Published: February 24th 2009February 16th 2009
Get ready, this is a really, really
long one!! Think of it like a few blogs in one, print it out and read it in bed!
As I may have hinted in the last blog Ruta 40 was neither magical nor legendary, rather, it was the longest, most boring journey you could ever take! Please, if you are considering how to get from Bariloche to El Chalten or vice versa - for the love of god, fly! For the first half an hour the Patagonian steppe is fairly interesting for its sheer size and barreness, but it goes on forever
. The most interesting thing we saw were about six road runners belting away from the road as our bus approached, and that was pretty cool, but constituted about 5 seconds of our two day bus trip. We overnighted in Perito Moreno (picture tumbleweed, dusty streets) which was a relief after 12 hours on the road, but the bus on the second day was a nightmare - no aircon and it was jaysus boiling, no movies to pass the time (the TV was one of the selling points made by Chalten Travel). Aww, poor love, you are thinking. You try sitting
Long and pretty boring it has to be said, unless you are doing it on a bike (maybe)...
on a roasting bus for 14 hours on gravelly, bumpy roads and then come back to me! Anyway, the end result was El Chalten. Finally, in the distance, sillouetted against the glowing orange of the dusky sky, dramatic, dagger-like peaks reared their heads. Now that was magical!
El Chalten, Argentina
El Chalten is the access town for Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and the famous Mount Fitz Roy. It's trekking, camping & climbing heaven, especially if the weather is good, and the weather was glorious! It was only established in 1985 for the sole purpose of facilitating trekking tourism. Its a strange little place, still feels a bit half-built, but its definately got a certain charm to it. Despite being gear totally towards tourism (its a tad on the expensive side - all produce having to be transported in) it still feels very 'frontier-like' - not banks/ATMs. We had a few days but decided not to camp, saving that for Torres del Paine in Chile. We did a couple of day treks instead, a short one on the first day to the local waterfall, the hightlight of which is climbing to the top of the falls to this huge
It goes on FOREVER!
granite platform, where the valley below speads out as far as the eye can see, condors gliding high on the thermals above, the river winding its way back to tiny El Chalten in the distance. Gorgeous. And it was hot - I thought Patagonia was supposed to be cold! The next day we did the thing I was most excited about, the day hike (7/8 hours return) to Laguna de Los Tres at the base of Mount Fitz Roy. It is the most beautiful
trail, that takes you up through forest, down into lush valleys where you can fill your water bottle with the cleanest, freshest, tastiest water ever, passing noisy woodpeckers and mad March hares (in January) on your way. Not long into the trek you get your first glimpse of Mount Fitz Roy. Oh man. It's one of those sights that just catches you, takes your breath away and brings tears to your eyes (well mine!), its just so beautiful. I considered calling this blog 'Patagonia, where earth pierce the heavens' - but on consideration thought that was a bit much... But you can see how the sight effected me! I was just blown away. A few hours
gets you to the bottom of the scree and rock leading up the the base. The last 500m or os is a hard, hard slog up, up a zig-zigging trail, full of loose gravel that its easy to loose your footing on. It was a bit like the Laguna 69 hike in Peru, but thankfully altitude wasnt a factor, as it is only 1700m. Two thirds of the way up, red-faced and out of breath, who did we meet on their way back down, only Ben & Jo. There is a restraining order winging its way to us in the post, Im sure! We scrambled up the final part, and there it was in all its (partially cloud covered) glory! In the middle of this mass of boulders sits a blue lagoon, with huge glaciers to the left and right, the magnificant peaks of Poincenot and Fitz Roy dividing them. The towers themselves are so sheer, you cannot help but be filled with admiration for those brave/fearless/crazy people who pick their way up the vertical walls. We sat at the top eating our jamon y queso sandwiches and waited & waited for the cloud to lift off Fitz Roy, but
eventually we had to head back, as we had another three hours or so trekking ahead of us. We picked our way carefully down back into the valley as crazy climbers scampered down like mountain goats. In the valley I looked behing me - the jaysus clouds had lifted of Fitz Roy! Dammit! But that's the luck of the draw, and we were lucky to have seen it clearly at all. We headed back to town taking a wee divesion to Laguna Capri, where we chilled out a little in the heat. By the end our legs had practically siezed up, but the Fitz Roy hike ranks as the most beautiful hike we have done on this trip.
