El Chalten: Mirador de los Condores

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matt 120pxBeing our last day in El Chalten and having hiked for six hours each of the past two days, we opted for a very short hike this morning to the Mirador de los Condores, where we has awesome views of Fitz Roy and El Chalten.

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El Chalten: Laguna de Los Tres

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matt 120pxToday was another great walking day, as the weather was the best we’ve had yet. It was sunny all day and amazingly there was very little wind. The scenery was awesome, with peaks and glaciers all around us. The first hour was mostly uphill, but the last two hours were pretty flat, if not muddy. The final hour to Laguna de los Tres was closed for safety reasons, but it was still a great walk. I realize that that is very little to write about a great 6-hour trek, but hopefully my photos will do a better job than my writing.

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as you can imagine, Joylani´s feet got a little wet on this balance-intensive part. but she wants me to tell everyone that she stayed dry on the return…

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The day after the rain


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joylani 130pxAfter a solid day of wind and rain yesterday, during which I thought the roof might blow off our hotel, we had a beautiful day today which we filled with a long hike.  In our last 45 min or so of being out we did happen to get completely drenched (it would have only been half drenched if we hadn’t of had to make a detour to the store before returning to our hostel during which we had to turn around and expose our dry side to the wind and horizontal rain), but I really enjoyed today’s “epic” hike through various landscapes and up to a lake.  The walk kind of felt as though it were a miniature version of Frodo and Samwise’s journey in Lord of the Rings.  We started out looking for the trailhead on the hill behind our hostel.  I think we took a less trodden route, and though it was steep, the view along this ridge was definitely worth it and energized us for the main section of the trail ahead.

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We continued gaining altitude past rocks and trees for a while before reaching a viewpoint of the valley below, chowing a couple of sandwiches, and heading downhill into the valley.  Here the landscape went through a few changes including grassy areas, swampy dead forest, a magical grove of trees with a fresh green canopy of leaves, riverbeds, and a windy lake. I know Matt put up a bunch of shots from this trail already, but I wanted to share a few of my favorites that he didn’t post.

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El Chalten: Lago Torre

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matt 120pxToday we hiked to Lago Torre, at the base of Cerro Torre. It was spectacular walk all the way, about 3 hours each way. We started out climbing the hills behind town and following the river.

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Joylani clambering up the hills behind town

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following the river canyon

We climbed upwards for about an hour and a half until we reached a viewpoint. During a totally clear day, the entire Cerro Torre range is visible, but we were only able to see the closer peaks on either side of the valley.

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From the viewpoint, we descended down into the valley and followed the river for another hour and a half. Down in the valley, there was no wind and the walking was easy. The mountains got taller on either side of us, their snowy jagged peaks piercing the clouds. I’ve really been enamored by the sharp and jagged nature of the Andean mountains I’ve seen so far.

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Eventually we came to hills of giant rocks, a glacier’s signature. The vegetation thinned out to nothing and the wind really began to howl. As we came over one hill, Lago Torre came into view. A glacier fed the lake on the opposite shore and small icebergs floated around, while chunks of ice lapped up against the shore in the intense wind. The lake was in a bowl of mountains and their steep walls rose around us.

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I’m not sure if it was rain or water off the lake, but the wind pelted us with stinging water drops. We stayed just long enough to eat a quick snack and take a couple photos before we set off the three hour return journey.

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Joylani said, “I´m not standing or walking until the wind dies down”

Besides our hurting feet, most of the return was a good walk. But the clouds followed us as we exited the valley towards El Chalten. The final half-hour was miserable. It was pouring rain and the usual high winds didn’t help. The wind knocked us off-balance as we walked and it was strain to walk against the wind. We could barely see, because it hurt to lift our faces. The rain was coming totally horizontal. Each of us was completely wet on one side of our bodies and completely dry on the other side- it looked very odd. We did finally make it back to the warm and cozy Albergue Patagonia, where we took nice hot showers, changed to dry clothes, and nursed our sore feet.

El Chalten: Rainy Day

matt 120pxIt’s been raining hard all day and the wind seems like it’s going to blow this entire village away. We’ve only been here two days, but I’ve been amazed by the wind. Its stronger than any other wind I’ve experienced and its been going for two days. I’ve spoken to a couple other travelers who also say its unlike any wind they’ve seen. I guess we’re experiencing the infamous November winds of Patagonia. Looking outside, every now and then I’ll see someone struggling to walk against the wind. All the trees and even the grass around here grows at a slant. The buildings shake. I don’t know if I can say the hottest, or coldest, or nicest, or worst place I’ve ever been off the top of my head, but I will always be able to say definitely that El Chalten is the windiest place I have ever been.

