Part II: El Chalten, El Calafate, Ushuaia
Esquel to El Chalten was always going to be a marathon bus journey! There were no other options and anyhow as a rule we always prefer to travel by land between places as it gives us great perspective.
We left Esquel bus station at about 11pm and had 22 hours ahead of us on this stretch of the Ruta 40, which alternates from sealed to unsealed road on numerous occasions. The times that you are on unsealed roads is the most difficult, because sleep is near impossible when you feel the complete contour of the dirt road beneath you!
We arrived at El Chalten around 9pm the following day despite having to overcome a broken drive shaft mid journey in the middle of nowhere. Luckily our driver was able to contact a local mechanic who conveniently met us in the middle of nowhere and replaced this important part with a new one! So the entire bus load, all 10 of us, spent about 1 hour watching the broken drive shaft being removed and the new replacement being inserted. We also got to walk around and explore the vast expanse of nothing, which was actually very captivating as there were some old dilapidated out buildings that looked as though they had been abandoned many years ago. Check out our pictures on our website!
El Chalten is a small town of about 1,000 people nestled in the mountains of the Santa Cruz Province. It is located in the Los Glaciares National Park at the base of the world famous Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy mountains. El Chalten is to a large degree undeveloped and the national park is amazingly still FREE to visit! We seriously doubt this will be the case in say 10 years time, but who knows!
El Chalten is well-visited by trekkers and climbers. The village was built in 1985 to help secure the disputed border with Chile. Today the sole reason for its existence is tourism. Chalten is a Tehuelche word meaning smoking mountain, as they believe it was a volcano because clouds cover its peak most of the time. The two mountains mentioned are simply breathtaking! We did two walks to both Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy and probably took in some of the most beautiful scenery one could ever imagine. Make sure you check out our pictures!
Cerro Torre peaks at 3,128m and is the highest in a four mountain chain. The other peaks are Torre Egger, Punta Herron, and Cerro Stanhardt. The top of the mountain often has a mushroom of rime ice, formed by the constant strong winds, increasing the difficulty of reaching the actual summit.
Fitz Roy peaks at 3,359m and it purported to be among the most technically challenging climbs on Earth. The logo for the clothing label “Patagonia” is based on Monte Fitz Roy following Yvon Chouinard's ascent and subsequent film in 1968.
El Chalten at this point in our travels is our number 1 place in South America. We had an amazing four days trekking and experience some of the most beautiful landscape in the world! The village is also very quaint and has some magnificent restaurants, especially our favourite La Cerveceria, Microbrewery and Resto (the food / beer is well worth the visit and they also have a collection of world currency on the walls in the form of notes / bills and there was a Jersey One Pound banknote in the collection – well chuffed!)
So on to El Calafate for the one of the world’s most spectacular glaciers!
El Calafate, located some 215km from El Chalten, is itself not much to rave about, but it is the gateway to one of the magnificent glaciers in the world – Glacier Perito Moreno! Most Patagonia postcards, blogs, websites etc. always have a picture of this gigantic growing glacier.
The 250 sq km (97 sq mi) ice formation (30km (19 mi) in length) is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field located in the Andes system shared with Chile. This ice field is the world's third largest reserve of fresh water.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing. The reason remains debated by glaciologists although we were told by the ice trekking guides the reason was due to the constant Antarctic winds coming in from the Pacific Ocean. Apparently this results in a constant amount of snow on the mountain range, which then feeds the glacier’s core. The Perito Moreno Glacier is 5km (3 miles) wide and it has an average height of some 80m (240 ft) above the water’s surface. It has a total ice depth of 170m (558 ft). The Perito Moreno Glacier is 250 sq km, which makes it bigger than the whole city of Buenos Aires as it is only 216 sq km! Wow!!!
Periodically the glacier advances over the L-shaped Lago Argentino forming a natural dam which separates the two halves of the lake when it reaches the opposite shore. With no escape route the water level on the Brazo Rico side of the lake rises by some 30m above the level of the main lake. The enormous pressure produced by the height of the dammed water finally breaks the ice barrier and a spectacular rupture occurs. The glacier first ruptured in 1917 taking with it an ancient forest of beech trees. The last rupture occurred this year in March 2 2012 (about 1 month before we arrived). Previous eruptions occurred in 2008, 2006, 2004, 1988, 1984, 1980, 1977, 1975, 1972, 1970, 1966, 1963, 1960, 1956, 1953, 1952, 1947, 1940, 1934 and 1917. It ruptures, on average, about every four to five years.
