Monday – December 24, 2007 –
Today was Christmas Eve and we were heading back to Argentina! We waited on our 8:30 a.m. Turismo Zaahj bus at the bus station down the street in Puerto Natales, Chile. We presented our tickets that we bought at the station. Shortly after taking our seats, our bus headed east and climbed into the Andes.
This was truly some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen as our bus climbed countless switchbacks through mountain pass roads that looked as if they were laid down like cooked linguini noodles. After descending through a pass, we stopped at the Argentina border for passport checks.
After de-boarding and having our passports stamped, we rejoined the bus for our trip to El Calafate. We passed through several other passes. It was funny because our driver would make these weird whistle calls (almost like a sailor) on the CB radio to communicate with his fellow company drivers. These buses were very nice. Plenty of legroom, comfortable seats, blankets and even hot coffee and yerba maite!
At around 13:00 p.m. and around 180 miles after leaving Puerto Natales, we arrived in El Calafate. We had some time to kill to explore the town. We ate some steaks – what else, right? – for lunch before doing a little shopping. This tourist town off Ruta 3 was relatively new and quickly growing. It had a neat gaucho town vibe to it with it’s gaucho culture, wooden boardwalks and wooden downtown. Around 18:30 p.m., we took the Caltur bus north to El Chalten. The journey was truly epic along the sometimes unpaved Ruta 40. At one point before sunset, we stopped at a scenic overlook for five minutes to view Cerro Fitzroy and “Los Tres” peaks rising like the Tetons way up in the mountains and above our valley. We made a pit stop about halfway there for gas and a natural break. Some people bought baked goods and other food inside. Around 11 p.m. and after a bumpy ride along the 138-mile journey, we arrived in El Chalten.
El Chalten is the newest city in Argentina. In fact, calling it a city is a generous term. It’s really more of a town with wooden boardwalks and structures that look like they were put up overnight. Essentially, it was hastily assembled to mark this land as Argentinean. This border region continues to be disputed so erecting a town helped solidify Argentina’s claim to this part of the Andes. The roads are unpaved here and there are no Internet connections or ATMs yet.
At the bus station, a cheery Argentinean man was waiting on us with his Jeep. Señor Halvorsen, it turns out, was the owner of the estancia where we would be staying. He drove us back to the Halvorsen Estancia, one of the most impressive working estancias on the outskirts of El Chalten. It turns out he and his family are ethnic Norwegians whose family moved to Chile in the early 1900s. His dad immigrated from Viña del Mar and Santiago to this part of Argentina where the cattle estancia has since been passed down in the family from its early homesteading days. As we headed up the dusty road to the estancia, the legendary gaucho singer Argentino Luna crooned a bolero through the stereo.
We had a great treat ahead of us: an Argentinean Christmas dinner. After helping us with our bags, Señora Halvorsen, Señor Halvorsen’s mother and aunt welcomed us to the Christmas dinner meal. We had a four-course dinner of steak, a casserole, salads, chocolate dessert, white wine, and expresso or brandy for appertiffs. The family opened their gifts and the Halvorsens even had a gift for Jeff and me: small bolos that the gauchos used for tackling cows as they wrap around their feet. What a hospitable family. We also really enjoyed speaking with them in Spanish and learning about how they live on a real cattle ranch in Patagonia.
After a long journey, we slept well that night. We had a big day ahead on Christmas Day, but this was a Christmas Eve I will never forget!