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Finishing Up Patagonia

We have arrived in Buenos Aires early this morning. It was a long trip, not so much by the length of the travel, but just because of our exhaustion. We flew here from the port city of Rio Gallegos, which had such bad reviews in our book that we didn´t even bother exploring it. What was exhausting about the trip was that we took a mid-afternoon bus to Rio Gallegos, then sat in the airport from 7 pm until they finally boarded us at 3 am. Oddly, the plane was a half hour late taking off, even though it was only one of two flights in a seven hour period; it seems they had a difficult time boarding us. At any rate, regardless of the delayed departure, they somehow made up the time and even arrived in BA earlier than the 6 am arrival time, much to my sleep-deprived dismay. We figured out which bus would take us to the center, and arrived in the correct neighborhood, though I made quite a spectacle when I tried my best to squeeze my big bag out the door as quickly as possible, getting hung up on a handrail and knocking my glasses off in the process. It had to have been amusing, this disheveled homeless looking man with a huge pack trying to pop out the door.

BA is great so far. We´re midway through a walking tour, though the fact that I´m sitting in a computer lab right now shows just how serious we are about it. This is a big city for certain, and it gets some bad rap by people who just dismiss it as such. However, there is quite a personality about this city, an old, bohemian character that can frequently be noted by walking around. Our hostel has quite a character as well, very friendly folks and interesting art painted all along the walls. They were nice enough to hold our bags for us when we arrived at 8 am, though check-in wasn´t until 11 am; they even let us drink coffee (the cafeteria lady withheld the bread and jam though), which is the first time in 5 months that has happened. We´ll probably end up staying here in BA, exploring the city, finding as much tango, wine, and cool barrios as possible, for four nights.

As a matter of fact, Argentina itself has been as great as I was expecting it to be. My last entry was about hiking in the Torres Del Paine park. From Puerto Natales, we headed with our friend Talie down to the most southern city in South America, Punta Arenas, Chile (Ushuaia is the southern most town). Legend has it there are ropes along sidewalks to help pedestrians keep from being blown over by the frequent high winds. While we didn´t see any ropes, we did notice that the trees tend to grow at a slant, all in the same direction. We´d gotten mixed reviews on Punta Arenas, some people love it and some people hate it. Ultimately, Jess and I wanted to see the Strait of Magellan, which played a prominent part in a book about the history of circumnavigators, and so we went. I can see how people might not like Punta Arenas, if the weather were horrible, which apparently it can be. We were fortunate that our two full days there were spent under sunny if windy skies. It´s actually got a bit of pioneer charm to it. Better yet, the Austral brewery is there, and at 5 pm on weekdays they offer English language tours, including a decent sampling of all their brews. We love a good brew tour.

We sadly parted company with Talie at that point; she continued on to Ushuaia on the Tierra Del Fuego island, where she gleefully ignored a sign posted about her trail being closed and was rewarded with a couple of nights of solitary camping in a beautiful if forboding part of the world. As for us, we bused back to Puerto Natales and then on into Argentina, to the tourist trap of El Calafate. We were glad to be in Argentina, though sad to be leaving Chile (we were there a month to the day). It is our 17th country on this trip, and my 40th country outside of the US. On the other hand, we quickly ascertained that we needed to clear out of Calafate as quickly as possible. Walking down its one major street, one quickly sees what sort of town it is; the street is lined with chocolate shops, souvenir stores, and any other kind of kitschy or overly priced outdoor equipment that you can imagine. Kind of like Gatlinburg of Patagonia. It´s funny how frequently we find oursevles in these types of towns.

So, we stayed one night in the town, as it was nearly 8 pm when we arrived. The next morning, we immediately set out to buy tickets up to this crazy little village up in the mountains called El Chalten. After stocking up on some food supplies, we headed up to the town. It is the youngest town in Argentina, apparently born in 1985 based on some border dispute with Chile over who owns the 300+ glaciers in the area. The town itself is in the Los Glacieres Parque Nacional, an aptly named park that contains the famous climber´s peak of Cerro Fitz Roy, which is where we wanted to do some hiking. The town is obviously a frontier town, with no banks, post offices or similar expected businesses other than loads of hostels and a couple of dingy super-mercados; it even has a graveyard, empty as no one has died and been buried there yet, which speaks for its youth. But despite the persistent feeling that you are on a Old Western movie set, the town is great simply because it is the entrance into the hiking system of the park; you literally walk off of the streets onto trails and up into the mountains.

