Ice, mountains, and trekking

Trip Start Aug 09, 2006
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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Happy Birthday, ma!

I think last I wrote, I was on my way out of Rio Gallegos.  I am about to re-enter that bland little town for the 3rd time tomorrow, heading back north.  For some reason, all routes going from this far south go through Rio Gallegos, where there is nothing.  And if you get stuck there overnight, lodging is not cheap.  But I suppose if you`re going to Ushuaia, your route options will be limited.

Ushuaia is the self-proclaimed ¨End of the World¨, the southernmost city in the world (they don`t count Puerto Williams in Chile for some reason, maybe because its too small or is mostly just a Navy base).  Getting to Ushuaia, for awhile the terrain really feels like the end of the world.  Just flat brown nothing, very end-of-the-worldish.  But with sheep everywhere, blocking the road sometimes.  You have to go from Argentina to Chile, cross the Strait of Magellan on a ferry, more Chile, then back into Argentina.  This part of Tierra del Fuego is on the large island.  Then at some point, you see the mountains coming around to the right that will eventually drop off into the ocean.  Crossing the strait was actually kinda cool, since I remember studying about Magellan going round the world, searching and searching for a way around the continent before finding this little route.  It was really foggy and you could barely see anything, going accross the water.

There is so much to do in Tierra del Fuego.  Skiing, snowboarding, hiking, boat trips, snow-shoeing, sled dog running, you name it.  You get used to it a little bit, but its still odd randomly running into people you know.  In Ushuaia, there were four people at the hostel that I already knew from other places.  I actually saw an Argentine guy around town with a Troy Walters Lions jersey.  Bizarre.  He had now idea what the heck he was wearing, just liked how American football jerseys looked.  Anyway, did some more snowboarding down here at Cerro Castro.  Lot less people, more space, but fewer trails.  And you had to use a T-bar, which is always interesting.

Have been following the Rugby World Cup and its great doing it here because Argentina is actually good at rugby, people get really excited over the games (especially after upsetting France at home in the first game of the tournament), and it makes for a great atmosphere.  Especially with other travellers from countries where rugby is also popular.  Argentina made it to the final four, but just lost a couple days ago.  Ate at quite a few all-you-can-eat places here also.  Funny episode when a group of us went to an asado (tons of animal meat grilled, hanging up in the window, still with hoofs, etc..) and for some reason a vegitarian wanted to come along.  He had a little hissy fit at everybody eating so much meat (¨mercilessly¨ was the word).  But come on...gave the rest of us a laugh anyways.  Lots of good ice cream here also.  Trying all kinds of new crazy flavors.

Was not as cold here as I thought it would be.  Was definitely worse in Rio Gallegos.  The hikes were alright but a little sketchy, as they weren`t marked at all and you soon found yourself imagining trails and just walking up the mountain.  There is also the Tierra del Fuego National Park which has some super pretty spots, including one trail that just goes along the coast of a lake the whole time.  And another trail which was postcard Argentina, wild horses, a bit of flat land with huge mountains right behind.  Went there a few times.  I also got pretty interested in the Indians´ story down here, mostly with the Yámana.  Going around naked in a place like this with this weather, but always had fire with them, on land, in a canoe...(hence, ¨Tierra del Fuego¨).  Hunter gatherers, so always on the move, leaving little shelters behind, along with huge mounds of their middens which are still around.

Took a boat trip down the Beagle Channel.  The Beagle was the name of Darwin`s ship when he made his famous voyage.  Lots of history here.  Didn`t know that the order of the red-white stripes on the lighthouse tell the sailors in which direction there is danger.  There was also a sea lion and rock comorant colony.  The male sea lions´ heads are just enormous.  And the pups were playing in and out of the water, staring at the boat, and diving down into the water again.  The older ones just looked lazy.  The biggest you notice at the colony is the stench.  Really strong smell of crap.  The rock comorant birds were pretty as well.  Interesting story about the Argentina/Chile border.  Its formed by the largest peaks in the Andes, then in the Beagle Channel by the deepest depths.  In the land part of Tierra del Fuego, there is a straight line though, that deviates from the rule.  Apparently, when this agreement was made, Chileans were already living on the Argentine side, so they adjusted.  Was almost a war over this.  Anyway, ended up taking a walk on one of the little islands and it is tough to imagine living there like the Yámana (an Argentine I was with said ¨We almost went to war over this??¨)

