Patagonia may, very possibly, by the most beautiful place on the whole planet. I don't even know how to do it justice with a description, so you're just going to need to look at our pictures for proof. It's just stunning. We knew we were going to like it down on the southern tip of South America (that actually takes up about a third of the continent, who knew?!), but we had no idea that we would be so overwhelmed by the sheer natural beauty that we encountered during our six weeks in Patagonia. We fell in love with the place, and would go back to any of it in a heartbeat. I should mention how extremely lucky we were with weather. We'd heard stories and read countless articles about how the weather down there can change in an instant, how cold it is how windy it is, how downright terrible it can be but that the views are so incredibly worth trudging around in any kind of muck. We didn't have any of that - it barely rained, there was barely any wind, we even got to complain that it was too HOT! The bright blue skies and occasional gorgeous white, fluffy clouds allowed us to see every sight, not losing anything to fog or rain. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
Exploring Patagonia was the last big adventure we had in store for our trip, and we think that it was the perfect finale to our journey. For six weeks we hiked and explored El Calafate, El Chalten, and Torres del Paine National Park. In the next post I'll tell you all about the most incredible experience of our lives (topped only by our wedding…maybe) - a four day horseback riding excursion through 12,000 hectares of picture-perfect landscape over New Years. Oh man, I can't say it enough - I love, love, love Patagonia and can't wait to get back down there.
It was Christmas Eve. The very first Christmas Eve away from home, the very first Christmas away from my family. And I was a bit sad about it. That's weird to say, I know - I'm on the trip of a lifetime, heading down to the most gorgeous place I can think of, about to embark on some adventures that some people only dream of, and all I could think about was how we weren't at home drinking wine and whiskey around the Christmas tree with my family. Even though I was missing the Sprunger Family Christmas traditions, I was still really excited to be experiencing something new with my husband! I donned my Santa hat and off we went to the airport in Rosario for our flight south. I got lots of strange looks on the bus, and kids were laughing and smiling at me in my hat - I guess Santa hats aren't very popular down south. It sure was a hit, though, when we arrived at our great hostel, Hostel I Keu Ken, in El Calafate!
When friends told us about El Calafate, the common response we received was, "Don't spend too much time there. There's nothing to do and it's a boring tourist trap." Well, we were planning on being in the El Calafate area for about a week, so hopefully we weren't wasting our time! And, as usual, we ended up liking it quite a bit! The town is about a 45 minute drive from the airport, and from point A to point B there is nothing but hills, the turquoise Lago Argentino, and a very quiet road. The town itself is pretty cute - wood-framed A shaped buildings, rustic looking signs, restaurants with wood-burning ovens in the windows roasting whole lamb…yup, I loved it! Sure, it's a tourist destination and the restaurant prices reflect that, but it wasn't the annoying, in your face kind of tourist trap. It was adorable! And we only ate one meal out at a restaurant (we cooked our meals at the hostel with the other guests), so we didn't feel the pain of high prices too much.
Ok, like I said, it was Christmas Eve when we arrived and the hostel was packed full - people were even crashing on the couches for the night! Given the reviews of this hostel on Trip Advisor, it's no wonder that it was booked solid. A great breakfast, clean bathrooms, helpful and kind staff, and good location were among its many praises. But those aren't the only reasons why we were there - I had discovered that Hostel I Keu Ken also throws quite the Christmas Eve party, and if we weren't going to be at the party at home, we were definitely going to find some merriment in El Calafate! I had no idea how much it would cost, but I figured it couldn’t be THAT outrageous - I mean, it's hostel food. Sure, a whole lamb cooked outside, some salad, potatoes, chorizo, bread, and wine…lots and lots of wine….but nothing outrageous. Turns out our night of merriment ended up costing 400 pesos per person, about $30 per person, which is a lot for Argentina. And they didn't tell us ahead of time, they just asked if we wanted in or not when I booked (yes, I should have asked, but honestly, we were doing it no matter how much it was!). They told us that the price just covers the cost of the meal, but we think that might be a stretch. For that price we expected the food to a bit more plentiful - everything seemed to run out. At least there was plenty of cheap wine though! They left out the extra bottles of wine for us o take as we please, so we helped ourselves to four unopened bottles the end of the night, around 4am. Ok, I guess we got our money's worth!
