Monday, December 11, 2017

Patagonia 2017: ¡Hola Chile! - Día Seis

Patagonia 2017:   Crossing The Border - Día Seis – 2/13/17

Our prearranged taxi showed up on time in the early morning.  We crammed four people and all our worldly possessions in for the short trip to the El Calafate bus station.  Today we’re changing up countries, but we’ll still be in Patagonia, hiking its most famous trail, the “W” circuit in Torres del Paine National Park. 
Double decker comfort with assigned seats for the five-hour ride to Puerto Natales, Chile.  The distance is 60 kilometers as the crow flies, but 300 kilometers via roads for us. 

Do these backpacks make my butt look big?

Adios Argentina

The pavement ran out and a gravel road continued to the border crossing.  Everyone was required to disembark to get approval to cross into Chile.  We filled out customs forms (no food of any kind, no trail mix or power bars or dried fruit are allowed) and waited in slow-moving blurred lines to present our passports and pay the fee to enter the country. Border patrol agents with dogs inspected the bus.  We had to release our passports as our carry-on bags went through x-ray machines, and it was a bit unnerving waiting for them to be returned.  The stop at the border took over an hour. It was a sobering experience.

The bus rolled on through the Chilean countryside, leaving the dry desert behind for a while, for a greener and gentler landscape.  Guanacos wandered on the rolling hills. 

Puerto Natales is the gateway town closest to Torres del Paine National Park, a port city on the Señoret Channel. It’s the port for boats touring the Patagonian fjords and the starting point for most travelers to Torres del Paine NP.  It is smaller than El Calafate, has fewer amenities for tourists, which makes it more authentic for the adventurous traveler. We left the bus station with a rough idea of where our Airbnb apartment was, walking through neighborhoods, feeling our way past houses and schools that were not in session.  Some interesting artwork, though. 

Our apartment building - Departments Emisoca - was not obvious. We rang a couple of doorbells and communicated our confusion with hand gestures until we found the gate access on a side street.  The language barrier rose again with the housekeeper, but eventually Cathy used Google translate to get us in touch with the rental guy to say we were legit.  We were shown to our apartment: 2 bedrooms, one with a double bed, one with two bunkbeds, a kitchen, a dining nook and a sofa/TV area. The cost was about $25 per person per night (remember your Chilean pesos, those Argentinian ones are worthless now).  I was in charge of the key (I think this was true of nearly every place we went.)

Still without a map, we walked toward the water but soon realized we were off the mark for the town center. Carol practiced her rudimentary Spanglish with every person we met, each one helping us get a few blocks closer to the business district.  We found a bank and everyone retrieved cash except me (do you know how frustrating it is for your ATM card to be denied in a foreign country? But I was successful at the second bank.)  Wandering a while longer with no clear plan but taking note of the little markets and souvenir shops, we found a little something to make us feel better – ice cream.

Dogs are part of the scenery here too

We stopped in at a hostel called Wild, where the staff spoke English, gave us a street map and recommended a restaurant for dinner.  With the map we were able to triangulate between the town center, the bus station and our apartment.  For me at least, such a feeling of relief to know where I am in the world!   

We made a quick run back to our apartment to shower, change, and use wifi to check in with the folks back home.  The heater in the bunk room would not turn off, and we hadn’t paid up for our room yet, so Cathy worked on getting the rental guy on-site to take care of business.  [Pause here again to thank Cathy for her phenomenal work making accommodations and handling all that stuff for us.]  All issues resolved, we set out confidently, map in hand, to have a fine Chilean meal at La Picada de Carlitos, toasting with delicious Chilean white wine.

We enjoyed dinner so much that we stopped by Wild again to thank the staff for the recommendation.  Hostel guests were gathering at the bar and common room – would we like to join them?  Why yes, we would.  We met a young Australian couple spending a few days in Puerto Natales, hoping to score reservations to hike the “W” circuit.  (This is the most popular time of year for hiking in Patagonia and we’ve had our reservations for months.)  Knowing what I know now and giving advice to those who follow after us, I would recommend Wild as a great place to stay in Puerto Natales.  The location was perfect and the people there, both staff and guests, had a great vibe for trekkers and other travelers. 

Pisco sours all around, shaken by the Wild bartender and served in tin mugs.  Salud!

Tomorrow our "W" adventure begins – but first I’ve got to sort this all out…We are leaving all but the essentials at the apartments until we return. 

