Saturday, August 9, 2014

-- Beaches & Glaciers: Glaciers & Beaches (The Return Journey) --

Exhaustion coats every single muscle in the body and despite a long 12-hour sleep, some more rest is needed and a 'chillin' out' day is planned.

My friend discovers a location for a 'spa day', a little place embedded in the Los Alamos Hotel, which thanks to the low season, comes across as relatively affordable and only a few blocks away from the hostel.

An afternoon of relax begins, sheltered under a tall structure made of oak tree in which the strong sunshine breaks through big glass windows and smells of incense and wet wood invade the ambiance, carefully caressed by warm water jacuzzis and a nice swimming pool, a bit of rest for the muscles after demanding days of hiking and a bit of rest for the mind after days of overstimulation with amazing landscapes.

The holidays blues become recurrent in our minds, emails start invading my inbox and drastic measures are needed. Starting with two bottles of cheap and amazing quality Argentinian Malbec and a dinner of copious amount of the best beef, deer, chicken and sausages (with a bit of salad) you could get around to smother the end-of-holiday sorrow.

In the morning ,the long return journey begins when being transferred to the space station-like airport and a sharp departure, just before doing a fly-by over Mount Fitzroy and Lago Argentino. A mental postcard stuck in my mind forever.

Three hours later, the sight of a hectic Buenos Aires marks the end of the trip to the Patagonia, landing in heavy crosswinds and almost gliding over the city centre, Puerto Madero and one of the largest slums in Buenos Aires, clearly divided from the rich Palermo area by a wide railway, adding a dramatic touch of a social paradox to our arrival.

Once in Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, a local friend of mine is waiting for me at the Arrivals Hall. Her shiny and warm smile slightly dim the idea of the end of my holiday and the good-bye formalities with my Uruguayan friend who is connecting immediately to Montevideo.
It's a day for enjoyment and, rocketing through the wide tree-lined avenues of Palermo, we reach the city centre for a cheeky commemorative picture in front of the Obelisk at 9 de Julio Avenue and a hearty lunch of even more fabulous Argentinian steak overlooking Puerto Madero.

A quick visit to Casa Rosada (Pink House) where Argentinians keep the memorabilia of their local heroes and a quick coffee in Starbucks is had only minutes before being driven to the airport for the second leg of the return trip. No sad good-byes this time. 

I clear immigration and leave Argentinian soil in the middle of the night, flying over the Rio de la Plata with the lights of Gran Buenos Aires behind and the Uruguayan coastal city of Colonia in front of us.
A quiet, empty and almost red-eye flight which lands in the misty Rio de Janeiro at nearly 1:00am local time.

Dark, humid and somehow daunting. Although visited many times and very familiar with the complex urban layout of the 'carioca' capital, a decision of staying at the airport until it get bright is made and I spend the next hours wandering around both terminals, laying on the floor and using as much wi-fi as I can.

The first air-conditioned coach leaves at nearly 5:00am and fellow sleepy travellers join me in the adventure through the polluted Guanabara Bay, to the run down city centre and derelict (yet charming) port area and to the luxurious and particularly iconic landscape of Botafogo and the beaches of Copacabana where another friend of mine lives.

With misty weather conditions and a clear lack of sleep, plans of paragliding are cancelled and, after relaxing in the golden sands of Ipanema shaking off the cobwebs, my friend and I walk through the bustling beaches, dodging a combination of topless runners, skaters, people on bicycles and tanned swimmers to finally reach Leme, where we hike up the favela (slum) for a typical food meal.

Rio de Janeiro saw a transformation in security, envisaging the Soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. Transformation particularly focused on the slums located next to high-end residential areas (a contrasting landscape which is very common in large Brazilian capitals).
Measures taken particularly saw the military taking over the problematic areas with heavy patrolling and an agreement with the residents not involved in drug cartels, ending confrontation and bringing some sort of still state-of-alert peace to the hills.

For us, it meant that tourists can enter the slum, feel perfectly safe, learn about the slum culture and enjoy a typical meal in any of the simple yet colourful botecos (restaurants).
Contradicting my beliefs on 'slum tourism' , as we walk around the slum, the idea sinks in my mind and comes across as something that actually benefits the community. Not as a 'window to the poor' but more as an income earner.

My short Rio layover ends as I take the air-conditioned bus to Galeao International Airport. Tired, I fall asleep only to be awoken as we reach the terminal. Nobody to say good-bye to this time. I check in, face the long immigration queues at the sound of a frustrated Brazilian complaining about their government lack of planning skills and a full-house Air France 445 flight leaves Ilha do Governador on time.

Movie, sit-com, dinner, movie, sleep, breakfast, Coast of Southern Spain and we prepare for landing at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. 
Once turning on my mobile, reality hits me with four missed calls and three text messages from my boss. Holiday is over, I am back in Europe and in need of a change.

For my surprise, once again transit happens smoothly and I board my little Avro Dublin-bound with no hassle, landing in Dublin two hours later with the summery weather of late May. 

