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Mmm Sweet Calafate Jam

April 30, 2009

It’s good stuff, that jam. El Calafate, the City, is named after the Calafate bush, which is prickly, thorny, and darn right annoying when you’re trying to hike through it. However, this annoying bush has one saving quality, the berries. During the spring and summer months, the Calafate bush is covered in ripe purple berries, which are heavily consumed by the local wildlife and tourists alike. Everywhere in Patagonia you will find Calafate Jam, Calafate Syrop, and Calafate Liquor. Of course, there is also Calafate Ice Cream, Calafate flavored chocolate, and pretty much anything else you could manage to put berries into. We first bought some of the Jam back in Puerto Natales, and are hooked on the stuff. Maybe we will manage to bring some home with us for you to try out (unlikely).

Anyhow, back to El Calafate. The city itself is relatively unremarkable. It is located beside Lago Argentina, a huge glacially fed lake in Patagonia. The city bases probably 99% of its industry around Tourism. From El Calafate, you can get bus or boat tours to Glaciar Perito Moreno or Glaciar Upsala, trips to El Chalten (Monte Fitz Roy) or the many Estancias in the area, pay for a guide to take you ice trekking up on the glaciers, or any one of another ten dozen touristy things that people do in mountains with many glaciers and lakes. Tourists flock to this place by the hundreds of thousands every year to see Perito Moreno (probably the most accessible BIG glacier on earth). Thus, this place is a heck of a lot like Banff, where everything comes at a price.

We arrived here, like most others, to see two things – Perito Moreno, and El Chalten. Perito Moreno, as we mentioned already, is a massive glacier, something too big to try to describe, I think. Photos may give you an idea, but the only way to truly appreciate something like it is to see it in person. El Chalten, technically speaking, is just a tiny town in the middle of the mountains, but it really is the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, where we planned to hike to see Monte Fitz Roy (formerly named Chalten). Parque Nacional Los Glaciers is a large park in Southern Argentina that is literally filled with glaciers, 356, to be precise, including Perito Moreno and Upsala (the largest) in the South. Anyhow, the point is to get to anything interesting you have to stop in El Calafate.

Getting to Perito Moreno

Perito Moreno, being the big draw it is, comes with a heavy price tag. To get to the glacier from El Calafate, you need to travel some 80km by bus or car or thumb. The cost of a bus to the glacier is roughly 80 pesos (28 USD) per person. The cost of a car for a day, with just enough kilometers to get to the glacier and back, was around 200-260 pesos per day. Then you have the park entrance fee, which is not included in the bus fee, another 60 pesos per person. It adds up fast – to take a bus into the park we were looking at 240 pesos total. To rent a car, 200. However, many an Israeli had already told us the secret to getting to Perito Moreno for the least money – rent the car for 200 pesos with as many people as possible, then drive into the park prior to the 8 AM arrival of the Guardaparque (wardens), at which time the admission starts being charged.

This in mind, we decided to find somebody else to go in on a car with us. After we arrived in El Calafate, retrieving our bags from the back of the bus, we noticed another person getting a bag with a tripod attached to it. We carefully eyed up this man,  mid to late 30’s, perhaps another Canadian, maybe an American, to see if he seemed like someone who might be interested in renting the car with us. If he was interested, it would probably be the ideal situation, being that we were all photographers, we would want to spend more time at the glacier and do things slower than most other people who would be going there.

Gerad approached him, complementing him on his wise choice of camera gear, and sparking a conversation about the prospect of a car together. It turned out that the man, who turned out to be an American named Drew, was interested in the car. We sat at a local café and had some food, then proceeded to find and secure a rental car for the next day’s activities. Shortly after, we found a pleasant campground, Camping de la Ovejero, and pitched our tents for the night. The two of us ran to the grocery store and picked up steaks, which we had been longing for ever since Ushuaia, as well as some bread, onion, and other ingredients that Gerad mentioned in a prior blog post. We found some left-over charcoal and a barbeque setup, and for the first time (on our own), grilled meat the way the Argentines do, which was delightful.

