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.