I’m sitting alone in the only cafe in El Chaltén that accepts credit cards. I’m out of Argentinian pesos and there are only two ATMs in town– both are broken and will be “repaired tomorrow” for the second day in a row. I’m wondering if I will actually be able to use a credit card to pay for the café con leche and mozzarella pizza with olives that I just downed after a half-day journey on foot, seeking vistas of Mt. Fitz Roy, one of the most famous peaks in South America.
This morning we visited a grocery store with Visa labels haphazardly plastered all over the door. “Oh good,” we thought, some place where we can stock supplies to get us through the day. Upon walking in, we found four aisles of mostly empty shelves–a bucket full of hard avocados, a basket of oranges, a few yogurt containers, one bag of off-brand Lays, two blocks of cheese and a full aisle of cookies. As the hombres behind the empty meat counter stared on with apathy, we grabbed one of the cheese blocks to go with the bread we had purchased fresh the day before at a small, run down hut selling empanadas. We approached the checkout and pulled out our credit card. Upon viewing it the clerk gave us a hard, “No.”
Here in El Chaltén, Argentina there are only a few sure things–the strong wind that constantly pulls your hair into your eyes and keeps you awake at night as it slams with authority against the wood-constructed chalets; the presence of jamón y queso on every single cafe menu; and the spectacular granite mountain peaks that rise up like kings straight from the valley of this quirky and still-being-born town.
My North American self is half frustrated that a mini-city could literally be out of cash and the other half is in love with a place not ruined by the forces of tourism, of logic, and the need to please. Here, they know they have a treasure in their natural, untouched beauty and that is their priority. As the head park ranger so eloquently put it on our mandatory “talk” when entering the Sector Fitz Roy, “Nature is the first and main church of humans; don’t ruin it for los niños.” With that, I couldn’t agree more. Being in the mountains will always feel like a holy sanctuary to me–offering simple, straightforward methods to grow and deepen the spirit. And with all the spectacular “churches” this part of the world has to offer, I can accept that sometimes it may mean running out of more earthly riches.