Tuesday, July 21, 2009

El Chalten- Mid Feb. 2008

Next up was El Chalten, the National Capital of Trekking (!!!) of Argentina. It's a pretty cool town about 4 hours (it’s only about 200kms, but the roads are mostly gravel) north of Calafate. The town was built about 25 years ago, entirely for tourism and trekking purposes, and it is actually inside the Los Glaciares National Park. All (all 6…) streets are unpaved mud (at least they were. There was some work being done while I was there, but as far as I could tell it was just re-flattening of the existing mud) and there is no bank. Unsurprisingly, all businesses, and all locals we met, were in the tourism trade. Internet places that charge 10 pesos per hour (for context, in Buenos Aires it's 1.50), restaurants, hostels, travel agencies, the post office, the park’s visiting center, one bar, three campgrounds, and… that’s about it.
One of the really cool things in El Chalten is that there are two official, free campgrounds, which is very important when you come in without enough cash (I only got burned by assuming there’s an ATM everywhere once- here), and also a lot of fun. I stayed there for a week on about 2-3$ a day, for food only. In the campground there were several people who were there for the whole summer (high season, and the only time when the town isn’t a ghost town, supposedly) sleeping in their tent and working, waitressing, selling handcrafts or weed, tour-guiding, etc.
There are several trekking routes that start literally where the town ends, and we did most of them. The first evening we climbed a pretty steep climb up to the De Los Tres lagune, which has a great view of the peak of Cerro (mountain…) Fitz Roy. The next morning we climbed back up there at 6:00AM to see the sunrise. Hiking by flashlight is an eerie, confusing and a bit scary experience, and I recommend it to everybody. But the main attraction of the sunrise hike was undoubtedly the wind: there were about 13 people attempting the climb when we set out, but only our group of four (I did this trek with 4 Israeli guys, but one of them had woken up feeling sick) reached the lagune. The rest had given up on account of the wind. I’ve never felt anything like it, and might never again. The last 300m I walked about 5m a minute, holding on to rocks to stay in place until the wind let up for a few seconds, then run forward until it picked up again and I had to crouch back down again. I hid behind rocks, used sticks to hold myself in place, was peppered with pebbles into my face, and at least twice was thrown 2-3 meters back. The closest thing to flying I’ve felt, I’d say. At first I was very insistent and preoccupied with the task at hand, but at some point I regained my outsider perspective on what I was doing and couldn’t help laughing. Really laughing, from inside, into the face of the wind. It was an amazing feeling, probably enhanced (or caused completely) by adrenaline. After struggling for some time, we managed to reach the safety of a huge rock the four of us could hide behind, and that had a great perspective on Fitz Roy’s evil peak. We spent about 10 minutes peeking out every few seconds, waiting for the crucial moment: when the sun hits the jagged point, and colours it in redish and pink hues. The moment came, I took a picture (I think I was the only one who actually ventured out from behind the rock to do it, but I could be wrong), and we proceeded to sit there for an hour, making jokes and waiting out the wind. [In my notebook, this was my original entry about the Fitz Roy trek: “In wind such as there was climbing up to Laguna De Los Tres to see the sunrise, you don’t really think. It’s hard to write about it. It’s just not something that has to do with logic, it’s a physical thing. It’s been real.”]
Later that day, one of the guys and I (the rest had gone on to that night’s camp site) went on a badly marked path to a small glacier called Piedras Blancas. The last 300m or so of trail was actually a succession of large boulders holding each other aloft over a stream, and we jumped from huge rock to huge rock to advance. It looked like a rock cemetery, and I guess it was made by an avalanche or something of the sort… all in all, it was a pretty cool day. Later on we would go to the Torre lagune, where there was supposed to be a good lookout on Cerro Torre, but we got rain and clouds instead. One thing I do remember from the hike to the lagune was that we saw one of those marble looking rocks, red and black, that had been cut as cleanly as if done by a machine- the surface was smooth and straight, and below it lay it’s fallen other half, no longer connected to its larger counterpart that was planted in the ground, but as smooth and straight as the first one. I still can’t figure out any “natural” way in which that could’ve happened. Another noteworthy thing is that we met some climbers at the campsite that had already been camped out there for two weeks, sitting and waiting for the perfect weather to go climb up Cerro Torre, which is supposed to be one of the hardest climbs in the world. I’ve always been fascinated (but I wouldn’t necessarily use the word impressed) with such determination and devotedness. Some of them had come to Argentina from the US and Europe for several weeks, and had spent the whole time there, waiting and waiting for their climb. I guess I see it as narrow, as closing yourself into one activity, devoting too much of yourself to it.
We came back to El Chalten soaking wet from the rain, and proceeded to find a place to eat. That is how we found the empanada man. In several places I have met one local who became the face of that town/city for me. The empanada man was the first such case. There’s no outstanding story about him, he’s not a colourful character at all. He was just very nice, and had very cheap and tasty empanadas in a town where cheap food was hard to come by. So we spent the next three days going to his little place once or twice a day, and chatting it up, about Chalten, Patagonia, the Argentina and Chile animosity, what they do in town since there’s no bank (there’s a bank truck that comes once a month…), and of course, Israel, Jesus and the conflict.
To sum things up, I enjoyed El Chalten a lot more than Calafate, and in fact, stayed there for three more days after we’d finished with the trekking, not doing anything in particular. From there the plan was to go to the Aysen region in Chile, to travel along the Carretera Austral.

No comments:

Post a Comment