About 220 KM from El Calafate is a small village, El Chalten.
The distance is significant because El Chalten is in the northern area of Los Glaciares National Park. Its size is significant and unexpected – the village is near to some of the best hiking in Argentina, but maintains an exceptionally tiny footprint.
I enjoyed the drive from El Calafate to El Chalten. Two-and-a-half hours total – the first half heading east on a mostly empty highway along the southern shore of Lago Argentina, and the second half returning west via ruta 23 on the northern edge of Lago Viedma.
For over an hour, the view above occupied my vision. Mount FitzRoy grew larger and larger, the distinctive peak almost never escaping behind hills or trees. Flying in to Buenos Aires, the pilot announced Mount FitzRoy beneath the plane, and dozens of passengers unbuckled, headed for windows, and tapped away on phones, capturing the narrow peak from 35,000 feet in the air. In a little while, I’ll be much closer to Argentina’s tallest peak.
In case you can’t tell from my elementary prose, the sights and sounds of Perito Moreno assault perceptions and awaken deep, profound sensations in at least one human being. By chance, I witnessed a singular event, the unpredictable collapse of the “Rupture Bridge.” According to a Patagonia Web site, during the 20th century the phenomenon occurred only 16 times. Later in the day, a guide who had worked 10 years in the park revealed he had never seen a rupture. That was just one small part of the Perito Moreno experience for me.
Perieo Moreno is part of a national park in Argentina. Unlike similar American parks, Los Glaciares is not overwhelmed by tourists. In the park boundaries, over 40 glaciers form, move, and melt, year in and year out. Thousands and thousands of miles of sliding ice. Tourism activities allowing visitors to experience and better understand glacier activity are limited to a few small areas. At Perito Moreno, one of the offered activities is a hike along the western shoulder of the ice.
After crossing the Rico branch of Lago Argentina by boat, cruising by the leading edge of the ice towering 60 meters overhead, we disembark near three shelters nestled in the Andean forest. In groups of English- and Spanish speakers, we walk a mile between the lake and the trees, aiming for the crampon huts. Rocky and exposed, this area feels more like what a glacier should feel like. Guides outfit everyone with sturdy, spiky, ice crampons, and shout out simple directions. They shout because the wind is gusting around the glacier, immediate evidence of part of the climate phenomenon forming the ice. Out on the boat, jackets off and snapping photos, the ice seemed merely beautiful. From the crampon huts, the miles-wide sheet of compacted, centuries-old snow become threatening and dangerous, spiky, crackling eager to grab an unwitting visitor.
“Feet apart, stay in line, follow the leader, stop before taking photos.” The directions are simple, but something about the tone and cautious attention of the guides makes me aware of the possibility for accident, for danger, for death. We take off, crampons cramponing, stretched out along an invisible trail along edgy ice, the scrabbly, sharp crags of ice looming over our tiny, vulnerable group.
It’s impossible to look ahead and see where our trek will go. The climate on the ice changes every minute; sunny, then cloudy; calm and quiet, then windy and cold. During the windy moments, ice crystals pelt my nylon shell steadily, rat-a-tat-tat. Dirt and dust blow in steadily, tainting the beautiful blue ice with swaths of mountain brown.
Diego guides us well. We stop occasionally, enjoy forming crevasses, incredibly formed spires of ice pointing to incoming clouds and sun and snow. Another guide shadows our group. I’m not really sure why – he takes off every few minutes, scuttling around trees of ice, then appears ahead of or alongside the group – I think he must be scouting our route. When we come to a downhill, both guides remind us to “Stamp your crampons!”
Like most astounding experiences, it’s over too soon. We stop on a broad flat area where some crude wooden tables seem to careen on the field of ice. Diego fills a large metal bowl with ice freshly ice-axed from nearby crags. Glasses of whiskey and chocolate treats accompany toasts in several languages and congratulations to all. In a nearby crack in the ice, filled with water, I submerge my face and quaff melted snow that may have been here for a century. Today was a good day.
So, I kind of got to like El Calafate, a lot. Sure, the main street is touristy and predictable – a sporting goods store, a chocolate store, an excursion office, and a souvenir shop on every block. After I got out to see Perito Moreno, all of those initial observations about EC evaporated, overtaken by the thunder and majesty of Perito Moreno glacier.
Do a little research on Perito Moreno. I won’t include a bunch of facts and stuff here. Being in the vicinity of this amazing natural phenomenon was overwhelming, inspiring, astounding, and awesome.
The thing is gigantic, even from a mile away. As I got closer, I started hearing the creaking, cracking, and explosive bursts that the glacier emits all the time.
