This place has something special, and it is felt immediately.
To all my Steamboat people; you know that wonderful feeling we all get coming over Rabbit Ears Pass when you haven't been home in a while and you catch that first glimpse down into the Valley? Well, I experienced a sensation very similar to this upon first arriving to El Chalten. The little town of about 700 year round residents is nestled at the base of the most spectacular mountains I have ever witnessed. Driving in from El Calafate, you pass through the dry rolling, shrub covered hills of the estepa, leveling off into the flat valley floor following the snaking rivers that flow here with only a fraction of the force they carry when they are born from the glaciers. Green mountains begin to stack up on either side, layered with lines of sediment and rock, telling the story of this landscape when it was covered in ice and ocean. And then, in the distance, behind a veil of wispy swirling clouds, appear the towers. Butterflies fluttered in my heart and an limitless smile spread across my face. This could be the place..........
|pretty much sums up this town|
I had been CouchSurfing
in several of my last destinations, and had been in touch with a guy who has lived in El Chalten for fourteen years (mind you, the town is only 26 years old). He told me he had just recently sold his hotel and was living in a cozy little trailer on some friends land but that I was more than welcome to stay. He told me where to find him at work, so I just figured I would get to town and figure it out from there (I had doubts that my backpack would fit through a trailer door). On the bus I sat next to a young bearded fellow. We struck an easy candor, and passed the four hour trip in engaging conversation. Franco exudes a sense of tranquility and at once made me feel at ease; he actually evokes a similar feeling to that of arriving to Yampa Valley :)
Upon seeing the Fitz Roy pillars and Cerro Torre ahead of us, Franco's face lit up alongside mine. "I still get so excited every time I come home," he says. I understood why.
Fran moved to El Chalten a couple years ago and has decided that this is his place in the world. He was on his way back from filing paperwork in the province capital to be able to apply to purchase land here.
"I'm kind of on a mission to find my place as well," I told him, "so far I have just managed to put more places on the list as definite possibilities." He replied with a smile that I should probably make another space available on my list.
We arrived to town at 11am, Fran invited me to stay at his place, so off we went on our tour of town/ walk to the house. Even doubled over by the weight of my backpack and with dust blowing in my eyes I was enamored. An old bicycle wheel marks the address of Franco's little tin abode which sits that at the top of a small knoll covered with bright yellow dandy lions. In the window sits a small, pale orange kitty called Puma.
She is a delicate little thing and I was quite entertained that her name was mountain lion.
I accommodated by beastly mochila in the corner, we made a mate, and discussed some good day activities for me since Fran had to go to work. I was left with a copy of the house key, and told to make myself at home. Acts like this continue to amaze me. I thanked him for his kindness and hospitality and told him I would be back by dark.
Puma and I had a little get to know each other session on the cool tile floor, I made a snack and grabbed my day pack. Walking down the second of the two 'main streets' in town my eyes climbed the granite walls that beckon climbers from across the globe and danced from one cute little square building to the next, a string of brightly painted cafes, boutiques, bakeries and mountain outfitters lining each side of the road that meanders, empty of cars, until dead ending at the trail head of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
I hiked energetically, feeling absolutely radiant amidst the green grasses and lenga
trees, protected from the wind as I climbed deeper into the woods, sun blazing overhead in a sky so blue that you can see how clean the air is. I arrived to Lago Capi in less than two hours and decided that I still had plenty of daylight left to make it all the way up to Lago de los Tres at the base of the Fitz Roy towers. I passed several groups of people hiking down and wondered if maybe I was getting too late of a start, but I pressed on at the pace of a speed walker. The trail winds up and down and around, over rivers and through ever- changing forestscapes, opening in intervals to reveal impossible views of the valley below and the glaciers overhead. The last hour up to Lago de los Tres is a never ending spiral of switchbacks climbing serious elevation. The snow was blindingly white with the glaring reflection of the sun in my naked eyes but as I squinted up towards the towers the clouds receded and my jaw hung loosely as these giants revealed themselves to me from behind their smoke screen.