The next morning we awoke early to our alarm clock. Since we planned on being in the park prior to both sunrise and the guard’s arrival, we set our alarm for 5:15AM. It seemed like a half decent morning from what we could see of the sky, half clear half overcast. We hastily packed our tent and boiled water for coffee, waiting for Drew to emerge from his tent, which was only a few meters away. Eventually, Gerad hollered at him and shook his tent, and after a few minutes he emerged, apologizing and explaining that his watch alarm hadn’t gone off (peculiar that we heard it going off earlier).

To the Glacier

Leaving later than planned, we sped out of El Calafate, Drew at the wheel, Gerad acting as co-pilot, pointing out speed bumps and other road hazards. Drew explained (using both hands) that back in Arizona he works as a US Border Guard, and drives on back-country roads all the time, so we have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, this was little comfort to Laura, who spent most of the trip envisioning the many ways we would perish if Drew made a wrong move at the wheel.

We managed to get to the park gates before the guards arrived (we are pretty sure we passed their truck on the way to the park), and to the glacier as sunrise should have been occurring. Unfortunately, the closer we got to Perito Moreno, the only sun we got was in liquid form – rain. Being early in the morning next to a gargantuan ice field, being rained upon, it was very cold. All three of us tried to muster the courage and strength to make our cameras work in the cold rain, but it became difficult and even painful to do. Defeated, we all looked at each other’s solemn faces and agreed to head back to El Calafate, where we planned to take a later bus to El Chalten together.

Back in Calafate, we heard from a local that the weather forecast for the next few days wasn’t exactly pleasant. In fact in El Chalten it was supposed to be solid rain, wind, and a bit of snow…and we were to be trekking and camping. Both of us were entirely unimpressed with the idea of hiking and camping in the said weather; however, decided to continue as planned anyways.

El Chalten
The bus to El Chalten was spent mostly sleeping and silently hoping the forecast would be incorrect; however, as the bus pulled into El Chalten the predicted rain greeted us  full force.

El Chalten is stated as the gateway to Fitz Roy, and this is very true. If you walk down the main avenue, you will shortly find yourself on the trail to the park. In fact the entire town was constructed specifically for tourism only about twenty five years ago, and since it is specifically for tourists (climbers, trekkers, outdoor enthusiasts etc..) you can imagine it is very small. Quite a nice town in the sunshine, but with the weather being rainy and gloomy, it did was not much to meet the eye. Most of the tourists that come to El Chalten come for one reason, to view or climb Cerro Torre or Cerro Fitz Roy,  using the town merely as a bus stop not a place to spend much time.
After hiding from the rain in a café for about an hour, we faced the fact the first couple days in the park may be spent very wet and cold. We headed on our way up the trail, quickly reaching the first campsite. The weather began to lighten and we figured we still had a couple of hours of light, so we decided to continue to the next campsite only about an hour away.

Unfortunately, the light did not stay as long as we had predicted and soon we were not only finding ourselves back in the rain, but also in the dark. Out came our headlamps as we trekked across a swamped terrain.

Wet, Tired and Lost
We came to a trail junction with a sign indicating our intended campsite was only 15 minutes ahead, so we continued hopping across a few logs, over a few rivers, through some soaked bushes, and across some sand dunes. What most likely took us about 15 minutes felt like an hour. Yet again we came to a sign, but it did not state where the camp was. By this point we were both annoyed that we hadn’t found the camp and it looked as though the trail was ducking back into the woods. Neither of us inclined to search much longer we walked about 20 more meters before deciding to pull out our map, which seemed to indicate we had already passed the camp. Not wanting to be stuck on a trail deeper in the forest we started to walk back to find the camp we had likely passed. A small trail we had missed came in view, so we followed it into the woods with high hopes. Soaking wet, cold and miserable, we quickly found this trail to be a simple animal trail leading not to a campsite, but just the woods. Sick of being wet, cold and not having a place to dry off and warm up, we decided to stop here and set up tent…campsite or no campsite this is where we were to spend our evening.