It’s hard to catch in a photo, but pieces are falling off the front part of the glacier all the time. Pieces as big as skyscrapers, cracking off the leading edge of the massive sheet of ice, booming and splashing into the water of Lago Argentina.
It’s exciting to watch a glacier change, move, shed, and develop. The excitement confounded my attempts to catch the calving process on film. I have 143 pictures of Perito Moreno, most of them taken split-seconds after a 60-meter sheet of ice crashed into the lake, splashing water 100 feet into the air, tidal waving icy water.
But even a glacier, tens of thousands of years old, continually moving, changing, impressing, can astonish visitors.
On the right. a bridge-like formation has developed. According to guides, the process began in September 2015 when the glacier made contact with the point of land seen in the photo. I won’t go into the “glacial” story here, but will be happy to relate more information at cocktail parties and free lunches. On the bus ride out to the park, Silvia told us the rupture might occur that day – I confusedly thought she was promoting a Christian message, not a glacial one.
Shortly after arriving at the balconies, permanent structures built to optimize tourist viewing of Perito Moreno, the bridge crumbled and fell. As I said, excitement confounded photographic timing. Here’s a video:
It was nice to fly from Bariloche. One day-long bus trip is enough, and I had heard and read some pretty good things about El Calafate, so I was excited getting on the plane. Then, the plane landed.
As you can see, there is a thousand miles of nothing. No trees, a few hills across a gigantic lake (didn’t I just come from a place with a giant lake?).
There is also a cat asleep on a chair in the airport. What kind of place could this be?
On the way into town, we chew up about 20 of those thousands of mile of nothing. As the town of El Calafate comes into view, my gut churns and I am getting my grouch on. Wind is gusting, dirt from the unpaved streets is twirling, and a herd of dogs is in front of the hostel, chasing the garbage truck down the (dirt) road. Where am I, Black Rock?
Then, I get inside the hostel.
The place is busy – people, backpacks, buses coming and going, cleaners hard at work, and it is 1:00 in the afternoon.
Mattias tells me, “David; go into town and walk around. Your room is not ready yet, and it is a beautiful day. Here is a map.” Luggage stashed in the lockup, and I’m off to find what’s what in El Calafate.
About 2 km from the hostel is a nature sanctuary, Laguna Nimez. Nice trails, descriptive signs, lots of south of the equator bird life.
I’m starting to see more deeply and clearly into the soul of El Calafate. A herd of horses runs by on the shore of the lake.
On the Laguna Nimez side of the fence, species of birds I have never seen before enjoy the quiet peace of the sanctuary.
Within a few days, I will have trekked across a glacier twice, hiked miles around the remote village of El Chalten, and viewed a singular natural event. I will eat Argentine beef grilled with eggplant and potatoes, drink fine Malbec wine and enjoy superior helado.
Last night at dinner at the hostel, I started talking with some of the other travelers here. Out of 6 people, 4 were from Colorado. Another guy from Germany once made plans to transfer to Boulder when told he could choose any place in the US to work. I haven’t talked to an American for 2 months; I get to an obscure destination in Argentina and I’m surrounded.
I feel like I may be overstating the calm, incessant beauty of Bariloche and the surrounding area. As I walk around the town, and hike the hills and forests, I constantly exclaim, “Wow!” Either this is one of the most geographically amazing places I have been, or I am overwhelmingly happy to be out of the megatropolises dominating the first few weeks of the trip. I have dropped myself in to the middle of crowds of millions – easily 60 or 70 million – since December. Standing on buses and subways, sleeping in rooms full of beds full of people, eating in crowded restaurants and dining rooms. It is thrilling to be on a road shaded by trees, curving around a lake, experiencing mountain scenery that makes me forget every city I have ever been in.
Eighteen-point-three kilometers west of the center of Bariloche, I found this bike rental place. Of course, I’m there early; twenty minutes before opening time. As I paced around the coneage, bikes are being rolled out to the yard, kayaks leaned against the fence, and an ancient collie whose coat hasn’t seen a brush this century ambles by to sniff out the patient customer.
Again, I exclaim “Wow!” This place is so much like a thousand places in the Rockies, because of the gigantic mountain views. But, altitude here is only around 2500′ above sea level. I’m excited to get on a bike and ride up and down some hills.
The route is about 30 KM around Lago Moreno and on to the Llao Llao peninsula. The forest here is thick and lush and full of pine trees and plenty of deciduous trees. Traffic is very light, which is good for me because every time I get going on a good downhill stretch, I’m yelling like crazy.
