¡Hola a todos!
After the awe-inspiring trip to the Perito Moreno glacier, there seemed little of interest in El Calafate, so I caught a four-hour bus north around Lago Argentino, on up to El Chalten. The bus departed late in the afternoon: as per usual, I had dragged forth some rickety Spanish, only to become embroiled in an earnest discussion with the representative of the bus company, during which exchange I understood enough to expect some food aboard and a drop-off directly at my hostel once in El Chalten – I had not the heart to break off the chat at this point and so the following five minutes were largely wasted upon my struggling, and therefore wandering, concentration.
Three hours into said bus journey and with no sniff of even a cucumber sandwich, we pulled off the main road (little more in fact than loose dirt track complete with bone-jangling pot-holes every two meters). Darkness falling we came to rest outside the only light splashed upon the parched landscape, a hotel – 'La Leona' (The Puma) – placed literally in the middle of nowhere. Outside, in the front garden, stood a llama, tethered to a collapsing fence. Inside there was no sign of life beyond two silent staff stood sentinel behind the bar, atop of which stood the largest lemon pie I have ever clapped eyes on. Round-about were scattered empty chairs at empty tables, a grandfather clock ticking menacingly in the background. I grabbed a cheese and ham sandwich, consumed my bounty while peering idly at the pictures of what appeared to be the illustrious establishment's founders in various frontier-styled black and white photographs high-tailed it back to the relative comfort and security of the bus. As we pulled away from that sombre setting, my MP3 broke the stiffling silence with the opening bars of 'Hotel California' – overwhelmingly appropriate and more than slightly eerie.
I arrived in El Chalten at a little past ten, only to find that I was at the wrong end of town for reaching my hostel. Granted, El Chalten takes about ten minutes to walk briskly from end-to-end but, it was dark and freezing; my heart quailed, ever so slightly. Fortunately for me, my bus driver took pity at my plight and offered me a lift across town on his way to the bus depot: sometimes it's the simple gestures that speak volumes and I was very grateful.
El Chalten is Argentina's newest town, a mere year older than this humble blogger. Naturally, it is keen to attract inhabitants and so after a residency of five years, townsfolk are given the land they have settled upon – consequently, the place is a hotch-potch of swiftly constructed yet alarming buildings shooting up in the most random of patterns across the semi-arid town precinct. Nevertheless, the place has a certain charm to it and it seems that I arrived at the perfect time of year, with the trees a brilliant array of autumnal reds and golds and the temperature an easy day-time constant somewhere in the mid 20s Celsius and perfect for some energetic hiking in the surrounding hills. My first afternoon in the town was my highlight, as I took off upon a trail north of the town to a lookout point from which the highest local peak can be seen. Mount Fitzroy stands at just over 3,600m and on this particularly clear day appeared as a sugar-icing topped, craggy mass towering over a valley of blazing trees. The hour and a half hike to the lookout point was a wonderful tonic, including some steep climbs and beautiful views, firstly down upon El Chalten and later upon neighbouring valleys and their guardian rises, fencing them in. Stopping for breath and to gaze in wonder at the sight before me, I befriended a local Argentine family. A pleasant conversation of thirty minutes or so proceeded, entirely in Spanish – as I said above, sometimes it is the simple things and this particular cultural exchange was a super experience and a real confidence boost: the children were hilarious in their antics and earnest attempts at English (perhaps my reciprocal stabs at Spanish struck them in a similar manner?) and the father especially was a wonderfully warm character and very patient, which I always appreciate!
After waving a fond farewell to my new-found friends as they picked their way back down the hillside from the 'mirador' (look-out point), I broke out my specially prepared hiker's sandwich of baguette, sandwiching gruyere cheese, salami and cucumber (a casually doffed nod to my roots of course). Though only a simple concoction, sat there on a comfortable slab of rock, looking out over a gorgeous autumnal landscape that easily reformed itself in my mind's eye to become something approaching prehistoric in outlook, all overseen by a mountain's splendour, I seemed to indulge in a veritable feast, both gastronomic and visual. My meal at an end, I continued on down the gentle slope on into the valley below and marched on for twenty minutes, before reaching the final turning point back to town, via a lagoon fondly referenced by all I had spoken to before embarking upon my walk. As the light was beginning to dim, with shadows lengthening I reluctantly took this path for home. Just as the first doubts of my path were blossoming in my mind, I stumbled upon my sought aquatic scene, with no more than a humble wooden post to herald a sight that struck to my core. The silent, still waters, a brilliant azure, the trees pressing in from the surrounding banks blurring deep reds, topped with the misty greys and piercing whites of the towering peaks in the background. The scene was straight from a postcard and the peaceful tranquility that followed a rare and treasured experience: my photographs can never hope to do justice to the scene, nor begin to convey the emotions felt at the time. I tarried in this dream-like wonder-world for longer than I dared, before continuing homeward with a spring to my step and a clarity of mind that I am becoming so accustomed to on this trip, experiencing the phenomenal and the humble yet competingly brilliant sights that offer themselves up for a traveller's visual consumption.
