The province of Salta had a lot to offer, and I fell in love with the beauty of the country and the warmth and earnestness of its inhabitants. However, the time came to venture further from Salta and head north to the province of Jujuy. Jujuy is situated in the northwesternmost corner of Argentina and borders Chile, Bolivia and a tiny bit of Peru. I struck out from my “home base” in Salta to explore this enchanting, sun-baked stretch of colored earth.
First, I set out for the Salinas Grandes, the salt flats of Jujuy. I headed north up the gently ascending mountains and descended down the other side toward an extensive plain of pure white. As I approached the salt flats, there occurred a sudden shock when the car I was riding in collided with a vicuña (a relative of the llama) that had decided that it was a good time to cross the road. Esteban (or Steve), as I named him, died quickly and without much pain by the side of that lonely stretch of road in northern Argentina, and we each mourned in our own way at his passing. The car was damaged but driveable, but when I reached the salt flats I could not open my door and had to climb across and out of the driver’s side. My brief period of mourning over, I headed out to get a look at the vast stretch of thirst inducing whiteness.
Later that day, I dined on llama for the first time. I had a moment of silence for Steve (que en paz descanse) before devouring one of his cousins.
My next journey was a long one. I traveled north from Salta into Jujuy once again. The world was transformed dramatically from the bleak, unending white of the Salinas Grandes into the lush greens and startling colors of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. My first stop was the small village of Purmamarca, situated at the foot of the “Cerro de los Siete Colores” (Hill of the Seven Colors).
At one time, Purmamarca may have been a quiet little village situated at the base of these picturesque hills, but today it has become so famous for its amazing location that it is filled to bursting with tourists and row after row of vendors, most of whom are sell the same thing as the person next to them. There are plenty of amazing, handcrafted, artisanal goods to be found across Argentina, but most of what can be found here is geared toward the tourist crowd and seems anything but genuine.
That being said, this pueblito is famous for a reason. If you can ignore the masses of tourists and find a quiet little corner of your mind to retreat into while staring, awestruck, at the amazing surroundings, it is more than worth your time.
From Purmamarca I continued north into the Quebrada, eventually ending up in the small village of Tilcara to get a look at some indigenous ruins that offered a glimpse into a time before the Spanish conquest of South America.
The Quebrada de Humahuaca stretched out farther northward still under mountains and sky, past the Tropic of Capricorn and through a hundred little moments of wonder, eventually reaching the pueblo of Humahuaca. I had a bite to eat and turned around to head back through the quebrada to the south.
On the way back to Salta, I stopped in the city of San Salvador de Jujuy, the capital of the province of Jujuy. Tired from a long trip, I only lingered long enough to have a coffee and take a few photos.
Back in Salta, I relaxed with a glass of wine and pondered the days events. I marvelled at my good fortune. Once again, I had traveled the line between dream and reality and seen things that I had never imagined possible. However, my time in the northern reaches of Argentina was drawing to a close and the moment was approaching to say goodbye to this region that I had come to adore. But I had one more adventure in front of me before boarding the bus back to the big city. What better or more poetic way to end my time in Salta than with “un salto” (A leap, saltar in spanish means to jump!) The day before my departure, I headed to the Dique Cabra Corral, a stunning body of water near the city of Salta, to finish things with a bang.
The next day, filled with satisfaction from everything that had come to pass during my time in Salta and, at the same time, filled with the pain of regret from leaving behind such an unforgettable corner of the world, I got on the bus to make the 22 hour trip back to Buenos Aires.
I ended yet another amazing journey in the best way possible: with a leap of faith. Who knows, maybe my next leap will be the leap home…
Having returned from my treks through the mountains under the brilliant sun of Salta, I set off to explore the city a bit more and to experience more of the rich local culture.
First, I traveled to an estancia, or ranch, just a bit south of the city of Salta to get a taste of the gaucho life. Gauchos, for those of you that don’t know, are a bit like the cowboys of the U.S. They are the hunters and cattle herders of the rural parts of Argentina, southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The Argentinian gauchos are strong symbols of the culture here and represent ideals of freedom, machismo, and a life lived free from the rules of law and order in the cities. They were, and continue to be, riders, ranchers, drinkers and fighters and some of the most iconic works of Argentinian literature are written about the gaucho and his lifestyle in the wild country.