Deborah and I were lucky enough to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier on two occasions. The first day we just took photographs from the purpose built observatory area. The second day we decided to do ice trekking on the glacier so we booked the “big ice” trek for 4 hours. We had never walked on a glacier before and were a little apprehensive, but these were put to ease by the many recommendations and reassurances from other travelers. It was another extraordinarily amazing experience – with our crampons on we walked and walked, seeing blow holes, crevices, waterfalls, streams and everything naturally beautiful a glacier has to offer. Walking on this beautiful monster is really difficult to describe because the awe you are in takes you through some many different emotions that one finds hard to put in writing. Every time you stop walking you just look around and can’t believe what you are seeing! See our pictures and I am sure you will somewhat agree!
Peritio Moreno Glacier was definitely one of our most special experiences in South America to date!
Next stop Ushuaia – the end of the world…
We departed El Calafate at 3am (yes, AM is correct), arrived at Rio Gallegos at 7am and then had to wait until 9am for a 12 hour bus ride to Ushuaia.
Departing Rio Gallegos, we went into Chile and then 6 hours later out of Chile and back into Argentina. Quite interesting how this territory has been divided up. We were told that it came down to the Chileans arguing that the territory around and along the Magellan Straits was theirs first so they owned it. En route we had to cross the Magellan Straits by ferry. It was a smooth sailing, which was a stark contrast to the return trip!
For the record, this was the second time on our world trip that we had encountered the name of Mr Ferdinand Magellan, the first being in Philippines where he was responsible for colonizing the Asian country back in 1521 (also the country where he died in battle against the fearless warrior Lapu-Lapu).
Ushuaia is the capital city of Tierra del Fuego Provinceand is frequently described as the end of the world due to its location at the bottom of South America. It is commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world (a title long disputed by smaller Puerto Williams). Ushuaia is located in a wide bay on the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.
Anyway, we arrived in Ushuaia in the early evening and headed to our Couch Surfing host’s flat. Monica wasn’t home as she was working and then later she was hanging out with her friend, so she told us to first go to her flat as the other couch surfers who were staying at her place were there. We met up with Monica later on at her friend’s house for drinks and pizza.
After staying one night at Monica’s place we decided to move to the Freestyle hostel for the rest of our time in Ushuaia because we need camping gear at Monica’s as she had no bed or couch for us (we slept in Monica’s bed for the first night, but she was coming home the next night). Thanks anyway for the first night Monica. It was lovely meeting you and your friend! x
Staying at the Freestyle hostel, we met some old friends from our trip (Gregory Rousett from Paris and two Swiss guys (we actually dormed in the same room) who were on our bus from Esquel to El Chalten). When backpacking around the world it is funny how you keep bumping into the same people on well worn routes! Anyway it was great to see them again and catch up (we would later catch up with Gregory in Mendoza where he was living). We also made some new friends in Ushuaia – Garrick “the beard” Bugler, a great Aussie lad from Gosford who had the world’s best backpackers’ beard and was couch surfing at Monica’s place as well (he would later move into the Freestyle Hostel); we also meet Laure from near Nantes, Brittany, France, (I think it was Nantes / Rennes or close by somewhere) and Theresa from Scotland via Canada.
We missed out on the last boats to Antarctica so that will have to be another trip. We also decided against a boat trip to see the penguins because we were receiving conflicting reports as to whether there were many penguins at that time of the year – for the many things there are to do in Ushuaia, we unfortunately turned up about 1 month too late!
Anyway, we had a great 6 nights in Ushuaia hanging out with new friends, recharging the batteries and just being at the end of the world!
We did manage a few other things while in Ushuaia, like: climbing a very steep mountain to see a somewhat insignificant glacier; visiting for 4 hours the very interesting Ushuaia Museum which gives a comprehensive history of the region from a colonization (first was a penal colony – what a muy frio lugares to be sent!), maritime and marine life perspective; and finally one of the most significant events during our stay was the 30th anniversary of the Malvinas / Falklands war (President Cristina Kirchner was in attendance for official duties – debatable first impression of this woman!).
So from Ushuaia it was an early morning bus from the main street… destination Puerto Natales, Chile only some 12 hours away.