Time to leave the Eco-Camp. For once a sunny day with the Torres del Paine in full view! Back down the road in the mini-van, across the Bridge of Death, out the entrance road to the park with goodbyes to the guanacos, pink flamingos and rheas along the way.
Off to Cerro Castillo, the hamlet with the gift shops in the middle of nowhere…which also turned out to be the meeting point for our commercial bus ride back into Argentina. We said our goodbyes to our Torres del Paine driver and guide, gave our tips, got on the bus, drove a few yards, and then found out why the guide referred to Cerro Castillo as a border town. We had to get off the bus again! Stood in a long line to officially exit Chile, getting our passports stamped and documents checked. Got back on the bus, drove a few more yards, then got off AGAIN to stand in a much longer line to officially enter Argentina. This time it seemed that the officials were entering all of our passport information, line by line, into their computer, a long process for a busload of passengers. Finally back on the road, relatively featureless and flat scenery…throw in the occasional coyote and some rabbit brush and it would be eastern Oregon for sure…even caught a glimpse of the kind of badlands that back home would be a good place to look for dinosaur fossils…but the shrubs weren’t quite familiar, and then the occasional rhea, or flock of guanacos, or a condor silhouette on the high winds, reminded us of where we were.
Almost to El Calafate (6 hours after our departure from the Eco Camp, 3 hours from Cerro Castillo), the bus driver’s helper came around to collect our tickets. This was the only glitch in the entire trip; unlike our tourmates, it seemed we had not been given any tickets! However I had seen our names on the official passenger list and I asked one of the more fluent group members to explain in better Spanish than I could produce, that we were booked on the bus through the tour company but we weren’t given tickets. Fortunately the fellow shrugged and dropped the issue (Hayes was wondering if we’d be left by the road for the condors to nibble on). Considering the complexity and length of our entire trip, that was a very minor glitch.
In El Calafate we parted company with our fellow travelers, who were off to visit an estancia (sheep ranch) and walk on the Perito Moreno Glacier. Here we departed from the standard End of the World trip…after we had booked the package trip through Adventure Life, we learned that the subcontracting company (Hielo y Aventura) running the tour onto the Perito Moreno decided not to allow anyone over 65 on the “big ice trek”glacier walk. This was to have been the highlight of the trip for my mountaineering husband, but he was over that age limit! So Jenny of Adventure Life found an alternate tour for us, but it meant driving yet another 3 and half hours to the Fitz Roy mountain range and the little town of El Chalten. So off we went. Our driver, Mariano, met us with a van meant for 18 passengers (a friend at home had made a remark about all our travels and carbon footprints, good thing he did not see this). We were treated to the sight of condors (9 foot wingspans!) by the road, dining on the corpse of an unfortunate horse. After many desolate miles, and one coffee stop at a small café/hotel in the middle of nowhere, we arrived in the small town of El Chalten as dusk fell.
El Chalten is a relatively new village, existing (as far as we could see) only to serve those who come to trek in the Fitz Roy Mountain area….just as Puerto Natales seems to exist for the Torres del Paine visitor, El Chalten’s reason for life is the Argentine Glaciers Park. All the buildings seemed small, and many had signs advertising guide service, or lodging, or a small café. To our surprise Mariano kept on driving, continuing from town as the darkness increased, on a narrow bumpy gravel road carved from the edge of a wide river channel. Turned out our “Chaltan” lodging, the El Pilar Hosteria, was 17 km away in a lonely location where another river valley intersected this one. Good thing they offered dinner there as there were no other options for miles around. It turned out to be a very comfortable and lovely place to stay, romantic even…if only we weren’t booked for a major hike the next day, from a trailhead back in the center of El Chalten. But the kind staff at El Pilar called the tour company listed on our itinerary, and told us a taxi would come get us the next morning. We indulged in a bottle of wine with our dinner (wine with dinner becoming an essential part of our routine!) and got a good night’s sleep.