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calafate

El Chalten and El Calafate

El Chalten and El Calafate

Well, I survived the 24-hour bus ride. To be honest, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I got lucky and the bus was only about half full; the seat next to me was open and gave me the proper space to stretch out. The ride was also baby-free which was a nice touch. I was able to get almost a full 8 hours of sleep, and with Netflix downloads (life saving for me these days), podcasts, and my book, I passed the time without too much heartache. The bus company (Marga/Taqsa) even gave me a halfway decent dinner…or my standards have just fallen. They first brought me a tray with a slice of ham, a slice of cheese, a dinner roll, and a container of orange jello. I was about halfway through that delicacy when he brought up a warm aluminum container filled with chicken and rice. I have no doubt the chicken was frozen at some point but it was a nice surprise nonetheless.

I arrived in El Chalten mid-afternoon. El Chalten is a tiny and relatively young town, only founded in 1985, and driven completely off tourism. It sits in a small valley surrounded by mountains, which creates a perfect path for hurricane-like wind gusts, which can be a bit frustrating as you’re carrying both of your packs and trying not to fall over. After checking in at Rancho Grande hostel, I got out and did a quick 90-minute hike to a small waterfall, and started walking back just as it began to rain a bit. This wasn’t a great sign as if you have bad weather, El Chalten becomes much less interesting. If you can’t hike, there’s not much else to do besides eat and drink. That night I met up with my friend Nacho who I met in Bariloche, and one of his friends who were also in town, at a local restaurant. We split a massive picada plate (think charcuterie), which included my first helpings of ostrich and wild boar. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. After a beer and a bottle of wine, we split up and I walked home in the now-much-stronger rain storm.

I woke up the next morning to surprisingly clear skies. A well-timed break in the weather, since this is the day I had planned to hike the most well-known trail in town – the hike to Mt. Fitz Roy. On just a granola bar for breakfast (which I’ll explain later), I set out on the four-hour hike. The first hour or so was a little tough, but when you reach the peak of the first hill, you have an amazing view of the mountain peaks towering over the valley below, and for the next few hours, you walk with constantly beautiful sights. The last hour was the toughest part, an even steeper climb over rocks, but absolutely worth it. Probably my favorite hike so far, with absolutely stunning views, and the finish didn’t disappoint. After a 30-minute break at the top, and refilling my water bottle with fresh glacier water that would make Bobby Boucher proud, I headed back towards town. The following day, I had another day of decent weather and hiked towards Cerro Torre, a slightly less taxing hike towards the other tall peak in the area, with another glacial lake at its base. I hiked with Isaac from Holland, and he worked up the stones to go for a dip in the lake. Crazy Dutch…When we got back, we went to a local happy hour, where a 5 piece Argentinean folk band surprised us with a live performance.

The one challenging aspect of this town was the complete lack of ability to get cash. I heard it was a pain but was cutting it to close to my bus departure in El Bolson to fix it, I figured it couldn’t be that bad. I was wrong. They had 2 ATMs in town; one doesn’t accept cards with chips (is the alternative even a thing anymore?) and the other one regularly runs out of money. I went down at 8 on Monday morning when the bank opened (or was supposed to), and waited till 9 before accepting that maybe the teller just wasn’t planning on showing up that day. Without a withdrawal, I had barely enough cash (when combining Argentinean and Chilean pesos with my $20 remaining in USD) to pay for my hostel and bus ticket out of town, so I was skimping on food hard. I found one restaurant that took credit card, so my plan was just to eat a big dinner there every night. Of course, on my last night in town, I was able to withdraw a little money from the ATM, and later found out my hostel did accept credit cards, so all the worry was for naught.

I took the 2-hour bus ride to El Calafate, and the first thing I did after checking in at iKeuKen hostel was find a farmacia for my cold. Heavy dose of Sudafed in hand, I went to Laguna Nimez, a wildlife reserve right on the coast of Lago Argentina. Upon entry, the guy at reception told me to watch out between stations 7 and 10 as the birds of prey were nesting and they could get protective. I figured he was just saying this to add a little excitement to a bird sanctuary. It’s rare, he said. Wrong. Not until station 13, but I swear to god this bastard dive bombed me. I’m glad no one was around to hear the pitch of scream I let out, but it was an effective enough deterrent to save my eyeballs from certain gouging.

The other highlight here, and main reason people come, was the visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in the world, and one of the only glaciers in the region that is expanding in size rather than shrinking. It was amazing, and one of those things where pictures don’t really do it justice. Hard to capture the sheer size, and the best part to me is sitting and listing to the thunderous cracks and crumbling of the ice as it falls 70 meters to the lake below.  It’s awe-inspiring, if not a little haunting. I capped off the afternoon in the café on-site, where they will serve you whiskey over a chunk of glacier ice, and it was 5 o’clock somewhere, so I partook. I ended the evening by meeting up with some old friends with Valparaiso over a few beers, and am about to get on the 5-hour bus towards Puerto Natales, Chile, the base to reach Torres Del Paine National Park. Hope the weather holds off.