I’m in love with Dulce de Leche. I need no mistress in my life. I have Dulce. It’s delectable on toast, bananas, ice cream, apples, and many many other things. I once mixed it with avocado. That was surprisingly off-putting. Not recommended. The girls at Quechequina introduced me to taking full spoonfulls of it. The stomache-wrenching ache you get 10 minutes later is totally worth it. Drinkers deal with headaches after a night out; I’ll deal with bellyaches.
I got back to Buenos Aires yesterday after a 20 hour bus ride across the country. I booked my ticket early, so I was able to claim the best seat on the whole bus. I was on the top deck, in the solo aisle, right above the cockpit. I had a 270 degree view out the front windows to look out over the dust-blown desert, stagnant farm towns of La Pampa and look out at the constellations of the night sky. There are pretty much three segments of the trip back to Buenos Aires. The first part is through the void, the Andes’ rain shadow. Next are expansive farms of La Pampa, and finally, as you cross into the Buenos Aires province, where over 75 percent of the Argentine populous lives, the landscape starts to look inhabited.
This is quite a sight. It’s about two and a half hours east of the Andes in a small desert town.
I’d like to remark on the institution that is Argentine bus travel. Middle to long distance bus travel is much more popular in Argentina than it is in the United States. Most Americans tend to fly with discount plane fairs–or drive themselves– any distance that is over 8 hours by road. Here, cheap flights don’t exist. There are only two airlines that fly domestically. For the majority of people, taking a sleeper bus is the only way to cover ground within the country.
Here are notes from my book:
“At Retiro station–the central bus terminal in Buenos Aires–the departure deck is lined with about 60 double decker coaches that line up and stretch out into the horizon. Perfect for a drawing 1 exercise in perspective.
The station is always filled with a mix of locals, foreigners, rich and poor. All barrios come together. The young the old. It’s a sample size of the country. Walk here through Recoleta, then past the villas. The thin line bordering huge economic disparity.
The calming voice of the announcer over the PA system contrasts with the impassable throbs of people.
Relaxing warmth of a cloudless summer day at dusk.
I remember the first time I was here–going to Iguazu–sensed a chaotic disorganization in the bus system. Nothings really on time. Now I understand it and feel at home here in the gateway to other parts of the country. I know the system. Comfortable in the chaos. Anything less would feel eerie. It’s real. It’s departure, arrival. Tears, hugs, love, loneliness, excitement.
Someone next to me is bringing a fishbowl back from the capital back to home, I assume some place he can’t buy a fishbowl in town.”
My time spent on these buses has reached close to a full work week. (36 hours to Iguazu and back, 20 hours to Bariloche, 8 hours from Calafate to El Chalten and back, 16 hours from Puerto Natales to Ushuaia, then 42 hours from Buenos Aires to San Martin and back). I don’t really think of it as lost time. I get to read, think, draw, write. The worst parts of the trip are the meals. Likely plastic and more foul than any airline meal, the nice buses serve you wine and alfajores, though. All buses have some sort of mix up between the wiring of the AC and the audio system. Either sounds come out the air vents or air comes out of the speakers. The former is much more of a nuissance. You can always throw on another layer, but you can’t do enough to muffle the noises of the atrocious movies they play.
The buses never run on time, but they are always ‘on time.’ Once, my bus ran about an hour and a half late, but the clock inside said it was running 3 minutes ahead of schedule. Disorganized travel is a theme here. Things usually tend to work out as planned but if they don’t, it is not a big deal.
I feel like I got a lot accomplished during my three weeks in San Martin de los Andes. I went out there on a spur of the moment, last minute decision. My original plan was to participate in a three week artist residency that I got accepted to in Buenos Aires. As I was hiking around Patagonia in December, I rethought that plan, as it was signifcantly expensive and didn’t include room, board, or materials. The idea of having to pay that much to paint seemed ludicrous.
I explored other options and found Jeannine Facht and her estancia in San Martin. She invited me down to her property on a lake in the Andes and said that we’d be able to find a place where I could post up and make some work.
I tripped out west, slightly weighed down with guilt from having cancelled on the artist residency just a week before it started. The director was severely ticked off. She told me I was making an extremely unwise decision by forfeiting the networks and resources of the residency, but she said she wasn’t surprised given my young age and immaturity. The other reason that I should have stuck around, she claimed, was that they already taken the time to make a page for me on their website, but copying and pasting what I wrote into google translate isn’t really too hard.
All being said, I felt awful that I had changed my mind so late and upset the other party. But you can only be young, wild, and free once, right? I have no regrets whatsoever. My two weeks in San Martin were some of the most remarkable of my entire year.
I stayed on a ranch 30 miles outside of San Martin de los Andes. The property had a couple thousand hectares with trails through the woods, lake-front with amazing hidden coves, a saw mill that manufactured pieces for log cabins, and a lunch-house where long-time customers and tourists alike visited for lunch.
The tea house was run by Jeannine and four Argentine girls, two my age were cooks and bakers and two 19 year olds served the tables. The place was open for tea, drinks, lunch, and pastries from noon until nine. There was no TV, internet, cell service, or anything out there. The place had the vibes of Camp Nor’wester. One of those amazing places out in a beautiful part of the world that relies on good old-fashioned human interaction, good food and good company.