We did have to venture outside briefly today, to switch hotels. I guess I should start from the beginning. We’re realizing that Patagonia is incredibly expensive. Perhaps the most expensive place we’ve been in the past year, bar Japan. In Trelew, we got a private room with a shared bathroom at the cheapest place in town ($25). In El Calafate, we stayed in 4-bed dorms for $15 a bed. We paid the same last night, here in El Chalten, but cannot take it anymore. A private room with a shared bathroom is going to run us $50, but I cannot take any more nights in dorm rooms. Its expensive, for us, considering that our daily budget for accommodation, food, transportation, etc. is only $40 a day, but it is what it is. At least, the park is free and we have no transportation costs since all the trailheads begin in town. But at the same time, it seems pretty steep considering where we’ve been. For $15 in Asia, we’d get an awesome double room with bathroom, AC, TV, maids, and everything. Even five dollars would get us a nice double room is most places. And we’ve never even paid $50 for a room, anywhere. So to spend so much money and get a small room with two twin beds, no bathroom, and plenty of noise is somewhat discouraging. I really don’t mean to complain, especially since we’re travelling voluntarily and with the state of the world and everything, but just thought I’d share that Patagonia is ridiculously expensive. But it is what it is and at least tonight, we’ll have our own room.

El Chalten: Laguna Capri

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matt 120pxThe region I most wanted to see in South America was Patagonia and thing I had been most looking forward to in SA was trekking in Patagonia. There’s several good national parks and multi-day treks in both Argentine and Chilean Patagonia, but after much research we decided to spend all our time in El Chalten, a village within Parque Nacional de Los Glaciares, and focus our trekking in that region. I’d heard it offered the best trekking in Argentine Patagonia, even rivaling the nearby and legendary Torres Del Paine in Chile. Additionally, we could do day hikes out of El Chalten, rather than camp our way through a multi-day hike.

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looking down on El Chalten

Our bus from El Calafate stopped at the national park office on the way into El Chalten. Park rangers gave us a 10-minute talk in English and Spanish. They told us some rules: no smoking (three forest fires last year, all of which began near trails), no feeding dogs in the village (they will follow you on your hike and can kill the endangered heumul), no relieving yourself near water (the lakes and rivers are safe to drink from here), no littering (not organic or otherwise), and a few others that I forgot. The ranger told us about their philosophy about managing the park. It was free and they wanted people to enjoy it. They talked about how they work hard to keep it free and they don’t want it to become like some other parks, where you have to pay entrance fees and all other kinds of fees. I thought it was funny, how he explained what would happen if there became a need for latrines, rubbish bins, more park administration, etc: “I will charge you to enter the park, I will charge you for every trail you use, I will charge you to eat, if you want to take a piss, I’ll charge you.” I admired the philosophy and appreciated their explaining how it’s the visitors’ responsibility to preserve the park: if guests leave no trace, then there’s no need to pay for the park’s upkeep. He wrapped up his talk by telling us that today was the first good weather in a week and, being only noon, to get out on the trails immediately.

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After checking into a not so great hotel, we did hit the trails. We walked up to nearby Laguna Capri, from where we could see famous Fitz Roy. It was about an hour and a half walk each way, which was absolutely beautiful. We walked along one side of a wide valley, the aqua river meandering below across the wide valley floor, and snowy mountains all around. It was incredibly windy and I even got blown to my knees a couple times when trying to battle the wind to take a photo. To describe trekking is really pretty boring (we walked for so-and-so long, we climbed x-number of meters, and blah-blah-blah), so I’ll just use my photos.