As a yanqui, my experiences with the gauchesca lifestyle have been limited to reading works of gauchesca literature such as Martin Fierro or Fausto, and attending the Feria de Mataderos here in the city where I got to witness some folkloric dances, hear some of the traditional music, and see the modern-day gauchos ride and play some of their gaucho games. So, while I was in one of the centers of the gaucho culture, I thought I would try to get a little more insight into this way of life by experiencing a small taste of it first hand.
I headed to the ranch in the morning and, after a light breakfast, we mounted up and headed out into the surrounding countryside for a few hours of riding and conversing with “Patasrios” our gaucho guide. The weather was magnificent and we were surrounded by lush green fields, deep blue sky and the gently sloping mountainside on the horizon.
We returned to the ranch around lunchtime. Dismounting after several hours of riding, is was difficult to walk like a normal person, but I tried my best. We drank a couple of glasses of wine and sat down to the communal table to enjoy a HUGE feast. The asado (Barbecue) included what seemed to be an inexhaustible amount of steak, pork belly, ribs, and sausage as well as vegetables, salads and fresh bread and, of course, wine. The guests, the owner and all of the gauchos and workers on the ranch sat down together to eat. Enrique, the owner of the ranch practically forced us to eat until we nearly burst, knowing full well that we had to get back on the horses after lunch.
We finished the overwhelming lunch and set out to ride once again. This time, perhaps because he had just shared the immense feast with us, Patarios took it easier on us. We started out at a leisurely pace and worked our way up to a gallop towards the end. I returned to the ranch tired and a bit sore, but with the satisfaction of having been a part of yet another great experience. It was then that I earned the respect of Patasrios, our guide, by demonstrating my ability to leap onto the back of the horse without a saddle. Try as they might, none of the other members of the group could manage it, and Patasrios was quite impressed.
My time with the horses over, I relaxed for a bit in my small but comfortable room and then showered and prepared for dinner.
Only three guests stayed at the ranch for dinner that night: myself, an Englishman named Oliver, and his irish wife Deirdre. They were a great and friendly couple and I enjoyed sharing the experience with them. The owner of the ranch, Enrique, was quite a character. He always had some sly comment to make, usually sexual in nature, and he was always smiling and laughing. This might have had something to do with the never-ending supply of wine, but there is no way to be sure. He asked me what I wanted to eat that night and I requested some local traditional favorites: tamales and humitas. The tamales are similar to the ones we know and love from other latin cuisines and the humitas are very similar to tamales, but a bit sweet and made with cheese instead of meat. We all sat down to a great dinner full of laughs and fellowship and, you guessed it, wine. After the dinner was finished, Enrique brought out the big guns, a brand of whiskey which I was not familiar with, but that the Irishwoman (she should know) told me was quite an expensive bottle. We all drank and laughed into the evening until, finally, we retired to our rooms for a deep and satisfying rest.
The next day, we ate a small breakfast and departed. I said my goodbyes to Enrique, Oliver, Deirdre and everyone else, including Patasrios, who gave me a very manly gaucho hug. It was tough to leave the ranch after such a great time with such unique, friendly, and interesting people but all good things must come to an end, and I headed back to the city.
Once there, I took the rest of the day to see a bit more of the city. I took a ride in a cable car up to the top a of large hill overlooking the city, which provides a marvelous panoramic view of Salta. At the top, there are gardens, waterfalls and pathways to walk. You can even rent a bike to ride back down to the bottom if you are feeling adventurous.
So, I made it back down to the bottom alive. I spent the rest of the day relaxing and went to dinner with some of my new friends from the hostel. I spent some more time here and there in Salta, and it was my “home base” for my travels into the neighboring provinces. However, most of the time after this day was spent elsewhere, and these stories will be contained int he next installment, when I travel to the province of Jujuy and see what is has to offer. So, it is time to say chau for now, but let me leave you with a parting image from the city of Salta.
