"Nothing in Patagonia is Easy"
19-December 2007 to 23-December 2007:
Apparently, we didn't tip the taxi driver enough as he began to drive off even though it started to become apparent that no one was going to be reachable at the Budget office. But before he did so, we rolled down the window and said, "Nothing is easy in Patagonia, eh?" Perhaps he knew we were in for a hard time. In any case, he pulled away and drove off. Even at Julie's urging, I waved at the taxi driver, but he kept driving away. So here we were at the start of our trip in the outskirts of a town unfamiliar to us with our luggage, no rental car, a foul mood, and our trip in serious jeopardy...
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Days 1-2: "NOTHING IS EASY IN PATAGONIA"
It was before 5am Wednesday morning when we had to get up and leave home for LAX. Having packed the day before, all we had to do was freshen up, get the stuff into the car, and leave.
By 6:30am, we were at LAX and given the mass of humanity stuffed within the terminals, it was clear that packing our stuff in a manner that allowed us to avoid having to check any luggage in was going to pay off. Sure the trip was going to be about 12 days, but our previous trip to Venezuela taught us that we could pull this off while minimizing the chances of additional lines and lost luggage.
And so we got through the E-ticket self-check-in kiosk and security without problems and waited at the departing gate with plenty of time to spare for our 8:30am flight to Miami.
Having done this at least twice before (one for Iguazú Falls
and the other for Angel Falls
), this felt normal even though you can never get used to the prolonged discomfort of sitting on a crowded plane and waiting for three hours at the Miami International Airport for the next red-eye 8-hour flight to Buenos Aires.
In this case, we arrived in Miami at 4pm and our flight to BA was at 8pm.
It was 7:15am on the morning of the next day (Thursday morning) when we arrived at Buenos Aires' Ezeiza Airport. We proceeded to do the usual taxi to the Aeroparque airport for the domestic flight to El Calafate. When we got checked in at Aeroparque (the smaller planes for domestic flights can't accommodate our small rolling luggages as carry-ons), we were annoyed though not at all surprised that our flight was delayed by about an hour. In any case, we made the most of it buying some maps and empanadas to hold us over.
Mercifully at 12:30pm, our three-hour flight finally took off.
A little after 4pm, the flight landed and we picked up our luggage without incident. Then, it came time to figure out how we're going to pick up our car hire from Budget.
Julie had pre-booked a car at a very low price a couple of months ago that supposedly let us go to Chile. But apparently, no Budget representative was around nor was there any kiosk. We tried to contact a Budget rep by phone, but that wasn't going anywhere.
We contemplated going with Hertz, which did have a kiosk at the airport, but the rep was busy with other clients and eventually they disappeared.
It was now about 5:30pm and Julie and I were worried. A taxi driver offered to take us to El Calafate to visit the Budget office in person. After thinking about it, we decided to take the taxi into town, which was about 23km away.
Greeted by howling, dessicating winds and a wind chill, we put our stuff into the taxi and headed into town. The taxi driver drove quickly through the paved two-lane roads every so often swerving due to the force of the strong Patagonian winds. We knew going into the trip that it was windy down here at the Roaring 40s, but it didn't take long to appreciate the ferocity of these winds. "So that's what they meant by it was windy in Patagonia," I thought to myself.
And so a few minutes later, the taxi driver took us into El Calafate, which looked like a charming little tourist town with shops and restaurants lining Avenida del Libertador. As he drove through town, we were beginning to wonder where the Budget office was.
But when we went further west of the busy tourist zone of town, the taxi driver made a left and up into some quiet residential area. I started to wonder if he was taking us for a joy ride or something because he eventually went onto an unsealed road.
Finally at 6pm, he pulled up into a yard where there were four small rental cars and a shack with a Budget logo stuck on a window. The door was closed so we were immediately worried about the possibility that no one was there. Being on the outskirts of town, what were we to do if we didn't have our rental car?
Julie was knocking on the door then was frantically calling the Budget number on her cell phone. She would hand me the phone to listen to a message in spanish. That message made it clear no one was going to answer as it said they were out of the office, which I translated to Julie.
The taxi driver gestured as if he wasn't waiting around so I paid the taxi driver the requisite $50 pesos.
Apparently, we didn't tip the taxi driver enough as he began to drive off even though it was now apparent that no one was going to be reachable at the Budget office.
