The Towers of Paine are an astonishing sight. Viewed from the glacial tarn a mile away, the three granite peaks soar some 4000 truly vertical feet into the sky. Photographs convey little sense of their immensity. You must go yourselves to see them, so to speak, in the rock.
Here’s how to get there: fly to Buenos Aires (11 hours overnight from JFK). You are now the same latitude as the southern tip of Africa. But you have another 1600 miles south to go (preferably by air) to El Calafate, where a new airport awaits the tourists. The drive is about five hours on wide, empty but mostly dirt roads to the entrance to the Torres del Paine national park. (Note: almost every windshield we saw was cracked.) You’re almost there! Cross a one-lane bridge with--really!--an inch clearance on either side. A bit more driving followed by a three-hour hike and there, overwhelmingly, stand the Towers. To say the least, you can’t miss them. If you can’t make the trip, you can pretend that you did, thanks to this vivid description.To be convincing, be sure to use the right pronunciation: PIE-nee.
Before proceeding south, we had spent a couple of days in Buenos Aires. About one-third of Argentina’s 39 million live in its environs. A cosmopolitan place, with all too many McDonalds arches. This was a great time to visit, because the peso was floundering against the dollar. Take New York prices and divide by 3.5. For Argentinians the consequences were less happy. A cab driver was nearly in tears as he talked about starving children. Later we saw a windswept nighttime street being foraged for paper, which is recyclable.
Argentina is likely the most European country in South America. We felt at home from the start. Our taxi driver (from the airport) simply assumed that we were Jewish, as was he. Buenos Aires streets are variously rather and astonishingly wide. Prime example: Av. 9 de Julio. Fourteen lanes, all heading the same way. Distances are considerable, so we did take some taxis as well as the subte (subterranean), which is comfortable and cheap, even were the peso at full value. The first afternoon we tried a bus tour around the city. The first 90 minutes were devoted to picking up other tourists, who kept phoning our guide to collect them. Then a comely young woman named Marianna snapped photos of the group: Colombians, Peruvians, Brits et. al. and us two Americans. She vanished with a promise to return at the end of the tour with “a surprise.” The bus took us to several neighborhoods and a rose garden. It was unable to reach the Plaza de Mayo because of a manifestacion [demonstration--see below]. We returned to Marianna’s surprise: a photo of each couple or individual, with head superimposed on a tango-ing duo. Funny enough for the $10 price. We then walked home by an extremely inefficient route, interrupted only by an emergency ice-cream stop.
Thanks to the world-wide web of weavers, Susan had made contact with an Argentinian craftswoman, Vanina. Many of Vanina’s forebears were Jewish. She and her mother--a noted craftswoman herself--kindly drove us around town for the better part of a day, with stops at innumerable (it seemed to me) yarn shops. The mother is a well-known tapestry artist whose work has been shown in Europe and the U.S. They also took us to lunch at Rodizio’s. The salad bar, which included shrimp and smoked salmon, could easily have been an entire meal. It was followed of meats (favorite Argentine food) brought skewered to the table for carving: sausage, sweet breads, pork, roast beef, steak. Vegetarian hell. Although we were satiated, dessert was irresistible. It wasn’t like this everywhere, however; the previous evening Susan had “one of the worst meals of my life,” a tough, tasteless cod production that she came nowhere near finishing.
Patagonia is not a country, but an enormous region. It is shared, with occasional disputes, by Chile and Argentina. We flew there early (airborne at 6:20 a.m.) Sunday, December 15. On landing 1600 miles south , at the new airport at El Calafate, we were met by our guide Andreas. He is not Jewish, but his girlfriend is. He and the driver Javier took us four fairly bumpy hours to the Chilean border. There we exchanged our Hyundai van for a comparable Ford (which, as I wrongly recall was called a Chucklemaster). We also traded Javier for a Chilean driver. A lunch stop showed how much pricier Chile was going to be: two modest sandwiches, tea and a candy bar for $11.00. The hosteria was expensive too, but it did provide a great (though all too lavish) buffet at breakfast and dinner. It was from here that we launched our hike to the Towers of Paine. The terrain was easy until the final hour of scree. The weather was gorgeous (n.b.: this is not characteristic of Patagonia). Some twenty visitors had preceded us, and a similar number followed. They were the usual international mix. We found a New Yorker, who disappointingly could not tell us whether the threatened NY transit strike had come to pass. His male partner was from Cologne. They had a ritual of photographing their tiny inanimate companions: two pink hippopotami and a bear.
The region is full of greenish glacial lakes, or lagoons--they are very shallow. Some are more than 40 miles long. We traversed the north shore of Lake Nordenskjold for a view of the Cuernos (horns) del Paine. They are nearly as impressive as the Towers and much stranger. Their weird shapes, with a dramatic cut between the two horns, seem the work of a giant demented sculptor. The effect is enhanced by a startling demarcation line between the glorious pink granite and the looses slate on top. Because the lake trail is used by horses, it is not very steep, but has a lot of up and down. At seven miles each way, it provided a tiring (though beautiful) experience. This made the hosteria buffet even more appealing. The hotels throughout were excellent, but we preferred the smaller estancias. Few of our lodgings had television, but all provided a private bathroom with bidet.