Finding the driest place on the swampy forest floor, we quickly set about getting gear from our bags to set up. Both of us fumbled with frozen fingers, wet equipment and darkness; however, we managed to set up and get settled into our dry tent fairly quickly.

The following morning we woke up with rain dripping on the tent; Laura got up first to check out the scene. At this point there was not a lot to see. The valley we sat in was smothered in cloud and rain, so after finding water it was back to the tent to spend the day resting. Gerad was sick after catching a chill the night before, so we decided it best not to try and move camp or do anything.

Late in the afternoon the weather had cleared enough to wander around a little bit. Walking about another 100 meters from where we turned around the previous night we found the campsite and a familiar tent. Walking a bit further past the camp we were able to see our first glimpse of Mt. Poincenot (a tall mountain beside Mt. Fitz Roy), and found Drew taking pictures in the valley. We would continue to have short meet ups with Drew throughout our stay in the park, but none of which were longer then a “hey, how’s it going?”.

With a better knowledge of the trails, we again reviewed the map discovering it was not very accurate…in fact it out right sucked. It had trails marked where there were no trails, and did not have trails that were clearly main routes within the park.

Clouds, Clouds and more Clouds

The following day we woke up early (before sunrise), trying to make it to a view point before the sun came up. Unfortunately, the trail we took was a steep incline up to a viewpoint about an hour away from our camp, so we missed the sunrise light on the mountains. The trail gradually became icy, and a light snow began to fall on us, although the sun was still shining. When we arrived at the top of the trail, Fitz Roy and the majority of the other peaks in the area played shy and hid behind a thick veil of clouds, but Poincenot stood in view. Fitz Roy isn’t actually the mountain’s original name, it was originally named Chalten which means “smoking mountain” in the native language. Due to the clouds that constantly surround the peak the natives believed Chalten to be a volcano.

The ground was snowy and the air cold, but the views we could see were beautiful. We surmised that the difference in temperature between the air and the many glaciers in the area created a thick cloud around the peaks. Although the sun was still shining, it was no match for the cold breeze that has a way of penetrating any layers you can put on. Although we were cold and slightly disappointed we could not see the famous peak, we both were still able to get a few decent shots before deciding to head back down to the valley.

After lunching, we headed out to explore the valley which was dusted with the sweet colours of autumn. We were situated in a large valley that extended as far as the eye could see down the side of the Andes. The autumn colours were magnificent and stretched up and beyond where glaciers reached their fingers down towards the valley below. It was strange and beautiful to see the contrast between the icy blue of the glacier and the warm yellows, reds, and oranges of autumn meeting so elegantly on the mountain side. Of course we spent some time here photographing until the warm glow of the sun was no longer visible and we were happy to retire to our campsite. We decided we liked our little spot in the woods and did not make any effort to move over to the now crowded campground.

Waking up a little later than the day before, we decided to hike over to the other valley in the park where the famous “Cerro Torre” makes it home. We were thinking of moving our camp over to that valley within the next couple of days, so we figured why not go check it out without our big bags first. We spent the day wandering along a flat trail next to beautiful lakes, and through gnarled old growth forests. At one point we dropped about 200 meters to the next valley, which was completely filled with burned skeleton trees. It was eery, but beautiful. The reds and oranges were not as vibrant here, but the yellow contrasted against the grey mountains made a nice picturesque landscape. Although the mountains that we came to see (The Cerro Torre group) were also shy and hid behind clouds, what we could see was magnificent.

Strange Footprints

Continuing along the trail to scope out a future campsite, we noticed some animal tracks in the mud. They looked similar to a deer or huemul, but were much larger, so guessed perhaps guanaco, but they too would be too small for these prints. It sparked some discussion between us for a short time, before encountering two gauchos (Argentine cowboys) guiding a pack of llamas down the trail. Question answered.

