the cirrus clouds high overhead were suddenly set ablaze by the already-set sun behind the Andes. It was our last night in Patagonia, and it was a fitting sendoff. I hated to leave, it felt like we'd just arrived and there was so much to explore down here. We were a long way from home, though, and I guess the relative inaccessibility of Patagonia is much of its allure.
The next day we were originally supposed to go to Perito Moreno but since we'd already covered that, we spent the day in El Calafate. We should've gone to the glacier. El Calafate is a nice town, mind you, but perhaps a bit too nice in its rebirth as the tourist center of Argentinean Patagonia, a bit too far removed from its not-very-distant gaucho past. It has very much a ski-resort town feel to it despite the absence of any skiing nearby. There's a new casino, though, and lots of high-end condos being built for and sold to wealthy Porteños from Buenos Aires. We walked around, bought some souvenirs for family members - my most recent concession to middle aged, middle class tourist status - and had a fantastic steak dinner at a parilla for about the same price you'd pay at a Chili's in the States. We went back to the hostel and wrote emails, uploaded photos, played cards, and shared one last bottle of Malbec.
And then it was off to the airport, and a crowded MD80 to Buenos Aires. There are a very limited number of flights from Patagonia to the north, and this was one place I wasn't willing to play nonrev lotto; I'd sprung for full-fare tickets, which were about $150 per person a month in advance. I slept most of the three hour flight and awoke in time to see the lights of Buenos Aires as we made our approach around midnight. It was enormous, and reminded me of Los Angeles. We landed at the waterfront Gorge Newbery Airport and took a taxi to the nearby hostel I'd booked online. It turned out to be more of a flophouse than a hostel but the breakfast the next morning was surprisingly good. The coffee in particular was fantastic, a first for the trip.
Our day in Buenos Aires was a whirlwind. We took the metro at the beginning and end, and walked for miles and miles in between. It was a blissfully pleasant day after what had been several weeks of oppressive heat in BA. I liked the city immediately. It's like LA and Miami and Paris rolled into one. Dawn noticed the dirt and noise and pollution and crowds more than I did, and liked it less. We had the same opposite reactions to Bangkok.
We walked the boulevards and peered into churches and waved to some group of about a hundred crazy motorcyclists waving flags and honking their way around the Plaza de Mayo. We browsed open-air farmers and craft markets, lounged in shady squares, ogled leafy streets lined with opulent townhouses, ate street food, cooled off with ice cream on the waterfront, and amusedly observed hordes of worshipful fans kissing the grave of a certain Maria Eva Duarte de Perón...she was lucky to be played by Madonna, I think. And then one sweaty last push through the afternoon crowds to collect our bags, an even hotter ride on the Metro, and a bus to the airport. WidgetCo was completely full, true to form, so we were taking Aerolineas Argentinas to Miami. Or so we thought! One last time my limited grasp of Spanish bit me as we were shuffled between various agents, none of whom seemed to know how to retrieve our listing and all of whom sent us to a different queue that seemed to stand still, with me powerless to explain the situation in terms the agents would understand. We finally got seats 20 minutes before the flight and sprinted through customs and security to make it. We arrived in Miami as the sun rose on a new day, most of which would be spent trying to get back to Minneapolis, ultimately via Detroit.
I really enjoyed this trip, more than I expected. It whet my appetite for South America, but also convinced me I need to get serious about getting fluent in Spanish. Dawn just started graduate classes towards her Master's Degree so we expected this might be our last major trip in a while. Then we both ended up with her Spring Break off at the end of this month, along with our friends Brad and Amber, and a plan was hatched to go back to Thailand, which we visited over Spring Break 2007. So much for taking a break from traveling! But as I always say, going to Thailand is cheaper than staying home. In the meantime, I recently took a very different sort of five day trip, and one I suspect this blog's readers might be more interested in. Stay tuned.