Journal 19 - February 13, 2003

Patagonia II: Lunch on a Glacier » Go Back

Journal 19
I last wrote from Esquel, Argentina almost three weeks ago. Since then I've been to Chile to visit marble caves on the shores of Lago General Carrera, back to Argentina to visit a breaking glacier and go ice hiking, returned to Chile for the amazing Torres del Paine trek, and now I'm back in Argentina to visit the end of the world, Tierra del Fuego. The last eighteen days have been a blur of busses, hostels, tours, more busses, border crossings and casas de cambio. From Esquel my friends and I bussed to Coyhaique, Chile, and from there to Puerto Tranquilo. After several days of travel we arrived in the small town with a cool name.

The drive to Tranquilo from Coyhaique was superb. The bus drove along Chile's famous Carretera Austral, a world renowned road with mind blowing natural beauty. Mostly dirt and gravel, the route winds dustily though some of Chilean Patagonia's most impressive scenery. The road snakes alongside crystal clear rivers, beautiful valleys, over fantastic mountain passes, and though tranquil pueblos. While enjoying the scenery and thinking about how to describe it in an email, I struggled to find words that would adequately describe what I saw. Beautiful can only be used so many times before it loses its affect. Tall rock spires jutted out of snow capped mountains, glacial and ice waterfalls flowed down from the Andean Patagonian plains, icy water flowed down rocks and over cliffs. Under cloudy skies the bus sputtered down the road towards Puerto Tranquilo. Amazingly enough, the grey skies couldn't diminish the bright blue colors of the rivers flowing full of glacial milk. In what appears to be an unnatural blue, the rivers wind through the valleys towards South America's second largest, but deepest lake, Lago General Carrera. The lake and its contributories represent one of the world's largest reserves of fresh water.

Even the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean turn silver-gray with the slightest hint of clouds, but for some reason the milky glacial waters of General Carrera and its contributories maintain an amazing blue green hue despite the often cloudy weather. The closest color I could think of to describe it is toothpaste-blue, as if Crest didn't invent the color, they just borrowed it from this lake. Even under the grey skies the lake glowed in teeth cleaning blueness. And when the sun actually came out, which it did several times during our three days in Tranquilo, it was spectacular.

The Catedrales de Mármol, or Cathedrals of Marble, are marble caves on the shore of the lake that are best seen from a boat. Since Tranquilo has no true tour agencies, it's up to the tourists to get together and hire a fisherman, farmer, ten-year-old, or anyone with a boat to take them out to the caves. We got lucky and departed on a sunny morning, the toothpaste lake shone in its cavity-free glory as we motored towards the caves. Formed by powerful wind and waves over thousands of years, the grey and white caves are carved in spectacular fashion. Some big enough for the boat to enter, so we slid in and marveled at the beauty, which was heightened by the emerald waters reflecting sunlight that danced on the cave walls. Touching the marble surfaces was fascinating too, as if we were visiting a thousand-year-old petting zoo. The surface isn't smooth like a marble counter, rather pocked like a golf-ball.

Our feeble attempt to hitch a ride out of Tranquilo later that day failed, so we waited another day for the bus and planned our trip south. In this remote part of Chile the busses only come every few days. From Tranquilo we bussed along the shores of General Carrera for hours, which eventually turned into Lago Buenos Aires as we crossed back into Argentina. Here we transferred to a bus that brought us from Chile Chico, Chile, to Caleta Olivia, Argentina, where we stopped for an hour, then caught another bus to Rio Gallegos, then yet another bus to Calafate, Argentina. Almost thirty hours of travel had us exhausted and looking for shelter from the blasting Patagonian winds. Unfortunately I ended up in a closet-sized dorm room with two Chilean women snoring up a blasting wind of their own.

El Calafate, Argentina is an improving town that is beginning to cash in on the tourist crop that continuously flows through to visit one of Argentina's top tourist destinations. About seventy kilometers outside of Calafate is the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. A day trip to the glacier and the viewing balconies is barely enough time to let you take in the magnificence of the slowly encroaching mass of ice. Up to sixty meters high at some points, the glacier creeps forward to a dramatic ninety degree cornice. Balconies situated along cliffs opposite the glacier allow you to sit, stare, and hope to get a glimpse of nature's power. After hours on the balconies and several explosive break-offs, we boarded a boat that took us along one side of the glacier. During the ride we were treated to a gigantic ice avalanche that caused massive swells to go crashing into the shores of the lake. As with the other avalanches we witnessed, the sound of the collapsing chunk of ice was like the explosion of a hundred rifles fired simultaneously. It looked like a twenty story building collapsing in a frozen mass. The Moreno Glacier is yet another wildly impressive bit of natural beauty here in Patagonia, and there is still so much to see.

Groundhog's day we caught a bus up to El Chalten, Argentina, for a two day trek. Chalten is home to Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Cerro Torre is known by mountain climbers as one of the most difficult mountains to climb in the world, and Fitz Roy is said to be the most famous mountain in the Patagonian Andes Range. Fitz Roy ranks among the most impressive sites of natural beauty I've ever seen. At 3375 meters, Fitz Roy forms the highest peak in the area. And at 3102meters, Cerro Torre has one of the most vertical rock walls of any granite needle in the world. Cerro Torre was hidden from view when we arrived, but we were treated to a great view of Fitz Roy as we began our two-day trek along the Fitz Roy River. Fitz Roy is a spectacularly tall and large granite tower that looms over the surrounding peaks in dominating fashion. Fitz Roy is so big and awe inspiring, that if placed next to it, Yosemite's El Capitan would look like El Corporal. For several hours we hiked along the river towards the Torre Glacier, all the while Fitz Roy sat intimidatingly next to us, yet half hidden by the clouds that swallowed its top shortly after we began our hike.

Six hours of hiking got us to camp and a warm meal. A cold and windy night had us in bed early in anticipation of the next day's adventure. Up early on the third, we ate breakfast, strapped on our harnesses and headed to the glacier for some ice hiking. Two hard hours had us at the glacier cold and soggy thanks to a light rain that had begun to fall. The guides helped us with the crampons as we prepared for our ice hike. The trick, which I observed early, is to trust the crampons. The guides obviously trusted theirs, which you could tell as they strode gracefully up and down the icy hills. Meanwhile the wary tourists familiarized themselves with their newly spiked feet like young deer leaning to walk. With trust came the ability to walk easily up and down the glacier, and the walking was beautiful. We saw ice rivers, waterfalls, deep crevasses and glacial streams that you could bend down and drink from. The blue ice of the glacier was as stubborn as the toothpaste water of General Carrera Lake, not even the rainy skies could hide the soft blue of the glacial ice. Although not as brilliant as it would have been on a sunny day, the icy canyons were a great experience.

After the hike we had to speed-walk our weary bodies back to town in pursuit of the bus and our ride back to El Calafate. A Dukes of Hazard-style bus chase that would have made even Rosco P. proud, had us back in Calafate in time for a warm empanada dinner and a good night's sleep. From there we began our journey back to Chile and the fantastic Torres del Paine.

I'll save the rest for another email as this one is approaching my usual novel-esque length.