To El Calafate

As anticipated, last night kind of sucked, at least for Damien and myself. I expected Hendrik would have a terrible night – he has a light, summer-only sleeping bag – but he also has an air mattress and being off the ground, he claims to have been toasty warm. Damien has a warm down sleeping bag but no tent, so we ask the border guards for permission to throw our bags inside the border post without bags we have room to fit him into my tent. My sleeping bag is grossly insufficient for the weather but Damien lends me a silk liner he’s got for extra cold nights – he reckons it’ll provide another 5 degrees. Even with it, I freeze my ass off. Through the night I sleep for 10 or 20 minutes at a time, wake up shivering, roll over, repeat. Damien’s bag is apparently fucked up because he freezes his ass off as well – when he climbs out in the morning he’s covered in feathers and they go everywhere through the tent.

It’s a beautiful morning though, clear most of the way across Lago del Desierto.

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There are a few types of birds down by the waterfront. One is definitely a goose of some sort and the other looks like a duck but sounds more like a loon.

I walk around the border post but after taking a single pic, my camera battery kicks the bucket.

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The sun burns off the remainder of the mist and a massive peak becomes visible. I didn’t realize it when I saw it yesterday, but Hendrik informs me that the peak that’s prominently visible at the far end is the famous Mount Fitz Roy. No pic though, unfortunately.

The Kiwis, the French family and the French/Czech/Canadian fellow were all camping further back along the path and they muster up at the border post as the 11 o’clock departure approaches, getting their passports stamped.

One strange thing about my stamping process yesterday was that I wasn’t asked for a letter of reciprocity by the border guard. A letter of reciprocity (showing you’ve paid the $92 USD entrance fee) is supposed to be required for Canadians, but whether this remote post hasn’t got the memo yet or whether the guard simply forgot to ask in the chaos of the missing-equipment situation, I can’t say.

The boat rocks up just before eleven and we all climb on. The trip’s great, similar to Lago O’Higgins but a lot smaller. Somewhere near the middle of the lake on the eastern shore is a huge lodge – no sign, it might be a private home, beautiful place. Much like Lago O’Higgins there are waterfalls and streams descending into the lake from both sides. After forty minutes or so we jump off at the other side, where there’s nothing but a small jetty and a police station. We walk a few hundred meters up the dirt road to a set of buildings – there’s a small barbecue stall so I grab a sausage – a cafe and what I think was a hospedaje. There’s also a trailhead, it looks like it leads up to a glacier. Our mini-bus to El Chalten is parked there but the driver doesn’t want to leave yet, he wants to wait until 1:30 when some other folks are due to arrive.

The guy running the BBQ stall is a grizzled old Italian-looking dude. There’s a beautiful yellow finch zipping back and forth around him until we get our food, when it follows us to our table and gives us what is definitely a predatory stare. “Give me some sausage bun or else.” The old guy whistles to it and tells it to come back… it stares at our food, hesitating a bit, but after a few moments swoops back over to his stall.

A few minutes before we leave we strike up a conversation with an Argentinian backpacker on his way back from Lago del Desierto. Like many Argies he expresses his dislike of Chileans and then proceeds to compare all types of Latin Americans to Argentinians, especially their political views. He notices my red-starred EZLN t-shirt and starts laughing – “Fidel Castro es tu amigo??”

The road to El Chalten is rough and slow-going, it’s only 37 km but for much of the time we can’t be going more than 30 km/h. We follow a river that begins with raging waterfalls but then spreads out and meanders through gravel banks. We pass the French family and the other bikers we’d been traveling with, waving to them on the way past. A sign indicates we’ve entered a national park (Los Glaciares, maybe?) and soon backpackers are everywhere, especially as we reach the town’s edge after close to an hour’s drive.

El Chalten’s a small place but very tourist-centric, lots of places to stay and plenty of companies offering tours of the park. I’d been planning to stay here a few days, maybe do a few small treks to get views of Fitz Roy, and I’m surprised to hear that Damien is planning to just keep burning through to El Calafate, another few hundred kilometers down the road. (Hendrick is as well, but that’s not surprising because he has a plane to catch from there to Buenos Aires tomorrow.) When I ask him “What about the trekking?” he responds that after the 39 km hike the other day, he’s good. No need to do any walking for a while. After some quick reflection I concur, to hell with walking, I want to get to El Calafate, get some real food and hit the bar. Damien reminds me that it’s Saturday night, too. Oh shit yeah.

While buying my ticket the woman in the kiosk says “Su camisa… es muy bueno” (Your shirt… it’s very good) and gives me a thumbs up. Hilarious, I’ve been wearing this shirt that makes me look like a communist on-and-off for months but never really gotten a comment until today.

There’s a cafe at the bus station so we wait there for a couple of hours until the next bus to El Calafate. Hendrik pulls out a bunch of hiking food he no longer wants/needs and we scarf it down along with our coffees – a lot of cookies, things like that. When we get on the bus it’s free seating and it’s almost full… oh man, I want to spread out, I don’t want someone squeezing in. I mean mug it while everyone’s piling on and it’s successful – there are only two empty seats and one of them’s next to me. Might also have something to do with not having showered in several days.

As we pull out of El Chalten, Mount Fitz Roy and its entire range comes into clear view. I haven’t been able to charge my camera battery, but a Google image search shows pics that are much better than I could ever take from a moving bus with my crappy camera anyway.

The terrain changes from mountainous forest into semi-arid steppe with a lake and the mountain range in the horizon. The roads are fenced off but that doesn’t seem to stop the guanacos, grazing on both sides of the fence. Most of them anyway – occasionally guanacos in varying states of decay are seen tangled up in the fence. Once we turn away from the lake I decide to nod off for a while – the steppe’s beautiful but I’ve seen a lot of steppe before and I’m pretty beat.

We reach El Calafate shortly before dark. Damien remarks that it looks like a small mountain town in Switzerland – I’ve never been to Switzerland but I was thinking the same thing with Colorado in place of Switzerland. The main street, divided by a tree-filled median, is lined with expensive clothing, camping and mountaineering equipment stores, plus very high-end souvenir shops. Lots of resto-bars, that’s the important thing.

Damien heads off to find a hostel where some of his friends from France are staying. Hendrik and I head out to a place that Hendrik’s stayed at before and says is great. When we walk in the girl at the desk yells “Hendrik!” and runs around, giving him a big hug. Unfortunately the place is full and when the girl calls around to a few other places it sounds like the whole town is full. She eventually finds a place that rents out cabins – about $80 a night ($40 pp), more than I’m willing to spend, I’d rather pound the pavement, but Hendrik says he’ll pay $50 if I’m willing to throw down $30. Cool, I’m down with that. The girl yells for someone to watch the desk and gives us a drive across town.

Hendrik and I hit the town, get some cash and return to Damien’s hostel, where we meet his friends Gregory and Sonia. Four of us (minus Sonia) roll out and hit the bars for food and beers. After a mere two or three drinks a piece it’s apparent that we’re all pretty beat. So much for blowing it up on a big Saturday night. Ah well, after the big hike and two buses today I’ve got a fire lit under my ass now, back into rally mode big time. There isn’t much more south to go and I’m determined to knock this thing off by Christmas.