El Calafate and The Perito Moreno Glacier

Yes, that’s a boat… This place is ridiculously spectacular. (See all the pics here…)

The bus hurtled down the Patagonian road, barely slowing for an errant flock of llamas that had escaped their confines. Surprised by the rare vehicle, they took running jumps back over the fence, appearing guilty for having been caught outside their pens. Further along a few ostriches looked up as we passed, and then went back to pecking, unimpressed by our presence. The only other wild life observed was occasional foreign bicyclists, who’s ongoing battle against the wind was etched in every grimace of their grit-blasted faces. The landscape shared an aesthetic similarity with the southwestern United States; much of Patagonia can get very cold but it’s also arid land, sporadicly pockmarked with rocky outcrops, and dotted with small dusty shrubs. Increasingly, we’d pass a lake or river, usually flowing the opposite way and thus indicating that we were approaching the Southern mountains of the Andes range. As we neared the lake-side town of El Calafate (named after the berry, that once eaten, ensures your return to Patagonia), I looked at the two small mountains behind it and tried to scope out routes to climb them. Why do humans incessantly desire to ‘conquer’ things that are way bigger than ourselves?

After the quiet nothingness of Rio Gallegos it was refreshing to arrive in the bustling town of El Calafate. OK, perhaps it’s not bustling but it’s certainly more alive with people. Fleece-clad adventurers with sunglass-shaped tan lines packed the sidewalk cafes, enjoying afternoon cappuccinos and beers, sharing stories of the day’s excursions. Besides cafes and the staple bakeries, the main street’s offerings were adventure gear stores, sunglass shops, artesian confectioners, souvenir kiosks and travel agencies that offered to book you tours to the local sights. I had imagined something a little more rugged, but with neatly cut lawns and newly lacquered wooden detailing, the town center was the perfect picture of contrived charm, not unlike the typical ski resort town. January is the pinnacle of the high season, so I’d booked two days ahead just to find a bed – not something that I usually do while traveling, but advisable when a town is literally at capacity.

Soon after arriving at my hostel, Che Lagarto, I quickly began to feel like I had actually space/time warped into a mixture of Aspen and Haifa. Literally half of the backpackers at Che Lagarto, and perhaps in El Calafate overall, were Israeli. The only bed had been in a 12 person dorm, and all three beds in my corner were Israeli guys. When I entered the room I met my bunk mate, Yoni, who had noticed the same thing:

“I’m sick of being around so many Israeli’s, man. I’m changing hostels tomorrow, so I actually feel like I’m traveling!” It turns out that after their mandatory service in the military, many Israelis take off traveling, often in large groups. It didn’t really bother me. What DID bother me was the following morning after people had left the dorm, a man wearing a respirator mask entered and lightly sprayed down the beds with some sort of disinfecting agent from a canister attached to his back. He probably saw me giving him a confused look of disgust so he pulled down his mask and said:

“No worry – no poison!” Then why are you wearing a mask, buddy?

On my first day in town I went to find a little breakfast and catch up on some emails. In particular I wanted to find out how last night’s Mindshare event had gone in Los Angeles. While I had some coffee and medialunas (deliciously sweet, mini croissants) I found out that not only had it been a successfully sold out event, but many people said it was one of the best ever in terms of content. ‘Perhaps I should stay away more often?’ I smiled to myself. Ever since I was young, I found it impossibly fun to consider the shear amount of simultaneous human experiences happening at any one moment. Furthermore, I always got great pleasure out of looking at strangers and imagining how their life experiences had molded their mental states and social behaviors. Like fingerprints, surely no two human consciousnesses could be the same – how interesting! After breakfast these thoughts lingered in my head so I couldn’t help but have primed myself for dissatisfaction when I walked into the 3rd travel agency and realized that all the tours were the exact same “choose from 4 flavors”. So rather than pay USD$40 to be brought to a mountain with a good view, I decided to walk out of town and scale one of the mountains I’d scoped out on the way in.

