Stranded in El Calafate, Argentina: Day Two

30 01 2012

We’re supposed to be leaving on a mid-day flight to Ushuaia. We’re told to gather about 11:00 in the hotel for our flight out. When we gather, the concierge announces some news in Spanish…I cannot understand, but the crowd gathered in the lobby is not looking happy…and then Saskia darts out the hotel door…headed for downtown!

The concierge, speaking in English, tells us the airline is completely shut down today! The strike is continuing and we are not going anywhere today. He says that it is possible the President of Argentina may intervene – might order the Army to take over the airline. There will be an authentic Argentine barbeque tonight at the hotel. That sounds interesting to me, especially since it’s free!

Rumors are that it is spreading beyond the airlines. A general work stoppage for higher benefits. Saskia was headed downtown because that is where the airline offices are. She returns and gives us news. She demanded assurances we will really get on the next flights out. But we do not really know, we are pawns in the greater political game right now!

Some decide to head downtown for dinner, but Elwyn and I try for the complimentary meal. We see the staff firing up the barbeques, getting the wood and charcoal going. We share a bottle of wine to pass the time. But then the concierge announces that dinner will not start until past 9:00 p.m.! It seems they have it timed for some other group arriving. We cannot stand it! We need to eat right away! We cancel our dinner and walk downtown to a pizzeria, which is pretty busy.

Our table is right by a flat screen TV showing a soccer game. It’s Chile vs Paraguay, and this couple at the table nearest us are intensely interested. When Chile scores, they are all excited but try to conceal their delight. Elwyn asks them a couple of questions, and it turns out they are from Chile. They look Argentinian (look European) but they do NOT want the Argentinians to know they come from Chile! Too funny. The girl is super nice.

This night was a complete wash. We stumbled down the avenue to a bar we’d seen the day before and went upstairs, and what do you know? We found others in our group – Patricia, Eray, Angelique, Yap, and more. More drinks…and before long I felt “tanked” up, I could not have any more! All of us just want to get to Ushuaia…it’s difficult. We’re trying to make the most of it!

We’ll just have to see what happens in the morning…!

Standed! Aerolineas Argentinas Airline Strike! We Wait for Tierra del Fuego

29 01 2012

Before I went to Argentina, I visited the United States State Department Website for its country brief on Argentina. Here is a quote, one which borne out to be true for us:

“Domestic flight schedules can be unreliable. Occasional work stoppages, over-scheduling of flights and other technical problems can result in flight delays, cancellations, or missed connections. Consult local media for information about possible strikes or [work] slow downs before planning travel…”

Our trip’s fate was about to fall victim to Argentine politics. Nothing like experiencing the good, bad, and the ugly of your host country for real, right?

We leave El Chalten, and head back for an evening in El Calafate, staying at Calafate Hostel. Our flight is to depart for Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, the next afternoon. We’re really excited to be there!

Breakfast done, we are free to spend the morning roaming El Calafate. Basically, our aim is to burn some time waiting for the flight. To be frank, El Calafate is a kind of “oasis” in the middle of high desert-bleak steppe Patagonia. There is nothing around but for this town. As it has access to the southern part of Los Glaciers National Park, the city is a magnet for outdoor freaks from all over the Earth. That means it’s mostly a city catering to travelers. There’s not much local culture. So roaming El Calafate means roaming restaurants, gift shops, tour guide offices, banks, and it’s even got a casino. The one thing we found interesting is that there is the Laguna Nimez bird sanctuary on Lago Argentina.

We paid it a visit, and were impressed! While not something worth driving hours for, it’s surely something good to do, if you’ve got an afternoon to spend in El Calafate. It’s more than it appears at first glance. Its value is discovered in the subtle side trails along the shore. There, you can see a surprising variety of birds. The reserve lightly financed, but big bang for the buck. A trail wends its way around wetlands and we could see Flamingos, Geese, Caracaras, ducks, Black Necked Swans, and many others. As it’s late spring many were tending eggs or chicks. The caracaras were not bothered by us one bit – they’d perch on bushes just beyond the trail and wouldn’t flinch if you got within ten feet of them.

We gather back at the hostel, board a bus and head for the airport. Once there, we check in, get our boarding passes and check our luggage. We’re going to the “end of the earth”! We are going to the farthest south anyone can go before Antarctica. 15 minutes pass. Then something goes horribly wrong. There is a commotion stirring in the airport. We’re delayed an hour. And then  we hear that Aerolineas Argentinas has suddenly gone on strike! We are not going to Ushuaia today. We do not know when we are going.

