I love this area of the world. I don’t know what it is about Patagonia exactly, but it has a part of my soul. It might be the allure of such a wild place located somewhere at the bottom of the earth, or memories from childhood stories of adventurers trekking the mountains and ice. The weather is unstable, beautiful sun one moment followed by clouds driven in by the whipping winds bringing a storm of sideways rain. The earth smells of cool dampness and the trees, stunted, broken and growing at angles speak to the ferocity of the weather.
I spent hours at the Laguna de los Tres watching Fitz Roy wrap and unwrap a cloak of clouds from its peak. They would move in, swirl about, touch the top of the mountain before moving on into the valley. I saw the sun rise over Cerro Torre, the beautiful cool blue color of the earth just before dawn. I walked across ancient glaciers, moving ice hiding crystal blue lagunas among the jagged seracs.
Patagonia might even incite me to write bad poetry. I’ll spare you however.
El Calafate and El Chalten are tourist destinations, definitely. El Chalten was more trekking oriented, with a harder core group of hikers and climbers. With Fitz Roy and the amazing network of trails almost everyone there is out to be physical, to hike hard and probably spend a day getting truly soaked Patagonian style. The town itself, a one road sort of place doesn’t have much but a few decent restaurants, a pub and and assorted cafes. The town seems to be under constant construction with multiple buildings in different stages. Many look half finished and abandoned. On others, workers would brave the Patagonian winds while traversing rooftops. The cost of food is high, the wine not cheap and vegetables in short supply. I was told by one shop keeper veggies are delivered on Wednesdays and you can’t find a tomato anywhere in town by Sunday.
El Calafate is all about souvenirs and excursions. The main street goes something like this: t-shirt shop, tour group, chocolate shop, tour group, leather shop, tour group, souvenir shop selling t-shirts, chocolate and leather goods, tour group. Don’t eat on the main drag unless you’re willing to pay 85 pesos for a bottle of wine you can buy in Buenos Aires for 20 and it is near impossible to get out of town unless you’re on a tour or renting your own car. Granted the Big Ice tour is worth the 520 pesos. All of it. But the next option on the list is either pay to go to an estancia for the day or pay to spend a day on the boat tour, described by one of the Big Ice guides as full of viejos. But then again, that is the only way to see the Upsala glacier and icebergs. The idea of not being able to do much in El Calafate without paying was either marketing genius or a grave over-site in urban planning. So many beautiful places nearby, but none I could do without a tour group.
Lest I completely negate the usefulness of either place I will say the cordero (lamb), especially at Mi Viejos in El Chalten was the perfect protein to follow a 28km trek. Perhaps I was still delirious from the pain after traversing miles of moraine to get to the Cerro Torre glacier, but I have never had cordero from the asado so satisfying. It was coupled with one of the best salads, full of beet root, lettuce, corn, carrots, tomatoes… even more of an accomplishment knowing the veggie shortage that exists in El Chalten. And in El Calafate the bar Borges along the main drag was a favorite watering hole. The people watching is priceless and we were treated to young women in full leg braces, older men and women in winter clothing that have never seen winter, teenagers in metal t-shirts and rugged men, disheveled around the edges. And if you’re a single woman (or not, who am I to say), you go to lust over the guides and generally gawk at the mountain men. My traveling companion, TJ (you can see her blog here), and I were giddy schoolgirls at some points and probably enigmas for many of the guides. We rarely encountered Argentine women while trekking unless they were with their boyfriends or husbands and none seemed to be having a good time. In contrast, and probably due to the oxygen being diverted from our brain to our muscles on the long treks, we were high, mostly energetic and taking in all the sights nature saw fit to offer.
Working out in the desert near Ridgecrest, California for an assignment one of the long-time desert dwellers told me that if you burn-up a pair of shoes in the desert you’ll be back. I never understood this sentiment for the desert. I still don’t, but that is because the desert touched him and not me. Patagonia has however and I plan to burn-up plenty of shoes.
Some photos from the trek: