Sunday, December 22, 2013

El Chaltén and its surroundings (November 13th - 19th, 2013)

I had somewhat mixed feelings about the Argentinian trekking "capital" before our arrival there. When looking at the map, I somehow did not see enough hikes that would justify the name "capital". But as you can read at the end of this post, I eventually figured it out.

November 13th - Arrival
We arrived in the late evening. The bus driver even make a special stop for us, so we could take a picture of Fitz Roy.

Fitz Roy in the evening light

From the bus station it was a bit of a walk to our hostel. There we were happily surprised that they charged us a lower price than advertised online. The whole hostel was almost empty.

November 14th - Departure to the trek
In the morning we went to the ranger's office. Usually all buses arriving in El Chaltén stop there right before entering the town, but we arrived so late the previous evening that it had already closed. We got plenty of useful information, a nice map and an important recommendation to start our trek already the same day, as the weather was supposed to get worse in three days. Therefore, we just returned to our hostel, made extra sandwiches and packed things for the trek. Already at around noon we departed for the Fitz Roy trail. 

Even views from the town were amazing

Just a bit after noon at the start of the trail

The weather was perfect and we had marvelous views of Fitz Roy. It is indeed an impressive chunk of rock.

His majesty Fitz Roy

There were many more things to look at than Fitz Roy

We were already bit spoiled by the well-marked trails from Bariloche, but here the marking was even better. Soon we arrived at Poincenot camp, where we set up our tent.

Perfect marking was available at every junction

Our arrival at Poincenot camp

With our tent set up, we left all heavy things locked up inside it and departed for the Fitz Roy viewpoint. We were a bit unlucky with the weather. When departing there was a blue sky above Fitz Roy, but when we arrived, it was already cloudy.  When we came back down, there was again a completely blue sky.

Radek celebrating our arrival at the viewpoint

This lake was a bit hidden and if we would not have been told in advance, we would probably have missed it.

November 15th - Second day of the trek
We left our tent at the campsite and went for a short walk to see the Piedras Blancas glacier fall into a lake with the same name. What we thought would be just a short and easy hike ended with climbing over big boulders and a lot of searching for a climbable path. In the end we managed to help each other and we arrived at the lake with fantastic views of the glacier.

Laura cooking porridge, our typical breakfast

Piedras Blancas glacier and lake

We got back to our campsite just around noon. After a quick lunch we packed our things and continued to the next campsite at Laguna Torre. It was a beautiful hike around some magically blue lakes.

Laguna Madre

By the time we had arrived at the camp site, built our tent and had dinner, we were quite exhausted. I still had just enough energy to go and see a lake in the evening light and search for a place with a clear view of the sky to send a satellite message home.

Laguna Torre in the evening

November 16th - Last day of the trek
It was quite windy in the morning. After breakfast we took just light bags and went to see Mirador Maestri. There was a very strong wind at the lake, so Laura insisted on going back and I continued on my own. The wind was unpleasant, but it was manageable.

On the way to Mirador Misti

Half way there I decided to turn back. Not because of the wind, but because of the fog that started filling the valley. I met Laura at our camp-site, we packed the tent and started going back towards El Chaltén. We were surprised by the huge amount of people going in the opposite direction, as they were running only into the strong wind and fog. At around 3 P.M. we made it back to our hostel and found out that the weather forecast for the next couple of days would not be much better.

The place we camped already in the fog

November 17th - Resting day
It started raining in the morning and there is not much to do in El Chaltén, so we spent the majority of the day working on our blog, using very slow satellite Internet.

November 18th - Mirador de la Loma
It was not raining any more, but the weather was far from perfect, so we decided for a simple day-hike to Mirador de la Loma. The majority of the time we were protected from the wind, but towards the top it was a bit challenging because of the wind. This time Laura managed it well and we made it to the top. Unfortunately it was completely cloudy and we did not see much.

Instead of seeing Fitz Roy from an different angle we just saw a lot of fog

November 19th - Departure
It was windy in the morning, which according to the rangers should have been ideal for visiting two viewpoints just above El Chaltén - Mirador de los Cóndores (Condor's viewpoint) and Mirador de las Águilas (Eagle's viewpoint). Unfortunately, the condors and eagles disagreed, so we did not see much. Soon it was time to go back, and at 2 P.M., we were already on the bus back to El Calafate, from where we were planning to continue to Chile.

