Airplanes, taxis, airplanes, taxis. Alas a step in Patagonia
Saturday 23rd, 2:43pm, Aeroparque Cafe, Buenos Aires
The flight from DC left on time at 10pm, and the 10hr 40min flight was smooth. The chicken dinner with chocolate cake was great, but I had to stuff it down, since I was still full from all the eating at Dupont Circle hours earlier. Couldn't sleep either, probably due to my stomach ache. Too bad I can't resist eating all food put in front of me... I read through the two Sports Illustrateds I brought, then eventually drifted into a solid sleep for probably 5-6 hours.
Never have I slept so well on a plane. Before I know it, Wendy wakes me up for the breakfast being served. I'm still full, and just manage the fruit salad, and add the danish to my stash of food I had packed.
We land at 11:45am at sunny Ezeira airport, and feel the warm summer temperature kick in as we leave the plane. The line for customs is long, and we wait 45 minutes to get through. After our passports are stamped we grab our bags and exit the airport. There are booths to hire a taxi, but the first we encounter has a waiting list before one is available. We head outside into the 85 degree sun (I'm still wearing all my layers) and are greated by several taxi drivers looking for patrons. They don't all speak English, and I now realize I don't remember much from 7th-10th grade Spanish. Fortunately Victor and Wendy are pretty sharp. Victor handles most of the talking, and we settle on a cab to Aeroparque, the airport on the other side of town, for 120 pesos (~$40) to catch our 4pm flight to El Calafate. Forunetaly the car has a decent sized trunk, and all 4 of us fit in with our packs in the back.
There was little traffic on this Sunday afternoon, but the ride through the green country side, into the city, and beyond, still took 35 minutes on the highway to reach the other airport. There were lots of VW Golfs (like my car), and billboards with futbol advertisements. After a 15 minute wait to check-in at the airport, it was already past 2pm, which was the time for our original flight to El Calafate, so it's very handy that we re-scheduled the flight to 4pm earlier in the week. I was told there would be a $25 fee per person for our flight change, to be paid at the check-in counter, but we were not asked to pay. Bonus!
Wendy, Victor, Christine smile before checking their bags at Aeroparque airport for our 4pm flight to El Calafate...
It was easy to tell which of us would be camping in tents vs staying at the huts. Our backpack weights -- Mine: 35lbs, Wendy: 29lbs, Victor: 20lbs, Christine: 18lbs. Wendy and I brought lots of food and a tent for our backpacking trip, giving us the freedom and flexibility to explore as much as possible. Victor and Christine packed light, opting to lessen their loads by staying at the huts and hostels as much as possible, where they could purchase food too. Technically Aerolineas Argentinas airlines had a 32lb weight limit for bags, but they didn't object to my bag (I had already maxed my carry-on out at 10lbs too).
We find an ATM in the main terminal after checking in, and it has no additional fee. In fact it also gives you the option to withdraw US$. A couple of weeks ago, Wendy and I opened an account with Addison Avenue to get ATM cards that have 0% fees for withdrawing foreign currency (at Christine's recommendation), so ATMs would be our source of foreign cash, rather than exchanging US cash.
Before entering security, we sit down at the only cafe in this part of the airport. It's empty here. They sell a few decent looking sandwiches, and the other 3 buy some, while I eat my (probably smuggled at this point, and getting slimy) leftover pizza from the US.
Killing time while waiting for our flight at the upstairs terminal...
No taking off shoes to get through security here. Much fancier terminal past security, with lots more food options. Out flight departs on time at 4pm. Wendy and I somehow sat in the wrong seats twice before finding the correct seats after people kept asking to see our ticket. All flight announcements are made in Spanish and English.
Suprisingly, a meal was served on this 3hr domestic flight. I guess Argentinian airlines haven't resorted to the budget cutting like in the US. We had all just eaten a lunch, but I was the only one full enough to need to stash my sandwich, cake bar, and cheese/crackers instead of eating them.
I chatted with Wendy about possible backpacking plans for El Chalten, the 2nd portion of our Patagonia trekking. We hadn't really figured out a plan, and now I was realizing that a 2 or even 3 night backpacking trip there would be ideal, when I had originally thought just 1 night would do. A 4 day backpacking trip following a 6 day backpacking trip in Chile would be a tough sell, but after reviewing all the cool hikes in the area, she seemed open to it.
No sleep for me on this plane ride, as I watch the others zonk out. I'm on the east facing side of the plane as we head south. Can see the Atlantic coastline and big peninsulas. As we head more inland towards El Calafate, most of the terrain is brown, and looks like an ancient ocean bed, with big sand ripples. Plenty of water erosion. Wish I had a seat on the other side to admire the big peaks of Fitz-Roy as we approach. I can capture just a brief glimpse of the behemoth peak out the window across the plane. We'll be visiting that region in another week...
