Ice ice baby!
This is a slight cheat with both my title and subheading being songs, but I couldn't quite bring myself to have Ice Ice Baby as the song represented by this blog, plus it doesn't quite account for the whole period I'm writing about. I had finished the W trek and got myself and my aching legs onto a bus to Argentina. I was heading to El Calafate a town named after a small red berry and famous for being close to the huge Perito Moreno glacier which is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world.
After a stroll around town I discovered that it was very full...not many rooms available. I had lots of people very helpfully explaining stuff to me in Spanish about where I might go, but I kind of understood the arm waving and found a hostel that had a bed for one night and the offer of sleeping in a refugio (basically a floor) for the next night.
So off I went to explore the town and get in some Argentinian pesos. I had heard from many other travellers that getting money out in El Calafate and El Chalten could be difficult but I wasn't prepared for all 4 banks giving me nothing on both my visa debit or my mastercard. I was slightly concerned about how I would pay for things given that despite the problems in accessing money, many places in these towns do not accept card and therefore you need cash! It seems to me like if they want people to spend more money that should invest in some decent ATM's. Anyway, luckily the reception at the hostel were incredibly helpful (plus this is not a new problem for them) and the effectively charged me a price on card, and gave me the cash. The best bit about this was they charged me in US dollars and so I got a better rate than I would at the banks. This is because there is a bizarre situation in Argentina where the government have tried to stabalize their currency by effectively making it illegal to get foreign currency. Whilst this has now been lifted their are still restrictions and Argentinians want to save their money in US dollars. This means that pretty much everywhere you can exchange US dollars for pesos at a much better rate than the official government one.
Given my knees and my lack of ability to get too much money out, I just chilled out on the first day and booked a trip to the glacier for the next day. I did however find an amazing alfojore place, mmmm. I need to learn how to make these when I get back. The next day we got on the bus to head to the Los Glaciers National Park with a slightly exorbitant entry fee. We were offered a boat trip as well, but given what the day was costing I declined. The rest of us were going to be dropped at the walkways which took you to many different viewpoints around the glacier. We had over three hours there, which sounded like a long time to be staring at a block of ice, but in the end it was about right.
The thing I find with glaciers (having seen so many now!) is that a sense of scale is so hard to get. Much like the Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine, I couldn't quite take in how big it was, despite having been told the face was 5km long and the height of it is between 50 and 70m I felt I need some small people to be standing at the base to really get a feel for it.
The blue in the ice is an incredible colour and the surface of the glacier is like a hugely magnified version of the ripples you get in wet sand. The first time you hear part of the glacier falling you think that a huge piece must have come apart, then you just see this tiny block drop into the water. The thunder-like noise seems far louder than the size of the ice would suggest. Then it becomes a waiting game. You see parts of the glacier that seem to have more cracks, or look more unstable, and you think you will stand there until it falls. Then you start thinking that maybe it won't fall in the next half an hour so maybe you should move on.....but maybe it will.
The time passed quickly with an incredible finish, as hundreds of people stood waiting for this section to go, which it did! And then just as I was leaving the tops of two tower sections came away with a huge noise.
The next day I headed to El Chalten which is the home to Mount Fitz Roy, and the Cerro Torre, two famous mountains for climbing, at a slightly higher level than I could ever manage When we arrived the weather was beautiful and both peaks stood out against the sky. That was the last time I saw Cerro Torre for quite a few days.
In my dorm I met Eva, an Argentinian from Buenos Aires who was in Chalten on holiday visiting her brothers who worked there. The next day we set off to hike to Laguna Torres which was supposed to be the easiest of the three main walks in the area. It was pretty flat and we walked the 10km pretty quickly, to get to the incredibly windy lake, where we ducked down behind some stones to eat lunch. We popped our heads out to take a few photos before heading back down but unfortunately Cerro Torre was in the clouds.
The next day the weather didn't look quite so good. My plan had been to climb Loma del Pliegue Tombado, which is supposed to give you a great over view of the mountains near Chalten. The clouds were quite high, but I wasn't quite feeling the drive to hike. I delayed with a hot chocolate telling myself I was seeing what the weather was doing, but not much changed so I set off thinking if it got worse I might turn back. Turns out I really enjoyed this hike (at least going up). It was 12km of all uphill, but nothing to steep so you got into a really good rhythm.
At the almost top, you got a fantastic view of the Laguna Torre where we had been yesterday as well as the Fitzroy. There was an additional mound/peak to climb which would allow you to see in the other direction towards the Viedma Glacier but it was incredibly steep and stony, so I made the decision to not put my knees through the descent and sat and had my cheese and avocado on freshly baked rolls from the bakery whilst enjoying the view. So very tasty! It turns out Argentina has a large Italian influence which I was not aware of. I assumed the leading influence would be Spanish, but it's not the case. This means that almost all the food is Italian, bar the classic barbeque, which was not so much my thing. After pasta pasta pasta whilst camping I was not desperate for more, but it was mostly all that was on offer. There was a definite carb overload happening.
