Happy New Year!! 2013 was a year of many adventures, most of them way out of my comfort zone and this trip to Patagonia was no exception. At 7 am on the monday after thanksgiving, I boarded a flight to El Calafate with Nora, Odile, and Olivia.
Here’s a map of the region for reference.
We arrived in Calafate and I felt like I was on another planet. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see dinosaurs roaming around or aliens. From the runway, we could see Lago Argentina, a huge glacial like that has a milky blue color because of the sediments from the glacier. We took a cab to our hostel which was up a hill overlooking the lake. It was an adorable hostel and the dorms had 4 beds so we got our own room! Since we were all running on very little sleep, we took it easy that day and took a walk down by the Lago where we could see flamingos (so cool). We checked out the town and bought plane tickets for a flight from El Calafate to Bariloche (chosen over a 31 hour bus ride so the best pesos I’ve ever spent). We found a supermarket and got groceries for the next few day. Cooking during this trip was one of my favorite parts. I really missed sharing meals with friends and being able to prepare our own meals together and eat every night was so much fun. We made really simple things (especially because the groceries stores had very limited offerings) so there was a lot of rice, pasta, one night of quinoa. Vegetable selections were limited in these windy southern towns so we made due with carrots, onions, and the occasional mushroom and tomato. Lunches were tomato and cheese sandwiches and we found granola bars and apples to be the perfect snacks. Splurges included a bar of chocolate in honor of hanukkah and a bottle of wine in honor of the hardest hike ever (more on that later). Since it was the beginning of summer in Patagonia, it wasn’t freezing cold but the wind was intense. While the temperature was in the 40s, the windchill was far below.
One of my favorite parts of traveling while abroad was soaking up the hostel culture and atmosphere. In every single case, hostel owners were extremely helpful, providing so much travel advice and a pretty lame breakfast for about ten dollars a night. We learned to spot hostel archetypes: the much older traveler who talks to everyone, the couple that needs to shower a little bit more, the party animals who make friends with a liter of beer to share, the solo travelers, the few Argentine travelers and it goes on. In Calafate, the owner of the hostel helped us book almost all of our activities for the next few days, including bus tickets, a tour to the Perrito Moreno glacier, glacier trekking at a different glacier, the works. We paid for all of that stuff at once which helped with budgeting for the rest of the trip since we knew how much we had sunk. We went to bed really early, basically as soon as the sunset at 10 pm (yes we were that far south).
The next day we went to see the Perrito Moreno glacier with a guide named Juan. It’s the third largest one in the region and it’s one of the only glaciers that’s growing not receding. Unlike the big bus tours, we were in a van of 12 travelers and we drove to the glacier on the older road. It was so cool to see the scenery change so dramatically in about an hour and a half. Calafate gets very little rain each year (20 mm maybe) but by the glacier it’s more like 2000 mm annually. Some pictures will attempt to do it justice. I was surprised at how blue the glacier was and had a hard time comprehending the size. The boat ride gave more perspective but it’s still mind boggling.
The next day we took a morning bus ride to El Chalten, a 28 year old town about 3 hours from El Calafate (see map). El Chalten was adorable, about 5 blocks long and surrounded by mountains. Most streets ended with a sheer mountainside and it was full of travelers from all over the world (there were even signs in hebrew). Our first day included visits to the grocery store and conclusions that not much fresh produce makes it to these frigid parts and a short hike to a waterfall nearby. The landscapes are stunning and change often as you get closer to glaciers.
The next day we headed to the glaciers for trekking. This outing was at Glacier Viedma, the largest one in the region. It’s base has more sediment than Perrito Moreno so it was a little darker as you will soon see. To get there we took a bus to a boat to these mountains next to the glacier. We hiked over those for about a half hour, then put crampons on and hit the ice. It was so windy at certain times that we worried Olivia would blow off but it was stunning. Whereas Perrito Moreno looked like a big white mass from a distance, this glacier had so much texture up close, little crevices and dips and twists that are the result of so many years of wind and rain and snow. It’s incredible. There were little streams where the glacier was dripping, which happens quickly in the summer and it’s devastating to thing that this imposing mass has a ticking clock on its existence. At the end of the trek we drank Tia Maria (a creamy liquor kind of like Baileys) on glacier ice and toasted the trip. We got slightly athletically shamed by a nearby group of climbers actually scaling walls of the glacier but that is a whole different skill set.