I finished up my week of midterm exams and now I am into the final month of classes at the University of Belgrano. Last week, perhaps due to the grey gloom that descended upon Buenos Aires and proceed to soak its citizens into submission, or maybe just because I had a bad case of lazy, I did not update my blog. It feels like I have been going full speed ahead since I arrived here in Buenos Aires in order to take full advantage of every opportunity that I have been afforded. I told myself that after I finished my exams I would take one day “off” to do absolutely nothing. Well, that did not happen, but I did slow it down some last week. This week, I am feeling rested up and ready to take on the world once again. Unfortunately, the weather has remained wet and cool and that has kept me inside more often than usual. Since I have been so lax and have not given you a decent post in a while, I thought I would take this time to make it happen. I have been working on the answers to some of your questions, but first I want to regale you with yet another tale of travel. The recent stint of bad weather in the city of tango has made me remember how much I miss the sun and soul of northwestern Argentina. Perhaps reliving some of the experiences I had there will be enough to warm me up, or at least entertain you a bit. Unfortunately, I did have some technical problems with my camera on this trip, so a lot of the photos didn’t turn out well. I saved what I could and hopefully they will still be somewhat enjoyable.
Up to this point, the posts on my travels have been very in-depth, detailed affairs. From now on, I am going to try to limit them somewhat. I hope to still include the feeling and descriptive prose while keeping them a bit shorter. In other words, we are going to try to skip to the important parts. That being said, let’s get right into my trip to the north-western edge of Argentina, to the city of Salta in the province of the same name.
Whereas my trip to Patagonia was all about big imposing and breathtaking sites, this trip was more about the culture, the people, the food, and the beautiful weather. The people are warm and friendly and the culture is rich and steeped in the traditions of folklore and gauchesca. That being said, there were plenty of amazing things to see and do, and I did most of them.
This trip began with a long bus ride, about 22 hours, from Buenos Aires to Salta. I started the adventure with a bus ticket and a couple of nights booked in a hostel. The bus was actually quite comfortable, a far cry from the greyhounds at home. There are several different bus companies to choose from, and most of them offer similar accommodations. The buses are large, with two levels of seating. On the bottom are the “full-cama” seats. These are the most comfortable, and most expensive. They are larger and convert in something resembling a bed (a cama). That’s about all I know about the bottom level, since I have never actually been seated there. On the top level is the “semi-cama” seating area. This is where I have spent all of my time on the buses here in Argentina. They still recline and provide support for your legs, but they are not as comfortable or roomy as the “full-cama” seats. On long trips, something resembling food is provided and there are lots of bootleg movies playing on the televisions to keep you occupied while you travel. Overnight, the televisions go off and you can try to catch some shut eye. I usually end up staring out of the large windows and marveling and the innumerable amount of stars that appear once you get outside the bright lights of the Capital Federal.
Eventually, I made it to my hostel and began planning what I would do for the next week. There is a lot to see in the province of Salta and in its neighbor to the north, Jujuy. I made some plans for the next few days and, after that, I took my first in-depth look at the city itself.
My first few outings were trips through colorful quebradas and canyons, and up through the mountains of the Andes of northern Argentina to visit small pueblos full of wine, food, and buildings that preserve the feel of the colonial villages of old.
First, I traveled through the Quebrada de las Conchas, a colorful landscape full of strange and magnificent rock formations that looked as though it belonged on an alien planet.
On the other side of the quebrada lies the pueblo of Cafayate, a small town know for its numerous bodegas that create some amazing high altitude wines. By the time I got there, the sun was beaming down upon me while I beamed back up at it, once again marvelling in my extreme good fortune.
From Cafayate, I made my way back through the martian landscape of the quebrada to the city of Salta. The next day, I took a trip through the mountains to another pueblo: Cachi. This trip was much greener at first, but it transformed into a world like nothing I have ever seen. Part desert, part mountains, all beautiful. As is the custom for the people living and working in the mountains, I chewed coca leaves to combat the effects of the altitude.
After another great adventure, I once again returned to my “home base” in the city of Salta. I found it hard to sleep during this trip. After all, why bother sleeping when your dreams have to struggle to match the amazement of what is happening in your waking life. The best part was, this was only the begging of my amazing experience in Salta.
Remember when I said I was going to skip to the important parts and try to shorten up these posts a bit? I lied. I realized as I was writing this that they are ALL important parts. So, I am going to end this post here and give you something to read while I work on the next one. There is much more to come, including the province of Jujuy to the north, so stay tuned and I will try to get the next installment up as quickly as I can. Until then, Chau!