The following day brought with it such contrast as I have not otherwise experienced upon this journey thus-far. Day broke with a slight, dreary drizzle and the early morning, though weak, light found me wandering up El Chalten's subdued high street to meet with some friends from Buenos Aires for a day-hike: from the town we took a taxi north to the head of a trail and walked from there along some delightful woodland paths, beside a roaring, foamy, rock-bed river. Some hours later, the crowding trees broke, briefly, to reveal a majestic glacier sweeping down from the mountainside on the opposite side of the river and, with it, a depressing view of a rapidly deteriorating weather system. Uncowed, we journeyed on, arriving at a junction in our trail I the early afternoon. Here we halted for a swift lunch and a conference in which we decided to press on to our intended goal; a glacial lake high in the foothills of Fitzroy, reached by an hour-long climb up near vertical paths for 2km. It was at the base of this climb that the heavens opened in earnest and the following forty minutes (we were quick) were absolutely punishing. Battered by stabbing rain, buffeted by relentless, powerful winds we climbed doggedly skyward over scree, gravel, rocks, bolders. Within minutes I was uttered drenched – after this point it was simply a case of continuing, mindlessly, oblivious to the physical discomfort, to the summit. From here we dragged our tired bodies forward to the look-out point over a lake that in normal circumstances I am sure would be breath-takingly beautiful. Not this day. Obscured by low-lying, rain-filled cloud the lake itself was barely visible, accompanied by a mere minimal sight of the mountains rising beyond the far shore. We took some hasty photos, ever-mindful of the punishing rain-water and began our slow, fatigued descent back to the trail below. Our descent clocked in at roughly forty-five minutes of sheer, mind-sapping discomfiture – I am convinced that I caught a fleeting view of at least one Dementor swooping above our sorry scene. Once returned to the head of our trail back to El Chalten, we were three hours from home and we had roughly the same period of time before darkness was due to fall but, of course, in gloomy light as the day stood even at that early point in the afternoon. This was the moment, the defining point at which certain reserves were called upon and, thankfully, were answered. The walk home was long, waterlogged, wretched but, I must confess to a certain delusional joy in relishing such hostile climes and succeeding in over-coming these potential pitfalls. My good friend Duncan was adamant from the earliest days of becoming acquainted with my intended trip that I should push beyond my 'comfort zone'; I am sure that he intended the term to hold a wider significance but, from this simple hike alone, I took a train to the end of the line, a couple of counties and many stops beyond my intended destination yet, I most certainly did not fall asleep. This was enjoying an unintended, grossly extended trip for the sake of travelling, regardless of time and personal comfort and, yes, enjoyable it certainly became. We arrived back in El Chalten soaked to the bone, boots, clothes, skin saturated, light failing and rain still falling, completely elated. The trip, on some superficial level, was worthy simply for this giddy, emotional feeling at our journey's end but, as I said, the duration of the trip held its own unique moments of perverse enjoyment as well.
Thoughtlessly, I had tackled the above water-based hike with books and Spanish papers still in my day-pack from previous days of study – needless to say, much of these materials are beyond repair; some remain damp a full two weeks later, or it feels that way at least... My paper-note money I spent much of the evening drying ingeniously upon the radiator in my hostel room. Every cloud has a silver lining that it is imperative to find; mercifully, I had taken my travel journel and some electrical equipment from my pack only the day before and both my camera and mobile survived the trip with barely a touch of frost, I mean of damp. Later that evening, my friends and I headed out into town for a night of good food, fine wine and pleasant company – a well-earned treat for we fool-hardy. half-drowned trekkers.
At the risk of ensuring that this entry becomes the most gargantuan, bloated offering of its kind thus-far, I have one more day worthy of mention from my time in El Chalten and with it reference to an emotion that I have remained wary of since first embarking upon this journey overseas nearly two months ago. On my final full day in the town, I headed out for another short day-hike, the day converting once more to its Jekyll mood and bringing forth mellow sunshine to dry the soggen scenery of yesterday. In a delightful hike, I walked a magical path through quiet woodland and tinkling streams to a lookout post a few miles from yet another glacier (yes, I was approaching my fill of these natural behemoths by this time). Once again I made some lovely acquaintances, this time a group of older travellers from Toulouse, France. They had barely any English and my schoolboy French is beyond recovery, thus we conversed in Spanish, exchanging the custom of taking photographs for our respective parties (purely so that you lovely people can rest assured that I remain alive and true to my word of having experienced these fantastic locations, I am certainly no narcissist). Throughout this final Chalten cruncher (I exaggerate, simply for affectionate alliteration) I was thinking of home and my family especially: this musing intensified on my return stretch, most likely because my meeting with the French group had included talk of my multiple previous holidays to their wonderful country with my even more wonderful family. It has often been the case during my trip that I have caught myself wishing that Mum, Dad, Beth, and occasionally other family and friends, could be with me to share such magical experiences. Every once in a while, this feeling is intensified in an ever-so-slightly unpleasant manner. The woodland came to resemble that encroaching upon The Wrekin, The Ercall, the Limekiln Woods. In other locations, such powerful similes are absent, possibly because such scenery is so far removed from that I have seen back home – if we boast of any glaciers, I have yet to hear. I must confess that while such yearnings – for yearnings they are – of home can be discomfitting, I also relish these feelings. They prove to me just how important my home, my family and friends, are to me. Constantly upon this trip, I am being justified in my view that a place is made absolutely special by its people and my interactions with these characters (although it is true that locations such as Iguazu and the Moreno glacier manage just fine without any such human advertizement). It seems only nature to me then that I should be reminded frequently of home, of parallel happy moments and memories, in particular of those with my family. It has been worth travelling thus-far for these feelings that remind me of just how much I have to be thankful for, to delight in, to truly appreciate in my life – and this trip is providing far more besides I must add. I am, as much as anything, a product of my environment. Everyone reading this blog, who has ever met me, has shaped me in some way, no matter how imperceptibly – this is especially the case concerning my wonderful family: I could not even begin to hope for a more loving, more understanding, more 'awesome' family and I owe them everything. I owe you, all of you – yes, even you – a thank you, in some cases a huge thank you. It is thanks to all of you that I am me, that I am here, enjoying such an awe-inspiring trip, filled with such amazing experiences. Sometimes I am sick, yearning for home but, I am rarely unhappy at this prospect; indeed, I count it a blessing.
¡Saludos a todos!
Lots and lots and lots of love,