The park itself is free (besides the bus ride), an amazing difference from Torres, which sort of broke the bank. There is no entrance fee, and there is no charge for camping in the free campgrounds inside the park. On the other hand, the established hiking system is pretty limited, with a couple of campgrounds only three or four hours from each other, and the town pretty much three hours from any point on the hike that we took. Our hiking pals from Torres, Annabelle and Dan, hired a guide to take them further into the backcountry, which is recommended if you want to avoid the throngs of dayhikers coming into the park for the views. We weren´t up to exploring backcountry given our supplies and our lack of experience, so we stuck with the trails. It was enough of a challenge, as it turns out; what the Fitz Roy range lacks in technical trails, it makes up for in ferocious winds and rapid changes of weather that can go from bright sunshine to freezing rain and sleet being blasted into your face. It´s impressive. Ironically, between the hikes in Torres del Paine and Fitz Roy, this was the hike my mom worried the most about, as we were going it alone. That was before I informed her that camping in freezing cold a mere three hours from a warm hostel bed is self-inflicted punishment, akin to camping in your backyard in a blizzard, for the novelty of it all. That´s not to mention the hordes of hikers we met, which meant we were never really alone. That´s ok, though, mom.

Our first night we hiked up to a glacial lake, which was beautiful, though we had a late start and didn´t see much of the glacier or the lake that night. We had a cold night but I slept well, and in the morning, we woke up to brilliant sunshine. We lazily had breakfast and packed up, and hiked the four hours to the next campground, assuming we´d set up our tent and go further up the trail. All went well until about 45 minutes before the campground, when we came over a crest and found the wind blasting into our faces. We staggered through the freezing rain until we reached the campground, our pants wet, ice forming in my beard. It seemed strange to have such weather in January in the southern hemisphere, but this is what Fitz Roy is known for. By the time we set up the tent, we were freezing, so we hid in our sleeping bags for about three hours, trying to warm our limbs, until suddenly a calm arrived. We ventured out and went hiking up towards the Fitz Roy for about an hour; again we were driven back to the tent by a driving...snowstorm? We had a frigid dinner and ended up in our sleeping bags by 7 pm. We listened to huge wind gusts pounding our tent and driving sleet balls into its walls, until around 9:30 again there was an absolute calm. I went outside (Jess refused) and suddenly I found myself looking up at the massive Fitz Roy, which is so commonly veiled in clouds that many visitors never see it. It was gorgeous in the falling dusk, so I snapped a few photos and headed back to the sleeping bag, as a lack of wind didn´t stop the snow or the biting cold.

I woke up at 5:30 (no surprise given that we´d been in our sleeping bags since 7 pm). I looked out, and was surprised to see the outline of the Fitz Roy above. I decided against getting out of the tent for sunrise photos against the peak, figuring it would still be visible at 7:30 when it wasn´t so cold. I was wrong, instead finding a huge cloud bank looming in its place. We decided that indicated another storm was coming, so we quickly had breakfast and packed, and even so found ourselves being helped along by huge gusts of wind driving rain into our backs. At least it wasn´t in our faces. We soon walked out of the worst of it, which seemed to be concentrated in the valley below Fitz Roy, and the rest of the walk was really beautiful. Along the way to El Chalten, we kept passing folks who looked woefully unprepared for the weather further back, wearing minimal jackets and cloth shoes. Even those more appropriately dressed, I didn´t envy, because by the time we reached town and found a restaurant for a beer, the storm had followed us in and was pouring rain. Good day to leave El Chalten and Fitz Roy, I thought.

Back in El Calafate, we found that we´d made an error in our calculations, and that we had a spare day to spend in Calafate before we headed on to Rio Gallegos. That afternoon we tried to keep ourselves busy, which is difficult in a town with as little to offer as Calafate (it is strictly known for its easy access to Fitz Roy as well as the Perito Moreno Glacier, which draws people from all over the world; we had decided against paying $45 each to see the glacier, because nothing will beat our view of the Glaciar Grey in Torres del Paine). That night in the hostel, I was awoken in my bunk bed by incessant itching, the sypmtoms of bedbug-infested sheets; I ended up with a stripped bed in my travel sheets, with plenty of little bumps to prove the issue, though I didn´t look like I had in Morocco after such an attack, where I could have been mistaken for having chicken pox. Fortunately the next day I was able to move to a different bed, and Jess and I spent the day relaxing in town, eating and drinking and reading all day. Of course, the next day we headed on to Rio Gallegos, to catch our flight to BA. 

Thus ends our saga in Patagonia. It took me three visits to Chile to finally get down there, but it was worth every penny spent and the years of waiting. It is one of those places, where in the midst of a constant wind dreading your hair for you and a persistent chill despite being summer, you can´t help but think that it is a real special place, magical in its own way.

Until next time, be safe.



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Aaron - I love the way you write your blog! I can just see you trying to get out of the bus with your pack on! :-) And you are so right about Patagonia being a special kind of place! Miss you guys!

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