Calafate and Chalten

13 January 2015:
I wake up late in the morning, refreshed. I’m Couchsurfing again, this time with Eduardo, an Argentine IT specialist who is basically the perfect Couchsurfing host. He picked me up from the bus terminal late last night after I left Puerto Natales and crossed the border back into Argentina.

Eduardo’s friendly and chatty and speaks English almost perfectly. He plays a Janis Joplin record while I cook eggs and tells me about previous surfers he’s hosted. By the time I’m done eating he’s convinced me to go visit the nearby glacier Perito Moreno, which I had intended to skip because of the high cost and a general vague notion that glaciers aren’t that interesting. Eduardo sells it well though so we head to the bus station where I pay 250 pesos for transport to the park.

Because I take the late afternoon bus, I arrive at the park with only a couple of hours to explore. I regret this instantly, as soon as I see the glacier. I think when I pictured glaciers in the past I thought of sort of a giant rectangular ice cube with snow on top – like the pictures you see of Antarctica. This is completely different: it’s much craggier than I expected. It’s a field of giant wrinkled slices of ice, all sliding and piling up over each other as they march toward the peninsula. It does not look like a comfortable place to walk – in fact, I can’t imagine walking over this at all, the way you think of polar bears or penguins doing. It really does look like a river of ice. It’s colorful, too: alternating between an unnatural electric blue, deep cold sapphire, and brilliant pale sky blue laced with pure white. It’s also enormous – 14 kilometers long and nearly 50 meters tall at its edge. It comes to an abrupt end in a jagged wall of ice that makes me think of the wall from Game of Thrones.

2015/01/img_7377.jpg

2015/01/img_7346.jpg

This is the cool part: the bus leaves me at the top of a huge hill that’s maybe two kilometers from the edge of the glacier. What’s happening here is that the glacier is headed straight for this promontory hill extending into the lake, and it’s so close that at times the ice blocks the flow of water at the shore. They’ve built balconies and platforms all along the side of the hill facing the glacier where you can watch it calve. There’s an enormous crack and then you see it – a huge outcropping of ice, tall as a high rise apartment building, pulls away from the body of the glacier, almost as if it’s being tugged, and shatters into fragments as it plummets and explodes into the lake below. Spectacular. I watch for hours.

2015/01/img_7402-0.jpg

That evening, back in Calafate, I return to Eduardo’s place and meet Anna, a couchsurfer from the Netherlands. We visit a bar together and Eduardo makes us Pho soup from scratch, and we talk into the night.

2015/01/img_7411-0.jpg

14 January 2015:
12:47 – Eduardo, Anna, and Eduardo’s dog Blanquita drop me off just past a police checkpoint by the side of the road leading out of Calafate. There’s a depressing little pack of hitchhikers spread along the first fifty meters or so of gravel shoulder across from the welcome sign – mostly men in groups of two of three. This worries me a little – maybe this is a bad spot to hitchhike? – but I’m hoping that being blonde, female, and solo will give me an edge.

13:14 – one of the police officers ambles over to check my passport. We chitchat about Nevada while he makes some notes on a clipboard and asks my age and where I’m headed. He wishes me luck. I think about hitchhiking laws in the US, and how the hitchhiking culture is clearly different here if the police are actually keeping tabs on hitchhikers rather than arresting them.

14:02 – two men in a company van wave at me as they drive past, then continue down the road a few hundred meters and pull onto the shoulder. I walk the distance and hop in the back and meet Luis and Cesar. They’re men in their 50s working for a transportation company, and they tell me that they make the trip from Calafate to Chalten every day and always pick up hitchhikers, but they have to be out of sight of the police station when they do since the back of the van is an open floor – no seats or seat belts. I sit on my backpack and grin to myself as we settle in for the trip to Chalten. Success!

Luis drives and chats with me : he lived in Rio Grande for many years and remembers Ushuaia well, but he’s lived in Calafate for a long time working for this transpiration company. Cesar is quieter, mainly checking his watch and pouring endless cups of mate for the three of us.

