Sunday, January 1, 2012

to be a law abiding tourist I must go to Argentina

My second trip to Torres Del Paine ended on a wonderful note. I had no idea at the time that it would be the last time that I, or anyone, would see the park like that. Less than two weeks later, a large portion of the park was consumed in a man-made fire. This served as a reminder to me how special this trip really is, how blessed I am to get to be here...there is no guarantee of a second chance and right now is the moment that matters.

After I returned from my second visit, I walked in the door of Erratic Rock and was welcomed home. I took a day to wash clothes and repack my bag before heading out one more time. This time I was going to be gone for nearly a week. I was crossing the border to Argentina. First stop would be Calafate and after spending the spending the night there, I would be making my way on to El Chalten. My desire to go to these places was two-fold: I wanted to see Perito Moreno Glacier and Fitz Roy Mountain, and I needed to cross the border because my visa in Chile was about to expire. I couldn't believe it, but I was coming up on 3 months here in Chile and the law required that I had to leave. I could come back, but first I had to leave. So, to be a law abiding tourist, I went to Argentina.

I couldn't of had better weather. I have been told that this season in Patagonia has been totally unusual. There has been lots of sun and the very little rain. For tourism it has been great and has given tons of people the opportunity to see mountain peaks normally hidden in clouds. With the exception of a few hours of rain the very first day, the weather was absolutely agreeable. A few high clouds, deep blue skies and dramatic sunsets followed me along my journey.

Another part of my added bonus to working in the hostel was that Bill knows people and can get you deals sometimes. So I got a free bus ride to Calafate, a tour of Perito Moreno Glacier and 2 free nights in a hostel in Calafate. All said and done this would have cost me a pretty penny, but I paid my way through doing dishes and cooking lunches, dinners and breakfasts. In the end, I feel as if I am still getting the better end of this deal. But he offered, and I very gratefully accepted.

It was weird though, the whole being on a tour thing. I forgot how much I kind of hate tours. I don't like having someone tell me what I should find interesting and for how long. That was the one downside. Perito Moreno glacier is amazing. The observation terraces are set up so close it feels like you can reach out and touch the ice. You don't have to wait long, and you will hear the crash of ice as it calves..if you're lucky you might get to see some too. Unfortunately you are on a timeline and you share the view with crowds of other tourists pushing and shoving to get in front. I recognize that I am a tourist...but I'm not the loud, shoving kind. Before I knew it the driver was back and he was telling me that we had to go. My time at the glacier was up. I took in the view one last time before piling back into the van. At least I was staying the night in the town, the following day I would keep on toward el Chalten, but the rest of these poor chaps were going back to Natales in the same day. Yuck.

I barely slept that night. I can't complain, I was staying for free...but I was couchsurfing in the common space in a hostel that had a bar with music until around 4 am and breakfast set up began at 6. I had the early morning bus anyway, so I figured I would just sleep on the way to El Chalten. It was a couple hour ride. I considered it my power nap.

I woke up to see the Fitz Roy in the distance. It was wearing a cloud hat but, still, there it was. It was a pretty day, that was warm enough with big puffy clouds. Camping in the park is free. No point in paying to sleep in hostel when the trails are right there, the campgrounds are well located and my gear is waiting to be used. So I got off the bus and started my first hike. They are easy trails, nothing too steep and really  easy to follow. The views are beautiful and did remind me of Torres del Paine on a smaller scale. I set up  camp the first day so I could get up to the lookout for Fitz Roy in the morning. It also allowed me to watch the clouds shift long enough to see the peak of it when they broke. It was a quick hike up to the lookout in the morning, and worth the effort. It was hours before I saw any other day hikers and by then I was well on my way to my next campsite.

The following day I moved camp to the base of Cerro Torre. It didn't take too long to get there so I had the whole day to enjoy the view of the towers, the glacier and the lake. I was sitting there admiring the view when a young guy asked me if he could sit next to me and offered me matte. But of course. So the two of us sat there together, drinking matte until the hot water ran out, swapping stories and taking in the afternoon. His name was Gaston, and he was a chef in town. He was originally from Buenos Aires and came out to El Chalten on an invitation from his friend who opened a restaurant in town. It was his day off, and he liked to get on the trails on his free days. But eventually it started to get late and he needed to being the 2 hour walk back to town. Before he left he insisted that I come to the restaurant the following day. It was an invitations that I simply couldn't refuse.

Coming down from the trail that third day was tough. It was a perfect clear blue sky and all the mountains were out in their full glory. I had a met a sweet family in the campground and had been quasi-adopted by them. A husband, wife and their 13yr old son were taking a 2 month trip through patagonia. How cool is that?! They were a great family and before we said goodbye I gave them a bunch of information for when they got to Natales. Maybe I have started to assimilate into the Chilean culture, because I felt like they really were family by the time a day had passed, and it was a wonderful treat to see them and chat with them when they got into the hostel a few days later. Either way, that afternoon when I was heading into town to find a place to stay, I passed right by La Tapera, the restaurant where Gaston works. I saw him vigorously waving at me through the window and told me to wait for him. He rushed outside and asked me if I was coming to eat. I missed lunch, which is when he was expecting me, so he told me to come back for dinner, an early dinner at 6. That would be a normal time for me to have dinner back home, but down here, that will earn you some crazy looks from people. Dinner here is normally after 8 or 9 at night. But he was inviting me and he wanted to be able to chat a bit before the actual paying patrons came in.

I am still thinking about that dinner. I was told I could order anything on the menu, but I gave it back to him and just told him to make his favorite thing. That may have been the best decision I have made in a really long time. He disappeared for a while and came back with a culinary masterpiece: beet crepe filled with pumpkin, tomato, garlic cream, mozzarella and then covered in Roquefort. I may of had an affair with that meal, and was lost for a moment in a purely sensual experience, taste, smell, sight, texture...euphoria. Its been weeks, and I am still thinking about it. I thanked my chef friend and promised to send EVERYONE to the restaurant. I have kept my word. If it was easier to get to I would have gone back half a dozen times by now.

My last day in El Chalten I awoke to another perfect day. I got up to do my last day-hike. This is not a town of early risers and like the days before it was hours before I saw another face. From the top of the lookout I got a clear view of Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre with the glacier and lake, and the sweeping valley below until it met Lago Argentina. Once I saw the line of people making their way up from the town I figured it was best to go and protect the sanctity of this place at least in my mind. I have discovered that more often than not, I prefer solitude. It's not that I dislike people...ok, well, maybe a little, but so many people seem to lack basic respect for these pristine places and my attention goes to them instead of the beauty that surrounds me. I'd had such a nice morning and afternoon, it just made sense to head down before the crowds.

It was almost like watching my life in rewind: back on the bus, doze to El Calafate, not sleep on a hostel couch with bar music playing, back on early bus, cross border...Natales.

I walked in the door to Erratic Rock.

"Welcome home, kiddo!"

Yeah, it's good to be back. Especially since I don't have to worry about getting deported.