I’m not sure why I never took the chance to study abroad in college. I’ve always been skeptical of the actual academic value of doing so (beyond the simple fact that living in a foreign country brings about inevitable “cultural” education), but nonetheless it’s an opportunity which in retrospect I’m surprised I passed up. But all this made me jump at the opportunity for this next adventure: an overseas “class” in Patagonia on “outdoor leadership.” I use the quoties with as much facetiousness as possible, as the “class” simply meant I had to keep a travel journal and plan out and pack a meal for twenty people in the backcountry. Well the travel journal was actually something I probably would have done anyways…. And as for the meal? Let’s just say each bag of rice I packed in was worth about one credit hour.
Not since Spain had I been on a large guided group trip like this one to Argentina. Through Miami’s Outdoor Pursuit Center, a group of twenty Miamians, my girlfriend and me made our way down south for a trip divided between Buenos Aires and Patagonia. The freedom provided by being out on my own has always seemed a much preferable alternative, but this trip was a nice change of pace, and if nothing else forced me to spend time in Buenos Aires which I imagine on my own I would not have considered. We took a few Spanish lessons, which were just enough to educate the girls in the group what to yell at the Portenos if they were groped in the subway and we got a fun two hour crash course in Argentine Tango, the dance I’d already spent an entire semester in college attempting to understand but still appeared as some sort of injured praying mantis when I attempted it. Yes, all of this probably falls into the category of “typical touristy things to do in Buenos Aires,” but one does not simply come to this city to just enjoy the weather (which in January is incredible by the way). On account of its vibrant cultural life and trendy urban vibe, Buenos Aires is often called the “Paris of Latin America” – I can’t much comment on whether this is true, but I’ll just say if I ever make it to France, I hope Paris is enjoyable enough that it may live up to the name “the Buenos Aires of Europe,” because as far as cities go, up to this point in my life it was certainly near the top.
After a memorable few days in Buenos Aires topped off (no pun intended) by a rooftop New Year’s eve sendoff complete with champagne and Argentine tapas, the group boarded a plane for Calafate for the second half of the trip: Patagonia. A few hours in the air and we were deep in the south of the country. At 50° S, Calafate is about 1,000 miles from Antarctica (think L.A. to Denver) and at this time of year the sun didn’t begin to set until 10:00 PM. Thankfully being there in the middle of their summer saved us most of the extreme conditions which can go along with being this close to the end of the world. We settled into a backpacker’s hostel in the nearby small town of El Chalten and got ready for our few days in the backcountry of Los Glaciares National Park.
Though these were the same Andes I’d seen a few months before in Peru, the Patagonian version was of an entirely different variety. These were not like the Peruvian Andes: impressive mountains covered in jungle and rising from lush river valleys dotted with small villages and the occasional road or trail beneath them. Nor were they like the mountains of Colorado: the towering but slowly rising alpine giants that build out of the foothills to form the impressive but inviting range that is the Rockies. These were altogether different: they are as uninviting and inhospitable at their bases as they are at their peaks. Unlike anywhere else where one can approach a mountain gradually, these ones stand towering above you and forbid all but the most determined to even approach. They are guarded at their bases to the east by massive slowly moving glaciers and to their west by a barely passable expanse of frozen tundra. I couldn’t help but draw the comparison between a mighty peak like Pikes in Colorado which has been emasculated by a road which takes anyone with a car to its summit and Cerro Torre, which on the other hand demands respect: to reach its summit you must endure a week long vertical climb up an exposed rock face after traversing across a crevasse filled glacier to simply reach its base. Climbing Magazine likened the journey to being mauled by a rabid dog, “unpredictably violent and outrageously inevitable.” If Pikes Peak is the Kim Kardashian of mountains, then Cerro Torre is Mother Teresa, you’re going to have to work at it if you want to seal the deal… she aint havin’ just anyone. The last few nights of our time in the backcountry we spent in the climbers’ camp near the mountain where those planning on making the trip up spent sometimes weeks just waiting for a brief clearing of the clouds to hurry to the rocks and begin their climb.
My time in Argentina was memorable for many reasons. First being that it was my last guided group tour. While I don’t like the lack of freedom and privacy this affords, it provided for a great template when I inevitably began planning more on my own (in fact I’ve planned entire trips completely stolen from REI’s group travel itineraries). It also was the first trip I’d taken with my girlfriend Jenn, a key test along the way of our compatibility as travel companions. If we failed this one, I’m honestly not entirely sure we didn’t have a deal-breaker on our hands. Luckily we turned out to not just survive, but really enjoy each other’s company (even earning the nickname “Jurt” from our hilarious group of friends… doesn’t quite have the ring of “Brangelina,” but probably beats “Kenn,” I guess.) and from here on out, the “we” in almost all these stories will mean “we” as in my wife and I (things didn’t turn out so bad as it happens).
At this point I had developed somewhat of a theme in my travels if you had not picked up on it: everywhere I’d been (with the exception of Amsterdam), was a place where Spanish was either primarily spoken or of much use (as in the case with Italy, where Italian is basically close enough to enable at least basic communication). I used to think that being well versed in the spoken words of the country to which you are traveling was a hugely important thing. After my Argentina trip, I began breaking myself of this notion, and have not been back to a Spanish Speaking country since with the exception of a few hours in Spain last year. As is the case with many aspects of American citizenship, there are perks to holding that blue passport and of being an English speaker: we speak the de-facto language of the world… and I’ve been to few places where knowing “please,” “thank-you,” and having a certain skill in the game of Guesstures did not provide for all one needs in the way of communication. So good-bye Argentina and Latin America. Don’t cry for me.
Sorry. I had to.
P.S. Please bear in mind in the photos that follow: If you asked an Argentine they would tell you that to dance the Tango one must exercise as much passion as doing “the deed” itself. In the most PG-13 way possible I tried to capture such emotion in a few of these photos. Think “culture” not “creepy,” but I’ll let you be the judge.
P.P.S. My apologies for potentially offending any Coloradan – or maybe anyone at all who appreciates the outdoors – for comparing Pikes Peak to Kim Kardashian. There’s also a joke in there somewhere about Pikes being the most prominent peak in Colorado and a certain Kim body part .. but I didn’t want to overdo it here. I’m absolutely not too classy for that, though.