Friday, December 3, 2010

Flying Solo to Patagonia

Just a day after my mom left, I left Buenos Aires too. But this time I was destined for Patagonia!
I planned a trip with my friends, but they ended up finding the cheapest flight prices were while my mom was in town, and I encouraged them to do what they needed to do to be able to go on their trip. So while they went to Ushuaia and then El Calafate, I started my trip in El Calafate to meet up with them.

El Calafate is well know for it's proximity to the glacier Perito Moreno. Most people go and stay in El Calafate so they can plan their excursions to the glacier. So I arrived in El Calafate at noon, and booked a mini-trekking glacier excursion for the next day. There turned out to be a bit of a hassle because I booked it for my friends (who were arriving a bit later, at like 5 pm) too so that we could definitely be in the same group. But problems turned up when they decided they didn't want to do the trek on the glacier, and we had to cancel their reservation later in the night - as companies were closing. I, however, was not going to give up the experience of slipping on some crampons and walking over one of the only "stable" glaciers left on the planet. (Stable refers to the fact that it loses ice at a rate about equal to it's growth each year - so while the vast majority of glaciers are getting smaller, Perito Moreno and about one other, I believe, in the Patagonian ice field is staying the same size.)
Perito Moreno after a giant chunk fell off. 

The day of the glacier trek ended up being really nice. I was worried because the forecast called for some rain, and the people staying the hostel the first night with me had gone on the trek that day in rain, and they were pretty miserable. But my day was gorgeous, albeit, rather cold (okay - so it wasn't horrible but honestly it was like 90 the day before in Buenos Aires, and por eso, I thought El Calafate was freezing). On the bus ride to the glacier in the morning I met a nice couple, probably late twenties or very early thirties, and they both had studied abroad. So we talked about how my experience was going and they were really supportive of the fact that I was traveling alone and had decided to to my own thing and not give up such amazing experiences because I didn't have anyone to go with. It was so great to meet people who had done it too and survived to tell the story!
I spent the day with them, ate lunch together, walked around, and we did the glacier trek together. They adopted me as their photographer and they also helped by taking some of me, or holding Cocky for his photos. It was so nice to meet them, it really made the day as awesome as it could have been. On the other hand, I was sitting on this short boat ride back to the bus, and I got separated and couldn't get a seat near my new friends. So I sat near a group of about 8 people, I'm assuming Dutch. They were speaking in English to each other and I was just trying to ignore their conversation/look like I wasn't listening in. So I heard the entire thing. And one very large piece of the conversation is about how they would never travel alone and not only is it depressing to be alone and have to travel alone, but it's just lame, or something along those lines... I prefer to agree with my NY couple instead of these Dutchmen because I had a great time even though I was on my trip alone.

So after one more night in my hostel in El Calafate with my friends, I transferred on the 8am bus to El Chaltén. El Chaltén is the "National Capital for Trekking" and is home to Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. It's also really interesting because I didn't realize it beforehand, but El Chaltén is actually a town inside a national park (Parque Nacional los Glaciares), so when the bus pulls into town, it first makes a stop so that we can hear about the rules of being in the park (aka no garbage on the trails, everything comes back to the town and then goes to El Calafate later on) and the trails that we could take and their levels of difficulty. Honestly, I felt like the vast majority of the hikers were really respectful of the rules about no garbage/"leave no trace". I did find like a tissue and a cigarette butt while I was hiking, but I just put them in my garbage baggie and brought them back to town with me. Anyway, I had 3 nights (2.5 days), so the first day I did a short hike to go see Cerro Torre. Which wasn't visible. Of course. There's normally a lot of cloud cover there. On the second day, my hectic month caught up with me. I had finals, then I went to Salta, then my mom was here - my allergies exploded at that time and I was a bit sick, and then I was traveling again. So on the first full day, I laid in bed and read all day, and I went out lunch with a woman from Valencia, Spain and practiced some Spanish. I just didn't feel 100% and figured that hiking in the cold wouldn't help. Of course, that day, Mt. Fitz Roy was visible. That day also was Thanksgiving and I was feeling quite homesick after talking to my Mom, Aunt and Uncle on the phone. I ate a hot dog. Between my family, there were 3 turkeys. That's the life of study abroad. I stayed up pretty late that night talking to a nice guy that I met hiking the day before, who was from Israel. We had the same sense of humor so everything was just really funny to us.
Mt. Fitz Roy during my hike.
But, to my luck!, Mt. Fitz Roy was also visible the next day. And how spectacular it is! Seeing Mt. Fitz Roy was probably the highlight of my trip. It was so glorious and it was a great way to end 5 spectacular months in Argentina. I started the hike in the drizzle, and ended up hiking mid-day in a t-shirt because I was so hot. I also got a tad bit sunburned on my hike, and quite lost. I knew I wasn't good at reading maps, but one map said - El Chaltén two hours or four hours, so being the lazy child I am (plus I'd already been out for 4.5 hours), I chose the two hour trail. NOPE! I chose the 4 hour trail because I'm illiterate. After 8.5 hours out in the sunshine and fresh air, I was SO tired. At night in the hostel I overcooked my spaghetti because I was busy talking to a young couple from Seattle and a guy from Switzerland, the part that speaks the really strange language. We started making him say everything to us in it. It was really fun and great to sit down with some complete strangers but have traveling and hiking in common.

