Friday, January 31, 2014

Patagonia, Part 8: El Chalten, Argentina

El Chalten, Argentina. Trekking capital of Argentina. Home of Fitz Roy. Need I say more? This picture sums up why I needed to go here!

A 3 hour bus ride from El Calafate brought me here. One interesting thing is that the bus stops at the national park office and it is mandatory to get off and go in and listen to a talk-either in English or Spanish-about the park, safety, and keeping it clean. They pretty much figure if you came to El Chalten, you are going to be spending time outdoors. So we got our talk, suggestions about hikes, and trail maps. I felt ready! It was an absolutely gorgeous, perfect day: a fact that I appreciated even more after the next 2 days here! The bus took us the last few minutes into town. I checked into my hostel, and they recommended that I take a short hike to take advantage of the weather. I did as suggested and hiked up to a nearby overlook where you could see the town of El Chalten as well as the famous Fitz Roy and surrounding range. I also went to a nearby overlook the other way, at some pretty lakes. Did I mention it was a beautiful day??

The clouds were always doing crazy things.
 Back in town I got some groceries, tried out the local cerveceria, made dinner, and talked to fellow hostellers. The next morning I got up at my leisure. In Colorado, I've gotten accustomed to getting up really early when planning a long hike. This is because of the well-known 3pm thunderstorms. Things were a little more relaxed here: apparently it will rain whenever it darn well pleases, and I was so far south it was light until about 10:30 pm, so there really was no rush to get anywhere. It was kind of nice! I cooked breakfast, made some sandwiches, and headed out. It was reasonably sunny but really, really windy. Once I walked through town and started hiking, I was a little bit more sheltered, but I was still quite bundled up! Fitz Roy never made quite the appearance of the previous day, but was always peeking out of the clouds.

See how much colder I look than the previous day?
My first "destination" was Laguna Capri. From there I decided to head to camp Poincenot. I continued on past that camp for awhile to get a better view of a glacier and waterfall. At that point, I decided that I'd really had enough of the relentless wind, and decided to head back into town. It was a pretty easy hike overall, but I ended up going about 20 km (12 miles) round trip that day, so I was happy with that. I had heard that the next major stop, Laguna Los Tres, was up a really steep, intense trail, and I wasn't planning on anything that difficult.

Laguna Capri

You can drink right out of the streams here! Makes for a much lighter pack. =)

See what I mean about the clouds?

El Chalten from above

Look closely.
Once back in El Chalten, I (of course) had to find a place for an after-hike beverage! After a tasty beer in a place with a mind-blowing selection, I headed back to my hostel, cooked dinner (more pasta!), and conked out! The next day was, if possible, even windier. As in, I have never experienced wind this strong in my life-and that's saying something. I grew up in a pretty windy place. Unfortunately, I'd only reserved 2 nights in my hostel and they were booked for the night so I walked all through town asking places if they had any rooms, with no luck. Finally, I begged a hostel owner to let me use his wifi, which he did, and I booked a room back in El Calafate, and then raced to the bus station to get the bus out of town. I really enjoyed the little town of El Chalten: it had a lot of character (even if it was touristy) and was in one of the most beautiful settings I've been. But oh, the wind!!

Well you probably won't just magically find yourself in El Chalten on the way to somewhere else. You pretty much go there on purpose, and the purpose most likely is to hike. So that's what you should do when you get here. Hike. And if you want, camp too. In the park there are campsites but you have to stay at them, you can't just pitch your tent anywhere. Just beware that although my weather was not ideal, it was far better than for many others....rain, snow, and hail are normal here any time of the year! So be prepared to hike in crappy weather or hunker down somewhere!

Speaking of hunkering, there are a few great places to do so. The one I enjoyed the most just had the wooden sign "CERVECERIA" out front. The one with the million bottles of beer was actually advertised as a wine place. It's easy to walk the main streets and pop into any number of cute places for a meal or drink. I actually cooked almost all my meals at the hostel so didn't try any restaurants for food.

