Monday, March 14, 2016

Dos Rios - Glacier tour

[Kyle]For our first day in El Calafate (which was also our 13th wedding anniversary), we took a boat tour of two of the main glaciers in the park: Upsala and Spegazzini.

{Maryanne: El Calafate has high mountains which slope down to practically sea-level lakes. The climate at the bottom is very mild (Temperate, more like the UK or D.C. area), so the foot of the glacier is carving/melting through the year, and it is much more accessible than the more polar glaciers. The glaciers are also extensive, covering huge areas of wilderness, and nudging close to a reasonable size town at the base. They are spectacular to see - so make for a tourist hot-spot, and are the number one reason to visit El Calafate. We figured we may not have seen enough ice in Antarctica and had pre-booked out tours... haha..}

A bus picked us up at our hotel, then stopped at several others until it was full. We then made the forty-minute drive along the southern shore of Lago Argentino to a large power catamaran tied to a pier along with a few others.

The boat untied and we headed toward the spine of the Andes through a narrow pass called The Devil's Throat. There, the surrounding landscape changed quickly from gently rolling hills to big, steep mountains. Looking up at them it was hard to imagine there were sea level fjords less than twenty nautical miles away on the other side that would lead all of the way to the Pacific.

It is this steep terrain that makes the glaciers at Los Glaciares part of of very small group in the world that are not receding dramatically. The warmer air of the last few decades can hold more water vapor. This water vapor condenses out as the rapidly lifting air cools as it climbs the Andean ridge. As the air climbs higher and higher the water droplets freeze and form snowflakes. As the winds crest the ridge, the flakes are no longer held aloft by updrafts and massive amounts of snow fall and collect on giant ice fields high in the mountains at 5000m (15,000') The one nearest El Calafate is called Hielo Sur (South Ice). The snow compresses into ice that is pulled down the steep valleys by gravity at a speed that is five times faster than colder, shallower glaciers in places like Antarctica. Since the terrain is so steep, most of the ice lies in the high altitude accretion zone and only spends a short period in the warm, low altitude melting zone. The melt zone is larger than it used to be and the ice is melting faster there, but this is balanced by a massive increase in snowfall on the ice fields. The result is that the position of the calving face remains relatively stable.

As soon as the boat was underway, we headed out on deck to get a better view. Only the aft deck was open while we were moving at high speed, so we ended up on the side deck just behind the chain that blocked off the forward decks. As we neared the calving face of Glaciar Upsala, it got colder and windier in our chosen spot. Maryanne eventually gave up and retreated into the warm cabin along with most of the other passengers. I was determined to stay put, so I cinched my waterproof jacket down tight, turned my back to the wind and rode it out.

I almost gave up, too, but I'm glad I didn't. At the first big berg, when the boat slowed down and the deckhand pulled the chain gate aside, I was the first one at the bow where I had my choice of vantage points. I managed to get way up to the peak of one of them, where I had a 270° uninterrupted view. Maryanne wasn't so lucky and spent most of her time peeking through gaps between people's shoulders. Since I knew there were a lot of people behind me as well, I crouched down until only my head and camera cleared the railing.

The other bow was commandeered by the staff photographers. They were very enthusiastic as they would guide their subjects over and over through the same basic three poses. They were: Hands flat like you're holding back the glacier, arms high in a vee as if to say, "Look how big!", and thumbs up, like the Fonz! They worked as a team, with one guy taking photos and giving directions and his assistant off at a distance holding a wireless flash. Since the glacier ice was so bright and backlit, the flash made it easier to shoot without the people in the foreground ending up in silhouette. The unfortunate unintended result of this was that the shadow on the passengers being photographed didn't match the shadows behind. This made all of the finished photos look like they were taken in a studio in front of a mural. There was no sense of the size or majesty of the ice behind, or that the people were actually there.

Typical Upsala scenes

We went by a few bergs the size of the ship, marvelling at their unreal, seemingly artificially-colored blueness. Upsala has a long calving face that drains into a narrow river. This made for an increasing density of bergy bits that eventually prevented us from getting any closer than a mile or so from the face. Further along, the boat ran out of clear water and nudged right up against a big expanse of brash ice. A deckhand brought out a line and lassoed a big chunk, presumably to be used at the bar.

Enjoying the scenery while the crew gather ice for the drinks

We got up close to another big berg that was taller than the ship. We were all photographing it like crazy when the Captain let out a couple of little toots on the horn. A couple of seconds later, there was a loud report from the berg. The throttles opened wide and the boat leapt away with a lurch. Once we were 50m or so away, we mushed to a stop just as the berg split in two. A big piece slid into the water, throwing a big wave. Then both remaining pieces tumbled, searching for new stable positions. Trapped air would shoot toward the surface throwing jets of spray. Big walls of water were lifted way clear of the surface before pouring back down. Sometimes the weight of the water would break off a piece of the berg and the whole process would start again. Then suddenly, the once giant berg seemed to spontaneously disintegrate into a million little ice cubes, leaving behind a patch of slush. We all cheered with delight at being so close to such a spectacle.

