At the Edge of the World (almost)

Flying from Mendoza to Buenos Aires involved a four-hour delay at an airport with no VIP lounge, relegating me into the nameless rabble of novice travelers. Combined with the check-in staff trying to insist on checking my backpack I was feeling a bit crabby, but I brightened up a bit after meeting a fellow Fresno State Bulldog alumnus in the restaurant, the first such acquaintance this year. Go Dogs baby! Playing for a conference championship one hour from this moment!

After departure it occurred to me that this was the first time I could recall entering a country through a city that was not either the capital or at least among the largest. It was  nice, giving me a chance to get a feel for a place before facing the massive and sometimes intimidating sprawl of a major metropolitan city.

There are two airports in Buenos Aires, one of which is just slightly less ridiculously inaccessible. I arrived at the smaller (and easier) Jorge Newberry domestic airport, where it was pouring rain. I could take a taxi into the city for about $40 or brave the local transport. Opting for the latter I caught the local 160 micro (for microbus) for a 1.5 hour journey through a dark and very wet city. After connecting to the Subte (metro) for two stops and then a 15-minute walk through the hood at night in a downpour, I finally arrived very damp at the MetaTango hostel.

A rather peculiar, dark and curious hostel, with an equally peculiar yet nice enough and helpful owner, I’d be a short-timer at the MetaTango as I was flying back out early the next morning.

You see, I was going to El Calafate, a small, touristy but still pretty town in the far southern reaches of Argentine Patagonia. It’s 351 miles from Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, at the edge of South America, only 1,200 miles from Antarctica. While I wouldn’t make it down quite that far, El Calafate is still further south than New Zealand, and therefore would be the southernmost point on earth I’ve been in my life.

Getting there. I had to fly first into Buenos Aires on my RTW ticket, so I called American Airlines at least 25 times over a four-week period in an attempt to book roundtrip flights between BA and El Calafate using frequent flyer miles. While I was finally able to find the return flight, it was impossible to find a departure, leaving me with three options: a 30+ hour bus journey, buying the flight or skipping Patagonia altogether. So at the last moment I bit the bullet and purchased a one-way $250 flight from BA to El Calafate, but even so I still had to spend one night in BA, thus conveniently necessitating two airport transfers and the overnight stay at the MetaTango.

While extremely frustrated with the lack of available award travel through LAN Airlines (the only South American carrier within the One World partner alliance), there was one factor tipping the scale in favor of purchasing this fare. Calculating the mileage of the remaining flights on my paid RTW ticket, I discovered that I would come up just shy of reaching elite status with American Airlines for the coming year. The roughly 2,000 mile flight to El Calafate would, according to my estimates, put me just over the mark I would need. I wasn’t about to skip Patagonia, and the elite status was a major bonus, so all things considered I had to PTT (==> Pull The Trigger).

Back at the MetaTango, my innkeeper described four options for reaching the airport the next morning: the mysterious airport bus would cost 80 pesos (almost $20), plus figuring out how and where to catch it; a taxi would cost up to 180 pesos (over $40); and the local bus would cost four pesos (less than $1). Finally, describing these options as extraordinarily difficult, uncomfortable or expensive, he could instead drive me in his own car for 100 pesos. Well, I felt like it was a bit of of a hustle, and on top of that I’ll admit there’s a little pride that goes along with traveling local.

And so the next morning I was checked-out and on the streets at 0700, preparing for the 2-hour journey on the local bus, or Linea Ocho, with which I’d become all-too familiar in the coming weeks. This was really a disaster of first finding where the bus was supposed to stop, waiting in hopes that I was in the right place, then seeing Linea Ocho cruise past without the slightest sign of slowing as I signaled desperately. Then it was walking up the street until finding a light pole with a “Parada Linea 8” sticker on it. Finally the next Linea Ocho stops for me, only upon asking the driving, “aeropuerto?” I learn that it’s not this #8, it’s the other #8. Great. I finally flagged the proper #8 just before the travel-meter shifted from “moderately concerned” to “strongly concerned.”

