Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thanksgiving in El Calafate

A visit to El Calafate was always part of my plan for Patagonia, or rather, it was always part of the plan to see the Perito Moreno glacier.  El Calafate is a small town with a touristy ski-resort feel to it, and honestly there isn't much to do aside from see the glacier.  Which is why my visit turned into a bit of a sprint.  I arrived in the middle of the afternoon, exhausted after the 30 hour bus ride, and checked into my hostel, America del Sur, perched atop a hill just past the main street.  The hostel itself was really nice, aside from a terrible fly problem (thankfully it had been remedied when I went back a few days later), with massive ensuite bathrooms and a nice breakfast.  AND… hair dryers.  (Okay, it had been nearly three months since I had gotten to blow dry my hair - I got a little excited.  It's the little things when you're on the road!)  I had originally thought to spend a few nights in El Calafate, but at the urging of friends I booked only two nights, reserving a spot on the Big Ice trip - a trek on the Perito Moreno glacier run by Hielo & Aventura - for the following morning, which also happened to be Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays back home.  As long as I've been working, I always spend an entire week back in Alabama with family, working remotely, playing in a local ultimate tournament with a Thanksgiving feast and attending a charity ball the weekend before, traveling to see extended family and watching football on the holiday and the weekend after.  I was a little bummed to be missing out on such a fantastic week at home, so having the opportunity to experience something incredible and unique on Thanksgiving day was a huge plus.  

I got up early that morning to catch the 7 AM bus for our trek.  Thankfully, they picked us up directly from the hostel, and we had a bit of a chance to doze off as we wound through town to pick up the other passengers.  Once we finally entered the Los Glaciares National Park, we caught our first glimpse of the Perito Moreno glacier - it was absolutely stunning, a massive wall of blue and white ice.  While Perito Moreno isn't the largest glacier in Patagonia (though it is one of the largest), it's definitely the most famous.  It's also one of the most accessible, with its proximity to the opposite shore, and it's one of the most active.  As one of only a few glaciers which are actually expanding, it's easy to catch chunks of ice falling off the face of the glacier, and there's a constant hum of cracking and shifting ice.

Thankfully we were allowed a full hour at the viewing platforms to take in the splendor of the Perito Moreno before beginning our trek.  Since we were so early, the platforms were practically empty, but the ice also wasn't as active since the heat of the day hadn't had time to melt the face of the glacier.  Even still, we caught a huge chunk of ice falling off one of the sides as we were walking back to the bus!    

To start our trek, the bus drove us down to a dock, where we boarded a boat that would take us across the lake to the shores running alongside the glacier.  We convened at a small lodge, where we were divided up by language (Spanish versus English… though our guide also spoke Italian and German!), then broken into smaller groups and assigned to guides for the actual trek - my group included two women living in New York that I hit it off with immediately, two from Chicago, three Italians, and another guy who was half-German, half-Italian.  We hiked about 45 minutes to get to our entry point, through tall trees, past a small thundering waterfall, with views of the glacier to our side the entire way.  We were given crampons and harnesses (I still don't actually know the purpose of the harnesses, but we wore them), and began our walk on the ice.  

We were incredibly lucky with the weather - we had blue skies the entire day, though we walked through insanely high winds that nearly knocked me over a few times!  We hiked up and down dozens of hills of ice, walked through a gap straddling the edges with a bright blue crevice of ice below us, and posed in front of deep blue pools of glacial water surrounded by white hills and grey mountains.  We took in the stunning views of ice as far as the eye can see - gentle hills and sharp spikes, highlighted in glowing blue, flanked by mountains on either side.  Our guides held us (perhaps that was the reason for the harnesses?) as we peered over ledges and down into massive holes with rushing, winding, tunnels of water.  At one point we broke for lunch, shielded from the wind by a small wall of ice, before continuing on to the top of more small ice hills where the wind nearly toppled us over.  On our way back, we made one of our last stops at a small cave of ice with a pool of crystal blue water beneath it.  It was a gorgeous site, and a perfect way to wrap up a few hours on the glacier.  

We trudged back to our exit spot, pulled off our crampons (by the way, make sure you wear tall socks or have tall hiking boots if you decide to wear crampons - I had some nice little blisters from the end of the day from stupidly wearing ankle socks!), and hiked back to the lodge where we had started the trip.  We were treated to hot coffee and a nice view of the glacier as we waited for all the groups to return, after which we boarded the boat to return to the other side.  An even better way to end a day of trekking on snow and ice and being pelted with wind?  Whiskey.  As we stepped on board, we were each handed a glass of Famous Grouse whiskey with a chunk of glacial ice as well as a small parting gift - a metal keyring of a crampon and an airplane-sized bottle of Calafate liquor!  