After hiking for about half an hour further, we stopped to take a few pictures and fill up our water bladders. We knew approximately how far it was to the next campsite, and not wanting to be stuck in the dark again, we turned around to start back towards our camp. For the final time we met up with our American “friend” Drew. Shortly exchanging plans and stories from the previous day. He stated that he had seen Fitz Roy earlier that day, which was disappointing to us as it was our main objective in the park. We were unable to see it when we returned to camp.

Before packing it in for the night, we headed along the trail down the valley a little ways to get a better view for sunset. Sure enough the clouds began getting dusted pink and the mountains got a warm glow on them. We both were able to get some nice shots of the valley here and there are not many things I’ve seen more beautiful then an Autumny sunset in Patagonia.

Sleeping in slightly past our alarm, Laura was the first out of the tent the next morning. Her sleepy eyes were brightened quickly with the view of clear blue skies not blocked by a single cloud. She ran out to the valley to look back towards Fitz Roy and sure enough there it stood tall and proud with no distractions surrounding it. The dominance of the mountain was something pictures cannot depict in the slightest. It is slightly humbling to be beneath a mountain towering more than two and half km above the place you stand.

Extremely excited she ran back to the tent to grab her camera and day bag. We both grabbed our cameras and headed to some ponds we found the day before. This morning they were icy from the cool night before and reflected the autumn, blue sky, and magnificent Fitz Roy splendidly. More than once we paused to admire the incredible view in front of us.

After getting our fill of photos from the valley, we headed back to our tent to grab some food. Deciding to make rice up at the viewpoint we had been to two days previous. The goal now was to get up to that viewpoint and take advantage of Fitz Roy showing its face. We made it up the hill a little easier the second time around and were rewarded with a front row seat to one of the most magnificent mountains in the world. We spent the rest of the day up here shooting various types of shots and playing around.

We headed down to our campsite before the sun went down, and decided the following day if it was nice we would head over to the other camp in the opposing valley.

Two Seasons in the Park

Waking up not hearing rain on the tent was nice, and we were happy to not have to pack up in the wet; however, when we got up we found that clouds had rolled in overnight and instead of raining on us…it had snowed. The entire valley had a nice white blanket upon it. We packed up and started out.It was quite beautiful but quite cold; the sun came out and fought its way through the clouds. Now we got to see the valley in Fall and Winter conditions. It was gorgeous in both. We decided we were happy with our time in the park, so concluded today would be a good day to hike out.

There were several places along the trail that allowed views into beautiful valleys, and we stopped along the trail to shoot some lifestyle shots, but not very long as Laura was stressed to make it out in time to catch the bus back to El Calafate. Not knowing exactly when the bus was to leave the last bit of the hike was a bit rushed…rushed for nothing. We got to El Chalten in time to wait three hours for our bus. Next time Laura won’t worry so much (hopefully). We headed to our little cafe that gave us refuge almost a week before, but it was now siesta time and it was closed. Wandering just a little further along the road we found a resto bar that was open. Sitting by the window we ordered two cokes and a pizza. By the time the pizza came it was time to order two more cokes, shortly there after Laura spotted our waiter running across the street from behind the resto bar to the kiosko. Returning with two cokes…our two cokes. It was too funny. He ended up doing two more runs while we were sitting there. Guess they hadn’t got their shipment yet.

We caught our bus back to El Calafate, where we stayed at the same campsite. Working on the steaks written about in a previous blog, working on pictures, and making new friends. But this is where I will end this blog post. I will continue writing so we can get you completely caught up to us on our adventure. For now there are no pictures (Gerad is using the hard drive that has them…) but hopefully tomorrow we’ll get more pics up from Fitz Roy to share with you. And hopefully within the next few days the completely up to the minute report will be completed. *smiles* For now I hope you are all keeping yourselves healthy and happy!


One Comment leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    May 2, 2009 10:04 pm

    I love all the new pictures that you both have posted. What an incredible adventure and I love all the topics that you share with us. The only thing we can’t share right now is the hugs. Love you Mom (Joanne)

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