At the point I think it’s time to introduce our hostel roommates Tom and Danielle, a charming couple from the UK who were traveling around the world for 8 months, with stops in Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Cook Islands, Argentina and the US. They told us about a hike they did the day we arrived to el Lago de Los Tres, a lake that gives you a spectacular view of Fitz Roy, an ice covered mountain reserved for those with technical climbing expertise. The hike is long (24 km or 15 miles) and they warned us the last part of it was really steep but we embarked nonetheless. This hike was so far out of my comfort zone it was scary. The first part was really steep and then we found a beautiful glacier lake that we could drink the water out of and had a flat stretch. We crossed a riverbed and then saw signs warning of steepness ahead. The next part was over an hour of almost straight up hiking on really rocky trails. We took lots of breaks and it was pretty hard. The worst/best part was that you couldn’t see the lake during the hike. It just looked like you were heading to the top of hill and the lake was actually on the other side (so you walked down). Once we got to the lake it was so so beautiful and Fitz Roy, the mountain we could see from our hostel was right across the lake from us. We chatted with other people who had made it and I ate a sandwich in probably the most beautiful place I will ever eat a sandwich. The walk back was kind of miserable because rocky steep paths are even worse on the way down. Then the final part just felt interminable to the point where I suggested leg amputation in the hopes of attracting a rescue team (kidding). We had rented hiking boots and coats and by then their decent but not perfect fit led to some sore ankles. We made it back to El Chalten and immediately hobbled to a waffle place we had previously identified as the perfect post hike food. The waffles were good but didn’t entirely satisfy our hunger after 8.5 HOURS OF HIKING (who am i ?is an appropriate response to this post) so we headed to return our boots to the gear store and pick up some ingredients for dinner and a bottle of wine to celebrate this whole adventure. The only way to avoid an extra walk back to the hostel, which was a whole three blocks more than any of us were willing to walk was to walk in socks through the town. People stared, they took photos, we made a name for ourselves. No regrets.
The next day we could barely walk but had to rally for an early morning bus ride back to El Calafate to catch our flight. We wound up in the back row of the bus with an Argentine band that was absolutely hysterical. We decided we were their accidentally groupies right before we napped. We got to stop at our Calafate hostel to grab lunch and relax before the flight, which they had offered us before we left. It was so nice to have a little homebase. We flew north to Bariloche in the Lake District and saw lakes immediately. I’ve never been to the Alps but from what I’ve seen in the Sound of Music, these mountains were pretty similar with yellow flowers blooming and lakes everywhere. We took a walk around the city of Bariloche by the lake and came across a stage with musicians setting up. It turns out they were prepping for an advent concert #90percentcatholiccountry and we found ourselves in the midst of a Jesus parade. Very casual. We cooked dinner and went to bed early. The next day we tackled the Circuito Chico and almost rented bikes but I chickened out at the last minute. This turned out to be a very good decision because the bike path was actually a really windy road full of speeding cars and sharp turns. Instead we hiked to a few of the lakes and rented kyacks on one of them which was so beautiful. We even had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant overlooking another lake. It was a gorgeous day and the perfect temperature. That night we had our first dinner out of the whole trip which felt like a huge treat because someone else washed the dishes and toasted to the week. Traveling with Odile, Olivia and Nora worked out better than pretty much any group trip I’ve taken. There were no fights, countless inside jokes, so many moments of support and so many memories. On our final day in Bariloche we souvenir shopped for gifts for our families, sampled Bariloche’s famous chocolate (there were tons of Swiss and German immigrants here) and headed to another spotless and almost empty Argentina airport. I got back to my apartment around 10 and it was so weird to know that I was leaving in just a few days. Patagonia is a destination I would recommend to anyone. You could spend months there and it captivates Argentine authors and teens much like the Wild West did for Americans. Parts are so wild but the people make you feel at home and you meet adventurers from every part of the world. Our official motto of the trip was #YOPO but I’m hoping I’ll make it back at some point.
Update: I forgot Bariloche pictures the first time, enjoy