I looked around and I was alone. My head fell back in laughter, heart pumping from the climb, rejoicing in my fortune of having this cathedral all to myself.
|iron filled rocks|
I sat in quite solitude for what must have been an hour, simply absorbing all that surrounded me. To my right were the zig-zag tracks of a skiers climb and the soft S curves of their descent down the creamy face. Oh to ski in a place like this!.... I was contemplating the thickness of the frozen lake when I spotted three small figures appear on the big mountain of rocks below me. When trio reached me I asked where they had been and they replied enthusiastically that there was another lake down below, hidden from where I was sitting. "It's stunning, you have to go!" And just when I thought a view couldn't get any better....
The sun was getting low in the sky so I began the hike back to town. Another couple was just arriving as I left. We shared a warm smile in honor of the view and I told them about the secret lake below. Coming through one of the campsites, I saw the chicos that had told me about the half frozen lagoon and felt the need to share my appreciation for them having shared that with me. They invited me to a tea and we entered into the familiar fellow traveler banter about adventures and favorite places and tips on where to go next. Alex and Katie are an eccentric looking Australian couple, freshly arrived to Patagonia after three months of RVing and hiking through the Western United States. We swapped love stories for the Rockies and I told them about the trek I was planning on doing here in Chalten. They were unsure of their plans, but I let them know how to find me if they felt up to a good hike. The air was getting chilly and the light low, so I took my leave and wished them the best on the rest of their adventures.
I arrived 'home' to find a note from Franco saying that he had gone to play basketball, so I showered and went down to the La Vineria with my journal and colored pencils to introduce myself to the guy from CouchSurfing. I was greeted by a big smile and a "You must be Jessica?" ,"Yes, you must be Juan?" "No, I'm Juan's friend, but he told me you would be coming and says to wait for him, he'll be by in a little bit. Can I get you a glass of wine?" "Perfecto," was obviously my response.
I sat at a little table by the window, pulled out my journal, scattered my colored water pencils on the table and began doodling a landscape inspired by my hike that afternoon. The door opened letting in the cold breeze, and in walks a little girl with her mom. The mom greets the guys behind the bar and walks back into the kitchen. The little girl comes straight to my table and exclaims, "Oooh what pretty colors!" I giggled and asked if she would like to draw something, but she shyly denied saying that I should keep working on my picture because it was very good. She told me her name was Flor and that her parents owned the restaurant. "Do you know Peluca?" she asked. "No, I don't believe I do." "Really? You don't know Juan? We call him Peluca." "Ah, Juan. Yes, well, I kind of know him, he said he would be here soon." She continued on to tell me about her life here in Chalten, about their house that is on the other side of town up one of the trails that leads into the National Park. Flor is six and is an absolute little gem. When I showed her that the pencils were also water colors she was sold. I turned over my book to her and she went to town. Juan, el Peluca,
arrived a little while later and joined Flor and I at the table. Flor's parents are two of his best friends and they opened the little wine bar a couple years before, and are basically just a tight group of amigos running the place now. "Flor, tell Jessica where you were born." "En los Estados Unidos", dice la niña. Flor was conceived and born in Alaska after he parents rode their bikes
there from El Chalten... There is a photo of the smiley couple in front of the Alaska boarder proudly hung beside the bar. They returned to Chalten to raise Flor but still dream of doing another bicycle trip one day. The wine bar is built on love and friendship and you can feel it in the moment you walk in; this is the kind of place where one could easily become a regular.
Flor went home and with my glass of vino empty I moved on to one of the many amazing Patagonian craft beers. Probed by just a couple surface questions about how he arrived in El Chalten, Juan's passion for this place bubbled to the surface, lighting his eyes with an assurance that is hard to find.
"Este es un gran lugar en el mundo...Somos testigos de un tiempo, testigos de algo que se va a terminar, o testigos capaz, de algo que muestra como era." This is a grand place in the world...Here we are witnesses to time, witnesses to something that is going to end, or perhaps, witnesses to something that shows how it used to be.
"Aca es un lugar virgin, uno de los pocos lugares en el mundo que queda asi como era, como es." It is virgin here, one of the few places in the world that exists as it was, as it is.
