Two towns that start with "El"

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

After taking in the beauty of Torres del Paine we were certain that we had seen the greatest natural beauty that South America had to offer. As has often been our experience on this trip, it turned out that we were wrong: an equally amazing collection of vistas were waiting for us in two towns in southern Argentina. Our plan was to catch a bus north from Puerto Natales to El Calafate and, if time permitted, continue north to El Chalten.

El Calafate is named for the peculiar bluish berry that is rumored to grow in abundance in and around the town. Despite our best efforts to encounter this exotic fruit in the wild, however, the only places we came across this delicacy were restaurants and snack shops. With the consistency and color of of blueberries and the tartness and potency of a raspberry, these tasty morsels frequently find their way into pies, torts and pastries of all variety. As Cori scouted around the small town for a hotel, Steven consumed several of these yummy treats while dutifully maintaining watch over our ever-increasing number of belongings.

All indications suggested that the town of El Calafate was not much to see. Our friends from Frommers as well as several of the travelers who had already spent time in the city said that the only real reason to venture into El Calafate was to see the Puerto Marino glacier. For this reason we selected a cheap and not too clean room on the out-skirts of the small city and immediately set about finding a tour operator that could give us an up-close and personal tour of the nearby glacier. As we soon discovered, and have only recently brought ourselves to admit, however, we actually enjoy tourist towns. We have never been big on any of the activities that make a spot particularly touristy (think handy-craft shops, souvenir stalls, and endless touts offering discount tours), but for some reason we have not developed the aversion to heavily trafficked areas that the guidebooks and our fellow travelers rail against at every opportunity. Who knows, maybe this fact will make it easier to move back to the high-traffic mountain towns of Colorado.

After securing lodging and booking reservations for a tour of the glacier the next day, we spent some time walking the town, catching up on CNN news updates, and, of course, putting back on the pounds that we may have shed during the trek. We chose another brilliant Argentine paradilla and ate like kings for twenty dollars: Steve chose a tenderloin with a side of mashed pumpkin and a bowl of corn chowder to start, and Cori ordered a mixed salad and grilled lamb, a regional specialty, which was delivered to our table still sizzling on a specially designed table grill with a drawer built in underneath for storing red hot embers. Later in the day, we indulged in decadently rich hot chocolate, an alfajore, and a brownie tort (not necessarily endemic to the region, but tasty nonetheless).

In preparation for our picnic lunch the next day, we wandered into a local supermarket to pick up some supplies. We were shocked by what we found (although perhaps we ought not to have been given that we witnessed the following phenomenon on several occasions in several cities in both Chile and Argentina). In the evening hours, the aisles fill with people and checkout lines form that remind us of a crowded day on a Utah ski slope. For some reason stores that are almost dead at all other points of the day are completely full from about 7 to 9 PM. We assume that a lack of refrigeration and storage capacity forces people to buy food stuffs in very small quantities, but for the life of us we can't figure out why everyone needs to hit the stores at the same time each evening. The fact that nearly every business we came across was closed for a siesta between the hours of 1 and 4 makes this mass-shopping pattern even more perplexing.

At any rate, the next day our tourist bus stopped in front of our hotel precisely at nine to begin the journey to Perito Moreno Glacier, 80 kilometers away. The journey was somewhat nondescript and Cori fell asleep. She was awoken by a national park guard collecting a rather inappropriate amount of money for park entrance fees, after which followed another ten kilometers or so of hard packed gravel roads to the glacier overlook. Despite the amazing things we had heard about the glacier, and despite the fact that we had already seen larger glaciers, we were simply unprepared for what we saw: a sheer wall of ice not more than 400 yards in front of our faces

The real excitement of seeing glaciers in person is the possibility of catching them in action; in other words, while they are calving. Calving is the technical term for the dramatic process whereby a glacier sheds a giant chunk of its mass into the surrounding water. The interesting thing about the Perito Marino glacier is that it is one of the only glaciers in the world that is in balance - which is to say it is neither growing or shrinking. The practical implication of this unique phenomenon is that this glacier is very active. In the two hours we spent on the observation deck we counted not less than 6 major calvings. With each massive chunk of ice that was violently shed from the larger glacier we grew more and more transfixed. The bus was scheduled to leave the visitor view point at 1:30 and for the first time we were the last ones back on the bus. In our experience, the travelers of other nations have a strong tendency to be very loose with the deadlines and dictates of bus drivers, but this time we cast our tardy lot with the French and Israelis.

After our time at the glacial mirrador we got back on the bus and were promptly taken on a winding road to a small pier. At the pier we were met by a waiting boat and crew who quickly ushered the 30 or so members of the tour group aboard and took us across the lake - a ride which afforded awesome views of the backside of the glacier - to another pier close to the far edge of the glacier. A small talk on glaciology then ensued, and we will here attempt to regurgitate the most interesting bits and pieces of information thrown rapid fire at us for fifteen minutes. A glacier is a large body of ice and snow that moves slowly down a valley. Glacial ice is formed by the accumulation of snow crystals, which melt and then fuse into pellets, and then into a dense mass, which gradually acquires hardness. As the glacier moves through a valley, it scrapes the sides and the bottom of the valley, dredging up rock debris, which streak glaciers with tracks of dark lines over the glacier's top and sides.

