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Published: October 7th 2012
Our heroes spend a long time on a bus in order to go walking. Lots, and lots of walking. Lukcily this walking brings them into contact with some of nature's greatest spectacles and not just tiredness! Hurrah for nature!
El Calafate is quite a long way from Puerto Madryn. Actually, "quite a long way" is completely the wrong phrase here, "a soul destroying bus ride" or "one and a quarter days of my life that I'll never see again" would better describe how far apart these two places are. The first leg of our journey began at 8pm on a Tuesday in Madryn, it should have been 7pm but timetables are essentially decoration in Argentina I've come to realise. We stopped in Trelew for 90 minutes for no reason that I could descern, and then pushed on through the night towards Rio Gallegos, 1200km to the south. We were treated to "Elephant Blanco" a recently released Argentine film, but not before our feederplayer man (I've no idea what his job title actually is but as a friend noted in his blog they feed you and choose the dvd) had subjected us to 45 minutes of Latin American soft-rock-ageing-boyband-irish-dancing-earbleed-inducing
Lago Argentina bordering El Calafate
"music." There do not appear to be music categories here in Afrgentina the radio stations are very electic but it must make it really difficult for hipster-trendy-types to tell everyone else that they are "listening to the wrong sounds." Luckily I've only heard Shakira once. Anyway, upon waking on Wednesday morning we were in the middle of that Scooby Doo cartoon again, only this time it lasted for 8 hours! The most exciting parts of the journey involved going downhill, across a river or spotting a guanaco (bit like a brown llama) but those highlights aside there was little else going on (Mel Gibson's career was going further down the toilet on our TV screens in "Get the Gringo"). It was oppressively hot as the feederplayer seemed to have fallen on the temperature controls, and we'd failed to sleep due to crying babies. If I believed in Hell, this would be close to it. The Patagonian wilderness had stopped being enthralling and was now tauting me with each mile.
Finally, we pulled in to Rio Gallegos but due to the delays we had missed our connection to El Calafate requiring us to wait in the bus station
Glaciers: Ice, only cooler.
where I promptly suffered a migraine...at least I didn't get it on the road! 5 hours later we hopped on to a further bus to our destination. This trip was a merciful 4 hours in duration and despite it being dark we were able to see the snow falling and lying on higher ground. At 00.30am on Thursday morning we arrived at our destination! Luckily the hostel was close by and we were able to collapse into bed.
Luckily the journey was worth it (obviously this requires hindsight, a wonderful thing) as El Calafate, and especially El Chalten are surrounded by stunning natural beauty. The town's themselves are nondescript, El Calafate seems to want to emulate a ski resort and hasn't made the most of Lago Argentina which conveniently brushes the towns western border. There are plenty of overpriced outdoor stores and lots of stained wood but no soul. The aforementioned lake is a wonderful blue but the waterfront is incomplete and, due to the time of year we arrived the water level was low and so the shoreline was far from the front. I can't help but think they could have made it more attractive, there
was nothing here before the 1980's so they had the opportunity. Luckily no one comes here for town planning or architecture, they come for the glaciers, skiing and other outdoorsy pursuits. We can here for the glaciers and the trekking on the recommendation of a friend. The big attraction is the Pietro Moreno Glacier. It's big, I don't know the exact size (wikipedia will), but it seemed very wide and I couldn't see the end of it so it was probaby long too (I think you'll agree that I paint a vivid picture). Trying to get here under your own steam is difficult, it's like the bus companies don't want to help you or take your money, which I'm pretty sure is the whole point in their service! So we had to do the dreaded "E" word...excursion! "Why?!" I hear you shout. "You've betrayed your travelling ethos" some of you will no doubt sneer accusingly. Well, to that I say, if there was a bus going there I'd have done so (a taxi was $300 which is pricey, even for 80km) and I've betrayed nothing, sometimes you have to do these things...
...I'm going to go off on a
Nature at it's best.
tangent here as I've come across a rather annoying attitude in a number of travellers here, namely the derision they have for people who aren't lugging a back pack around for 6 months or more. There is a bit of snobbery going on; I'm not a tourist, I am a traveller! I'm not sure what the difference is? Perhaps a samsonite case vs a tatty backpack? Clean chlothes vs had washed, tatty t-shirts? 5 star luxury vs mixed dorms? Ultimately, where you stay and what you wear is superficial as ultimately you're wanting to get the same experience (only time scale and budget will likely differ). I cannot abide this lofty attitude, one particular Dutch couple said they didn't like tourists...are they not tourists also? Apparently they would go out of their way to avoid taking buses with tourists or trying to go to "touristy places." I'm not sure what constitutes one of these places but I imagine it is a place of interest what people actually want to see? I can't imagine travelling for 6 months or so going to see things I didn't want to or I thought were rubbish (imagine spending 6 months in a wet Milton
At dawn. The picture doesn't do the glowing colours of Fitzroy justice sadly.