These statements, so simple, yet so full of truth, struck me as a testament to the times we are living in, to a new generation that is emerging. We are making history at this very moment, in little towns and communities across the world, simply by generating thoughts like these. The idea of reverting back to what it used to be,
living in harmony with the Pacahmama instead of in constant battle to subdue her. Everything we need is already here... in this tiny Patagonian town that still exists without cell phone service...
I spent the next couple days enjoying the tranquility of town, preparing my mind and body for the trek to come. Adam had told me about this trek when I first met him and Andrew in Ushuaia. They both agreed that it was the most stunning scenery either of them had seen in the Patagonia, and held strong to that statement even after Torres del Paine. The Cerro Huemul Circuit is a long four day trek covering roughly 30 miles and every array of landscape known to exist in the Patagonia. It requires map skills, some trail searching and some serious endurance. Franco agreed to come with me as he had only done a small segment of the circuit and wanted to see the rest. The night before we left i received a note from the two Aussies saying that they wanted to join in if possible. It was already almost midnight, but I went looking for them at their hostel, and found them about to go to bed, backpacks exploded all over the room. "It would be awesome for you guys to come, but we're leaving tomorrow morning around 8... do you think you could be ready?" Absolutely, they said. And it was settled.
We left El Chalten on Friday, November 16th on a gloriously sunny day, which fortunately carried over throughout the rest of the trek. These were four of the longest, most eventful days of my life. We seemed to have passed weeks together on this walk. Scenery changing around every bend, we crossed painfully frigid glacial rivers, then hiked over the glacier from which it flowed, lost the trail and had to free climb up a crumbling rock face, battled winds of up to 80km whose sole purpose it seemed was to try to throw you from the top of the pass, crossed snow and turba and endless fields of thorny bushes. We climbed up and up and up, then plummeted 1000 m straight down. The views were insane. For this I have no words, the photos will have to suffice for there is no way to describe to you the colossal vastness that we experienced looking out over the Southern Ice Fields, or glancing back to see the impossible incline that we just climbed, or to capture the saturation of colors in the rocks, rivers, lakes, trees, flowers, ice. I am forever humbled by this savage place called the Patagonia, and will forever carry the awe and energy that it has instilled in me. I cannot express my gratitude to these places and to the people I have been lucky enough to share these experiences with. We are forever connected by the memories of these vistas, by the adrenaline that pumped through our veins, by the silent reverie in which we stood side by side simply existing within this awesomeness. Life is good indeed...
|Glacier Rio Tunel Inferior and Lago Toro in the background, day 1 |
|camp at Lago Toro, day 1|
|the Aussies first mate :)|
|you can never know how insanely painful this was...|
|spray paint clouds|
|on top of the glacier|
|to give you a little scale|
|rocas de hierro|
|lost the trail...|
|right, so just climb straight up|
|Glaciar Rio Tunel Superior and Lago Tunel Superior|
|we just came from that valley, day 2|
|almost to the pass, still day 2|
|Paso del Viento. Glaciar Viedma to left, Southern Ice fields to right and beyond|
|Paso del Viento|
|Glaciar Viedma, Campo de Hielo|
|10 hours later, Refugio Paso del Viento, end of day 2|
|start of day 3|
|speechless. Paso Huemul|
|battling the wind|
|summit, Paso Huemul- day 3|
|looking down on Peninsula El Ventisquero, 1000m descent to where we camped along the second bay|
|two hours straight down. we came from top right, above the glacier|
|where Glaciar meets Lago|
|el equipo day 4, with a little Led Zepplin motivation|
|Cerro Fitz Roy|
|'A darlo todooooo'|
|Rio Tunel below where it runs into la Bahia, same river we crossed on day 2|
|Nov. 19 HAPPY BIRTHDAY ALEX!! dehydrated cheesecake and chocolate mousse after our last river crossing|
|back to El Chalten, outside La Vineria... cerveza never tasted so good|
|Celebratory birthday dinner|
|going to be a good year sir! |
|La Vineria, birthday shots for STEPH and Alex |
|to friendship, near and far|
|with Juan on my last day in Chalten, after a morning of eagle watching, now trying to hitchhike back, hiding from the wiiiind|
CHALTEN, te amo