Sunday, January 15, 2006

Patagonia IV: The El Bolson-Comodoro Rivadavia-El Calafate “circuit”

Probably the most ugliest Cathedral in the world (Comodoro Rivadavia) - Taken by Maya Gur


Getting back to Bariloche, Me and Lee finally shipped her Muchila back to Israel and after a nice day we parted, again, for the third time...Getting back to El Bolson and re-meeting with Maya and Barak we embarked on successive lengthy bus rides only to reach El Calafate, circling the whole triangular Patagonian plane...

Bureaucratic and yet another parting...
Waking up early (5:30 am!), me and Lee arranged our stuff and took off on foot to the bus station. Before departing to the cold street, Lee said goodbye to semi-sleepy Maya and Barak, that she might see only in Israel in some unknown futural date...
We briskly walked, to get warm and also to reach the station on time so we wont miss the bus, and eventually we came well before the time of departure. We slept a good deal of the ride back to Bariloche, only to reach the awakening resort town right before the clock chimed 9 times. We had a small coffee in the station waiting for the opening of office so we could already secure Lee`s next departure to Salta. Yep, last time we were there when we went to El Bolson Lee found out that some companies right it all the way to Salta, and once hearing this, decided she is gonna run the whole way there, and from there to the all to familiar, San Pedro de Atacama...
Well, the offices were open and quickly we found a good bus company and bought the first ticket we could get, around the 24th of December, Christmas time (not that Lee is to eager to celebrate Christmas, but she wanted to be there for Rafael in this family holiday...).
We then climbed a taxi and road to town and Lee checked-in in The Red Deer in the same room (this time they charged her 50 Peso a night!) even after she told them she stayed there several times and plans on returning to Bariloche...nothing helped and she bite on it and went up to here room. We took the Muchila and zoomed back to town to get to the post office. Monday morning, and the line already curved with the constrains of the building, passing through the entrance...Damn...We standed in line and after ten minutes we got to the cashier only to weigh the package and then go to customs so they will check the package and then back down, to stand in the long line of people AGAIN...SHIT! I remember that I was so pissed off that Lee was looking at me with a sad look (or maybe it wasnt so sad??) that I gripped my self and reminded me that shity bureaucratic should not make one so angry...I shook my self and when we entered the custom office (at least here there was no one in line...) I was already doing my best to get back on the sane track. The nice custom guy asked several questions, checked the package and sealed it with a tape, stamping it at the end. Finally! We went down, stood in line again and finally shipped the package. Hurray!
We strolled in the city, and as usually, talking our personal talks while stopping here and there and making little arrangements in touristy Bariloche. I bought a ticket for the 6:30 PM bus back to El Bolson and when lunch time came, we had another good meal in the vegetarian restaurant. Eventually, we parted hastily (as it almost does) as I caught a taxi to the bus station. While the taxi sped along the street, leaving Lee to climb the stairs to the hostel, I was pondering if, when and where we gonna meet again – would it be here in South America with her parents or it would be in ole Israel with the smell of the Red sea?

Checking out handwork in beautiful El Bolson
Getting back to El Bolson, I found the new hostel Maya and Barak found nearby and the two of them after a nice shower. While I was back in Bariloche the two went to visit the Israeli ranch on the shores of a little lake. They told me I didn’t miss anything special and after rearranging a bit we ventured out to eat something and eventually found ourselves eating in the Juaja restaurant a delicious meal we still remember even here in Ushuaia (were I am writing this entry), some three weeks after. After that we went back to the hostel for a good night sleep till the next morning.
It was Tuesday, Market day! We first went to buy tickets to Comodoro Rivadavia, a big town known for their fuel centers (YPF) but nothing touristy there. As I mentioned before, our plan was to try and rent a car there and travel the width of Patagonia to the southern part of the Caratera Austral. We found the most proximate departure around 6:30 PM and took it with planned time of arrival at 6 am...SSHHH, another 12 hours ride...
We then went back to the plaza and had a small breakfast while waiting for the market vendors to get their little stands for the days work. Finally, we started to walk along the different stalls, admiring the hand work and passing the time till lunch time where we ate at the food stalls (and met an Israeli couple me and Lee met in Brad`s place in Pucon...). Maya wanted the real thing so we went to jauja so she could buy the hamburger I had the previous evening. We finished with the delicious and famous Jauja ice cream, delighting on every bite and then we passed the time till we needed to take our stuff to the bus station (I went to the internet while Maya and Barak enjoyed the sunshine in the little Plaza).

