No Man’s Land ~ Argentina or Chile

24 March, 2018

This post could have just as easily been entitled “Are We Nuts?” 

One of the biggest challenges when doing your own planning for a trip to Patagonia is connecting all the transportation dots. Given its remoteness, this is not a task to take on lightly. Even during peak season, bus and ferry schedules can be a bit sketchy in the interior of Chile, but move into the shoulder season and it is anyone’s guess if the bus or ferry lines run on time, if there is a bus or boat running more than once a week, or if there will be one available at all when you arrive at your destination. Since we both wanted to venture into the interior and travel some of the infamous Carretera Austral, it was particularly important to connect the dots so as not to get stranded. Complicating this matter is that you can literally read through countless websites and forums and get conflicting information.

Planes, trains, automobiles, and boats is Terry’s specialty when planning our trips. He will tell you I don’t know which way is up most days so he just refuses to relinquish this part of the duty. I am relegated to accommodations and activities, which frankly I think is a lot more fun to plan anyway.

While doing some research during a very windy, rainy day in El Calafate (have I said how wild the Patagonian weather can be?), Terry got a somewhat panicked look on his face. Upon reading yet another website, it appeared there was no public transportation available from Los Antiguos, Argentina to Chile Chico, Chile.  Los Antiguos is a remote border crossing so it seems the only way to move from one country to another is on foot or putting out your thumb. We had often read that hitchhiking is commonplace in Patagonia, but I had said this wasn’t something I wanted to do. Seems I was about to reconsider that decision.

But I digress for a moment…

While planning our trip, we packed no less than three separate times, using various bags, whenever our route changed. Since we weren’t able to book the refugios we wanted in Torres del Paine National Park, I set aside my backpack, opting for a roomier bag that still allowed for shoulder straps, although not near as comfortable as one’s own fitted backpack. One of our travel rules has been that if one of us wants to bring something that the other might find unnecessary, that person bears the burden of carrying said item(s). For me it was our vitamins and some creams and lotions I couldn’t leave behind. For Terry it was the electric toothbrush. My choices necessitated a roomier bag. When I discovered I might be carrying all my bags across a remote border crossing, I thought I might live to regret the decision to displace my backpack.

So, during one of our rest days in El Chalten, we laid out our belongings, and with the mind of a backpacker looking to shave ounces from her pack, I proceeded to set aside items I thought I could do without. Jackets, earmuffs, and gloves were set aside, and bottles of this and that discarded, with the hopes of replacing them. My full-size deodorant mineral stone soon became a mere shell of itself as I broke away the plastic container and cut it in half. I was not budging on the supplements however. 😉

At 9:30 the next night we hopped on our overnight bus to Los Antiguos, not knowing what to expect in the morning. It’s a wonder we got any sleep but the bus tires on the pavement seemed to do the trick. I awoke to watch the dark golds and oranges of dawn diffuse across the Patagonian steppe, softening to rose and violet, with a promise of a beautiful day unfolding.

We pulled into the bus station and were able to catch a taxi to the border, 2 km (1.2 miles) away. And that is where we knew things could get interesting. We moved through Argentine immigration, then stepped outside with all our bags. A long, lonely road stretched before us, 7 km (4.2 miles) from the Argentina border to the Chile border, a section of road dubbed “No Man’s Land”. Well, at least it was flat, paved, and the sun was shining. We looked at each other and said “let’s do this”.  About 15 minutes into our walk, Terry turned to me and said “you are a good sport”. I smiled and turned back to the road with the thought of  “remember this when you find my personality less than pleasing.”

In another 15 minutes we saw a car on the horizon and Terry stuck out his thumb. A smiling young couple in a beat-up jalopy opened the door and welcomed us. Our last hitchhiking experience had been decades ago and our only hope was that their backfiring car would make it to Chile. It did and they could not have been nicer.

Another trip through Chilean customs and immigration and we headed down the road the 5 km (2.5 miles) into Chile Chico. A collectivo (van) picked us up within 20 minutes and delivered us to our lodge. Life is good, particularly when in the presence of kind strangers.