One of the hikes was up a glaciar.  My first glaciar, but it was covered in snow from the night before, so looked more like we were just hiking up a mountain.  Still beautiful.  Made a little snowman and stuff.  I made a few trips to the casino and have had some great luck at blackjack.  Its funny how many travellers you meet who just continually pay for their trip by playing online poker every few days.  Good times going out on the town here as well.  Little bit of karoke never hurt anyone.

From here left for El Calafate, which is not in Tierra del Fuego, so needed to do the whole ferry/Rio Gallegos thing over again before heading west.  But it was too windy for the ferry when we got there so we were delayed for maybe 4-5 hours. And we missed the connection in Rio Gallegos for Calafate.  So...got stuck there for the night.  It was just how I remembered it - boring.  After getting into El Calafate the next day, planned for seeing the glaciar the next day.  The glaciar, Perito Moreno, is the only reason to come to Calafate.  Other than the glaciar, its just a really tiny, really expensive town.  But I think the glaciar is so famous because it is easily accessed.  You don`t have to hike for hours to get to it, its just a drive, and you`re there.  And its pretty active.  When we went, there were constantly HUGE pieces falling off it.  Really loud and impressive.  We were lucky enough to see a really oversized piece break off.  The glaciar is 60m tall so its like watching a building collapse.  The new ice berg would fall into the water, and then it looked like a dinosaur rising up when the ice would bob back to the surface.  You forget that you only see like 10 percent (or something..) of the ice berg on the surface, the rest is below water.  A boat takes you near the glaciar, and then we took a little ice-trek on the glaciar.  Only a couple hours, but it was cool to put on the cramp-ons, and walk around it.  Looked like a giant sand dune made of ice with lots of crevasses, holes, cracks, and pools.  Its also amazing how blue the ice and the water look.  The bluer it is, the more compact the ice is.  At the end, they gave us whiskey and glaciar ice.  Cheesy but cool.  My bad weather luck kept up its streak - right before the trek, it started coming down in buckets.  Cold cold buckets and heavy wind.  Drenched us to the bone.

Just north of El Calafate is El Chalten.  They both are little towns close to Parque Nacional Los Glaciars, but El Chalten is more about hikes while Calafate is about the glaciar.  Chalten is seriously a ghost town.  I guess that a few months from now it will be hopping with tourists, but for now, not even close.  Places are boarded up, everything is just closed.  Even in the few days I was here, though, a few places opened up, getting ready for the rush.  You can do some big hikes and camp in the park, but whats nice is that there are lots of day-hikes (7 hours or so) and the park is totally free (Calafate wasn`t).  And the bad weather finally ended.  The peaks of the mountains are such that you have to have decent weather to see them, so its a bit of a crapshoot with the weather.  But I had perfect days.  Was finally travelling alone again, for the first time in awhile.  One of the hikes is to Cerro Torre (tower) and it looks  awesome.  It looks really imposing to climb it, but actually, just learned today from a climber that the back of it offers a much better approach and you don`t need to be an expert (but still decent).  I guess the first ascent has a bit of controversy because two guys went, but one guy fell and died on the descent and he had all the photos and proof.  The pictures should pretty much speak for themselves.  All the water here and in other places I`ve been to around here, when it is close to a glaciar, has what they call glaciar milk (mostly sediments caught up in the glaciar) but it gives the water a really cool milky kind of color.  And then, the hike to the even more famous Fitz Roy towers.  The last hour was pretty physically demanding.  Saw some really cool huge woodpeckers with bright red heads.  And you could hear them from a ways away.  The ground around here is all rock, so there`s nothing for the roots to grab onto.  When theres a wind storm, lots of trees come down, so you see lots of dead fallen trees in the forests.  So lots of woodpeckers also, nailing away at the dead wood. 