But before he did so, he rolled down the window and said, "Nothing is easy in Patagonia, eh?" Perhaps he knew we were in for a hard time.
In any case, he pulled away and drove off. Even at Julie's urging, I waved at the taxi driver, but he kept driving away. So here we were at the start of our trip in the outskirts of a town unfamiliar to us with our luggage, no rental car, a foul mood, and our trip in serious jeopardy.
To further aggravate the situation, the howling winds didn't help Julie and her irritated contact lenses.
Now, we started to accept the fact that Budget wasn't going to be around despite our pre-trip reservations. Since our trip was based on a self-driving itinerary, Julie urgently started calling other car rental agencies in town.
It was difficult since her spanish was limited and mine wasn't nearly fluent enough to comfortably get things worked out over the phone (especially when things needed to be negotiated). Besides, this being the holiday season, most car rental companies didn't have cars (at least the cheap compact ones) available for the week and a half that we needed it. We were supposed to make the three-hour or so drive from El Calafate to El Chaltén tomorrow morning.
Time was running out as we feared businesses were closing for the day. We thought our trip was going to get screwed.
"I'm never going to go with Budget again!" she exclaimed. "This pisses me off!"
Given our flat tire experiences in Iceland and New York (both with Budget) and Julie's dumpy-car experience in Aruba, that was enough bad experiences with one company to make good on her exclamation, I reckoned.
With our deflated morale, we took our luggage and began walking the unsealed road back towards town. We weren't sure how far we had to walk to get back into the main part of town, but we knew the general direction we had to go. Besides, we had no choice but to walk anyways.
We hoped that each car that drove the dusty road past us might have been a representative from Budget, but no such luck.
Instead, we walked the unsealed road, which minutes later then became a sealed road downhill towards Av. del Libertador.
During the walk, Julie managed to call back Hertz. Someone at the office there knew some english so Julie was able to talk to them somewhat. Still, no booking would be done over the phone, but at least they'd be expecting us in town. So it was decided that we'd show up to Hertz's office in person.
When we finally arrived at the main street, we saw the Hertz office across the street and wasted no time getting there. It was now about 7pm and we were merely glad that there was at least one car rental place that was still open at this time (even though there was plenty of afternoon light outside).
It turned out that Hertz didn't have any cheap compacts for the time we wanted, but they did have a Diesel Toyota Hillux 4wd for hire. At nearly $200USD per day, it was a lot more than the $40USD we expected to pay for a compact through Budget. But with the trip in serious jeopardy without a car, we weren't in any position to do any negotiating for cheaper options. Still, given Budget's apparent lack of organization and accountability, it wouldn't have surprised us if their quoted price was too good to be true.
But in the end, we hired the big 4wd (not exactly my most desired option given that I'm not a big fan of gas guzzling SUVs) and our trip was salvaged.
With our newfound relief, we finally drove into the main part of Avenida del Libertador and to the homey and charming Santa Monica Aparts for our first of three disjoint nights in El Calafate. It was now 8:30pm.
We still had business to do like go grocery shopping for water and snacks to hold us over on long drives and hikes. So we went across the street past a handful of stray dogs to a humble-looking grocery store called La Anonima.
The first thing that caught our eye about this place (besides how busy it was) was that you had to bring your own bag to the store to carry out your groceries. Apparently last year, they stopped issuing paper and plastic bags. How's that for environmental stewardship?
When we left the grocery store and headed back to our accommodation, someone honked at us as we crossed the street. It turned out to be the husband-and-wife team at the Hertz rental car. They seemed immensely relieved to have flagged us down. Then, they explained why.
Apparently when they rented us the truck, it still had loads of someone's luggage under the hood in the back of the truck. When we all arrived at the Santa Monica Aparts, they wasted no time opening up the hood of our rental truck. And when we saw what was underneath, all of us collectively said, "Whoa!"
There were at least 3 big backpacks and a few smaller packs. I immediately understood the urgency of their situation, especially since they knew we were taking the car to El Chaltén. Fortunately for them, they flagged us down before we took off and left their other clients without their packs. Could there be any more drama on this strange start to our trip?
At 9:30pm, we finally had ourselves a dinner at one of the ubiquitous Argentinean parillas (steak houses) called La Tablita. After the filling dinner, we passed the night watching an old flick (titled "Misery," which was strangely appropriate for our Budget experience) while getting cleaned up.
