|Chalten's government functions fit|
in two rooms, 2 hrs/day, 2 days/week
From El Chalten we took a bus back to El Calafate. That’s a much bigger town on the southern end of the same park (Parque Nacional de Los Glacieres) as El Chalten. We had flown into the El Calafate airport but immediately left for El Chalten and hadn’t spent time there yet.
More on the town of El Calafate in a bit, but first, the main reason we stopped over was to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. We woke early on Day 7 and got picked up for the tour by a minibus, which converged with several others to transfer their passengers from the town’s many B&Bs onto a big bus with a guide. At the park entrance, even though we had already trekked the other end, we had to pay an entrance fee (which differed by nationality). As the glacier came into view, everyone ooh’d on command. From far away it just looked like the big block of ice in all the posters. It wasn’t until we got closer up (for an hour on the walkways and then a trek on the ice itself) that we realized how awesome the site was.
Most glaciers are shrinking these days, but Perito Moreno is one of the few stable ones. In the warmer months (this being the end of summer) the water melts slowly, and blocks of ice constantly fall off into the lake.
In the colder months the rain freezes and the glacier grows again, maintaining an overall stability (at least since it’s been studied in the early 20th century). Every decade or so, water pressure builds up on the face and causes a massive rupture — and such an event had occurred only a week before, so the guides were still buzzing with excitement.
|The chunk on the right shows where the glacier ended a week earlier, before the rupture|
We took a boat around to the south face and had lunch at a refugio there. Then we strapped crampons onto our shoes and started hiking across the ice. The crampons took a few moments to get used to, with every step feeling so solid, but it made the ice feel as stable as any trail. As we set out, we watched an apparently famous female Argentine athlete arrive in a dinghy with a crew and swim across the frigid lake.
One of my favorite parts of this whole trip was seeing all the geology on different scales. Not too long ago, much of today’s land masses were covered with ice, and we got to see up-close the micro phenomena that in aggregate produce massive events like glacial ruptures and rising sea levels. The ice forms crystals, which make the surface feel granular, and refracts the sunlight in such a way as to make the terrain appear blue. Streams of melted water flow across the ice causing crevasses and sinkholes. In a counter-intuitive way (compared to hiking on a frozen lake), the surface could be liquid but underneath it’s always solid ice. (Some trekkers go much farther to where snow covers the ice and the sinkholes alike; there falling through is a real danger, so ropes are used.)
The tour company (an authorized monopoly which charges accordingly) has two treks, a shorter one (~1.5hrs on the ice) and longer (4 hrs). We did the shorter one, mostly to rest in between the harder treks on solid ground, and didn’t feel like we missed anything. We didn’t care for the regimented schedule, though - now walk here, now eat lunch, now wait around - trekking on our own time was a lot more fun.
At the end of the ice trek, we reached a table and chest, where a bottle of Jameson was poured into tumblers, over ice picked right there with the guide’s ice-pick, and enjoyed it with alfajores.
A word if you’re doing the trek: The temperature fluctuated all day, probably accentuated by the sun reflecting off the ice, so wearing the right layers was tricky. Also don’t forget sunscreen! - we did, and got very burnt.
Back in town...
We stayed at the Hospedaje Lautaro, three blocks from the main road (with all the tourist shops, including an area modeled after Fisherman’s Wharf). Like a lot of B&B’s, Lautaro is family-owned and operated, with two adjacent houses and the owners (parents Dario and Belen and a little girl) living in part of one. Dario is a chef and they offer homemade dinners (kind of like a puerta cerrada restaurant), which we ate for three nights (on days 6, 7, and 15) because it was so good. They also offered laundry service, which we badly needed.
The weather in town was beautiful, so before dinner the first night we had ice cream outside (three variations on coffee, our favorite flavor) and did other errands. We reserved tickets for the glacier trek the next day. We looked for better camping cookware - all we had was a single pot which was meant for one person and made even pasta for two difficult, not to mention pancakes - but the one store that had a good set was too expensive. Then dinner by Dario — steak (huge, juicy, perfectly medium-rare), risotto with dried pine mushrooms hydrated with red wine (amazing), and salad (wonderful after our vegetable-deprived trail diet). The only shortcoming on the menu was the wine - no good Malbecs - so we had a bottle in our room before and after the meal. We ate with a German woman who had taken several months off of work to travel around South America.
Back in town after the glacier, exhausted, we had another amazing dinner by Dario (this time fettuccine with mushroom sauce), packed for the morning, and fell asleep.
Next stop: Chile!