Monday, March 1, 2010

Towards the End of the World


The bus from Los Antiguas to El Chalten only came on even numbered days. We happened to be there on an even numbered day and snagged two of the last four available seats. The bus, unusually, was filled only with gringos. In hindsight, that must have been because Argentines know better than to go to El Chalten.

I was excited to be going into Patagonia proper. I had been reading a travelogue of three British guys who cycled all the way from Ushuaia (Argentine city at the End of the World) to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, in a bid to raise money for leukemia in the mid-nineties (entitled The Trail to Titicaca). Their stories from Patagonia made me want to see what they saw.

Patagonia sounded like the land that time forgot. Rumors had circulated of the continued existence of the prehistoric Mylodon - a giant sloth with menacing claws (a statue of which graces the entrance to Puerto Natales in Chile)- who had outlived the rest of the dinosaurs, rumors notwithstanding. I read stories of how the native tribes of Patagonia scared the bejeezus out of the Spanish. The Spanish were literally half the size of the Tehuelches; they thought they had found a race of giants. Patagonia gets its name from Spanish explorer, Ferdinand Magellan and his obsession with the size of the Tehuelches' feet: Patagonia means "Bigfoot".
Everything is larger in Patagonia. Things need to be large in order to establish themselves against the sheer vastness of space, like the moon carving a spot for itself in the night sky.

The bus ride was reminiscent of the Bolivia days. The road was unpaved and bumpy, and the bus broke down periodically throughout the night. The bus driver asked if we wanted to watch a movie and upon responding in the affirmative, he then asked if anyone had a movie. Someone had left a window open in the bus' bathroom and it was coated with a thick layer of dust. The scenery was constant: we drove for hours and hours and hours through flat, desolate desert.

Everything was windswept and cowed by the cruel Patagonia wind, only low shrubs dared to eek out an existence in the sand. The few trees that had been planted in an effort to block the wind were bent over at uncomfortable angles. Even the sky looked as though it had been wiped away, revealing an underlayer of stars that no one else sees.

We got off the bus for a dinner break, and my first instinct was to find something to hold onto in case the wind carried me away. It hurtled across the steppe and stole your breath right out of your mouth and then tried to push you over, like a schoolyard bully.

Woke with the sun, early, as the bus approached a rocky outcropping. Granite rose out of the desert, looking somewhat out of place. The small, battered town of El Chalten set up camp in the shelter of the foothills of the Andes. In the distance, obscured by fog and rain, was the infamous Fitz Roy mountain. The weather was dreadful. The wind fired the rain drops into your face like icy pellets.

We went about our usual way of traveling: get off the bus, show up on the doorstep of a hostel. However, this strategy was not going to work in Patagonia. The major towns, which are few and far between, have become major tourist hubs and the hostels in high season (wretched weather and all, this was summer) were all booked up. You needed to make reservations well ahead of time. Which, sounds like the normal thing to do when you travel... but we had gotten used to navigating Bolivia where they didn't typically have websites (or computers) with which to make reservations. I suppose you could have called ahead, but then you'd need to speak much better Spanish; no illustrative hand gestures are possible via telephone. Thus, it was a rather frustrating morning battling the elements in the frantic search for somewhere to sleep. Yuval, bless him, left me to wait somewhere warm with the mochillas (backpacks) while he ran around town. Twelve rejections later, he finally found us a place.

Having lost his mind somewhere in the desert, Yuval right away busied himself with orchestrating a hike into the horrible weather and up to some horrible mountain. The Fitz Roy is, evidently, quite the big deal in trekking circles. Being clueless about all things outdoorsy, I of course had never heard of it and opted to stay inside with a pot of hot coffee and a book. Yuval raced a giant Dane the entire way there and back. The trek is supposed to take nine hours- they did it in five. At the top, they were greeted with snow and hail and sleet and wind, and an obscured view of the Fitz Roy. Him and the Dane celebrated with waffles, and then he came to find me and we celebrated further with Patagonian lamb and beer.

And then we caught the first bus to El Calafate.

Perhaps it was the cold, or the fact the trip was nearing its end, but we began to travel much faster in Patagonia. Two days in El Chalten, two in El Calafate... we were becoming efficient! We were even planning ahead: booking hostels, researching bus times, making itineraries. It was all quite foreign to our usual lackadaisical approach to traveling. I prefer to take my time and play it by ear - the word itinerary makes my eyes glaze over- but I wasn't sad to whip through Patagonia. It was beautiful but it was like one of those really beautiful people whose also really mean. Nice to look at, but the less time spent in their immediate presence, the better.

El Calafate, much like El Chalten and its mountain, has only one tourist attraction: the Perito Moreno Glacier. It's a two hour bus ride outside of El Calafate, pricey, but spectacular: five kilometers wide and 76 meters high. The glacier looks like an ice fortress, but it sounds like a massive, creaky old house that's literally falling apart. And it's awake. It advances along the lake, towards the shore, creaking and calving; icebergs fall off and bob around in the lake like the Titanic. The calving is mesmerizing; we could hardly tear ourselves away - what if you miss something? Just before we had to catch the bus back, we watched as one huge iceberg broke off, the crash thunderingly loud, and turned somersaults in the frigid water.

Every few years, as the glacier reaches the shoreline separating two halves of the lake,creating a dam and building water pressure from one side to the other. This pressure eventually ruptures the front section of the glacier in a spectacular scene. This last happened in 2006.

Take a look!

The following day we spent relaxing at the hostel, a reward for our newfound efficient traveling. For dinner we cooked steak marinated in wine and garlic sauce, and a zapallito pie - instead of the intented zucchini we found zapallitos, which looked like mini green pumpkins, but tasted like a cross between a cucumber and a zucchini. Both steak and pie were cooked to perfection.

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