The town of El Chaltén is an interesting experience. The Argentinian government created the town in 1985 to serve Glacier National Park. It is growing fast. And it is expensive. The hostel I stayed in – El Condór de Los Andes – was only 2 blocks from the bus station. I had ridden with Jason and Victoria in their rental car from El Calafate, so the proximity to the bus actually didn’t come into play until the end of my stay there. The town is virtually void of internet. I tried leaving my iPad in the lobby one day to upload about 65 photos. Hours later, I think 4 or 5 had downloaded. Edmodo, the program we are using to keep in touch with my students, didn’t work – it simply wouldn’t load. So, I gave up on the Internet during my stay. I’m typing this entry while on the classic Route 40 bus going north to Bariloche from El Chaltén. But first, how I came to be on this bus…
My first full day in El Chaltén, I rested my legs and went to the bus station to get cash. The ATM worked, and I had $1,000 Argentinian Pesos! As the ATM is in the bus station, I started surveying my options. Two buses go from El Chaltén to Bariloche: one on even days, and one on odd. The even day bus leaves at 3:40am and goes straight through to Bariloche, arriving at 6:30am the following day. Talk about a crappy travel schedule! The other bus – the Even Day Bus – leaves at 9:00am. It stops at night and you stay in a hotel (actually a hostel I discovered while on the bus). Then continue on the next day to Bariloche, arriving in the early evening. I took this info and walked back to the hostel to process. I need to be in Bariloche Monday morning for Spanish lessons. Hmmm… The thought of getting to sleep a few hours mid-journey and doing the whole trip by daylight was appealing. Further, unless I wanted to leave Sunday at 3:40 in the morning, arrive in Bariloche Monday morning and go directly to Spanish class for a day… I would need to leave Friday morning, cutting out another day in this incredible El Chaltén area! So, Saturday it was. I walked back over and struggled through the booking process with the man at the bus counter. Now, let’s go back to the day I came to El Chaltén and my times here!
I drove up to El Chaltén from El Calafate with Jason and Victoria. These two were from Chicago. Victoria was nearing the end of a year-long around the world adventure. She knew Jason in Chicago, and he had come down to South America to do a leg of her journey with her. The two of them had rented a car for their side-trip north. I gave them 100 Pesos, about 15 more than the bus ticket would have been, and piled in the car with them. This all came about because I was trying to wait a day for my brother to get some money in my account before traveling (this was not my brother’s fault – I had planned n putting a number of expenses on my credit card… And very few places (including my language school in Bariloche) take any payment but cash. So, Trav is putting some money from my checking account back home into my debit account for travel. The good people of the Hospedaje Lautaro had informed me that morning, however, that they did not have an open bed for me to extend my stay! So, as of 9 am, I discovered I needed to change hostels in El Calafate or simply head to El Chaltén. I paid US$40 of my hostel bill with American dollars, allowing me to keep a bit of Argentine pesos for my trip. We filled the car with gas and did the almost 3 hour drive to El Chaltén, stopping a couple times for photos, which was really fun!
Jason and Victoria dropped me off and I checked into the Condór de Los Andes Hostel. A big hostel, there were about 15 rooms, most with four beds, but a couple with two and a few with 6. The hostel room cost me 60 pesos per night. The private rooms were 290! After checking in, I decided to hike up to Lago Torres. This lake was shown as a 4 hour hike (one way). It was 3:30 when I started (without a headlamp) and I knew it would get dark about 8:30. That only gave me 5 hours. It was a challenge… I’d start and see how things went.
