El Calafate–El Chalten

“Booked into the Calafate Hostel. I was looking for a dorm room to stay in. Somehow I got stuck in a double with a lone German–a 40 year old man, boozed up and reeking of cigarettes. His first observation once I met him was that I didn’t have a tent. How did he know such a thing? Was he ruffling through my bag after his 8th beer? He then proceeded to give me an airline safety demonstration of his tent, taking it out from under his bed and showing it to me. He explained how it fits 2 and suggested that since I was alone, I should join him on his hiking trip. I haven’t been back to my room since.”

He continued drinking then snored all night like a huffalump. I was up at 6am and out of the room. I sprung out of bed. Usually I’m terrible at waking up, but I was excited to get as far away from this man as possible.

“Calafate looks like a western frontier town. It had one tree lined high street, the rest just looked like cubes that were arbitrarily thrown onto the plain, the way lego bricks tumble out of a box onto the floor. Except this wasn’t a very big lego box. Just a small one. The flat-topped mountains in the background look like they were designed for the woman who will be coming around the mountain when she comes. Yee-haw.”

The first thing I did when I arrived in Calafate was visit a bird sanctuary. It was really windy and pretty cold. But there were flamingos and other really unique birds flopping around. I was surprised to learn that flamingos set up shop in the Patagonian plains. I’ve always thought of them as residing exclusively in Lakes of Africa. A pleasant surprise, surely.

The next day I did a day long tour of Perito Moreno Glacier. The Glacier is an extension off the second largest ice sheet on the planet, second only after Antarctica. Perito Moreno is the most popular of the 47 glaciers that extend off of the Patagonic Continental Ice sheet. PM is incredibly accessible and is so staggeringly large and expansive that an impressive tourism infrastructure has profited off it. Off of the continental sheet, 13 glaciers melt into giant lakes towards the Patagonian desert. The tens of thousands of year-old ice melts into a beautiful turquoise blue and flows into small streams and rivers which cut the desert and eventually flow out into the Atlantic.

The ice field is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.

The park is about an hour and a half from Calafate. I took a bus to a ferry dock, got an up-front and personal look at the glacier on boat, returned to the designed walkways on the cliffs facing the expansive glacier, then returned back to town. Half of the walkways were shut down because the glacier had been calving and massive blocks off ice were tumbling dangerously close to where spectators could hypothetically stand. There were opportunities to walk on top of the ice, but in no means was that cheap, so I passed it off.

That afternoon, I caught a bus to El Chalten. Chalten is dubbed the hiking capital of Argentina. I got there on a three hour bus ride around two of the large glacial lakes. The bus ride was from 7:30 to 10:30, but the sun was hung low in the sky for the whole ride. I arrived in Chalten late that night, spent a night in a hostel, very relieved to see that the German man was not my roommate. I stayed at the Rancho Grande hostel. There, I ran into about four different groups of people I had met at different stages throughout my time in Argentina. The most rewarding encounter was with two Middlebury girls I met out at a bar in BA. They just got off a 3 day trip and gave me their left-overs–a gift box of maple and brown sugar oatmeal, peanut butter!!!, a slew of delicious energy bars, powdered coffee, and toilet paper. They have no idea how happy these gifts made me. Really happy. I got up the next day and rented a tent and a stove, ready to go and spend the night at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy, the tallest mountain in Patagonia. Heres what I wrote at my campsite, reflecting on the previous two days:

“I’m sitting on a sandy patch of land in Parque Nacional de los Glaciares. Its 6pm but the sun is still high in the sky here in the deep south of Patagonia. Mount Fitz Roy is a kilometer from me, towering up in the sky as the tallest mountain in Patagonia. It is marvelous to be sitting here in a cozy patch of soft sand with the warmth of the sun and a cool breeze. Like all of my hiking days in the Andes, today was spectacular. I hiked with Victor, my seat mate on the tour from El Calafate to Perito Moreno Glacier. Victor is a great, unabashed guy from Barcelona. We traded off, taking turns practicing Spanish/English as we hiked up to the spectacular lakes at the foot of the Fitz. As he left my campsite to hike back to Chalten he said, ‘Thanks for making my travels better.'”