So, there I was. I had seen mountains being made by Perito Moreno, and I had watched one catch fire in Torres del Paine. Now, on a dark and drizzly morning, I boarded a bus in Puerto Natales that would take me to the “end of the world”: the city of Ushuaia in the province of Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), Argentina. There is nothing about that sentence that I don’t like.
The bus was large and fairly comfortable. I sat down and started to chat with the Aussie that was seated next to me. She and her two friends were headed to a different destination than I was, and we started to question if one of us was on the wrong bus. However, an hour or so outside of town, we were told that those of us heading to Ushuaia would be changing buses. A few minutes later, in the middle of nowhere in southern Chile, the bus pulled to a stop. The Aussie (whose name shall be lost forever) joked with me that this was my stop and we shared a laugh. I stopped laughing, however, when the driver announced that this was, in fact, where I would be getting off. I said my farewell to my single serving friend and I and a few others piled off the bus stood in a stupor at the side of the road. As I watched what used to be my bus begin to pull slowly away, another arrived just in time to curb my concerns and carry me further southward.
At first, we drove through a landscape that was, shall we say, less than breathtaking. Soon, however, we were forced to stop when the road ran directly into a wide body of salty water. The sky was dull and grey as I beheld, with aroused interest, the Strait of Magellan lapping lazily at its rocky shoreline.
I got off the bus to snap a few photos and then waited for the floating beast that would carry me to the other side. Although the day was frigid and wet, the arrival of the ferry and the subsequent trip across the strait was something that I won’t forget. The boat was massive, and it swallowed up a long line of cars before hungrily devouring our waiting bus.
After crossing the strait, much of the rest of the voyage was uneventful. Then landscape was rather flat and brown, and I spent most of the time napping, reading, or running down the precious battery of my iPod. As we drew nearer to Ushuaia, the landscape began to change, and once again mountains began to rise up around us. I passed the last hour staring, wide-eyed and grinning, out of the window.
Eventually, I reached my destination. I walked, uphill unfortunately, from the middle of town to my hostel.
My first impressions were not great. This place was obviously not going to be as good as the previous two had been, but I settled in, locked up my things, and went out to get a look at the city. The light was waning and it was still cloudy, but I saw some interesting graffiti art and got my first good look and the Beagle Channel.
I spent the night in an uncomfortable bed in a room full of Frenchmen. This is a sentence that, before I began traveling, I would not have expected to write. I got up early the next morning to take a tour, by boat, of the channel. Ines, the girl at the front desk, had told me that I needed to be at the dock at around 9:30 in order to get a spot on one of the boats, most of which departed at 10:00. I ate a bit of the meager breakfast they offered and headed out. It was still cloudy as I left the hostel and walked out into my last full day in Patagonia. I arrived at the docks early and decided to take some time to check out the area.
Along the docks there were lots of spots selling excursions through the channel. I strolled among them leisurely, wandering in and out of the small shacks and inquiring about the particulars of each tour. Some places offered rides on smaller boats, promising a more personal experience, others on the large and impressive catamarans, but not all of them went to the same places. I had some idea of what the channel had to offer, and I knew what parts of it I wanted to see the most. Finally, I found an excursion that could satiate my desires. Time until departure: two minutes. I paid for my passage and rushed down the pier where the catamaran “Ana B” was waiting for me. I climbed eagerly aboard.
Even during the summer, the weather on the channel is brisk and windy. I put on my hat and tightened my jacket around me, recalling that I was, in fact, about as close to Antarctica as I could get without leaving the continent.
The first few stops were to see some of the wildlife that is native to area. There are a few specific spots where large groups of Cormorants and Sea Lions congregate on small islands and these were our first destinations of the day.
Next, we made a pass by the Les Éclaireurs (French for “The Enlighteners”) Lighthouse, an operational but unmanned lighthouse that keeps watch over the watery gateway to Ushuaia. It is a small and simple construct, but its red and white exterior stands in stark contrast to rocks and sea that surround it.