Speaking of good food. I was served all sorts of culinary marvels: tongue that was boiled for two days, peeled, soaked in tangy onion, pepper, basil, oil sauce, venison milenesa, flank steak boiled in milk, home made pizza, I was taught how to fold an empanada, home made gnocci, blood sausage…just to name a few things. It was delicious. We ate all our dinners family style, besides empanadas that we took out to a field to eat under the full moon, and the home made pizzas that we ate around a fire.
They taught me how how to bake bread.
I taught myself how to juggle.
There was a ranch dog there, Bones. She looked like a super fit and skinny black lab. But she was some sort of mutt. Bones was a fantastic dog. One day, almost a decade ago, she showed up as a puppy. Someone had left a box with stuff on the side of the road near the ranch and she was in there. Living at the ranch, she has become one of the most capable, least domesticated dogs I have ever met. Bones was an outstanding jogging companion. As I’d weave through the forest trails, she’d keep up but not get in my way the way my dog Ollie does. She would also go off on her own pursuits and adventures to find water, take a quick dip in a pond, or catch a snack. I once saw her craftily catch a rabbit by pretending to maneuver one way behind a tree, but then speedily sidestep and come around the other side to freeze the rabbit in stride. I let out a supportive cheer for bones, and hurried back to the tea house to promote Bone’s accomplishment. It was nothing new, Bones is an expert rabbit catcher, she snacks on a least one or two a week and doesn’t even bother to cook em! She takes them down whole, hair, bones, and everything. Bones lived outside in a bush that one of the girls, Fleur called the portal. She would disappear in there for hours during the heat of the day.
During the day, I’d paint in my abandoned stable studio, read by the lake, or go swimming. I got to read a lot in the past three weeks. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about life in a Mumbai slum. Tales of a Shamans Apprentice, stories of ethnobiologist Mark Plotkin’s adventures in Surianme’s rainforest living among natives to understand medical and spiritual uses for plants. In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin’s tales of his Patagonian adventure. City of Thieves, a story of two Russians looking for a dozen eggs during the Nazi blockade of Lenningrad. It’s more than I’ve ever read in my life.
Here’s what I put together there:
My last day there, I hiked up to a peak on one of the hardest of all the trails I’ve done in Argentina. It was vertically straight up for 2.5 hours. At times I was keeled over on my knees huffing and puffing. I got to the top to a 360 degree panoramic view of the Andes range, but strong winds and ominous black clouds prevented me from reaching the peak. The rocks up top were soft, the footing was bad, and I didn’t want to get myself into any sort of trouble as I was hiking alone and I was the only person on the trail.
My nickname at the ranch was Boobs. Here’s why. Before I showed up, Jeannine told the girls that they were going to have a visitor, an artist/ traveler named David Bruce, David ‘Booze’ one of the girls heard and asked his name is David Booze?! A second girl was in the other room and heard David ‘Boobs’ then questioned, his name is Boobs?! They broke down into a hysterical fit of laughter, as they did about eight times a day and the name stuck. For the first two days, they called my boobs when I wasn’t around. After they figured out that I had a sense of humor, they let me in on the joke and it stuck.
At the moment I’m living 30 miles away from San Martin de los Andes, a Brunswick sized town. I’m staying on a ranch where there is a saw mill that manufactures components for log cabins. There’s also a tea house run by five Argentines. They feed me and make fun of my spanish. I’m painting inside of a decrepit stable. I only have ‘un ratito’ on the internet so take these pictures, theres at least 30 so I owe you 30,000 words when I get back to the Buenos Aires sauna.
An incomplete water color of the barn I’m painting in. The roof has caved in in the middle and plants are growing through.
I was the first one stirring. I woke up especially early, way before my 7am bus to Ushuaia, so I went out and walked around Puerto Natales before departing. The sun was rising, but still low in the sky because we were so far south. It cast horizontal shadows onto the facades of the corrugated metal buildings. It’s fun being the first person awake in a place. I returned to the hostel, cooked myself some chorizo that we had left over from the hiking trip and complimented with avocado and cheese on crackers. After, I ate a second breakfast that was provided by the hostel, then made my way up to the bus station.
It was a long bus ride through the desert. I was reading The Kite Runner, which was a strong emotional contrast to the landscape. I looked out at the sheep, condors, and the usual sights of the Patagonian abyss then returned to a boy desribing his native Afghanistan in violent turmoil. The bus got on a ferry and crossed a small channel to get us to the Chilean Tierra del Fuego.
The landscape here was called Tierra del Fuego because the region’s first colonial visitors looked towards the coast from their ships and saw small fires all over the place. The natives would walk around naked and keep all the fires burning to keep warm. Solid central heating system.
As we crossed the channel, some dolphins plopped about chasing the ferry.
