El Chalten: The End of the World

The flight down to El Calafate takes about five hours non-stop from Buenos Aires.  It is hard to believe that Argentina and Chile stretch for so many miles from north to south (Chile is an extremely long country covering 2,653 miles from north to south while Argentina is slightly shorter at 2,268 miles from north to south).  During the flight south you can really capture the amazing distance between the two ends of the country as the landscape and geography dramatically change from lush, green farmland and pastures to barren, wind-blown, flat pampas and jagged, snow-capped mountains and glaciers.  It is like going from one extreme to the other and the change is quite startling.

We left for Calafate early in the morning.  It was almost 30 degrees Celsius in Buenos Aires that morning and we were sweltering hot in t-shirts and pants.  As we descended into El Calafate, the landscape had dramatically changed from vibrant greens to dusty browns and the wind was so incredibly fierce that the plane bounced around like a flying rollercoaster.  Having traveled to southern Patagonia before, I was prepared this time for the hair-rising landing into windy, turbulent Patagonia.  My stomach still dropped and my palms still sweat, but I knew that this was to be expected because Patagonia is by far one of the windiest places on earth. 

The airport was located in a flat, open plain with little vegetation and little to see.  El Calafate, which is named after the calafate berry which is prominent in this part of the world, is a small, tourist-based town that does not have much to offer besides a strip of overpriced restaurants, shops and hotels.  Most tourists use it as a launching off point to visit the world-famous Perito Moreno Glacier or some of the remote, yet priceless National Parks that surround the glaciers and craggy mountains in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.  There has been much debate over which Patagonia is better and as someone who has been to both sides, I find them both equally magnificent.  Realizing how important the spectacular landscape of Patagonia could be for the invaluable, lucrative tourism industry, both Chile and Argentina have fought for control over the land resulting in a funny, dotted and somewhat jagged line on the map splitting up Patagonia into a horizontal jigsaw puzzle from north to south.  Yet somehow it manages to work.  I learned quickly that you should never discuss this with the natives, however, as it is still a sensitive, thorny subject.

Once in the town of Calafate, we had time for a short lunch where we met a representative from our tour operator, Cascada Expedicionnes (the company I used several years before during our trek in Torres del Paine) and then headed off to the small, rundown bus station at the end of town where we would enter into the next leg of our long journey, a three and a half hour bus ride through the vast pampas and nothingness, until reaching the tiny outpost of a town, El Chalten:  One of the last frontiers before heading off into Los Glaciares National Park. 

There was only one bus a day to El Chalten, which left at 6:30 pm and arrived by 10 o’clock.  As expected, the bus station was jam packed with Gortex and backpack clad trekkers all heading to the same tiny village at the foot of the stunning, massive Mounts Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and Puntiagudo.    

The bus was remarkably silent for being so full.  Perhaps the others were just as tired as us.  There was nothing to really see and nothing to really say so we just sat back and tried to enjoy the long, bumpy ride.  We stopped about half way along the way at the tiny one-building/hotel town of La Leona, which is the infamous hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  There was absolutely nothing there except a hotel, a ranch and the tourist propaganda.   (This picture below represents THE town.  Sign indicated directions to all countries from that point). 

We boarded the bus after a fifteen minutes break and were on our way.  The sun began to set across the vast, flat pampas and the bus was completely silent for the remainder of the ride.

We arrived in El Chalen at night in the dark.  It first appeared as a glimpse from the distance.  It was black all around.  Total darkness except for the soft light coming from the bus headlights, bouncing off the barren landscape and empty pavement.  No street lights.  No cars.  Nothing.  Just darkness. 

Then there it was.  First a twinkling of light.  Then as we approached, more.  Several old fashioned lampposts lined the streets of the small mountain town, an outpost, at the end of the world.  It reminded me of some kind of Hollywood movie set for an old western film that used to run on TV in the middle of the night.  It was like no place I’d ever been; it didn’t feel real.

The bus drove down the one and only street, slowly passing rustic shops, restaurants and small, dated hotels until in no time it reached the makeshift bus station, a small, basic backpackers’ hostel.  We got off the bus, with knees aching and fatigue setting in, to find our host, Diego, smiling and welcoming us to the car.  We drove the short distance to our small, basic hotel, El Puma, and settled into our room.  But our night could not end without a much necessary bottle of deep, ruby red Malbec and a conversation with Diego about the hikes planned for the next few days.  I was looking forward to exploring this mysterious, remote land.  When I reached the room, I had no problem drifting suddenly and soundly asleep into a blissful, restful sleep.

