El Calafate. How to describe this town? It's a place of contrasts. Set beside the blue, blue waters of Lago Argentino. Surrounded by mountains, and dry gorsey plains. Kind of ramshackle. Kind of cutesy. Dogs wander the streets, some strays, some not, most of weirdly mixed breeds. All quiet, docile, and obviously used to traffic. They wait patiently at the door of the "Supermarcado," or curl up in a patch of sunlight on the sidewalk. The main street has many restaurants and stores that sell high-end outdoor gear and Patagonia souvenirs. Line-ups for gas stretch away from the service stations and down the street most days, and like in Cuba or Coober Pedy (in Australia) residents drive beat up old cars that we never see in Canada any more... except maybe up north. Not all the residents drive beat up cars, of course. But enough to make it noticeable. Our room the first night looked out on the main drag that takes people down town, and out of town. And the number of wonky mufflers and backfiring engines we heard was amazing. I even actioned my ear plugs to be able to get some sleep.
The shot, above, is our accommodation in El Calafate. Schilling Hostel Patagonica. Our home away from home for five nights. The rooms are comfortable, if a bit in need of an upgrade. The breakfast is good, but no different from anywhere else: toast, yogurt, cereal, cakes, and coffee and tea. But we loved it here. The owner, her son, and the two girls on reception could not do enough to make us feel at home. There is help-yourself tea (yah!) and a help-yourself bookshelf in one of the common rooms. Guests pore over the partly finished jig-saw puzzles laid out on various small tables. In fact, one couple swore they could not leave until they had finished theirs, and we returned from dinner late one night to find them still bent over their task. The kitchen is open to guests from noon onwards. This made so much difference to us. We were able to buy food, keep it in the guest fridge and make our own lunches and, on one night, dinner, and avoid restaurant food at least for a few meals. The best thing about places like this, though, has to be the people we meet. We chatted with three American kids the first night over wine. We made lunch one day alongside two girls, one from Switzerland who lives in Norway, and her friend from the Netherlands who currently lives in Australia, but is moving to Canada. We talked health care with an American medical student from Kansas City who ruefully said he feels as if he might emigrate when he finishes his studies. And over beers in the garden one evening we chatted with two delightful guys from Brazil about sports... soccer, hockey... and surprisingly curling. One of them is fascinated by curling, how it works, how to play. And Hubby was in his element, demonstrating stone throwing technique, explaining how the rocks curl, and how to sweep. Except, of course, without the stones or the broom. And, like every trip we've ever been on, we met someone from home. On our last day we ate lunch with a young couple who live in Malasia where the young woman works as a teacher. But she's originally from Almonte, Ontario... near Ottawa. And she even knows a former colleague of mine. Travel really does make the world seem small, sometimes.
After two days in El Calafate we picked up a rental car and hit the road for El Chalten. A kind of hippie/ hiker/ frontier village in Los Glaciares National Park. We saw llamas, actually guanacos would be more correct, along the highway as we drove, lots of gorgeous views, and then finally this. I stood in the middle of the road to get the shot above. I was definitely NOT taking my life in my hands, since there was no other traffic. That's Mount Fitzroy up ahead on the right. Pretty darned stunning.
This is the view as we rounded a bend in the highway and approached the village. We had worried that we might have gas problems here. The agent at the car rental company said there was a strike up north, and the tanker trucks had not been able to deliver gas to the one station in El Chalten. But he said if we were careful, our tank might just be able to get us the 214 km to El Chalten and back to El Calafate. Uh, okay. So we were happy when, as we neared town, we saw that the gas station was open and the line-up short. We pulled in and filled up. Phew. We were relieved that we would not have to undertake the drive back to El Calafate with the anxiety that we might run out of gas. Coz... other than the quaint hotel and restaurant at La Leona... there ain't anything between one place and the other, folks. One cool fact we learned when we stopped at La Leona for coffee, is that Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid stopped here too... back in the day, on their way to Bolivia. We hoped our adventure would turn out happier than theirs did.
And of course it did. No bank robberies, ambushes, hail of gunfire... or anything of that nature. Just lots of hiking. Beautiful, amazing scenery. Friendly people. And very quirky restaurants. So we walked, huffed, puffed, ate, and chatted for four days. Heaven. That's Laguna Capri above, the destination on our first hike. Not too far, but up hill most of the way. And then, of course, down...which is easy on the lungs, but much more challenging on the knees.
Our second hike was a bit more daunting. Loma Del Pliegue Tumbado was recommended by one of the girls who work at our accommodation. Julia actually helped Hubby plan both our hikes. She is an experienced walker and climber and she and Hubby pored over the map one morning deciding what we should do.
This is the most challenging hike we've done in a few years. Four hours to the summit, the last couple across scree. Three hours to the view above. As we sat here and ate our lunch we decided that this beautiful view suited us fine. Just fine. We did not need to scramble across the scree for another hour to the summit. Besides, neither of us thought we had another hour of uphill left in us. And the two and a half hours of sometimes steep downhill we had yet to navigate made us glad that we had demurred. My knees, hips, and lower back thanked me the next day, I can tell you.