Remember my story when I first arrived in Argentina about my trouble with the border control? If not here it is: https://citiesatsea.com/2013/10/31/buenos-aires-travel-to-and-first-thoughts/. That story hadn’t ended yet. It turned out, for want of a better phrase, that the guy who completed my file for the reciprocity tax completely fucked up that morning of October 29th. It all came steam rolling back to me here in late December. As it turned out, the nice young man who typed in my file, typed in someone else’s passport number. I had no idea, but I found out very quickly from the border control officer whose eyes pierced right through me like lasers. It got sorted, eventually after a little less than an hour. At that point, my bus was waiting–I was shocked it didn’t drive away–up the road close to the gas station. I had a great walk of shame towards it as all 50 passengers sneered at me. I nodded my head in thanks as I slumped to my seat in the back. The whole way, I received snotty remarks from the ‘organized travelers with their leather important documents folders.’
We eventually made it to Ushuaia. It was an 11 hour trip. Tierra del Fuego turned from barren land into pine forests and we got to the port town of Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel. I was in the southernmost city in the world on the second longest day of the year. Ushuaia is surrounded by snowcapped mountains. It’s harbor is filled with fishing boats. A few are now washed ashore, infested by seagulls and rotting away.
The next day, we did a tour out to an island that was inhabited by penguins. The ride out there was on an inflatable zodiac that cruised through the bay with its twin 250 hp motors. The captain let me into the back and said I could hang off the side of the boat. We blurred past swimming penguins. In the background, a glowing light illuminated the mountains. It was pretty special. On the island there were thousands of Magellan penguins, hundreds of Genko penguins, and three King Penguins (March of the Penguins kind).
Armony was being sassy on the way to the store to get food to cook for dinner, so I put her in the trash can.
On my last day in Ushuaia, I hiked up a ski hill to get a view overlooking the town. I sat there and stared off into the horizon, beyond the snowy mountain tops towards the southern abyss towards Antarctica. I wished that I could get down there, being so close. But that would have to wait. I drew a picture of the scene and had this overwhelming wave of contentment. Although I, more or less or completely, abandoned my project for the past three weeks, I felt invigorated, like I had succeeded in travel and discovery. I had never felt more comfortable in my own skin. That felt like an accomplishment. I look forward to going down to the ranch in San Martin and connecting back to the project with a new energy for research. I look forward to have a space and great environment for painting.
My flight back to Buenos Aires was on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the southernmost city. I walked to the airport because I had completely run out of cash at that point of my travels. On route to the airport, I passed the southernmost rugby field in the world. Above the gate, the banner read, “If rugby is only a game, then the heart is only an organ.” I continued to walk about an hour and twenty minutes, not minding the mountainous view off the road at all. Eventually, a taxi driver pulled over and offered to take me the rest of the way for free. I didn’t say no.
I passed through security and sat waiting at the gate, enjoying watching the setting sun on the longest day of the year. I watched the airplane technicians outside patch up a brown spot on the nose of the plane with a large metal bandaid. Society already is engrained with a fear of flying, so I thought it was an imbecile move to do work in front of all the passengers. Then the inevitable happened.
The voice of Aerolineas came over the PA system and I was informed that the flight at been cancelled. It was struck by lightning as it was coming down to land. That explained the spot. I felt gutted when I heard the announcement. I was eager to get back to BA because I was out of money and wanted to organize things before my sister flew in the next day. I waited for my bag and ended up last in line to get an accommodation. As it turned out, all of the 2, 3, and 4 star hotels got filled up, so I was stuck, along with all my other cronies in the back of the line, headed to Las Hayas, the nicest hotel in Ushuaia.
I was treated like a king to a 3 course meal of spinach soup, king crab ravioli, and raspberry tart and I didn’t mind taking a hot shower, and snoozing off in a king sized bed. The value of that one night alone, was worth more than my three previous weeks. I was on top at the bottom.
The airline wasn’t getting anything sorted out, so I into a cab and headed towards the airport. I waited in line and explained how my sister had just spent 10,000 pesos (of course exaggerating for dramatic effect) to come down and see my for Christmas and told them they were doing a whole lot of damage to a longstanding plan. They got me on a flight. Lucky for me. I heard that the others who waited idly in the hotel didn’t make it out until the next day, but they got another night in Las Hayas.
I got into Buenos Aires at three in the morning, relieved to make it back to the city. I took a nap at Paddy D’s apartment then headed to the airport to surprise Hannah at 7.
From El Chalten, I took a four hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, a small harbor town in Chile. PN was my favorite of all the small towns in Patagonia. It was less touristy, less expensive, and had the most village dogs. The houses were mostly made out of corrugated metal and were painted all kinds of great colors. I made my way down to PN because it’s the best gateway into Parque Nacional de Torres del Paine.
“Compared to my experience getting into Argentina a month and a half ago, this was an especially relaxed border crossing. The Chileans are super uptight about bringing livestock and agricultural goods over, but other than that, they seem to let people pass freely. I heard that you needed to pay a fee to pass into Chile, but I didn’t have to cough up a cent. We passed through a sleepy old mining town that was rusting away. The majority of the drive was along route 40, the road that cuts Argentina along its Andean spine. (Little did I know that I’d get to drive along the same road in the country’s northwestern province of Salta in only a few weeks). Plains. Cows. Horses. Giant birds of prey. Colossal walls in the backdrop. In and out of sleeping.”
“Chatting with a dutch aerospace engineer sitting next to me. He’s traveling in South America before going to design jet engines for Rolls Royce in Berlin. He had the classic Dutch look about him: slicked back and groomed hair, colored khaki pants, and a v-neck. He told me about a 3 o’clock meeting at Erratic Rock about the trekking loop.”
