Thursday, March 3, 2011

Picture Perfect Patagonia (Until You're Stuck)

Back in Buenos Aires for one final day and night.

I had intended to take the evening ferry from Colonia, Uruguay, but enough was enough; instead I could use the day to see the sites in BA that I missed when I slept the days away.

The biggest miss, Cementerio de la Recoleta, where over-the-top mausoleums house Argentina’s elite, including past presidents and Evita herself. The architecture of the sarcophagi was an equal match to the buildings outside, just splendid! Each resemble little churches, with statues, one more impressive than the next.

On the way to the cemetery I attempted to find an English language book (since my Kindle was busted). I didn’t really find a book, but did stop by a really impressive bookstore housed in an old theater where the box seats on the side are now used as reading rooms. It was pretty cool.

A decent walk and I made it to my final destination, the Museo De Arte Latinoamericano De Buenos Aires (aka MALBA). The modern art museum is housed in a modern glass building and displays the collection of Eduardo Costantini, including Xul Solar-- an artist I was unfamiliar with but liked a lot.

Now the the toss up--- stay in and get a good night sleep before my 9am flight or meet up with Ariel and Ilse one final time. Guess what won?

It was a long night!!! First I took a cab to Ariel’s place which confused the cab driver- I think he thought I was confused and kept saying “Providencia, not Capital.” Yes, I know!

After an asado (bbq with chirizo- yum!) we went to a club and danced all night to bad 80’s music and a lot of Madonna, if I remember correctly. They had me drinking Fernet, their favorite beverage which is DISGUSTING!! The place was packed all night and was great, but sadly I had to leave at 6am to catch my flight to Ushuaia.

After that night I couldn’t even remember which airport I was leaving from, luckily my great effort to come up with “domestico” worked (sometimes it works to just add an O to the English word ;-) and I made it to the right place. Check it was a bit hairy and I did ram one woman with the cart in my tipsy, sleepy stupor, but amazingly managed to check in and clear security.

Another amazing thing--- waking up 4 minutes before departure, perhaps a good time to board the plane? ;-)

I arrived in Ushuaia, a port city set between the Beagle Channel and the Martial Range—literally the bottom of the world as its southern most city. It has sort of a rugged appearance with buildings climbing the hill and ships anchored in the harbor, including those leaving for Antarctica (I thought about taking advantage of the last minute $3,500 fare but my lack of winter clothes ultimately prevented me from going).

While there I went on two excursions with Canal Fun.

The first was to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego,  with our guide Valentine, where we hiked along the lakes taking in spectacular views of the Argentine and Chilean mountains (when the wind didn't blow hair in my eyes). After canoeing against some pretty strong wind (my canoe won!), we stopped at the end of the Pan-American Highway which starts in Alaska- maybe one day I will go to the northern most point?

I also sadly watched the Eagles season end--- the game was just as nerve wracking and the last play (Vick interception) just as devastating watching dots and squiggles on :-(

That night it poured and poured and poured so I was not terribly excited to go on my tour of Estancia Harberton and the penguin colony.

Miraculously the sun came out just as we left for the long drive there- yay!

We started off rafting with a tailwind and then ridiculously against the wind---we flat out could not get to the dock after several fruitless attempts and had to paddle around a different way to get off.

After lunch it was a speedboat to see the penguins which were way better than expected. The island is home to thousands of Magellan and Gentoo penguins and had me thinking my favorite Dr. Suess’ “The Sneetches” watching the orange billed penguin (Gentoo) walk with an air of superiority though the plain penguins.

We ended the tour with a fairly uneventful hike through the ranch, seeing trees that are constantly battered by the southern winds.  Finally, a draft of the southernmost micro brew in the world. Of course we also needed to fit in some crab since Ushuaia is known for their crab, plus a visit to the most southern Irish pub in world.

Next stop-- El Calafate, a couple hours flight up the west coast of Argentina.

I arrived fairly late into town and was greeted warmly by the amazingly helpful guys at America del Sur- the best place to stay in Argentina.

I was only there a few minutes but they had already arranged my trip to Glaciar Perito Moreno in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.

The glacier was really pretty spectacular.  I took about 1,000 pictures and now understand why Mom and Dad had all those pictures from Alaska.  Honestly the pics don't do it justice since you can't see the different shades of blue, how huge it is or the sound and splash as icebergs fall off into the water (surprisingly loud).

