Christmas on the road

Being on the road long-term makes it easy to lose track of dates, and being in the Southern Hemisphere, where December means summer, doesn’t help. Soon, though, I found that Christmas was approaching, and I would be spending it in El Chaltén. Even though it didn’t feel at all like December and the holiday season that I was used to, I still felt like I should celebrate in some way.

Luckily, most of the people at the hostel felt the same way. Even though we were all strangers that only knew each other for an average of a few days, someone had the idea of cooking a dinner and doing a gift exchange, and we were all receptive to the idea.

For dinner, a fellow traveler who was a chef (score!) and I made huge pots of beef spaghetti, mulled wine, and a kind of vague chicken veggie stir fry (guess which one I was responsible for… I’m not sure how I became partially responsible for cooking, but the meal was an overall success! Thanks to the spaghetti and lots of wine).

The gift exchange, though last minute, was as fun as any other I’ve been a part of before. Because it was decided on Christmas Eve, we each had half a day and 100 pesos (around $6) to find an appropriate gift. In wrapping the gifts, too, we had to get a little creative:

We played a variation of a white elephant wherein each person was assigned a number and had 3 opportunities to either choose a gift, open a gift, or swap a gift. Turns were decided by random card draws. I liked this variation because it prolonged the suspense, and everyone more or less ended up with the gift of their choice.

Not many shops were open on Christmas Day, so many gifts involved snacks, candy, or little souvenirs like bookmarks. Since I was lazy, though, and determined not to leave the hostel at all on Christmas, I came up with what I thought was a clever solution: a massage coupon, with a 100 peso value.

So it seems that, even on the road and with very little fore-planning, you can still have a grand Christmas celebration. The holidays are not quite the same without family, but you can find great companions even in a group of strangers. At the end of the day, we had small gifts, full bellies, and shared memories, which is everything that you need for a great Christmas!

Hikes from El Chaltén in Photos

Hike to the El Chalten Miradores

Besides the hike to Laguna de Los Tres for the iconic view of the Fitz Roy mountains, there are many other day hikes that you can do out of El Chaltén.

Laguna Torre

The second most popular hike from El Chaltén, ending at a massive lake with a glacier and a backdrop of the Torres mountains.

After arriving at the lake, you can hike for an additional hour around it for a view of the glacier. The path is rocky and extremely exposed, though, so it’s best not attempted in strong winds. On my way down from the path, the wind picked up, and I found myself walking at a 5 degree tilt in an effort to stay on the mountain.

Lomo de Peligue Tumbado

This is one of the best viewpoints of the surrounding mountains, as you can see the Fitz Roy and the Torres all at once…in good weather. In bad weather, the mountains are obscured and it’s all you can do at the mirador to take shelter from the wind long enough to finish your sandwich before heading back down. The hike is a consistent and easy uphill the entire way, though, and is beautiful even without the spectacular view.

Miradores

The miradores are the easiest hikes from El Chaltén, a mere hour and a half from the town. At the first, the mirador Del condors, you can catch groups of Andean condors gliding unmovingly in the wind currents up ahead. The second, the Mirador Los Aguilas, offers a view out the other side of the small valley that El Chaltén is tucked into.

Seeing the Fitz Roy from Laguna de Los Tres (Take 2: Sunrise)

After a first beautiful but disappointing climb to Laguna de Los Tres in which I couldn’t see any hint of the Fitz Roy from the summit, I toyed with the idea of going back up before I left El Chaltén. I kept an eye on the weather, and my last day appeared to be perfect. Low wind, minimal cloud cover, good temperature. Here was a chance that would be difficult to get again!

If I did go back, I wanted to see the Fitz Roy at sunrise. However, since sunrise was around 5:30, this required waking up at at least 3am, even though I didn’t care about being at the summit for sunrise, just as long as I could see the sun light up the Fitz Roy. I floated the idea out to some fellow travelers at the hostel I was staying at, but even I wasn’t totally convinced I would actually do it.

Surprisingly, two other people were up for the sunrise hike! All of a sudden I had commitment and peer pressure, and it was on.

We woke up at 3am, had a small breakfast together, and set out at around 3:45am. Though the sky was dark, we saw glimmering stars – a good sign!

The town of El Chaltén was well lit with street lamps, but as soon as we got to the trailhead for Laguna de Los Tres, it was pitch black. We only had our headlamps to rely on as we forged into the darkness. On the other side, though, the sun was starting to light up the sky behind El Chaltén.

Around 4km in, we arrived at the mirador for our first full look at the Fitz Roy. All clear! We couldn’t believe our luck. It was only around 5:10, though, so we decided to see how far we could get before the sun broke through the horizon.

From there, the trail dipped into a forest, but half an hour later we emerged onto a clearing just in time to see the tip of the Fitz Roy lit up by the sun. Here, we set up shop, until the sun bathed the entire Fitz Roy and eventually the entire hillside in a warm pink and then a bright orange.