There is basically no good information about trekking in Torres on the web, so a bar/hostel called Base Camp/Erratic Rock takes the lead with an info session every day at 3pm. They’ve been running the information session for the past ten years to ensure that people who set off into the park have all the information they need and don’t pull any joey moves, such as burning half the trees down like some idiot Israeli kids did three years ago in the park. Torres del Paine translates to towers of blue, the bright neon blue color that you see in the lakes in the park.
The mountain range is much younger than the Andes, in fact it was all formed underground in a magma chamber, then shot upwards into the sky at some point in recent geologic history. The mountains here are not nearly as tall as the Andes get around Mendoza, Argentina, Bolivia, or Peru, but they appear to be much taller because they basically erupt out of the earth as vertical rock walls. From Torres-del-paine.org: The “Macizo de Paine” (the central massif) was formed when hot volcanic magma cooled and turned into granite. Over millennia, this area was covered by layers of sediment, compressing to form rock cap over the harder granite below. Over thousands of more years unbelievable geographical pressures forced the entire area to rise up. The area was then covered by glaciers and as they retreated the ice carved away the softer, sedimentary rock to reveal the harder granite columns below. The result is the jaw-dropping site of almost vertical columns of rock that shoot up from the ground like towers, rising to just below 3,000m in height.
“Puerto Natales is an amazing place, on the broken up islands of the Pacific. It looks the way I’d imagine a small town in Alaska to look like. More stray dogs than I’ve ever seen. Wolf like about territory. The main street is run by 8 golden dogs, they look like family. They work in a pack to make sure no other dogs get onto the street.”
“At the info session a French woman, Armony, walks in 15 minutes late and sits down on the floor next to me. I share my dried fruit with her and she starts asking me questions. All her questions would have been answered if she came to the meeting on time. Her relentless barrage of questions pisses off other audience members. After the meeting, we started chatting and decided since we were both traveling solo, we should team up and split the costs. We were joined by two other guys and the legendary group was formed.
Armony, a 30 year old French engineer. She had a stereotypical type-A personality, and commandeered the trip planning, which I didn’t necessarily like, but I would go along with because she was attractive
Dan, a 26 year old Californian who grew medical marijuana plants professionally. He had a stereotypical type-B personality.
Bill, a 32 year old advertiser who was pretty clueless. He lived on a different planet.
Buying food for a 4 day trip with people you met 15 minutes ago is a magnificent wet blanket, but we got it sorted. I demanded that everyone in the group elect their spirit animal. So Armony, the pit-bull, Dan, the eagle, Bill the wolf, and myself a black bear cub got ready to hit the trails. We couldn’t have been more different personalities– it was a very strange hiking experience compared to what I had been used to, just hitting the woods with friends–but it worked out great.
We woke up at 6 the next morning. All the hostels arrange a breakfast of toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast, because they know that most people get up and prep for a big day of hiking. There was a two and a half hour bus through to the park.
I knew immediately when we had arrived. As you stroll up alongside the entrance, the park’s mountains are hanging off in a circular formation in the distance. I could make out three distinct valleys, each one had different weather. I couldn’t decide whether it was more like a Disney Land for Outdoor Recreation or like a hunger games arena. Whatever it was, that sight got me amped. We were just one of five coach busses that dropped people off into the wilderness of paine. The coach busses then filled the seats back up to return back to Puerto Natales. It was like clockwork, a factory line for getting people onto the trail. The park was swamped with people. But still insanely beautiful. I can only imagine how sublime the experience would be if there were fewer people there.
The roads leading into the park were infested with Alpaca.
Here are my notes from my experience in the park:
Azule of the Lago Torres. Carribean color.
Before we caught the ferry to the other side of the park and begin our hike, ran up to check out a waterfall. In the sky, there was an alfajor shaped cloud. (An alfajor is a classic argentine snack–an oreo type cookie filled with dulche de leche).
Standing facing Glacier Grey (the glacier in the park is connected to Perito Moreno, hundreds of kilometers away, through the Southern Ice Field) the winds are sweeping off the glacier and knocking me back. Staring down into a vast icy wind tunnel. From a distance the glacier looks like the great wall of the north from game of thrones.
Dan the Mt. Shasta pot grower had terrible blisters, told me he has worn nothing but chacos for the past four years. I treated his blisters–then told him to hike in his chacos for a bit. It was as if he had put wings on his feet.
Hanging glaciers–> waterfalls coming out of the clouds. Falling from the sky.
The rocks and mountains were formed from magma intrusions, vertical walls that were shot out of the earth. Multicolored with distinct lines. Purple to tan.
On the trail, we kept on running into a 70 or 80 year old Italian man. I got to talk to him a little bit in Spanish. He doesnt walk fast, but he never stops–like the way old timers play golf. They don’t hit it far but they hit it straight. He walks with a walking stick. He’s got a red LL Bean style jacket, ray bans, and a north face backpack that hangs low over his back like a 3rd grader. Hope I’m that radically awesome and am able to do this kind of thing at an age like that. As soon as I get to a point where I cant get myself out in the wilderness or force myself up a mountain to ski, its probably time to tap out.