Shortly after passing the lighthouse, we were lucky enough to come upon a group a Sei whales. This massive and endangered species, reaching up to 20 meters (66 feet in the U.S.) long and weighing up to 28 tons, is not always present in the channel. On that morning, perhaps because of the perfect way my trip had been unfolding up to that point, I was sure they had appeared there just for me. They were a bit difficult to get pictures of, though, as I was never quite sure where they would appear until the last minute, when they would send up a quick spray of water before breaching the surface with their slick black fins.
We continued on through the channel with the hills of Chile on our right hand side and the mountains of Argentina on our left. The day began to lose a bit of its dull grey hue. I sat back and enjoyed the leisurely trip to our final stop before turning around and heading back towards Ushuaia. This was another rendezvous with the local wildlife. Another species of bird, but not one you will ever find in the air. Yes, those classy creatures that had to learn to dance because they don’t know how to fly: penguins.
After watching the flightless wonders for a bit, we headed back towards civilization. By now, the weather had finally improved and the return trip was decidedly warmer and more pleasant.
After being safely back on land, I took some time to explore the town during the daylight hours. And, of course, no trip to this city would be complete without a shot of the famous sign.
After that, I made a trek to the Martial Glacier. This small glacier overlooks the town and offered a spectacular view of the channel that I had just traversed. However, since my camera decided to run low on batteries, and since someone left the spare at the hostel, that particular memory will remain uniquely mine for as long as I can carry it.
Eventually, I made it back to the hostel. There I relaxed a bit, drank some wine and made some new friends. I slept sufficiently, if not comfortably, that night and woke up early the next morning to head to the airport. I boarded the flight, weary and road-worn, bound for my “home” in Buenos Aires. During the flight, I pondered all the unbelievable things that I had done during that amazing week, and tried to let the experience sink in.
Back in the city, it was warm and muggy. It seemed strange to be back, but with time the noise, the light, the smells, and the sights all became normal again. I missed the mountains, the stars and the salty sea water but, luckily for me, I got to live the whole experience over again while sharing it with you.
I slept comfortably the night before my expedition into the Torres del Paine national park and awoke the next morning full of excitement. Part of the fun of travelling, for me, is not always knowing what is around the next corner.
I ate an early breakfast of porridge, eggs, homemade bread and marmalade at the Singing Lamb (hands down the best breakfast I have ever had at a hostel) and boarded the bus to the park.
It is about two and a half hours from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine, but the ride is not boring. There is plenty of breathtaking scenery to take in or you can grab a few extra hours of sleep (you lazy bum) before starting your trek. We made our way, surrounded by the snow dusted Chilean mountains closer and closer to what would be my home for the next two days. As the park came into view, appearing in the misty shroud that blanketed the peaks, a shimmering rainbow bade us enter.
I entered into the park and took another short bus ride to the trailhead. As I started along the trail, I came upon the first of several charming wooden bridges in the park.
I crossed over and into a world of wondrous sights and sounds. As I rounded the first corner, I was greeted by a looming monstrosity of rock and snow.
I continued up the path, wondering just how good of an idea it was to bring such a heavy pack. However, I knew that if I wanted to complete the goal that I had set for myself the day before that I would need everything that I carried (and hopefully not more). The path took me along the side of the mountain. Beside me, water from the glaciers further up the mountains flowed through the valley in a blue and white stream, its rushing sounds drifting up into my ears while the strong winds carried droplets of its cool water to alight upon my cheeks and lips. At times, the wind was so fierce that it threatened to knock me off the side of the mountain and I had to kneel or sit down to avoid toppling over.
As I got farther along the path, I turned around to see a never-ending landscape of trees, rolling hills, blue-green lakes and the sharp contrast of the dark and angular mountains against a clear blue sky.
After several hours of walking, I crossed over a long wooden bridge to reach my first refuge. Here I had a chance to relax for a bit, rest my back and feet, and eat lunch. It was here that I began to catch a glimpse of the torres, the “towers” of rock for which the park is named.
The meal: dried fruit, peanut butter and crackers, salami and bread, was simple but tasted like the finest cuisine after the climb up the side of the mountain. I ate, rested and donned my pack once again to make the trek to my camp.
The second half of the trail was completely different from the first. It wound its way through the trees back and forth across wooden bridges over the flowing water that had now widened out substantially. It was shady, cool, peaceful….perfect. I hardly noticed the heavy pack that contained everything I would need to survive the night.