Riding to the Atlantic side of Patagonia...
On our way to the bus, while I was trying not to swing with heavy weight of my Muchila, I heard a scream of joy and before I knew it somebody jumped on my muchila and almost toppled me on my side to the sidewalk! Guess what? It was no other than Sivan (!), full of joy, all jittery with Efrat and Ravid looking from the store they were buying stuff, amused as hell...The girls just came to El Bolson the same day we leave...It was a funny meeting and as it usually happen, Maya and Barak were in shock from Sivan's behavior...As we were hurrying to get to the bus station, I said goodbye after some talk and went along.
Getting to the bus station, we found Shaul and Hauvi waiting also for their bus south (I also met them before in the internet). We talked with them about our plans and theirs and we agreed that if we are lucky and find a good deal in Comodoro we will email them and might catch them on their way south toward Futalefu. The bus came into the station and after we dropped our stuff in the cargo bay and boarded the double floor bus, I was surprised to see Alon sitting there with his Minidisk and smiling, as usual. He was going direct from Bariloche to Rio Gallegos, a ghost town on the southern tip of Patagonia, and a must pass town on the way to El Calafate, the ports town of Chile and of course, Ushuaia. Checking the seats I found out that the location was wrong (instead of locating on the right side it was located on the left side) and coinciding I heard Barak talking something about the driver that saying this is not our bus. Going down we found out that indeed our bus gets a bit later. we dragged our stuff back to the bus station only to wait 20 minutes more before the right bus got (only one floor and not to cozy for a night ride...). The ride was long and tiring, even though I managed to squeeze a good sleep toward the lengthiest day in the year, the 21st of December. Sunset was only around 10:30 PM! And I could still see some rays of light at 11:30 PM! Amazing place!

Breakfast at YPF, helpful tourist information staff, the best ever steak (!) and the ugliest church I have ever seen...
We hit Comodoro Rivadavia a bit after sunrise, 6 am, to see the sun over the Atlantic as the bus rode passed the poor promenade into the center of town. We went down only to meet with Alon, waiting for his continuing ride around 8:30 am and which was helpful and suggested us to rest a bit in the YPF station that have a dinner. Good idea! We indeed got out of the station, crossed the street and found the gas station sitting close to the beach front with coffee, shit to eat and more importantly, place to sit and phone boots to make some calls. We planned on making some calls to some rental agencies and if we find appropriate one, rent the car the same day and ride hard and long toward Chile Chico on the Argentinean-Chilean front. It was the 21st of December, the longest day of the year and we were already south enough to have light all the way till 11 PM…
Finally, we managed to call several agencies but most of them didn’t had any high clearance car, not talking about a 4WD jeep and the little that had such a car, demanded enormous amount of money for it…So, as quickly as the crow flies we abandoned the idea of traveling in the Carratera Austral and returned to the bus station to buy the next bus we can find to El Calafate.
Without asking too much questions, we found the first bus we could take to El Calafate, which is situated on the southern part of the Argentinean Andes spine, some 1449 km south of Bariloche and “only” 863 km north of little southern Ushuaia. We found a bus that rides from 20:30 all the way to Rio Gallegos (pronounced “Gajegos”), a ghost town on the southern tip of the Patagonian triangle and from there we should take another 4 hour bus up north-west to El Calafate, circling the Patagonians land. A long-long ride! Barak offered we gonna check the near tourist information but we told him that most probably they will be telling us that those are the only options. Well, we quickly found that we were wrong…They told us about another option to leave with a different company a hour later but have a DIRECT bus that goes all the way to El Calafate instead of getting into Rio Gallegos and start looking for buses to El Calafate (which is a high destination on many tourists map…). So, me and Barak standed in the waiting line to Andesmar company while Maya waited in line for the Sportsman company that fare directly to El Calafate…Very funny, because we were not sure if we can get a free place in Sportsman and if we cancel the place ahead of plan in Andesmar we might find ourselves with nothing...At the end, they canceled our tickets and we managed to find place on the Sportsman`s bus to El Calafate not after we asked the helpful tourist information personal waited with us in line to verify that we get the right bus (!!). Time of reaching El Calafate was 12 PM the next day.
Now, what are we gonna do in Comodoro Rivadavia all this time?? So, the very friendly tourist information showed us the local attractions (mostly sea lions scouting outside of town) and with the Lonely Planet’s recommendation we went to the city. We mostly shopped (Maya bought a trekking pants), ate the best steak I had in this trip (Peperoni restaurant) and saw one ugly Cathedral, the most ugliest I have ever seen (with the Lonely Planet`s comment as this is the ugliest cathedral you’ll ever see in your life time). Looks like the pope didn’t have the time to visit Comodoro and to give the locals some Euros to erect something a bit more appealing…We wondered more, checked our emails and even walked close to the Argentinean Naval base, which we were not allowed to get in even after we explained them that we want to see sea lions (the guard didn’t really understand our hands gestures so we gave up before they will arrest us of being outside a mental institution…). At the end we got back to the bus terminal to re-arrange ourselves for the 14 hours bus ride to El Calafate.