“Perito Moreno was amazing. I kept it simple by taking an hour long boat ride and walking the ready prepared trail. No glaciar walking…too expensive. The glacier is staggering. Not only are the 60 meter faces, but the whole thing extends into the horizon, through a valley that the glacier itself carved through a string of mountains. Every once in a while, you’d hear a massive rumbling, louder than if there was a thunder-strike right above you. You’d look out over the ice expecting to see a significant chunk of the glacier falling into the lake triggering a tidal surge. I’d look out wide-eyed expecting to see the beginning of the world end, but be disappointed by barely noticing boulder sized chunks, which looked like pebbles in contrast to the sheer size of the glacier. Just the pebbles falling off the top would cause the ground to shake. The ice was very much alive: cracking, crumbling, and even roaring at unknown and unpredicted intervals. ”

“The bus between Calafate and Chalten was a gorgeous ride through the desert. Alpaca were hopping over fences and running off into the sun, there were turquoise rivers cutting the sandy desert, the sun was piercing through the window of the bus refusing to set. I’m at the bottom of the world, and I feel it.”

That night camping out alone was brilliant. I got to sit out, listen to the wind and watched the clouds that just hung over Fitz Roy. I cooked myself a pasta dinner and watched the mountain. That evening, clouds beheaded the top of Fitz, but couldn’t ever pass over it. The mountain was an impenetrable barrier.

Image 6
A day in the life: solo hiking. Campsite. Peanut Butter & Glaciers. Books. Relief. Built a home. Sweet smells of home.

The next day, I got up early and went on a hike through the wilderness to find a hanging glacier hugging a rocky ridge. I climbed up a mountain to observe it only to find a raw, wind-swept terrain. I couldn’t stand up without getting knocked over, so I had to lodge myself up against a rock behind me so that I didn’t fall off the mountain. Brilliant stuff. I was the only person up there, an eerily isolating feeling. I was staring down a natural force that outdates dinosaurs. The thought was sickening and in that isolation, my imagination started taking control. I pictured an earthquake ripping up the mountain beneath me and sending me into a molten magma crevasse, I thought the giant rocks would get set into motion by the wind and flatten me like a looney toon, then I worried that the glacier would slip off its millenium-old perch and add me to its records of time. I wasn’t ready for that–yet–so I went back down to camp to pack up and hit the road.

After returning my gear, I found a place that made a banana, avocado, and honey milkshake. My favorite thing.

That evening, I took the bus back to Calafate, booked a bus to Puerto Natales, Chile, then found a hostel for the night. Here are my notes from the bus back. I asked for a seat right up front so I could watch the desert.

  • Condor drags carcass of road kill off the road, fearless of the bus hurtling towards it.
  • Desert. Fences. Nothing but a road.
  • Dead alpaca caught on a barbed wire fence. Head and hind legs intact with fur, ribs are exposed, eaten from the inside out. Preyed on by the desert.
  • Sandy plain, snow capped mountains in the mist.

In Calafate, there was a street dog that I was particularly fond of. This dog was a bundle of energy. He wouldn’t ever stop doing what it loved to do. His favorite activity, in the whole wide world was to wait on the street until a car came by. The dog would run next to the car, barking at it. The dog would then get a step on the car and stick its head out in front of the bumper and try to bite the tire. Right before the dog would get smushed, he would dip out and run back to the starting position. Time after time after time. I stood on the curb and watched this pup do this over fifteen times in a row. It was homeless, but knew how to have a damn good time. Fearless.

At this point in my trip, I only had 60 pesos (6 dollars) and 50 US dollars in cash to get my through Argentinian Tierra Del Fuego. I knew that was going to turn out to be a problem, but not something to worry about for now. I was heading to Chile, a country without the same currency controls so I would be able to use my debit card, rather than just rely on cash that I had exchanged a world away in Buenos Aires.

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