Finally at midnight, we entered the warm and cozy bedroom for some much needed sleep. Hopefully, we'd be mentally prepared for tomorrow and the true start to our Patagonian trip.
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Day 3: PERITO MORENO & CERRO FITZ ROY
It was 6:15am when we awoke, got packed, and ready to go. But not before having a breakfast of croissants, jam, caramel (seems to be very popular in Argentina), toast, milk (leche), and a jug of freshly-squeezed orange juice (jugo de naranja). Pretty good, but definitely has a tendency to pile on those calories (especially the Ilolay cheese spreads and caramel).
Anyways, instead of heading north to El Chaltén first thing in the morning as originally planned, we decided to head 80km west to El Calafate's big neighboring attraction - the Perito Moreno Glacier. With the skies mostly devoid of clouds (at least this far east of the Andes Mountains), we figured we mind as well seize the moment and go for it even though we'd return to El Calafate twice more later in our trip.
And so after our brekkie, we checked out of the homey accommodation and proceeded to head west at 7:45am. I was getting adjusted to the Argentinean way of driving. They go pretty fast and tailgate even though 40km/h signs are throughout Av. del Libertador. Plus, I was also adjusting to driving stick shift in a big 4wd, but it wasn't long before the rental truck felt like I owned it.
It was clear that this side the Andes was in the rainshadow of the mountain range as it was pretty much all desert here. However, the allure of snow-capped mountains up ahead beckoned us further. The winds already started to blow but it didn't quite have the intensity of yesterday afternoon when we first arrived in El Calafate.
Eventually, vegetation started picking up as we drove into the park boundaries and paid our admission fees. It wasn't much later (9am) when we arrived at a lookout (mirador) of the massive Perito Moreno Glacier in the distance near Los Notros, which seemed to be an upscale accommodation.
By this point, the road became unpaved, but with the 4wd's high clearance, it didn't pose much of a problem (not that a passenger car couldn't handle it as the road was quite tame). The road then climbed around a few bends each providing dramatic views of the start of Lago Argentino (the aftermath of Perito Moreno's glacial retreat and snowmelt from neighboring fields draining into the basin) as well as a few icebergs drifting about.
Finally at 9:45am, we arrived at the still somewhat half-full car park, which indicated that we managed to get here before the mob of shuttle buses.
And so we walked onto the boardwalks to each of the balconies offering incredible views of the glaicer. There was some trail construction going on so I guess we wouldn't be able to get as close to the glacier as some of the signs and postcards we had seen had indicated. Nonetheless, you get pretty close to the glacier anyways. In fact, the viewing areas were close enough that you could both hear and see the glacier calve.
Hearing the loud crack, then thunderous roar echoing throughout the silent valley as the ice cascaded down the glacier face into Lago Argentino was both frightening and exhilirating. Each time we'd hear the glacier calve, we'd try to capture the event on camera or as a movie on Julie's point-and-shoot camera, but unfortunately Nature doesn't really care about our timing or schedule and we were out of luck. So we settled for the cool glacier pics along with the "I-was-there" photos to prove to the folks back home that we were indeed here and it wasn't a postcard.
By 11am, the walks were considerably much more crowded. Must mean the tour bus crowd had arrived. We had enough photos and posings before the glacier so it was time to go. We still had the rest of the afternoon to make the over-three-hour drive to El Chaltén.
By 12:30pm, we were back at El Calafate. Julie insisted that we have a lunch in town before we left town. Given that the Argentinean Peso was around 3 times less than the US Dollar and their proportions were generous, we ended up ordering way too much food (thinking we were just getting a beef sandwich and tiny wheel of pizza). Not one to waste food, we forced it down before the long drive.
And off we went at 1:15pm. The road headed further east into the arid and blustery desert past the airport turnoff and then north on the famed Ruta 40, which stretched several thousand kilometers along the eastern spine of the Andes Mountains straddling the border between Chile and Argentina.
The scenery as we headed north to El Chaltén reminded me of something we might have seen along Hwy 395 along the Eastern Sierra in California. Except here, we could see bright blue-green lakes in the distance, snow-capped mountains with glaciers, and the odd wild guanaco crossing the road and jumping over fences like they weren't even there.
The route was mostly paved, but then we got to a part where we had to make a detour (desvio) onto a long unpaved part. I had read that the government wanted to pave all of Ruta 40, and it looked like it this current road work was part of that effort. It was just a matter of time before Ruta 40 would be completely paved.