But who cares about the price - it was really fun! To kick off the night when we got there around 6pm, we asked to join in a card game with three other people and started in on the wine that was available for the dinner. Our little group ended up turning into a raucous bunch playing a rather hilarious game of King's Cup. Trying to explain this strange college drinking game to young Europeans is, I've discovered, particularly fun! The hardest rule to remember was mine - every time you speak you must say at least one word in Spanish. We chatted with our little group, including our new San Francisco based photographer buddy, Dan Tom, and Harshal Modi, another SF based young guy who's interested in learning about wine, over our delicious dinner (but there wasn't very much of it, believe it or not. For being so expensive we sure expected a lot more food!). Never the less, the food was tasty and we loved the Champagne toast at midnight. Apparently the Argentine people celebrate Christmas Eve like New Year's Eve! Considering dinner wasn't served until about 10:30pm (typical South American fashion), it wasn't hard to stay up late. When Jake, Harshal, and I realized we were the only ones still awake around 4am, we decided it was time we turned in.
We woke up the next morning to my very first white Christmas! It snowed overnight, and for most of Christmas Day - a rare occurrence for El Calafate in the middle of summer! While it was a fairly light dusting, it was enough to stick, and it looked gorgeous. Most people around the hostel were busy making phone calls and skype calls to family all day, or lounging around with the ginormous black lab puppy, Floyd, or cooking meals in the communal kitchen. Ahh…cooking meals - we desperately needed to find some groceries! Since we had arrived after the groceries stores had closed the day before, and most of them were supposedly closed for the holiday, this was going to be a rather difficult task. After devouring our breakfast we set off to find some food to cook Christmas dinner. Off we went in the rain/snow mixture that was falling around us, splashing in puddles, and enjoying the wintery cold. Sure enough, the grocery store was closed. A bit farther down the road, though, was our saving grace - a little, neon green corner store was opened, run by the nicest lady in the world who sold us pasta, parmesan, and sauce packets! After making our own skype calls home when we got back, we sat down to steaming bowls of pasta with ready-made sauce, and toasted to one of our favorite Christmas dinners to date. A white Christmas full of joy in a beautiful place surrounded by happy people and simple food. It wasn't home, but it sure was awesome.
Our friends were right about El Calafate - there isn't much to do. But that was fine with us, we enjoyed lounging around the hostel, cooking choripan (chorizo sausage in fresh roll, like a hot dog but better) and ramen, exploring the town and some small hikes on foot, and playing on the swings near the lake. We took the extra time to catch up on the blog on edit photos and just relax. It was really nice to have the down time. Hostel I Keu Ken had a Mountain Hostel feel to it, the place we loved so much in Gimmelwald, Switzerland, and we were happy to hang out.
We did take the opportunity to take one incredible excursion - walking on the 600 year old Perito Moreno Glacier! And boy was it worth it! My brother, Russell, and his wife, Sarah, had done the same excursion just a few weeks before and said it was not to be missed, and we have to agree! We were picked up at our hostel in the morning for the hour long drive out to the boat that would take us to the glacier. The sky was grey and dreary, raining every once in a while. Braving the cold, we stood on the deck of the boat that glided through the iceberg laden water to the docks a few hundred yards from the glacier. We shivered in the cold as we took in the sight of the dark water beneath the blue-tinted ice field that laid out before us. Once on land, we put our packed lunches down in a cabin and followed our guide to the entrance point of the Perito Moreno Glacier. Just as we donned our crampons, the sun started poking through the clouds. For the rest of the day, the weather was perfect! In a single file line, our group followed our guide up and down hills of ice on the glacier, filling our water bottles in just-thawed pools and runoff streams. Jake and I were in awe of the bright blue in the crevices of the ice, and took care not to put the sharp edges of the crampons through our pant legs as we walked. Before the group was led off the glacier, we stopped for a surprise - our guide chipped off some ice, put it in glasses, and poured some whiskey on top! Cheers!