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Frozen

joylani 130pxThe glacier was really cool. And being outside was absolutely freezing. At first it was raining, but then it starting snowing. But because of the rain and the not-quite-cold-enough temperature, the snow turned to sleet and it was pretty miserable to be outside for long. For the amount of visitors and price of park entrance, the public facilities at the park were disappointingly inadequate. Though there were nice platforms and paths to view the glaciers from, the only lodge/picnic area was crowded and looked down upon eating outside food (presumably to encourage consumption of their nasty-looking and overpriced cafeteria fare). This visitor un-friendly lodge situation added to the misery of the cold rain and fierce wind as the unfriendly cafeteria was the only place to be indoors besides the bathrooms. Happily though, we ran into some friends from our language school in Buenos Aires as well as made a new friend, and the five of us huddled around a little table and passed the time waiting out the rain chatting and comparing who was wearing the most layers (Stephanie and Melanie, each apparently wearing the entire contents of their available wardrobes—think 7 shirts, 2-3 pants, and 3-4 coats/sweaters, won).

Perito Moreno Glacier

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matt 120pxThe only reason to visit beautiful, but touristy, El Calafate is to visit the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier. It’s actually just one “arm” of the Hielo Continental Sur, the largest body of ice outside the poles. And while its not the largest, longest, or tallest glacier in the Nacional Parque de Los Glaciares, Perito Moreno is supposedly the most visually impressive for reasons I hope to highlight in this post. Yet, it was the cold that defined today. Glaciers obviously only occur in cold places and while I’ve seen various glaciers in India, Nepal, and Alaska, today was by far my coldest glacier experience. It was also my first experience with Patagonia’s notorious winds. While it was a sunny morning in El Calafate, dark clouds obscured the mountains across the lake and foreshadowed the miserable cold we’d face later in the day.

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El Calafate

            It was a two hours bus ride from El Calafate to the glacier. I think it would have been a scenic ride if it weren’t for the clouds and rain. A couple times, windows in the clouds opened up offering nice views of the mountains, valleys, and lake. We stepped off the bus into a light drizzle and fierce winds. It was cold and I’m sure the windchill took the temperature well below freezing. Nonetheless, we came to see a glacier, so we headed down to the glacier observing platforms. Basically, the Perito Moreno Glacier winds its way down from the Hielo Continental Sur, across a portion of Lago Argentino, and connects to the opposite shore. The viewing area is actually a network of stairs and walkways built on the hill/mountainside of the aforementioned opposite shore. It only reached the shore in 1917 and is one of only a few advancing glaciers in the entire world. Enough factoids, back to the cold. We walked down the stairs from the parking lot the first viewing deck, where the sheer size of the glacier surprised us. It was huge and even in the biting cold, we couldn’t help but admire it. It snaked its way down the mountainous valley, although clouds obscured our view of its origins.

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All we could see was a massive jagged surface of bluish ice coming out of the clouds. The blue tint (from low oxygen levels) contrasted sharply with the pure-white snow on the mountains. Some of the lower parts of the face were even dark blue, unlike any ice I’d ever seen. The face of the glacier was impressive too, standing at 50-60 meters above the water level.

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            The glacier was alive. The sounds of cracking ice constantly echoed across the lake and through the mountains. And a couple times, we saw large pieces of ice break off the face and plunge into the icy lake. By large pieces, I mean anything from the size of large house to the size of large buildings. Towards the end of the day, I even saw several large pillars of ice fall off the face- 50 meter-tall chunks of ice crashing into the lake. Every chunk of glacier that dropped off would produce huge clouds of ice-dust and send out enormous waves. Boats weren’t allowed within 300 meters of the glacier for this reason. Also, the ice wouldn’t float back up to the surface for about a minute, as its descent into the water is often very fast and, thus, deep.

            All of it was fun and interesting to watch, but after about an hour, the weather began to take its toll on us. Our gloveless hands were frozen from holding umbrellas. We didn’t need the umbrellas to keep from getting wet, but to protect ourselves from the rains sting. The high winds turned raindrops, even just the drizzle, into high speed projectiles, bullets that stung any exposed skin. My fingers hurt from the cold, eventually too much to turn my camera on or press the shutter. Plus, it was nearly impossible to take photos anyways, since the increasingly strong wind rendered our umbrellas useless. Joylani and I decided to head back to the “lodge,” the only shelter available. As we hurriedly walked back, it began sleeting and then snowing. Luckily we made it inside just as this weather began.