With no more time pressure, we made our way to the summit at an easier pace. Somehow, when we arrived at the top, the view of the Fitz Roy was even clearer than before! A beautiful blue bird day, a post card scene that I assumed could only happen a few times a year.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have too much time at the top, since I had to make it back down into town for an afternoon bus. But I was so grateful for this second, last-minute chance to see the Fitz Roy in all its glory.

I’m ultimately glad that I didn’t go back up to the summit on my first hike up to laguna de Los Tres, since I might not have done this second hike if I had. And I’m very grateful to my friends in the hostel who joined me and gave me the little extra push I needed to commit to the sunrise hike. Sometimes you win the weather lottery, and sometimes you lose. But if you try again, it can definitely pay off!

Seeing the Fitz Roy from Laguna de Los Tres (Take 1)

El Chaltén is a rapidly-growing little mountain town that’s rightly nicknamed the “trekking capital” of Argentina. Multiple spectacular hikes start right from the town itself, and at 20-25km round trip, they are long but can easily be done in a day. The most popular hike of all is the one to Laguna de Los Tres, which offers a straight-on view of the famous Fitz Roy mountain range.

Unfortunately, as with all mountain ranges, the weather in El Chaltén and the surrounding mountains is unpredictable and changes quickly. All you can do is pick the best looking day in the weather forecast and hope for the best. My first two days in El Chaltén were rainy and cloudy, but the third was predicted to be better, so I chose that day to give the Laguna de Los Tres hike and the Fitz Roy a shot.

The trailhead to Laguna de Los Tres starts right at the edge of town, and you can use it to go up and back the same way. Alternatively, you can ride the shuttle up north to Hotel El Pilar, where there is a second trailhead that also leads to Laguna de los Tres. It works out to be about the same distance, and this way you can see an additional glacier – Piedras Blancas – and avoid taking the same route twice.

I booked a shuttle to El Pilar for 150 pesos ($9) from Las Lengas, one of the three transfer companies in town. The shuttle picked me up at 8am, and by 8:45am we were at the trailhead of El Pilar.

The trail ran through a forest, with only a moderate incline. Along the way, I started seeing hints of a glacier through the tree leaves, but couldn’t quite find a good vantage point. Soon, though, I arrived at a mirador and found that it was the glacier Piedras Blancas.

I’ve never seen a glacier stuck up high between the mountains before – what is keeping the wall of ice in place?

Shortly after Piedras Blancas, the trail opened up into a flat clearing. Not long after, I found myself at Poincenot, the camp below Laguna de Los Tres. Only 2 more kilometers to go until the top!

At the start of the last kilometer, however, there was an ominous warning: extremely steep, good physical condition only. A 400m incline over 1km…that works out to an average incline of about 35 degrees, doesn’t it?

They sure aren’t kidding, that last kilometer is brutal. They really make you work for that view! Finally, at the top:

It was such a relief to see the lake at last, but all we could see was a thick blanket of white clouds above it. We just had to imagine the Fitz Roy above it.

The view out to the other side was great, however. So there WAS beautiful weather, as predicted. Just not over the Fitz Roy, unfortunately.

I stayed long enough to eat lunch, but the clouds started to worsen and it even began to snow, so I decided to head down. I made some new friends at the top, and we chatted as we descended together. As we reached the bottom of the terrible last kilometer, one of them happened to look back at the Fitz Roy. Lo and behold, the clouds were parting:

We sat and watched to see if it would if the Fitz Roy would emerge. I was fighting an internal battle over whether to go back up to the top now that the Fitz Roy was visible. I was so, so close, less than 2 km away. But I didn’t want to make the miserable climb again, especially if there was a possibility that the Fitz Roy might be covered again by the time I got to the top. Meanwhile, it just got clearer and clearer… god damn it!

Finally, I resolved to continue back down, as I didn’t think my body would be overly happy with a second summit. I consoled myself with the thought that I could always come back up a second time, since I had a few more days in El Chaltén. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I would actually do it, but at least it kept the regret at bay.

Besides, there was a lot to enjoy on the way down. The peaceful Laguna Capri:

And a view out towards the valley to the west:

Finally, 20km later, we made it back to town.

It wasn’t exactly the hike I was hoping for – or rather, it was, but I didn’t have the right timing. Apparently, you can miss something by being too EARLY too, not just too late.

To be fair, even without the view of the Fitz Roy, it was still a beautiful and overall enjoyable hike. But I knew I had to go back at some point to see the Fitz Roy. Sooner or later, if not on this trip, then on a return trip to Patagonia. As it turned out, I would be back sooner rather than later!

28 hour bus ride down Route 40 from Bariloche to El Calafate

Patagonia is quite a bit larger than I imagined. It’s not until you look at the travel time between places that you realize it. For instance, getting from Bariloche to El Calafate takes 2 hours by plane and a whopping 28 hours by bus. I considered the bus for a split second, but opted for the flight instead.

As it turns out, though, the flight just wasn’t in the cards. On the morning of the flight, I arrived at the Bariloche airport and found that everything - everything was canceled. The workers were all on strike, protesting a proposed change in congress that would cut their pensions. None of the airline staff knew when the strike might end, but I got rescheduled to the same flight the next day with the hope that things might be sorted out by then.

