Don't Cry for me Argentina
We arrived in Buenos Aires after 30 hours of travel. It is exhausting. We had left Egypt on a 4am flight. We flew through Istanbul and Sao Paolo before arriving in BA. We arrived at about 11pm on the same day (31st of January), Argentina time. That is a time zone five hours later than Egypt. By the time we got through security and got to our hotel it was 1am.
Our hotel was in an area of BA called Palermo. It is not exactly in the area of most tourist sites. It is a good 50 minute walk to those. Palermo is a nice area, relatively upscale. Out hotel was quite nice and the breakfast was excellent. We were pretty exhausted though. We went to sleep right away that night. We did not do much the next day. It was raining out but we were too tired to do much. We got out for dinner but that was it.
The following day was rainy as well. We finally got out at around 1pm. This time we went looking for a botanical gardens about 17 blocks from our hotel. It was closed though. We learned that during the rain storms several big branches had fallen and they were afraid that more would fall. We then followed a route on our map that would take us to see several sites in the Palermo area.
We saw several statues and parks in the area. The most memorable place we went was the big cemetery. The cemetery is jammed packed with mausoleums which contain alters and coffins. Some of them you can see through the doors. Others you cannot see. Some of them actually go six levels down into the ground. Some of them are beautiful while others are run down and dilapidated.
We only had about 20 minutes there as it was closing soon. We went on a hunt to find arguably the most famous of graves… that of Eva Perone… Evita! We found it eventually but it was not that impressive. It had a small crowd of people around it and flowers left at the doorway.
Nicola wanted to see the water but the river was not very accessible. We tried to find a way but could not find anything easy. Instead we wandered towards the main centre where more of the tourist sites are. We saw the obelisk that centres Avenida 9 of July. We also saw a white building with a large mural of Evita. We were actually looking for the theatre area. We were told by a tourist information booth that there is a cirque du soleil like show.
When we found it we learned that tickets were 370 pesos (about $53). We had seen a last minute ticket booth just before we found the theatre. We went back to see if we could get cheaper tickets. We did. We basically saved $20 each. The show however was at 9pm and it was only about 6pm. We decided to go back to our hotel. It was a long walk though. It took us almost an hour to get back.
We had a quick shower and checked our email. I got a very sad message though. My cousin Robert had passed away. He was only 62 years old and never had a history of heart disease as far as I knew. It made me sad and I FaceTimed my parents. I did not have a lot of time to talk but it felt good to talk to them. My condolences to Robert's family.
We took the metro back downtown to get to the theatre. The show was quite good. I am sure it would have been better if we could understand all the talking parts. It was kind of comic relief and I am sure it helped give time to reset the stage and performers. The performances were quite interesting. A lot like cirque du soleil. There was a pool under the stage and so it was part acrobatics, gymnastics, and diving, etc. we enjoyed the show.
When the show was over we headed back to the metro but it was closed. That frustrated us because we were exhausted. I am sure we had walked 12 to 15 km that day… or at least that is how it felt. Now we would have to walk back… Or take a taxi I guess. We walked. At one point we passed a carnival celebration. It looked like people were having a lot of fun. We watched for a few minutes. Finally we made it back to our hotel and collapsed.
The next day, we were up earlier so we could get to the start of a free BA walking tour. It was back down in the area with the tourist sites. We took the metro… we had our tickets we had bought the day before. We are big fans of free walking tours. We have done many of them. At hey are always good because the guides work hard so they can get good tips. That is how they make money from these tours. Once again, we were not disappointed.
Our guide Gaston did an excellent job. He was very entertaining and knew his stuff. We saw the National Congress, the Pink House (like the US White House), the Obelisk, Plaza de Mayo, and so much more. I think most interesting is what he told us about when the military ran the country in the late 70s and early 80s. The military made 30000 people disappear. It was illegal for more than 3 people to be together in public because that constituted a protest or demonstration. The mothers of 14 young men who disappeared met in the square in front of the Pink House. They could not be together so they broke into groups of two or three and walked in circles around the square. They have been doing this every Thursday for the last 36 years. Unfortunately, they have become a political group that seems more focused on money and so have lost a lot of the support of the people.
Also interestingly, the people who disappeared were placed in concentration camps. In some cases these people had babies while imprisoned. The babies were taken and given away or adopted. So there are now many people in the country in their late 20s or early 30s whose parents were killed and they were given to other people. Gaston told us about a friend of his who learned last year that the people that she thought were her parents were actually the people who had imprisoned and killed her parents. I am sure that caused some trauma for her.