Specifically, Perito Moreno is one of more than 300 glaciers that make up the Southern Ice Field, the third largest ice field in the world, following fields in Antarctica and Greenland. The ice field is over 13,000 square kilometers in size and more than 300 miles long from stem to stern; the full length was only traversed in full just two years ago, the expedition having stretched over the better part of three months. As mentioned above, Perito Moreno is notable not necessarily for its size, but because it is the only glacier on the continent that is stable (neither receding, or advancing, as the Pio XI glacier is), and also because it is one of the only glaciers so accessible to so many people. And, finally, it is interesting because it intersects Lago Argentino, which runs perpendicular to the flow of the glacier. Thus, as the glacier creeps ahead (about a meter a day), it approaches the land on which the viewing deck is located. After every winter, the glacier connects with the land, cutting off one branch of the lake from the other. During most years, the glacier simply melts and the pent up water upriver is gradually released. However, during a few years of particularly heavy snow accumulation, the ice dam formed by the glacier and the land solidified to such an extent that the pressure behind that dam built, the upriver portion of the river swelled, and flooding occurred. And, even more rare but spectacular, during a few of those instances, when the dam begins to melt in the spring thaw, the waters burst the dam, causing a huge icy implosion.

After the talk (we regret that we probably omitted fascinating tidbits, but we can only do our best), the friendly crew then fitted the entire group with ice crampons - foot shaped metal spikes that enable almost anyone to walk on and over ice - and thus our glacial mini-trek was underway. We spent the next several hours walking over the receding side of this massive chunk of ice as our three trusty guides pointed out especially dangerous crevices and interesting glacial elements. We initially trudged over dusty snow that, with the continuous tromping, had developed into the consistency of a slushee. As we made our way upward, we began to walk by little rivulets of clear water, and those began to transform into small streams, which eventually poured into positively large drainages, called moulens, into which a we heard a shocking amount of water funneling downward underneath our feet. It was a slightly unsettling sound. As we continued toward the center of the glacier, our guides began to point out crevasses, or small slots that form in the top of the glacier, that can transform in the space of months into small canyons. Crevasses can pose great hazards for glacial trekkers, as the openings of the crevasses are often covered over with soft snow that breaks under the weight of a person. Apparently, people usually die in the crevasses not because of the trauma associated with falling in or even hypothermia, but of suffocation - their inability to breathe in the tight "v" shaped slot they've fallen into.

Glaciers are, as you may expect, mostly white but they also have an amazing capacity to absorb every shade on the spectrum of blue. Apparently the younger chunks of glacial ice have more oxygen and are therefore more likely to appear blue to the naked eye. We figured that the newer glacial ice would also produce the cleanest water, so at several points during the hike we broke the trekking line to dip our faces down into fresh pools of icy blue water. Our guess is that this water was both cleaner and more pure than anything you can buy in the supermarket.

At the conclusion of the mini-trek, our guides directed us over a ridge in the glacier. Over the ridge, in a trough protected from the elements, sat picnic table and a few wooden boxes. As a fun and interesting touch, the guides brought out glasses and whiskey from the wooden boxes and then shaved a bowlful of ice from the glacier - perhaps the only time, they said, that the ice in your glass is older than the whiskey you drink with it.

Having concluded our glacier trek, we boarded the boat, which delivered us to the bus, which took us back to El Calafate, where we grabbed another helping of meat and made preparations for our morning bus ride to El Chalten.

El Chalten is a very very small town connected to El Calafate by a mostly gravel road and five hours' driving time. About ten years ago, El Chalten counted only a handful of families as inhabitants but, as technical and ice climbing has caught on with outdoor enthusiasts, El Chalten's numbers have climbed to a burgeoning 300. The town itself it quirky: it sits in the middle of the same sprawling national park that cradles Perito Moreno; it has two halves, almost separate entities unto themselves, connected only by a gravel road stretching for a quarter of a mile; and the remaining roads, all broad dirt affairs, kick up an unholy dust each and every time a gale sweeps through town - about every three minutes. But a more striking view has probably never graced any settlement, big or small. The hulking cathedral of Mt. Fitz Roy (about 10,000 ft.) stands guard over the town, and, to its south, the three jagged needles of Cerro Torres pierce the white blue sky overhead. We were fortunate enough to visit during two days of uncharacteristically clear skies, so we spent our time doing a little day hiking to an overlook of the Torres and nearby Grand Glacier, ambling around the town, slack-jawed from looking upward, and indulging in a little recuperative r&r. Needless to say, words simply can't do the place justice, so suffice it to say that the views in El Chalten rival those in Torres del Paine. If you happen to be in the area, we heartily recommend a side trip to this weird but awe-inspiring little place.
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