Note to self: When given a choice, always go with the backpack. 🙂

SaveSave

Advertisements

National Trekking Capital ~ El Chalten, Argentina

17 March – 22 March, 2018

Although we enjoyed our time in El Calafate and hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, we were looking forward to experiencing the trails of El Chalten, in the northern sector of Los Glaciares National Park, and the best news of all, there was sun in our forecast. Another early morning bus ride, this one only three hours, and we were there!

Los Glaciares National Park peaks, seen from the park service office.

There have been a few places where we carved out some extra time, as we knew Patagonia was moody, the weather changing often during the day. El Chalten was one of those places and we spent six days enjoying her laid-back atmosphere.

We had read on several forums that if you only had one place to hike in Patagonia, El Chalten should be the place. Trailheads are at the edge of town and the national park is free. Contrast this to our time in El Calafate, where we had a 2-hour commute to the park and the entrance fee was $38 per person. What’s not to like?

As we made our approach into El Chalten, the granite needles of Fitz Roy rose from the surrounding landscape, a watchful sentinel over this quaint little town. This mountain has become a symbol for Argentine Patagonia and became even more so thanks to Yvon Chouinard. After his successful summit of Fitz Roy in 1968, with a USA team, he used its shape to inspire the logo for his clothing brand, Patagonia. At roughly 11,200 feet above sea level, Fitz Roy may not be the highest peak in Argentine, but it is considered one of the most technically challenging climbs on the planet, due to its vertical granite cliffs and how quickly the weather can change. To give an idea of this challenge, Everest averages 50 successful climbers per year, Fitz Roy only one.

El Chalten is an eclectic little town, easily walkable, with a permanent population of 1,100. But with the recent paving of a highway leading into town, it’s growing so rapidly that some feel it will become the next Calafate, with spiraling real estate prices. It reminded me a bit of Gardiner, Montana, some roads paved, some still gravel with their fair share of potholes, a very interesting place.

We had three glorious days of mostly sun and little wind, giving us many opportunities to hike, to see Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre up-close. Our hostel, Pudu Lodge, was situated on the edge of town, with access to many of the hiking trails just a block away…perfect!

Scouting out interesting, local restaurants is part of the travel experience, and El Chalten has a fair number of cafes, given its size. We had heard about the German owned La Cerveceria from Backpacker Steve, whose website we researched often during our trip planning.

They brew their own beer, which is the reason he encourages travelers to go. Yes, their beer was tasty, but their menu, although limited, was so enticing, we found ourselves going back time and again, four to be exact.  What we discovered was a quirky little eatery that featured all things homemade, beer to breadsticks and everything in-between.  We loved the local stew, locro, the salmon ravioli, the vegetarian empanadas, and the butternut squash stuffed with sautéed vegetables. For a country that relies heavily on meat, bread, and cheese, this was a delicious diversion. And the staff made us feel like family each time we walked through the door.

El Chalten was everything we hoped it would be, and I finally found a couple of Patagonia’s more lovely residents.

Next Up: Long Night’s Bus Ride

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Blue Ice & Depth Charges ~ Perito Moreno Glacier

14 March, 2018

I could barely contain my excitement as we boarded the Always Glaciers tour bus, anticipating our third national park, Los Glaciares National Park, and one of Argentina’s most visited destinations, the Perito Moreno Glacier. Rain clouds teased overhead but I was remaining cautiously optimistic that the Argentina rain gods would be kinder to us. Weather is so fickle here in Patagonia, so no use expending negative energy worrying about that which I couldn’t control.

El Calafate is famous as the base for visiting this glacier and the southern sector of Los Glaciares National Park, the largest national park in Argentina. The park has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has 47 large glaciers being fed by a giant ice cap in the Andes, and 30% of its mass is covered by ice. This is the world’s 4th-largest ice cap, excluding Antarctica, Iceland, and Greenland.

The sky cleared as we paid our entrance fee to the park. I was encouraged as I had read that Perito Moreno tends to be more active in sunny weather. We were hoping to experience calvings off the face of this massive beauty.

There are several ways to see this gal – from her many boardwalks, taking a one-hour boat ride along part of her stunningly blue face, or trekking across. Try as I might before our arrival, I could not convince any of the tour companies to allow Terry to trek on the ice, their age limit being 65, and no exceptions due to the insurance they carried. 😦 We opted to stay on the boardwalks as we felt our chances of seeing calvings might be greater.