By this time I understood why El Chaltén is called Argentina's trekking "capital". It is not about the quantity, but rather the quality, which is represented by the gorgeous views, well-marked trails and friendly people.

As usually, we have many more pictures.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

El Calafate and surroundings (November 12th - 13th, 2013)

Thirty hours after our bus departed from Bariloche, we arrived in the small town of El Calafate - the main entry point to the southern part of the Los Glaciares National Park. We were quite tired after the bus ride, but nonetheless eager to be out and about. Thus, we spent most of the day talking to various people who had information about things to do in the area, and buying food for an upcoming camping and trekking trip near El Chaltén (this is an even smaller town, and we'd heard that camping food is scarce there). We also marvelled at the very long queue at the gas station - both car drivers and pedestrians with canisters and PET bottles were lined up. We were told that the petrol workers were on strike, so gasoline was brought to town only once in a while.

A statue of Francisco Moreno, welcoming us to the National Park information center

In the afternoon we went to a museum - the Glaciarium, which is a glacier interpretive center. They had information about how glaciers are formed, how snow turns to ice, and about the early explorers and scientists studying glaciers. It was rather interesting, but in the aftermath, we considered it not worth the money.

The next morning, we took a bus to the Perito Moreno Glacier. This is a beautiful and well-accessible ice formation, with a size of approx. 250 square km. It is also one of the few glaciers in Patagonia, and perhaps the world, that is currently not shrinking.

We hopped off the bus earlier than most people, because we wanted a view of the glacier from a boat. The ticket office had a bit of a surprise for us - the boat ride would cost either 120 ARS or 12 USD, making it the best exchange rate we'd seen in the whole country. The boat ride itself was great! We got our first, and probably closest view of the spiky blueish up-to-100-meter high wall of ice. It was rather cold and windy on the boat though, and I wished I'd have some more clothes with me. 

All aboard!

Approaching the glacier

This was as close as we could get

Back on land, we found our bus: the driver had promised to come back for us. We continued to the walking circuits, from where we could see a different face of the glacier. We walked around for several hours, stopping every once in a while to listen to the ice breaking and falling into the lake. We even saw one block of the ice with the size of a skyscraper collapsing into the water. It was all truly beautiful!

On a walking circuit

Some ice had collapsed into the lake

Eventually, it was time to leave. We reached the bus stop a couple of minutes before the agreed time, and started waiting. A lot of buses stopped and left, but ours wasn't among them. We were getting a bit worried, but some other people from our bus were also waiting, so we knew that we hadn't missed it. In the end, the bus arrived a half an hour late. Fortunately, we still arrived in El Calafate early enough to catch another bus up north to El Chaltén, for which we had already bought tickets.

Some more photos of the glacier and El Calafate can be found here. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

San Carlos de Bariloche and its surroundings (October 30th - November 11th, 2013)

San Carlos de Bariloche was our first encounter with beautiful Patagonian nature and I immediately fell in love with it. Many beautiful lakes in which we could see reflection of the surrounding mountains made me even want to retire here one day.

October 30th - Arrival 
We were already amazed by the sceneries when approaching Bariloche on the long bus ride from Buenos Aires. A black road in the middle of beautiful nature, with many lakes and colorful mountains. At around 4 P.M. we arrived at the bus station of Bariloche, seemingly designed just to fit the surrounding scenery. A taxi then took us to Universal Traveler Lodge Hostel. This place with a bit of a weird name is run by quirky Ruben. Quickly this became our favourite hostel in South America. Ruben opened this hostel just recently and the whole hostel felt more like a large house and home than a hostel.

October 31st - Town
The weather prediction for this day was just so-so, and thus we did not make many plans. In the end, the weather turned out to be better than expected. We stopped at the information center to get more info about hiking in Bariloche's surroundings, wandered a bit around the lake and visited the cathedral.

It turned out to be a beautiful day

November 1st - Circuito Chico
Ruben from our hostel booked us bikes for Circuito Chico. Additionally, he lent us the hostel's card for public transportation. Once we'd arrived by bus to the start of Circuito Chico, we rented the bikes and started biking. The weather was absolutely amazing and this turned out to be the best day of our stay in Bariloche.