I am greeted with a 'Welcome Home' for the first time from the Irish immigration officer. It surely is!

Back to the apartment for some laundry and some planning. A big change is urgently needed. New adventures are due to come.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

- Beaches & Glaciers: Freeze! You're at the Glaciers National Park --

The dark waters of Lake Argentino turn electric blue in the early hours of the morning. Our cue to grab the backpacks and leave the darkness of the hostel rooms.

The bus departs El Calafate, jam packed with sleepy tourists and cruises through the flat and dry landscape of the Patagonia to our next destination, best known as the outdoor capital of Argentina, the sleepy village of El Chalten.
A few miles before the dusty village, the bus enters the Glaciers National Park and a compulsory stop at the gate is made, followed by a long explanation of the park fauna and flora and most importantly, the park rules.

It is a place that has been carefully preserved. Many rules apply to the tourists that visit the National Park but proper infrastructure has been developed in order to enforce these rules properly, a place to enjoy with no charge whatsoever.

A short walk through the quiet village works as a reminder of the peak-season end. Many businesses are closed until September with the colourful houses seeming to endure the harsh winter months in the quietness of the South of the world.

The trail starts only a few minutes later and the landscape changes dramatically as we keep walking, sheltered under tall naked beech trees and with the Rio Santa Cruz roaring at the bottom of the deep valley.

Cerro Torres makes its appearance in a sort of surprising and aggressive way, standing in front of us with its triple steep stone walls which are partially covered in snow.

Here is where we learn where El Chalten took its name from. 'Chalten' is a tehuelche (native language) word meaning smoking mountain, as the natives believed both Cerro Torres and Cerro Fitzroy were volcanoes with their peaks constantly covered in fast-motion clouds, blown from the Chilean side.

Ironically, the peace of the place becomes overwhelming. Only 10 tourists make it to Cerro Torres today and most of them return to El Chalten almost immediately.

The cold autumnal weather wraps the landscape up and every dark spot is constantly covered with a thin layer of snow. A landscape bounded by the river roaring through the valley with its cold murky glacier waters.

We reach the De Agostini campsite after a couple of hours. Exhausted, hungry and with our feet frozen by the wet snow, yet the landscape of Cerro Torres sharply topping the horizon with its colourful stone walls seems to somehow hypnotise us, only complemented by its white glacier graciously sliding down the slopes and forming a lake covered in floating small icebergs.

Our voices echo and no other humans seem to be around. A place to perhaps think about the remoteness of the place and journey taken. A place where the mind seems tormented by the thoughts of the outside world at the beginning, where the technology withdrawal plays with the mind and a place where thoughts surrender to the beauty of the landscape and serenity finally invades the body... at least until hunger attacks and realise that, despite packing about 20 pounds of camping equipment, we forgot the bloody matches!

It is getting dark and the weather shows no mercy on our little tent. Luckily enough , no wind or snow storm has been forecasted for the evening.

Inside the tent, cold sandwiches, biscuits and frozen water. Every effort of keeping warm becomes useless and a midnight walk is necessary to make the experience less of a winter disaster.

A perfect combination of full moon , clear skies and no urban lights around. The snow-covered mountains turn silver and the landscape looks like a picture frozen in time. Lonely, unspoiled, all ours.

The morning sunshine reveals the ice which covered the inside part of our tent. I feel tired and dying for a hot meal. A decision is made almost immediately: cancel the second night of camping and walk two legs of the hike in order to make it into town tonight.

Campsite dismounted, backpack ready and it's time to tackle a steep snow-covered hill to one of the National Park's plateaus, surprised by the mirage of the petrol-like waters of Lake Madre e Hija (Mother and Daughter).
The density of the water, mixed with ice and glacier debris provides an almost still surface which reflects the mountains around it like a perfect and giant mirror.

Down the trail and pulling our wet boots out of the snow, we spot the unmistakable shape of the rugged Cerro Fitzroy and the main attraction of the National Park.

The impressive view is somehow overshadowed by a combination of tight schedule and fatigue, however we decide to continue up the footpath through wooden bridges and crystal-clear water streams to the Laguna de los Tres for an amazing close up of the 'molar-shaped' Mount Fitzroy.

A few snaps later and it's time to put some extreme pressure to the knees and lower back with a dose of constant downhill of approximately 12 kms. to El Chalten.

As we dodge stones and bushes, the landscape around us once again changes dramatically from the hostile foot of the eternal snows, to a woodland covered in tall beech trees, to the clear and frozen waters of the small Lago Capri, and finally to the dryness of the Patagonia, where El Chalten sits.

At a point where every single steps represents a bit of pain in the sleep-deprived body, we manage to run to the bus station and catch the last bus of the day to El Calafate, minutes before the darkness of the Patagonia freezes every single corner and thoughts again. kindly rewarded by a nice hot meal, shower and bed at the hostel when arriving back into civilisation, ending our short and frozen adventure in the National Park.