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” ~Aldous Huxley

Monday, December 4, 2017

Patagonia 2017: Perito Moreno Glacier - Día Cinco

Patagonia 2017:  Glaciar Perito Moreno - Día Cinco – 2/12/17 – 5 km

Who visits Los Glaciares National Park without spending a day marveling at Perito Moreno Glacier?  Nobody, I hope.  It’s easy to get to, the infrastructure accommodates tons of visitors without feeling crowded, and why the heck did you come all the way to Patagonia anyway?  This wonder should not be missed.  Basic facts:

·        -  Patagonia’s most famous glacier and part of Los Glaciares National Park
·         - Part of the Southern Patagonian ice field from the last ice age
·         - 3rd largest reserve of fresh water on the planet
·         - A UNESCO World Heritage Site (the entire Los Glaciares National Park)
·         - The glacier is 3 miles wide, 100-plus square miles of area
·         - The ice is 240 feet above water, 558 feet below water
·         - The glacier is advancing, not retreating – it grows several feet every day but loses about the same amount (calving) so it stays the same size

The majority of visitors travel to Perito Moreno Glacier by bus from El Calafate, either on a guided trip or by purchasing an all-day round trip ticket.  There are also boat trips and guided hikes on the glacier. For us, the least expensive and most time-flexible option was our rental car.  Less than 50 miles along one road following the shore of Lago Argentino and there you are. 

Lago Argentino

The only slow-down was multiple lines of vehicles to pay entrance fees.  I can’t remember exactly how much we paid, and web searches of fees are ambiguous, quoting between 330 ARS and 500 ARS ($20 to $30) for “foreigners”.  (Tour packages don’t enumerate their fees.)

Our itty bitty car up against the tour buses

The first look at Perito Moreno Glacier – the smaller left side - at the beautifully named
 Mirador de los Suspiros (“Lookout Point of the Sighs”).

Lago Argentino originates from the flow of Perito Moreno and other glaciers of the Southern Patagonia ice field.  At its beginning the narrow lake surrounds three sides of Península Magallanes and from there it flows to become the large body of water we’ve seen over the last few days as we drove across the steppes.  The visitor center sits at the tip of the peninsula, directly across from Perito Moreno.  (At times the glacier advances to touch the peninsula, bisecting that end of the lake.)  An impressive labyrinth of boardwalks takes visitors to multiple overlooks and viewpoints where you feel as though you can reach out and touch the ice – but don’t stray off the wooden pathways to the shoreline. A number of fatalities have occurred from dangerous backwash and flying ice chunks.

Blues, blues, blues of the Canal de los Témpanos (Iceberg Channel) where the icebergs drift from the glacier into Lago Argentino

The boardwalk took us on a teasing walk along the lakeshore, then rounded the corner to reveal the glacier.  Simply amazing.

For scale: a boat approaching the glacier

I found it difficult to keep moving along the boardwalks because, well, I might miss seeing something awesome.  I learned from the interpretive signs that icebergs break off of the glacier quite frequently, and most calving activity happens in the afternoons after a little sunbathing time has loosened things up. 

Time and time again, the thundercrack of ice chunks calving from the glacier reached our ears a couple of beats after the process began.  All viewers along the catwalk held their breath, scanning back and forth across the glacier face looking for the pieces that had broken free.  Most often we could only catch the splash as the massive ice splinters crumbled into the water.  We’d focus on sections that looked precarious – surely that section is going next! What to do, watch or take pictures?

There goes an iceberg!

A wave is forming

The wave reaches the shore


We wandered all over the boardwalks, experiencing the glacier from every which way, stopping often just to absorb and marvel at the intensity and variations of colors in the ice.  On this day we weren’t about making the miles, we were about standing still and witnessing an amazing Mother Nature doing Her work.

We left Perito Moreno where we found him and headed back to town for our last night in Argentina.  Along the way we stopped at the Glaciarium, a privately funded museum of wonder dedicated to all things glacier in the world and especially in Patagonia. The detailed exhibits encompass researchers and historical perspectives, details on individual glaciers, and shine a spotlight on climate change and its devastating effects (it will make you weep).  It is a wannabe-glaciologist’s dream but we did not have time to do it justice.  I recommend that you visit the Glaciarium before Perito Moreno, as it will exponentially increase your appreciation for the natural wonder.

Random photo of the day:  a roadside shrine.  We saw these touching expressions of love on many roads in Patagonia.   

How to round out the day?  In El Calafate we had a disappointing meal at Napolean Pizza, but we didn’t skip our evening toast with cheap beer!

Cathy and Rick, feeling an itch to walk some more miles, walked back to our place via the flamingos along the lakeshore, while Carol and I took the car.  Chores included cleaning up and repacking for tomorrow’s day-long bus ride across the border into Chile.  Before lights out we also caught up on Saturday Night Live’s skits with Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer – priceless! Went to bed with smiles on our faces.

“Future generations are not going to ask us what political party were you in.  They are going to ask what did you do about it, when you knew the glaciers were melting.” ~Martin Sheen