Let's just pause here to talk a bit about El Chalten the town. Although it looks nothing like Canada's Dawson City in the Yukon, it nevertheless reminded us of our visit there a few years ago. The same haphazard town "plan," gimcrack buildings that look as if there are constructed of tin and plywood, but of course they aren't. Dirt streets. Sidewalks that are so uneven it's safer to walk down the middle of the road, which is, of course, what everyone does. Backpackers abound. Camper vans are parked at the trail head, small lines of washing fluttering in the breeze. There are tons of small restaurants. Bars in the grassy front yards of many of these restaurants have wooden benches and thick tables right out of an episode of 'The Flintstones."
We dined one night at Tapena, below left, recommended by a couple we met in El Calafate, and our meal was delicious. But we loved best our meal at El Muro. Where we watched out the window as the owner chopped logs for the fire that was cooking lamb on a spit, then rushed inside, and reappeared in his chef's jacket in time to serve beer at the outside bar to a group of tired hikers. That's him below with Hubby and me after our meal. He kind of looks like a Spanish speaking Dennis Quaid don't you think? The shot in the top right corner below is our meal at El Muro, and the one in the bottom right is of one of two wide "boulevards" coming into town. The side streets are much narrower and not paved. And overlooking everything is that amazing, gleaming, snow-covered mountain.
We were sad to leave El Chalten behind. The morning we checked out Tatiana who works the desk at Hosteria Kaulem and I exchanged e-mail addresses. What a cutie she is. Bright, friendly, always happy to chat, whether about our hike the day before, or her own travel plans when the tourist season is over. She'd stand with her tray balanced on her hip as Hubby or I regaled her with stories over breakfast, giggling, nodding and saying, "Si, si, si." In fact, as we drove out of town heading back to El Calafate, Hubby and I remarked how great all the young people we've met who work in the tourist industry seem to be. From Alejandro in Buenos Aires, Tatiana and Julia in El Chalten, to the lovely Antonella at Schilling Hostel in El Calafate, they have all been wonderful: helpful, knowledgeable, keen to explain their world to us, and interested in hearing about ours. As Hubby said, someone, sometime has done their job well. Whether parents, teachers, mentors or whomever, someone has helped these young people become who they are, a credit to their country. Gad, I'm tearing up as I write this. What an old softie!
But we still had one more thing to see before we were ready to fly back north. Perito Moreno glacier, in Los Glaciares National Park, outside of El Calafate. I tried to do justice to its magnificence but I'm afraid my shots are a pale imitation. So huge and so very blue, my camera would not capture its grandeur. It's one of the most amazing natural wonders Hubby and I have seen. Rising 50-70 metres above the lake at its face, it's one of the few glaciers in the world that is still growing. We took a boat ride out to the face. And then walked along the shore, up a series of stairs and platforms called the balconies. I tried to capture in a video the sound and sight of the chunks that sheared off right in front of us, falling into the lake and creating their own mini-tsunami. Each time we heard a crack and a boom, I grabbed for my phone. But alas, I'm no "Quick Draw McGraw." Ha. I'm afraid that only those of you who are my vintage and who grew up on American cartoons will understand that allusion.
And speaking of cartoon allusions. Let's discuss my ability, or inability, to speak Spanish. My frequent expostulations of "Ooh, la, la," or "Andale, andale. Arriba, arriba," are pure Speedy Gonzales, I'm sad to say. I can't help it. I grew up on Looney Tunes cartoons and those images and the voices of the characters are in my head for life. Still, Hubby and I have had so much fun trying to navigate the world in Spanish. With the help of kindly waiters, we've pretty much mastered the dinner menu thing. I've learned how to order chicken and not the game of polo, as I mentioned in my last post. I've learned that "bife" is not pronounced "biff," but should sound like "beef-ay." Which actually makes more sense. I've learned that 'g' sounds like I'm clearing my throat, that 'v' sounds like 'b,' which explains everyone being "berry happy" to see us. I now understand why no one knew what we were talking about when we asked for Vellagas Street. "How do I say that again, Suz?" Hubby queried the day after the clerk at our hotel taught us the proper pronunciation. "It's easy," I replied, "the 'v' sounds like 'b,' the double ll's sound like "sh" and the "g" sound is soft. Everything else is the same." Ha. He was not amused.
I must admit though, that it's highly unlikely that I'll return home fluent in Spanish. I will, however, have a hard time breaking the habit of speaking English with a Spanish accent. I know. I'm such a mimic. I don't do it on purpose. I just open my mouth and it comes out. I can't help it. Seems like I can't help a lot of things these days, doesn't it? Sigh. I guess we can't all be perfect.
And speaking of perfect. Or imperfect, as the case may be. I've had trouble again, finding time to finish this post. I sat down a few days ago and in a couple of hours had it done. Then in my inexperience with this new ap, and the fact the internet went down when I was staying to save... I lost all my work. Crap. But there was nothing to be done but pack up the i-pad and go out for supper. After all we're in beautiful, historic Salta, now. There are sights to see, vino tinto to sample, and beef-ay ... always beef-ay... to eat.
We're exactly half way through our adventure now. Only one more road trip to the "outback" of northern Argentina left on our agenda, then we're off to Peru. I will try to stay in touch. But don't be too hopeful, my friends. I may have to wait until I'm back in Ottawa to post again.