The airline puts us, and other passengers, on a bus to a hotel they have contracted for such situations. We head to this hotel, which is just outside the end of the town’s main strip. There, we learn the whole country is stranded! This isn’t just an airline strike, it’s a strike that started in the general labor sector. It may even spread to Chile. We’re informed we’ll have a table-service three course dinner tonight. That’s a far cry from what one gets on a cancelled flight in America! We all take it. It is a chicken schnitzel. Not bad!

So tonight, we wonder when we will get to the “end of the world.” We don’t even know how our connection back to Buenos Aires from Ushuaia will go. The airline tells us we will be leaving tomorrow.

To entertain ourselves, we walk away from the city lights to look at the southern constellations. One strange thing is moving across the sky, and it’s the International Space Station! It moves steadily from southwest to northeast. It is very bright and does not blink. We see other orbiting objects like satellites. And we see in full view the iconic Southern Cross plus hazy cloudy things we think are the Magellenic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds are micro galaxies just outside the Milky Way – they can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere.

We’ll just have to cross our fingers that we will leave tomorrow….

We’re hopeful that tomorrow the strike will be over and we will be on our way to the bottom of the world.

Hiking to the Foot of Cerro Fitz Roy

25 01 2012

Cerro Fitz Roy, front and center. Spectacular!

Today it’s windy and bright in El Chalten. I sip coffee in front of the picture window of the Aylen Aike hostel watching Cerro Fitz Roy. This morning the tower is sprinkled in dazzling sugar white. And, it’s obvious why it’s also called Cerro Chalten, which means smoking mountain. There’s a constant cloud drifting off the top. But the sugar melts as the sun warms the peak, revealing the 11,090ft pure granite face.

Today, it’s going to be an all-day hike. Leaving about 8:30 a.m., we won’t be back until past 4:00. We’ll head on a different trail which will take us all over the plain below these spectacular peaks, with an option to do a final, steep hike to a lake at the end of a glacier.

Box lunch in hand (less the ham and cheese I removed), I join Echbert, Saskia, Christof, Eray, Elwyn and Floris as we walk past the north end of town to the trailhead.

At the beginning of the trail there is a group of maybe twenty hikers and a guide. They are partly already on the trail, so we hike with them. But we are much faster. This first part of the trail is a steep climb. When they stop for a break, we make our move and go on ahead. There’s no looking back. We want to have the experience to ourselves. We wind our way up a slope with a view to the north, looking up a river valley. Up above Andean Condors ride the air currents. We can see their nests clinging to the steep cliffs above us.

Llamas on the plain belowThis trail is rapidly becoming my favorite of the trip because of the vistas all along the way. Plus, after our steep climb it becomes a rolling up and down trail. These trails of Los Glaciers National Park are superbly maintained and marked. It’s not long before a a view comes into focus with shark toothed Fitz Roy mountains. Below this magnificent spectacle is a gorgeous relatively flat plain, several square miles in size, filled with creeks, meadows, flowers, trees. To the right side of the mountains flows an electric blue glacier. It’s unlike any I’ve seen in that the whole thing is electric blue, not just parts. It stands in contrast to the gray rocks it cuts through.

Passing us by is a United Nations of hikers. I even recognize some of them from Torres del Paine. Some of them are day hiking, and others are laden with backpacks. One of the best things about this region is that one can do fantastic day hikes and stay in town. Wonderful.

After several hours, we reach the base of the steep final assault, which is a 500ft high glacial moraine under Cerro Fitz Roy. Here is the final assault. Saskia says we don’t have to do the final part. Floris, part of our group today, did not complete the Torrres del Paine hike due to asthma. But he made it here. I want him to enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. He doesn’t want to do the final assault. So I decide to stick with him and we offer to wait for the others to go up and return.

This seems to be a gathering place for many hikers. So, we will have a relaxed lunch here, enjoy the beauty, and wait for the others. The day has become warm and many folks are have shorn jackets, some are in shorts. It’s a nice spot. There is a sign that says, “The water in the streams is potable.” Wow! That is a big difference from home. So we fill our water bottles and go ahead and drink.

Floris and I spend about an hour here, and after another twenty minutes we decide to hike back. The trail meanders all over the plain, past many little brooks, some clear, some stained brown with some kind of algae-like growth. I think there is perhaps a warm spring in here causing this growth. We come across a cluster of hikers all taking a nap in the sun!