During the drive, we tried hard not to fall asleep from food coma all the while watching rabbits scurry out of the way before our truck and passing by a handful of estancias (ranches) hugging the dusty road. After a couple of hours, the road eventually went paved again and it wasn't much longer before we had to head west on Ruta 23 towards El Chaltén.
We could already see the signature profile skyline of the Fitz Roy Massif, which only hastened us even more. The road followed the north side of Lago Viedma. When stealing a glance across the lake, we could see glaciers and more peaks way out in the distance.
With each passing minute, the Fitz Roy peaks were getting larger and more imposing. The road then went unpaved as it undulated towards the well-hidden town of El Chaltén right at the foothills of the Andes. The weather this afternoon was quite good as we could clearly see all the major peaks of the skyline though the Cerro Torre further back in the skyline was covered in clouds.
At 4:30pm, we made a brief stop at the visitor center, where we heard the ranger give a quick talk about the hiking trails and emphasize the wilderness ethics. You could tell they really try to keep the park in pristine condition and it further reinforced my sense that Argentineans just get it when it comes to taking care of their Nature and trying to maintain some semblance of sustainable tourism. I'm sure our government could learn a few things from Argentineans, which is kind of ironic considering the US invented the land management principles and policies of National Parks - perhaps our country's greatest contribution to the modern world.
In any case, it appeared the town was quite well situated as all major trails seemed to start from town. That was good because we were a bit tired from our long drive from El Calafate and we had to find the Hostería El Paraiso, which was where we were staying for the next two nights. Again, the winds were howling as we arrived at the humble accommodation. Unfortunately, they didn't take credit cards here so we had to muster up some spare US dollars to pay for accommodation as our Argentinean Pesos in hand were insufficient to cover the cost.
Just before 6pm with still plenty of daylight left in the day, we took the opportunity to see our first main waterfall of the trip - El Chorrillo del Salto. And so we drove through the dusty streets of town towards the trailhead. The town really reminded me of the old Wild West as all roads were unpaved with mostly backpackers and locals walking the streets. In fact, cars seemed to be the less common mode of transportation here.
As we drove past the Campamento Madsen, the road hugged the elevated banks of the Río de las Vueltas. We saw a signed trailhead for Chorrillo del Salto, but then another sign saying the car park (estacionamento) was another kilometer away.
Under the impression that the car park would make us backtrack and walk the extra kilometer, we parked our car at one of the many pullouts near the apparent trailhead.
After about 15 minutes of walking, I realized that the trail seemed to parallel the road. And not much longer, we walked right into a car park. It was yet another lesson learned that we ought to obey the signs!
Anyways, the real trail proceeded beyond the car park and within a few minutes, we were within the shady confines of Chorrillo del Salto. Given the low light of shadowy cove, I was glad I brought along a compact Giotto tripod for the obligatory long exposure photograph of the 15-20m waterfall.
By 7:30pm, we were back at the car and headed back to town. We decided to eat at Ruca Mahuida, which was allegedly the best restaurant the town had to offer. The food was quite good considering we were paying much less than what we expected to pay for something this upscale. I had venison while Julie had salmon. We made pleasant conversation with the waitress who came down here from Bariloche in the Lakes District of Argentinean Patagonia and knew enough english to expand the range of topics we could talk about as opposed to an all spanish conversation.
At 9pm, we returned to Hostería El Paraiso where we had a comfortable hot shower and slept for the night. The winds were howling all night long and I wondered whether that meant the clouds might obscure the Fitz Roy Peaks for tomorrow's long hike (we intended to do the 8-hour plus Laguna de Los Tres trail). Weather definitely makes a difference when the scenery depends on high elevation attractions.
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Day 4: SANDBLASTED
At 6:30am, Julie and I awoke and immediately prepared ourselves for the big hike today. Today, we were determined to do the hike known as Laguna de Los Tres. The three (as the name suggests) pertain to the main peaks of the Fitz Roy Massif - Cerro Poincenot, Aguja de la Silla, and Monte Fitz Roy (3405m). Getting to the lagoon right at the foot of these peaks that dominated the skyline required a grueling hike of at least 4 hours each way. We knew it wasn't going to be easy so we brought 2 1.5L and 2 600mL bottles of water as well as a few books, maps, and snacks - all of which weighed down our packs.
