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Published: March 4th 2015
Tango and Trekking in Argentina
By William Graham Poet, novelist and travel writer William Graham is a resident of Stowe, Vermont. His most recent novella is “Greenfields.” He has also traveled extensively around the world and is author of “Seven Continents: A Travel Memoir.”
As soon as we entered the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca, we could hear the syncopated rhythms of the tango float through the hot summer air of this dazzling South America city. Located along the banks of the Rio de la Plata, La Boca contains colorfully painted houses and many restaurants where statuesque men and women wearing tight fitting clothes engage in the sensuous swirl of the tango. The heat of the dancers competed against the heat of the city, where myself, my wife Jackie and our sixth-grade son Jackson went for winter break.
Buenos Aires, however, has more to offer than just the tango. It is a sprawling, culturally diverse and beautiful city often referred to as the “Paris of South America” because of its French-inspired architecture and outdoor café scene. The first part of our 9-day sojourn to Argentina was spent exploring several districts of Buenos Aires. After walking
around La Boca, we visited the neighborhood called Recoleta (or “remembrance”), which houses the famous Recoleta cemetery, where the remains of the famous and infamous of Argentina (including Evita Peron) rest in grand above-ground mausoleums that were built and are maintained by wealthy families. This cemetery is unique in that the plots can be sold like real estate. If the relatives of the deceased decide to sell the plot to another family, the remains of the former “residents” must be moved to a less sought-after final resting place. Even in death, it’s all about location.
We then spent several hot summer days taking advantage of the many parks, gardens and museums of the Palermo neighborhood. There, we found a meticulously maintained Japanese Garden, the city’s botanical gardens and zoo and several terrific art museums. We also strolled through the Plaza de Mayo, home to the Casa Rosada (the “Pink House”), which is the executive mansion and office of the President of Argentina. There, you can see the balcony where Evita Peron (in real life and in theatrical renditions) made her speeches to her adoring followers.
After enjoying many a glorious meal and enduring a stifling late-summer heat wave
in Buenos Aires (we went from -19F in Stowe to 90F in Buenos Aires), we took a long plane ride 1500 miles south to the far reaches of Argentina and the South American continent—namely Patagonia. After landing in El Calafate, we headed two hours by car to El Chalten, which would be our base for several days of hiking in the Patagonian Andes. Situated in the middle of nowhere, El Chalten was established in 1985 by the Argentinian government as an outpost against a possible incursion by Chile, with which Argentina has had frosty relations and continuous border disputes since the 19th
century. This part of Patagonia was not settled until early in the 20th
century, when the government gave away thousands of square miles of land for immigrants to establish vast estancias (ranches). In the long drive to Chalten, we passed just three haciendas in nearly 120 miles. To say the area is sparsely populated is an understatement. I think llamas and guanacos outnumber people. (As a side note, it was in this very remote region of Argentina that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once took refuge from the law.)
Truly a pioneer town, El Chalten now
exists as the jumping off point (in what is now Glacier National Park) for exploring the stunning southern Andes, which is dominated by the towering granite spire of Mount Fitz Roy (11,000 feet). Our private guide Pedro, an experienced mountaineer, took us on several long, hot, arduous but sensational hikes to see the glorious Andean landscape. The perfectly clear azure blue skies were a stunning backdrop to the mountains, glaciers and lakes to which we trekked (for 8 hours a day). The atmosphere was so clear that the scenery appeared to have been created by a special effects team. It was so perfect and majestic that it didn’t seem real. But it was, which made the experience (not to mention the tired legs and feet and the sunburn) even more memorable. At the base of Mount Fitz Roy, we took out binoculars and saw tiny black spots moving on the side of the mountain. The spots were climbers taking advantage of the good weather to summit the peak. Our guide Pedro mentioned that when he climbed the peak he passed several frozen corpses of climbers who had not made it to the summit. Unless the family pays to have the
body removed, it remains where it fell on the mountain.
After hiking near Fitz Roy, we then hiked to an area called Laguna Torre, where a huge glacier from the Argentina ice fields spills down the mountains, forming a picturesque lake where we viewed the three granite towers soaring over 10,000 feet into the endless Andean sky. This was the hardest hike; most of the day we spent walking along a glacial river that offered little protection from the relentless high-altitude sun. We stopped multiple times to refresh ourselves by filling our water bottles with the chilled and pristine glacial water, however.
From Chalten, we returned to Calafate. There, we ended our trip by ice trekking on the massive glacier called Perito Moreno, which is 33 miles long, 9 miles wide and over 270 feet deep. As our guide pointed out, the entire city of Buenos Aires (with its 13 million people) could fit neatly on this glacier. After being fitted with crampons, we headed up, over and around glacial “dunes.” It felt as if we were on another planet. But we were indeed on Earth in Argentina, where we all came away with a profound sense of
the glories of nature and how they need to be enjoyed and, more importantly, protected. Travel Tips:
If you go to Argentina, here a few key things you need to know:
· Every US citizen needs to a pay a $160 fee in advance of departure to be allowed into the country.
· Few people (even in the service industry) speak English. So brush up on your rudimentary Spanish (“Donde esta el bano”) or be prepared to do lots of pointing.
· Before getting money from an ATM in Argentina, check to see if it’s part of your bank card’s network. Many banks in Argentina are not. So consider bringing some cash. We were able to exchange US dollars for Argentinian pesos at our hotel and received a better rate than the official exchange rate.
· If you want to do an adventure trip like we did, you need to be in shape. The Andean landscape is beautiful but the terrain can be punishing. That said, we all survived intact. We are hearty Vermonters after all.
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