When the trees thinned out, I could see glimpse of mountain tops, glaciers and waterfalls on all sides.
Finally, I emerged from the forest to reach my campsite. It was here that I would spend the night in my little rented tent, trying not to freeze of any of my important parts. It was an amazing spot. The camp itself, Campamento Torres, was down a small, rocky path, nestled in a grove of trees out of the wind, with a cool, clear, stream trickling through its center. I, gladly, took off my heavy pack and set up my tent.
After getting set up, I ate another simple meal, made a few friends in the camp and had enough time to explore the surrounding area and take some fun photos.
I went to sleep fairly early that night, exhausted from the physical and mental activities of the day. The night passed without rain and I managed to stay fairly warm. If I could remember my dreams from that night, they would pale in comparison to what I would see the next day.
I awoke early the next morning at around 5:00 am, dressed, and strapped on my headlamp for the 45 minute trek, in the dark, up to the torres. The sky was clear and the moon shone brightly in the crisp morning air. Looking up, I saw something that I had been missing in the bright lights and big city of Buenos Aires. innumerable stars looked down upon me, winking at me as if they knew the secret of the wonder that I was about to behold.
The path was steep and rocky, and I walked it alone. If not for the reflective markers leading me onward in the right direction, I could have easily walked off the side of the mountain. Sucking in the thin air in deep breaths, I made my way up…and up…and up. When I reached the base of the torres, the only other person there was a photographer. He was perched on a rock like a hunter, awaiting the perfect shot. I found a place among the rocks to sit and await the sunrise. The photographer sipped at his warm mate (which he didn’t offer to share) while I tried to keep warm under the ever brightening sky. Finally, the sky began to glow and the time I had been waiting for arrived. What happened next is something that I will never experience again and I found myself wondering what I had done to deserve to be there at that magical moment as the towers caught fire!
Then, as I watched in awe, the colors began to shift.
My feeble words and paltry pictures cannot capture the awe and beauty that I beheld that morning on the mountain in Chilean Patagonia. An unforgettable experience. A brush with divinity.
After yet another priceless moment in my life, I headed back down the trail, this time in the light of day. I packed up my things and bid farewell to my camp. I put on my headphones and hiked down the mountain and slowly, begrudgingly back into reality. I stopped once again at the refuge to rest and then continued down to the trailhead. There, I met up with some of the friends I had made along the way and relaxed in a shady grove of trees, pondering all that had happened and waiting for the van to take me back to the entrance of the park. At the entrance, I was offered a final view of the grandeur that I had been fortunate enough to be a part of.
I left the park and headed back to Puerto Natales. I packed up my things at the Singing Lamb and headed to Erratic Rock to have a beer with some of my new friends. I spent the last of my Chilean pesos, said my goodbyes to the people who had I spent precious little time with, and returned to the hostel to sleep away my final night in Chile.
And so, with my adventure there over with all too soon, I got on a bus early the next morning and headed for my Patagonian finale at the end of the world.
Having had my first adventure in Patagonia, I packed up my stuff and hopped on a bus. I waved goodbye (no I didn’t) to El Calafate and headed towards Puerto Natales, Chile with absolutely no idea of what to expect. The first part of the trip was great, but as we got closer to the final destination, the lakes dried up and the mountains dulled to rounded hills. Several small, poor, dirty mining towns began to dot the hillsides as well and my mind flickered back to a conversation I had the night before with the only employee of the i Kue Ken hostel that I was less than impressed with. ”Un poco feo” (a bit ugly) he had said of Puerto Natales. Riding on a credulous wave of enthusiasm from my experience the with god of ice, I had dismissed his pessimism, but now I began to wonder.
The ride lasted about five or six hours including two stops, one at either side of the border. You have to “check out” of Argentina and then go through customs on your way into Chile to make sure you don’t have any corrosive gases or milk products. The town of Puerto Natales is actually only a few minutes from the border. Under a dull and cloudy sky, we descended from border checkpoint, down the gently sloping hill and towards our final destination.
Puerto Natales is a small town, located on the Última Esperanza Sound in Chilean Patagonia. Though it isn’t as clean and quaint as El Calafate, the landscape which surrounds it is nothing short of breathtaking. As we came out of the hills and I began to get a view of the Sound and the mountains surrounding it, any doubts I had about being there vanished and Mr. Un Poco Feo was instantly forgotten (until now).