I stayed at a not-that-cute on the outside, but really pretty nice hostel here called La Comarca Hostel. I liked it.
PROS-it's small and doesn't accept groups, so you are likely to meet others in the kitchen and dining area. It's comfortable because you get to know the people staying there, and it's not that awkward sleeping in the same room with strangers thing you sometimes have (or maybe that's just me). The owner is really, really nice, and knowledgeable about local hikes. It's across the street from the bus station.
CONS-Not many. It's not much to look at on the outside, but who cares? There's no outside space, but it was never really nice enough for that anyway. It's on the outside of town but the town is so small that doesn't matter much. The kitchen is a bit small and crowded, and they don't serve breakfast, which is the norm in El Chalten--I didn't care, it gave me an excuse to cook eggs instead of eat yet more bread!

NOTE(S): El Chalten is a small town and places fill up FAST in peak season. Book ahead. Most places I went, I booked for 2 nights and booked additional nights as needed. I couldn't do that here. Also, bring cash, whether Argentinian pesos or US dollars. I got a better exchange rate in Bariloche, but several places were willing to accept/change US dollars here. There's one ATM at the bus station and the line is always really long-if it is working.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Patagonia Part 7: Perito Moreno Glacier

So if you find yourself in Calafate, the only thing to really do is see the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier. That is why people go there, prettymuch. There are tons of organized tours with all variety of activities, but I just bought a bus ticket and checked it out on my own.

It is an amazing, beautiful place. The glacier is moving forward at about 6 feet a day, and the coolest thing is watching and hearing big chunks "calve" off into the lake.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

You can see from the water that the glacier recently calved here 

I kept waiting all day for this piece to break off, but it didn't!

For some reason I love signs warning of danger.

You can see in the lake where all the glacier pieces collect. Sometimes they completely block the water
flow from the lake on the left to the lake on the right, and it's quite a show when the "dam" busrts!

When people asked what I wanted to do for the summer break (a popular topic of conversation amongst us traveling teachers) I said, "I want to see lakes and mountains and glaciers and beautiful places." Check!

Patagonia Part 6: Long Bus Rides and El Calafate

When we woke up the morning after the hike in El Bolson, it was raining pretty hard. I felt like I timed it just right, if it's going to rain all day I might as well be on a bus, right? I got a cab into town and hung out at the bus station/travel place. I was a little nervous, this was to be my first REALLY long haul ride: to leave at 11am and arrive at 1pm the following day. What would I DO for all that time? What if I sat next to someone who smelled bad or something? All I could do was download some new books on my kindle, buy a bottle of wine, charge all my devices, and hope for the best.

It was a long time. But it wasn't *that* bad. I did a lot of reading, sudoku puzzles, logic puzzles, sleeping, movie-watching, eating, and sleeping more. The bus class for pretty much all long-hauls is "cama" which means bed. The seats are big and do recline really far back, and have more than adequate leg room for my short self. But they don't go totally flat and it's not "like a real bed." It also depends on the bus line what amenities you'll get. Unfortunately, only one company goes from Bariloche to El Calafate so it's not like there is a choice. This is unfortunate, because this particular bus line does NOT serve alcohol, unlike the stories I've heard from other bus travelers who had an array of delicious choices to help their ride along. When it became apparent that I was not going to be offered anything after dinner except ultra-sweet coffee, I asked for a cup for my wine. The following is my exchange with the waiter-on-a-bus type guy (translated into English for your reading convenience): "A cup, please"
"A cup of what?"
"Just a cup."
"Water, tea, coffee?"
"Just a cup."
"For my wine." For the record, everywhere in South America is open container. Drinking in public, on a bus, in the streets walking around, or basically anywhere is just not a big deal. Which is why I wasn't secretive about my intentions. So I was really surprised by his response that it wasn't allowed. But I accepted it and went back to my book. About 20 minutes later, he came, accompanied by another attendant and a styrofoam cup. He handed it to me, said "solamente un pocito" (only a little bit) and he and the other guy watched me pour a cup of wine. I don't know was weird.

Anyway fast forward about 20 hours and I finally arrived in El Calafate. Getting off the bus, I realized how far south I'd actually gone because it was cold! After buying a bus ticket for the next morning, cabbing it to my hostel and unpacking, I set off to explore the town-and my first stop was to buy a winter hat and gloves! I set off to find a cerveceria I'd seen on the map (hmm, anyone noticing a theme?). I found it and loved it because I sat down and before they even came to take my order or bring a menu, they brought me peanuts and samples of their 3 microbrews! That was exciting. I ended up staying there for dinner as well.