Bernhard and Liza-Marie (from our Ecuador/Peru days) arrived in town that night, so we went out for dinner, met Mick & Ev for pints and collapsed into bed around 1.30am. The next day we hiked with B & LM to Laguna Torres, hoping to get a gander at Cerro Torres, the second biggie in this part of Patagonia. The weather had changed for the worse (a strange mix of rain & sun at the same time, and hot/cold/hot/cold...weird) and the mountains
were covered in cloud. But another one, Cerro Solo, was clearly visable during the hike, and is (having seen pics of Cerro Torres) I think much more impressive - huge with a great chunk of snow clinging to one side that reflected the sun - when it shone. There is, of course, a massive glacier at the base of Cerro Torres, that deposits small icerbergs into the brownish laguna and it was here we got our first taste of what the Perito Moreno Glacier experience would be like. The ice cracked and the noise reverberated around the valley. I didnt realise at the time what exactly it was. We loved El Chalten. It is, well Patagonia is, for me the raison d'être for our trip to Argentina. If you had the time and the money, could you spend a lot longer here, there is so much to do - ice-trekking on the glaciers, camping and rock-climbing. But there was still alot of Patagonia to see.
El Calafate, Argentina
We bussed three and a half hours to El Calafate the next day and booked our trip out to see the Perito Moreno Glacier for the following day. Then we
headed out for a night on the town with Mike & Lou (from our Philippines days) who are doing the South America trip in reverse and we managed to cross paths for one night only and it was brilliant to see them again. We got fairly sozzled, fed a gently yowling street dog (there are lots here), and parted with promises to visit one another in Dublin/London and to buy blow up mattress. Slightly hung-over, we went off on our trip to see the glacier and it was amazing
! No matter how many times people tell you how big it is, how blue it is and how noisy it is, until you actually experience it, you´ve no idea! Its massive - 257 square km, 5km wide at the face, 60m high and extends down another 180m into the waters of Lago Argentina. It advances at a rate of 2m per day, but is constantly being replenished at the top by snow, so is in absolute equilibrium. And its so clean. The faces of most other glaciers are pretty mucky looking with all the crap they've dragged down the mountain with them, but Moreno is practically spotless! We started the day
with a boat trip that takes you close (but not too close) to the blue, craggy-topped wall of the glacier. The glacier cracks and heaves with pressure and the noise it mades is just incredible - its like a sharp crack of a pistol that echos around the valley followed by a hugh reverberating growl, that sounds just like roll of thunder. This was the noise Id first heard at Laguna Torres, but here it happens all the time. The best bit is when the craggy bits at the face of the glacier can't take the pressure any more, and fall with a massive roar into the waters below, causing massive waves to radiate outwards, leaving icebergs floating in their wake. We were lucky enough to see two huge chunks fall like this while on the boat. After the boat trip, we spent a couple of hours walking along the viewing balconies above the glacier, where you can see (when the clouds lift) just how far the glacier goes up into the mountains, and just how jagged the top of the glacier actually is. The day was turning from hot and sunny, it was getting windy, some patches of rain,
and bloody cold but the glacier sort of hypnotises you - you get addicted to waiting for the next chunk to fall at every crack and groan. I sat at the viewpoint that gives you that classic 'lonely planet' vista for another hour, mesmerised, before heading to the coffee shop for a much needed hot chocolate to warm the bones. It was going to take a lot more than hot chocolate on the next part of the journey!