There have been some dark periods like this in Argentinian history. Most of them coincide with periods when the military ran the country and democracy did not exist. Now, the military has been somewhat castrated. They have little budget and no power now. This is a direct result of the atrocity that occurred almost 30 years ago. The country still has an economic crisis but people seem pretty happy.
After our tour we had lunch with an Australian couple who had also been on our tour. They were also on a year of world travel but were only two weeks in. After lunch, we went looking for an HSBC branch. We have only been able to take 1000 pesos out of the ATM and it cost 48 pesos each time. That meant that it costs us $7 each time to withdraw $140. We hoped to withdraw more than 1000 pesos from a teller. The bank was closed and we were told it would reopen at 4pm. It never did; talk about bankers hours… 10am to 3pm.
We also went looking for a travel agent. We found one that sold bus tickets. Over the last few days I had been trying to book busses, flights and hostels for the next two weeks before our Antarctica cruise. Over the next two weeks we would visit Patagonia… El Calafate for Perito Moreno Glacier, El Chalten for some beautiful hiking, and Torres Del Paine in Chile. The only obstacle was booking busses to and from Chile. The first travel agent did not even know where we were trying to go… so no help.
We checked the hostel that Nic's mom and Rose have booked. Nic wanted to check it out and ask a couple of questions. The guy working the desk was helpful. I asked him about how to book travel to TDP. He sent us to a travel agent not too far away. At this travel agent, the helpful young guy gave us some good tips. He was not able to book anything for us because they do more package travel. He gave us some good advise and a couple of contacts that we hope will be able to help us.
Finally, we made our way back to our hotel. We took the metro. If we had walked it would have taken more than an hour. BA is setup like a grid. Each block is 100 metres so it is easy to figure how far away somewhere is. We knew our hotel was a long way away… and I am sure we had walked another 10 or 12 km that day. We were back by about 8pm. I spent the rest of the evening working on my final Egypt blog and more research on the next two weeks. I actually got a promising response from one of the contacts we got from the travel agent.
The next day we had a 5pm flight to El Calafate. Check out was at noon and we pushed it as late as we could. We removed some of our stuff from our backpacks to reduce our weight. Our limit on this flight was 15 kg and so we would leave some stuff at our hotel until we returned on the 26th of February.
We went to another HSBC branch trying to resolve our money challenges. We were told it is not possible. Not sure what the value of having an HSBC account is. We thought it was supposed to be the best one for travel. We figure it will just be expensive to get money while here. Very frustrating!
The flight to Calafate was 3.5 hours long. El Calafate is very far south near the bottom of Argentina and South America (50 degrees south latitude). The airport is 23 km out of town and we had to wait a half hour for a bus and it took the bus close to an hour to drop everyone off at their places… We were last, bad luck. We checked in at our hostel around 11pm.
We went to El Calafate primarily to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. From El Calafate it is 80km away in Los Glaciares National Park. We booked a tour for the next day at 12:30pm that cost 240 pesos (about $35). The bus picked us up first and we spent the first 45 minutes driving around town picking people up. I am not sure why they don't just have people meet at a central point. Our tour guide was Viviana.
Viviana spoke good English but there were only a few English speakers on the tour. We noticed that she provided way more information in Spanish than she did in English. We caught a little of it but definitely not the full context. She would speak for about 3 minutes in Spanish and 1 minute in English.
The ride to the glacier took about an hour and a half. We transitioned through different kinds of terrain along the way. The defining feature in Patagonia is the Andes Mountains. On one side is the steppe where it is very dry to a lack of precipitation and as you get closer to the glacier there is more precipitation so more forests and green meadows. Each has its own life-forms which have adapted to the climate.
The glaciers have receding over millennia dragging and carving the terrain. The hillsides are scarred with markings of the receding glaciers and then pushed up from below to form beautiful vistas. Rivers of melted snow and glaciers carve through the rocks to form cascading waterfalls and rapids.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is amazing. It is a stable glacier meaning that it gains as much mass as it loses everyday so it is neither growing nor shrinking. It is the third biggest glacier in Argentina but most popular to visit because of its accessibility. As air comes off the Pacific Ocean on the Chilean side, and passes over the mountain it dumps its moisture which then freezes and becomes park of the glacier. On the leading edge of the glacier large chunks of ice regularly calve from the main glacier in thunderous crashes and splashing in the glacial lake below. The glacier itself is not moving, it is lodge on a rock shelf below. The lakes on either side are connected on either side by a small river area. However, occasionally that river gets iced over and blocked by ice causing the lake on one side to become very high and the other one very low.
