Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Vacation Part 1: El Calafate

I arrived back in Buenos Aires late Sunday night and immediately started downloading pictures and videos. Turns out it takes a long time to sort through my photos, Beth's photos, and our combined memories of the trip, so my apologies for the delay.

Here is the first part of the blog entry I started while on vacation but didn't want to finish without photos included. This is part 1 of 3. I know it's long so for those of you without the strength to make it through: very soon the ADD version of captioned photos will be available via Picasa.

Friday, December 18: Let the vacation begin!

Day one of vacation included getting to the airport late and begging the people in front of me to let me check in ahead of them, which they did. Due to some inexplicable system Beth and I were on slightly different flights (Oh, Aerolineas Argentinas, you crazy ham-and-cheese airline you) and mine included a layover in Bariloche, so I actually got to see it before our vacation days there. It was lovely from the plane:

On the second leg of our flight we got our second ham and cheese sandwich with a hunk of bready dessert, naturally. I hate ham but I eat it like it's my job in Argentina because it just can't be avoided and, well, I was hungry ok?

We also flew over some really cool mineral lakes in the middle of absolutely nothing. No roads, no towns, not a single structure as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately the camera doesn't fully capture the range of blues, greens, and even reds of each individual lake, but it's cool nonetheless:

Landing at the El Calafate airport is sort of odd, since there is literally nothing around it. Nothing at all. I asked someone how far the city itself was and then asked why they build the airport so far away. She scratched her head and said, to employ taxi drivers?

Let it be said that the city of El Calafate is, from a distance, ugly. Observe: The city has exploded over the past few years and it looks like it could have used a good city planner. Luckily, up close the main drag of this two-horse town is quite sweet, with lots of quaint wooden buildings housing all manner of tourist-oriented shops: travel agencies, places to buy and rent mountain equipment, chocolate shops, and many restaurants, most of which feature whole animals roasting over an open fire. It is bordered by a tall hill/mountain to the east and part of Lake Argentina to the west, the third largest lake in South America. Here is part of Avenida del Liberator, the main avenue:
Beth's flight was late but we met at the hotel and then ventured into town together. We had a nice meal of meat and red wine and then went to bed at around midnight, knowing we had a 6 am alarm waiting for us.

Saturday, December 19: Big Ice Glacier Trek

Our first full day of vacation was also our single biggest day of the whole trip: a full day of glacier viewing and trekking. The ice field in Argentina's Glacier National Park (plus all the ice on Chile's side) comprises the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world, and as such is protected with a vengeance by both governments. There is only one company authorized by the Argentinean government to do tourist glacier walks, so naturally it is super expensive, but we were committed to the experience.

The hike itself is on Glacier Perito Moreno, named after an explorer from back in the day. This is a great shot Beth got of it from the runways:
It is one of the most famous glaciers in the world for two reasons: 1) it is the only one in the park that is accessible by land (and not just water), and 2) it has the famous "ice rupture" every so often in which the ice forms a dam with a nearby land mass, cutting off part of Lago Argentina until it builds up so much pressure that it breaks through in a furious roar of ice and water. Here's a video of part of it (only good for the first 30 seconds):

We were picked up right on time and our group of 24 was quickly on its way to the entrance of the park. After a quick unofficial stop to see the glacier from a distance (where we also got a taste of just how windy the day was), the first official stop were the viewing runways built to one side of the glacier. I took my video camera with me which unfortunately does not take very good still shots, but they wouldn't do it justice anyway. It stands about 250 feet above the water, about the height of a 25 story building. Suffice to say it is impressive.
Unfortunately we did not see any major ice breaks (and just one really tiny one) but we heard plenty of cracking and groaning of the glacier which is pretty interesting to listen to.

We got to take a boat ride to the start of the glacier hike which resulted in some funny, windy videos. Once there we had to hike about an hour to the ice entrance, which unto itself was a heart-pounding climb filled with slippery rocks and rickety stairs. We were outfitted with crampons and a harness ("just in case" they said; "just in case we fall into a crevasse?" I responded, and got a dirty look from one of the guides, but hey, that's what they meant!) and then divided into two groups. This is where it got a little weird. But first, us in our harnesses:
Ok, on to the weirdness. Normally the groups are 40 people total, so two groups of 20 are generally formed for the ice walk. That day we were a small group of 24, so two groups of 12 seemed natural, but for some reason two of the guides wanted an ultra-small group and took the group of 5 "Spanish speakers," of which only one of us was a native Spanish speaker, plus an Italian girl and 3 Americans who happened to speak Spanish. Pretty soon it became obvious that our guides were eager for an abnormal day on the ice since, let's face it, catering to tourists day in and day out is probably kind of boring.

The cool part was they took us off the "beaten path" and we had the chance to be part of a very rare, tiny group on the ice, which just accentuates how giant the glacier really is. They showed us some interesting things, like the only organism adapted to live on the glacier, a tiny insect with relatives in most cold water areas of the world. The bad part was, they weren't very attentive and didn't do a good job of taking care of us once on the glacier, especially considering we were all new to crampons and ice walking. Toward the end when we were tired Beth and I fell behind a little, and while one guide should have been with us, they just walked ahead together, chatting and not even looking back to make sure we were ok. Naturally I was pissed and so was Beth, so we went in to the office to complain and were asked to write an official email, which we did. It didn't ruin the day but it definitely left a slightly bad taste in our mouth.