On the way up the hill it soon became apparent that after you left its neatly manicured town center, El Calafate began to show a little more of an ‘under construction’ vibe. I actually enjoyed seeing this; I would choose rough authentism over a glossy facade any day and that goes for towns, as well as people. The buildings are colorful (often nauseatingly so), architecturally diverse and rather scattered around at odd angles. It was almost like someone threw a bunch of Lego bricks on a scaled architectural model and then said “That’s good enough, lets build it!”. As I began to climb higher I realized that what added to that effect was the lack of many decently high trees, apart from those clustered near the town center. There was certainly enough water here and it isn’t that high altitude, so I don’t know why there’s not many trees. Maybe the seasons are too harsh? It gets cold, but not THAT cold. The wind is certainly unparalleled, apart from maybe the Tibetan plateau, and blows so hard that plants are permanently shaped in the prevailing direction. Perhaps the rocky soil? It’s a mystery to me and alas, I’m not online while typing this so further research will have to wait.

I past a very chill cafe/bar called Melmac on top of a hill leading out of town where I met the beautiful owner, Maria and promised I’d be back. Further up the gravely road I found ‘I Keu Ken’, a tiny, yellow hostel with a green roof, a charming porch and a friendly staff – so I promptly reserved a room for the following night. Federico, the smiling, dread-locked Argentine at the front desk informed me of the best way to head up the mountain behind town. I thanked him and told him I was looking forward to escaping the town center and staying there.

“See you tomorrow – we’ll have Argentine BBQ!” He smiled and waved as I left.

Just towards the end of town I came across a mob of dogs that weren’t too happy with me walking by the shoddy, half-built houses that they were born to protect. Patagonia is full of mangy and often crippled street dogs. Heavy inbreeding, plus nothing to do means that these are some of the stupidest dogs I’ve seen; their war-injuries are do doubt from chasing cars, which seems to be the favorite past time of the Patagonian canines, that is, in addition to hassling passers by like myself. I grabbed a rock in one hand and picked up a white, slightly rusted metal pipe with the other and strode boldly past them and up the dirt road into the hills.

Some hours later I reached the ridge of the right hand mountain that I had seen when driving into town. It offered a fantastic view of El Calafate, Lago Argentina and the adjacent flamingo populated lagoons. I found a pile of desert hare bones, perhaps where a predatory fox had taken it’s mangled prey for a 5-star feast-with-a-view. Eventually, as the late afternoon winds threatened to hurl me off the precipice, I began the descent through a fertile wash which rainwater had patiently formed over the centuries. As I crossed barren fields that led back into town, I felt a great appreciation for the quiet solitude that I had manifested and some humor my mind discussed things with itself. Recently my main interest has been in trying to get to the root of the human condition. What makes us unhappy? What makes us happy, and how can a balanced contentedness be achieved? And indeed, if an avenue is found, how can that be shared with others? Can it be streamlined? Can it be quantified? Is it even possible to actually impact global contentedness, and inspire a more peaceful existence? I feel a burgeoning answer to this question bubbling in my mind but as of yet it’s hard to fully grasp. When my mind got tired, I cleared it by monitoring my breath and being acutely aware of bodily sensations. While my mind calmed, I felt the harsh wind on my cheeks, and noticed how it made my eyes water. I dug my hands deeper in my pockets and followed my feet as they crunched through the rocky field back to the town center.