Laura with our bikes

Beautiful lakes

And beautiful channels connecting them

This lake is called Lago Escondido - Hidden Lake, as it is not directly connected to any other lake

One more picture from this fairy tale land

November 2nd - Hike to Refugio Frey
The next day we planned to go to Refugio Lopez - we'd seen the start of the trail head the day before on our bike trip. Unfortunately, we hadn't studied the bus schedule beforehand, and realized that the next bus was supposed to go in two hours. We thus changed our plans and went to Refugio Frey instead. Thanks to cheap mobile Internet I quickly managed to research the route to Frey. As we were there still too early in the year, the most spectacular route (Frey por el Filo) was out of the question due to too much snow and non-operational chairlifts. Thus, we settled for the standard route up and down. We met two girls from the U.S. and chatted the whole way up and down. The scenery was not as impressive as during the biking trip, because we could not see any cool reflections in the lake. The Refugio Frey is a nice hut with a lake next to it, which was completely covered by snow. We asked about possibilities of doing hut-to-hut hiking, but were discouraged because of too much snow everywhere. On the way down I started to feel a bit weak and was blowing my nose constantly.

Refugio Frey

It was almost winter anywhere above Refugio Frey

November 3rd and 4th - Being Sick
The next two days we spent in bed with a cold and fever. The first day I was the one who needed to be taken care of, and the day after it was more Laura whom I was looking after. Unfortunately, these were the last two days of sunny weather for a while.

November 5th and 6th - Bad Weather
We had not completely recovered, so we did not mind much that the weather was bad. The first day we just used Internet, the second day in addition to using Internet we got tested for Chagas disease. We were a bit scared as I got one strange bite on my face while sleeping in an adobe building in Humahuaca, and we'd spent over two months in Bolivia, where this disease is very common. We went to a private lab. The woman working there was very friendly and we paid just seven euros per person for the test.

November 7th - Cerro Campanario
The weather was slightly better, so we decided to visit Cerro Campanario with a Spanish couple staying at our hostel. Cerro Campanario should have one of the best 360-degree views in the world. It was a nice and easy hike up, but the view from the top was not as impressive as we'd hoped for. We could only see something in the direction of Bariloche, everywhere else it was quite cloudy. We promptly returned to town, continued working on our blog and in the evening picked up the results for the Chagas test, which were fortunately negative.

Only views in this direction were good

November 8th - Swiss Colony
The weather prediction was again not good so we went to see the Swiss Colony. It was definitely not the right day of the week to go there (it should be more lively on weekends), and we were honestly quite underwhelmed.

The not-so-special Swiss Colony

November 9th - Cerro Campanario II
We had a car reserved for this day in order to go and see the Seven Lakes. However, the weather prediction was even slightly worse than for the previous day and one Belgian couple who had done the route gave us the impression that it is not worth it in this weather. We ended up cancelling the car already the previous evening. In the morning, the weather was surprisingly good, and we with no plans - but not for long. We quickly decided to go to Cerro Campanario once more and it was totally worth it. The views from the top were just excellent and this time in all directions.

Perfect views in all directions

This view was also great

On the top we had a good pizza in a small restaurant. We were soon discovered by a hungry cat. She was so hungry that she was even grateful for pizza crusts and we gave her almost all of them.

Radek and the pizza-eating cat

In the evening we found out that the five-day trip to El Chaltén via Carretera Austral that we had booked got cancelled as it did not have enough participants. A bit unhappy, we to a local restaurant to improve our moods with a great dinner.

Laura smiling because of the beautifully-designed  food at Manush

November 10th - Refugio Lopez
As our trip got cancelled we decided to do one more hike, this time to Refugio Lopez. Even though we had been told that the Frey hike is nicer, we got the impression that the hike to Refugio Lopez provides much better views. Unfortunately, we could not continue above the hut as everything was covered in deep snow.

Compared to Bolivia, trails in Argentina are perfectly marked

Refugio Lopez was still surrounded by snow

Laura and a funny tree

On the way back from Lopez we bought tickets for the next day to go to El Calafate.

November 11th - Departure
In the morning it was again raining a bit, so we took a taxi to the bus station and departed for our longest bus ride so far, lasting about 30 hours.

As usually, we have many more pictures and also contributed to OpenStreetMap.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Buenos Aires (October 23rd - 29th, 2013)

"I wanna be a part of B.A. -- Buenos Aires -- Big Apple". And we were a part of it! I absolutely loved Buenos Aires, and could imagine spending a much longer time there.

Buenos Aires street art: this bench looked really soft and comfortable, but was actually rock-hard. 

While preparing for our stay there, we read that there are many things you can do for free in the city, and we were happy to take advantage of this. Thus, after getting settled in at our hostel, we headed to the Museo de Artes Plásticos Eduardo Sívori, with free entry on Wednesdays. We enjoyed the museum, but liked walking in the nearby park and rose gardens even more.

