A Magical dreamland

I was recently thumbing through an old copy of a book entitled “1000 places to see before you die” . Buenos Aires seemed to have more places in that book than the rest of Argentina combined but fortunately it did mention the Southern hemisphere’s version of a Glacier  park , Parque Nacional Los Glaciares . The park is not merely a national treasure but a treasure for the world . It is located in the Patagonian part of Argentina (though the locals might say that it located in Argentinian part of Patagonia) . If you are coming from Puerto Natales in Chile , they have a number of buses which frequently ply between El Calafate (of the Berry fame) and Puerto Natales . It was amusing for me to watch one of the immigration officials drinking mate . Our bus driver and the other bus driver joined him and to my surprise , one of the passengers from my bus also joined in. I watched in quiet morbid fascination as the cup with the straw went from hand to hand , mouth to mouth.  The border crossing was painful where the Argentine guards come in and pick anybody who looks even remotely unkempt for a random check , in this case I found that if one had dreads they were subjected to a random search. Once the bus crosses into Argentina , we soon end up on the famed Patagonian highway Ruta 40. Ruta 40 covers over 3000 miles across high desert,  highlands , rivers , national parks . I could not help but notice that in the bus stations , there are prominent signs displaying the various attractions , be it parks or cities but almost all of them feature Ruta 40 as an attraction . To get to the Los Glaciares , one needs to go first to El Calafate . El Calafate has a small airport and is a decent sized town . Los Glaciares is huge national park with El Calafate at the southern tip of the park and El Chalten giving you access to the northern side of the park .As soon as I landed in El Calafate , I booked tickets to the Perito Moreno Glacier for the next morning, El Chalten right after I returned from the Glacier, the return from El Chalten to El Calafate a day later and the return to Puerto Natales the next day

El Calafate is beautiful in its own right , this was the view from my AirBnB of Lago Argentino when I woke up the next morning .

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They have planted lavender everywhere , smells yummy .I noticed a fascinating thing about the tea pot , it had a mate setting !!!

I was excited to see the Perito Moreno Glacier  .The glacier is the only one that is actually growing . Considering that the South Patagonian icefield feeds dozens of glaciers in both Argentina and Chile and this is the only glacier that is actually growing , I imagine it has more to do with some hydraulic and geological pressure that we are not privy too .

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They have a boat that takes you pretty close to the Glacier and you can actually see huge chunks of the glacier calving off and floating around

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There are also options to actually put on crampons and hike on the Glacier(it is 6.2 miles and considered strenuous by AllTrails) but I had to get back to El Calafate and get on the bus to El Chalten so I did a quick 2 mile hike on a trail that lets you view the glacier from multiple angles .

I reached El Calafate and I was surprised to find some compadres from the O circuit in Torres Del Paine . They were couple of young kids and I had never chatted with them before but here we recognized each other as fellow sufferers on the great O circuit , they talked with me in almost flawless English , they were Danish , just graduated high school , decided to take a year off hiking across South America and then go to University . I wish I had these ideas at their age!!! Just amazing!!! explore the world when you are fit , without responsibilities and young enough to let the experience mould you effectively . They told me they were going to to the base of Fitzroy the next day and were also planning on doing the Huemul circuit.

El Chalten is a magical place , it is extraordinarily beautiful . It reminds one of the fairy tale villages that we saw in our books which as we get older seems to join the realm of the imaginary . The tourism folks helping out tourists at the bus station are fantastic . They switch between so many different languages that it boggled my head . Finally when it was my turn, I fumbled in broken Spanish about Fitzroy and he smoothly switched to flawless English and told me what my options were, given that I had to be back here by 7 PM the next day. He advised me on a couple of hikes and then when I told him I wanted to go up to Fitzroy ,he tried to dissuade me because it would be too dark but I insisted so he then informed me about two camps and I could set up camp at either place and I could not use open fire but could use my stove  and told me that I don’t need to take any water. I started walking across town to get to the trailhead and once I go there , I started climbing  . The first camp was 4 KM away and the second was 8 KM away , in town I thought I could do 8 KM before dark , once I started ascending (I realized I could not do 8 KM) , I decided to stop at the first campsite . Unfortunately in Argentina , nobody tells you when you should be off the trail  . In Chile , Rangers patrol and get people off the trail , in part due to safety concerns and in part so as to not disturb the nighttime fauna.  I kept going until I found the first camp . It was by a large lake and it was remarkably creepy for me when my flashlight shone onto the dark lake , the lake beckoning like a dark void. The camp was right next to the lake , so I pitched my tent , set my alarm for 3 AM and drifted off to sleep instantly .

Once I woke up at 3 , I wondered if I should sleep but finally I got up , broke camp and headed off into the cold trail . Made steady speed but if I had planned on getting up to sunrise on the Fitzroy, I overestimated myself . I was very far when I managed to capture this

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It is a long tiring slog uphill

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At the top , it is hard to believe that a place as beautiful can actually exist.

