Patagonia!

Trip Start Jan 14, 2008
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Trip End Jan 13, 2009


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Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Saturday, January 3, 2009

One has to wonder if Patagonia would be as famous if Yvon Chiounard hadn't named his extremely successful outdoor clothing line after this region.  But since he did, it's name has become quite familiar.    Most people associate this land with jagged peaks, windswept expanses, giant sheep estancias, rugged individualism, and the unique ecosystem that thrives here at the 'end of the world'. 

Our first experience of El Calafate, our first stop in the Patagonia region, validated the legacy that had preceded it.  In fact, the strange town even deepened these impressions with its rugged frontier nature that reminded us a bit of New Zealand and Alaska.  Home to an array of high-end designer outdoorwear boutiques, fancy souvenir shops, fine-dining parillas (steak houses), and snarling dogs tied up to rusted beatup pickup trucks, this ramshackle little town seemed to have little rhyme or reason to it.  The combination of well-heeled tourists,  grungy hardcore backpackers, and the kaleidoscope of locals created an intriguing contrast.   El Calafate, once a very wild place, and wild still in a refined sort of way, has been tamed into what we began to call Patagucci.

But we weren't here to shop.  We were here to take in the grandeur of the Perito Merino glacier.  The Calafate region harbors more glacier per kilometer than anywhere outside of Antartica.  And Perito Moreno is one of the most accessible major ice fields in the world.  Which was good for us as well as for the scads of Gortex-clad tourists who were to accompany us for the day.  The bus ride to the glacier and into Los Glaciers National Park was dramatic with sweeping views of the green plains stretching out to the distant mountains.  However, far more dramatic were the first views of the stark white crenulations of the massive 100 meter glacier far away across a slate gray bay.  We, and about 150 of our new best friends, piled into a comfortable catamaran for a scenic cruise across the bay.  As we neared the Glacier it became more and more interesting in texture, topography, and most of all color.  We cruised right up to about 150 feet near and spent a good amount of time slowly cruising back and forth.  It was quite beautiful and our favorite part were the bright turquoise blue veins that marbled some of the bergs.  We were lucky enough to also get some great calving action - where parts of the glacier shear off creating thunder and mini-tsunami waves.  After the cruise we continued our viewing of the glacier for another couple of hours from various walkways that the park has constructed for this very purpose.  It was a sedentary but quite fascinating activity.  Especially the calving!  The Perito Merino is supposedly a stable glacier meaning that it is not receding and is replenished year around by heavy snows that create the conditions that send what is essentially a giant slow moving river of ice.  Lets hope that this marvel (and its sisters and brothers) can survive global warming.

After a nice night at our welcoming hostel (The Hostel Lago Argentina) with an excellent meal with one of our favorite Argentine dishes (pumpkin/beef/raisin/peach/coriander stew in a baked pumpkin shell) at theirs sister Pura Vida restaurant we were off to El Chalten.  Well, we actually left out boring traveler details like the hours spent in vain trying to line up a plan for onward transportation and accomodations.  We had at this point been experiencing our first encounter since New Zealand with true high season.  And we had forgotten how to plan ahead!  

Okay, now we are off.  Four hours and a lot of beautiful wide open scenery later we arrived at the newest town in all of Argentina, El Chalten.  Only about ten years ago, Argentina hurriedly ordered a town to be built here to lay claim to the land before Chile did the same.  Today, the building goes on as everyone and his neighbor is building a hostel, hosteria, or other form of accomodations.  In fact, our very wonderful accomodations provided by our oh so nice host Elizabeth were even only half built.  Even half built, it was a cute and homey place and a perfect option for enjoying our stay.  Similarly, the town still manages to be quite quaint and despite ubiquitous construction, it still maintains a relaxed ambiance.

We both agree the relaxed air about the town has largely to do with the humbling beauty and grandiosity of Fitzroy which serves as the town's backdrop and center of gravity.   We're pretty sure in fact that Patagonia's logo was fashioned after this range of sharp peaks. As dramatic as the view is from town, it only gets better the nearer you get.  We experienced this first hand through two very long and beautiful walks.  The weather was outrageously beautiful and clear (apparently this is not typical).  So per the guidebook, we took advantage of the rare climate to hike to Laguna Torre at the base of Cerro Torre.  Rather than try to describe it, see the pictures below.  In short, it was stunning and we had a nice picnic at the lake below it.

The next day we saw Patagonia's truer colors and woke up to what seemed like near gale force winds battering at our little abode.  Even with the winds and the ominous clouds, we couldn't pass on this hike so we were off to Laguna Las Tres to see the even more impressive Cerro Fitzroy.  Well, more impressive in our memories as the top of this magnificent and intimidating (considered one of the five hardest peaks to climb in the world) peak was obscured by clouds for our entire hike.  Although we had to settle for only partial views of the Fitzroy and more full views of its equally jagged but smaller neighbors, it was a very pretty hike to the base camp.  In a fit of questionable judgment, we decided to climb up the 1000m of wind-buffeted switchbacks to the panorama.  To our disappointment, the clouds did not part.    Nonetheless, it was worth the effort as the end point of our hike brought us dangerously close to the glacier and the base of the peak.  Around the corner was a hidden little nook in the cliffs nestled above a massive cliff face with views of the valley stretching one way towards even more lakes and glaciers and the other way towards the endless green plains of Patagonia.  Gorgeous.

Between all this walking and gawking at scenery, we had spent too much time at the local locutorio battling with the internet and the phones which no one in Chalten seemed to know how to operate.  Long story short, we had a few options:

- Go to the famous Torres de Paine for some trekking as Jeff had planned.  Unfortunately this was  would take up the rest of our time in Argentina and require us to tackle a lot of high-season complications.

- Take a bus up to Bariloche on the famous Ruta 40 which was another one of Jeff's plans.  This would require us to spend 29 hours at least on a bus and give up other plans.  As well as spend more on a bus ride half way back to Buenos Aires than to fly all the way back.

-  Fly back to BA and head off to Cordoba and then Mendoza.

It was with some regrets that we left Patagonia a bit earlier than planned and without realizing Torres del Paine, but we had horses to ride and friends to meet.  As beautiful as Patagonia was, we decided that it is best visited with lots of time, money, reservations or better yet, all three.  We hope to come back with more of all of the three!
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