Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vacation Part 2: El Chalten

Hello and happy New Year's Eve! Welcome to part 2 of my Christmas vacation story. This one is shorter than yesterday's and has plenty of photos. Enjoy it while it lasts since I think the Bariloche segment will be another rambler.

Monday: December 21: Summer Solstice, or: Twenty-four hours of rain in El Chalten

Monday we woke up early in El Calafate to catch our pre-reserved 2-hour bus to El Chalten, a tiny little frontier town that was founded in the 1980s as part of a border dispute with Chile. It's within Glacier National Park and its big claim to fame is Mount Fitz Roy, plus a variety of other hikes available.

After some confusion at the bus terminal (since there were 6 buses leaving at once, half of which were destined for the same place and run by the same company but with entirely different systems of ticketing) we were underway. Halfway through all the buses make a stop at a roadside refuge/hotel called La Leona, named after a puma that attacked Francisco Moreno, the very same explorer "Perito Moreno" for whom the glacier is named. It's a sweet spot and we had coffee and fried bread and dwelled on the appropriateness of naming a now-famous refuge after a violent attack against a famous explorer before getting underway again. This interesting distance meter is posted out front:
It had been a bright, blue day when we left El Calafate. It stayed that way until about 2o minutes outside of El Chalten, when dark clouds rolled in and rain started to dot the windows. By the time we pulled up to the park ranger building and went in for our explanation of the park and rules to abide by, it was more than drizzling and the wind had picked up. Fifteen minutes later as we unloaded outside our hostel (blessedly the bus stopped right outside Rancho Grande where we had a reservation) the wind was literally howling around us and two minutes outside resulted in being absolutely drenched from head to foot. Clouds obscured Mount Fitz Roy and any other mountain in sight. Lovely.

We checked in (to what we would later learn was the wrong room, their bad) and decided to venture out for food. We made it a whole block before stopping at the first open establishment, a cute little restaurant called La Waflería. We ordered fancy coffees and then I ate waffles with bacon and eggs (longing for it to taste like what I would have made for myself in the U.S. and only being slightly disappointed by what it actually was) and Beth ate an omelet.

We sat and played cards (the beginning of a vacation-long 7-series rummy tournament which I won narrowly at the Bariloche airport a week later) in this cozy spot with other tourists in various stages of dry for about two hours before deciding to "check out the town." What were we thinking? It was freezing cold. And windy. And wet. And we did not have very waterproof outfits on. We walked as far as the internet cafe which did not have internet installed, and then back to our hostel. In that time water actually started to run off each of us like tiny rain streams. I was cracking up laughing, better than the alternative which was concern for my ever-worsening cold. Here we are at the end of our mini-town-trek:
Once back at Rancho Grande, we settled into the "rained in" scene. It's a pretty hopping place, especially on days when the weather prevents all but the most hard-core/stupid hikers from venturing out. El Chalten is a destination for serious mountain climbers, but the generally inclimate weather means that people must come for days at a time with the hope of catching one or two nice days. Apparently there had been 10 sunny days just before we showed up (a theme for us, since the glacier guides said they had also had extremely nice weather on the days before our hike) which hadn't happened as long as anyone living there could remember.

We sat down at one of the few open tables, ordered soup, and set to work playing more rummy. After a nice long nap we went back out to the main room, ordered dinner, checked our email, and played even more rummy. By this time my cold had made some impressive advances and the combined delirium of being sick and being cooped up made for a lot of sniffling and giggling. This photo sums it up nicely:
The whole day we kept saying to ourselves "Maybe it'll clear up after we... eat lunch. Take a nap. Eat dinner." It never did. I kept wishing people a happy Summer Solstice and most of them looked at me blankly before realizing it was true. Seemed more like winter solstice to me but it made me feel connected to my brethren in the northern hemisphere.
We went to bed early with an alarm set for 5:30 am in the hopes of catching a break in the weather and a glorious sunrise that is rumored to turn Fitz Roy orange.

Tuesday, December 22: 5:30 am wake-up call

Beth's alarm went off as scheduled and she immediately looked out the window. "Ooh, look" she whispered to me and I strained from the top bunk to catch a glimpse of a crimson sky. Mostly clear. Obviously the park ranger had lied to us that the sunrise was at 6 am (we later found out we should have set the alarm for 4:30) but we still got dressed and rushed outside to catch some of the red sky:

In addition to the beautiful sky, we were also greeted by a group of Argentines who had clearly been up drinking all night and were appalled by the thought of our early-morning hike. The bartender who was stuck serving them, on the other hand, showed us mad respect. There was still no Fitz Roy sighting but we started off on what should have been a 3 hour roundtrip hike, with the midpoint being a view of Fitz Roy from a glacial lake. Here is a shot of the town about 10 minutes into the hike:
Almost as soon as we started the weather began to turn. But, we figured that with the forest cover we'd be able to withstand it. Once we came out onto a clearing we were nearly knocked over by the wind and the sharp rain drops stung our faces. We took a few quick photos and were on our way through the forest again. We made it about 30 minutes before good-naturedly throwing in the towel. Here is the storm coming at us again:

And here is what Fitz Roy allegedly looks like at sunrise (photo stolen from a blog called "The Little Stray Cat" who was luckier than we):

We got back to the hostel, ate breakfast, and then I went back to sleep for a few hours while Beth read. We had reserved a shuttle to pick us up and take us back to the El Calafate airport at around 10:30 and it all went smoothly. We even saw some guanacos (wild relatives of the camel and llama) and choikes (aka emus) from the road and our driver was a very affable man who pulled over to let us and the older half American/half British couple we shared the shuttle with take pictures. Here is a cropped shot of the guanaco family:

Before we knew it we were in Bariloche, and that's where this blog entry ends and the next one begins! See you all in 2010.


AmberAnda said...

Sorry it was so rainy, but as a true Pacific Northwesterner, you took it in stride. Looking forward to hearing about the rest of the trip! Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that you didn't get a look at Fitz Roy, but, on the other hand, you got to experience Patagonian summer in all its glory!

ElizaBeth said...

Amber, you know I love the rain! Clare, I am happyo knowing you've seen Fitz Roy for the both of us, and I can't wait for you to take me on a glacial hike in WA state.