Keynes before heading to Doncaster?), what would be the point. Sometimes you need to brave the crowds if you want to see something wonderful. I may actually have to bring this up next time rather than face plant the table then leave the room...Anyway, getting back to the glacier. We spent the morning trekking the glacier on it's eastern edge. We'd liked to have spent the day but the places went quickly. It was pretty amazing seeing the crevasses and the twisted, convoluted forms of the ice and knowing that they would constantly be shifting shapes. The dust from the surrounding mountains lands on the glacier and due to it's black colour it gradually heats it's way through the ice forming pools and drains on the surface. They were the deepest, purest blue and the water was crisp, smooth with a sweetness to it that I had not tasted before. It was fun tramping about on crampons for a few hours before finishing off the morning with some whisky (Irish sadly, but it'll do) on the glacier with double helpings for yours truly. We were lucky enough to take some close up photographs and to get close enough to hear
the ice cracking under the immense pressure forcing it's way down the mountain. After lunch we headed up to the viewing platforms and we lucky enough to see a huge, minivan size chunk of ice split and sheer away from the front of the glacier and plunge in to the lake with a monstorous crash and roar. As it smashed into the water huge spurts of icy white, foaming water shot high in to the air. The sound followed a second or two after your eyes perceived the event and reverberated off he kettle drum-like acoustics of the cliffs and valleys. It was ferocious and slightly scary spectale. I cannot comprehend seeing whole sections of glaciers collapsing in to the lake, such an act of nature would be almost apocolyptic! We completd our day back at the hostel with a parilla (a huge BBQ), a bottle of wine and the above conversation with the Dutch. The next morning we took the bus to our next destination.
We almost didn't make it to El Chalten. It was a Saturday morning at the beginning of a long weekend and many locals were making the same trip. We hadn't booked
It's good to know that Fitzroy isn't some kind of mountain vampire!
tickets and the queue was rather long! The knot of anxitey began to tighten in my stomach with the thought that we may end up missing our weekend and have to entertain ourselves in El Calafate again, and we'd done everything that wasn't a tour! Luckily, one company had the foresight to run a second bus. Good for them, more organised than us and infinitely more organised than I've given bus companies here credit for. Two hastily bought tickets later we stowed our bags and were on the road. The journey alongside the lake was lovely to our left, but it was more of that Patagonian scrub to the right. I practiced some Spanish with Ellie and eventually we stopped at a hotel or something by a river. Turns out it was a way station before the bridge was built but is famous for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Paul Newman and Robert Redford in my head) stopping off here while on the run for robbing a back in Rio Gallegos. They probably didn't have a slice of apple pie or have their photograph taken next to the signpost with famous cities of the world and their distances from
Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha. Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha. Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha....
the spot painted on it. I'm not sure what they did, nothing cool or "outlawery." I'm not even sure this bit was in the film. It may be a DVD easter egg. Anyhow, the scenery becomes a bit more interesting for th second leg as the Viedmar Lake and Glacier roll into view (on the left of course) but then, on the right just when you think you can't take any more of the scrub, BOOM, Mt. Fitzroy comes towering in to view in all his glory, figuritively stomping on all other scenery and bellowing his greatness and resplendent glory. Impressive, is it not, the image that has just popped in to your mind? Well, Fitzroy is that impressive in reality, especially on the crisp, bright clear day that we had. It's usually flanked by cloud which is why the Mapuche thought it a volcano. Everyone on the bus, including Ellie, were falling over themselves to take a photograph, I'd have been too probably if I had anything better than my crappy iPhone! The last half hour of the journey was most pleasurable, taking in and comprehending the views on offer. Breathtaking. Spectacular. But it was just the start.
Lagos De Los Tres
It was frozen but the mountain is awe inspiring so close up.
The town looks and feels kind of like how I imagine the American West felt in 1860 or so, except no cowboys and, disappointingly, no shootouts at the local Saloon. The saloon (microbrewery) was closed here, as was everything else! El Chalten is the epitome of a tourist town. In the winter everything is closed because so few tourists come here as the climbing and trekking are too dangerous and the skiing is off-piste. Our hostel, the newly refurbished Patagonia Hostel, and a few hotels, a bakery or two and the supermarket (poorly stocked and pricey) were the sole businesses open. There were locals but I couldn't figure out what they did mostly. Wait for tourists? Imitate pumas to scare us when trekking? It was such a small place that most ammenities were out of town. Even the Park Ranger's office was across the river!
