by Martin McReynolds
American Reporter Correspondent
El Chalten, Argentina
October 4, 2006
GLIMPSE OF TOWERING MT. FITZ ROY IS WORTH A WAIT
EL CHALTEN, Argentina -- The only bad information I got from the staff at El Pilar Inn was that I would be able to see the sun rise on Mount Fitz Roy at 6 a.m.
I set the alarm for 5:55 a.m. and then waited more than two hours in the darkness and biting cold wind in front of the hosteria until the sun finally hit the magnificent 11,073-foot peak after 8 a.m. It was worth the wait on a rare clear day in an area where the jagged Andean peaks are often obscured by clouds and rain.
Getting to El Chalten is a chore. There's no airport - also no bank, Internet café or ATM - and the simplest route is an uncomfortable bus ride of nearly four hours over 133 miles of mostly gravel road from El Calafate to the south. The trip includes a restroom stop about halfway at La Leona, little more than a parking lot with a rustic bar and a colorful story. It was near this spot in 1877 that Francisco Moreno, a young Argentine naturalist and explorer, was attacked by a puma (leona), defending himself with a rolled-up poncho over his arm and a compass until companions heard his shouts and shot the animal.
Years later, Moreno was named an official expert (perito) in talks on drawing the boundary between Argentina and Chile through the Andes. Argentina's most famous glacier, the Perito Moreno near El Calafate, was named in recognition of his services to the nation, including the systematic exploration of Patagonia and its ecology.
It was he who gave Mount Fitz Roy its name, honoring an earlier explorer, England's Robert Fitz Roy, who skippered the HMS Beagle on the famous voyage of 1831-36 with naturalist Charles Darwin. Fitz Roy and Darwin made an attempt to reach the Andes by traveling up the Santa Cruz River during their visit to the Argentine coast in 1834 but had to turn back.
El Chalten owes its existence to a later border dispute with Chile, when the Argentine government founded a settlement in 1985 to bolster its territorial claim in the area. Despite its location as the gateway to some of the world's most spectacular scenery, it has failed to grow beyond an ugly collection of motels, restaurants, bars and hikers' hostels. Its attractions include lakes, glaciers and towering peaks that attract hikers and mountain climbers.
Fitz Roy is the tallest, but others include Cerro Torre, Poincenot, Saint-Exupery, Electrico, Mermoz and Guillaumet. All stand out sharply against the sky - when not enveloped in clouds and mist - a real challenge for climbers and evidence of a young mountain chain that time hasn't yet worn smooth.
The town is also the place to take an excursion on Lake Viedma to see the Viedma Glacier, Argentina's second largest. I'll take the guidebook's word for it because our reservation for that lake excursion - which was to include hiking on the glacier with crampons fastened over our boots - was unceremoniously canceled by the excursion company. Apparently a large travel agency had booked all the space available on the lake boats for a block of three days. We got our money back but couldn't stick around long enough to wait for an opening.
No matter. My wife and I hiked through the lush forests of beech trees and enjoyed the views of Fitz Roy's peak, which loomed right outside the windows of El Pilar Inn. The 10-room inn is about 11 miles from the sprawl of El Chalten, with nothing to see but mountains, woods and the confluence of the Rio Blanco and Rio de las Vueltas.
Built in 1996, it's a re-creation of the main house of a traditional sheep ranch or estancia, complete with wood-burning stoves to heat the dining room and hallways (but gas space-heaters in the rooms). The inn generates its own electricity from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., which seems to be enough for the guests.
On the bus ride back to El Calafate, we got some of our few glimpses of Patagonian wildlife - small herds of llama-like guanacos beside the road and a half-dozen rheas (South American ostriches) fleeing through the scraggly dry brush and over a hill with their tufts of tails bobbing. If any looked back, they saw just our trail of dust and a disappearing bus.