A little of the turmoil as one of the glacier rolls

The boat turned and then headed at high speed for the Spegazzini glacier. I had been so pleased with my spot at the bow that I retreated no further than necessary for the journey. I ended up being the only one out there by the time the throttles were brought back at our arrival.

Spegazzini is unlike Upsala in that the calving face is narrow and tall and drains steeply into a widening channel. This makes for relatively little ice, so the boat was able to get very near the face.

Spegazzini Glacier front

We repeated the hilarity of the photographers' shoot:

"Okay, now do this!"

"Good!", Click

"Now do that! ... the other hand"

"Good!", Click

"Now, thumbs up like this!"

"Good!", Click


Kyle eventually joined in the fun of taking photos of people

When the boat reached one end of the face, we turned to make a pass in the other direction. 'My' bow suddenly became the one backed by the glacier and the photographers quickly migrated my way. I ceded the bow to them, but they were very nice and kept insisting I could stay. I really was in the best spot for them, though, so I made my way aft while the boat made one more pass.

Pretty skies on the return journey

The boat headed back to the dock. Finally, I went to our seats and had my pack lunch while most of the rest of the passengers fell asleep. It wasn't that boring! I ate quickly and was back on deck for the trip back through the Devil's Throat.

Back at the dock, we were looking in vain for our bus when our driver found us. We had walked right by him. We made a mental note to make a better effort at remembering what our drivers look like in the future.

Back in town, we wandered the streets, peeking into shops and looking at menus. Maryanne was hungry, so she was keen to stop anywhere that looked decent. It was our anniversary, though, so I was being much more particular about location and atmosphere. I must've made her walk the whole town twice before we agreed on a place and went in.

Back in town, I was unable to persuade Kyle to partake of the local speciality
Most restaurants had lamb cooking, in full view, on open wood fire pits

We had a very nice meal of homemade pasta (which is a speciality of the predominant Italian-Argentinian population), while reminiscing and making googly-eyes at each other over a bottle of local wine. When it came time for the bill, our server, in a very pointed way, slapped it on the table and said, "Sin servicio." Those were the ONLY two words she said to us the entire meal. Well, I never!

A few words about restaurant bills in Argentina: In addition to the charge for the food itself and the tax on that food, many places also charge a 'cubierto' (cover charge) for table service. (This is required in Buenos Aires) This is usually a small charge for standard things like bread, butter, water, condiments, etc. Argentinian law is actually very specific and generous about what items must be included. Usually, for example, there has to be two different kinds of bread with fancy flavored butter or spread plus either nuts or olives. The rule goes on in similar fashion about all the items included. Restaurants all seem to vary on how much they comply with the rule, but most make what I think is a better effort than I've seen in other parts of the world. Four proper cubiertos a day could probably sustain a person. Next is 'Servicio': It's really hit or miss whether a restaurant includes this on the bill. If they do, it is given to the service staff essentially as tips. If not, it's the diner's option to give a traditional tip, called a 'propina'. It is quite common and not considered rude in the least for a server to clarify whether a bill is 'con servicio' or 'sin servicio'.

When we entered the pretty little restaurant, we were shown to our table by a charming man, who then handed us over to our brooding teenaged server. We ordered appetizers. She rolled her eyes, sneered at us, wrote down our order and left without saying a word to us, and while maintaining a conversation with one of her cool friends at a different table. She repeated the same for our drinks, our entrées and our desserts. When we asked for water refills halfway through the meal, she looked as though she wanted to throw it on us. We know our Spanish couldn't have been THAT bad, because we got all of the right stuff.

I am in no way a difficult customer in restaurants. I try to be understanding that it can be a trying job. I don't complain if things aren't just so - we're all only human. I try to bunch any requests so I'm not hogging all of my server's time with trivial tasks and I try my best not to make a mess. Maryanne is all of that, PLUS she's cute and adorable. In short, we are practically model patrons. We were that night. So we were just starting to wonder what the hell our snotty server's problem was when she slapped the bill on our table and spat, "Sin servicio" at us, before stomping off.

Maryanne let out quite a snort of disbelief and responded, "Exactamente! Sin servicio!" I'm pretty sure she heard that. The old man at the next table chuckled and gave me a smile.

Ordinarily, I am an excellent tipper. (Maryanne thinks too much so) My method is to generally start at 20% and round up to the next nice, round number. If the service is good, I'll throw a little extra on top of that. If the service is bad, I'll still usually give the 20%. If it's just awful, I'll start rounding down toward 15%. In Argentina, tips are generally just under 10% and 10% is usually the suggested amount printed on credit card receipts. It took some doing, but I gradually got used to starting at 10% before rounding (ok, double rounding).

I gave that woman 3%, and then I rounded down. Maryanne still said I over tipped her.

With that out of our system, we had another walk around the pretty little town, before we went back to our hotel, we popped into a sports bar for a beer. When the waiter brought us our three-dollar bill, He very politely said, "Just so you know, service is not included"

"Oh, yes, of course! No problem at all." I said, and then left him a three-dollar tip.

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