If the last month could be summed up, you would just say ¨hiking¨.  The next stop was the grand-daddy of them all.  But first, I think a lot of the tourists take their hiking a bit too seriously.  I´m basically just going for a walk, when everyone else shows up in complete hiking attire.  But wayyyyyy overboard.  With store bought walking sticks and everything.  There was one more awesome park in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego that I wanted to visit.  Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile.  This is an AWESOME park that is huge and offers great opportunities to do whatever you want for as long as you want.  Also was my first ¨real¨ time in Chile. 

The currency thing is always a little screwy to get used to.  But in the countries I`ve been in, its not even close, they`re completely different.  For example, say you want to get a meal that cost 5 bucks U.S.  In Argentina, its 15 pesos, in Uruguay its 125, and here in Chile its 2,500.  This time accross the border was the first time anybody has ever been interested in my backpack.  And nobody has ever been interested in what I may be actually carrying on me.  Not exactly secure, but makes for easy transit.  Anyway, the jump off for the park is in Puerto Natales so thats where I went.  Got myself familiarized with the park, and decided to do a trekking/camping trip, doing a route called The ¨W¨, that I would stretch into six days or so.  But a lot of folks I met there only had time for, or wanted to do only 2 days or so.  Bo-ring.  Met a couple of Canadian girls and we started at the same time and place, and then after the 2nd day kind of leap-frogged each other on the trails.  Of course I don`t have any camping equipment, so had to rent the tent, sleeping bag, pot, etc...  So with all that, food for a week (had to allow for the fact that maybe I`d decide to stay longer) and some clothes, I was carrying quite a load.  I`d put it at around 50 pounds.  A group of people had just arrived at the hostel from their trek, the day before I left and had talked a lot about how cold it was.  So I figured a bit of wine would help me dose off to sleep (but in reality, I never got cold and the wine didn`t help at all anyway, and ended up leaking all over my bag).  I tried to eat as much as possible the first few days, just to lighten up the load on my back. 

The weather was pretty extreme in the park.  The most glaring feature being the wind.  I had been told that it gets up to category 3 hurricane speeds, 200km/hr, and it would have been tough to believe had I not felt it.  Literally was blowing people over to the ground.  Was especially dangerous when it was at your back and you were going downhill.  Had to do the boulder or tree-grab to avoid being swept off the cliff.  First day had pretty wide open terrain with lots of wind.  Second day, went out to Glaciar Grey (my first overnighter at a glaciar!).  Third day was pretty normal.  I have to thank you, dad, for the long legs, because I was always arriving at the destination well before the map said I should be.  And when you`re camping alone, getting to the campsite at noon or 1 makes for a boring day.  Don`t want to do free-time walking, didn`t bring a book, and theres only so much relaxing you can do.  So, for the fourth day, decided to try to squish two days´ hikes into one.  Went into the valley between two mountains, back out, around the mountain, and up to the base camp.  Made for a pretty tiring day, also on the extremely windy day.  35km, up and down mountains, in windy weather, with 50lbs on your back.  Woo-hoo!  From the base camp, the idea is to wake up early in the morning, make the tough hike up the mountain to see the sunrise on the towers.  I`ve seen pictures and it is beautfiul.  It turns them red.  However...on the 4th day, after setting up the tent, my weather luck ran out.  It poured.  So, the next morning, just to see what I could see, I went up there anyways.  And it was about what you`d expect.  All snow at that altitude, almost a white-out.  And the hike up was boulder climbing over snowy boulders.  It sucks that the last day was hours of hiking in the pouring rain, leaving EVERYTHING drenched, but it could have been a lot worse.  Some people were just arriving at the park for their trip.  And of course, after getting back to Puerto Natales, we enjoyed some of the luxuries of civillization....a shower, clean clothes, chocolate, beer, pizza, a bed...

Which pretty much catches you up!  That was yesterday, and tomorrow I will heading off to Rio Gallegos again (gotta love that place!), hoping to catch a connection to anywhere north.
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