This brought me at long length to the EZE airport, where I would check-in with LAN for my paid flight, and where they again tried to insist on me checking my bag. “The only way you’re getting this backpack is by prying it out of my cold, lifeless fingers.” I also didn’t get lounge access because it was a domestic flight and the lounge is in the international terminal, making two very annoying travel days in a row. I was a little grouchy.

On the flight down an Australian couple sat behind me, and we chatted just a bit. After disembarking I learned that they were renting a car and driving into El Calafate. Just before parting ways, I asked if I could hitch a ride with them.

“Oh, no, sorry mate.”

Really? This shocked the shit out of me. I mean, of course I don’t expect that everyone is going to help me along the way. Maybe it’s because so many people have helped me, and because I’m always on the lookout for others I can help. ¿Puedo ayudarte? But I would have offered them a ride in a second. Maybe I’m just looking really dodgy with the long hair and scruffy weird, but that was just bad karma bro. “Awesome. Thanks.”

Later that night I saw them at the grocery store. AWKWARD.

From el aeropuerto, just a 45-peso airport transfer brought me to the Buenos Aires hostel, a nice and comfy little family-run joint.

Here I discovered that doing the things I wanted to do – basically see the glaciers – was going to cost about 10 times more than what I’d expected. For example, a day tour to see the famous Perito Moreno glacier was going to cost 750 pesos, over $150. Similarly most of the other tours were outrageously priced, causing some frustration.

Back to the ATM, where I am conveniently charged $5 per visit by Bank of America, in addition to the $2-$4 charged by the ATM itself (add that up for a year). Also, local ATMs in Argentina only allow you to withdraw a maximum of 1,000 pesos at a time, meaning I would have make two separate withdrawals to get enough money out.

So I’m traipsing around El Calafate trying to find an American-brand ATM like Citibank, for which I’ll still pay eight or nine buck for a transaction, but at least they’ll let me withdraw enough that I won’t have to do it twice. No chance.

After trying five ATMs I’m not whistling dixie by any means, and heading back to my hostel I suddenly look up to see, looming over me, CASINO. Hmm.

Well if I can’t get the f-ing money out of ATM then I’m going to win it gambling. At this point, why not? So I throw down 60 pesos, about $12, maybe win a little cash, and worst case scenario lose $12. I approached the empty craps table with a steely resolve, and well my friends, the dice were hot that night. I walked out an hour later having doubled my money, only 60 pesos but a small victory and morale booster nonetheless.

If you can’t tell by now, after over nine months I’m just a little weary of getting screwed at every possible twist and turn. It’s something that has been grinding on me for a long time: every business and every person and every place is trying to weasel and wring every dollar possible out of you. All the time. For anything and everything. Which, I realize, is just the way life is. But when you’re in an unfamiliar place where you don’t speak the language, it’s especially difficult to watch out for yourself and avoid being taken advantage of.

It’s to the point where I’ve had to make a conscious effort not to let it bother me so much. It’s not going to change, so if I don’t want to be pissed off about it all the time, I have to change. It’s just the way it is. You wanna play, you gotta pay. I know that once I get back to the States it will still be much the same thing, but at least at home you have a fighting chance. You’re familiar with your surroundings, you know what things should cost and you can speak the language. Go elsewhere, find a different option, or just go home. When you’re on the road, you often just have to deal with it. Traveling costs.

Am I complaining excessively in this post? Why do I describe in such particular detail the difficulties of each journey and the cost of things and the frustrations? I’m sorry. Forgive me, please if it sounds like I’m crying you a river. But this is a true account, and these quite often are the things going through the mind of the traveler. It’s not always fun and mind-blowing and awesome pictures. It’s not easy.

So forgive my protracted diatribes and enumerated grievances with each perceived injustice. In the bigger picture, money is just money; it comes and goes. Only by overcoming challenges and frustrations can you learn what you’re really made of, and what you can really do. I’m traveling around the world, I’m very fortunate to be doing so, and these experiences and memories are priceless. And I loathe complaining. So I’ll stop.