There is, apparently, no bus station in Puerto Natales, so the bus dropped us off in the center of the town and I set to work finding my hostel, The Singing Lamb. Nothing is too far from anything in Puerto Natales so I only had a few blocks to walk.
Susan, a New Zealander who runs the Singing Lamb, instantly earned my affection by asking me if I was Chilean and telling me that I spoke Spanish with less accent than her even though she had been living there off and on for over 30 years. In truth, to hear her speak Spanish with her New Zealand accent always brought a smile to my lips. What’s more, she is a caring and jovial woman who welcomes everyone into the lamb as if she were welcoming family members into her own home.
I didn’t have much time to get situated at the Lamb because I had to hurry over to Erratic Rock, another hostel/pub in town that rents hiking and camping gear and gives a daily talk (for free) about Torres del Paine, the national park and main draw to Puerto Natales, that is located a few hours to the north. The guys at Erratic Rock are awesome. Not only will they tell you everything you want to know (and more) about the park with smiles on their faces, but they will help you in any way they can to ensure that you are prepared to enjoy your time there to its full potential (thanks Koen!). What’s more, you can grab a beer and something to eat while you are there.
I spent the rest of the night uneventfully. A few friends that I had met in my intensive Spanish class in Buenos Aires were due to meet me at the Lamb the next day, so I returned to the hostel and spent a few hours with some of the other guests (mostly Brits and Aussies that night) having a few beers and talking about what we planned to do once we got to the park.
I spent the next day getting ready for Torres del Paine. I had to rent a tent and a sleeping bag and buy food for the two days that I would spend there. Although I could have easily spent a week exploring all the wonders the park has to offer, unfortunately I was on a restrictive schedule. My friends had some unexpected delays, so I spent the rest of my time that day exploring the town.
My friends finally arrived at about 9:30 that night. We made a mad dash to the market to try to get the supplies they would need while they were in they park. They spent the next several hours packing their things and trying to get ready for our trip to Torres del Paine. The owner, and the guests, at the Lamb were less than thrilled about their late-night packing marathon, but they managed to get themselves in order so that we could leave for the park early the next morning. I, having had plenty of time to prepare while waiting for them that day, relaxed and had a beer.
My excitement grew as the time of departure drew closer but, in truth, I had no idea of the incredible things that were waiting for me in Torres del Paine…
I awoke early the following day and walked down to the bus station to catch a bus to Los Glaciares National Park, located less than two hours west of the town of El Calafate.
We didn’t get very far out of town before the landscape started to change. The once rolling hills were now climbing ever upwards and pointed, snow-covered peaks could be seen in the distance. As incredible as things began to seem in those early morning hours, they would only grow more amazing as I approached the first major sight along my journey.
We wound deeper into the mountains with the aqua blue of the seemingly endless Lago Argentino accompanying us. Maybe it was the vast and unbelievable landscape, but I began to grow increasingly pensive as we neared our destination. I marveled at the beauty around me and I began to ponder just what it is that makes something beautiful. To be sure, there is a certain awe that is inspired simply by the size of something as grand as a mountain, but what is intrinsic in an object, person or landscape that causes our eyes to be held captive by it? I was not sure, but I was sure that the things that I was witnessing were like nothing I had seen before or likely will ever see again…and this was only the beginning.
Eventually, we penetrated far enough into the park to get our first look at Perito Moreno Glacier. Seeing it from afar, I came to the realization that I was viewing antiquity incarnate. Moreover, I was witnessing an icy god at work, carving valleys, making mountains and shaping the very world on which I walked.
The first thing I did after disembarking in the park was take a catamaran across the still waters of Lago Argentino toward the south face of the glacier.
The modern boat traversed the waters with ease and, as we rounded a corner and drew nearer to the frozen behemoth, with mouth agape I reminded myself that this giant was living, it was moving and yes, it was growing before my eyes. Everyone should be able to glimpse something this amazing in their lives, but alas not everyone can. Although they can hardly do it justice, I hope some of these images can give you some idea of what it might be like to stand in awe before a wonder of nature such as this.
