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My Most Memorable New Year: El Chalten, Argentina


January 22nd, 2014Latin America, Travel
By Jemma Dicks

Images courtesy of Jemma Dicks

New Year in El Chalten

I have no great love of the British winter weather and so frequently escape overseas for the New Year period. Whilst the fireworks in Sydney blew me away, and a street party in Cambodia will long remain the funniest, my most memorable New Year’s Eve has to be that of 2011.

I was two months in to a six month trip around South America with my boyfriend Kieran. Due to a lack of awareness regarding the time of year, and a severe lack of planning, we found ourselves in one of the most remote corners of the planet for what is often considered the biggest night of the year.

El Chalten is a small town situated in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina’s southern Patagonia. Its permanent population sits at around 1,000. This is where we spent New Year.

El Chalten town

We had travelled here from El Calafate, another small town just a couple of hours away by bus, having spent two nights there in a cosy and friendly little hostel perched on top of a hill. The hostel was full of travellers of all nationalities.

We stayed in a 4 bed dorm with a guy from Slovenia and another from Liechtenstein. I had never met anybody from Liechtenstein before. I knew absolutely nothing about Liechtenstein. Turns out we were in luck – this chap was on hand to detail every tiny bit of information you could possibly want to know about Liechtenstein (Europe’s fourth smallest country). He was without doubt the country’s biggest fan – we even came to know him only as Liechtenstein.

We determined the following facts about his country:

  1. The language spoken there is the hardest language to learn in the world
  2. The beer there is the best in the world
  3. Liechtenstein has the best food in the world
  4. Liechtenstein has some of the world’s biggest cities

When a conversation I was having with a Brazilian guy turned to the subject of violence in Rio de Janeiro, South Africa and London, he informed us of yet another fact: “Everywhere is violent. We have many murders in Liechtenstein. We had 4 last year!”

Liechtenstein had travelled to many of the places we were due to visit, including the Perito Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine National Park, so I was keen to pick his brains.

Perito Moreno glacier

The Perito Moreno Glacier – the biggest, advancing glacier in the world – was “Ok. I expected more”.

So what about the world renowned Torres del Paine? It looks incredible! “Torres del Paine would be alright if you have good shoes.” Did he not have good shoes? He held up the pair of crocs that he had, for some reason, opted to wear on the 5 day W-trek. They had been almost ripped in two.

I found Liechtenstein strangely fascinating, not least because he insisted on wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt almost every day – even when temperatures outside got close to freezing.

Kieran and I headed off to Perito Moreno for a day trip anyway and were overjoyed to find that we completely disagreed with Liechtenstein’s opinion of the glacier. We stayed there for 4 hours, walking the board walks and gasping with excitement every time we heard the almighty crack that accompanied a large chunk of ice breaking away.

It’s an odd thing, a bunch of people all anxiously watching a huge glacier for hours on end - just waiting for a bit to break off and crash into the water below. Odd, but addictive and the noise was immense – it sounded like thunder!

Ice breaking from glacier

As for Torres del Paine…well I’m afraid I can’t say as unfortunately on the day we were due to head there, a tourist accidentally set the place on fire and the park was shut down for several days. We only knew this because, whilst on our way to the bus station, an American guy overheard us talking about Torres and told us to avoid going there at all costs.

Apparently people were stranded at the border and bus companies were refusing to provide refunds. The news seemed all the more dramatic as this guy had severe sun burn on his face!

With this in mind, we headed to the bus station and hopped on a bus to El Chalten instead. We had always intended to visit Chalten, but with the closure of Torres, we ended up staying for 5 days over the New Year period.

The tiny little town, nestled in a small valley surrounded by mountains, was full to capacity as everybody had flocked here as an alternative to Torres. Being such a small place, even being at full capacity didn’t really mean much more than a few people buzzing about.

We hadn’t booked accommodation prior to arriving, so we simply sauntered along in the hope of finding somewhere with a free bed. We hadn’t really appreciated just how small Chalten was and therefore how few hostels there were.

We tried several places, all of which were full, before arriving at a relatively large hostel which thankfully had two beds free. The hostel was quite pricey and, in fairness, pretty rubbish.

It seemed to be favoured by young, rich Israelis on group trips. This meant that every night anybody who wasn’t part of the group trip, which was pretty much just the two of us, was swept to a corner of the common room to make way for trekking lectures which were given in Hebrew.

Clearly they had groups arriving every day because we watched the same lecture take place 3 nights in a row. By the third evening we knew the lecture pretty much by heart, regardless of the fact we don’t speak Hebrew.

We even knew the precise minute that an obviously hilarious joke was about to result in stiches of laughter and knowing looks – we actually recognised the build-up! It was incredibly dull but there wasn’t really a huge amount else to do in Chalten at night.

