The Lake District and Patagonia

(written in El Calafate, Torres del Paine, and Tierra del Fuego Park, Chile & Argentina. April, 2010)

After the detour to Chos Malal and the volcano hike I went to San martin de los Andes – a beautiful, small town in the heart of Argentina’s very own Lake District. Situated at the base of Volcan Lanin (approx. 3755m) and surrounded by seven glacial lakes it offered some great views and good hikes. I limited myself to visiting the lakes and arranged a couple of tours to cover the 300km hosting the lakes. Unfortunately, the weather got worse just when I got there. I didn’t enjoy such great views but the tons of information the guides shared with us more than compensated for the bad weather. In two days I got plenty of grey sky, strong winds and rain. We saw none of the two volcanoes we were supposed to see. Let’s just say it was an unconventional experience. I enjoyed hanging out with Argentinian tourists and spent quite a lot of time chatting to a student from Buenos Aires.

I liked San martin a lot – each wooden house looked as if it came from a fairytale, rose bushes decorated the streets, there was an upscale yet down-to-earth feel about the place and the streets were full of life. I enjoyed spending time at the local chocolate shops, sipping hot chocolate and munching on homemade cookies. I also did some shopping (incl. a funky handmade hat, a pair of fluffy lama wool gloves and some chocolate covered almonds) in Villa la Angostura, a nearby (read 120km away) from San Martin.

It was then time to rush to Bariloche where I was meeting Sandra. I wasn’t going to go there originally but my stay there ended up being a couple of relaxing days in the sun crowned by a great hike (Refugio Frey). I spent a couple of days just wandering the streets, reading and watching ‘Friends’. I didn’t feel like doing anything, as I didn’t think Bariloche had all that much to offer. Besides I’d done it all before. When I met Sandra we went hiking to a nearby refugio. It turned out great, we were lucky with the weather and the scenery along the way was stunning. We went up on the rocky, desert like side of the mountain, walked through a valley surrounded by impressive peaks and came down through the woods. We rushed all that day as we had a bus to catch and unfortunately we couldn’t spend much time relaxing at the charming refugio. I loved the varying scenery which is rare for a hike. Usually you go up and down the same way.

We then took a 33h bus ride on Ruta 40. I’ve mentioned before how famous it was and I thought it was because it was the single route that connected Patagonia top to bottom (approx. 5000km long). That is like connecting the US top to bottom. Apparently, there was a more important reason contributing to its fame – Che Guevara travelled Ruta 40 and felt inspired by the journey.

When we took the bus I had no idea most of it wasn’t paved. No wonder it took 33h. At times we barely moved. I also didn’t know that only estepa surrounded the road and stretched as far as the eye could see, stretching for thousands of miles. Not very exciting after a while. Surprisingly we hardly felt the ride and even enjoyed it. Not hard when only six people are traveling on a bus for more than forty. We all had two double seats to ourselves and were able to stretch across them lying horizontally. We slept tight for two nights and spent the rest of the time watching movies and stopping for breaks, including a 5h break in a small town where we spent the sunny afternoon picknicking in the local park.

We saw wild guanacos (from the lama family) running freely and we also spotted some rare (we found out later) birds, strauss-like but smaller – running around. Nandu they are called. It is always such a treat to spot wild animals, particularly when you least expect it.

We arrived in El Chalten at 6am and walked the dark streets looking for an open hostel. We found a nice, cheap one but it was full, we then found another nice but expensive one with Wi-Fi and free Inet. A real treat in a place where an hour of very slow Inet sells for $3. We thought we’d check out another one before we settle down and when we saw it we liked it and decided to stay (price was the same). Mistake. It didn’t have Inet or Wi-Fi and no electric plugs were available in the dorms. A bit uncomfortable. The common area boasting high ceilings and cosy wooden decoration somewhat made up for it. Staff was also very friendly. Shame that such a beautiful place lacked some common sense details.