After a simple breakfast of toasted breads, freshly squeezed OJ, and milk, we proceeded to drive the truck for a few minutes to the trailhead of the Sendero Fitz Roy.
We arrived just before 9:30am and there were already a handful of cars parked at the lot just on the north end of town. Obviously, we didn't get an early start. But what was more discouraging was that the gorgeous views we had yesterday were nonexistent today as clouds seemed to have obscured most of the peaks. Still, we knew the weather tended to change very quickly in Patagonia so we moved forward with the hike.
The winds were still blowing and they were cold enough to force us to wear our light jackets initially. But the relentless climb of the initial part of the hike soon caused at least me to take off the jacket and let the cold, arid, breezy air cool me down.
Upon the initial ascent, we were treated to views of the valley of the Río de Las Vueltas. Even with the overcast conditions, the valley was quite picturesque so we paused for a few moments to take photos and catch our breaths from the climb.
The trail continued to climb, which made the valley below seem even more distant.
After over an hour, the trail started to level out somewhat. Quite a few hikers passed us, which made us feel rather slow. The skies remained overcast and the winds were still blowing. It wasn't much longer before the trail started going into a canopy of trees though the trail continued to climb.
Julie said she heard screaming from some woman. When we got to the apparent source, we saw a few guanacos with packs on them as well as a couple of people tending to one other guanaco. Julie reckoned the screaming was probably something to do with the guanaco and the woman.
By 11am, we arrived at the Mirador de Los Tres. It was a somewhat open outcrop with majestic views of the Fitz Roy skyline. Unfortunately, clouds continued to cover the peaks despite the sun coming out and giving the rest of the scenery a pleasing color and liveliness.
We spent some moments taking photos at this spot before continuing on with our hike. Looking far off into the distance, we could see the switchbacks that appeared to lead to our destination. Julie reluctantly pushed forward as she worried the obscured views would make the remainder of the hike not worth the effort. Nonetheless, onwards we went.
As the hike continued, I started to notice an interesting glacier coming down towards the right side of the massif. The glacier was probably El Glaciar Piedras Blancas (The White Rocks Glacier). It had an alluring blue color to it and seemed to drop steeply below the peak known as Cerro Eléctrico.
After descending into more woods, a woodpecker caught our eye and I was preoccupied trying to take photos of it without scaring it off. This woodpecker really reminded me of that cartoon character Woody Woodpecker because of its bright red head and dark body.
Unfortunately, the zoom on my camera was only 17-85mm so I had to get close to it in order to get a decent photo. It's times like these where I really wished Canon would come out with a flexible lens that can go from 17mm-200mm for both wide angle and telephoto zoom.
The trail then started to follow a stream called Chorrillo del Salto. It was the very stream responsible from the waterfall of the same name we saw yesterday afternoon.
Julie remarked how the water was very clear.
"I could see why the water is drinkable in this park," she said.
The valley we were in was quite open and hence exposed to the winds, which remained strong. Looking to our left, clouds still dominated the scene and obscured the majestic peaks of the Fitz Roy. It was too bad the weather wasn't as cooperative today as it was yesterday, but such is the case with Mother Nature. She doesn't care about how we want things to be so we had to deal with it.
At 12:45pm, we finally made it to the Campamento Poincenot. I could see how if you were carrying a pack what a central and strategic site this would be. The number of people we've seen on the trail up to this point had already indicated to us that this was a pretty popular hike, but the campsite made it even more apparent how many people endure the physical abuse of carrying over 60lbs. of gear up hilly terrain and strong winds.
At 1pm, we were at a shelter just before the final climb up to Laguna de Los Tres. Seeing how we knew it wasn't going to be easy going up and having hiked over 3 hours to get here already, we decided to have ourselves a brief lunch of Doritos and water with some breakfast bars before heading off again.
We were greeted by a sign saying how this section was the most worn part of the park while urging us to follow the yellow poles. A few steps up the exposed switchbacks made us realize why. As we rose above the vegetation, it was clear many people opted to take shortcuts instead of the switchbacks in the past and hence there were quite a few false trails and badley eroded spots.
Nonetheless, it seemed the trail was in decent shape though there were a few steep obstacles on the already steep climb. It seemed this side of the hill was sheltered from the winds as it was very hot and tiring. We kept passing then falling behind then passing this German group of hikers.
"We meet again!" one of the hikers would say.