On to the glacier itself: holy cow it was amazing. It was a cold, rainy, windy day, and walking with 2 pound crampons attached to your feet is definitely a sensation that requires some adjustment, especially since you have to dig in like you mean it with each step (see Sunday: Recovery). That combined with wind trying to knock you off balance and rain marring your vision made for a heart-pounding adrenaline-filled afternoon. We look the part though, don't we?

Beth and I had both naively presumed that the glacier would be flat. FLAT?? What were we thinking? Our trek was a constant up-and-down, straddle-this-glacial-stream and jump-over-this-crevasse experience. Observe how not-flat the glacier is here, plus a bonus shot of how crappy the weather was:
Water runs and pools everywhere, the most delicious water I've ever tasted. I must have refilled my water bottle 3 times. Sometimes the water runs right on top of the glacier which makes it look like a slushy puddle that your foot will plunge through, but you have to trust that it is solid ice underneath and step with faith. Sometimes the water turns into a full-blown glacial river that would project you straight into a deep, dark crevasse with no hope of rescue. They held on to our harnesses as we hovered over one such river-meets-crevasse hole; I didn't make it more than 3 seconds before retreating to the relative safety of the slippery ice behind me.

At one point we got lucky and the sun broke through the clouds. I've never seen so many beautiful shades of blue in my life. Any thoughts I had about the appearance of the glacier before were shattered by the sunlight that illuminated every tiny peak and dip within it, hues of blue so rich my heart ached to look at them, water so clear it was hard to believe it was real. If I weren't so worn out and annoyed at our guides I might have cried. It was one of the many moments in my life where I stopped to remind myself what a privilege my life is.
After our lunch break (a delicious meal of salame and avocado sandwiches Beth and I made at the pre-trek refuge from ingredients bought the day before) we started the walk back, which blessedly was a more straight-forward and flat-ish route. Then we had to do the return land trek, another hour on very sore legs, where we were met with coffee at the refuge and then the real delight, whiskey on the rocks on the boat ride back. But not just ANY rocks - it was glacier ice fished from the lake! Very classy touch in our opinion.

We got back to the hotel about 6 pm and immediately decided to head back out to drink hot chocolate, return our rented hiking boots, and eat something (for fear of passing out if we didn't leave the room right away). Argentina is known for its slow, leisurely meals. We may have broken a record with how fast we ate. From the time we sat down to the time we paid the bill was maybe 45 minutes, but that doesn't mean we didn't thoroughly enjoy our mixed salad and homemade thick pasta noodles with bolognese sauce at this adorable little place called La Vaca Atada. They were very understanding when I explained that we had just done 'big ice' and didn't seem annoyed that we were in such a rush. Of course, it's a place dedicated to catering to tourists, so they're probably used to serving dinner 3 hours before normal (for them) and having it last half as long. In fact, I think some places were surprised by how long Beth and I lingered until we explained that we live in Argentina! But, I digress.

Sunday, December 20: Recovery

Sunday we woke up with super sore legs. Those sore legs would last us a good 4 days, often resulting in hilarious groaning noises followed by laughter as we tried to go up or down any stairs or even a slight incline. Hell, sitting on the toilet was a challenge the first two days.

We hobbled downstairs for breakfast and then had to figure out how we were going to get from El Calafate to Bariloche. Originally we planned to take a long-distance bus equipped with "bed seats" that go flat, but since it was the high season the only bed bus was already booked. Our alternative was a series of 4 buses, none of them bed or even semi-bed, taking a total of 30+ hours to arrive with none of the comfort or luxury of Argentina's long-distance buses (which usually involve huge comfortable seats, lots of free wine and whiskey, multiple meals, plenty of movies, and sometimes even bingo). There was a brief moment of panic - renting a car was also out since neither of us drives a stick - until we decided to check on flights.

We had originally decided against flying since 1) Beth was eager to try one of these long-distance buses (I took one last year to Iguazú), and 2) they were really expensive. But, two weeks later they were the same price and suddenly seemed like a steal. So, we bought airfare and had 2 extra days to do something with. We decided to go to El Chalten the next day, and with everything settled drank some (more) hot chocolate (they're really big on chocolate in Patagonia), took a nap, and then went to the casino for some Blackjack.

Tune in tomorrow for Vacation Part 2: El Chalten (much, much shorter, I promise).


Mike said...

That looks and sounds amazing! Jenn and I were in Iceland, but did not have time for a glacier walk. Now I regret it even more!

ElizaBeth said...

Iceland?? Pictures por favor! I hope you guys have some fun New Year's plans, knowing you I'm SURE you do.

Anonymous said...

So they had you wear harnesses, but didn't have you rope up? It rather begs the question of what, exactly, they were planning to do if one of you did fall into a crevasse. Did the guides at least carry ropes?

I still intend to take you out onto a Washington glacier the next time we're both in the state at the same time and the roads are open. (Assuming you still want to go.) And it will be all about the personal attention!

Renée said...

I never wanted to see big chunks of ice until now. Your glacier story was amazing.

I LOVE YOU said...
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