Puerto Natales & Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile
We headed across the border to the Chilean town of Puerto Natales. This is when the weather turned proper Patagonian for us - forkin' freezing, forkin' windy and forkin' rainy! We had just been incredibly lucky in Chalten and Calafate, its seemed. Puerto Natales really does feel like a frontier town. The buildings are mostly single story, made from dodgy-looking wooden panels (in this climate!) and corrugated iron roofs, and look like they'd get blown over in the patagonian wind. If it wasnt for its proximity to Torres del Paine National Park, the town would never see any tourists! Our hostel, Erratic Rock, was one such building, and it creaked
Mount Fitz Roy
in all its glory!
and moaned, while wind whistled through the cracks. The heating was on full time to keep us toasty - and this is their summer time! Erratic Rock gives a full briefing on trekking (surviving) in the national park. You can
go on a four wheel drive day trip, but this isnt really the way to experience the park. You need to do a multi-day trek (anything from 3 to 10 days depending on if you trek the 'W' trail or the 'Q' Circuit - named for their shape). At night if you are loaded you can stay in warm, cosy Refugios, or if, like us, you are not, you camp!
It takes a good 5 days to do the whole W circuit, but we only had three nights/four days so we did a kind of double-ehh, missing out on the final tail. We did the route backwards to most people, starting out spending our first night at the famous Torres of Torres del Paine. It was kind of accidental, we did mean to start at the other end, but sort of made a wee mistake. Anyway, it was a blessing in disguise, as we later discovered people coming from
that side of the trail were having shocking weather. We had to carry all our camping gear, change of clothes, food and cooking utensils with us (this was no Inca Trail!). Id say our packs weight maybe 8-10kg. The weather as we started up towards Campemento Torres was crap - pissing miserable drizzle (of all things, please not rain!), but it actually cleared up a good bit the further up the valley we hiked. By the time we passed Refugio Chileno it actually was sunny and we got a sneak peak at the tops of the Torres against blue sky! The first part of the trail was pretty tough, and man, did those packs get heavy very quickly, and thankfully it was only 3.5 hours in total to Campemento Torres. En route we got our first taste of what the Patagonian wind is really like - freezing, gusting and gale-force! We had hired hiking poles (some people might scoff!) and they saved our bacon so many times - helping us cross rushing rivers without falling in, climb muddy trails without snotting ourselves and not getting blown over by crazy gusts of wind! Eventually we reached the campsite - it took
a few minutes for us to find it hidden in the trees - set up camp (thank god for the practice run in town the day before!), 'cooked' some super noodles, and climbed up the 45min 'trail' to Mirador Torres. The climb is not so much difficult, but it is awkward - you literally need to scramble over rocks and boulders. Most people do this at 4am in the dark, in order to catch the sunrise. It was now freezing cold and windy as hell. The clouds had returned, but by some stroke of luck the Torres themselves were not covered so we got a good, if grey, view. I think it was the last time anyone was able to see them for the next few days. The rain started in again, and we hurried back down to camp and settled in for the night i.e. we froze to death, while the rain pelted our tent!
We were lucky again on our second day hiking. It was to be our longest stint with the packs on - about 6 hours or so, and by some miracle the rain stopped. It was still cloudy, but as long as it wasnt
raining that was fine by us! We had heard that people had had to wade through rushing rivers on this part of the trail the day before as the rain had caused them to rise, but the waters had gone down again, and we managed to keep ourselves and more importantly our rucksacks dry. We had lovely views over lakes, passed under scarey Mount Doom type peaks, and as we approached Refugio Cuernos, our second campsite, the scenery got even nicer as the the mountains at the entrance to Valle del Frances came into view. We could see however, that it was raining in the valley, and had heard that if its raining, there is no point in hiking it, cause you'll see nothing. We lived in hope, as aparently its the highlight of the W circuit. Cuernos is a great refugio in a cracking location - we treated ourselves to a Refugio meal and bottle of wine that night as a reward! We were quite jammy in our selection of campsite - we were looking for one that wasnt slanty, and happily it was also kind of raised. This was extremely lucky as it rained heavily again that night
and in the morning there were other campers whose tents had flooded and whose sleeping bags were soaking wet. Not nice. We were (nearly) dry as a bone.
