Passportless in Patagonia!

7 10 2008

From Puerto Madryn we headed further south to El Calafate. On the bus ride down, the landscape became incredibly flat and barren, and you can see for miles in every direction. Suddenly though, the snow capped mountains loomed up in the distance; we were truly arriving in the heart of Patagonia!

On the road down into El Calafate itself, you finally appreciate how amazing the view actually is – the craggy mountains, topped with snow loom in every direction, and stretching across from the town to the mountains is the tremendous Lago Argentino, the third largest in all of South America. It was so unlike anything I had ever seen, except in photos. That night we checked into a lovely hostel on the hill and were witness to the most amazing sunset. The sky was awash with autumnal colours – changing from red, to orange to purple. We watched as the sun set behind the mountains and the bright moon slowly appeared, casting its reflection across the lake. I could tell already that we were really going to love Patagonia!

That night, with some friends that we had met on the bus we decided to see what El Calafate´s night life was all about. The town itself is one of the country´s most visited tourist destinations, so we took it that the nightlife must be pretty good. Drinking in the hostel til late, we assumed that it would be the same sort of opening hours as BA and other places we had visited, so we were a little disappointed to discover that when we finally headed into town around midnight, there was only one bar in the whole of the town. Furthermore the prices for drinks were the same as London prices… We stayed for one before heading back to bed.

Awaking early the next day we checked into another hostel. It was slightly cheeky of us as we were supposed to be staying with our friends in the original hostel, but if you could see the views from where we moved to, you would do the same! The hostel is called American Del Sur, and we had been told about it by a number of people we had met along the way. Luckily we had made a reservation a week earlier as the place is constantly sold out. The house is also on the hill, but has full length windows along the front offering a 180 degree view across the lake and the mountains. The first day we simply sat reading, enjoying the heated floor and taking in the awe inspiring view.

However, in just 24 hours, things took a tumble for the worse – every traveller knows that the most important thing in your possession is your passport… and I had only gone and lost mine! I searched everywhere, emptying my bags repeatedly and systematically going through everything. I went through Claire´s bags, I went back to the last hostel and searched top to bottom there, I went to the supermarket, the bar, up and down the street, but still no sign of my passport! The last time I remember having it was when I was on the bus. Each journey, there are a number of police checks in which every one must show their documentation. The checks are at all hours; and on our last bus there had been one at around three in the morning. I remember getting my passport out half asleep… I called the bus company and they said it wasn’t on the bus. It was well and truly lost!

With a heavy heart I headed to the police station to file my report, before heading back and contacting the embassy. Unfortunately it was after 2pm on a Friday and the embassy was closed, even worse luck was that it was a public holiday the following Monday so would be no one there now til Tuesday. Things were not on my side!

As we had three days now to kill before the embassy would be open, we decided to head to El Chalten to do some trekking. Nothing like the great outdoors to give you some perspective and help forget your problems! El Chalten lies in the northernmost section of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and contains some of the most breathtaking mountain peaks, with the 3445 metre incisor of Monte Fitz Roy at the centre of the massif, which seems to almost pierce the sky with its jagged peak. El Chalten is a Tehuelche word for ´The Mountain that Smokes´, an allusion to the scarf of cloud that perpetually hangs round the summit.

Stocking up on emergency rations, we decided to tackle one of the more challenging routes, The Tres Lagunas path. This also promised to be the most rewarding. Five hours one way, the trek crossed across rivers, through woods and then finally an ascent of around 400m. From the top you can see across the park, taking in the 3 lagoons that lie in each direction, but more spectacularly, the top offers the closest view of the granite wall of Mount Fitz Roy which looms up from the top. There was a sign three quarters of the way up saying that the path was closed due to weather conditions, but seeing other hikers up in front, we decided to follow their lead and ignore the signs. I´m glad we did, the view was every bit as amazing as we had heard. The last 50 metres was through knee deep snow, and was certainly a challenge. My passport worries were temporarily forgotten and all I could concentrate on was reaching the top and placing my stone on the cairn. Sitting at the top was an amazing pure moment, my mind was blank, and all I could do was sit and lap up my surroundings. Bureaucracy and red tape could wait for another day.