Adventure Travel Argentina TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

A day in Colonia del Sacramento


It was my second trip to Argentina and my third trip to Patagonia. For some reason, I could not get enough. Patagonia is one of the most mystical, magical places in the world. Its remoteness (Patagonia is one of the most remote places on earth and literally at the end of the world), rugged beauty and wild extremes in climate make it like no other place on earth. Perhaps that is why so many others, like me, have fallen in love with the place. There is something otherworldly about it.
My obsession with Patagonia began eight years ago when my husband and I spent ten amazing days trekking and exploring Chile’s national jewel, Torres del Paine National Park. It was a trip of a lifetime that changed my mindset and made me decide that I wanted to travel by foot as much as possible. I realized during that trip that there is truly something unique about going to the middle of nowhere, where there are no phones, no cars, no airplanes, no noise—only silence and nature. It was the first place that I ever truly felt like I was able to escape and relax, as if nothing else mattered in life except the rising and setting of the sun and the song of the birds. The landscape was so wild, so extreme and so above one’s imagination, that it felt like I was on another planet. The splendor and hardship of hiking several hours a day in sometimes extreme weather conditions made me feel at one with nature and with my own inner being. It was almost a spiritual journey. So perhaps that is why I’ve become so obsessed with Patagonia and always want to go back.
November of 2009 was my second trip to Patagonia with my father. The first trip we visited the vibrant, multicultural Buenos Aires and then headed to the Patagonian Lakes District, San Carlos de Bariloche. The trip was wonderful and the beauty was supreme. However, Bariloche was not the wild, intense, extreme Patagonia that I experienced in Chile’s Torres del Paine and I ended up being slightly disappointed. Thus, we had to go back and we had to go further south, deep into the real Patagonia.
This time, after much research, we opted to spend a few days in Buenos Aires (since it is such a fantastic city), do a day trip to Colonia del Sacremento in neighboring Uruguay, and then take two more flights south to the almost the end of the road: El Calafate, the heart of Argentina’s Patagonia.
The flight to Buenos Aires from the States is not bad. American Airlines flys non-stop from Atlanta and the flight was a little over ten hours. One of the pleasures of flying south as opposed to east or west is that there is little change in time. Thus that dreadful jetlag is almost completely avoided, which is a huge bonus in my mind. I find jetlag to be very difficult so I was happy that this time we would hardly feel a thing. Only a two hour time change for me.
We landed in Buenos Aires the next morning, feeling ready to go. I remember seeing the verdant green pastures and fields of Argentina, calling my name, from far below. It was approaching winter in Minnesota and everything at home was brown, bare, and dead. The brilliant green rolling hills below were like a magical shock to my eyes. My heart beat faster as we made our final descent. I couldn’t wait to get on the ground, feel the warm, gentle breeze on my skin and not be bogged down with a heavy winter coat and cap.
The airport was exactly how I had remembered: Big, busy and chaotic. Yet this time I was prepared and the endless swarm of people holding up white signs and placards in the Arrivals Lounge did not overwhelm me. Of course it took over twenty five minutes to find the one man holding the sign that said our name, but we found it. We had our driver and were on our way to our lovely hotel in Palermo Soho, a trendy, newly gentrified neighborhood on the northwestern side of Buenos Aires.
Driving in Buenos Aires takes some series guts. Cars speed in and out of lanes without a skip of a beat and sometimes three lanes of traffic suddenly become five. You feel like you are going to get in a major accident almost every second of the ride and horns are used constantly. When we asked our driver how he does it, he said it takes a good pair of “white knuckles”.
Palermo Soho is a wonderful neighborhood full of hip, boutique hotels, restaurants, designer shops and bars. The streets are tree-lined and full of outdoor cafes and bars. It is a young, urban neighborhood that is so full of energy and excitement that it is impossible not to feel alive. You can find anything you want to eat, whether it be a traditional Argentine Parrilla (grill), café food, or any kind of multicultural food possible. It was the perfect place to unwind after a long day of sightseeing and enjoy an outrageously delightful dinner and bottle of Malbec at a good price.
Since it was our second time in Buenos Aires, we decided to do something different. I had heard a lot of talk about neighboring Uruguay, the second smallest country in South America that has its own unique culture and is a rather unknown hidden treasure to most tourists. Argentina and Uruguay are divided by the brackish Rio de la Plata, and daily ferries, buses and flights are available between Buenos Aires and the three main Uruguayan tourist destinations: Colonia del Sacramento, Montevideo and Punte del Este. We decided to take the morning speed ferry to the tiny gem of Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The ride was short but sweet, lasting only forty-five minutes from port to port. The only downside of the trip was that we had to go through customs on each side. But other than that, it was a pretty easy way to visit another country in only a day. Being so close, you would think that Uruguay and Argentina would be exactly the same but there were not. Despite a shared language, a land of gauchos, and a love of football, Argentina and Uruguay are quite different. Although I only had a few hours there to explore, I found Uruguay to be a very intimate, peaceful, easy-going place. There was almost something lackadaisical about it, and it felt like it was set back in time. Here are some of my favorite pictures from my short stay:

Beautiful tree-lined cobblestone street:

For some reason, I just couldn’t get enough of all the old cars. Especially the broken down ones that probably have been here forever.

View down cobblestone street of the river separating Buenos Aires and Colonia:

Pastel painted buildings and colonial architecture:

Plenty of beautiful outdoor cafes. Yes the Uruguanian wine is delicious too.

Another picture of café life. Quiet, relaxing and excellent ambiance. Felt like you were in a long-forgotten world from the past. Very removed from the rapid pace of Buenos Aires. Quite a lovely place.

Argentina TRAVEL BY REGION Uruguay