Day three was pretty tough in terms of weather. We had a great first part of the day, as the trail takes you along by the lake. But the wind was so strong at this stage you could see 'tornados' of water being whipped up off the surface of the lake, and you knew as they swirled towards shore, the wind was coming for you - so you either scrambled behind the nearest bush or dug in with your poles and braced yourself for the onslaught. It can knock you right over. It was great fun! The terrain changed alot on this day and trail took us up through streams, rocky old river beds but eventually it just turned to mud and the rain was coming down hard. We reached Campemento Italiano at the entrance to the Valle del Frances, to discover it was actually closed due to bad weather (and an alleged rat infestation - lots of rumours!). We only need to dump our rucksacks in the shelter here though
while we gave the Valle del Frances trail a shot. We got a sort of okay view of the Glacier del Frances at the entrance, but we couldnt see the cliffs of the Cuernos themselves on the other side of the valley at all, due to the rain. We hauled ourselves over boulders and picked our way up through a river bed, but after an hour or so, we decided to turn back, as really, we couldnt see a thing. That was a real shame, as apparently on a clear day, its just stunning. Never mind! We picked up our bags again, and headed to Refugio Grande Paine for our final night of camping. As we approached Laguna Pehoe (so blue!) we were in a totally exposed part of the trail, the winds are so strong here that the trees grow to look like they permanently being blown nearly right over. My body was in danger of permanently looking this way too. Typically, when we reached the campsite, set up and 'cooked' instant pasta for dinner, the skies cleared, the clouds lifted and the magestic peaks at Valle del Frances were revealed! Rumours abounded that the weather was due to
be fabulous the next day, and us headed back to town!
We were considering hiking halfway up the final tail of the W to the lookout point for the amazing Glacier Grey on our final mornng, which would have entailed getting up at 6am in order to make our ferry at noon. But the next morning the weather was worse than EVER, its was freezing
cold and the rain was really pelting down, and only getting harder and harded. We opted for a lazy breakfast in the warmth of the campsite kitchen instead. We even heard that they were closing the Valle del Frances trail as well, as it was too trecherous with the weather. As we watched the newcomers get off the catamaran to start their hikes in the park, we just though 'you poor, poor sods!'. Now, it may sound like our Torres del Paine (Towers of Pain, Torrential Rain etc. etc.) trip wasnt particularly enjoyable. But actually, we had a ball! Despite the weather (or maybe in part because of it), we really enjoyed the hiking and camping. It was our first self-sufficient multi-day trek (barring the refugio meal and wine!) and it felt like a
hell of an achievement. The weather was truely Patagonia, and yes, it would have been marvelous if the sun was splitting the rocks, but I think our experience was all the more authentic for the weather! Id do it again in a flash. So there!