The next day we headed back to Argentina. En route we viewed a large waterfall between two of the lakes and walked by the outlet of Lago Grey. Here we had our first taste of the famously wild Patagonian weather. The lake is not merely glacial but fed directly by a large glacier. This deposits ice hunks that float as bergs toward the outlet. We struggled along the pebbled beach while the wind roared over the bergs, accompanied by rain and snow. A few minutes of this were quite enough. Later we climbed a small view-granting hill, only to be blown sideways and down as we fought our way up the trail.
Back in the Hyundai in Argentine with Javier, we explored the area around Cerro Fitzroy. At just over 11,000 feet, this is Patagonia’s high point. It was first climbed in 1952 by a party that included the great French mountaineer, Lionel Terray. He described the adventure in rather unhappy language: “Nobody lived in this region but a few sheep-farmers.... There was never any respite from the wind... and this, combined with the cold, the snow, and the discomfort of living constantly in damp grottoes of the ice, made the experience the most exhausting I have ever known.” This from a member of the Annapurna first ascent group of two years before. He called the ascent “more complex, hazardous and exhausting than anything to be found in the Alps.” Andreas had made the climb recently, by another route, and had found it an icy undertaking. Even more startling is Fitzroy’s neighbor Cerro Torre (tower mountain), a slender ice-encrusted spire topped by a gigantic ice mushroom. It was first climbed in 1959, or maybe it wasn’t--one of those furiously disputed ascents.It has been summited many times since, by a number of routes, but remains exceptionally challenging. You can see it in Werner Herzog’s 1991 film, Scream of Stone. Perhaps because of its hackneyed story, this has not (I believe) been released in the U.S. Try to catch it for the climbing scenes. Andreas told us that Herzog inadvertently left a cameraman on the mushroom overnight, before plucking him off with a helicopter.
Our base in this area was El Chalten (established 1985; population 300), where Andreas was living. A wide boulevard led French-style into the place. Several lanes with a wide median. But the roadway was dirt, there were few cars, and most of the trees in the median had died. There was a church but no priest, and a gigantic gymnasium. The wind continually blew dirt on our backs or faces. As elsewhere, the temperature stayed above freezing, but it often felt very cold. Not surprising that the government has to provide a subsidy to persuade people to live here.
Despite its frontier appearance, Chalten has at least two very good restaurants, the Ruca and the Fuega. Reservations strongly advised (truly). Christmas Eve in Argentina is a lot like New Year’s Eve here. We celebrated with a three-and-a-half hour, too abundant dinner at Ruca. Champagne and such.
Our Chalten hikes were intended to furnish close-ups of Fitzroy, Cerro Torre and their satellites. We did have a number of glimpses of the Fitzroy group, emerging from and hiding behind the rushing clouds. Cerro Torre, alas, remained almost completely socked in. Its lower slopes looked discouraging enough. I gained some notion of scale when Andreas told me that a very minor summit below the clouds was over 1000 feet of hard climbing, as he knew from experience. The next day we did get a terrific view of a glacier debouching into the confluence of two large lakes. Bergs calved off with dramatic splashes into the icy water.
An hour flight down to our final destination, Ushuaia. It is the southernmost city (50,000) in the world. It lies on the Beagle Channel, in Tierra del Fuego. You can read about this area in Darwin and in Lucas Bridges’ remarkable Uttermost Part of the Earth (hard to find in English). Bridges’ father and bride settled in these remote parts late in the 19th century. The father was a missionary and later a rancher. Among his accomplishments was a dictionary of an Indian language (unhappily now extinct along with its speakers, victims of various imported diseases).
The morning of our arrival, Ushuaia was a pretty dismal place--cloudy with a cold, intermittent rain. But the site on the Beagle Channel was lovely. Our rather too elaborate Hotel del Glaciar was fifteen minutes’ drive up the hill in back of town. It had a glorious view: the channel and Chilean snowy peaks to the south. Our window looked northward to more mountains and the glacier. The weather cleared our second day, but not enough for a mountain hike. Instead our new guide Carolina took us on a lengthy walk in the national park. We had great views of the peaks to the east (Argentina) and west (Chile). The next morning we boarded a biggish ferry for Harbeton, some 40 miles east in the channel. This was the site of the first estancia in the area, established by the Bridges family. It is now part museum, but still a working ranch run by a Bridges descendant. En route we passed a shipwreck and a bunch of Magellenic penguins. They are said to be smelly, but we were not close enough to tell.
Back to Buenos Aires for a final dinner with Vanina. We also walked down a boulevard with the highest concentration of police we had ever seen: one every five feet, for blocks. They were watching a manifesticion about a young man who had died in police custody exactly one year earlier.
Susan had only three massages, as compared with her six in SE Asia.
The New Year’s Eve flight to JFK was full. The pilot may have been Jewish.
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