My optimism was proven to be stupidity when I received an email that THAT flight was canceled as well. At that point, all of the flights for the next few days were probably booked out too, meaning that I might only be able to fly a full 3 or 4 days later than planned.

Well, bus it was then! At least I would be moving towards my destination, and I would make it to El Calafate only 2 days later than I had expected. I bought a ticket from the Marga office at the bus terminal, which looked like the only bus company that made trips down to El Calafate. Unfortunately, by then, they were out of cama seats for 2480 pesos and only had semi-cama for 2120 pesos. I wasn’t exactly sure what the difference was, but it sounded like it was going to be a loooong, long ride.

Bus essentials

Even if I couldn’t control the bus ride, I could try to make it as comfortable as possible. The night before the bus ride, I packed almost as if I was going on an excursion. It could count as one, given that they only give you “dinner” and the bus only stops once for an extended period of time.

My 24-hour bus packing list:

  • 2L of water, because there’s no place to refill on the bus
  • Yogurt, banana, and granola for breakfast on the bus
  • Bread, ham, cheese, and lettuce for lunch on the bus
  • Apples, oranges, chocolate, and chips for snacks
  • Knife and spoon
  • Fully charged battery pack to recharge mobile devices
  • Scarf to use as blanket
  • Packets of tissues, to use as napkins and toilet paper
  • Baby wipes, for nighttime cleanup without a proper bathroom
  • Hand sanitizer, because again, no proper bathroom
  • Toiletries
  • Ear plugs
  • Feminine hygiene products, because I’ll be damned if my period starts on the bus ride and I don’t have any on hand
  • Cable lock, because Ive heard many stories of people’s belonging getting stolen on overnight bus rides, and specifically in Argentina

The bus ride

 

Everyday, the bus leaves Bariloche at 6:30. I got to the bus terminal at 6:10 just to be safe, but the bus didn’t pull in until around 6:20. Our bus had a picture of the pope on it...that meant we would be blessed with a safe journey, right? The bus attendants loaded the pope with parcels for delivery, then they loaded our bags on the other side and ushered us on board.

I might not have gotten a cama seat, but I did at least get my favorite seat at the front of the second floor deck. Here, there’s a 180 degree view and a higher foot rest. I am just a little concerned about potentially hurling headfirst through the wonderful wide window in the event of an accident, but at least there’s a seatbelt across the waist. And the pope was with us.

For the first 3 hours, the bus wound through the mountains with some beautiful scenery, but I was so exhausted from rescheduling travel plans and waking up early that I passed out. 3 hours went by extremely quick, that was a great start!

I was hoping for some good movies, but no such luck. This first one was about a Chinese girl used by the Chinese mob for her extraordinary mental calculation speed and retention. For some reason buses here have Chinese films - on my way to Bariloche, the bus played a film about a group of men bonding with wolves in the Communist 1960s Chinese country side. ...why??

8 hours in, we made our first pit stop and were told that we had a 15 minute break. After using the bathroom and buying sandwiches, we all milled around the bus - not wanting to get back on it until absolutely necessary, but also not wanting to wander too far in case it left without us. 15 minutes turned into closer to 30, and some started getting antsy. If we only had one driver, though, as I suspected, then I hoped he took his time resting and recharging for the remaining 20 hours!

Around that time, the landscape started flattening out. So flat that you can see the reflection of the sky on the road as it fades into the horizon.

There are also some patches of road that are in need of serious repair. Like this meticulous patchwork here - why not just spread a layer of tar over the entire road?

I was told that the bus ride came with dinner, the only food that we would receive during the ride. However, there was no sign of food throughout the evening. I had just but given up at 9pm when the bus staff started serving out boxed food. Not bad, for food served cold. Although maybe I was just starving, so almost anything would taste good.

At 9:30pm, we were treated to sunset from the bus. 15 hours down, only 13 hours to go. From here, it’s just a regular night bus...right?

At 4:00am, I woke up to see the sunrise. 21.5 hours in, still going strong!

I dozed off a bit more after that and woke again when someone jostled me on her way to the front of the bus to take a picture. I quickly found out why - we were on the edge of a storm, and we could see a perfect, complete rainbow end-to-end in front of the bus. There was even some double rain bowing going on.

Finally, around a full 24 hours since getting on the bus, we arrived in El Chaltén, the last stop before the bus finished up in El Calafate. I cheated and got off here, since I was going to visit El Chaltén anyway. Without a direct flight to El Calafate, it didn’t make any sense to visit El Calafate first and add 6 hours by bus to El Chaltén and back. So I shifted my schedule around by getting off in El Chaltén and buying a bus ticket to continue onto El Calafate a few days later.

In the end, I didn’t make the full 28 hours, but I’d say that 24 is close enough. It wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be, especially with a seat at the front of the bus.

The ride came with an unexpected perk too - extreme productivity. For the first time since I started traveling, I was completely caught up on all my blog posts! I actually ran out of things to write. I fell behind again just 24 hours later, but it was nice to be on toP of things, even if just for a little while.