Last night, I met a woman who told me she has a great friend who did a Watson some years ago–something with painting and drawing. Now, she draws and records scientific expeditions. She just got back from Greenland where she artistically rendered a study on narwals.
The refugios here are incredible. Ski-lodge status. We’re hanging out by the fire here, but camping out tonight and every other night. There are comfy couches and even a bar in the other room. Just smoked Armony in chess. Checkmate after 8 moves.
30km today. 19km with a backpack to Campamento Italiano, the rest was a side trip up Valle Frances (the French valley lies between the English and Italian campsites–nice). Up to our left, there was a hanging glacier with waterfalls running off. The wind was so strong that the waterfalls never hit the ground, just blew off in a spray. Turned to mist by the wind. Climbing uphill. Beside us is a stream of intensely powerful whitewater–glacial runoff. Elegant violence. I always think of my friend Sarah Johnson when I see whitewater. On our trip through the swamps of Georgia and Florida, she would sit for hours just watching the rapids. Striking verticality of the mountains. Granite walls. So far on the trip, we haven’t been blessed by the weather. There’s been a relentless light drizzle. Just bring on the rain! As we ascended the French Valley, a pocket of light broke through the clouds and illuminated the Torres. Real treat. Writing this the tent on my mat. Legs numb. Feel great.
Pot-grower Dan is really funny. At one point he was talking about how much he loved American Spirit cigarettes and how he felt like the warrior on the label when he smoked them, “Grab my war paint and my peace pipe,” he remarked, “they dont really go together but f*** it.”
Long day hiking from Italia to Campamento Torres. Dan and Bill were a bit slow and injured so Armony and I cut ahead to claim campsites. The 3 valleys of the park are three microclimates. Today, we lucked out with the weather. Sunny day today. After the 8 hour hike, we set up camp then hiked 45 minutes directly up the ridge to the Laguna de Los Torres. Exhausted. Legs jelly, but I ran up to make sure I caught the Torres before the sun set. When I got up there, the sun was passing through each of the three towers, casting a triangle of light onto the lake, like a sun dial, as it passed between each of the towers.
We were up that same ridge again only 7 hours later. Hiked up in the dark to watch the sun rise up and over the ridge and light up a corner of light on the tip. Just the tip.
I cooked dinner that night, a three course meal of meat and lentil soup, mashed potatoes, and grilled cheese–or as Armony called them croque-monsieurs. I ran into Audrey Sherman at that last campsite, a Dartmouth ’14 who is good friends with one of my Hanover homies, Matt and great friends with Clare Sutphin from Bowdoin. The next day, we were back to Puerto Natales and met up for burgers and beer with everyone I met on the trail. Early the next morning, I hopped on a bus to Ushuaia. Armony decided to accompany me. It was fun traveling with a companion for a week.
“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.
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.
I’ve spent the past month in the Andes. In 30 days, I slept In 24 different places. It was the most movement this year, and thereby the most intensive traveling I have done in my whole life. I traveled light–only with a couple t-shirts, a pair of shorts, jeans, and winter layers. I knew I was traveling south and I new penguins lived there. In school I was told that penguins liked the cold, so I brought a winter coat. My goal was to reach Ushuaia, the end of the line; the end of the continent.
I left my computer, and half of my backpack in Buenos Aires. I know I abandoned the blog. I know I abandoned you. But, I kept notes and now I’m ready to share my past month. The text in “quotations” is directly from my little black book.
I ventured southwards via Pinamar, a small coastal town south of Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires is also the name of the province that the capital is in. Buenos Aires Province is the province that is most tangled up in the effects of climate change and sea level rise. The coastal aquifers are endangered by salt-water intrusion, which would taint the freshwater supply to the densely populated Buenos Aires metropolitan region. In addition, the low-lying suburbs of Buenos Aires’s and the stretch of small coastal towns down the Atlantic coast are on the lie on the front and take the largest beating from the sea. These coastal towns, which are visited by many of the capital city’s residents to between December and February, the staggeringly hot and humid summer months are also vulnerable to the impacts of coastal flooding. Pinamar is one of those towns.
“I’m in Pinamar, a small beach town only three hours south of Buenos Aires. It took us six hours to get here though. I came down here–the long way–with Misha last night. We left the capital on a 1:45 AM sleeper bus to Mar Del Plata, then we took a two hour shuttle to backtrack. The Long Way Around—I understand what the Dixie Chicks were singing about. There was a midnight bus that went directly to Pinamar, but we got to the bus station too late to get seats on it. Instead we had to overshoot our destination then reverse course on a new bus. We’re with Mike, a South African guy who seemed significantly lost at the Mar Del Plata bus stop. Being the only other gringos there at the bus station at 5 in the morning, he came up and chatted to us about our plans. He changed his plans and followed us to Pinamar. He was wearing a bowling hat and holding a plastic boo-boo-zeila (I’m not even going to attempt to figure out how to properly spell that word) blow horn. Since he completely redirected his plans after he talked to us, and ended up in a 3 bed dorm room with us in Pinamar, I got slightly weirded out that he was going to rob us or hurt us, but we haven’t been robbed or hurt yet, so it’s probably cool.”