I moved quickly, focused first at just seeing how far I could get. I had actually decided not to go to the lake about 5:00 when I reaced a scenic overlook with a map of the valley and some benches. I sat down, proud of how well I’d done. A couple guys from Holland were on their way out. They told me theyhad jist come from the lake and it took anhur and a half… Interesting. 1.5 hours for these two guys with sleeping bags and full packs. I was traveling lightly… “Well, you only live once!” Isaid,as I stood, threw my day pack on my back and headed off to their words of encouragement. Now, the challenge was on – I had to make that lake and be backby dark. Nobody was going my direction, but there was a steady stream of folks coming back from the lake. An older gentlemen vcame by and said, “You’re almost there, young fellow. Another 25 minutes and you’ll have made it.” well, 25 minutes later, I was still nowhere near the lake as best as I could tell.
I was just about to give up when I saw a huge hill of pebbles and smooth round rocks in front of me. Just like the glacial lakes in Montana, I recognized the mound to be a moraine – the pile of rocks deposited by the glacier when it hits its furthest point down the valley. All I had to do was get around this hill & the lake would be on the other side. I felt a renewed enthusiasm to make my goal. The moraine, however, turned out to be the first of a number of moraines. I had left the trail and was cutting to the lake, but at the top of each mound, I saw another mound to be climbed in front of me. On the fourth mound, I cleared the top and a wonderful lake greeted me on the other side. It was quite amazing. There were a few people lingering on the shore. I took some pictures, and then began working my way across therocks back toward an elderly man at the end of the lake opposite the glacier.
When I got to te elderly gentlemen, he had set up a mini-tripod and was composing a self portrait. I volunteered to take his photo. After doing so, he then took mine. I asked if he was going back, and he said in broken English that no, he was camping; more to see. So, there were two of us left at thelake, but only one of us had to hike out. I best get on it!!
So, I did. I was moving as fast as I could. A little while after heading out, my trail intersected another. As I came strolling up, a young man came down the other path and started walking in front of me at a good clip. I picked up my already hurried pace and kept up with him. After about 1/4 mile, he pulled up abruptly and I kept plugging past. Another 1/2 mile or so and I got to the scenic overlook where the gents from Holland had encouraged me on. I stopped for a moment and took a couple pictures. When the fast-walking hiker came up, I said, “¡Que bonito!” (what beauty) Evidently, I said it well, as this man took off in Spanish saying many things… He was bursting with pride as he did… Aprender was all I heard… To learn. Whatever he said, though, this guy was loving the experience. When He finished, I didn’t know what to say… It was a little awkward, this man sharing his philosophy on the wilderness we were in, and me being completely unable to understand his comments. We stood in scilience for a few moments, and then he announced, “Nos vamos!” (let’s go). So, even though I couldn’t speak, I think he still wanted to hike with a companion. Off we went together, hiking briskly once again in silence. As we neared El Chaltén, my hiking partner pulled up again. As we weren’t actually hiking together, I kept going. A couple hundred yards later, the trail dropped back into town. On the hillside were two Asian men, one of whom had an awesome camera and was chronicling everything he saw… A run down house, a broken down car… This was not the nicest part of town, for sure. One of the men said “hi.” we started talking. They were from Singapore, a place I said I’d never been. Sort of like a newer Kuala Lumpur, I presumed. Much newer and much cleaner he informed me. He asked if I knew where the Condór Hostel was. Sure, I’m staying there, I said. I’d guide them to it! We got back about 8:30, just as it was getting dark. For a tourist that showed up at 3:30 in the afternoon, I’d done quite the hike! That evening, I met a girl staying in the lower bunk of my bed. Her name was Mandy, and she was from Holland. She currently lives in Buenos Aires and is in her second year of getting her masters in public health. This meant, of course, that she was fluent in Argentinian Spanish! Her boyfriend had recommended a place she said she wanted to try. I said I was game. We walked down to what I call ‘the strip’ – a row of restaurants in what is undoubtedly going to become the high-end of town as this little resort develops. We found the place and went in. of course, I’m not remembering the name of the Bistro… But it had paintings of cave art on the wall… We orded the lamb and a bottle of red wine – delicious!! As is tradition in Argentina, we took our time eating. As the evening unfolded, a group of the owner’s friends started filtering in. As they did, the place got louder and louder. By 11 or so, Mandy and I were the only two left in the bistro except for this guy’s family and friends. Turns out, it was one guy’s birthday… Out came the cake. Theylit the candle – it was like our 4th of July sparklers on a cake. And as it spewed sparks, the people burst into song! I’m going to have to Email Mandy for the words, as it was different than what I had expected… Something to the effect of Have a Happy Day! The group clapped as they sang, and when done, we all burst into applause. It was very cool!! I wished Mandy was staying longer – shehad to leave in the morning. Before she left, she told me to try the Waflría in town. I promised I would and let her know how it goes.