Punta Arenas, Chile
We moved on to Punta Arenas, a brief stopover on the way to Tierra del Fuego. Its a big old port town that is having its rougher edges smoothed out somewhat by tourism. We were staying in one of the less salubrious of streets - I like to call it Ho Row. There were several "coffee and legs" places, a kind of Hooters but with no booze, and other bogey looking "restaurants" and "nite klubs" (read whorehouses), with girls in various states of undress on the signage. Downtown was a lot nicer, with plenty of good bars and restaurants i.e. no "Would sir like a girl with his steak?". The main reason for visiting Punta Arena was to take a boat trip in the Straights of Megellan to see the penguins and sealions of Magdalena and Marta Islands. There are about 300,000 megallanic penguins, breeding pairs and their chics,
on the island and you get to spend an hour walking along roped off paths, which keep you away from the nests, but the wee penguins regularly waddle across the path right in front of you en route to the water. They are a noisy bunch - the males pulling themselves up to their full height (they are tiny!), throwing their heads back and braying like histerical donkeys! The chics were quite mature and most were in the throes of molting their cute fuzzy feathers, so some did look a tad on the mangey side. There were millions of these little feathers floating around on the breeze, causing all the little penguins to sneeze - cute! Next port of call was the highlight of the trip - Isla Marta and the sealions. Now, I've seen plenty of seals and sealions before, and generally they just lay around looking cute, not doing much. But this is a breeding colony and man, what a difference that made. The noise
was incredible. It was like 1000's of zombies had just emerged from the depths of hell and were groaning & roaring as they staggered towards you. It was a really deep, gutteral, primal
sort of noise. Its a relatively small island, but the beach was a heaving mass of bolshey males fighting & roaring, mothers chasing other seals away from their newborn pups, pups and younger seals constantly bleating, mothers actually birthing (you could see the blood running down the rocks) and incredibly, we saw nature at its cruelest - a huge male grabbing a wee pub in its jaws and thrashing it, shaking it from side to side. We were sure it was dead, but the pup picked itself up from where it was flung, and started to make its way back towards the male again! Unbelievable! It was amazing. If someone had offered me a job that involved living on the island, monitoring the population and behaviour of the sealions - never mind the smell, isolation and the cold - I'd have taken it!
We headed across the Straights of Magellan into Tierra del Fuego (which is shared by Chile and Argentina) and slowly made our way down to Ushuaia, total trip took 12 hours. It´s famous for being the southern most city in the world, but Puerto Williams in Chile is further south, although so small,
it hardly even qualifies as a town! The last 80km of the journey to Ushuaia was beautiful as the landscape changed from flat pampas to a mountainous lake district. Ushuaia used to be a pretty tough port town, but is now also a major tourist destination for those (like us) wanting to get to ´el fin del mundo´and (for the rich) the starting point for voyages to Antarctica (last minute deals for $5000!). So, its fairly grim on approach - lots of industry, warehouses stacked with huge shipping containers, cargo boats in the bay and a couple of cruise ships. In fairness, it was raining when we arrived and things never look that appealling in the rain. We stayed up the back end of town too, which was a bit of a pain in the arse, so it wasnt until the next day, we realised that Ushuaia is actually quite nice - lots of lovely restaurants, bars and shops etc. But it is a bit pricey. Its the end of the world after all! It is surrounded by mountains which are dusted with snow, but unfortunately you cant really seem to get a good look at them from the town
itself - unless you pay top dollar for a big hotel with views. It has great potential to be stunning, if only the town planning people had had a bit more foresight.
We didnt have much time here, so we took ourselves off to Tierra del Fuego National Park the next day, 12km outside of town and hiked the coast trail, which takes you along the Beagle Channel, passed some lovely coves and through some gorgeous lenga (local beech) forest. There are lots of rabbits, woodpeckers and hawks in the woods, and the water looks so clear
and inviting, I'd love to have gone for a dive. You can dive from Ushuaia, but the water is obviously so cold you need a dry suit and/or a big layer of blubber (one out of two aint bad!). It was so nice to be beside the sea again and smell the sea air! The views from the coves were gorgeous and you can see right into Chile (the park borders the border). We continued exploring a few of the smaller trails as well, and visited a beaver lodge, which was really cool, but unfortunately the beavers had scarpered from that lodge
(probably due to the path that led right up to the dam) and we didnt get to see any. You can take trips especially to see them, and if we´d have more time, I definately would have. We bumped into a Scottish & Northern Irish couple, Andy and Sarah, at dinner that night - we´d first met in El Chalten - and ended up, of all places, in The Dublin Irish Pub! Seriously, we go all the way to the end of the earth only to end up in a jaysus Irish pub! Ah, it was good fun though! We drank the local Beagle beer, and had sore heads for the (very delayed) flight to Buenos Aires the next day.
Id actually loved to have had more time here - there is loads to do from crewing sail boats, kayaking on the Beagle Channel, hiking, seeing penguins and sealions (but we´d already done that) and more. But Buenos Aires was beckoning, and I was looking forward to a bit of big city action again!
There are more photos below