Not the largest glacier in the park but the one with star quality, Perito Moreno upstages twice-as-long Glacier Upsala, who has picked up much more debris during her advance and is not the brilliant blue that characterizes Perito Moreno.

Unsullied Perito Moreno, a jagged mass of crevasses and knife-edged seracs, is one of only two advancing glaciers in all of South America, crawling forward at a rate of ~ 2 meters per day. Most of the massive glaciers cloaking the spine of the Patagonian Andes are retreating in response to global warming, according to Andrés Rivera, a Chilean glaciologist, all except for Perito Moreno and Pio XI in Chile.  Perito Moreno, at  30 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide, overshadows all else, sitting in the largest of Argentina’s lakes, Lago Argentino. Over 50% of her bulk sits below the sea, for a total combined height of ~ 170 meters.

Over millennia, untold numbers of storms have deposited countless meters of snow, compressing this glacier into what we see today. As the ice pushes across the channel of Lago Argentino, a massive dyke of ice cuts off the Brazo Rico arm of the lake from the main body. The water pressure builds until the natural dam can no longer bear the weight, resulting in an explosion of ice and frigid water that rushes into the lake’s main glacial trough, flooding everything in its path, including El Calafate. This phenomenon has occurred fifteen times during the 20th century, then from 1988 until March 2004, silence.

There was an arch over this section until two days before our visit.

On March 14, 2004, the dam gave way, releasing an avalanche of water and ice, a fitting metaphor for the flood of tourists who invaded El Calafate in hopes of seeing this event. It is said that those lucky enough to witness such a spectacle have found it to be one of nature’s most awesome sights. The last event of this type occurred just two days before our visit. Although this would have been the ultimate, the 14-meter wall of water that descended upon El Calafate is the reason the Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary was closed due to flooding. 😦

As if acknowledging our sadness at the loss of seeing all those feathered charmers, Perito Moreno stepped up and performed mightily the day of our visit. From our boardwalk perch, we listened for the sound of the glacier calving. Once you hear a sound that resembles a small cannon, get prepared for the show. Camera should be on-the-ready or you’ll miss blocks of ice, weighing hundreds of tons, detonating off the glacier’s 74-meter face, crashing into what has been dubbed “Iceberg Channel” below. These frozen depth-charges trumpet the forming of a new iceberg.

And the walls came tumbling down! Terry captured this on video. 🙂

These massive calvings occur several times daily and we were fortunate to see several during our few hours on the viewing platforms. Imagine pieces of a 24-story building being blasted away by a small cannon and this is the sound you hear. Terry got some great video footage, but internet will not allow me to upload it at this time. I see another Perito Moreno post in my future. 🙂

Gateway to Los Glaciares National Park ~ El Calafate, Argentina

12 March – 16 March, 2018

Overcast and misty, we bid adieu to Puerto Natales. Putting her in our rear-view mirror, we set our sights on our next destination, El Calafate, and another stamp in our passport – Argentina.

We boarded Bus Sur bright and early for our 5-hour ride and as daylight approached, we discovered the sun and the promise of a beautiful day. We passed by guanaco, rhea, and even a couple of little grey fox. Most of the time we’ve seen the wildlife through our steamy bus windows, but, even if I’ve no photos to remember them by, we are still seeing them.

We pulled into the bus terminal, booked a couple of future bus rides, then hopped in a taxi and were whisked off to America Del Sur, our hostel for the next 5 days. We were greeted warmly; all the staff spoke English; and once settled, it was time to find a doctor to remove the duct tape and examine my finger.

The hostel manager, Patrick, said the hospital is the only place to go as they have a clinic within it. He offered to take me there, as he was concerned about our ability to communicate my needs to a Spanish-speaking doctor. We didn’t want to inconvenience him, so he wrote a brief note instead. A 20-minute walk later and we were checking in at the hospital. Consulting with a nice doctor, x-rays, and a splint cost a mere $40. 🙂

We were some of the oldest guests at America Del Sur but we felt totally comfortable. The constant hum of young, international voices was exhilarating. We met some remarkable young men and women: Julia from Moscow, Stella from LA, currently studying in Buenos Aires, Benjamin and Amil from Australia, to name a few.