Rose garden

In the afternoon, we joined a free walking tour through the Retiro and Recoleta districts. This area of Buenos Aires has a strong European influence, numerous French-style mansions, and many ladies wearing expensive clothing and a surgically-enhanced surprised facial expression. We were told that plastic surgery is very common in Argentina, because it is included in many private health insurance plans, but "only" once every two years. The tour was very entertaining, and we consider it one of the best city tours we've been to in South America.

The next day, we first had a look at the main square - Plaza de Mayo - and the surrounding presidential palace (Casa rosada), cathedral and old town hall building. We said a quick "hi" to the Argentine National hero San Martín at his current home within the metropolitan cathedral, and then hurried to the Recoleta cemetery.

Casa rosada - possibly painted with cow blood

Cathedral and final resting place of San Martín

We had read that in the Recoleta cemetery, there are free guided tours in English on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11. We arrived a bit before the usual starting time, but were told that the tour would be delayed for a half an hour. We spent the thirty minutes exploring the neighboring Jesuit church (Basilica Nuestra Señora del Pilar) and the rooms of its previous cloister, now transformed into a museum. It had a collection of religious art, which was not particularly interesting for us. In fact, within the cloisters, we most of all liked an old door with a hole in the bottom corner, meant to let cats through.

A door for monks and cats

Back at the cemetery, our guide arrived and apologized for being late - she was ill, and her replacement needed an even longer time to get there. She started the tour, but fortunately after some time, she could go home to bed as the other guide finally arrived and took over. During the tour, we learned truly a lot about Argentine history, because the country's best and most famous are buried in this cemetery. Perhaps the most interesting and gruesome story was about what happened to Evita Peron's body. The first lady traveled much during her life, and afterwards as well; she arrived in her current resting place more than twenty years after death. We were very happy about the tour, but to our surprise, we didn't even get the chance to thank our guide properly - at the end of the tour, our guide thanked us instead, turned around and left.

Mausoleums at Recoleta Cemetery

The dogs nose is shiny because touching it is said to ring good luck

After the tour, we went for a quick lunch, and then headed towards the Czech embassy, so that Radek could vote in the Czech legislative elections. There we learned that his vote came at a high cost for Czech Republic: the officials at his hometown did not send the necessary documents to Argentina, but rather to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who then sent them to Buenos Aires using DHL. The delivery costs were 1500 CZK (about 60 EUR)!

Radek voting in the Czech embassy

We later returned to the city center and went to the Museo del Bicentenario, also with free entry. This museum is located in the old customs building, and has a part dedicated to each major phase in Argentina's history. Afterwards, we walked to and through the Puerto Madero district, with magnificent high-rise buildings. While walking back towards our hostel, we also stopped by the Argentine energy company YPF's building, where there was an exhibition of old and new posters promoting personnel safety in the petrol industry.

Puerto Madero district

On the following day, we went on another free walking tour, this time in the city center. We saw many - a total of five - demonstrations during the walk. Some people have been protesting for a long time: the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for example, have been meeting since 1977. At that time, public gatherings of groups of four people or more were illegal, so these women, with an aim to learn the whereabouts of their children gone missing in the Dirty War, decided in their protest to march in groups of three on the Plaza de Mayo.

A head scarf, symbolizing the Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, painted on the main square

Rodin's Thinker in front of the Congress

In the afternoon, we wanted to exchange some more dollars to pesos. This turned out to be more complicated than expected - a couple of days earlier it had been effortless, but on that afternoon, we were really not having much luck with finding the right person offering the right exchange rate. We were later told that this was because the elections were planned for the next day, and police surveillance was exceptionally high. I got a bit tired, so I went to a café for a cup of tea, and Radek continued to search for a money exchanger. Eventually, he was directed to a guy who at that time was working from a barber's shop (on other days, he was at an official-looking exchange office). He gave us an OK rate, all things considered. We could then buy boat tickets to Uruguay, where we were planning to spend the upcoming weekend.

We took it a lot easier when we returned back to Buenos Aires. We just visited the San Telmo district and its market, which would have been a lot busier and more interesting on Sunday. We also had a peek at the Jesuits' Illuminated Block, but could only go to the courtyard: the buildings were closed at the time.

At the courtyard in the Jesuits' block

With that ended our stay in this beautiful city, of which we have more photos here.