Pura Vida

“I want to kill myself,” says Martin, who is front desk, concierge, restaurant cashier and head of housekeeping all rolled into one.

We have just arrived in El Calafate, and Martin’s despair, fueled by the simultaneous arrival of too many guests, seems fitting because El Calafate looks, and feels, like the end of the earth.

Unlike Bariloche, which was gorgeous and fertile, El Calafate is a desert moonscape. A desert moonscape punctuated by beautiful turquoise lakes, snow capped craggy peaks and glaciers the size of cities, but a moonscape nonetheless.

There are almost no trees here, certainly not many indigenous ones, the ground all dirt and scrub, and the entire town, to the extent you could call this a town, feels like it has sprung up over night, as if we are out in the American west in the 1800s and someone has just discovered gold. There are lots of shacks, houses of corrugated tin and this, our glassy modern hotel hard between the desert scrub and the sea.

“There is wifi,” says Martin, “but it is slow. Very slow. The whole town’s wifi is slow.”
“I don’t know if I can stay here,” says my husband.

For dinner we eat in a restaurant called Pura Vida. By the front door there is a map of the world where you can add a pin showing where you’re from – apparently there have been guests from virtually everywhere – and the menus are handpainted. My daughter’s menu says “All you need is love,” mine has a VW bug and a rainbow, and we spy another one that is covered in crochet. The service is kind but painfully slow, one of the waitresses massively pregnant, wearing flair pants and a sequined top.

Until now one of the nicest things about travelling around Argentina has been the feeling that we are far from home, meeting hardly any Americans and not having the same sorts of conversations that we typically have, be it about politics, our kids, our jobs and whatever else.

But ironically it is on our boat ride to a remote estancia, or ranch, two hours outside of El Calafate that this idyll comes to an end. We meet a group of four families from Long Island who travel together every year and all have the same gray cotton shirt emblazoned with the Argentinian flag and an acronym formed of the first letter of each of their last names to prove it. One of their daughters has just been deferred from Northwestern and is revising her college essays on her cellphone, planning to send out more applications via hotel wi-fi when she gets back to Buenos Aires. There is also a large group wearing Horace Mann hats. Rather than rely on the estancia’s own guides who live at the ranch, managing the animals and taking guests on hikes, the Horace Manners have brought along their own guide which seems odd and aggressive if a touch enviable, perhaps a bit like New York itself.

The ranch itself is spectacular, flat and mountainous both, and rife with canyons, fossils, waterfalls and views that literally stretch for miles. It is, in fact, so hauntingly beautiful, that you can almost imagine how you too, like its erstwhile founders, Victoria and Joseph Masters, might be willing to give up a well-off life elsewhere to settle here, virtually all alone.

On the boat ride home after a long day of hiking the Long Islanders, or the “Flok,” as they call themselves, open up six bottles of wine, what the former Goldman employee among them has calculated is about half a bottle per person. “I can share some with you,” he says, but then does not. Meanwhile the Horace Manners disappear into a catamaran and our family, somehow the last ones to board the boat, wind up sitting on the couch up front along with the boat’s employees.

“I learned a lot about the United States from Mad Men,” says Barbara, the boat manager who comes from Buenos Aires and spends half her year working on the boat and the other half travelling the world. “I have a book in English,” she offers, when she hears me tell my husband that in the chaos of getting everyone ready this morning I’d forgotten to bring along something to read. Barbara takes out “Crime and Punishment,” one of my all-time favorite books, and sitting there rereading the beginning I am reminded of how I too once used to carry big fat classic books and how I used to have more time to read.

We are approaching the shore now and as I think about getting back to town and searching for a place to eat that won’t take the customary two to three hours for dinner, I think about all the guides we left behind on the island who live there from October to April and then travel the world like Barbara.

I don’t envy the Horace Manners or the Flokers or any of the other tourists we’ve met today, but Barbara and the guides I do. I envy them their freedom, their youth, their chance to travel and perhaps more than anything else at this stage of my life, knee deep as I am in family responsibilities, I envy them their opportunity to be alone.