Our first stop was at Safari Nautica. This was an optional part of the tour and cost an additional $11. If you did not do it the bus would take you to the balconies but if you did it was an hour long boat ride before you went to the balconies. We definitely chose to take the boat ride. The boat was a large catamaran that takes you close to the south face of the glacier. It takes about 10 minutes to get there and 10 minutes to get back giving you about 40 minutes cruising up and down parallel to the glacier. I think we got with about 100m of the glacier. Up close like that you can really get a sense of how big it is. The glacier is about 60m above the water and about 100m below. In total this glacier is about 250 square kilometres. You also notice how amazing the colours are… Not just white but lots of shades of blue. On the way back we were able to try some ice that the crew had scooped up out of the lake. The water in this area is completely drinkable.
After the 1 hour cruise, the bus took us to the balconies area. The balconies are a spot along the north face of the glacier where the park has built a series of runways and balconies that allow you amazing views of the glacier. Viviana gave us a quick orientation of all the possible circuits you can walk and then lead us to the first balcony. All of the circuits start here. We decided to head down to a lower balcony as close as we thought we could to the glacier. Originally, I thought we would walk the circuits. As it turned out, we decided to stay put so that we would have the best chance and best view of any calving.
Almost immediately upon arriving at this lower balcony a large chunk calves right in front of us. I had been taking pictures and had just taken one as the calving started. In the second that I waited for the camera to be ready after a photo I missed videoing then start of the ice calving. I caught part of it before it hit the water and then the crash and large wave that followed. I was a amazed at how loud it was.
We stayed at this spot for a long time waiting for another chunk to calve, which never happened. We heard a lot of cracking and other noise that seemed like it was about to happen. We watched this one section that looked like it was precariously balanced and could tumble at any time but my guess is it has been like that for some time. I think it is all about luck to get to see the amazing displays from the glacier. Small chunks fell from the glacier often but we only saw the one big one. I am also sure that to the park staff that was not big at all. To us though it was huge.
We did explore the runways and balconies a bit. We had about 2.5 hours in total so we wandered but did not try to get to all spots. Again the glacier is spectacular from this vantage point. Being at some of the higher balconies gives you the chance to see the interesting formation of the top of the glacier as well as how it rolls out across the mountain terrain through a valley between opposing peaks.
Our time at the balconies ended at 5:45pm. The bus brought us back to Calafate. Instead of going back to our hostel we had the bus drop us Pura Vida. We had heard and read about this restaurant that opens and 7:30pm and is supposed to be the best one in town. Serving sizes are so big that it is best to share one dish between two people. We arrived at Pura Vida at 7pm.
To kill a half hour we walked down to the lake front. Flamingos, swans, ducks, and geese feed near the shores of the lake. There is another small lake in town where you can pay to go in and see the flamingoes. This one is free though I doubt there are as many. We opted for the free flamingoes. We saw flamingoes in Kenya that were not very pink but these ones were very pink. There are black swans in this lake as well but unless someone pointed one out and said there it is I am not sure that I would be positive that I saw one. We saw black birds so maybe one was a swan.
We returned to Pura Vida exactly at 7:30pm and there were a few people lined up outside. From what we had read it was normal for there to be a line up. After about 5 minutes though someone read in small print at the bottom of the sign in the window “Cerrado Miercoles”… “Closed Wednesdays!” Bad luck it was Miercoles! No Pure Life for us… sniff.
We wandered around a bit. We got off of the main drag. The Main Street here reminds me of downtown Jasper. Beautiful little stores selling work of local artisans and nice highly priced restaurants. We thought if we got off the main drag we might find a cheaper alternative. We pulled out the Lonely Planet on Nic's iPad to check for a recommended restaurant. We decided to go for a Parrilla restaurant a few blocks away. The LP said that it was all you can eat meat and salad bar for 70 pesos (about $10). The books a couple of years old and Agentina has about 20% inflation. What might have been 70 pesos then is now 128 pesos.
Parrilla is a traditional Argentinian barbecue meal. Meat is cooked over an open fire often in the front window of the restaurant. Essentially, you get a big platter of different hunks of beef and chicken to share. When that platter is done they bring another platter that is pork and lamb. Argentina is the meat-atarian's paradise (note to Dave Porter!). There is some of the meat however that I was not a big fan of. Intestines for one and blood sausage for another. The presentation will not win this meal any awards. Imagine a pile of meat cut right of the roasted animal piled in a heap on a platter. Dig in, rip chunks off with your hands, grab the bones and gnaw at them, everything goes. The salad bar was quite good too and we actually had been craving a good salad lately (note to Diane Seals if you and Dave make your way down here!). In Nepal, India, and Egypt… we kept being warned not to eat the lettuce because it is washed in local water I think. By the end of this Parrilla you could have rolled me back to the hostel.
