Out of the Shrubs We Come

el calafate

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.

road to el calafate

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.

road to el calafate (2)

Finally, a change

road to el calafate (3)

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. :)

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