Friday, July 11, 2014

-- Beaches & Glaciers: Patagonia on the Rocks --

Inclement, crisp and somehow beautiful. The weak sunshine breaks through the lunar Patagonian landscape as we get ready for a day of unique experiences.

We leave the sleepy El Calafate and head West in direction to the snow-capped mountains.

The landscape surprisingly changes in a matter of a few kilometers.
I soon understand that the Patagonian landscape and climate are much more complex than what I had thought at the beginning, and whilst the cold Southern Antartic winds define the dry vast majority of the Patagonian landscape, the Western Pacific winds find their first obstacle in the Andean Mountains, creating the famous Chilean fjords rainy micro-climate on the West side of the mountain range and constantly feeding the high-altitude peaks with fresh snow which creates a fertile valley on the East.
A humid valley that, due to the rigorous and extreme Patagonian weather, only extends for a few kilometers from the mountains before blending into the dryness of the general predominant landscape.

This also means that fresh snow constantly compacts into massive ice bodies which slide downhill at a rather fast speed, creating glaciers which can be reached without climbing to a high altitude.

We pass through a stoned gate and we stop for a few minutes. A ranger enters our little shuttle and welcomes us to the National Park whilst charging us for the admission fee and explaining the dos and don'ts of this magnificent and protected landscape.

We have now entered the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares (Glaciers National Park) from its Southern gate and we follow a windy road bordering the murky white waters of Lago Argentino.
The white colour of the water, which resembles skimmed milk, is a consequence of the melting ice and its dust particles which, as the are lighter than cold water, float in the surface making impossible to see the development of the endemic trouts that here survive.

Due to changing weather, the itinerary has been inverted and we detour to a little dock where a white catamaran is waiting for us. Battling the strong morning winds and the turbulent freezing water the catamaran soon faces the Glaciar Perito Moreno, one of Argentina's main icons.

An outstanding 74-meter tall mass of ice which seems to glide its way down the Andean mountains and dazzles the view of every single person on the boat deck with its sparkling blue colour.

Flashes and pictures seem to never stop whilst we the boat rockets its way across the lake to a busy and improvised dock where we disembark and leave our heavy goods and food in a small and cozy wooden lodge.

We proceed to walk though an ancient woodland with the heart racing faster and the adrenaline pumping at its maximum, only to be stunned by the size of the glacier as we get close and surrounded by a landscape which is unique in the world.

I take a deep breath whilst contemplating the extreme setting in which I am: black volcanic rock beaches, splattered with crystal-clear pieces of ice, weak glacier waterfalls surrendering to the gravity of a steep and rugged landscape partly covered with the autumnal colorful foliage of the tall beech trees. It is freezing, extreme and surreal.

Crampons are fitted to our boots and we are good to go. The first step on the body of ice is somehow symbolic and deserves some respect. In the end, we are walking on ice and extreme caution needs to be taken with every single step made.

Ten steps later, the body relaxed and embraces the environment and that's when the real fun begins.

Several safe trails are carved in the ice by the experience guides whilst we climb up steep ice hills and get lost in an absolutely white and icy surrounding, oddly enough, thinking about the man's first steps in the moon and grasping enough air to make an out loud and obvious statement, probably fueled by the adrenaline which now flows through my body in enormous quantities:  'Look at me! I am walking on a glacier'.

An opportunity to understand the ice, the many dangerous deep fends which seem to never end and lose in the darkness of the deep ice, the light blue water streams flowing and constantly changing the shape of the glacier and puddles of fresh water which we are suggested to drink.

The sun breaks through the clouds and the ice turns into a deep blue color. A perfect setting for a whiskey on the rocks, with ice scrapped directly from the glacier to set the mood.

Time to go downhill and leave the glacier, after nearly three hours of ice walk. A very intense exercise despite any level of fitness.
The legs thank the gesture whilst the brain tries hard to process what just happened. It was a hike, a 'glacier hike'!

We eat our lunch, sheltered in the cozy wooden cabin and we are shipped back through the lake to the dock, from where our shuttle takes us to the terraces and wooden passageways in front of the glacier, an experience that serves to affix the idea in the head as we contemplate the magnitude of the size of the glacier from above.

A loud roaring sound is heard, just like a bomb explosion. It is the ice breaking and falling into the murky water creating some sort of mini-tsunami which creates ripples that seems to flow in slow motion and crash against the icy shore, breaking the peace of a landscape that seems suspended in time and place.
In the end, Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers in the world that grow in size, hence the rapid movement down the mountain and the constant ice breaking, which feeds the octopus-shaped Lago Argentino and the Santa Cruz River.

The weather rapidly deteriorates and heavy snow starts falling, closing the activities for the day and taking every piece of energy left in the body. I fall asleep and wake up when we arrive in El Calafate by the end of a sunny and clear afternoon in the Patagonia.

No time to be wasted. The journey must continue and , fighting the fatigue, my friend and I head to the outdoor shop in order to rent a tent and camping equipment for the next leg of the race.