Frustrating matters aside, I was in Patagonia with a ticket to see Perito Moreno, arguably the most famous glacier in the world.

From El Calafate, an 80-km bus journey brought our tour group into Los Glaciares Parque Nacional and the entrance to Perito Moreno. First we were dropped off for about two hours at the Visitor Center, where there is an elaborate series of balconies, platforms and walkways from which to view the glacier. Here the wind was whipping the snot out of my nose and playing hell with my feeble attempts at both shooting video and capturing my signature Sigma Nu/Fresno State flag shot. That notwithstanding, seeing Pertio Moreno was nothing short of breathtaking.

The sheer cliffs of ice rise above the lake waters between 40-70 meters, 130-230 feet, as tall as a 20-story building. Below the waterline the glacier extends another 120 meters, nearly 400 more feet, making the glacier between 500-600 feet tall in total. From the balconies you can hear the deep, reverberating crack of the ice fracturing, just before massive fragments break free from the cliff face. The smaller chunks range from the size of a school bus to your house, but if you’re lucky you might witness age-old slabs the size of the Boston Downtown Sheraton crashing down with a deafening explosion of water, causing tsunamis that extend out hundreds of yards. Moments later the icebergs bob to the top, joining the thousands of others floating in the icy water, to begin their long journey to melt in Largo Argentina.

Gazing across the glacier, the jagged peaks of ice, some in shadow and some glittering in the sun, extend far beyond the reaches of sight.

After the balconies we were herded back onto the bus for a ten-minute ride to the lakeshore, where we embarked on a small vessel that would take us across the lake to the far shore from which we’d be able to access the glacier.

A short brief (is that redundant?), a 10-minute hike and a fascinating crash-course on glaciology had us sitting on benches getting crampons strapped to our shoes. A few minutes later we stepped onto Perito Moreno.

I’d had no idea what to expect, but this was incredible. The shapes, the crevasses, the pools and streams – from which I drank crystal-clear, pure water – the infinitely deep, dark blues, the texture of the ice crunching underfoot, the sound of water flowing invisibly beneath us; it was like walking on an alien planet.

I’d met an American guy who I spent most of the day chatting with – really cool guy from New Jersey, living in Costa Rica and/or traveling for most of the past 10 years – whose life dream it had been to walk on this glacier. He’d seen a National Geographic special on Perito Moreno when he was five years old, and since then had always dreamt of being there, seeing it and touching it. I was glad to be there for that.

Toward the end of our 1.5 hour hike on the ice, our excellent guide informed us we’d be reaching one last valley that we’d really enjoy. Rounding a corner we came upon two metal tables, a large bowl and dozens of glasses, a rather curious sight to be found on a glacier.

And what, might you inquire, trusted reader, came next? Jameson Irish whisky over glacial ice, harvested directly from glacier to glass. How’s that for a one-upper? “Yeah, well, have you ever had Jameson over glacial ice? Didn’t think so.”

Another post that simply can’t do the experience justice, but the pictures should help.

Perito Moreno Photo Gallery

The next day was my journey to Chaltén, a three-hour bus ride to the northern portal of the Los Glaciares Parque Nacional. It was a beautiful day, I’d packed a blue-ribbon lunch, and felt like I was pretty well-equipped. By my own one-backpack world traveler standards anyway, if not by the standards of a true outdoorsman.

Upon arrival we were stopped and dropped into the Visitor Center, where we were briefed on the rules of the national park, given a map and explained the various routes we might choose. It was an excellent and very welcome informational.

I’d decided to go to Chaltén without really know much about it other than it had good trekking and was easy and inexpensive to get to. Had I really known about it I’d have planned to stay for a few days. It’s home to the famous Fitz Roy and Glacier Viedma, among other incredible natural beauties. Just magnificent.

While the weather had been beautiful all morning, it started turning bad just as we’d arrived in Chaltén. I decided I would try to make the hike to Piedras Balncas on the Sendero Fitz Roy, an estimated 3.5 hours hike at a one-way distance of 12 km.

I had just over six hours before I had to make it back, and figured I could pace myself about 25% faster than the map estimates. If not I could just turn around sooner.