With a combination of boat ride and viewing platforms, you really got a good view of the 30km long, 5km wide and 60m high glacier, which they claim is constantly advancing (2m a day).

Funny enough, upon my return to town I ran into two Dutch guys I met in Ushuaia (through Anil from BA days). Coincidentally they were staying at the same place, so I had new buddies for the next few days. First thing to do with friends?--- eat Calafate ice cream, which really tasted a lot like blueberry.  Second thing- pick up a bottle of good, cheap, Argentine wine at the supermarket-- love wine producing countries!!! 

It was great, I was able to convince the Dutch to join me for a night in El Chalten, a town that was quickly built in 1985 to beat Chile to the land rights.

There really isn't anything to do in El Chalten except hike, which we had grand plans to do.  The real reason to come is to see the 3405m Cerro Fitz Roy which we decided to tackle on day 2 when the weather was forecasted to be even better.

Around noon we headed out for Laguna Torre which was really beautiful, even if Cerro Torre was always in cloud cover.  We even got a glimpse of Fitz Roy while taking a break for lunch. 

However, after 22kms we were pretty spent--- maybe we should have done Fitz Roy today since 25km tomorrow was looking doubtful (after dinner with beer and lots of wine it was even less likely).

It's official- trek burnout, plus an incredibly windy day.  Needless to say, we saw as much of Fitz Roy as we were going to see (see pic- peak on right in clouds).  We then made the fatal mistake of returning to El Calafate where the frustrations began.

The Chilean border was still closed (they were protesting an increase in gas prices)!!!  Yes, it has been closed for 3 days now, but certainly the protest and blockade wasn't going to last long.  I had to catch a boat up through the Chilean fiordlands from Puerto Natales in a couple days, and I wanted to stop by Parque Nacional Torres del Paine on the way. 

The Dutch were smart and made a quick scramble to the airport and got out before the masses, but I needed to be in Chile on Monday night, so waited it out with a very optimistic attitude.  I was even more hopeful after the delicious beef stew (served in a pumpkin) I enjoyed at Pura Vida all the way across town.

My hopes were dashed as the days went on and I heard more stories from people that made their way over the border into Argentina.  One Brit faked an injury and crossed the border in an ambulance.  Others had their car shaken and stones thrown at them.  Torres del Paine was reported to be like a refugee camp with people lined up for food (the W is a famous 4-day trek there and you have to carry all your stuff, so you wouldn't have extras).   Others dropped off their Avis rental car at the blockade where the Avis clerk met them to hand over the keys,  then they walked 20+ kms. with all their stuff.  Not good!!!

Things worsened when two people were killed and the military evacuated all the tourists from southern Chile.  I guess I am NOT making it to that boat--- let's hope AmEx or my travel insurance refunds the $400.

Now I am part of the masses of unhappy travelers trying to get out of El Calafate.  Yes, a cute town for a day or two, but not five!!  I was back at the bus station, chatting with the same people I met there every day, all looking for a way out, but of course now everything is booked for days.

Where to go?  Just get me out of here!

Bariloche it is!  I didn't have much interest, but it appeared to be the only option since I had already been to Ushuaia.  Look at a map- this country is huge- the 8th largest in the world! A bus to anywhere is going to be an ordeal.

I was able to find two options- a bus a 3am that seemed like a sucker bet since it look 32 hours and involved three transfers.  I appeared better to wait yet another day for a 4pm departure--- interestingly the direct bus to Bariloche was sold out for days, but when I asked about connecting through Rio Gallagos I could get a seat------ OMG, it was the SAME bus, I just had to move seats (this was NOT the most resourceful or helpful woman!)  You can see why we were all so frustrated!

And now I had to move out of America del Sur since they were booked up, but on the plus side I met Nathan and Woody from Australia and had a nice dinner and more Malbec at a cute bookstore/bar (after eating a fruit that looked like cherries from the tree outside). 

El Calafate was really a nice town, even if there are stray dogs everywhere (seems to be a South American thing), you just don't want to be stuck here.

Yay!!! Finally I get to leave.  Wait, first I have to get out of the room.  Crazily enough, I was accidentally locked IN the room.  Not sure what my life has come to--- I actually had to climb out the window--- I really can't get out of El Calafate!

At last success!  On the bus for the next 26 hours heading north to the Lakes District. :-)

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