As we waited for the boat to retrieve us, we sat on the rust-colored rocks and watched the ice closely - all morning we'd been hearing loud, echoing cracks and unseen splashes, but had yet to see any of the ice fall into the water. All of a sudden, a long splitting sound broke through the air and, just as I flipped my phone's camera on, a giant piece of the glacier calved off into the water with a giant splash, sending waves through the lake, upending icebergs and sending water rushing onto shore.
Before heading back to our hostel, we had one final stop - The Balconies, a viewing point where you can walk along balconies built into the hillside and see the whole glacier. We could clearly see that one side of the lake was higher than the other as the middle of the ice wall is presently touching land and blocking the flow of the water. This piece of ice is supposed to rupture every year and allow the water level to equalize, but it's been a few years since it's happened. We really enjoyed our experience on the Perito Moreno Glacier, and loved seeing it from The Balconies. It's an excursion we definitely recommend!
For the rest of our time in El Calafate we just relaxed, launched our redesigned website, and started imagining what our next adventure would be like - a four night horseback riding adventure with Estancia Nibepo Aike! On December 29 we were being picked up from the hostel and whisked away to the 12,000 hectare farm where we would start the "Ride to Hidden Glaciers" program and celebrate New Years Eve with horses in the Patagonian wilderness. I could barely contain my excitement - we were about to fulfill a dream I never even knew I had! And, since that experience was SO INCREDIBLE (the second best experience in our lives, second only to our wedding), it's getting its own special post. Stay tuned!
Just a three hour bus ride from El Calafate through nothing but flat roads and the occasional tumbleweed, our next destination, El Chalten, seems to exist just for hikers. The town is tiny - you can walk across the whole town in about 15 minutes, and particularly convenient for day hikes, with the biggest draws being the famous Fitz Roy Mountain (you'll recognize the outline of this mountain on the logo of Patagonia clothing), and Cerro Torre. We hiked out butts off for four of our six days in El Chalten, taking those two days to recover at our hostel. And, since internet for all of El Chalten was down for a couple days (and barely worked otherwise), we really unplugged! We also got to know our roommates, Heather and Sam from Ireland who are on a six month trip from the South America up the west coast of the US to Canada. Over some beers at a local brewery, we gave them all the recommendations we could think of for their time in California and chatted about our trips. Getting to share a couple of beers with new folks we meet has got to be one of our favorite parts of this great adventure!
I'll let the pictures speak for most of our hikes, but I'll at least tell you a little bit about the trails we took:
- Chorrillo del Salto - a 1 hour walk to a waterfall. Nothing spectacular, but a good way to move around after the bus ride.
- Cerro Torre and Laguna Torre - about a 7 hour round trip, this hike was worth the heat we had that day! And thanks to all that sun, we got clear views of Cerro Torre the whole time!
- Cerro Fitz Roy and Laguna Los Tres - the classic trek in El Chalten! Instead of doing an out-and-back hike from town, we took the shuttle north and started our hike at Pilar and walked back to town through the forest, with, of course, a pit stop at the base of the Fitz Roy mountain at Laguna Los Tres. The climb up to the lake is no joke - my lungs and legs were burning - but the view is stunning. The whole thing took about 8 hours and, along the way, we also got to see the Piedras Blancas Glacier and the bright blue Lago Capri.
- Loma del Pliegue Tumbado - Our favorite hike, and the hardest, of all of them! This tough 10 hour out-and-back trek rewarded us with the best view of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy, and Lago Argentino on the other side! We were sure thankful for our windbreakers - we both got blown off the trail a couple of times with some incredibly strong gusts!
Here are some of our favorite shots from our time exploring El Chalten. And be sure to check out more in the gallery below!
The Argentina side of Patagonia was more beautiful than we could have imagined. And with these two places, we've really on scratched the surface! We're excited to come back someday and explore more of this amazing region. But for now, on to the Chile side for the famous W Trek!