 

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and walking around the ridge provides more opportunities like this

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It had just snowed but the radiance of sun was warm enough to put me into a deep slumber . I woke up after what seemed like forever and the place had become real busy, time to head back to town and maybe get a bite to eat before heading to El Calafate. Again descent is hard on your knees so get hiking poles or sticks (and good hiking shoes with a lot of cushion) . It took an inordinate amount of time for me to get down the first KM , then I ran into a girl from Colorado who was a Cisco Engineer but she had decided to take a break , she had just finished the O circuit but she had taken 15 days to do it . I was taken aback , I thought I was too slow with 7 days and would like to do it in 5 .

Finally I took leave and headed on down

The landscape never ceases to amaze me !!

One of my favorite activities in a new town is to walk into the super market and look at the various edible items on sale . El Chalten’s supermercados are picked clean!!! At one supermarket , I found oil , water ,soft drinks,  onions and one solitary apple!!! I got luckier at the next one , I found some granola bars , candy bars , a bag of yerba mate (yes , I am a caffeine addict!!) and I also ended up buying a calabash which is the cup that you drink mate from , it is so hard that the owner just bounced it on the counter and it bounced right back . I also had to get a bombilla or a steel straw . The owner was used to dealing with foreigners , he spoke fluent English and informed me that his son had spent some time in India . There is an excellent bakery next door where I picked up cheesy bread balls , several pieces of what looked like dulce de leche pie and also some El Calafate jam cookies . Interestingly I am yet to find a single place where I had seen the berry in Argentina.

I love this town and love those mountains in the back . I will be back !!!

I have no memory of the bus ride to El Calafate, I can only speculate that I must have passed out .

Once back in El Calafate , this was my day to chill , get candy and stuff and also find some fine Argentinian steakhouse . In El Calafate , they have this restaurant called El Viejo and lot of folks recommended that I go there . I got a rib eye and a half portion of lamb and bottle of local cabernet . I cannot remember the last time I had a steak this delicious!!! They also have this relish which seems to have pickles , onions , sweet peppers and vinegar that was simply amazing . The meat and the relish is a delightful combo and I cannot recommend it enough!!!

The next day was my trip back to Punta Arenas . Now I was expecting that it would take me all of 3 hours to get to Puerto Natales , I had booked the ticket for the 7 AM bus. However instead of reaching Puerto Natales at 10 or 11 as I was expecting , we reached at 2:00 PM and I squarely blame the Chilean immigration authorities!!! Compared to this , my ‘painful’ trip coming over from Chile was a dream!!! I did not get back to Punta Arenas until past 7 PM that day . I had spent 12 hours for a journey that should not have taken more than 6 hours.

I was in a rush to get to Punta Arenas because I had scheduled a 12 hour cruise through the straits of Magellan looking for humpback whales , penguins , seals the next morning. The bus sets off at 4 AM and before sunrise , we are on the boat , cruising through . This is the southern cross

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The southern cross is the end of the continent of South America , only islands south of here until we reach Antartica . In South American nobody mentions the albatross but for us in the northern hemisphere , especially if one was acquainted with the rime of the ancient mariner (and also popularized by Iron Maiden in their longest song for 30 years) , the bird has achieved mythical proportions for me.  I was fortunate to capture this

It reminded me of a sea plane taking flight except the albatross is much more elegant to watch .

The humpback whales are always a treat to watch

The interesting thing about whales is that once they have come to the surface , they take many short breaths before one long breath and then they go back to the bottom . When you see their tail , this is when they have taken their long breath and will be down for up to 15 minutes before coming back up for air.

and the seals / sea lions

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And finally the big prize , penguins (the Magellanic kind)!!!!

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And my last glacier for now

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The biggest surprise was the cormorants , they look more like penguins than cormorants.

 

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Around 3 PM or so , I was tired enough that I was ready to beat it . The cruise lasts another hour and then the bus drove us back to Punta Arenas .

To my great surprise , I found a Hindu temple in Punta Arenas.

with statues of Mahatma Gandhi ,

Rabindranath Tagore (who was idolized by Pablo Neruda)

and Mother Teresa

This year is the 500th anniversary of Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigating the world. And in Punta Arenas which is the biggest city located in the straits  ,there is a lot of ongoing work to celebrate this monumental event.

Magellan did not survive the voyage, he was killed in a battle with natives in the Philippines  . Eventually only two ships reached the spice islands , loaded up with spices and tried to come back home only to find out that only one was sea worthy. Magellan started with 270 men , it returned with less than 20 men . But the booty that they had loaded in the one remaining ship was apparently enough to turn a profit . The booty was cloves . I went to a supermarket in Punta Arenas and went to the spice aisle and bought myself a commemorative packet of cloves , 5 gms for 350 chilean pesos, roughly 40 cents. Amazing to think that so many men died for something as small and trivial as cloves .