Friday, December 21, 2007

Argentina Diaries: Day 4

On Tuesday morning we had to get up ridiculously early (4 a.m.) to catch a 6 a.m. flight. Aeroparque Airport is only 15 minutes away but the night before I tried unsuccessfully to book us a taxi. Believe it or not it wasn't because of my Spanish -- turns out they require a home phone number and the phone at Cristina's (which she told us not to use) didn't have a number on it and they wouldn't accept my American cell phone as local. Bitches. To assuage Havis's nerves, we got up extra early in the event finding a taxi proved difficult. It didn't.

Aeroparque is a swank airport. I highly recommend it -- even if you just want something to do -- you know, go to a club, to a nice restaurant, maybe a movie... OR you can hang out at the airport. In my book it's right up there with Stansted and AUS. It's also curious why they reserve the nice, shiny airport for domestic and South American flights only, while the international base (EZE) is a crest-fallen Blanche Dubois.

It is no secret I can't stand babies. On airplanes. So it's no wonder then that directly behind me was a probably 18 month old with colic and Tourette's of the leg. At one point I got so annoyed with the incessant kicking that I turned around, removed my eye mask (for effect) and said, "Por Favor!" I suppose it's fortunate that my vocabulary is limited to pleasantries and ordering meals. Speaking of meals, for a three hour flight to our stopover in Ushuaia, LAN provided a huge sandwich full of jamon, so I passed, and some cookies (which I also passed on) but bequeathed both to my travel partner. Fortunately, at Ushuaia, which is the southernmost city in the world they'll have you know, the baby and his parents departed. I felt like this whole me-and-babies-on-airplanes business is some kind of whacked out karma or The Secret on 'roids. I swear, 80% of my flights (and I'm Platinum, yo) I get loud baby next to me. In truth it's not the babies I take issue with. It's their parents. If I ever write a book (or perhaps I should start with an essay), at least one chapter will be devoted to this, entitled, "Don't You Remember What It Was Like Before You Had Kids."

Onward. After our brief stop in Ushuaia we took off again for Patagonia. At noon we landed in El Calafate, which is Spanish for, "Suckaaahh." I shouldn't complain -- their prices are still not as bad as LA. In fact, many have touted Argentina as a cheap vacation. While parts of it are indeed cheap (.70 for Tide!), other prices are comparable to what we're used to in the States. And I so hope that Argentina attracts the kind of travellers who are interested in more than just a good deal.

Our cab driver took us to Casablanca on Av. Libertador. Finally! Exciting salads! I chose a make-your-own number with beets being one of those numbers. Alas, they waited til nearly delivering my food to tell me "no beets today."

Enough about food. Well almost. Later on while I ordered tea at a cool hangout called Elba'r, Hav ordered a submarino, which is a brilliant concoction of steamed milk with a chocolate bar dropped in it. It's such a treat because it gets chocolatier and chocolatier as you drink it.

So, El Calafate is known as a tourist town which serves as the gateway to Patagonia. From here you can take tours to Moreno Glacier, Bariloche, El Chaten, and loads of other places. The town feels a bit like Hood River with a contingency of kids, the outdoor enthusiast types, who obviously make their way there to work, smoke a lot of pot, and chill for the summer. I admit to betting on the whole pot thing but it seems a safe one. The town has a river at its west end, loads of cute artisan and sporting goods shops lining its main street, while the northeast end appears to be for locals.

When you walk up the hill to where the bus station is, you catch a glimpse of how the locals live, which appears markedly different from the pristine storefronts on Av. Libertad. Walking around, waiting for our bus, it felt a little bit like peeking inside someone's medicine cabinet, but at least it's real.

We headed to the supermercado to get supplies four our stay in El Chaten: water, (check); foil, (check); and Band-Aids (nope). It could be because I mistakenly asked the girl for un vendaje (bandage) when any fool knows that Band-Aid is "la curita” in Spanish.

At 6:30, after waiting in the super windy wind for an hour we finally boarded and headed out to El Chaten. We had a 3 1/2 hour ride ahead of us.

The drive to El Chaten takes you along Rte 40 which follows a beautiful view of the middle of nowhere. It's been said that nature's been kinder to other areas of the world, and this is true, yet Patagonia holds its own. Perhaps it’s the vast nothingness which makes it a little bit like Russell Miller -- this guy I went to high school with. While he was no Greg Johnson, (RIP), he's no slouch either, and had a heart of gold and a simple quietness. I found him infinitely attractive. I wonder what he looks like now?

Rte 40 is an interstate, mostly paved. When it is, it's a smooth, softly winding ride. When it's not, it's like four wheeling in a Pinto. Fortunately, we stopped 1/2 way, at Estancia La Leona, which as best as I can tell is an inn of sorts catering solely to tour bus passengers. It sits on a river and a sign in the gift shop indicates they rent fishing equipment, but there were no cars in the parking lot when we arrived, and nothing else around for as far as one can see. That said, if you happen to find yourself in the middle of Patagonia, definitely stop here. Leona makes a bomb hot chocolate. Seriously.

We continued, finally arriving at our destination at the foot of the Andes. Specifically, El Chaten is at the cusp of the Fitz Roy range. At 10:00 at night it was only dusk and I couldn't help but think, "Holy shit, I'm in the Andes." I felt very exotic.

Perhaps not so exotic but no less charming, is that El Chaten is only 23 years old. I could’ve babysat that town. Constructed in 1985 in an attempt by Argentina to lay claim to land before that wily Chile got to it, it is split into tow sections, Centro and North, with an eroding distinction between them. There are no zoning laws, evident by the gigantic red hotel in the middle o town. I heard that only 300 people live there and next year they're getting a cell tower. Oh joy. From several spots in the town you can take trails into the Fitz Roys. But first, we got off the bus and walked to our hotel, El Puma.

What a great little (*cough* expensive) place. Let me say that it is about a three to five minute walk from the bus stop, aka Rancho Grande Youth Hostel (a bustling, smoky habitat for travellers, youth or otherwise). The distance is important because El Puma's grand generosity extended to several invitations to drive us to the youth hostel. We declined, of course.

Andrea, the girl at the front desk, deciphered my poor Spanish and answered me in English. Sadly, her English is better than my own. They only had single beds, unfortunately, she told us. By that point we so didn't care. Despite getting in at almost 10, she encouraged us to eat dinner in Terray, the house restaurant. It should be obvious by now that we've eaten our weight in bread and were in no position to accept her invitation but damn it, it was free food. And by 'free' I mean breakfast and dinner were included in our $180 a night (that's US dollars, folks) hotel room with three twin beds. We compromised and agreed to split something.

We settled on the green bean risotto, or so it was called on the menu. What they delivered was pea risotto with bits of ham in it. Oh naturally -- of course green bean risotto includes ham. At this point, because they kept the restaurant open late for us and I'm a seemingly incurable people pleaser, I ate around the ham. Actually I ate all the lima beans and peas, but no risotto. (I have an inconsistent way of rationalizing nearly anything. At any rate, eating *anything* that meat has touched is a new frontier for me.) Hav was much less discriminating than me whom I appreciated, and I fed him some of mine so we would appear grateful.

And finally, at midnight, we went to bed.

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