I set out on my own, with my thoughts, a map, my pack and the weather. This day was remarkable in itself.

I started through town and made the trail head just as it started raining softly, but after about 30 minutes of hiking it was getting really bad. I finally deployed my emergency rain poncho that I’d been humping around since Australia, knowing it would come in handy someday. It was very cold, windy and driving rain, so I finally stopped under some shelter to eat lunch. I was really considering turning back at this point, but by the time I’d finished eating things were looking a bit better and I pressed on.

All things combined to make this a special trek: the incredible scenery that unfolded as I went deeper into the park, the weather changes, the solitude and the thoughts in my mind. At one point I stopped in a clearing and watched as it began snowing silently.

The Fitz Roy, the glacier, the forest, the trail…wow.

I finally figured out I had actually passed Piedras Blancas and gone considerably further, a solid 30 minutes of hard walking. By calculation this had put me, technically four hours out according to the map estimations, but I’d made it this far much faster.

I sat down in the forest, in solitary silence, and ate an orange.

I’d left the trail head exactly three hours and twenty minutes earlier and had stopped to eat for about 20 minutes. I’d also taken my time in a few places to look around and take photos. All I had to do was walk back faster than I’d walked here, and without stopping. It was going to be close, but I told myself, “I am going to be on that bus.”

And so I struck out, smashing back along the trail.

You runners out there surely understand this phenomena, but pacing myself back I set goals along the way, using benchmarks to measure my progress. In time I came upon two hikers far in front of me, and made it a goal to overtake them. After about 30 minutes I was on them, and as I passed with a “hidamite,” I looked up. And who did I see? The Australian couple who shot me down at the airport.

Having thought of about 20 little snide remarks I SHOULD have said to them back a the grocery store, I felt like Seabass bursting in on Lloyd Christmas in a bathroom stall.

“Oh, you guys!” I blurted out.

“Yep!”

“How are you guys doing?”

“It’s pretty cold out here.” It was very cold.

“That’s the bad karma bro,” without looking back as I strode past them.

I know that was a little snarky-smarmy, but that little devil of a voice inside me was pretty satisfied with that one. Alright, I know, that was immature, two wrongs don’t make a right, I’ll help a little old lady with her groceries, ok? Fuck those guys anyway.

I’m on a roll here.

Soon after that little incident I was getting close, realizing I would be ok for time.

In total I hiked about 30 km, more than half of which was done at ludicrous speed. As such I rolled back into town unexpectedly ahead of schedule, pretty exhausted and starving, about to embark on a three-hour bus ride. I had to eat. And the pizza/cerveza special I’d seen on the way in sounded so amazing that I convinced myself I’d earned it.

Of course the pizza took forever, and if you can believe this, despite arriving back in town in plenty of time for my bus, I found myself once again in full run for eight solid minutes, half a precious pizza in hand, from pizzeria to bus terminal, for yet another buzzer-beater. That makes about 100 of those this year.

And on the way home the bus broke down for two hours and we didn’t get back until midnight.

Chaltén Photo Gallery

Riding the hot hand I paid two more trips to the local casino, and in total I ended up winning exactly 400 pesos, about $83. That might not sound like a lot, but it covered all of my accommodation and meals for the entire trip to El Calafate, a pretty significant boost I can tell you.

The day of departure had arrived. After the prescribed 25 minutes attempting to hitchhike, I finally managed to hail the airport bus which had been reportedly full, but suspiciously had plenty of room. Airport transfers are going to be the death of me, I’m sure of it.

Northward.

***

What have you seen that has made you stop and say, “wow?”

11 Replies to “At the Edge of the World (almost)”

  1. Chris, that was a great read brother. Keep posting! Enjoy the trip of your life. Best of luck out there and enjoy it all! Damn those Auzzies

    Like

  2. Looking forward to your return. Your blog has been awesome! Going to Stanford Tuesday thanks to your mom. Going to get my batteries checked. We all miss you. Can’t wait to see you.
    Love, Grandma Linda

    Like

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