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            Inside, we just stood and tried to regain our warmth. And actually, two Swiss cousins from my Spanish class, Stephanie and Melanie, happened to be travelling around Argentina too and were in El Calafate. We had seen them in town and they were on the same bus to the glacier as us. So we hung with them inside and they gave us some tea from their thermos- smart Swiss people know how to deal with the cold. We also chatted with Mishko, a Slovakian guy who was couchsurfing at the same house as them. He was pretty interesting to talk to, as he was also traveling all around South America and was a fellow hardcore traveler who spoke of future trips and destinations. The only thing I found alarming was that he said the cold and wind here was nothing compared to El Chalten- we’re going to El Chalten tomorrow. After warming up a bit, Mishko and I decided to head back out to see the glacier again, while the girls stayed inside and chatted. The weather had cleared somewhat during the hour and I hoped to get some better shots of the glacier. We walked and chatted for about an hour, while also photographing the ice from various angles and we even saw some big chunks break off the face. All in all, it was a cold day, but we made the most of it because as I said, the only reason to come to El Calafate is to see the Perito Moreno Glacier.

Out of the Shrubs We Come


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Our newest destination: El Calafate

joylani 130pxWe finally left Trelew last night.  I say finally because it is a desolate and dusty place, and not somewhere I would have chosen to go had it not been for the nearby penguin colony.  Due to the schedules of our arrival and departure times, we ended up staying here just a bit too long, and last night when our bus finally pulled into the station, I was ready to jump on and head to our next destination, El Calafate.  The first bus ride lasted for around 17 hours.  After a 3 hour layover in Rio Gallegos and a trip to the Carrefour for food, conveniently located next to the bus station, we boarded another bus for the last 4 hours.  We drove on the highway past endless fields of dreary Patagonian shrub-lands.

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Following the highway is a seemingly infinite stretch of fence.  The land seems so empty and barren that it is hard to imagine a reason for needing fence, but then a few very dusty looking sheep, just barely distinguishable from the bushes, make an appearance.  So perhaps that is why the fence is needed, to keep the sheep in line.  I spotted some Rheas for the first time (they look like an uglyier version of an ostrich), though they can be difficult to see at first as their dirty-grayish feathers blend in even more with the landscape than the sheep’s dirty wool.  In some places there was a bit of water and a smattering of flamingos.  Seeing their slight pink frames against such a heavy-looking backdrop is a startling contrast, but somehow they fit in with the oddness of the fact that some people actually live here and, in fact, I have elected to come here as well. From time to time there was a pack of guanacos munching shrubs or sprinting across the flat land.  These animal sightings brought the only relief of variety to an otherwise mundane landscape.  And then the land dropped off and we realized that we were on a plateau.  The view of shrubs ended and a clear-blue lake materialized below.  Snow-capped mountains surrounding the far edge of the water came into view, and for the first time in hours, the passengers on the bus perked up.  This was what we had come to Patagonia for, not its endless plains of shrub-land, but the mountains and lakes.

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Finally, a change

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A sliver of lake

The town of El Calafate looks drastically different form the dusty settlements we’ve passed through over the last couple days, and equally different from the imposing blocks of concrete buildings in Buenos Aires.  It is really touristy here, and between the scores of bundled-up vacationers and rows of souvenir shops and restaurants, it reminds me of a mix of a ski-resort and small-town main street in a place like Petaluma, only way windier and colder.  It is cold enough here that our hostel offers heated floors.  Our backpacks are emptier; we are wearing most of our layers when we go out.  Jeans, thick socks, shirts (one, two, and three), scarf, hat, fleece and raincoat to block the wind.  We haven’t had to bundle up like this since last year in Nepal.  It’s not too bad, though it does take a little bit of extra motivation to actually decide to go outside.  Tomorrow we will have that extra motivation as we head up to the glacier, Perito Moreno, one of the few advancing glaciers in the world.  The section we will see is part of a large ice-field (Hielo Continental Sur) that spans between the mountains here for hundreds of kilometers.  Our guidebook (Rough Guide) says it is the largest body of ice outside of the North and South Poles, taking up a space of 17,000 square kilometers. So it should be good, definitely more thrilling than the glacier in my brother’s fridge. :)

Rio Gallegos

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matt 120pxWe’re sitting at the Rio Gallegos bus station, just off an 18-hour bus from Trelew and still another 4-hour bus-ride from our destination of El Calafate. Our bus ride taught me that Patagonia is a lot of nothingness; desert scrub, guanacos, sheep, rabbits, rheas, and flamingos. Another thing of note is that we’re as far south as we’ll be on this trip. Any farther south and we’d be on Tierra del Fuego. From here, we’ll pretty much be travelling north until we get to California- kinda strange to think about.