In retrospect, that guy was a totally useless traveler. He had no idea how to find a hostel, no idea how to get around Argentina. We even cooked him dinner that night because he didn’t know how to do that.
“We dropped off our stuff, then went out to search for a place to rent surfboards. Just strolling across the beach on the hazy morning, we came across the lifeguard clubhouse. It was decked out with couches, radios, and lifeguard supplies inside of an abandoned cargo container. Misha took the lead and started asking the happy-go-lucky life guards where we could rent a board for the day. We were told of a place in the next town over, a fabrica de tablasin Valeria Del Mar. We hopped on a bus and headed over to the next town. We rented boards, got smashed up in the waves, swallowed lots of seawater, and had very little luck surfing. The ocean won, as it usually does, so I retired to go and have a nap on the beach.”
I’m seriously afraid of getting chomped by a shark. We were the only two people out in the water, so that was probably good exposure therapy for me.
In the crevasses between my head hairs, I brought sand from the Atlantic shores into the Andes. I thought that was pretty cool.
I spent the next day, every single one of its 24 hours on a bus from Pinamar to Bariloche. We crossed La Pampa, a province south of Buenos Aires. In La Pampa, the scarcely populated ranches turn into endless plains of shrubbery, then the plains just turn into a void. It was surreal to go to sleep in a landscape of recognizable countryside farms and wake up in a sandy abyss. Around every corner I was looking out for the Andes, anticipating them to rise up abruptly from the desert around each bend.
“I’m reading Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonia Express. It’s a surprising comfort. I’ve found something that I can relateto: the voice of another solo traveler. He’s an entertaining writer, got good stories—although he must be partly bluffing. He’s traveling by train from Boston to Patagonia in ’79 when the world was very much a different place. Countries were ending their dictatorial regimes, the U.S. ran the Panama Canal, and Jorge Louis Borges was still alive. Theroux spent his days in Buenos Aires reading to the blind writer. The book is good stuff, also fun to have him catch up to me as he was zipping down by train and I was rumbling by on a dirt road through the desert. No matter how much you talk about and share your experience traveling—no one can relate to such an individual experience. But Theroux is able to connect. Maybe I need to look more to books for company during these stretches of solitude.”
On that note, here’s a Theroux quote I found in the book:
Reading alters the appearance of a book. Once it has been read, it never looks the same again, and people leave their individual imprint on a book they have read. One of the pleasures of reading is seeing this alteration on the pages, and the way, by reading it, you have made the book yours.
Travel is not a vacation, and it is often the opposite of a rest. Have a nice time, people said to me at my send-off at South Station. It was not precisely what I had hoped for. I craved a little risk, some danger, an untoward event, a vivid discomfort, an experience of my own company, and in a modest way the romance of solitude.
Back to my solitude and my black book.
“Driving across the desert. For 10 hours, no tree or shrub higher than ankle height. Occasional towns, few trucks, saw a pack of alpaca, or llama. Not sure. Only signs of human life are of what has come before. There are doghouse-sized mausoleums on the roadside memorializing people who set across the desert, but never made it to the other side. I’m on the top floor of the bus. All but four got off this morning, before we left to pass through the void. Sleepy cabin. Nothing has stirred all day, mirroring the lifelessness outside. There are fences and gates marking property, but no signs of habitation. Dust. Swirling dust. The bus rumbled. The driver drove over the siding of the road, and onto the safety strip. Brrrrrrmmmppppp. He must be exhausted looking out into nothingness. How often do the drivers switch? No way this guy has been driving straight for 20 hours. I hope.”
“Its dry. Dried up riverbeds, drainage canals with no drainage. As far as I can see through the dust, there are no Andes. Outside of Baires, everyone is much friendlier. Tranquilo. Slower pace of life. The man from Bariloche is sitting in front of me asked me what I was taking pictures of. I guess he’s used to the landscape outside. To him it’s probably boring. To me, it’s like laying eyes on a new species. He told me about a volcano that erupted here two years ago. See some of the detritus scattered.”
I remember when the Andes appeared, like a curtain hanging from the sky to change the set. The landscape changed. Mounds turned to hills, shrubs turned to bushes. Then eventually hills became impressive ridges and bushes became trees. There was a shallow river with crystal clear water.
“Bariloche is a gorgeous place, the love child of Jackson Hole and an Alps ski town. Bariloche itself looks like a cozy swiss town, but the red sand stone rocks in contrast with the snow capped mountains behind remind me that I’m in America.”
In Bariloche, I met up with Ollie and Elliot, two Bowdoin juniors who opted to take a semester off of college and make up their own curriculum rather than do one of the recommended semester abroad courses. Elliot worked at a dude ranch in Uruguay while Ollie took buses from Mexico to Peru, and then hopped on a flight to meet me and Elliot for Thanksgiving in Buenos. When I arrived after my 24-hour bus ride, they greeted me at the bus stop with cured meats, and an 8-peso (US 80 cent) bottle of wine. They weren’t sure when I was getting in to Bariloche, so they had been waiting at the station for me for a little over 2 hours. When I pulled in on the bus, I saw them before they saw me. They looked like sad, lost dogs not sure whether or not I was still kicking it in the game. In fact they were very happy to see me, since I hadn’t gotten in touch with them for the past three days, they had doubts about whether I was alive and headed in their direction.
That afternoon, we got right to planning for our days spent out in the Nahual Haupi national park. Our plan was to do a four-day hiking circuit between two of the park’s Refugios. I’ve spent time hiking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the also in the Maine Mountains and Woods. The landscape in Bariloche was up to this point the most magnificent I’d ever seen. On top of the ridges, we could see lakes, snow capped mountains, sandstone slopes, dunes, volcanoes, expansive valleys, and a cloudless sky only interrupted by the daytime moon. At night, it was a treat to look up at the stars and see recognizable constellations that were there, except flipped upside down from the northern hemisphere’s orientation. The big and little dippers were the wrong way around, dumping their contents into space, and Orion’s sword was pointing upwards. There were shooting stars and even comets. The climate would turn from being in the high 80s to falling close to freezing at night.
“Tomorrow, Ollie, Elliot and two Israeli girls they met last night are heading up those mountains. They both served in the military for the past two years and now are enjoying their freedom for a year. They worked at a Jewish summer camp in Texas and now are working their way south.”
Little did we know that these girls would turn into being the biggest toothaches. For myself, Ollie, and Eliot, living and hanging out in beautiful places in the wilderness is a kind of sanctuary. It’s a time and place to appreciate a slower flow of things and enjoy being in sweet places with sweet people. That’s the sort of attitude we picked up at the Bowdoin Outing Club and I think it’s absolutely the right one. On the contrary, these girls were concerned about everything, making a trip that was ingeniously engineered by Mr. Eliot Taft to be chilled out and gnar-filled into something uptight, on a military-like schedule.
All they ever wanted to do was eat corn and make coffee. One of them would stop in the middle of the trail and say, “do you want mee to maaayyke caaauufffeee?” I’d think, ‘What? No. That’s the last thing on my mind. We’re in the middle of a hike and we will be at the Refugio in 20 minutes.’ Their other defining habit was asking constantly how long it would take to get from point A to point B. For starters that a childish question because it depends how fast you walk.
Over dinner of quesadillas and thick mashed-potato soup that we cooked up in the bathroom to avoid paying the Refugio kitchen fees, they were starting to fret about our food supply. To dismiss their concerns, I propositioned that we could dine on the plethora of wood that was lying around. That was the beginning of our breakup. We split up lunch food and hiked separately to the next Refugio. But, the trip got much more fun after that point. Wood. Gets you out of sticky situations.
The hike between the Refugio’s was only about 12 kilometers, but it was by far one of the most brilliant hikes I’ve ever done. It was up a ridge, down a ridge, through a valley, then up a ridge and down a ridge. Every part was different though and the panoramic views we got off the tops of the mountains were stunning. We hiked through snow, past untouched snowmelt lakes, over mars like sandy surfaces, skidded down sandy dune like slopes, walked through dried out drainages, across grassy valleys, and whacked through thick brush.
A 28-year-old Canadian man, Gerome, who was traveling solo around Patagonia, accompanied us. He was one of the many delights of our trip. He had some epic tales of adventure, travel, mischief, and was plain and simple a good-humored guy to have around.
There were only about 4 or 5 other hiking groups around that we would weave in front of and behind as each of us trekked towards the Refugio. One of the other groups that was particularly enjoyable to have around was a 60 year old British couple that ran a bed and breakfast in the Lake District of England, up towards the Scottish highlights. They both traveled a lot when they were in their 20s, and now that they both felt they were getting older, they wanted to get back into it. The man, I never caught his name, used to travel around Europe, play the guitar on the street until he made enough money to get to his next location. He also spent a couple of months in India, in just about every place I’m heading in February so it was great to get his outdated impressions of India. He spent a considerable amount of time in Varanasi, where I’ll be living for the month of March.
The last night, since we were running short on cash, we opted to sleep outside for free. It was damn cold and I only had a thin summer sleeping bag rather than my heavy duty zero degree bag that I sent home before flying into Argentina’s summer season. That bitterly cold last night got us more than ready to get back to the hostel and get a hot choripan sandwich from a vendor in town.
We hiked out of the park the next day. A slow 18 kilometer downhill strut. Spending time in the bush without phones, computers or connectivity, its always interesting to see what happened in the world upon reconnecting to the modern world. In our time away, Nelson Mandela died. More personally, I found out that my grandmother fell, broke her hip, had half her hip replaced, and recovered remarkably well from surgery. She is an amazing strong and resilient women; a role model for everyone in our family. I felt removed and useless being half a world away. In the past year, Nonnie has been lost in a mental haze, a sort of time warp, confused beneath the vice of 104 years of history and memory. Saying goodbye to her before I left for the year, she thought I was off to fight in the Second World War. She’s lucky to have the exceptional care and support of my parents who have barely left her side in the past few weeks. And the Bruces are extraordinarily lucky to have her. A fine matriarch.
That afternoon we started hitch-hiking, our preferred mode of transport for the remainder of our time in Bariloche.
We got rides with:
An argentine snowboarder our age. He spoke the least and drove us the shortest distance, only a couple of kilometers down the dirt road to the main access road to the town. It was a great relief to get picked up after walking all day, and it got us closer to the choripan sausage sandwiches we had been craving.
