Next Stop: El Calafate, Argentina
Not quite finished with my glacier tour I took a four-hour bus ride from Puerto Natales in Chile across the border to the pedigreed town of El Calafate, Argentina. Here everyone has their deep bank accounts splayed across their backs in Patagonia attire and furry former animals. The benefit? The town’s main street is littered with pricey boutique shops and artisan chocolatiers for window shopping (well for me).
Tiny El Calafate is also a comfortable stopping point to visit the only advancing Glacier in this Patagonian wilderness – the Perito Moreno Glacier. I settled into my hostel and the twelve bed dorm, found the earth conscience grocery store (no plastic bags allowed), made dinner and tried to fall asleep.
Try because as I turned off my light a very loud Australian and very friendly American arrived. Deciding the beds beside me were the best means to keep me awake I had to run through Bermuda triangle stories, told them I was going to the glacier the next day and hoped that would be the last of them. They actually turned into some great travel buddies.
The next morning the three of us were up and ready for the organised bus ride to the Glacier (only two hours away). Because it was a tour company operating the transportation they purposely leave us at the Glacier site for well over six hours. To try and fill these hours we decided to also take the boat ride for an extra $15.A splurge the ride did, however, offer a view of the Glacier which would have been difficult any other way.
From this perspective the glacier was more blue than I had ever imagined and we even managed to see a pillar of ice slide into the lake (happens when the pressure builds up too much at the glacier advances) during our half hour ride.
The other option at the Perito Moreno Glacier is a view from above and along the purposely built walkway. Jockeying for room my Australian travel buddy decided the optimum time to move from the main area was seconds before a massive amount of glacier ice fell on one side throwing a tremendous white cloud above the glacier..
I didn’t rub that in too much.
After watching some very cold paint dry (yes the ice explosions are fun but a glacier really does nothing else) the three of us huddled in the tourist centre with coffee while waiting for the organised tour to return us to El Calafate.
My two travel buddies and I, however, were not done with buses.
Sprinting back to the hostel, we grabbed our bags and returned to the bus station for our transportation to the even smaller and more isolated town of El Chalten. Put together (apparently) so Argentina could claim the land over Chile (these two countries are in constant debate over Patagonia) there remains only about two roads, a recent addition of an ATM and only satellite service for any internet.
This outpost of sorts draws crowds with the peaks of Mt Fitz Roy and others in the Los Glaciares National Park, which El Chalten sits on the edge of (it’s considered the hiking capital of Argentina). Our bus dropped us at a hostel. We promptly checked-in, ate dinner and crashed so we might get our beauty sleep before tackling another hike.
Unfortunately rain woke us the next morning. I, for one, was tired of hiking with rain, sleet, blistered feet, a hurt arm and a swollen eye (all remnants from Torres Del Paine). Neither of my travel buddies felt the urge to expose themselves to the elements either so we played cards, drank coffee and watched windswept travellers barrel into the hostel.
We managed to waste a morning and early afternoon this way. When the sun decided to peak between the mountains and we couldn’t play another game of Crazy Eights we ventured out. It was a beautiful jaunt from the town amongst muddy paths, a near-frozen lake and red-flowered shrubs.
We only had about two hours, however, before we had to return for our bus back to El Calafate (the transportation hub in this part of the world). It was more bearable, however, with our expedition which provided the snowcapped tips of Mt Fitz Roy.
In El Calafate I said goodbye to my Australian and American travel buddies who had to go ‘down under’ or on to Torres Del Paine respectively. I still had a couple of days here before my flight to Buenos Aires, which were filled with some runs in the bird sanctuary, hiking into the hills behind El Calafate with stray dogs and sorting out travel plans.
Thoroughly exhausted by the wind that was a constant in this southern region of the world in their spring I was ready to board my two hour flight that would deliver me to a college friend in the capital city.
Ahhh a familiar face (there’s really nothing better). Maria was wrecked after a 15 hour flight path, but we only had a week to visit this capital so my fairly casual travelling schedule hit the highway.
Once we dropped our bags at the hostel we unleashed ourselves on Buenos Aires. After spending two weeks in the wilds of Patagonia it was also a shock to my system. Car horns everywhere, buses that forgot to put their exhaust pipes on and students marching against everything on every corner. Buenos Aires is not for faint of heart or, well, at least those who have dainty ears.
Luckily this enormous city of almost 13 million citizens (Argentina is the second largest country in South America and the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world though not the most populous) breaks itself up into neighbourhoods which are readily available to tourists. We decided to stay in the San Telmo neighbourhood which provides shelter for the bohemians of BA as well as great street markets. I couldn’t contain my shopping desires any more and luckily we had arrived for the large Sunday market. Armed with our sights out for pick pockets we wandered through the San Telmo market with crafts strewn through the streets and performers providing the background.
Our next tourist stop? The Recoleta neighbourhood which boasts well-groomed Argentinians or Portenos (those who live on the port) the name given to those Argentinians who would rather classify themselves with Europeans. That’s because many of them are descendants of the ubiquitous immigrants to Buenos Aires from mainly Spain and Italy during the late 1800s. Argentinians further inland are not descendants or far less influenced by the mass immigration of those years and are generally viewed by Portenos as a different people. The feeling is mutual (as a tour guide would later explain to me).
Besides highlighting a divide this neighbourhood also hosts the Recoleta Cemetery filled with the mausoleums of the influential, interesting and, obviously, deceased Argentinians. The cemetery is so large and overwhelming it has streets and neighbourhoods accompanied with maps to guide. I’m sure many people come to this cemetery for various reasons, but with my Eva Perón (the second wife of the former President Juan Peron who was initially hailed for his increase in worker benefits. He however quickly slid his government style into censorship and repression until he was forced into exile in 1955) obsessed friend there was only one tomb we were there to see. Buried under her maiden name – Duarte- it only took us a few, uh, ends to finally find her.
Better known outside of Argentina for Madonna’s interesting depiction, Eva Perón was an interesting lady who worked hard for the women and workers in the country and died at the young age of 33 in 1956 from cervical cancer. Of course our next stop on the Evita tour was her museum and then the Casa Rosada where she allegedly rallied the city in the 1940s to release Juan from prison (many historical facts discount this version popularized in the Lloyd Webber’s musical).
That night it was time to discard the backpacker in me and meet-up with fellow Bermudian Jennie who was living and learning Spanish in Buenos Aires. Hiding the holes in my clothes I managed to sneak into the chic restaurant and we indulged in some of the wine Argentina is so well-known for and other delicacies. The infusion of Bermudian and friendly faces were doing wonders for the solo traveller.
Regardless of the wine we were up the next morning to hit the other sites this sprawling city has to offer. Of course that means the Congress building which is modelled after the Capitol in Washington, crossing one of the widest street in the world (it took three crossing-lights to cross Avenida de 9 Julio which is named after Argentina’s day of independence) and a lot of walking in this enormous city.
This includes tango on the pedestrian street of Florida, visiting the coloured houses of El Caminito neighbourhood and of course arguably the best steak restaurant in the city – La Cabrera. They only allow you to book a reservation at 8.30 pm. We made sure were were there at 8! It was the best steak I have ever eaten.
With full tummies my college friend and I bid farewell to Buenos Aires and fellow Bermudian Jennie for a few days to head north and see a bit more of Argentina before Maria left.
Next stop: an 18 hour bus ride to the Iguazu Waterfalls.