The next morning, I slammed a few ibuprofen and realized I needed to rest my legs for a day. I was super-sore. I went and got cash in the morning from the ATM (there is only one in town – at the bus station) and booked my bus ticket for Bariloche as I already explained. It was a beautiful clear day, and I spent a lot of time just staring up at Fitz Roy looming over town. Had I known what the future held, I should have pushed through the pain and gone hiking… Instead, I hung in town. David, Nicole and I did go to the falls that afternoon. The falls were nice, especially because Nicole had been told to take a trail up to a second falls above the first. This unmarked gem was well worth the hike – we had a lovely afternoon trapsing around the base of the falls. That evening, I went to a resaurant that had a steak and french fry special for AR$62. When I looked at the menu, however, I went for a lamb in homemade pasta raviolli – it was EXCELLENT!
The next morning started out early. I left the hostel at 4:45. The doors to the hostel are locked at night. You push a doorbell from the inside to let yourself out. I did, and walked into the very cool, humid air. Oh, my coat! I turned, but the door had shut. I had my fleece, but not the waterproof shell I had purchased in El Calafate. Now, I was locked out… And I felt a couple raindrops. NOT going to hike in the rain in my light fleece coat, that’s for sure. As luck would have it, about 5 minutes later, two backpackers came walking down the hall from the sleeping rooms. i waived, and they tried to let me in… It took them a minute to discover how the doorbell release worked. Once in, I ran up, grabbed my coat, and was back. The three of us headed out to Fitz Roy together…. I think I wrote the rest of this entry already.
That night, an Isreali (Gaic?) stayed where Mandy had been the night before. He had some extra food, and offered to cook it up… I provided a bottle for drinks, and we had cheese and noodles with tomatoes on top. When done, I said I really owed him for the meal. He said we could go for ice cream. And so we did. And it was AMAZING! The ice cream place was called Domo Blanco. Their signature ice cream of the same name was Dulce de Leche, chocolate, nuts… It was great. I got a scoop of that and a scoop of Calafate (a sweet berry) in a waffle cone – AR$22. I knew that even though I only had one day left, I would be coming here again.
Friday started out rainy. I needed to move rooms in the hostel, so it was another admin day for me. I was going from a 4-bed room to one with 6. i packed up, showered, and hung around. About 10:30, I went to the wafflría for breakfast. A waffle with Dulce de Leche and bananas was really good! Also had a cup of hot chocolate, which was nice, especially on the cold, wet, morning. Then, about 1:30, David, Nicole and I went for ice cream! This time, I had a carmel and nut vanilla scoop with a ‘mundo del frutas’ scoop… Sweeter even than yesterday’s, I loved it! And, for dinner, I went to El Fuegia. I ordered a steak at this place, and new it was a good call because the Argentinian at the table next to me ordered the same thing!! His wife was guiding a table of people from Boston who were headed to Explora! So, they had some money, for sure!! As they left, one of the guys asked the gentleman at the table next to me where he was from, Switzerland. Oh, Cincinatti, he said, we’re from Cleveland! No, Switzerland, I pointed out…. As I left the restaurant, I noticed a little microbrewery next door. I walked in and every table was taken, so I sat at one of the two bar stools, right in front of a delicios looking pie!