During the day, however, we were in hiking heaven. The first hike we did was to Cerro Torre, a 3 hour trek along rivers, through forests and all the time with condors circling above us. It was absolutely stunning.

Trekking in Chalten

The mountain itself stood behind a glacial lake full of icebergs. It was really quite cold, but we both sat there for almost an hour taking in the view – it was so picturesque.

As we turned to start the walk back to Chalten, Kieran suddenly grabbed my arm and pointed up ahead. There was our good old friend Liechtenstein, complete with Iron Maiden t-shirt and all.

Back in El Calafate, we got the distinct impression that Liechtenstein’s fondness for us was beginning to verge on stalker-like behaviour and therefore I was keen to avoid being seen. I dashed behind a rock quick as a flash, but Kieran lingered just that little bit too long and ended up making an about-turn mid dash. He’d been spotted.

From behind my rock I saw him smile and begin to exchange pleasantries. As our old acquaintance appeared, I explained that I was sheltering from the wind – I think I actually got away with that one.

I asked him what he made of the spectacular view and he said he must have arrived too late as there was a cloud covering the mountain now.

The view at Cerro Torre

We suggested that he check out the view at the top of the hill before setting off – he would be mad not to. Then we headed off back to town at speed. Looking back we could see that he had decided against walking up the hill and was instead moving our way, quick enough to catch up.

This called for desperate (and shameful) measures. We turned a corner and dived into some bushes. They were large enough and deep enough that we wouldn’t be spotted, although I’m not quite sure what our excuse would have been had he seen us. A desperate need for the toilet perhaps?

A minute or two later we saw him pass. I was pretty embarrassed to be hiding in a bush, but it was a 3 hour walk back to Chalten – it was worth it! Thinking we were still ahead and obviously desperate to catch up with us, he walked so quickly that we didn’t catch sight of him for the rest of the walk or, as it happened, ever again.

Waterfall in Chalten National Park

That evening was New Year’s Eve. We ate in the local pizzeria, primarily because it was one of the only restaurants we ever found in Chalten, and then headed to one of the few bars in the town. The place only had room for about 10 people so we were thrilled to find seats inside.

The bar was a little bit strange and so, after deciding that we would rather not see the New Year in whilst sitting in a candle-lit bar listening to questionable country music with questionable people, we headed back to our hostel.

The atmosphere was somewhat livelier here and thankfully the lectures had been called off that evening. As the midnight hour approached, mugs of pink stuff (Champagne apparently, although I’m not convinced) and a handful of M&Ms were handed around on the house.

At the stroke of midnight everybody cheered and then Ai Se Eu Te Pego was played. On repeat. About 7 times. Heard of it? Nope neither had we but, as it happens; we would hear it every day, at least 10 times a day, for the next 4 months. I’ll admit the song is kind of catchy, but hearing it once really is enough.

Our hostel mates didn’t seem to think so though – every time it started up they would cheer and jump up on the tables, attempting to sing along in Brazilian Portuguese, as though it was a favourite song they hadn’t heard in years.

I fell asleep with that tune echoing in my head – on repeat.

On New Year’s Day, we rented some camping equipment and headed to Laguna Capri at the foot of the Fitz Roy peaks. It took us hours to reach the campsite and we were accompanied the entire way by large, biting flies.

Map of the route to Fitz Roy

I am an animal lover and refuse to kill any living thing. I even extend this to mosquitoes. However, I found myself conjuring up imaginative ends for these horrible insects. They simply would not leave us alone. As you were swatting one, another would land and bite you through your clothes – and you really did feel it!

We probably looked quite a sight, running along forest trails hitting ourselves with flip flops.

We eventually made it to our campsite which was situated in the most idyllic of spots. It was simply a small clearing in the forest, beside a lake. There were only a handful of other tents and one discreetly placed port-a-loo.

View from our tent

One of the best things about Chalten is that you can drink water straight from the rivers, glaciers and waterfalls. When camping, you are asked to wash, brush your teeth and relieve yourself a set distance from the water’s edge so as not to dirty it.

We set up our tent, dumped our stuff and then hiked a further two hours to the very base of the Fitzroy mountains. The walk was through forests, along sparkling rivers and every inch of it was breath-taking. It remains one of the most beautiful areas I have ever visited.

That evening we cooked pasta over a gas-burner, using socks as oven gloves, before cracking open a couple of beers and watching the sun set over the mountains. It had been an odd new year, but definitely one to remember.

Make-shift oven gloves

Where was your most memorable New Year? Have you been to El Chalten? Are you Liechtenstein? Leave me your comments below.

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