That night I walked the entire town, looking for a peaceful place to write, and eventually found the perfect restaurant on a side street. It was quiet and possessed a certain rustic charm which, even if designed as such, was still pleasant. I sat on a sheepskin-lined chair, ordered a bottle of Malbec wine from the smiling waitress and took in the atmosphere. Old pictures and farm tools lined the walls and hung from wooden beams. The tablecloths were checked patterns and the flatware was imperfect and weighty. A young couple held hands a few tables away from me and as he whispered something to her, she giggled and took a sip of wine. I ordered some food and feeling inspired I took out my laptop to begin to write just as I noticed a dark haired, older women start setting up a PA system near the front of the room. I had only had half a glass of wine and had just ordered food when she began to sing loudly. The volume on the PA was cranked so high that my ears begged to have the breadsticks shoved in them. At this point my concentration was gone and as she took requests I lamely attempted to mask my annoyance – after all, everyone else was enjoying it. I promptly put away my laptop, in my haste spilling my wine and breaking the glass. The couple looked over at me. Was that a look of pity? Suddenly, I felt like the sour-puss in the otherwise happy restaurant so I shoved the corked bottle in my bag, paid my bill and quietly slipped out the same side door that I’d entered from, rather than infect the restaurant with my mood for any longer. As I passed the front entrance I saw a big sign: “Tonight: LIVE music, 10pm until late!” I couldn’t help but laugh at myself a little.

As soon as I moved into I Ken Ken, I decided that I would stay for a couple of more days. First I would get some writing done from the hostel’s fantastic couch that looked over the lake, and then on my last full day I would drop USD$110 to go do the ice climbing on the epic Perito Moreno glacier. Being budget conscious, I had initially planned to just check it out from viewpoints across the lake but how often can you run around on top a giant glacier? Sometimes you just gotta throw down. That night, satisfied from a good day of writing, I celebrated with Federico’s Argentine BBQ and the rest of the Malbec from the previous night’s debacle. I went to sleep early and was looking forward to a day of touristy, but no doubt entertaining adventure at the glacier.

Sometimes you can see a million pictures of a place but still not fully be fully prepared for it. It’s not unlike love actually; you can be told all about it, but until you feel it directly, you cannot understand it’s intensity. Buddha’s famous spiritual marketing pitch was based in the same reality: “You can talk all you want about being enlightened, but here’s my 3 step simple program for achieving happiness.. Try it now and I’ll throw in a free sample of ‘heaven on earth’! Satisfaction guaranteed or your dogma back!” Of course those weren’t his exact words but they’re not far off. Of course, any theoretical definition of an experience can’t match the raw experience itself for authenticity. Arriving at the Perito Moreno glacier was no exception.

As we weaved through winding mountain roads the glacier began to appear, and with each pass a primal excitement was injected into the bus load of tourists. Finally when it came into full view, people were kneeling on their seats, pressing their faces against the glass or ecstatically snapping pictures. And I can’t argue, there really was something striking about it. The first thing is the shear scale, it’s massive. The glacier stretches between two snowcapped mountains and goes so far back it’s hard to see the end. It’s a jagged field of blue and white that comes to a horizontal point in the middle, rising sharply above the lake; it’s watery offspring. At it’s highest points it’s over 150ft above the waters surface, and at it’s deepest extends 300ft into the depths where it scrapes along, eroding the rock under giant amounts of pressure. Additionally, it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding, quite the opposite actually, advancing at a rate of almost 10ft daily – most of that usually fragmenting into the water below. Every few years it actually makes contact with the opposing mountain and dams up the water on one side. As the water on that side rises, often becoming over 50ft higher than the other side, the pressure builds and eventually bursts through, often forming an arch that is only visible for a short period before it melts away. And the supply shows no signs of abating; the mountains high above get up to 130ft of snow per year and much of it takes over 400 years to get to the front of the glacier.

Our first stop was at the zigzagging walkways on the opposing mountain which offer a pleasant walk through woods and clearings and provided superb views of both sides of the pointed tip. Occasionally you could hear the forceful cracking of the glacier as it inched forward, which also preceded the moment that all the cameras yearned for, a thunderous snap as a giant hunk the size of an apartment building cleaved off and exploded into the water, leaving icebergs and the odd sight-seeing boat bobbing like toys in a bathtub.

After the hard work of watching ice move, I enjoyed a cafe con leche and a 3 layer alfajore. These decadent treats are chocolate-covered, cookie sandwiches and are often glued together with dulce de leche – a sugary goo derived from milk. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, it can become a dangerous addiction and I’ve seen more than a few backpackers guiltily pulling out their stash in back rooms of grimy hostels.