Since it was still Thanksgiving, a feast of some sort was definitely needed to round out the day.  The New York gals were staying at the same hostel, so we planned on venturing to a nice steakhouse down the road called La Tablita.  It did not disappoint.  We each ordered a "half tenderloin" (probably still 8 oz of meat) and some wine, and we shared gnocchi with pesto, mashed pumpkin and potatoes, grilled vegetables, and a chocolate mousse dessert.  It was truly the perfect way to end such an incredible day, and if I was going to be missing one of my favorite holidays back home, it was a pretty good substitute!!

The next morning, I packed my bags, headed back to the bus station, and ventured north towards my next stop:  El Chaltén.

Surviving a 30 hour bus ride in Argentina

When I talk to people back home about the length of some of the bus rides I've taken, most of them are horrified!  However, I've grown to really appreciate the bus system in South America, and those long bus rides aren't always so bad.  From Bariloche to El Calafate, I faced my longest bus ride yet… "promoted" as 28 hours long, it took closer to 30 hours in total.  So, here's a quick little overview on long bus rides in South America and how to survive them.  

This particular bus was fully "cama", which means that the seats recline to about 160 degrees.  Once you've gotten used to it (and have your ear plugs and eye mask handy), you can actually get some decent sleep in those seats.  Other options (though not for this journey), include "semi-cama", which is a basic seat that reclines a little bit, and "executive" or "cama-suite", which is pretty much your first class 180 degree reclining luxury seat.  Most of the buses with cama or cama-suite options are two-story buses, and there are all sorts of theories on which seats are the "best".  Some buses have semi-cama up top and cama below, so by all means, I would recommend staying below.  Some people like to have the front seats up top with the massive windows to enjoy the view, but sometimes it's difficult to see the TVs.  Some people say the seat directly behind the stairs to the bottom floor has the best legroom, others say they avoid that area as it's directly above the bathroom (on most buses) and can be a bit stinky.  I've sat just about everywhere on the buses since I buy my seats last-minute, but as long as you know what type of seat you're getting and where the bathrooms are located, you'll be able to figure it out where to sit pretty easily.  

The view from the top, a few rows back.

They do serve meals on board many of the buses (for this one we had lunch, dinner, and breakfast), but the food is mostly a far cry from even airplane fare.  For lunch or dinner, you can usually expect a bit of meat with 3 or 4 carbs.  For breakfast, you're likely getting a packaged cookie and a cup of hot water with a packet of tea or coffee, and maybe a super-sugary fruit juice box.  For this trip, I packed a massive bag of snacks for the road which helped keep my stomach full (though this approach is likely one of the reasons I've gained a few pounds this trip!).

Breaded meat with rice, bread, bread, more bread, some sort of bread thing, and lentils.

To keep my mind occupied, I was fully armed with my journal, my Kindle (and one of the epically long Game of Thrones books), my phone (just a means of accessing some stored up podcasts and music), and even a few TV shows downloaded to my laptop.  Thankfully I had also met an awesome couple at my hostel in Bariloche who were on the same bus, and just happened to be seated just across the aisle - it was definitely a saving grace to have some people to talk to!  

The bus companies here also show movies during the trips, though it's a bit hit or miss with whether you'll get something decent and/or in English.  You can be fairly guaranteed the movie will be some sort of bloody action movie though - they sure do like their violent movies on the Argentinian buses!  Don't believe me?  Here's a sampling of what we were shown during our 30 hour trip:

  • Inglorious Basterds, because you can't get more bloody and violent than Quentin Tarantino.  Sidenote:  since half the movie is in French or German, and all the subtitles were in Spanish, it was a *little* challenging to follow!
  • The Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger's amazingly haunting portrayal of the Joker.
  • Che, actually two movies, both in Spanish, both with Benicio del Toro.  I didn't watch it, so I can't vouch if it was bloody, but it's still a movie about a guerilla revolutionary, so there's a bit of war involved.
  • Sometime around 11 PM as we were all getting ready to go to sleep, they actually had the nerve to turn on one of the SAW movies (number 4, perhaps?), and we all started yelling until they turned it off.  (If you haven't seen one of these movies, it basically started with two people having to saw their own limbs off.  Pleasant pre-sleep viewing.)

A rarity:  a fantastic movie AND in English.  Not a rarity:  violence!

Oh, and you can always just look out the window.  The scenery on a long bus ride through Patagonia isn't exactly terrible.  :)

Not bad at all.

Photography: Argentina - Bariloche


Argentina - Bariloche, a set on Flickr.

Photography: Chile - Pucón


Chile - Pucón, a set on Flickr.