By 2pm, we finally made it to the top of the climb - or so we thought. Next, we saw there was still another saddle to get over, but at least it wasn't nearly as long as the stretch we just did. Moreover, the scenery up ahead of us looked like something out of the Himalaya treks I've heard about from National Geographic.
There were at least two of the Fitz Roy peaks (the tallest one was partially covered in clouds) towering over the train of hikers struggling against the gusty winds. At this point, we were so well above the vegetation, there were nothing but boulders, rocks, and sand along with snow and glaciers higher up.
In contrast to the long, hot climb we just did, we were really exposed to the winds now. The gusts were so strong that it was difficult to maintain balance (and we weren't topheavy with backpacks either!). Often, the gusts would blow so hard that it would kick up sand and pebbles and pelt us as if we were being sandblasted!
They sure stung like beebees!
There were still some steep slopes off to a side of the trail and it always crossed my mind that the wind might actually blow us into one of those slopes and make us have a bad fall.
So slowly Julie and I moved forward. Julie was very reluctant to press forward, but I knew we were in a terrible spot to stop as this saddle was totally exposed to the winds.
So I took the initiative and pressed forward.
And a few minutes later, we passed over the saddle and saw the final destination!
There in front of us was a white-capped lagoon - La Laguna de Los Tres. Immediately behind the lagoon, mountains rose sharply ultimately culminating in the Fitz Roy peaks immediately behind.
Oh what an incredible sight! I could only imagine how surreal it would be if the clouds didn't obscure Cerro Fitz Roy.
Of course the winds were still blowing so Julie and I took the obligatory photos near the shores of the frigid lagoon. Our noses were incessantly running given the wind chill and even horizontal rain droplets would pelt us even though the rain wasn't necessarily directly above us.
The turbulent scene seemed so otherworldly that this Midnight Juggernaut's song called 20,000 Leagues kept playing in my mind. For some reason, their electro-dance music takes me someplace far away - like another galaxy or something.
Just as we were about to leave La Laguna de Los Tres (3pm), I noticed immediately above the peaks were these strange cloud formations. We had noticed these lenticular clouds or some variant of them before, but this particular one almost seemed as if there was some sort of being rising out of the three big peaks of the Fitz Roy Range.
Mesmerized by this little phenomenon, I took several photos despite the persistent gusts. Julie didn't wait around and she was already on her way back having had enough of the winds.
When I had my fill, I quickly caught up to her and a few other hikers making their way back. All of them were struggling with the steep gravelly terrain which made footing tricky and slippery. The winds didn't help either and we started adopting this strategy of just squatting if the winds got too strong.
So after moving then squatting out the strong gusts, then moving again, we finally made it off the turbulent saddle.
By now, the sunny skies that seemed to bake us during the climb up was gone and we could see squalls just to the north of us. Good thing we brought the ponchos I thought.
Anyways, now we had to go down that very long exposed and damaged stretch we had climbed earlier. Even though it seemed this side of the hill was sheltered from the winds, every so often a gust would come and still pelt us with sand and pebbles all the while knocking us off balance.
Julie fell once but fortunately didn't hurt herself except for a little bruise and hyperextension of her wrist.
By 4pm, we finally made it back to the shelter. Our feet felt like they were threatening to blister considering the steep slopes and numerous steps taken so we decided to rest for another 15 minutes or so by eating more Doritos and water.
We saw other hikers doing the same though perhaps not resting as long as we did.
Julie even noted one couple where it seemed like the female was carrying the pack and the male wasn't carrying anything. "What a jerk making her carrying everything," Julie told me. Ah yes, sometimes it's nice there are guys like that to help lower the bar a bit and make her appreciate the things I do for her *wink* *wink*.
Grudgingly, we had to get off our keester and continue the hike back to the start. It was now 4:30pm, but we were surprised that there were still a handful of people still just starting the climb up to Laguna de Los Tres.
The hike seemed much more tame at this point considering the terrain was much flatter than the ascent and descent we had just endured. However, the winds would still gust from time to time.
When we got to a part where we could see the Fitz Roy Peaks again, I kept stealing glances and photos back at the skyline. And in Mother Nature's ironic ways, I swore I could now see the tallest peak Cerro Fitz Roy in the mist.
Invisible to us when we were at the lagoon, it seemed like the clouds have momentarily parted for a moment revealing the majestic peaks.
