“What do you mean, there’s been a drug bust. On our bus?”
Cooped inside a stuffy South American coach and denied disembarkation, information was disseminated like a game of telephone. Dripped only pieces of the scandalous puzzle, we were left to speculation. What kind of narcotics? How many? Better yet, when can we leave the crime sight?
Being marooned at the Chile/Argentina border for over 8 hours with 40 other disgruntled trekkers gave us more than just a story. It gave us an unforgettable welcome to the next leg of our 3-week dad/daughter backpacking adventure.
At the southern tip of the Americas lies mythical Patagonia. She is a vast, remote and ineffable landscape of harsh reality and boundless fantasy – where dense pampas give way to scraggy scrublands, and arid desert meets furrowed peaks and commanding glaciers. Sheep, guanacos (relatives to the llama) and Andean condors seem to quantify residential life.
And then there’s El Calafate – the Las Vegas of Patagonia. Surrounded by miles of inhospitable land, El Calafate somehow thrives. A wide and modern promenade houses casinos, tour agencies, fancy restaurants and even breweries. This town boasts every amenity to make trekkers reconsider spending days in the mountains. Nevertheless, it’s a necessary stop to visiting Los Glaciares National Park and the famed Perito Moreno Glacier.
Nineteen miles long and rising 240 feet above the water, this venerable wall of ice covers approximately 120 square miles. It is part of the impressive Southern Ice Cap, the third-largest reserve of fresh water in the world.
Pushing off from the shores of Lago Argentina, we embarked on a boat ride to the base of the glacier. Formidable dark clouds had been brewing all day, their pregnable bellies ready to drop at any moment. Zipping up our Gore-Tex jackets and cinching down our oversized hoods, we climbed onto the exposed upper deck.
Fractured pieces of ice sprinkled the emerald surface. Some were bigger than houses; others scarcely larger than softballs. Battling for solid individuality, their fate was sealed the moment they broke off their icy queen mother. As if taking their final breaths of air, one by one they would submit to their liquid fate.
As we passed the north wall, the glacier stared down on us like a watchful archer. She willed us closer but reminded us of her power with each thunderous pop of volatile ice. “Calving,” when ice breaks off the glacier terminus, is an almost guaranteed phenomenon for visitors, and thanks to the park’s extensive system of mainland viewing platforms, these awesome displays are accessible to all.
Standing at the base of the impressive southern wall, one can’t help but will the next display of raw power. Pale blue to amethyst, royal blue to eggshell – the darker and more opaque the ice, the more susceptible it had become. Out of nowhere, the sound of a freight train rumbled in. A definitive crack followed, and then a moment of haunting silence. Desperate to locate the rupture, eyes darted to and fro. A conclusive crash finally pinpointed the carnage. Ice met water with an enormous splash. Standing on the grated platforms, a stone’s throw from this spectacle, it was easy to see why Charles Darwin was inspired here so many years ago.
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Heading north from El Calafate, we traveled on Argentina’s famed Ruta 40 highway. Blissfully devout of traffic, we chased the slithering spine of the Andes Mountains toward our next great feat, Monte Fitz Roy.
Ground zero for most hikes into Los Glaciares National Park is the idyllic village of El Chalten. Translated as “smoking mountain,” the tip of Fitz Roy peers down on eager trekkers from behind a veil of lofty clouds. Once a sleepy, frontier town, El Chalten has developed quickly due to tourism. Do yourself a favor and book accommodations in advance.
We began our 3-day circuit to Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre with an extensive climb into the foothills. Now synonymous with the Patagonia brand label, Fitz Roy and her entourage of craggy minions create a spectacular backdrop. Glacier lakes and mangled old growth forest transport you deeper into her wonderland. The weather was immaculate. We had to capitalize. Setting up camp in record time, we dropped our heavy packs and embarked on the challenging final ascent.
Fitz Roy greeted our efforts with an amused smile, as if to say, “Geez, what took you so long?” Collapsing onto a large slab of granite, we drank in the scenery. A bowl of serrated peaks looked down on a shimmering glacier lake, Laguna del los Tres. “Smoking clouds” floated in and out of her mountainous bowl while we basked in the sun, departing with an unexpected souvenir – a Patagonia tan.
From heaven to hell, Patagonia has a way of changing your plans quickly. Our next day’s hike to Cerro Torre Mountain blew us away. Literally. Shrouded by dense vegetation for most of the day was “the calm before the storm,” as we now recall. The moment we crested onto the exposed perimeter of Laguna Torre, Mother Nature unleashed!
Small rocks blasted our skin, torrents of dirt filled our eyes and hurricane-force winds did their best to prevent forward progress. Taking cover behind a large boulder, we assessed the final section of trail. Disappearing into a thick wall of clouds, we could discern a handful of dots on the ridgeline. They weren’t moving. They were trekkers caught in the gale-force winds. Our path was now clear. Back to camp. Cerro Torre, you win.
Rounding out our time in Argentina with some obligatory hitchhiking, a skillset honed in my father’s youth on the south side of Chicago, we kissed Argentina goodbye and began the 20-hour journey back to where the trip began: Punta Arenas, Chile.
Touring the southernmost brewery in the world, Cervezerie Austral, we toasted our trip with calafate berry fermented beer and a traditional Chilean meal of BBQ meats, ‘parilla’. Well-deserved gluttony, we mused.
And when it came time to drive down Chile’s Carretera Austral famed southern highway for the final time, Tom Cochrane’s wise words danced in my head. Life most certainly is a highway, I considered. Catching my father’s soft blue eyes, I watched memories of our trip frolic within. This was much more than some tick on a bucket list for us. This was a chance to spend time with a best friend. Backpack to backpack, dad and daughter – at the end of the world.