A 30 year old yoga instructor driving a pick up truck. She was amazing. A lot of the hitchhiking was a great opportunity to practice some of my spanish. Those short, mostly introductory rides were right in my powerhouse, completely in line with my level of (or lack of) proficiency. We got her to recommend a place to grab choripan and she dropped us off right there. She had my sold on yoga teachers. I’d sign up for one of her classes.
A 70 year old ex-physics professor. The next day, we went down to the bus terminal to explore ticket fares to our next locations. This gentleman in a really shabby red sedan picked us up. The car was almost as creaky as this man was. After Elliot explained who were were and what we were doing here, he told us his story, how he lived in Miami about 20 years ago and taught Physics. He returned back to Bariloche when he had a heart attack. His english was non-existant, so I was a little suspect of his professorship, but there’s a huge spanish population in Miami, so maybe so.
A 40 year old resident of La Pampa drove us back from the bus terminal. He was explaining the currency controls and inflation rates of Argentina to us. He was speaking really fast and I was too tired to try to keep up. On this ride, I just zoned out and enjoyed the brilliant views out over the lake and snow capped mountains.
A 40 year old wood sculpture at the Swiss Colony of artisans gave us the best hitchhiking trip of Bariloche. He picked us up in a white rusty pick-up truck. Elliot got in the cab and Ollie and I hopped in the truck bed. We shared the bed with a couple rusty chainsaw blades and some odd looking tools and gave each other the ‘lets hope this goes okay look.’ The bed of the truck didn’t feel entirely stable. I think the screws connecting it to the chasis were a little loose. But, we made it, and it was a beautiful ride, especially out in the open air on the lakeside ‘chico circuit’. The roads are lined with bright yellow flowers, that contrast brilliantly with the blues of the mountains, lakes, and sky. This wood sculptor jerry-rigged his car so that the clutch, brake, and accelerator were finger pedals behind the steering wheel rather than foot pedals. Through the rear window of the cab, it looked like Elliot and this guy were really hitting it off. You never know where you find soulmates, right Elliot?
A 70 year old retiree. The wood sculptor gave us a ride to a trail head, way out there about 25 miles from town. Getting back was a lot harder. We had to walk for about an hour, until eventually a nice old retiree in a toyota SUV picked us up and gave us a ride to the grocery store half the way back to town. He had no patience and no time to listen to me try to small talk in Spanish.
A 50 year old womanizer. The last guy was obsessed with women. He’d slow down behind a girl jogging, never cease to point out when there was a girl passing us on the other side of the road, and always talk about the best bars and dance halls to find Argentines. It was like he just got out of an all boys middle school dance.
Running off our creative juices from cooking Thanksgiving dinner, we continued the trend and rocked out every night cooking delicious food in our Bariloche hostel. Our meals were limited to a create your own pizza night and competition, a cuban pork and avocado salsa that Ollie man threw together, chorizo pasta, and brownies. Good food and good people. A winning combination.
Pudu Hostel Cat
In the final days, we enjoyed spending time around Bariloche, rented bikes, and explored opportunities to fish. We weren’t able to fund a fishing expedition, but we did learn that in Bariloche, the Rainbow Trout in the lake come from California and the Landlocked Salmon come from the Sebago Lake in Maine. In the 1890s, the fish were brought down to Argentina by Train to the harbors of the east coast, Shipped by boat (via London) to Patagonia then brought by oxen to Bariloche. The transport was attempted three times before it was successfully completed. For any readers who are ES majors and taking Professor Klingle’s Environment and Culture in North American History class. I think this is a bomb research paper project.
From Bariloche my plan was to just work southwards. My next stop was Cafayate and El Chaltan to see Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and see one of the third biggest ice sheet in the world, behind only Antarctic and the Arctic.
In retrospect, looking back on spending time in Bariloche with Ollie and Elliot in the great outdoors was very important for my psyche. They helped me rediscover what a special opportunity I have to travel and discover disparate corners of the world this year. Before getting to hang out with these guys, I was definitely getting a little down and intimidated by what I had gotten myself into. But they, without even knowing it, helped me get my head right and renew my spirit of adventure for the road ahead.
This trip also got me to re-think my plan for the month of January. As it stood before I went out tree hugging, I was going to return back to Buenos Aires and work in an artist residency in the Belgrano barrio. ‘Ace, the artist residency had super fancy facilities and seemed like a great community of artists. But it was also expensive and I decided in Bariloche that I strongly disagreed with the prospect of having to pay to paint. In late December, I discovered a ranch in San Martin de Los Andes, a town two hours north of Bariloche where the owner has offered to take me on as an artist in residence. I’m heading out there tomorrow on a 20 hour bus. It should be a great opportunity to take a lot of the themes I’ve been thinking about over the past five months and turn them into paintings. I hope I can be productive with my time there.
To end this post and get you excited about the rest of the Patagonia adventures that follow, here’s a terrific Walt Whitman quote that a good friend shared:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The other best quote from the trip was this:
While the Russians and Americans were investing in their nuclear program, the mexicans on the other hand were putting billions into the development of a really really tiny horse.