The following day (Saturday, when I had started my trip on a Monday), I took an afternoon bus to El Calafate airport and hopped on a plane to Ushuaia - the end of the world! I thought Ushuaia would be my favorite part of this trip, so I was a bit disappointed. It looked so amazingly beautiful from the plane, but landing was terrifying because the airport is essentially a little island, so you come down over the water and just land. Scary! On my first full day in Ushuaia (the Sunday), I wandered around the town trying to figure out what excursions I would do. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, so barely anything was open, and I got nothing planned. So I returned up the giant hill to my hostel, and booked a bus to go to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego the next day. On the bus in the morning there were a bunch of 20-somethings, and so we decided to stick together and do a nice hike with each other. There were 2 people from Canada, two from Switzerland, and one from Norway (okay, so she was older than 20-something, but really cool none-the-less). We hiked around, got a bit turned around - I didn't read the map this time, so it was not my fault! - and ended up doing a nice hike along the coastline. It was really great to hike with a group after a few days of hiking alone (although I didn't mind that either). By the end of the day, we'd gone from snowing heavily, to sunshine where I was in just a sweatshirt, back to snow/a drizzle, etc. It essentially was 4 seasons in one day. But it was the end of the world, what else could we expect?!
After getting back to town and warming up a bit after about 6 hours of hiking and a bit of lunch, the 28-year old from Switzerland, the lady from Norway, and I went out to dinner. I tried all sorts of new foods (salmon and mussels - haha, nothing exotic, but I'm such a picky eater anyway), and slept like a little baby. The next morning I woke up and went on a tour of the Beagle Chanel, which was nice, but not what I expected. We went to three islands - one with sealions, one with cormoranes, and one with the End of the World Lighthouse, and I paid extra to go to the penguin island thinking that it was like the excursion my friend did where she was allowed to walk amongst the penguins. That's why I was upset. Because we didn't. So it wasn't much different than going to a zoo, but it was still really nice.
After that I got on a plane and headed "home" to Buenos Aires.

End of the World Lighthouse with Ushuaia (and Chile, to the left) in the background.
Looking back on it, I don't think that traveling alone was scary at all. And it's so strange to hear people say that they're proud of me for being brave and going alone. Don't get me wrong, I'm so glad for all the support I've received to make this trip a reality, but it doesn't feel like I did anything scary or brave. But when I talk with my friends here, and they mention that they never would have dared to go alone, I'm shocked that more people don't.

I guess me feeling comfortable enough to go alone is just a sign that I don't need to depend on other people to figure out my entertainment, or that I'm comfortable enough in knowing that I'm mature enough to go out into this world alone, and I feel so happy that I think that's the real meaning behind all of it.
But I know that if I hadn't gone to Patagonia, if I hadn't seen Mt. Fitz Roy in person, I would look back on this entire study abroad experience and been upset that I hadn't done these things.

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