7pm landing at the small El Calafate airport. Prior to the airport opening in 2000, this town was way more remote. Since then the population has grown from 3,000 to 20,000. We grab bags and look for a taxi. It's 50 pesos for the 10-15 minute ride into town ($16). We get dropped off at our hostel, Los Pioneros, where we have reservations, and check-in at the desk.
A pic from the taxi ride into town. Lago Argentina is the body of water. In the background are the glaciated mountains...
They speak good English here, and we're given our room key. We walk past a large common/eating area and kitchen, and down the end of a hall to our room, next to the common bathroom. Battery chargers stick out from the few outlets along the hallway. Not many outlets, so I hope it isn't tough to find juice to recharge our camera batteries.
The room is like a small college dorm room, but with double bunks. Convenient that we have 4 people, so we get the room to ourselves. No outlets here. We drop our packs off, without spending much time unpacking or exploring the hostel, cause we only have a couple of hours to head to town to buy food, fuel, and bus tickets.
Our room at the Los Pioneros hostel. A little too cozy when we're all trying to pack our bags, but comfortable to sleep in...
The walk into town is a bit longer than we were expecting. 15 minutes at an easy pace. We briefly check out a supermarket on the edge of town, and head further in to ChaltenTravel's office to buy a bus ticket to Chile. This is the only place with a direct bus from El Calafate to Torres del Paine Nat Park. To our dismay, there is no more room on the bus tomorrow, and now we need to resort to plan B: Taking a bus to Puerto Natalas, Chile in the morning, and catching the afternoon bus to Torres del Paine (TDP). We'd still make the 6pm ferry at TDP, so this isn't a death blow to our plans. Before leaving, we buy a one-way ticket to return from TDP to El Calafate for Friday, Feb 29th (fortunately that isn't sold out), for $40, then we head to the bus station across the street and buy a 50 pesos ticket to P. Natalas for 8:30am tomorrow from Cootra bus company.
Afterwards, we visit other travel agencies, inquiring about ice trekking info at the Moreno Glacier. There is a mega $140 ice trek that is supposed to be good, but there are also several other options at different locations. Wendy and I find an outdoor gear store, and buy some fuel for our stove (20 pesos). The guy behind the counter says one canister only lasts 3 days for 2 people, but from my experience it's plenty for 6 days and we just buy one. It dawns on me later that dehydrated dinners aren't available here, so most people need to cook pasta/rice/etc, which uses more gas. We just need to bring water to a boil, and we're done.
Next we head back to the grocery store at the edge of town, as we need to buy bread/tortillas for our trip (we packed everything else for the 6 days in Chile). The store is jammed with people, and it would be a long wait to buy anything. They don't even sell tortillas here. Guess it's not an Argentina thing.
We figure we'll have a couple hours tomorrow in Puerto Natales before catching the next bus to buy some bread, so we bail, and head back to the hostel. It stays light out VERY late here. It's 9pm and the sun is still out. Sunset isn't until almost 10pm here!
Walking back to our hostel from town. The streets have no sidewalk, and there is little grass past the edge of the downtown area. The sun still shines around 9:20pm in this pic by Christine...
Back at the hostel, we head to the cafe, but find out they are closed. Still, the woman working there lets us buy some lentil stew. I eat my leftover lunch from the plane, while the other 3 eat the lentils. I try some though, and it's the best lentil stew I've ever had! We find a couple outlets there to start charging batteries, and later use the outlets in the bathroom to recharge the rest.
A late dinner at the cafe in our hostel, where the best lentils I've ever tasted were served...
Christine proposes taking the "alternative glacier bus tour" of Moreno glacier that our hostel runs, which was recommended in her guide book. We read up, and it looks like a good deal, as you get a guided tour that takes more scenic roads, stops many times for pictures, and includes a boat ride, all for $43. Plus it returns by 5pm, so we could keep our schedule and bus to El Chalten later that evening. We had considered hiring a taxi and doing our own thing to visit the glacier, but this tour looks good, and we reserve our spots for Saturday, Mar 1st, as we'll get back from TDP Friday night.
Back in our room, it's time to pack for the 6 day trek. We can leave stuff in the hostel while we're in Chile, so we divy up our gear. I decide to leave my daypack here, and not lug around the 2lb pack, just to use it a couple of times. We leave a bunch of food to be used later in El Chalten, as well as clean clothes for our return, various extra tioletries, and my car keys.
The bathroom shared a common sink area for both genders, and had separate toilet areas and shower areas for each. Good hot water for showers. Thought maybe our room would be noisy, since it was near the bathroom, but turns out it was in the best spot possible, as the common/dinning room area was a non-stop raucus party til 3am. It was still noisy in our room, but could have been worse.
We went to bed around 1am, but I couldn't sleep. Too excited, and maybe still too full. Backpacking will put an end to my overeating. I lay there listening to the other 3 breathing rhytmically and peacefully. Eventually ~3am I got up, since I was pretty wired, walked out to the lobby, used the internet (no line at this hour), and wrote in my journal.
Party seems to be dying down in the common room now. Maybe I'm ready for sleep now.
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