We come to a fork in the trail. One path leads the way we came, but the other goes to Lago Capri. Thinking it might take some time to get there, we prepare for a longer hike.

Floris and I hike on. Much to our surprise, we reach the lake very quickly, and it’s a beauty! Much larger than I expected. And it’s not glacier-fed. So, instead of a misty blue milky color, it’s crystal clear. And what a view of the peaks!

It’s even got a thin beach, and some other hikers are relaxing on it taking in the view. Alongside the lake there’s a sweet campground. Super beautiful.

Back in town, it’s a wind tunnel again. It’s a constant 40mph with gusts rising to 65mph! I have to hold onto everything to keep stuff from blowing away!

El Chalten sports a few restaurants catering to the hikers that come here, and one of the most popular is the brewery.

So today, after cleaning up at the hostel, we head to the brewery for a late afternoon beverage and a bite to eat.

I’m super pleased because I can get a fulfilling salad here! It’s brimming with yummy veggies my body is craving for!

We’re discussing the next phase of our adventure. Tomorrow, we’re going to the end of the continent – Tierra del Fuego and the southern-most city in the world, Ushuaia!

Walking on the Viedma Glacier

21 01 2012

Last night we partied! It was Patricia’s birthday and the hostel was festooned with festive decorations. We had cake and champagne. Then everybody hung out and either played board games or watched videos. Meanwhile the wind outside howled, and occasionally whistled through any cracks in the insulation.

The Patagonian Ice Cap (left) feeds the Viedma Glacier

The Viedma Glacier is our destination today. We all get those box lunches, and this time I just toss my ham and cheese in the waste basket. But it’s got empanadas too, and I like those! We’re up and out the door by 9:30. We head down to a marina on Lago Viedma.

Lago Viedma is another huge glacier-fed lake that sits right out in the high desert. It’s 50 miles long, and is dotted with blue icebergs borne from the Viedma Glacier.

We are to board a boat which will take us around a point and into the lake, and then to the snout of the glacier.

Then, we’ll disembark for a few hours walking on the glacier itself!

The Viedma Glacier is the largest in Argentina. It doesn’t look as large at its snout as Perito Moreno, but above, it’s a bigger sheet of ice.

While it’s sunny back in El Chalten, here out near the Patagonian Ice Sheet, the weather’s so different. It gets even windier, and stormier. The lake is punctuated by beautiful indigo ice bergs. It still seems weird to me to see ice bergs in a lake! But here they are.

As we round a point and the boat swings west, we’re no longer protected by the land, and we face directly into the wind racing down the Andes. The sea state instantly changes into a storm, and the captain races the engine to push through the waves. Many of us had been up above on deck enjoying the weather, but we’re ordered to stay inside now!

As we near the glacier, many more icebergs come into view and of course the glacier’s snout. I am told that boats do not get close to this glacier for views, because instead of calving from the visible end, this glacier has an underwater shelf where it calves, and massive ice sheets suddenly shoot up from below. No boat wants to be on top of one of those!

A berg near the glacier's terminusThis should be really interesting – walking on the ice. Others here have done this before, but for me, this is my first time. I’ve used crampons climbing mountains in the Cascades but nothing like this river of ice.

So I’m pretty excited to give it a try.

We disembark and walk up the rocks near the end of the ice. This glacier has retreated, unlike Perito Moreno.

We are told the ice was moving over these very rocks 20 years ago. The rocks are all smooth. They have streaks across them and deposits ground in. These streaks are scours called glacial striations. They are where rocks embedded in the glacier cut down on the bedrock.

Our guides meet up with us and we get lots of information on the glacier, the ice cap that feeds the glacier, climate change, and about the upcoming hike and equipment we’ll be using today.

The main piece is crampons.

You wear crampons over your other shoes, and it’s best to put crampons on over hiking boots.

The ice today is a bit slushy/wet. It’s full of grit from its journey scraping along, plus winds carrying dust that has settled on the ice. The ice has cracked into thousands of vertical spires of ice. It looks un-hikeable, but we’re about to find out it can be done.

Our guide! Super cute.Crampons securely tied on, we head out onto the ice. These shoes bite into the ice, giving a firm grip. It’s a bit disconcerting to see the rivers of water gushing everywhere and the deep cracks. One slip and it looks like you’d be lost forever!

We climb all over and we’re not the only ones up here.