We made a decision that night. We had been planning to go to Torres Del Paine (pronounced 'Pie-Nay') after we go to El Chalten. Everything we heard about the Paine though was that it is expensive. To hike the W (a popular 4 or 5 day trek) can cost $750 per person. Argentina has been somewhat costly so far and with going to Antarctica we decided that we would not do the Paine. In addition, the travel guy I had been emailing with in Puerto Natales was not really responding to me and would tell us a cost. As it turns out, we later ran into several people who did the Paine and did it much cheaper. They rented tents and stuff in Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales and it was quite cheap. Travel agents try to get you to stay in refugios for $50 per person per night for just a mattress. Meals are expensive from these places and so you can see how the costs can add up. However, hiking and camping can be much cheaper but I think there is still a daily park fee you have to pay.
So we had decided not to go to Torres Del Paine. We also decided to fly from El Calafate to Ushuaia. The bus is about 30 hours and can cost $130-$150. A flight was $180 and takes 1.25 hours. Worth the extra cost in my mind. Plus this would give us a few days to explore Ushuaia that we might not otherwise have had if we were doing the Paine and taking a bus. So, the new plan… 3 days hiking in El Chalten, 3 days hanging out in El Calafate, 3 days exploring Ushuaia including a visit to Tierra del Fuego. Done deal, plane booked, reservations cancelled and new ones to make. A slower pace with some time to relax built in there.
The next afternoon we took a bus to El Chalten. Chalten is in Los Glaciares National Park at the north end. It is a 3 hour bus ride from Calafate. El Chalten is popular mostly with two types of groups: climbers and hikers. The weather in Chalten is notoriously unpredictable. Climbers come here for about two months hoping to get in 3 or 4 good climbs. It is often windy like Lethbridge. Some days can be very clear in the morning and then in the afternoon the mountains can be totally obscured by clouds. You can be hot at the beginning of your trek and then cold by the end. When we arrived at the visitors centre for the park in El Chalten we were given a short orientation presentation by park staff. Tomorrow would be the best weather so the best day to do the hike to Fitz Roy and the following day not as clear so that day best to go to. Laguna Torre. As it turns out he was exactly right on the weather prediction. He also told us that the water is completely drinkable here. Dip your bottle in a river or lake a drink it straight away.
We checked into our hostel and had a 4 bed dorm to ourselves. We thought we might share it with a crazy Scottish girl but she ended up not staying. I have never seen anyone do this but she ripped her bed apart looking for evidence of bed bugs. She crawled on the floor and laid under the bed with a flash light looking for them. It took her at least a half hour after which she gave it her Scottish seal of approval and declared there to be no bed bugs. As it turns out she did not end up staying there because she had already made a deposit at another place and they would not give it back to her. So, for the first night we had it to ourselves. There was a bunch of climbers who had been staying here for a month and still had another month to go here. They talk a whole other language when it comes to climbing.
We went for dinner at a small restaurant called Porter. The guy at our hostel told us we might have more luck with internet there. I needed some wifi to contact my parents. I was able to Skype them from the restaurant to wish them happy birthday. My mom's birthday is February 6th and my dad's is February 7th. It was a bit broken up by I am sure they appreciated that we did our best to call them. Happy Birthday to my parents!
The next morning we decided to do the hike to Laguna De Los Tres. This lake is at the base of the Fitz Roy Mountain. It is a glacial lake fed by the glacier on the mountain. The lake drains down a small waterfall which feeds a small river below. This river is also fed by another adjacent glacial lake at the bottom of another peak and fed by another glacier. The hike is 12.5km one way. The first hour is quite uphill and the last hour is very uphill. It took us about 4 hours to get there. We had made ourselves a lunch to bring and stopped and bought a couple of empanadas as well. At the end of the hike we found a couple of comfortable rocks and ate our lunch. It was quite windy so it was cool. After lunch, we crawled up on the rocks and had a nap. Hopefully we would not roll off the rocks and tumble down the hill to the lake.