We didn’t waste any time and after a quick chat with the staff and a look at the map we were on our way to Laguna de los Tres. It was one of the recommended sights and a good day hike. We made a brief stop at the panaderia, packed some empanadas for lunch and started the ascent.

The hike wasn’t very hard with varying ups, downs and flats and the scenery was gorgeous, changing from steppe to soft mountains with low vegetation, lagoons and the edged snow peaks of Cerro Fits Roy. The weather was amazing too which just brought forward the intense red of the autumn trees.

We had lunch sitting at the top of rock overlooking two amazingly colored glacial lagoons simultaneously – Laguna de los Tres and the hidden gem, Laguna Sucio (Dirty Lagoon). The latter was anything but dirty but the floating pieces of ice probably have something to do with the name.

By the end of the day we were pretty tired so we just cooked a simple pasta dinner before we crashed for the night.

We woke up nice and early on the next morning although we were not sure whether we wanted to go for another hike or just rest. I was fine but Sandra wasn’t feeling a 100% after hiking for 4 days straight. We cooked breakfast (we thought the breakfast offered at the hostel was nice but not worth the price) and we decided to do the hike since it was supposed to be relatively easy. Another gorgeous day and varying scenery. We casually strolled through the forest, chatting, taking photos. We met a nice German guy (Andreas) on the way and spent the rest of the hike together.

We had lunch at Laguna Torres, another glacial relic at the foot of Cerro Torre, the second most important peak (after Cerro Fitz Roy) in the area. We then walked on top of the ridge surrounding the lagoon in an attempt to make it to a lookout point boasting closer views of the glacier. We came to a gorgeous rock hanging off the edge of the mountain revealing equally amazing views of the glacier and a better atmosphere. We stayed there, enjoying the views arguing about the size of the small waterfall we could see across the lagoon in relation to the noise it made. Sandra wrote in her diary while I almost fell asleep under the warm sunrays.

We walked back to the hostel where we only had time for a quick shower before we met our German trail buddy for dinner. I guess our hike was not so short and relaxing as we thought. We met Andreas at the local bookstore and headed to a lovely, small restaurant at the foot of the mountain that we had seen the day before. It only held a few wooden tables and a small (more than enough though!) selection of wines, homemade beer, and local meats and specialties. All this under a sloping ceiling and big windows with views of the night sky with its million twinkling stars.

I ordered a homemade red beer that was absolutely delicious! I drink beer but I never thought it was delicious. This was a different story. I loved all 500ml of it and even thought about getting another one. We also had the house special steak which was this massive piece of premier meat cooked to perfection that came on a rustic wooden board accompanied by some chunky baked potatoes. An absolutely fantastic meal!

That night I tried to use Sandra’s netbook to transfer some photos. I plugged the camera and I didn’t see any folders as I normally do. I felt an uncomfortable sensation in my stomach as that same thing happened when I had a virus on it some weeks ago. The only difference was that I wasn’t in Rio and I couldn’t easily repair it. There was nowhere I could take it for reparation around here. OK, inconvenient but manageable. Then I plugged my hard disk holding all my travel photos from the last 6 months and I couldn’t see the folder. My stomach flipped. I heard stories about people losing their photos because of viruses and thought that’s what’d happened to me. I felt bad but still not completely devastated since I had most photos published on Facebook. I was just upset about losing photos from the last few places I’d visited (and really liked!) including the volcano hike in Copahue. Well, there was nothing I could do about it so I just went to bed. It took me a while to fall asleep as I kept thinking about the photos. Damn it!

We got up very early the next day in an attempt to make the 8am bus to El Calafate. The one leaving directly from the hostel was full so we had to quickly walk to the main bus station where a second bus was leaving at 8am. We hoped there would be space for us and we wouldn’t have walked in vain. Luckily there was. We quickly got our tickets and settled for the ride. That all day was very good. When we arrived in Calafate we found the cheap hostel Andreas had recommended to us the night before and we were pleasantly surprised to find how lovely it was. The owner was also amazingly friendly and helpful. A nice change from the usually grumpy Argentinians.