There are others learning how to use ropes to climb the ice walls. It’s interesting to watch them. We climb up and down “trails” the guides know.

We walk all over, and after a time I realize how easily one could become lost out here.

You lose track of your trail, and everything looks the same.

The ice flows up and down, and you feel like you are walled in. I’m super thankful we have the guides here. They are really professional; they guard any spot where you could slip and fall into a cravasse.

The guides take us into a dead end, and I kind of wonder what’s up.

They start digging holes into the ice. Then, their true plan is revealed…they have a little celebration in store for us.

They pull out some Bailey’s Irish Whiskey from their packs. We are treated to a toast of Bailey’s on glacier ice! Very nice.

Glacier ice and Bailey’s!

This was a fine hike.

Some said they wanted it to last much longer, but I found it a good introduction.

After all, I’d never done this before.

I felt satisfied with my first time on a g00d sized glacier! Up close these are really fascinating natural phenomena. After all, the ice we’re walking on is hundreds of thousands of years old.

Certainly something to celebrate!

With the Bailey’s finished we lumbered back to our starting point, to lunch on those ham and cheese sandwiches (except myself, of course). Then it was back to the wind tunnel (El Chalten).

Tomorrow is the big hike to Cerro Fitz Roy! I’m stoked to tackle it! I’m really enjoying being in the moment, taking each amazing day as it comes! Bring it on!

My Nemesis – Jamon and Jamon y Queso: Argentine Ham and Cheese: Unavoidable!

19 01 2012

No memoir of this trip would be complete without a narrative of my travails with an Argentine favorite: Jamon (Ham), and especially Jamon y Quesos (Ham and Cheese sandwiches).

First off, I must say upfront one of my favorite things about travel is trying new food! But in Argentina, one thing I was unable to avoid is a food I do NOT eat, and which is not new to me, which is ham. I do NOT eat ham or ham and cheese sandwiches, and if I do, they certainly have something on them to complement the ham and cheese.

But in Argentina, one runs into ham and ham and cheese at every restaurant or lunch spot. These are dry sandwiches. They are almost ubiquitous – north, south, east or west, you’ll see them. They are on a dry bread that looks like, but does not taste nor has the texture of, a hoagie roll. They typically put exactly one piece of ham and one piece of cheese on the sandwich. Nothing more. You are not likely to be offered mustard, mayonnaise, a tomato or any lettuce! You are expected to “enjoy” this dry concoction without anything.

I saw them on menus, in cafeterias, on a ferry, in grocery stores, package stores, liquor stores, and on the national airline served as an in-flight meal! When we ordered trail lunches, they included this same ham and cheese sandwich every time, with one exception. And that one time, the alternative was tuna, but again, served on a dry piece of bread.

At breakfast, you will not see eggs on the menu. But you will see ham (jamon) accompanied by any number of other things. Never chicken. Never bacon. Never sausage. Just ham. It is possible to get eggs, but you have to plead hard to get eggs!

The trail lunches that were the best for me were ones I made myself. Even then, though, there were challenges. That is because fresh vegetables and fruits are in short supply in Patagonia. Even in some markets, I had to hunt to find something fresh. I wondered if supplies were delivered weekly? That shows it really is a “frontier” region.

One of my travel companions is Jewish, and I found out she’d tell the people preparing the food she couldn’t eat ham. They made alternatives available. I should have thought of that! It would have made my lunches much more pleasant.

I’ll never understand the passion for ham. And, I never saw one pig in 24 days in Argentina. Nor did I see a chicken!

I am not the only one noting this phenomenon, for Internet research reveals others have suffered the same as I!

Here is a blog mentioning the ham and cheese obsession and lack of pigs!

Here is another quote from a traveler:

Ham & Cheese

by Ash59

“You fly between Argentinian airports and the standard fare on the plane will probably be a ham & cheese sandwich. You go into a supermarket to get a sandwich and all that will be …ham & cheese. You ask for a lunch box from the hotel and you get, you’ve got it, a ham & cheese sandwich. It become a standing joke with our tour group that if we were due a lunch anywhere, then it was likely to consist of a ham & cheese sandwich…… It got to the point where it seemed that if an Argentinian was asked what was in a meal and they did not understand the question, then they said “ham & cheese” because that would be accepted, regardless of what was actually in the meal!”

This is not to say I had no good meals in Argentina! I sure did, some excellent dinners and certainly the ice cream is special. But the lunches, and breakfasts, were really difficult!