Breakfasts were plentiful, the on-site restaurant served great meals, and the beer was quite tasty. The large floor to ceiling windows in the common area looked out over the lake, as did the view from our room. Knowing we had given ourselves a couple of extra days in El Calafate to chill, leisurely explore the town, and allow me time to write, kept a perpetual smile on my face. And with some sun in the forecast, life was good!

I had hoped to visit Laguna Nimez Bird Sanctuary on the outskirts of town, said to have over 100 species of birds that visited or made this their permanent home. Unfortunately, it was closed due to flooding, caused by the very glacier we were planning to visit – Perito Moreno (more on that later). To say I was disappointed was an understatement, as I wanted to see the unique feathered beauties from this part of the world.

Most of the towns we have explored to date in South America have found us looking like the pied piper as we strolled through town, collecting stray dogs along the way. Many don’t look emaciated or as if theirs is a hard life lived fighting for scraps. Perhaps some are just out for their daily stroll, like us. But they all seemed to have an invisible line they refused to cross and once we stepped over it, they were lost to us, until El Calafate that is.

The day we walked across town to see the flood damage at the bird sanctuary found us collecting yet another stray, but this one stayed with us all the way back to the hostel. He was adorable and we found ourselves wanting to stick him in our luggage, along with a beautiful little kitty we found begging at the window to be let inside.

I expected El Calafate to be a quaint little town but was quite surprised when we entered downtown and found a bustling town filled with boutique shops, outdoor gear stores, lovely cafes, tour companies, and a casino. El Calafate is the poster child for the tourist boom in Argentina, with the population more than doubling in a decade, increasing real estate prices, surely a double-edged sword for the locals. The population now hovers at 25,000. We enjoyed our wanderings almost as much as America Del Sur.

We had only one big adventure planned when we arrived in El Calafate, a visit to Perito Moreno Glacier, and the day had finally dawned. More on that later, as it deserves its own post.

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Our Next Destination ~ Wild, Raw Beauty

Like many of you who are afflicted with wanderlust, we too have planned a getaway for this year. Although we will selectively choose tours when we arrive at our travel destination, we enjoy paving our own way instead of signing on with a larger group through a travel agency. Call us loners if you will, but we prefer the ability to be spontaneous instead of having to adhere to a more rigid schedule. The beauty of travel is that it can be planned on your own or you can sit back and have someone do all the planning for you; the choice is yours to make. I will admit that our upcoming trip has been more labor intensive to design than most, due to the remoteness of our destination, that we are planning to be gone for 3+ months, and we are traveling during the shoulder season when transportation schedules get a bit sketchy. But to travel to an area where I have longed to visit for so many years, I will gladly do the time.

Soon we will be heading to a land of untouched natural beauty and unforgiving weather, where wind, rain, sleet, and snow can all be experienced in the same day, I have read. Our travels will take us to a mythical, sprawling, wild land that has barely been settled since humans first arrived tens of thousands of years ago.

Since our passion is nature and being in the wild, I cannot think of a place that will embrace this wild need better. Our travels will find us hiking through many national parks filled with majestic mountain peaks, vast wind-swept steppes, creeping glaciers and ice fields, and with an abundance of wildlife. Some of the more colorful feathered creatures waddle around in tuxedo-like garb or strut their stuff in fluffy pink tutus on long, elegant legs.

Many of you already know where our travels are taking us but for those who do not, have you guessed yet where we might be headed? Yep, we are off to Patagonia next month, a remote land I have dreamed of for so long. During our stay we hope to soak in the culture of Chile and Argentina, along with wrapping ourselves in raw wilderness.

Photo credit: Google maps.

Here is just a sneak peek of what we hope to see and do:

If any of you have ventured to the far-flung corners of South America and have other suggestions for “must-sees”, I am all ears (and if you’ve seen my “Spock-esque” ears, you might agree.) 🙂

Until then I will be dreaming of “pats” of flamingos, dancing their way to their mates.