14:36 – as we turn towards Chalten we stop to pick up Paolo, a hitchhiker from Brazil who’s traveling for three months on 100 US dollars and has hitchhiked from Brasilia all the way to Ushuaia. He’s a little skinny and road weary, but full of smiles and cool stories. He drifts off to sleep after we talk for a while, but I wake him up as we get closer – the views of the mountains are spectacular! Jagged, grey peaks loom above the low hills, tinged blue and fading into deep shadows where they overlap each other. Luis stops for a few minutes so Paolo and I can take pictures. They say it’s rare to see Fitz Roy so clearly from the road, normally it’s hidden in clouds.

2015/01/img_7446.jpg

16:13 – we arrive in el Chalten. Luis and Cesar promise us rides back to ruta 40 if we need them and show us where they work when they’re in town. “Anything you need, just bang on the door and ask for us.”

18:26 – I start up the path toward Laguna Capri to meet Paolo, the Brazilian hitchhiker, who headed up here ahead of me. It’s a steep climb, but somebody loves this trail: clearly marked, clean, well supported and free from trash and overgrowth. It’s a dream. The sandy path weaves through tall grasses which quickly give way to shorter, hardier vegetation as I climb a little in elevation. Dusty, dry, yellow sand dotted with rocks. Clear, dry air. I can see clear across valleys when the trees open up, clear to hard granite peaks thrown into deep shadow by the afternoon sun, white patches of snow dotting the peaks.

2015/01/img_7554.jpg

I reach Laguna Capri in an hour and a half and there’s Fitz Roy, a rounded granite monolith soaring above the treeline in the soft light of early evening. Paolo and I sit in silence for a while and take it in.

2015/01/img_7472.jpg

15 January 2015
8:52 – The weather in Patagonia is famously changeable, so I don’t worry too much about the low clouds shrouding the mountains as I set out from my hostel on the edge of town. I work up a fine sweat as I climb up to Laguna Capri again, where I wake up Paolo and chat with an American couple I met back in Puerto Natales. Paolo’s moving slowly but we get going in an hour or so, headed to Laguna de los Tres where the views of Fitz Roy are supposed to be incredible. The trail is flat, clear, and well maintained, which I’m grateful for because it’s started raining and the wind has picked up. After Torres del Paine I’m fully prepared for rain and nothing in my backpack is going to get damaged, but it’s still miserable to hike when you’re wet and we’ve got about seven kilometers to go yet. Thankfully the showers clear after an hour or so and the famous Patagonian wind sets in. I’m dry in about 10 minutes and worried in another 10 when the wind knocks me over. I start to consider quitting the trail since it’s violently windy and getting worse, but the clouds are clearing and Paolo is doing fine and there are other hikers around, so we keep climbing.

It’s fierce wind on the way to the top, and a steep, nearly vertical rocky climb for the last kilometer. Fitz Roy is right there – impressive – but I can’t stand nor walk for the violence of the wind screaming over the mountain range. We have to crawl to peek over a ridge hiding the lake, and I stay behind a huge rock where the wind is merely terrifying, not intolerable. Just crouching there, I get exhausted from battling the gusts that buffet me from around the sides of the rock and the constant noise and the energy that’s howling around me. I can’t stay for more than a few minutes.

2015/01/img_7514.jpg

2015/01/img_7551.jpg

It’s an exhausted, though warm and less windy hike that I take back to Capri where I say goodbye to Paolo, and back to my hostel in Chalten where I fall into my bunk.

16 January 2015
15:38 – I round a corner of a stony, barren hill and find a dusky turquoise lake with a perfect iceberg floating in the middle. At the western end of the lake rests the leading edge of a modest glacier flowing down from steep peaks above, slate-colored granite spikes tinged blue in the clear air. Snow and ice glisten in the calm sunlight.

2015/01/img_7628.jpg

This is Laguna de los Tres. I was lucky with the weather today, clear, dry air, blue skies, warm sunshine, and I hiked much slower than normal to save my aching feet still complaining after yesterday’s walk. It’s really perfect weather, a perfect hike, and perfect views, which don’t make for a very interesting blog post but were a lovely experience.

2015/01/img_7636-0.jpg

In the evening I visit friends at a hostel across “town” (chalten is tiny, only 12 blocks). I’m out late and have to hustle back to my hostel before they lock the doors at midnight.

I go to sleep a little anxious. Tomorrow I’ll attempt a long hitchhiking journey to el Bolson, 1300 kilometers north through some of the most deserted countryside in Argentina. I’m doing it solo and without a tent. I’m hoping it’s just a fun and crazy idea, not a dangerously stupid one.

Advertisements