But onwards we walked as we couldn't wait to return to El Chaltén and a nice dinner.
By 5:30pm, we were back at the Mirador de Los Tres. Even though we were looking against the afternoon sun, we could see that the clouds weren't as low as they were this morning. So we seized the moment and took a few more photographs while resting and finishing up our Doritos.
We knew at this point we were around 90 minutes from the start. So we dragged our weary bodies off the bench and continued our descent into town.
I don't know if we were slow hikers or not, but it seemed like more groups of people (mostly with large packs) passing us than us passing other hikers. There was even this guy trail running solo then choosing to go off trail and do scramble up a boulder like Spider Man before continuing his trail running.
Finally, we made it to the final descent. With our sore knees and feet, we could start to see the neighboring campsite and El Chaltén in the distance. We could even hear someone playing a flute from the campground as we got closer to the end.
At 7:30pm, we finally returned to the trailhead. I wasted no time opening up the truck, getting the gear off my back, and changing out of smelly boots and socks into Chacos.
We then drove to Terray, which was next door to Ruca Mahuida where we had eaten last night.
We were one of the first ones at the restaurant, which at first made us think that dinner was closed or something. Anyways, we had ourselves a filling dinner with bread, lamb, and trout.
Soon, there would be a tour bus crowd joining us for dinner which kind of livened up the atmosphere a bit. But by that time, it was time to leave.
Back at Hostería El Paraiso, we had ourselves a nice hot shower and crashed. We had no trouble sleeping this night and resting our tired bodies. The winds were still howling, but they were background noise on this night.
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Day 5: BETTER WEATHER
It was 6:30am when I awoke. Julie had trouble waking up. Still, it was before breakfast, and I went to go to the dining area/lobby to look out the window and see if the weather had improved. As I looked out the window, I saw that there were blue skies behind a scattering of clouds obstructing the Fitz Roy peaks.
I couldn't tell if the weather would improve or not, but the plan was to hike to the Mirador de Los Tres before returning to El Calafate if the weather cooperated.
The Hostería proprietor also woke up to get breakfast started. I asked in spanish if he thought the weather would be good for hiking today.
He replied in spanish that it was because the clouds were moving in a more northerly direction. As I looked out the window, it still looked somewhat iffy to expend the energy to do the hike, but who am I to argue with someone who's lived here for many years?
When Julie first looked at the window, she insisted it was too cloudy and not worth it. But I couldn't ignore the proprietor's words. So after breakfast, I loaded up the truck while Julie paid the bill in US dollars to check out. We waved good-bye to the proprietor and headed to the trailhead for the Fitz Roy hike again.
The plan was to divide and conquer. Since Julie didn't want to do the hike again, I compromised with her that I'd do the hike while she'd tour El Chaltén and check out other accommodations for her travel agency. We'd meet back at the truck at 11:30pm.
At least she'll get to experience the Wild West-like town more thoroughly, while I'd log some more kilometers on this morning.
And so off I went at 9am. With the sun bright and intense while the winds were calm, I lathered on sunblock, wore my had, and wore shades. The jacket was off and the boots were laced.
I made quick work of the initial ascent this time as I knew not to stop at the intermediate lookouts of Río de Las Vueltas. Hiking solo, I knew I could do at my own pace and I was passing all hikers who had set out before me except for an elderly man who went at an even more brisk pace.
When the hike started to plateau, I could see the top of Cerro Fitz Roy. It was the first time that I had seen its top in the morning and it hastened my steps even more to get to the Mirador de Los Tres.
By 10:15am, I joined the elderly man at the lookout and reveled in the blue skies and majestic skyline in the mid-morning light. I kept thinking to myself how awesome this would've been if it were sunrise and the skies were clear.
In the native tongue, El Chaltén translated into something like "fire" as a reference to the clouds that would emanate like the peaks were burning, but I'd bet early birds would think of something else when they see the Fitz Roy peaks burn with alpenglow.
Anyways, it was only 10:30am and I did really well on time. So as I pried myself away from the Mirador, I decided to check out the Laguna Capri, which was only 20 minutes from the trail junction not too far from this lookout. I thought to myself, why not?
And so I hastily made my way to Laguna Capri knowing that I was supposed to be back at the car park by 11:30am. It wasn't long before I passed another campsite with a bunch of tents. It was very quiet so I tread lightly past them. They must've still been asleep, I thought.