El Calafate itself isn't really much of a destination, but it's very well traveled by tourists for one reason: Los Glaciares Parque Nacional. That was my destination for the next morning so I got my things packed and got to bed early so I'd be ready for it!

Go to the glacier (see my next post for more on that).

I stayed at a place called Marco Polo Inn (not to be confused with Hotel Marco Polo, by the way. I'll take this opportunity to mention that really, hostel/hotel reviews are pretty subjective because for ME, my experience at a place is based almost totally on who I meet while I'm there. And from one day to the next, you could have a completely different experience. That's kind of how this place was. The first day, everyone was gone (to the glacier no doubt) when I arrived, so I took a shower and wandered around town-no problem. The next night, all but one person in my dorm had left and a new group of 5 Australian guys were staying there. They were really nice, but taking showers and getting ready to go out, playing loud music until after midnight, then came back falling down drunk when I was eating breakfast at 7am the next day. Totally different experience. Anyway here's my review of the place.
PROS-decent location (but take a taxi from the bus station the first time, hard to find). Nice enough dorms and staff. OK kitchen, OK breakfast. Nice common area with a big dining area, TV, and pool table.
CONS-nothing was bad but nothing really stood out either. They were pretty disorganized though, both days the wrong beds were stripped down even when it was obvious someone was still there. It's annoying to have to remake your bed (and have someone else try to sleep in it) 2 nights in a row because they don't have it straight!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Patagonia, Part 5: El Bolson, Argentina: Beer and trekking

After the hustle and bustle of Bariloche (okay, it wasn't that bad), El Bolson was a welcome change. It is kind of a hippie town, lots smaller and more art-sy, but still with good beer. Adrianne and I were down with that. The first night there we stayed less than a mile apart, as we couldn't get into the same hostel. We walked into town--all the nice places to stay are outside of town--and hit up the local artisan market, including a street/busker show, ARTISAN BEER, and various neat things that I did not have room for in my suitcase. We missed the bus so decided to check out a cerveceria while we waited for the next bus. It was not so bad.

That night we had dinner at her hostel, which was yummy and fancy homemade pasta and the hostel's homebrew. Dang, do these South Americans love their carbs or what? But it was good to carbo-load, we had a hike the next day.

The next day: we teamed up with a lady from Wales, a guy from Australia, and a girl from London to do a hike called Cajon del Azul. You have to take a longish cab ride from town to the beginning of the trail. The first mile-plus is a really steep downhill 4-wheel drive road. Then you get to the pretty river, the first bar (I knew I was going to love this) and two Non Mother Approved super shady wooden bridges. I mean, SHADY. There were missing boards, boards that cracked when you stepped on them, long dropoffs below, and swaying. I'm not afraid of heights; I felt way safer crossing that rope bridge in Peru though.

Anyhoo, after that crossing we did a great hike. I liked it because unlike Colorado, there were ups and downs mixed up. And later on, safer bridges. And more opportunities to drink beer. And beautiful blue water. And fun new friends. What more could a girl ask for, really?

So after about 4 hours we made it to our destination, which was one of the refugios. These are half-lodge, half-restaurant. A lot of people stay in them overnight, but you can also just stop for a meal. We brought PBJs (duh, Americans) but we ate pizza and beer instead. Yum! 
After that we took a loop back to the trail that had some steep dropoffs to the river below where we could (kind of) see some guys diving around down there, and we did some scrambling over rocks to arrive at this GORGEOUS water. I mean, the pictures don't really do justice to just how clean and beautiful the water was here. 

Then we hiked back.
Then we had beer.

Then we paid a guy with a big vehicle to drive us home, including the last mile of steep steep road. I felt like a genius.

Patagonia Part 4: Bariloche, Argentina

I had my first bus mishap when I attempted to leave Pucon. I bought my ticket in this little store with the name of a bus company on it, so I foolishly assumed that bus company would be the company my bus ticket was for.