We did two big treks here. Neither involved substantial amounts of uphill walking, except a stretch of Lago de los Tres (but more on that later), but both were spectularly stunning walks. The Glacier Torres trek took us up a pretty sharp 100m climb coming out of the town but was pretty much plain
This was a stupid idea. The water was around 4 degrees C. After 10 seconds my feet were agony from the cold.
sailing across country. The landscape changed from craggy, stream strewn bush to a wide shallow valley intersected by a small river. Amoungst the leafless trees ducks enjoyed their relative privacy and the Pumas continued to ellude us. The forrest in the valley secreted away several lagoons which had jet black waters. Innumerable trees appeared to have had their life ripped from them by lightening, leaving splinters and shards of timber strewn across our path. Eventually, the snow capped peaks of the valley began to converge and we encountered a small, crumbling rise. This undulation was quickly succeeded by another and the path snaked between the two. The wind began to increase in ferocity, throwing handfuls of grit into our eyes in a last ditch attempt to prevent us from gazing up the galcier and her lake. The wind was no deterrent, through the mild sand blasting we pressed and dipped down to the shores of the lake, scuttling beneath the wind. The water of the lake was a makebelieve blue, almost milky and it gently lapped against the rough-sand shore. Creating a barrier against the waves were huge chunks of glacier ice, liberally strewn across the surface, scuttled against the
Not the best photo but these birds are amazing.
shallow basin of the lake. As you lifted your gaze the glacier hung at the far edge, hemmed in on three sides by the Andes and on the fourth by the lake. The glacier appeared shine in the sun, deep blues glinting out at irregular intervals across the jagged face of white, cold ice. Being at the bottom of the valley with 2000m plus peaks all around made me feel small and at the same time wonderfully free. It is hard not to encounter a sense of liberation when the wonders of nature surround you and there are no artifical sounds on the wind, the water and the cracking of distant ice. Those moments were aweinspiring, but they were a mere taster for Lago de los Tres.
Two days after the Lago Torres trek (we spent the previous day doing smaller walks and catching Arsenal play someone in yet another forgetable football game), we headed out early to Lago de las Tres. This lake is situated at the base of Mount Fitzroy and the trek began with another abrupt climb, but this time through a small wood in which we spied a pair of Magellan Woopeckers doing
About 3km out of El Chalten. The water tasted incredible.
their best to find their breakfast. They were noisy about it to, the Cookie Monster is more subtle in his eating habits! The walk took us through a cliff hugging forrest before levelling out at a "mirador" of Fitzroy and his band of mountains in the early morning sun. Since Fitzroy and his companions are jagged spikes of orange-pink rock they are highlighted by the sunlight in such a way that they appear to glow. We snapped some photos and pushed on towards the lake, following a meandering river. We bumped in to an American photographer and her 62 year old mother who were attempting the same trip. At the base of the sharp ascent we left them to take their time and powered our way up towards the snow. The path disappeared beneath the white stuff at about 800m above sea level. Due to its compactness and the fact that others had gone before the white stuff became a bit treacherous beneath our feet. We slowed our pace but continued the climb, without slipping, to 1000m. At the end of the path Fitzroy basked in the suns warm glow looking very contented and radiant. The lake however was nowhere to be seen. We searched about and decided lunch would be a good idea. It was. I can't think of a more enchanting environment in which I have eaten in my life. The views across the valley even managed to take in Lago Viedmar. It was glorious. We also realised that Lago de los Tres was in face frozen and covered with snow! Hence our inability to find it (we were looking at it the whole time). The return to the bottom was much faster, rather than chance a calamitous slip on to ones arse we opted for the childhood sliding-on-your-backside approach! Pure joy was had sliding down a near veritcal slope in the snow. On the return leg of the journey we happened across a pair of Condors drifting through the sky over our heads. They circled for 15 minutes or so and didn't once have need to flat their enormous wings. It was a majestic sight and a wonderful way to end the day.
On leaving town we caught the early bus, making it easy to glimpse the sunrise. Remember that Fitzroy is mostly bare, orange rock, and when the sun casts it's early morning pink, flourescent glow upon it it gives the illusion of smouldering and buring like an ember. A fitting end to a fairytale few days. With the sun rising behind us we set out on our way to Bariloche and the Lake District.
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