The bus then brought us to the lake where a boat would bring us to the left edge of the glacier. Oooh, they had never mentioned a boat! Nice surprise, since the standalone boat tour was an extra USD$50. As we approached the glacier, it’s actual size continued to astound. The problem was that from afar there is no real way to judge the height, because there’s nothing relative to compare it to. But when you’re 50ft away it towers above you and the boat won’t get any closer in case the glacier makes the tiny boatload of tourists a target for its cleaving.

When we got to the very left corner of the glacier we disembarked and were led to a little lodge, sheltered among surprisingly lush trees, where we met our guides. ‘Eduardo’ was seriously funny and by that I mean funny, but seriously so. His matter of fact instructions almost sounded like a parody of an actual guide:

“It’s a muy important-ay that you not a go to far away – or the glacier, he might take you.” After regaling us with some of the previously recounted facts he informed us:

“There is only a one organism on the ice, besides tourists and Eduardo, it’s little black insect. But don’t worry, he no bite. Unless you a girl!

From the beach-side briefing area were were led through the forest to the edge of the glacier where there was a crampon station. We were each fitted with these awesome devices that would let us negotiate the ice without falling on our asses, even if they had been amply padded with dulce de leche stuffed alfajores in the previous week.

As our group of 10 climbed in a long line through valleys of ice and over cragged peaks we passed bright blue pools of water. I asked Eduardo if I could drink from one:

“You can a drink from the blue. I do not recommend from the yellow.” The best part of his comedioc delivery was that he never cracked a smile. As I dropped to push-up position and stuck my face in the water, I couldn’t help but admire the patient existence of the water molecule. Evaporated from some faraway pool hundreds of years ago into a cloud, it traveled across the sky only to condense and freeze, falling thousands of feet onto a snowy mountain top. Then over the centuries it slowly came down the mountain, eventually collapsing into the lake, or in this case being ingested by a dehydrated tourist. You patient, lucky water molecule – and so continues your journey!

As we reached the final peak on the way home, I turned to Eduardo and joked:

“So isn’t it about time we tried something a bit more challenging?” As I eyed the glacier solemnly. “I think it’s time we hit the front edge, my man.”

“It is very possible that you die.” I assume he was talking about the danger of edge climbing, not of my inevitable, eventual demise.

“I think we’ll be fine, we just need some whiskey!”

With that he stepped out of the way and with one arm gestured down to the level about 50ft below. “My friend, you are in luck.” As if some some waking dream, a thick, wooden table stood on the ice with 10 glasses and a bottle of whiskey.

“Imagine and make it true.” I don’t think Eduardo even understood the far-reaching impact of his words at that moment but as we toasted our whiskeys, cooled with ice shaved from the 400 year old glacier, I realized how right on that statement was. The limit of our imagination, both near-sighted and far flung, is the very structure upon which our individual realities are built. How expansive you want your structure to be is directly proportional to how expansive you can imagine it to be.

On my final night in El Calafate, I made a meal, which thankfully included a salad, with a delightful bunch of backpackers at the I Keu Ken hostel; an Irish girl, a Canadian girl, a German girl and another American guy. It is so much fun to be constantly surrounded by different people, all united by the joy of travel and cultural exploration. After dinner, I invited everyone in the hostel over to Melmac. As I walked in Maria came out from behind the bar to give me a hug.

“I thought you’d left already – what a nice surprise!”

“I told you I’d be back – and I brought friends!” Girls hung from silks and flipped in the air, guys spun fire and I taught a bunch of people to play backgammon while drinking the local beer, Sholken. As the morning light began to appear, I wondered what it’d be like if I settled down in El Calafate, amid the crazy dogs and powerful glacier, married to a beautiful girl like Maria. In a moment of clarity, I realized I was somewhere south of lucid and that I better get some sleep before my morning bus.

Adios El Calafate. You’ve got some delicious, cursed berries! I’ll be back…

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