SOUTH AMERICAN ROOKIE MISTAKE: Assuming things will be a certain way, because that certain way makes sense.

Long story short, Pucon has about 10 different bus stations, and it's a small town. I went to the wrong one and missed the bus. Luckily, my destination (Osorno) was a popular one and buses left for it every couple of hours. I had to eat the ticket price, but luckily it all worked out. I took a roughly 4-hour ride to Osorno, which is where I had to go to connect to get to Bariloche. This time I made it, AND there were tickets available to Bariloche, too. Yippee! That ride went over the Andes, over the Chile-Argentina border, and was supposed to take 6 hours, but took about 7.5. Luckily it was really scenic.

Getting across the border was time-consuming, but not too much of a problem. When I finally arrived in Bariloche, the first thing I did was get in touch with my friend Adrianne from Paraguay. It was really nice to see someone I knew, and not go through the typical travel conversation: (what's your name, where are you from, where have you been, where are you going next, etc. etc.). Even though it was late, we met up in a bar Adrianne had found with great microbrews. Hurrah!

The next day we went kayaking in a beautiful lake. It is the Lake District, after all. The water was so pretty! It was a little windy so we had to work a little bit, but overall a really nice day. After all that work, we had to quench our thirst again-same place as the night before! Actually, we went there for happy hour, which was SO cheap. Then we wandered around town, then went back for dinner!

We decided to travel together for a few more days, so the next morning we took a short bus ride (a couple of hours) to the town of El Bolson, Argentina!
I came back through Bariloche again on my way back north, which is why I have more hotel/restaurant recommendations than make sense! But it rained pretty much the whole time and I think I read 2-3 books during those days, and pretty much did nothing else-so that will not warrant a separate blog entry!

Bariloche is all about the outdoor activities so if you are here, that is probably what you will be doing, weather permitting! There are tour operators all over the place and most hotels/hostels can help you set things up. I loved the kayaking and regret that I didn't have a chance to do any hiking here. The town itself is nice but super touristy and crowded, and I was honestly ready to leave after just a couple of days. I did love the restaurants here though! Manush is the brewery/restaurant we kept ending up at-highly recommended! I also went to Cervezeria Antares, which had great beer and another good happy hour. El Vegetariano was good vegetarian food (rare in the land of beef) and I also liked the Mexican fare at Dias de Zapata.

When we were there, the peso was basically in a free fall. Which really sucks for Argentina, but it meant our US dollars went really far. Argentina was CHEAP. Especially with the black market rate. So here's the thing you need to know about money in Argentina. If you change your money in a bank, use an ATM, or a credit card, you will get the "official" rate. When we were there that was about 7 Argentinian pesos to the US dollar. However, the "blue market" (I don't know why it's called that) or unofficial rate was 11-12 pesos to the dollar when we were there. This is obviously a HUGE difference. It's different in different cities but I changed all my money in Bariloche. Basically you walk along the main touristy street and people say "cambio cambio" which means "change." These are the guys you want. Ask what the rate is, if you like it you tell them how much you want to change and they give it to you. Some people are freaked out by this and afraid they will get fake pesos. I didn't have any problems.

The first time I was in Bariloche I stayed at Tangoinn Soho. Pros: close to the bus station (most of Bariloche is not really walking distance to the bus station), lots of activities going on, bar, pool tables, it would probably be easy to meet people here, nice staff, nice backyard area. Okay breakfast. Cons: for me it was just too big. Not personal feeling. The dorm was okay. Each dorm room has it's own bathroom/shower which has pros and cons.

Adrianne stayed at Green House Hostel. From what I saw it was super cute, small, more personal, and had a nice kitchen. The main drawback (which could also be a pro) is it's pretty far out of town so you have to take a bus or taxi every time you want to go to eat or anything.

