An early morning check-out from EcoCamp was something I didn't want to do. But that's how it went out for me. The previous evening, during our "farewell" dinner together with my new friends from Germany and Holland, the camp manager explained that since the bus I was booked with leaves Puerto Natales at 7AM, I had to leave the camp at 6:30AM in order to catch it at Cerro Castillo, the border outpost with Argentina. My next destination? El Calafate.
I don't have problems waking up early morning to catch a bus. It's just that I wanted to linger a bit longer at the camp and have a nice leisurely breakfast with fellow trekkers before leaving. However, I've imbibed on too much Chilean wine at last night's dinner that I haven't even packed my stuff (as I should) and ended up panicking at 6AM when Pato, the camp manager, knocked on my tent to remind me that the driver is waiting. It didn't help too that I woke up with a nasty headache.
|leaving EcoCamp @ 6:30AM|
After hastily shoving all my gear and my smelly trekking outfit into my backpack, I ran into the van - the driver was indeed waiting for me. Pato, to his credit, was kind enough to allow me to have some coffee inside the Core Dome for "just a few minutes". I sat there in the long table alone, remembering that just last night, we were a bunch of noisy, tipsy trekkers celebrating the beauty and wonder of traveling. Thank goodness for the coffee, I think I will survive this headache and endure another long day of travel.
|Torres del Paine alpenglow|
I was the only passenger and as we sped on the dirt road away from the camp, I had my last glimpse of the Torres and the surrounding mountains bathed in a dreamlike alpenglow. We reached Cerro Castillo after about an hour where the driver dropped me off. There's nothing much in this little outpost except a store and some houses. It was cold and blustery so I went inside the store, hoping that the bus left Puerto Natales on time. At 8AM, the bus pulled in front of the store and I climbed aboard, getting a seat way in the back as the bus was almost full.
|Chilean border control in Cerro Castillo|
|Argentinean border control|
To my surprise, everyone was getting off the bus just as I got myself settled. It turns out, the Chilean border control is practically next to the store. We queued up as a solitary Chilean officer stamped everyone's passport with a thumping "salida". I've now officially exited Chile and I'm about to enter Argentina. However, the next country's border control is still several kilometers away so we boarded the bus and rode into Argentina's countryside still defined by the vast Patagonian steppe.
|A long bus ride|
|Nagaraya nuts from the Philippines|
At the border outpost, I counted my US dollar bills to pay the "entrance fee". In Chile's main airport in Santiago, I had to pay an exorbitant $140 as an American passport-holder just to get in - this is the reciprocity fee, or the amount Chileans pay when they apply for US visas. Much as I hated this expensive fee, (which allows unlimited entrance to Chile and Argentina for the life of my passport) there's nothing I can do about it. Thankfully, I found out that the fee is currently collected only at the main airport in Buenos Aires and not at remote border outposts.
|Estancias dot the lanscape|
As the bus rambled on, passing endless estancias after estancias, my stomach grumbled in hunger. It was already past 12 noon and I only had a big bottle of water and a bag of Nagaraya nuts with me. My mind was swirling with images of beef steak, this in the land of the Gaúcho where herds of beef and sheep end up in parillas all over this carnivorous country. There's still about 2 hours to go before our arrival in El Calafate but I made a mental note to hit a parilla for my first meal in Argentina.
|Lago Argentino: take note of the iceberg floating in lower right!|
The moment I saw the turquoise waters of a huge lake, I knew we were entering El Calafate. This town, now enjoying a booming economy due to tourist arrivals, sits at the shores of huge Lago Argentino. I looked at my photocopied Google map of El Calafate to orient myself, noting the location of the bus terminal vis a vis the hostel where I will be staying. With my two backpacks, I walked for 15 minutes searching for Che Lagarto Hostel.
|Looking for my hostel|
A very friendly front desk clerk welcomed me at the hostel. At 160 ARS (40 USD) per night, my small room was clean with ensuite rainshower bathroom (and a separate toilet!). Breakfast is included. Free Wifi is available but since I didn't bring my laptop with me, I managed to check my emails in their Internet-connected PCs. I inquired about excursions to the glaciers, after all, that's what visitors come to El Calafate for, but I decided on checking the prices instead at travel agencies in Avenida del Libertador, the town's main drag.
When I was about to go out, my attention was diverted to the TV screen in the hostel lobby. Some guests were looking at what seem like a "breaking news", as if there was some urgency in that rapid fire Spanish newscast. The hostel clerk, whose name I forgot, turned to me: "Oh, that's former President Kirchner, the husband of the current President. He died of heart attack while vacationing here in El Calafate".
During my first visit to Argentina 3 years ago, the biggest news that greeted me in Buenos Aires was Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner winning the Presidential elections and in so doing, succeeding her own husband in becoming the President of Argentina. It did surprise me now that on this second visit, there was another big news about a Kirchner, albeit a sad one. What news perhaps would greet me if I return in the future? "Please, no bad news next time", was the speedy reply from the hostel clerk as I set off to find lunch.
|Parilla Mi Viejo|
|My late lunch|
At Parilla Mi Viejo, one of the recommended parillas in town, at least there was some good news: the beef steak was succulent and juicy. Just as I'd requested, it came medium-well done (as I don't like to see blood on my plate), the meat giving off such a wondrous textural feel and taste that only a grass-fed cow could possibly deliver. There was a side dish of vegetable salad to lessen the guilt and enough bread to load me with carbs. Hopefully, this won't mean bad news to my cholesterol level.