It is a quiet evening at the hostel. Questions are asked by the fellow backpackers. Answers are given objectively, trying to content the excitement of what was an once in a lifetime experience.

Bed time for now. Rest is needed for what's coming next.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

-- Beaches & Glaciers: Martial Times & Calafate --

The noise of the morning commuters, facing the darkness of the early autumnal hours breaks through the double glazed window.

My last hours in the End of the World were not going to be wasted and, quickly jumping off the bed, I pack my bag and grab some breakfast. 
Whilst enjoying a strong coffee and some pastries, I am approached by a Dutch girl who is trying to figure out what to do for the day and, in a matter of seconds, we partner in a new and short adventure in the rough Patagonic landscape: A hike to the Martial Glacier.

A short taxi ride from the hotel in a windy and slippery road takes us to the sterile and white-covered base of the mountain from where a chairlift can be taken... some time ago! as the chairlift has been out of service for a few years now.

The way uphill is through a narrow road following a stream of glacier waters roaring down a valley.

The crispy morning weather turns into a blizzard in roughly ten minutes due to the strong Antarctic winds.

Despite the deteriorating weather, a beautiful and unspoiled landscape which defies the senses is to be conquered this morning whilst battling with the intermittent snow and the slippery icy trail, no crampons brought.

Once we get to the top and after grabbing some air, we realise that returning to the base of the valley will be an even more daunting task due to the snow which quickly turned the path into an icy slide.
Every single step given becomes a matter of consideration and care, with the body pumping massive amounts of adrenaline to keep up with the pace of such hard yet exciting task.

The strong winds clear the sky for a short while and from the top of the glacier, we can spot the Beagle Channel and Magellan Land as well as the city of Ushuaia. It is a priceless sight in which the white snow mixes with the navy blue waters and creates an oil painting-style which can only be seen in these latitudes.

Time is short and after a cup of tea at the base of the glacier, our short hitchhike adventure is completed with the generous nature of the Ushuaians bringing us back to the hostel in no time, expecting nothing in return.

I say goodbye to the lovely Cruz del Sur hostel and head to the airport straight away. Before I notice, we are already taxying our way to the runway for one of the most dramatic take-offs I have ever experienced.

The engines roar and we soar through the sky seconds before making a massive turn to the left in a 'corkscrew' manoeuvre in order to gain altitude rapidly.
We are presented with a bird's eye view of the End of the World: a combination of small islands splattered around the narrow Beagle Channel, the Magellan Land which limits the land mass becoming the portal to the Antarctic, the streets of Ushuaia shining with the reflection of wet snow and afternoon sunshine and the mountains of Tierra del Fuego, a natural barrier between us and the rest of our flight.

Once we fly over the white mountains, the landscape changes dramatically and I get my first glimpse of what the Patagonia really is.
A brown, dull and arid land, nature seems to have forsaken this vast extension of land which covers most of the Argentinian territory. 

Outside, small streams of water seem to cut across the arid plain lands with no effect on the surrounding, giving the impression of massive wounds stamped on dry skin. Sterile and somehow pretty. An outlook that only accentuates as we start our descent into my next stop: El Calafate in the province of Santa Cruz.
Westerly winds blow and rattle the little Boeing 737 on the final approach, seconds before a turquoise blue body of water dazzles my vision and heave sighs amongst the rest of the passengers.

Comandante Armando Tola Airport looks like a glass spaceship that has just landed on the moon. No trees or vegetation can be seen around the modern glass and steel terminal which receives passengers from three flights at the same time.

My friend Andrea (who used to live in Ireland and moved back home) arrives at the same time from Montevideo and Buenos Aires. I spot her head in between the crowd across the Arrivals Hall. It is a trip we had planned for months and we are finally ready to make the best of it. Now, at the opposite side of the globe.

Under a very strong sunshine, which seems to penetrate through the minivan windows and burn every single piece of naked skin,  the journey from the airport to the city of El Calafate provides us with a close glimpse of the real Patagonian landscape in which no vegetation seems to be able to endure the harsh weather conditions and different shades of brown terrain have been sprinkled with a bit of overnight snow.

The city of El Calafate looks like some sort of new settlement embedded in the middle of the dessert. Scattered around the hilly terrain are colourful houses and wooden lodges. A sight framed by the omnipresent electric blue waters of Lago Argentino, a perfect setting for a picnic (if weather wasn't so hard and the strong chilly winds were not blowing).

As soon as we check into the comfortable America del Sur hostel, we explore the little village and its main street, in which everything else seem to revolve around and tourists from every corner in the world seem to be either shopping or having a nice meal. It is an oasis in the middle of the arid Patagonic land and the base camp for many unique places of interest.

With very limited time in the Patagonia, organising the next morning trip becomes the top priority of the day. Little did we know that when organising a visit to the famous Perito Moreno glacier, we are told that there is a possibility of hiking up the iconic body of ice. Heart races, pupils dilate, mind wanders and decides: "it's a must do".

Minutes later, we walk outside the shop with a massive smile on our faces, trying to shelter from the chilly winds and walking through empty streets under the clear skies and full moon.