The glacier, always advancing, can grow to form a natural dam of ice that divides the lake. On one side of this dam, the pressure of the water builds slowly, eventually causing the icy dam to break and the glacier to rupture. There is no way to predict when this is going to happen and the time between rupture events can be many years. As it happens, the glacier had ruptured at around 3 or 4 a.m. that morning, about 6-7 hours before I arrived. Unfortunately, I missed the rupture, but I was able to see its aftermath, a large and jagged mass of glacial ice separated from the main body of Perito Moreno.
After returning to shore and reality, at least for a time, I took a short ride by bus to the other side of the glacier. From this side, I approached the north face of the glacier along the shores of Lago Argentino. As incredible as the glacier is, there is much more than ice to see in the park. The lake is tranquil and ringed with mountains and the sound of its frigid waters lapping lazily upon the rocks provide the perfect sonic backdrop.
Eventually, the glacier comes into view again and the disbelief begins anew. The north face of the glacier is wider and the view from this side is different, but equally as breathtaking.
You approach this face of the glacier slowly via a long set of metal stairs and platforms called the “balcony”. As you get closer, you also climb upward making the view exponentially better in a short period of time. Eventually, I was able to see the ruptured area of the glacier again, this time from the north.
Finally I reached what was more or less the top of ”the balcony”. I sat there, silently, wondering what it was I might have done in this life or any other to deserve to be there. I couldn’t think of anything. I gazed out at the massive field of ice in front of me and thanked whatever forces had brought me to this point. Emotions welled up in me that have no name. I shed a tear….maybe more than one.
After leaving the park, amazed, emotional and tired, I headed back to El Calafate. That evening, while relaxing in the hostel and reflecting on the things I had seen and done that day, I met a few fellow travellers who had, like me, worked up an appetite that day. I, with my newfound friends from France and Switzerland, headed out to enjoy a hot meal and a bottle of wine (or two) at a local spot called Pura Vida. The food was excellent, the wine was plentiful, and the company was interesting to say the least. It was a great end to what had been one of the most incredible days of my life. Little did I know, there was so much more to come.
The next morning, I left El Calafate and headed southwest into Chile and my next great adventure.
Ok, this marks the beginning of a series of posts that I am going to make to cover, briefly, my trip to Patagonia. Patagonia is a region in the southern part of Argentina. It. Is. Huge. I only had eight days to see what I could, and I left feeling as if I had only seen a tiny portion of what has to be one of the most amazing regions on the planet. However, I consider myself lucky just to have caught a glimpse into this rare and awe-inspiring piece of the globe. So, pull up google maps and follow me southward.
My intensive Spanish class in Buenos Aires ended on March 2nd, and I got on a plane the next morning headed towards my first stop, El Calafate, Argentina. I felt, all at once, freedom from anything that might have been tying me down, a great curiosity, and a stirring sense of excitement at the thoughts of what was awaiting me.
I boarded the small plane and, as it ascended into the clouds, I left behind my new home in Buenos Aires and took my first steps into the interior of this grand and magnificent country. We spent most of the time above the clouds, so I wasn’t able to see much of the landscape as it changed from city into vast pampas. However, when the plane finally began to descend towards my destination I got my first look at Patagonia. It was a vast stretch of scrubland, brown and dotted with low shrubs and patches of grass. The dull color of the land was interrupted, quite suddenly, by the bright, almost glowing, aqua hue of the lakes.
We landed and I rode, uneventfully, to the town of El Calafate. A small, touristy spot on the shores of Lago Argentino that seems to exist almost solely as a base of operations in order to strike out towards Perito Moreno to the west and El Chaltén to the north. It is a handsome town full of shops and restaurants that has, no doubt, profited from many a traveller in its time.
I went straight to my hostel to drop off my things and proceeded to explore the town.
I wandered up and down the main avenue of El Calafate and drank in the sights, sounds, and smells. That evening, I enjoyed a dinner of Patagonian lamb. Afterwards, I walked back up to my hostel, situated on a hill overlooking the town with a great view of Lago Argentino (the lake). I spent a few hours enjoying some wine and the company of some fellow travellers from Switzerland as well as Mariano, a very cool Argentino who was manning the front desk that night. Finally, I found my way into bed and tried to get some rest before the morning, when I was to set out towards Perito Moreno glacier, and more adventure…