That afternoon was errands afternoon. Thinking that I’d lost my photos the night before I had the brilliant idea of taking the camera and the hard disk to a computer repair shop where the data could be restored (if at all possible!). It was my only hope. I walked all over town looking for the shop the lady at the tourist office had indicated on the map. After a while I gave up on the first shop and headed to the center in search of the second one. Again, it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I then asked at a local electronics store and it turned out that the first shop wasn’t actually a shop but a guy who one would call so he could come to you and the second shop did no longer exist. There was however a third one (!) that was just a couple of blocks away. However it might already be closed for the siesta. But of course…!

Nevertheless I decide to give it a try and quickly walked there, eager to find out if my photos could be restored and luckily it was still open. I explained what had happened and the guy plugged both the camera and the hard disk into his computer and oh! a miracle! It was all there! I don’t know why Sandra’s pc didn’t detect them that night but all the photos were there. This must have been one of the happiest moments in my life. I felt amazing and there was nothing, absolutely nothing that could ruin my mood.

The scare was enough to make me back all my photos up though. Later that night I found a shop that burned them onto DVDs for me. All safe! I also bought an extra memory card much bigger than the first one. That way I’d have to transfer photos and connect to potentially infected computers less often hoping to minimize the risk.

I happily walked to the meeting point where I was picking up Sandra for some afternoon strolling. The time I was running around stressing about my photos she spent in a local bakery sipping hot chocolate and munching on homemade cookies. Nice! We spent some time in the center visiting artesanias shops, enjoying the sun.

We also spent some time by the Lago Argentino writing in our diaries while observing the pink flamingos. Thos came as a total surprise actually. I saw the natural reserve indicated on the map but I had no idea it was connected to the main lake nor that it was visible from the walkway. Cool!

We then decided it was time for a little break and headed back to the center in search of a nice café. We came across a lovely book bar called Alvarez & Borges. It was a lovely wooden, rustic place situated on the second floor of a traditional Andine style building with large windows looking out to the busy main street. The walls were covered in books – a good selection of classic Argentinian authors as well as international ones translated in Spanish. We found ourselves a cosy spot in a couple of comfortable green leather armchairs, ordered some mates and spent hours reading, writing and chatting. Sandra had a mate cocido (similar to green tea) which is a much milder version of the traditional yerba mate and I gathered the courage to try the traditional mate served in a special mug and a bombilla (a straw like metal thing used for sucking the drink without having your mouth filled with the leaves of the herb). Drinking mate is a small ritual. It not only comes in a special mug/straw arrangement but it also requires a special way of preparation. The mug might be made of a dried empty pumpkin or metal or wood or bone, precious stones and metals, or any combination of the above. The ‘straw’ is usually made of metal or wood and comes with a special filter at the bottom which does not let the yerba through. The yerba itself is a dried grass-like substance. You fill your mug with it, gather it to one side by tilting the mug, place the bombilla and add hot water (but not boiling) to it. You must be careful not to move the straw after you have poured the water. If you want sugar it must be added before the water and re-filled everytime water is added. The reason it took me so long to try the mate was because most foreigners who tried it thought it bitter and didn’t like it. You wonder what I thought after my first sip? I liked it. Yes, it is bitter but the sugar helped a lot and it just left a nice after taste in my mouth. It is very heavy if I may say so for a tea. You can almost chew on the taste. My favourite part about the mate is the preparation ceremony. It turns drinking tea into an experience, a small celebration, a special event every time you have it. Earlier that day I asked a lovely lady at a local store about the properties of mate.

-Well, it has its properties just like other herbs. But this is not why we drink it – she said. It is part of our culture just like tea in England and coffee in Colombia. It brings people together. You never drink mate alone – she added.

What a special drink.

Continued in next story…

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