Once back down the hill and in the hostel I was hungry with aching knees. Luckily I had plans for food! Erin and Gerald who are the Canadians I met what felt like ages ago back in Punta Arenas and then on the W trek were also in Chalten and we successfully arranged to meet for dinner despite the terrible internet connections. The plan was the local microbrewery but unfortunately it was very busy. However, the pizza place we ended up in was delicious and also had some giant local beer and a very tasty lemon meringue pie!
The next day I had penciled in for a rest day as I had a whole week in Chalten. This was also to prepare for the next day's fun of ice climbing! After being thwarted in my kayaking at Grey Glacier, and the 'Big Ice Hike' in Calafate was fully booked I decided to go all out and spend a day on Viedma glacier and do some ice climbing. It turned out to be a good decision. An incredible and unique experience, you got crampons and went trekking over the ice to find some suitable walls. The guides took you through caves, up and down steep sections, along narrow ridges, occasionally hacking out steps for us with their pickaxes so we could get down harder parts that they just ran down.
The climbing itself was very cool, they drill in three anchors to set up top ropes and then you get your ice axes to start climbing. Very different to rock as there is no 'where do I put my feet'. I found the ice axes to be very steady, but the crampons were a lot harder and you had to concentrate on the correct technique that they taught us so your feet didn't slip from under you. Once we had done the 'easy climbs' we moved location, had lunch with a very cold bum, then got lowered down into a mini crevasse to climb back out. A final hike back included getting some fresh glacial ice, adding some Tia Maria and having a drink. A brilliant and tiring day.
Looking stylish in my crampons and the crazy bubbly blue of the ice cave
Guides setting up the anchors and my first ice climb
Me loving the ice!
The final walk of the main three in Chalten was the Laguna de los Tres, which took you up close to Fitzroy. We had been warned that there was a tough section and you didn't want it to be windy when you did it. When I woke up it was not windy (unusual) but it was cloudy. However my weather forecasting ability was telling me that the clouds were going to clear as it got later in the day. But again I set of with the possibility of turning back if it didn't. After an hour of walking I got to a lake and you can see how the weather was going. But the walking was very flat after the first kilometre so I kept going for a while longer and started to get tantalising glimpses of Fitzroy in the clouds.
The walk continued to be pleasantly flat and I covered 9km (of the 10km total) in 2 hours. Then I got to the sign that warned of the steep slope ahead. This final kilometre took me almost 50 minutes. It was steep, stony, with huge steps. It was tough and I knew it would be tougher going the other way. Luckily I had been warned that what looked like it was going to be the top, wasn't. So as I reached a flat section and rounded a corner, it was actually a pleasant surprise to see only a small slope ahead. All the effort was totally worth it, the clouds had cleared and I got one of my first totally cloud free days in Patagonia which allow you to take photos that look like this....
Of course then I had to get back down the slope...and that was the end of my knees for quite a while so I had another rest day (read - eat calafate ice cream) before heading back to El Calafate to fly up to Buenos Aires.
I'm never that fussed about cities - especially when travelling by yourself. I think a 'city break' generally involves finding nice places to eat and drink which is not as fun when you are by yourself. However, I had a nice morning wandering around the Plaza de Mayo although there were still barriers and a police presence from the protests last week over the death of Alberto Nisman. Eva, my roommate from Chalten had suggested some places for me to go and we had also arranged to meet for a beer that evening. So I headed to the Recoleta cemetery where many famous Argentinians including Eva Peron are buried. It is a popular spot because the tombs and mausoleums are so ornate, it's fascinating to just wander around. I did follow the crowds to Eva Peron but it was a classic 5 second stop seen though your camera, so I wandered elsewhere and found this:
After beers with Eva, the next day I also got to meet up again with Emily (of W trek fame) for lunch. It's always so nice seeing people again from earlier in your travels. After stuffing ourself with some delicious food I was heading for the airport and for LA.
I felt like this was sort of the end of my 'travels'. A few days in LA and Vancouver followed by 4 weeks of snowboarding almost feels like a holiday end to my trip. I think this partly comes from being excited about the ease of which I will be able to navigate around these cities as I won't need my Spanish anymore and partly from the fact I know people in these places and will be not moving on every few days once I get to Fernie. But as I thought about it, I realised I was just pleased to be finishing this part of my trip. I'm so glad I came to Patagonia. It is beautiful, the hikes I've done have been incredible, I've started to learn a new language and like everywhere I've gone, I've made new friends from around the world. I would love to come back. But in someways it has been the least enjoyable part of my trip. I've found the hostels to be less homely than those in NZ, which has generally meant spending more money by being somewhere else. I think most people plan their trip to Patagonia very carefully, and therefore have a strict itinerary. This means there is a lot less 'randomly meeting people and going with the flow' kind of travel than elsewhere. I've spoken to a few others about this and mostly we agree that it's harder to make new friends to have fun with. Also, I think it has been the timing. The moving on frequently and the long distances to travel between places mean that after 6 months on the road, the packing up every few days and the not knowing anyone without first having a conversation that starts with 'where are you from?' has become a bit of a chore. That's why I am so excited to meet up with some wonderful ex students of mine in North America, see Mum in Fernie, and ultimately, get back to the UK. It has been a great trip so far, and I'm sure the last 5 weeks will be the same, but this Wandering Daughter is ready to come home.