Tomorrow will be a day of many "firsts" in life and the continuation of an unique trip.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

-- Beaches & Glaciers: The End of the World --

The plane seems to float above a landscape of mansions and swimming pools of the wealthy neighbourhoods of the Tigre region, minutes before landing at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, which seems to be squeezed in between the high-rise buildings of Palermo and the River Plate.

I clear immigration and customs and take the escalator to the surprisingly large food court just to have my first Argentinian meal in years: a collection of sugar covered mini-croissants with a strong coffee and the perfect start for the second leg of today's race through the domestic terminal.

A large queue of tourists form in the crowded terminal. It is the final boarding call for our Aerolineas Argentinas flight to Ushuaia, the capital city of the Tierra del Fuego Province, the 'Land of Fire'.
The flight is not full and I finally get the chance to sleep and the chance of savouring a nice alfajor and a sandwich provided by the cabin crew.

Outside, the landscape changes from the fertile pampas of the Buenos Aires province (famous for its gauchos and world-renowned beef) as we head South, fly over the Patagonia and start our descent into Ushuaia, some three and a half hours after our departure.
From this point onwards, everything seems to unfold rapidly as our plane dodges snowy-peaked mountains and rattle with the evening turbulence.

We face the blue and calm Beagle Channel as we make a sharp turn to the right and finally land at Malvinas Argentinas International Airport.

This is not just another airport in another regular city. It is the southernmost city in the World, kindly named 'the City of the End of the World' by the Argentinians and an emblematic spot in the Falklands War with the United Kingdom a few years back.
The wooden structure of the airport creates some sort of a 'lodge' feeling and, as a step out of it, a bitterly cold strong wind hits me, a cruel reminder that it is late autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.

I spot another tourist with a large backpack. Her eyes are some of lost and a perfect opportunity to break the ice and release a shy "Hello", conversation flowing rapidly and interestingly enough, the Australian girl was sitting only a few rows in front of me on the flight and she was heading to the same hostel. 
A taxi is shared and the effects of a cold and hostile environment is reflected in the colourful houses scattered though a series of hills in a mash of architecture styles, overlooking a landscape that inspires remoteness.

Wasting no time, I check into the cozy and warm hostel and, wearing a thick raincoat, I face the wind and roam around the empty streets of Ushuaia.

I soon understand the geographical position in which I have landed: a few blocks North, the Tierra del Fuego mountain range seems to rise as the city's backyard playground. Rugged and covered in snow, limits the weather and landscape of this mid-sized settlement on one of its sides.
Only a few meters away, the majestic Beagle Channel seems to be the last civilisation frontier. Across the blue waters, the Magellan Land is the last piece of land before entering the daunting Drake Passage and the Antarctica.

I take a deep breath to contemplate the vessels making their way into the Channel, whilst sea lions play in the black rocks and the weak autumnal sunset dyes the mountains behind me in a combination of pink tones.
For a second,  I can picture Magellan gasping in awe when navigating around the deep waters, surprised by the extreme and beautiful landscape and by the Fueguin tribe in the distance, lighting their torches to keep warm, naming the place as "The Land of Fire".

The lack of sleep, the cold weather and an air conditioned-induced cold (carried from Sao Paulo) take my energy away and I go to bed early enough to sleep for 14 hours straight.

In the morning, everyone is getting ready to depart to the different places of interest scattered around the area. At this time of the year, the sunshine is very limited and an early start means a better understanding of the landscape and a more fulfilling experience.
The Australian girl joins me, along with another wallaby and an Irish guy, situation that suddenly turned me into the official translator of the bunch. 

Our little minibus leaves the small city and, in a matter of minutes, we enter the Tierra del Fuego National Park, a place that is better explored by walking.
We decide to be dropped off at an strategic crossroad and our cold adventure begins.

Peaceful, remote and dramatic. The perfect place to reflect about experiences and trips, guarded by tall mountains and small still glacier lakes scattered around the vast landscape.
With no rush , we take several trails in between tall Lenga beech trees and Calafate bushes, a typically Patagonic landscape.

The silver-coloured waters of Bahia Lapataia and its emblematic sign , marking the end of the long Route 3 is next. Another reminder of the feeling of remoteness and extreme geographical location.

Fuelled by the combination of Antarctic and Pacific winds, the changeable weather seems to deteriorate rapidly and a strong horizontal rain develops on our return leg, beating the skin of our faces and turning walking into a rather difficult task.

We spot a rather friendly and hairy Patagonic fox and we make our way to the dramatic Lago Roca, which wind has turned into a violent water body with tall waves and strong swell.

Just a few minutes down the road, we find comfort in a cup of hot 'yerba mate' and an open fire at a conveniently located lodge just before being bussed back to the city.

A dinner of sirloin steak sandwich and fries is next. The good-bye formalities of the group as a few of them will be taking the early morning bus North to Rio Gallegos and El Calafate. I will take the afternoon flight which allows me to have a free morning. So what is there to do? 

The early morning snow will tell me.