Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Patagonia (with apologies to Bruce Chatwin)

I'm typing this in Puerto Natales, Chile, where the great unexpected benefit of South American travelling continues: free wi-fi at every hostel! Saves a fortune in internet cafe fees, let me tell you, especially since (as I've discovered) it takes hours upon hours to upload a few hundred pictures. (And I'm not even finished those yet ... can't figure out what the problem is, but some pictures stubbornly refuse to upload.)

So this netbook may pay for itself by the end of the trip at the rate I'm going. Or at least that's what I'm going to tell myself.

And all my security worries before deciding to bring it along were probably for nothing -- the majority of other travellers I've encountered also seem to have a laptop or netbook along, usually nicer than mine. So the odds of mine getting stolen in a hostel are pretty small. I still sleep with it, though, just because I love it.

Anyway ... in Patagonia. I borrow the title from Bruce Chatwin's iconic book, which I'm currently reading. To hear him tell it, Patagonia (southern Chile and Argentina) is a wild and windswept land full of oddball characters, mostly on the run from the law, or just too pig-headed and independent to ever live anywhere else.

Wild and windswept I can attest to. I don`t think the wind has stopped blowing since I set foot here, and as for `wild`, I think that Patagonia -- particularly the Argentine part -- is South America`s answer to the American Wild West, all barren, craggy mountains and dusty plains, an endless expanse of land broken only by an occasional gate for an unseen and faraway estancia (ranch). And the big, big sky that has been full of light since I left Ushuaia, with nary a drop of rain.

Ushuaia itself was a nice enough little town, but I wouldn`t rush out of my way to get there unless you`re on the way to Antarctica. The days I spent there were cold, damp and rainy until late on my final afternoon, when the clouds finally rolled away and I saw for the first time the snow-capped peaks that surround the town and the harbour. So it`s a pretty place, when the sun`s out ... just don`t expect to be able to tell through the fog and the rain.

I flew from Ushuaia to El Calafate, Argentina next -- opting not to spend two full days on the bus just yet, although I`m sure I`ll be doing that later in this trip -- and have now added El Calafate to the list of places I could live. For anyone who hasn`t been keeping track, the list is currently this:

1. New Zealand: anywhere. Gorgeous country, environmental light-years ahead of North America, friendly people, adorable Kiwi men. What more could you need ?

2. Norway: also anywhere. Well, maybe not the far northern bits where the sun doesn`t shine at all in the winter, but otherwise good. Like NZ, way ahead of us lazy North Americans on the green front.

(those are my top two, in that order. the rest that follow are in no particular order)

3. Key West, Florida
4. San Cristobal, Mexico
5. Port Douglas, Australia
6. Marrakesh, Morocco
7. Barcelona, Spain
8. Havana, Cuba
9. Roatan, Honduras
10. Newfoundland

What did I like so much about El Calafate? Well, this part of Patagonia is spectacularly beautiful - vast expanses of arid land with not a tree in sight, jagged mountains, a turquoise lake fed by glacier water and that big, big sky. My hostel (called I Keu Ken) had some of the best vibes of any hostel I've been in (it didn’t hurt that the charming Federico with the dreadlocks at the front desk welcomed me with a hug and kiss on both cheeks) ... and it’s set up on a hill so it looks out over the whole town, and the lake, and the mountains, and the big sky. There's a couch parked right in front of their big common room window that looks out over it all -- perfect spot to sit and type or read, or chat and drink a cheap Argentine beer.

It’s laidback, friendly and cool, and there’s a clean, crisp wind blowing dust through the unpaved streets, adding to the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. I also really liked the kind of backpackers that seemed to go there. None of the attempts to one-up each other with the most exotic place they’ve travelled, the most remote destination they’ve reached, the longest they’ve been on the road, or any of the other backpacker snobbery that you can sometimes encounter. (If I do run into that again, though, I’ll play my Antarctica card and win the travel stakes -- that`ll shut them all up.)

I went there primarily to see the Perito Merino glacier, which is in the Parque Nacionale Los Glaciares about 80 km outside of town. (Not to be confused with the Parque Nacional Perito Merino, or the town of Perito Merino, both of which are further north. I must find out who this Perito Merino guy was, and what he did to deserve all these namesakes.) There are many rivers of ice running down from the Patagonian Icefield, which is the 3rd largest expanse of ice in the world, after, of course, Antarctica and Greenland. But Perito Merino is by far the star.

Carol at the Perito Moreno Glacier, El Calafate
It’s unbelievably vast – something like 250 square kilometres , which is greater than the size of Buenos Aires city – and it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that isn’t retreating. Global warming hasn’t yet seemed to take a toll, as the glacier has been stable since 1920.

And it seems almost alive when you strap on crampons (as I did) and go for a trek atop that river of ice. It isn’t a smooth, flat surface of ice – it’s sharp-toothed and splintered in places, and in others, undulating swells of ice. Imagine a vast surging river, frozen for a moment in time; that’s how the glacier seemed, as if it could decide to ‘wake up’ at any moment and continue on its way. It does move, of course, just not quickly enough to be perceptible to the casual observer; the ice travels down from 3,000 metres above sea level, high in the Andes, down to the lakes near El Calafate, where chunks break off with a thunderous clap to form new icebergs. Unlike Antarctica, the icebergs don’t last long; it’s rarely below zero here, even in winter.

I took an extra day, after visiting the glacier, just to hang out in town and enjoy it. It isn’t often I find somewhere new to add to my “where I might like to live” list, so I had to soak it up while I had the chance. And I discovered something interesting while I did; you may know that my dating life has been almost non-existent in the past few years (aside from Work Guy, who shall remain nameless), and that’s mostly because I’ve had no interest. Well, I discovered in El Calafate that my interest in the opposite sex appears to be back, with a vengeance; for the first time in a long time, I looked at someone and found him quite delicious. This was the afore-mentioned Federico: age, almost definitely younger than me; hair, sun-bleached dreadlocks; eyes, turquoise-blue like the glacier lake; style, bohemian hippie/poet. And he played guitar, and sang. And spoke a delightful English in an Argentine accent (I don’t have to tell you that Spanish accents can be very sexy.)

I’m not saying I did anything about it (hey, my parents could be reading this). But I was very pleased to note yet another part of my non-work personality is coming back to life! (What’s that, you say? You thought I had a thing for guys in suits with banker haircuts? Think again, my friend. Give me a guitar-playing hippie poet any day.)

I moved on to Puerto Natales today, as I am catching the ferry from here on Monday, to travel up the Chilean coast through what are promised to be spectacular fjords. I had debated about taking next week’s instead, as the low season starts in April and prices drop by 30-40%, but I discovered that there are benefits to booking at the last-minute as the ferry company offers steep discounts to fill the remaining beds. So I set sail on Tuesday (after boarding the night before), and arrive in Puerto Montt, Chile on Friday. From there, I’m heading to Bariloche, Argentina, where I want to stop for at least a couple of weeks and study Spanish; their language school is supposed to be very good, and the town itself very beautiful and lots of fun.

So I’ll probably talk to you again after I get off the ferry. Have fun in the meantime, and don’t forget to keep in touch!

Oh ... and if you’re ever in El Calafate, give Federico a hug for me.

1 comment:

  1. Wow … love the sound of it all … you make me want to go see El Calafate for sure …