El Calafate
We were a bit concerned about what kind of bus we gonna get for this long ride to El Calafate as last time we had a nightmarish ride due to lack of space for our legs (and none of us cross the 1.7 meter so I really don’t want to think how a 1.85 person would cramp into that seat for so many hours…). We were pleased, then, to see the double floor bus get into the station, all neat and sparking, like it was taken out of the factory that same day (listen, it is still the longest day of the year so who knows…). We scrambled to the upper floor and grabbed the four front seats, those that had a panoramic view as it was a “first-come, first served” seating agenda. We made ourselves comfortable as the bus started its way south on the famous route number 3, the route that starts north in Buenos Aires and heads down south along the Atlantic coast some 3200 km to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.
At 9 PM it was already getting dark, and along the way we could see on our left side the Atlantic breaks on the shores while on our right the enormous wilderness of the Patagonian plain with the sun spreading here last rays of light across the plain and above hills. Even though it was a comfortable ride, I didn’t have a good sleep, as it usually happens to me on long bus rides. Nontheless, the ride passed quite good and we woke up to see sunrise already at 5:00 am at a small town on the way that the bus stopped over to pick up passengers on the way south to Rio Gallegos.
Patagonia, as I started to appreciate in this ride, was an almost endless stretch of flat wilderness, without almost any trees but to some overgrown bush that even they hang for their lives under the windy and cold conditions that characterize this piece of land. It is not that attractive, I must add, but still, the wide and distant horizon that stretched forever got my thoughts flying really far…
Finally, around 8 am we got to grey and wind-swept Rio Gallegos, half MASTULIM from a sleepless ride. We had some hour and half till the bus departs to El Calafate, so I went to fetch some coffee and tea from the nearest YPF station that housed a small food serving joint (this time they let me in – check out the future entry about getting back to Buenos Aires…). When I got back to the bus station, which is situated across the highway, I found to my surprise that the bus has gone (with three cups of hot drinks in my hands…)…WHAT THE HELL?! I started circling the whole god-damn bus station till I stumble into Maya. Well, turns out that the bus went to refuel and dropped all passengers in the terminal, only I didn’t knew it, and wandering around with hot drinks in the cold wind was not what I call a good idea…We sat happily in the wind-sheltered bus terminal with other hundreds of grimy Argentineans, tourists and workers, waiting for the minute we can get the hell out of this town (and we were only in the bus station).
The time has come, finally, and we made our way north by north-east along the southern tip of Patagonia and getting into the rough and famous route 40, the unpaved route that runs all the way from the tip of Patagonia all the way up to Salta region, near the border with Bolivia.
It was a scenic ride through the wilderness, seeing sheep jump and run at the cry of the bus engine’s at the side of the road with a marvelous backdrop of the distant spiny Andes, partial covered with snow. The grey hanging clouds just added to the drama of this ride and eventually, we came into little and touristy El Calafate, sitting on the shores of the enormous Lake Argentina.
Coming into the little bus station, we were quickly confronted with representatives of several hostels in town, and of course, we went to the cheapest we could. It was an HI affiliated hostel and it shuttled us in a minibus to the other side of the city only to see a clean but camp-like hostelling style and a cunning staff (the guy at the station said it was 20 pesos, and in the hostel it jumped to 23 pesos because we didn’t have the HI card…). The atmosphere was also not pleasant so we checked the other HI in town (which were connected together) and found them to be as equall unappealing and cunning, so we decided to go to America del Sur hostel, which was on the other side. It was not a great walk, I can tell you that, but at least we got to a VERY friendly and appealing hostel. Floor-heating system, a vast open space serving as a lobby, chilling out corners and dinning area, this place attracted us from the start, not to mention the friendly and helpful staff. We gladly put our shoes outside the entrance as it is not allowed to walk with shoes in the hostel to keep it clean (don’t forget it is all heated up underneath the floor so it is not cold…). It was more expensive, but we felt we get what we paid for, and that was fine with us…