Not long after the campsite, the deep sapphire blue lagoon (more like a lake) presented itself before the picturesque skyline of the Fitz Roys. Wasting no more time, I took plenty of photos of the waters fronting the mountains.
When I was about to leave, one of the campers stopped me and told me there was another lookout on top of rocks that were even more unobstructed and complete. He said not only could the peaks and lagoon be seen but so was the glacier as well!
It was getting late, but that bit of advice didn't stop me from seizing the moment and getting awesome landscape photos of the divine scene. It was like the camper said. Sapphire blue waters fronting snow-capped Fitz Roy peaks stretching further north to Cerro Eléctrico with El Glaciar Piedras Blancas sprawled beneath the reddish snow-capped peak.
After getting as many photos I could of the scene, it was now a little past 11am and I knew I had to hurry to get back to the truck by the promised time of 11:30am.
So off I went walking as fast as I could and trail running where it was flat or downhill without other hikers around.
The trail running actually seemed to pay dividents on the downhill portions as I imagined myself being one of those bighorn sheep or llamas who gingerly took steps down steep terrain while still maintaining balance and control. Maybe those creatures knew something about traction and control that us hikers could use when trying to go downhill?
Anyways, I was moving at a frenetic pace until I saw a group of hikers going the other way. Time to slow down. But just as I approached them, many of them stopped. One of them pointed in the sky and said, "¡Mira!"
And so I turned around and looked up at the sky. And hovering high up there was a condor with wings spread and gracefully gliding through the crisp Patagonian air.
All of us looked up in both awe and amazement. It's not often we see condors in America anymore. So I tried to take photos of the bird (without a telephoto lens) while just admiring the scene at the same time. I knew it was getting late, but this was just something you don't see every day.
When the condor finally decided to fly elsewhere, I continued my frenetic downhill pace. By about 11:40am, I finally got back to the truck at the trailhead again. But since I left the keys with Julie (usually she beats me to the meeting place when we arrange this divide and conquer compromise), I was locked out of the truck because she still hadn't arrived.
So with shoes and backpack off, I saw on the bumper of the truck waiting for her. Finally at around noon, she had arrived. Apparently, she underestimated how long it takes to walk along Avenida San Martín as well as tour the hosterías in town. But together we were once again.
Before leaving town, we decided to stop by Del Bosque for a quick lunch and home made ice cream. The food was both cheap yet delicious. Julie was also mad at herself for buying a pair of sunglasses by Julbo which she then consequently chipped when she dropped it right after buying it. I told her she could give those glasses to me if she didn't want them while she could go out and get her own later.
By 12:45pm, we finally left El Chaltén. As we got back on Ruta 23, the winds were picking up again. However, the hood on the back of the truck started coming loose.
I was afraid that if the hood ended up breaking that it would eventually turn the truck into a kite and then we'd really be in danger of rolling over. So I stopped the truck to see if I could tighten the hood.
But when I got into the wind and saw that some of the rope holding hown the hood were splintering, I knew this wasn't going to work. So I proceeded to take the hood off and hope to return it to the Hertz in El Calafate.
All the while I was taking the time to remove the hood, Julie was having a ball photographing me as the wind would blow up my shirt and expose my love handles.
With that little escapade out of the way, we proceeded to whiz down Ruta 23 and then south on Ruta 40. We made really good time and it was kind of nice to have the high clearance of the truck, which got through all washboards and potholes on the unsealed parts of the road like they were nothing.
By 3:30pm, we were back in El Calafate. After returning the hood to Hertz, we checked back in to Santa Monica Aparts and also filled up on diesel.
We ended up spending the rest of this rather warm day just walking around town while helping Julie shop for new sunglasses. Nothing was purchased, but we did give ourselves quite a good tour of El Calafate trying not to mind the sad stray dogs and broken glass strewn about the otherwise very tourist-friendly town.
We ended up having a big late lunch/dinner at some corner cafe called (appropriately) La Esquina. I think for the $25USD we spent for the both of us, the portions were way too much to finish. But not one to waste food, we managed to finish the food and really stuffed ourselves. Sometimes I wonder when will we learn that in Argentina, the portions are huge and the prices are generally not.
By the end of the day, we relaxed and watched some Jurassic Park on the tellie. With the rest, we anticipated the next part of our Patagonian trip, which would be to Chile and the Torres del Paine...
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