Travel lesson learned: never book a flight that leaves before 9 AM.
I woke up a 4 AM Thursday to catch my flight from Buenos Aires to El
Calafate in the south of Argentina. The hostel in Buenos Aires (V&S
Hostel) was wonderful, they arranged for a cab to pick me up outside
the main door at such an ungodly hour. Airport security at the
Aeroparque Jorge Newberry (Buenos Aires domestic airport) was a joke.
The security personnel were more interested in chatting over coffee
than looking at the xray machine monitor. It was all worth it though
as I watched the sun rise over Buenos Aires from above the clouds.
El Calafate was not at all what I expected. The landscape around the
town is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, bordering on desert. Driving
into town from the airport in a shuttle bus, I felt like I was in the
middle of a John Wayne movie, and any second I wad going to see
tumbleweed roll across the road. Then off in the distance, the Andes
rise out of nothing.
The shuttle bus on the way in stopped at basically every hostel in
town (which is like one out of every five buildings) and every time
there was this anticipation – is it mine? is it mine? When the really
ugly, beaten down ones weren’t mine, I felt great relief. The hostel I
stayed in, I Keu Ken Hostel (pronounced eee-kay-ooo-ken), is quite
nice, very homely and cozy. I immediately felt lonely though as the
hostel was essentially empty. Most everyone had checked out or were
out on tours. Every time I arrive in a new place feels like the first
day of school. You have to meet new people, make new friends, ask the
basic questions (what’s your name, where are you from, what is your
purpose in life, etc.).
As for the town of El Calafate itself, I don’t have very high regards
for it. There is one main street that looks like mini-Banff and then
everything off the main street looks more like it belongs in a third
world country. It’s very clear that the majority of those who live in
El Calafate permanently are not seeing the thousands of tourist
dollars that get thrown around every day. The grocery stores (about
the same size as a standard Canadian grocery store) are composed
almost entirely of prepackaged, processed foods with very small
sections for produce and dairy. Bakery and meats are basically a
counter where you can make special requests. Though I didn’t find the
produce prices to be extravagant (almost all of it is right from
Argentina), it’s clear that fresh food is out of the realm of
affordability for the local population.
Having not made any friends yet (though I did unsuccessfully try to
befriend a German girl), I decided it was time to finally tackle the
stigma of eating in a restaurant alone. Armed with a paperback to keep
myself occupied, I found a nice little pizza place and enjoyed a quiet
solo dinner. Done and done. That wasn’t so bad after all.
The next morning, I splurged and took a full day tour to the Perito
Moreno Glaciar, the sole reason anyone ever comes to El Calafate. The
glacier is massive – 30km long, 5km wide and 60m high, not to mention
easily accessible from the mainland or by boat. It’s one of only three
glaciers in all of Patagonia that isn’t receding – it advances as much
as 2m per day, causing huge building sized blocks of ice to calve off
the front face of the glaciar throughout the day accompanied by an
enormous thunderous sound. The whole experience is a monument to the
power of nature.
There are a number of ways you can experience the glaciar, from
looking at it from observation platforms to taking a boat to within a
few hundred meters of it’s face to suiting up in crampons and walking
on it. Of course, when in Patagonia…suit me up and let’s go for a
Two girls in my hostel were also doing the same tour – Sinead and
Julie. Sinead, a fellow photographer and I spent the morning walking
the observation platforms taking pictures and perking our heads up
every time we heard some thunder. We saw some small calving but
nothing major, and nothing we could get a picture of.
Then we got into the boat that would take us by the glaciar to the
shoreline just off to it’s side where we met our English-speaking
guide Zaffarini who was really knowledgeable about the glaciar, the
science behind it and most importantly, how to walk on it without
falling into a crevice. As we walked to the glaciar itself, we had
some great views and were caught stunned when a massive block of ice
the size of a 5-storey apartment building fell off the glaciar into
the cool waters below. No time to take a picture, by the time anyone
even thought of it, the block had sunk and all that was left was a
ripple in the water.
After being suited up with giant steel
crampons, if was off to the glaciar itself. Having only seen it from a
distance, I expected
the ice to be really smooth like an icicle or a skating rink. I could
not have been more wrong. The surface was very rough and granular,
kind of like a curling rlink surface but much less fine. Walking
around on the ice with crampons was an odd feeling. Your intuition
expects you to slip and prepare for a fall, but the crampons are
surprisingly sticky. Before you know it, you’re climbing steep ascents
of ice that you wouldn’t have thought possible and hopping over
crevices that extend as far as the eye can see and beyond. Or you’re
drinking glacial water out of a pool that has formed, the freshest
water you’ll ever drink in your life. All in all, we spent an hour and
a half on the ice, and the day was finished off with a scotch on the
rocks – glacial rocks, that is.
Back at the hostel, they announced they were having an asado – a
traditional Argentinean barbeque. Basically, they take a giant stack
of meat about the size of my chest, stick it in a firey oven, and let
it cook for 2-3 hours. The result is amazingly delicious – crisp on
the outside (but not burnt) and oh so tender on the inside.
Off to El Chalten next, Argentina’s self-proclaimed National Capital
More photos on Flickr – I hope they look ok, IÂ´m posting all of this while looking at a monitor that is probably as old as I am and only displays like 256 colors 🙂