I woke up before Nic and decided to go down to the lake. She had no desire to go down because if you go down you have to come back up. We were tired and sore already and she did not want to make it worse. I was able to see her from the bottom so I knew she was still sleeping. I filled my water bottle in the lake. I was not sure if I wanted to but I was very thirsty and decided I would. I drank the whole bottle and then filled it again. Fresh, clear, ice water right out of the lake… Pretty amazing. I also hike around the lake to where the waterfall drains Laguna De. Los Tres. I got an amazing view of the other glacier and lake. By the time I came back around I could see that Nic was awake.
The hike back took almost as long as the hike there. Actually only 3.5 hours instead of 4 hours. It was more downhill this way but you had to watch your footing because the loose stones can be slippery. We got back to the start at almost 7pm after leaving that morning at about 9am. Needless to say we were sore and tired. We had hiked 25km plus probably another few getting to the start and back. It was rewarding. The views were beautiful and it was a perfect day to hike. But man, would I sleep tonight!
We stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few things. The night before we had bought stuff to have a nice salad for dinner. We were happy to have a kitchen and to not eat in a restaurant. Nic figured a good salad would be plenty but I was less convinced. We ended up picking up some bread as well so we could have some cheese toast with our salad. I was still hungry after dinner but frankly too tired to care or do anything about it. I was in bed and asleep by 9:30pm and Nic stayed up chatting with others at the hostel until after 11pm.
Our plan to go to Laguna Torre was in question the next morning because we were both sore and tired. Many of the people we talked to at the hostel, hikers not trekkers, who had hiked Fitz Roy the day before felt the same way. Many were choosing to just relax that day. We only had this day left in Chalten so we decided to go. The Torre trek is 11km one way. It is supposed to be easier than Fitz Roy because it is flatter. That said, the park information said it was almost 4 hours one way. We decided we would go but would play it by ear along the way.
We left later this day than the day before. By the time we stopped and picked up something for lunch it was 11am by the time we hit the start of the trail. The first 45 minutes are uphill but not as bad as Fitz Roy. After that it is rolling hills so a little up and down but nothing too bad. Unfortunately, just as the ranger had predicted the weather was more cloudy this day. The tour (Torre) was completely obscured by clouds. It would have been easy to say to ourselves that we should turn back because the mountain was not visible. In fact, one couple we had crossed paths with on both days had done exactly that on this day. We kept going though. Besides there was also Lake Torre to see at the end.
The hike was only 2.5 hours one way. We again found a spot on rocks a littler sheltered from the wind to have our lunch. This lake is also a glacial lake fed by the glacier on Torre. Large chunks of ice float and get caught on the bottom near shore. The water looked a little milky so I was less inclined to fill my water bottle here. We would fill them up in a moving river in a while. Besides I still had a little left.
Before we left the lake we noticed some birds hovering overhead. It looked like a falcon or a hawk, I don't know my birds very well. I would later learn that it is called a carancho. One of them in particular kept coming particularly close. Then, without any warning he swooped down beside an American girl and stole a hunk of her salami. I am guessing that these birds are used to being around people and having people food.
On the hike back we also saw an Andean Condor. These are huge birds. There was only one and it swooped around not very close to us so I wasn't able to get a great picture of it. There are supposed to be lots of them around but they hang around the cliffs looking for small rodents and lizards up there.
We got back to town around 6pm. Again, we stopped at the store to pick up a few things. Our roommate the night before was a British guy and he had left us some tortellini so we planned to have pasta, salad and bread. I was so excited. I cooked the sauce. I had bought some ground beef, onions, and garlic. One of the climbers gave us some spices too. The pasta with the meat sauce was so good. The salad rounded out an excellent meal. We actually had some left over pasta and we paid it forward to another couple we had eaten with both nights. I didn't share the meat sauce though, I was too greedy 😉
After dinner we hung out in the common room. Lots of people were having a few cocktails before hitting the bar. Some were watching the movie The Hangover. We had a few beers and chatted with people. As the crowd thinned and the movie ended it was time for is to go to bed. Close to 50km hiking in two days was exhausting and a full belly with a few beers would ensure I slept well this night. We had two Spanish roommates this night and I never heard them arrive that night.
The next day we took the bus back to Calafate. I think had we known we would have stayed a day or two longer in Chalten. We were having fun at the Aylen-Aike Hostel and the hiking was good for the mind, body and spirit. Nevertheless, we had our bus ticket and a reservation for Calafate so we went. We had only booked one night back at the Schilling Hostel in Calafate. We did that before we had decided we would stay longer. We decided we may look for something a little cheaper when we got there. Do not go to Chalten for the internet. It is horrible. If and when you get a signal it is terribly slow. We had to wait to get back to Calafate to book anything else.