To El Chalten and The Fitz Roy Range

15 01 2012

Cerro Torre

We depart El Calafate on a public bus. It is several hours on the road to El Chalten. The route takes us along Lago Argentino and then Lago Viedma. I am overwhelmed with the sight of the steppe, these enormous lakes, the emptiness, and the mountains visible north to south for hundreds of miles. It’s not something we’re used to in North America. As before, it looks like the American West, so desolate and dry. Except for no vehicles on the road.

El Chalten is a frontier town. It was established in the 1980s by Argentina to resolve a border dispute. It sits underneath two of the world’s coveted climbing prizes, 10,262 ft Cerro Torre and 11,070 Cerro Fitz Roy. These vertical fangs are renowned for vertical difficulty combined with abominable weather. They’ve claimed a lot of lives. The town is renowned as one of the windiest in the world, and we are about to experience it for ourselves. It’s not cold right now. But the wind is supposed to be epic. It sits at the gateway to the north entrance to Los Glaciers National Park. El Calafate was at the southern end. It contains world class hiking and opportunities to climb on the Viedma glacier, largest in Argentina. We will do it all!

All during the drive I keep an eye peeled for the Fitz Roys. Something catches my eye, and I cannot believe it! I am seeing a river of ice which ends in the desert. It is the Viedma Glacier! I never imagined anything was possible. It makes its own lake, but everything around it is desert! Click on the image to see all of it.

And to the right of the glacier, this sight also made my jaw drop! It is the Fitz Roy Range! We will hike it!

For the umpteenth time in as many days my eyes tear up with what I am seeing. I just cannot imagine. We get closer. The road stays empty. This afternoon, we will be hiking in these incredible mountains!

El Chalten (Cerro Fitz Roy) front and center!

We reach town, where it’s windy beyond belief! The entire town seems to be under construction. It’s a magnet for adventure travelers. Wind blown backpackers can be seen walking the streets. We stay at the Ailen Aike hostel, six to a room. It’s got a small common area with flat screen TV, a bar, and tables. The whole time we’re there, the wind is moaning, trying to lift the roof off!

It’s mid day. We hit the trail for Laguna Torre.

This trail is perfect for an afternoon. It climbs steeply out of town, but after the first mile, begins a more rolling climb, much more tolerable. The wind up on the trail isn’t so bad.

In fact the sun is out, and things are pretty nice! But up above, Cerro Fitz Roy is in the thick of a maelstrom. Its other name is Cerro Chalten, meaning smoking mountain. The wind runs vertically on all sides of the peak, creating a constant cloud which blows off of it. It looks like it’s smoking!

I’m sore from the climb at Torres del Paine. We have a big hike in two days, and I don’t want to overdo it. So my plan today is to get to the first viewpoint, lunch, watch the mountains, and head back to town. The others are going to go all the way to Laguna Torre, to the lake where a glacier ends. This way it’s like a workout.

This is a truly lovely park. And not as busy as Torres del Paine.

Yours truly, on the trail

There are glaciers cascading down from the mountains. And of course pretty azul colored rivers flowing from them. There’s also a small plain below everything, which looks great for walking.

We reach the viewpoint and have lunch.

The others depart and I stay put watching the scenery.

What is apparent is the violence of the winds aloft. There is a stationary cloud behind the peaks – It’s formed by the permanent ice sheet above. The unpredictable, violent weather here is driven be four factors: 1) Latitude – we’re not far from Antarctica; 2) the bottom of South America is not all that wide – we’re simply a giant finger in between two oceans, so the trade wind blows across; 3) factors 1 and 2 combine to create the ice sheet, which makes the air so cold above; 4) the desert is lower and drier…so the cold air rushes downward off the mountains to the desert all the time.

As I sat watching, an upside down atomic bomb mushroom cloud explodes downward over Cerro Torre! Holy cow. I wouldn’t want to be on ropes climbing! Here is a video I took as I was watching Cerro Chalten. In it, you can see the cloud moving downward over Cerro Torre, if you look carefully!

After an hour, the wind begins to pick up so I decide it’s time to head back. I think I’m walking a good pace. But then, I hear some footsteps behind, and it’s a woman jogging down the trail! Down she runs, at a good pace, dodging the rocks, and passes me by. My goodness! She made me look like a slug!

After two hours I reach the top of the beginning of the trail. From here, there is a good view of El Chalten.

I think that part of the reason it’s so windy in town, is that it’s in a valley. The wind must get funneled through there!