The second time I was in Bariloche I stayed at the Universal Travelers Inn. I really liked it. It was smaller, the owner really cared about it and everyone's experience, and it was about 4 blocks from downtown. Breakfast: marginal. Never anything hot but some days there was fruit or cereal in addition to bread. It had good coffee!! I had a nice time here, which is good because I was rained in so much!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Patagonia Part 3: Pucon, Chile

My route to Pucon wasn't direct or even really intentional. I'd read about it when I stumbled upon a blog, while searching for different bus routes that would bring me south, into "official" Patagonia. And by "official," I mean a place that was actually in my Patagonia travel book. Anyway I read about Pucon and it sounded neat, but I wasn't planning on going there. From the bus station in Pichilemu, I got the bus to a tiny town called San Fernando. I was planning on buying a ticket there to a town called Osorno-because from there, I could get a bus to Bariloche, Argentina. Well in South America, you generally can't buy a ticket until you are physically in the town you need the ticket from. So...I arrived in San Fernando and went to every ticket office, and NO ONE had a ticket to Osorno. So I looked around at all the advertised places that the different bus companies offered and one did go to Pucon. So I bought a ticket. Then I got online (most bus tickets have internet cafes), cancelled my hostel reservation, and made a new reservation.

It is one of the best decisions (or best mistakes) of my trip.

But first things first. I had from 5pm to midnight to kill before my bus came. So I thought I'd explore the town. I set out from the bus station and it took about a minute to realize there isn't really much of a town to explore. AND it was Sunday so NOTHING was open. Back to the bus station. They had a little cafe so I had a couple beers (Malta, a new favorite), a chicken sandwich, watched 2 or 3 movies and a soccer game, and finally decided to leave and wait in the terminal. I immediately wished I'd stayed in the cafe. A Chilean guy sat next to me and started talking and I swear, the man was not speaking Spanish. I couldn't understand a word!!! And he wouldn't leave me alone, so I finally just went the one place he couldn't follow (hello ladies room!) until he left. Anyway the bus finally came at midnight, which was really weird because the station was almost deserted between 10:30 or so and then. I was so happy to see my bus and get my swanky "cama" seat, blanket, and microscopic pillow, and slept most of the 8 hour trip. I woke up, got off the bus, and saw this:

I knew I'd like it here.

In the following days I: went on a "tour of the area" where I saw waterfalls, the most beautiful lakes and lagoons, and went to a hot springs; went horseback riding; went to a nearby national park and went HIKING and swimming in a lake; and met some really great people. Yes, it's a touristy town. You walk up the main street and about 90% of businesses are tour operators. I just accept that it's a touristy place because it's a really nice place to go. It also made me realize, again, how much I really, really, really miss the mountains.

My favorite part of this trip was going to Parque Nacional Huerquehue. I loved the hiking, and you can also camp here, stay in a hostel, and swim. There are VERY limited supplies (as in one little grandma cooking in a little house, where the beer is kept cold in the stream next door) so bring snacks. Just ask at your hotel where the bus station is. Pucon has a bewildering amount of bus stations for such a small town and it did cause me to miss a bus. Also, anywhere you can be on any water is pretty much guaranteed to be beautiful. A lot of people climb the volcano and recommend it. I didn't climb it.

I liked the hostel I stayed at, Paradise Pucon. 4/5 hostel stars. (Hey, Linnea, why do you call them hostel stars? Me: good question. Because hostel stars are not the same as a 4 star hotel, for example).
Pros: Good social areas for meeting people, super friendly and helpful owners who help organize tours and activities, fire pit, little kitchen-does the job but gets crowded. I stayed in a private room my first night and it was actually not nearly as nice as the dorm room. I think the rooms in the "main" building are more updated so quality varies. Cons: paper-thin walls in the not main building. Kind of noisy. Best solution is to be one of the ones making the noise. Another bread breakfast.

Now, for 70 million pictures. Okay, 34. It was just so beautiful!

The aptly named Laguna Azul. Probably 20 feet deep or more, and you could see straight to the bottom.

The lake just outside of Pucon had every water activity you could imagine, and some
 I hadn't imagined! I wish I'd had a chance to try some out....

Ruby and her trusty horse!

Ruby and I, Pucon in the background, during our horseback ride.

Traditional drink of Chile: like an iced tea, with grains in the bottom and a peach on top.
So it works if you are thirsty or hungry!

Hiking buddy for the day: Yacine, from France!

Right after taking this picture, Yacine and I jumped off the dock and went for a refreshing swim!