The bike rental place pointed out several places to stop for photos, stop for water and drinks, and sights to see along the way. I’m excited to do some mountain riding, so the tourist part doesn’t interest me. Every time I stop to look out over the massive lake, I say and feel “Wow!”
Even with my incredible speed on the downhill portions, the whole route took about 4 hours. I stopped a lot, brought a huge lunch to eat, and took my time pedaling. It was so serene and beautiful, and I consumed vast quantities of fresh air.
Though I enjoyed Bogotá, Quito, Lima, Santiago, & Buenos Aires, I wish I had spent more time in places like Bariloche.
The smaller the city, the happier I am. Though I enjoy things that bigger cities have to offer, I am so in a better mood in towns with a population around 120,000. Enter Bariloche.
And it helps when the town is in a beautiful geographic setting, like Bariloche. The lake, Lago Nahuel Huapi, is spectacular. Over 200 square miles of surface area, and it stretches out for miles, and miles, and miles.
Bariloche has features that remind me of Colorado mountain towns – lots of tourist shops selling crap with “Bariloche” emblazoned on the outside, inside, bottom and/or top. But the setting is fantastic. The water is always within view, the tourist office employs English-speaking consultants, and it is relatively easy to get around town AND to cool places in the area.
AND several brewpubs, attractive to this traveler because they open 2 hours earlier than most standard restaurants – 6 PM versus 8 PM. Many businesses here close during the afternoon, then reopen for evening shopping.
I’m happy just to walk around and enjoy the scenery, savor the lower temperatures, and feed my nascent helado habit.
My next destination – Bariloche. 1,000 miles southwest of Buenos Aires almost back to Chile. Once again, bought a ticket online, chose a seat, printed the ticket, yada yada.
The last time I was on a bus for any length of time was in the 70’s. Denny Harlow and I hitched to California, and had to call home and beg for bus tickets home after a couple of ride-less days. Denny got laid on the bus, as I remember, and I didn’t.
Compared to that experience nearly 50 years ago, the trip to Bariloche was a marvel. The buses are double-decker and I chose to ride on the upper level. While the view, when available, was more remarkable, the ride on top was often turbulent. Side-to-side rocking for a thousand miles.
Food service on the bus! Yep, I sprang for Ejecutivo service, so I got three meals served by a steward ( I wonder if serving food on a bus is a status occupation). The seats recline mostly all the way, and I slept remarkably well at night (the bus left Bs As at 8:30 PM) and most of the next day – rocking, side-to-side.
I don’t know where we stopped along the way, but we did, at least 5 times. At one stop, everyone got off the bus while I was in the bathroom. Then the bus drove around the parking lot to a building where meals and coffee were loaded on. I guess it was a 7th inning stretch, but I missed it.
So, 19 hours is the longest amount of time on any transport. I think the old record was a ferry from France to Ireland – I slept on the deck after drinking too much Guinness with an Irish singer. That was about 16 hours.
Not much to see on this voyage. Lots of empty country in the middle of Argentina, covered by the kind of foliage I’ve seen in the deserts of the western US. This plant cover is more thick and lush than I’m used to.
Anyway, this is the view waiting for me in Bariloche:
On Monday, I headed south to Mar del Plata, about 5 hours by bus south of Buenos Aires.
I feel pretty good about being on the bus – mainly because I arranged the trip, bought the ticket online, got the ticket printed, and figured out how to get to the bus terminal from the hostel on the subway. According to my travel research, buses are more prevalent than trains in Argentina because the country is so large and the terrain so varied. So, a bus ride (or two) seems inevitable.
I didn’t post from Mar del Plata because my hotel room was so small I couldn’t open my laptop.
I got used to hanging out in hostels at least a part of every day, an though the hotel in MDP served a great breakfast, I missed chillin’ in the common areas, talking to all of the weird travelers one encounters in the hostel world.
While in Buenos Aires, I tried a great stout from Antares Cerveceria. An established microbrewer with pubs all over the country, Antares brews in Mar del Plata, so I decided to check them out. About an hour’s walk across the city through some nice and some sketchy neighborhoods, I found the brewery in an industrial area. Though they were closed, Marianna kindly let me in. I walked around the pub area, scoped the brewery through the glass windows, and talked Marianna into selling me a couple of T-shirts. Turns out she had been to Fort Collins to visit ODell Brewing, New Belgium, and others. We had a good time yakking about the Fort, about beer, and the Trump candidacy.
Along the route to the brewery, I saw lots of cool stuff – not a lot of picture-worthy things, it seems.
Neighborhoods down here are fascinating. Every home, no matter the location, is behind gates and walls – no such thing as a front yard open to the street. Even tiny little shacks adhere to the convention, which makes me wonder why.