Patagonia

May 13th 2010: Travel

When thinking of Patagonia I used to think of it as the end of the world, lots of ice, and overwhelmingly beauty. This kind of hype always sets the bar high and is pretty much asking for disappointment. Just think of the movies. Geek or not, I doubt there was a single person not feeling cheated by the “new” Star Wars trilogy. George Lucas basically just took your lunch money. And then there are those other cases when the hype turns out to be justified. Yosemite surprised like that. I mean how beautiful can that place really be? Going there on a snowy March morning was just breath taking, liking walking through a winter fairy tale.

When setting out for a trip to Patagonia with some close friends of mine, I was fearful of being let down again. And I was. And I was not. The nature was amazing, the towns not so much. Patagonia is not just the southern tip of Argentina and Chile, but a huge region covering a variety of terrain. Our journey took us first to Bariloche in the northern part of Patagonia, called the Lake District, and then to the south to the massive glaciers around El Calafate. Unfortunately, we did not have the chance to visit Tierra del Fuego, literally the end of the world. Even though we visited off-season, during the fall, I felt to my delight the hype around Bariloche and El Calafate was justified and that both lived up to expectations, though the experience was different than the knock-you-off-your-socks-love-at-first-sight one of Yosemite.

Bariloche

Located in the beautiful Lake District, Bariloche is a town that itself does not really impress. It’s pretty big – big enough for an airport of its own – but walking through it you feel like you are in an overbuilt ski town. The look is that of wooden winter sports stores, mostly focused on optimizing your skiing experience. Driving around the lake some more you further pass one ski lodge  after another. And indeed, in the winter, this town becomes one of the skiing hubs of the Argentinean Andes. However, once you look past the highly consumer and tourist oriented town, past the glossy spend-your-dollars-here posters, you quickly come to appreciate the nature surrounding the place. The Andes loom incredibly tall in the west, demanding an attention and a respect a Hummer can only dream of. The lake is clear. The nature varies from almost Colorado like prairie, or what I imagine that to look like, to the greens covering the roughness of the Alps.

We arrived on a beautiful fall day with a clear, cold wind blowing. Having lived in California for over five years, I had almost forgotten what real fall is like, apple season, crisp air, and all. Over the next couple of days we took a few excursions around the lake, rode horses with the locals in the back country, and took an Austrian lift I swear I used in the Alps in my childhood up a mountain for a beautiful all-around view. Enduring the cold was rewarded with an overly sweet hot chocolate served with extra sugar on the side in the rotating restaurant at the top. If I was to return I would love to stay longer, rent a car again, and explore more of the surrounding area. The Argentina travel guide lists many towns nearby as less commercial and worthy of exploration. Maybe even drive the famous Routa 40, just to soak up the views.

El Calafate

Located much further south, about four hours by plane from Buenos Aires, El Calafate is the starting point for anyone who wants to visit the glaciers. Unlike Bariloche, El Calafate is closer to what you would expect in areas of extreme cold and dryness. The land is baren and brown, without trees, the town is spread out, the houses simple. Everything reminds you that life is not easy here. It is a bit what I would expect the larger towns in Tibet to look like, if they were at sea level and on a plato. We spent the first day wandering around town, taking photos, eating pizza and drinking the excellent, locally brewed German style Koelsch beers. The next day we set out to explore the glaciers.

There are several glaciers that start their journey in the nearby Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest ice field in the world, and a number of them end in the lakes around El Calafate. We decided to visit, and to hike on, the Moreno Glacier, one of the few glaciers world wide currently not receding. The center section of the glacier moves on average six feet per day! Walking among the glacier, you are constantly surrounded by sounds of loud cracks and bangs as the ice continues to break. Ice pieces of varying sizes keep breaking off and crash into the water below. The initial feeling of “well, that just looks like in the pictures, what’s the big deal?” slowly gives way to an appreciation of the awesomeness of the massive size of the ice and the restless force pushing it on, further and further. In fact I have no words other than “pure awesomeness” to describe the glacier. It took a while for it to sink in, for my mind to wrap itself around what I was looking at, but then it was just overwhelming.

As part of the tour of the glacier, which is protected as part of an Argentinean National Park, we were able to spend a couple of hours ice hiking on the southern side of it. Equipped with spiky ice clamp-ons we crawled like ants in a row on the ice sheet, looked into 100 feet deep holes and cracks, saw the traces of incredible forces at work, and generally exposed ourselves to enough ice to last a lifetime. The hike ended with Argentinean Alfajores, a sweet biscuit, whiskey over glacier ice, and burning hot Mate. Of all the places in Patagonia, the glaciers are the most advertised, the most stereotyped, the top must-see tourist attraction. But when you are in front of it, and later when you are on it, you forget all of that, you soak in the experience, and then you grab your camera and just go crazy at trying to capture that awesomeness somehow. Whatever else you do in Patagonia, make sure to visit the glaciers. While they are still there.

More photos from the trip can be found here: Photos from Patagonia

Posted in Travel by Ernst Bruening on May 13th, 2010 at 6:38 pm.

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