We got rearranged quickly (got a hot shower after two days without one!) and went to see the city. On the way Barak suggested we gonna rent a car (?!) to see the Perito Moreno famous glaciar instead of taking a tour. Doing the calculation we figured out that we can save a bit money there but we might miss the “trekking” part underneath the glaciar. The pro side was that we could stop whenever we wanted to take pictures and also we can decide when we gonna leave to the park and when we gonna cut back to El Calafate. We went to search for rental car agencies and found one that offered a fiat for 140 pesos a day, including 200 km. We went to the tourist information (which is in the bus station) to see if it is possible to hike without a guide in the park (it is not) and on the way out we met no other than Aviran and Shiri! Well, they were waiting for the bus to El Chalten after they saw the glaciar and returned the car the same day. Shiri was very excited and showed some videos from her camera captured only several hours before – it was impressive in that little screen, I just guessed it is even more impressive to be there and see the giant thing crumble in front of your eyes…Talking with them more (and also with Alon), they recommended the small Hertz office that gave them a good car for 150 pesos. We told them we gonna check it out and before departing Aviran and Shiri told me they are planning on hiring a car in Bariloche to do the Carratera Austral, and if I want I can join them after Ushuaia (our plans were more or less the same). This suggestion caught me by surprise, as I already abandoned the idea of actually touring the Carratera but I also was not sure I want to squeeze the amount of money needed for it, so I told them I will think about it.
We went quickly to check the Hertz agency, and gladly found a friendly staff and the car ready for rental as of 8 PM for the same price (they wanted more, but we told them about Aviran and Shiri and they accepted to lower the price back to 153 pesos per day). We rushed back to buy tickets for the next’s day bus to El Chalten that leaves around 6:30 PM. Barak and Maya didn’t have too much time and after I sat with them in El Bolson and charted their deadline we all agreed that time is rushing and they have to touch-n-go in most places in order to see most highlights they wanted. I didn’t mind to run with them, I actually felt better to start touring faster, and stopping getting stuck in places.
Following buying the tickets we rushed back to the agency (15 minutes walk), took the shiny and new Gol and when Barak behind the wheel, we started back to the hostel to park it and look for some food (just to think we wanted badly to eat and only after 3 hours we could squeez the time for). When we were back in the hostel, the owner joint us for the short walk to town and we asked him if he can recommend any good restaurant. He offered we go to “La Tablita”, “the best restaurant in El Calafate” he praised, so we went there. It looked very serious, very big with lots of people savoring over thick steaks and other yami-looking dishes. We sat down and ordered the regular dish, a “Bife de Chorizo”, which is an Antricot slice of meat, and we found it to be good. The price was not cheap in Argentinean standards but we decided to go for it. Well, lets say that we waited patiently for more than an hour and a half (!) till we got our orderes (like many other people in our row too) and that only happened after we asked the waitress if our dishes our ready (and she went to the BBQ man that suddenly flipped through the many leafs of orders till he found ours…great!).
Two bites out of it and I was deeply disappointed – It was overly cooked on the outside and tasted like shit. At that point I was getting pissed off, and I called the waitress, and explained her the problem. She went back to check if they can change my order (which they agreed but I should still pay half of the order) and I ordered another two Chorizos (spicy hot dogs) which they didn’t fuck up. Maya and Barak were not over the roof enjoying their meal and at the end we got out with bad taste (maybe because I was so disappointed and it affected them). We finished up with ice cream before we went to bed, waiting for the next day tour.

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