Tuesday finally came round and I got in contact with the embassy. One saving grace was that I didn’t have to go to Buenos Aires and could fill in the necessary paperwork and post it to the embassy. First though I needed a postal cheque for 120 pounds and some passport photos. There are no such things as photo booths in Argentina so I had to make do with a white backdrop in a camera shop and pray that my photos would be acceptable. At least I would now have a permanent reminder of my first beard. Having not shaved since leaving home, I now had a rather impressive growth, especially befitting expeditions up snow capped mountains. In the words of Shakespeare “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man.” Furthermore it kept my face warm against the Patagonian winds, but had become a nuisance when eating, especially ice cream!

The ice cream in El Calafate was amazing! The portions were generous and the flavours were a taste buds dream, ranging from Patagonian chocolate to apple and cinnamon strudel. I wonder now whether I would have got through all the paperwork if it hadn’t been for the ice cream. Settling down with a large Triple chocolate cone, I sat about filling in the 16 pages that was necessary to get me a new passport and my travelling back on track. Questions ranged from a need for a detailed explanation of how I was so stupid to actually lose my passport to the first song at my parents wedding… 2 hours and many ice creams later I had everything that I needed. All I needed now was to send it! Unfortunately there was no courier service in El Calafate and the postal system was notoriously unreliable! It would have to wait until Bariloche. Before we left though we still had one more thing to do… to walk on the Perito Moreno Glacier!

Moreno is one of only two advancing glaciers in South America, and of the very few on the planet. From our hostel, every day we could see huge ice bergs floating across the lake. They had come from the face of the Moreno Glacier. Vast blocks of ice, some weighing hundreds of tonnes, frequently detonate from the side of the glacier and crash into the water below, sending a small tidal wave across the surface of the surrounding waters. It’s a truly amazing sight. The Glacier itself sounds almost alive, constantly shifting and cracking, and it sounds like a small cannon when chunks fall off.

We had booked the Big Ice Excursion! First we headed to the view point across from the glacier where we were witness to several large chunks exploding from the face and sliding into the water. It was nature at its best. I could have set there for hours watching and listening to it. It was truly breathtaking. Either side snow capped mountains further add to the awe inspiring scene we held before us. However we still had our trekking to do so we headed down to our boat that took us across to the side of the glacier itself. From here it was 2 hour trek through the snow capped mountains themselves before donning our crampons and heading onto the main event. The first steps were tentative as I felt the steel points now attached to my feet taking grip, but before long it felt perfectly natural. Heading out onto the glacier we came across huge ravines, crevices, ice caves and 80 metre holes, which bored straight down into the glacier. The water that filled the gaps was the purest blue I´ve ever seen. The whole place was like no other place I had ever been too. At that moment I felt further from home than I had ever been. All I could see was ice and snow peaked mountains. We were lone survivors on Planet Moreno! Luckily we had sandwiches and chocolate and we sat down for lunch at the centre of the glacier as it began to snow! We filled our water bottles up from a stream; it was the purest and coldest water I have ever drunk! However our time was almost up and not before long it was time to start the trek back to civilisation… sitting on the boat taking in the glacier for one last time we were treated to a large glass of scotch with a chunk of ice cut from the glacier itself. It was a truly unforgettable experience!

Next stop – Bariloche! Chocolate Mecca! And home to the best hostel…




2 responses

22 12 2008
Stu Rogers

only you could lose your passport! glad you got it back!

just looking through the photos, I HEART YOUR BEARD, GET IT BACK

2 03 2013

Its like you read my mind! You seem to understand so much about this, such as you wrote the guide in it or something.
I believe that you just could do with a few p.c. to force the message house a bit, but instead of that, this
is excellent blog. A fantastic read. I will
definitely be back.

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