Friday, April 19, 2002

The Argentine Pallet

Over 10 days since our Chile goodbye...We are now in Argentina, a new country for us, with all of its' subtle cultural differences and not so subtle economic ones. OH MY! It is unbelievably cheap to travel in this country!!! It is sad to imagine how much the foreign visitor triumphs at the economic hardship of Argentina. This country has historically been the most expensive place to visit in South America - on par with European prices. However, the recent economic crisis which has devalued the peso, has made it the best deal of the year. The Argentine peso used to match the US dollar 1 for 1. Presently, we can get approximately 2.80 pesos for each dollar. The exchange rate has been almost as high as 4 to 1. Obviously, there has been inflation over the past months, but since the Argentine people cannot pay more than they were used to for the majority of things, most prices are still kept at the previous rates. What does this mean? Well, it means that when you go to dinner, a meal that would have cost you 40 pesos ($40 US) back in October, now costs a mere $14US! A private room in a hospedaje (residence) that would have cost 20 pesos (20US), now costs $7US. Basically, Dan and I have cut our traveling expenses in half. We are spending anywhere from $35 to $50 a day, as a couple! The most insane part about this, is that the quality is very good. We had an excellent parrillada, at a stylish and packed restaurant. This was an all-you-can-eat BBQ of grilled lamb, chicken, skewered meats, and sausages (chorizo and morcilla), with a variety of salads - lettuce, potatoes, beans, seafood, etc. and dessert. It is an invitation to gorge yourself and all for the amazingly low price of $3.60 per person! Traveling here is almost cheaper than in South East Asia, but with the western luxuries familiar to us. If any of you were trying to figure out where you might go for a short holiday, I suggest you hop on a plane for Buenos Aires and take advantage of this situation before it is too late.

Our recent itinerary:
Punta Arenas, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina on a 12 hr busride, to El Calafate on a $30 flight(!), to Chalten and back to El Calafate.

We endured border crossings and 12 hours of vast, unchanging, flat land, borely viewed from the fogged-up windows of our bus, to travel to the furthest south city that can be reached by road - Ushuaia. Referred to as the world's end, in the region of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), Ushuaia impressed us with its' varied history of maritime adventure, extinct Yaghanes and Ona indians, the turn-of-the-century penitentiary, and its' proximity to Antartica. When you awake to snow and the gusty winds of the Beagle Canal, this nearness to the frozen south is all the more palpable. We entertained ourselves with museum visits, a boat ride on the Beagle channel to view cormorants and sea lions, and a hike thru the National forest - a great and somber place to contemplate one's purpose in life.

Patagonia...I can only explain this terrain with reference to its' pallet. My experience is primarily visual, despite all the equally present senses of touch (skin tightened by crisp, cold, dry air), scent (dry herbs and dust), and whistling winds, which pierce the eardrum.

The steppe of Patagonia is mainly endless plains, gently undulating with clumps of hard, short and crusty grass and stunted bushes. Toward the west, the Andes, the flat horizon is disrupted by distant rocky mountains, ripped into form by ancient glaciers. This land is the home to bushy-tailed foxes, furry, earthen hares, elusive pumas, herds of sheep, the llama like guanacos and the most regal birds. We follow the thermal circling of condors in search of carrion, and the patient hunt of the crested Caracara - perched on the posts of an estancia, hawk-eyed and ready to squeeze the life out of a rodent with their talons.

Sunrise and sunset - shades of psychedelic oranges and pinks, acid yellows, purple greys and dreamy blues meeting the cappucino brown or rich ochre earth dotted with pale, mustard yellows, and guacamole greens.

El Calafate and Chalten - tourist outposts from which to visit the staggering beauty of the glaciers and the peaks. From El Calafate, we took a tour to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. We had a great (and cute!) granola guide who taught us about the medicinal uses of some Patagonian plants, how glaciers are formed, different bird species, and the history of Patagonia. We passed the largest lake in Argentina on the way to Perito Moreno - THE most famous and majestic glacier, recently advancing, now stable. We had a gloriously clear day that allowed us to see the entire path of the glacier, from snowy peaks to the milky lake. A hike along a rocky peninsula and a structure of balconies allowed us to get a closer view. A certain distance has to be kept, because 32 visitors have died in the past, after being impaled by flying ice. We were fortunate to see a huge face of the glacier, calve and crash into the water. The sound is awesome - falling ice chunks sound like gunfire or dynamite blasts.

El Chalten (established in 1985) is a ghosttown in April. Winter is coming, and tourism to the Fitz Roy park is low. We are the fools who cannot better plan our timing. What is it with these damn winds? We are captive hostages in our hostal. A brief outdoor exploration showed us the errors in our ways as we returned with grit in our teeth, fine sand in our hair, and eyes stinging. The wind is fierce and there are black clouds marching thru the sky. It is alright to rest after a 5 hour busride on bumpy gravel roads, but what will we do tomorrow? We will ignore the weather, and proceed with our trekking, of course! With one day to have a 'Fitz Roy' adventure, we had signed up for a 12 hour ice trekking expedition. This was our opportunity to actually walk on a glacier with views of Cerro Torre in the background. Like sleepwalkers, we woke at 6AM and were walking in the dark by 7:30AM. When I said that the hike was for 12 hours, it literally was. It took us over 3 hours to reach a campground, where the company kept the necessary crampons for our eventual ice hike. From here, it took another 2 hours of crossing a river with ropes and harnesses, and climbing up and down mountain sides, to reach the Glaciar Torre. All along, the weather was less than ideal, with a light drizzle and a very cold temperature. The highlight of the hike was definitely the 2 hours spent on the pale blue glacier, crossing crevasses and tiny rivulets. Dan tried out actual ice climbing up a vertical ice wall. He was harnessed to a safety rope and wore a helmut, digging the toes of his crampons and 2 pickaxes into the ice until he reached the top, then rappeled himself down. Unfortunately, from this point on, the weather became more miserable. The next 5 hours we hiked in neverending rain, and were thoroughly soaked. The bad news is that this might be the end of our digital photos, because Dan's camera has not recovered.

As you can imagine, we were very tired after this full day of exercise. Our next days plan to hike 8 hours (return) to the Lago de los Tres, changed into a 3 hour hike, as far it took for us to see the Fitz Roy range.

Since then, we have returned to El Calafate, where I busy myself with emailing, shopping and cooking. Dan has forgotten fishing and instead spent the entire day ascending a nearby plateau in search of fossils....with success! We are staying at a great Hospedaje - Jorgito, where we have met a fascinating crew of travelers both before and after our visit to Chalten. Last night we cooked up a veggie curry with French Eric, and shared it with our Argentine hosts. It is a nice change from the limited meat, pizza and pasta options. I've purchased myself a maté gourd cup and bombilla (straw), so that I can partake in the Argentine obsession with Yerba Maté. For those who have never heard of this beverage, it is the national tea - a drink that tastes like you have been sucking on a wet ashtray. I think that I might be able to develop an actual liking for this. Anyhow, the culture of sharing a cup is what appeals to me. It is the way of the gauchos.

Tomorrow, Dan and I will fly to Bariloche, the unofficial capital of the Argentine Lake district. Once again, we are late into the season. It will be too cold to white water raft or hike far into the parks, but not cold enough to ski. At least it is cheap!

Until our next spam...much love,
Sarah and Dan


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