Published: December 23rd 2008December 23rd 2008
We had a bit of a shock arriving in Patagonia from BA as the cost of everything increased the further south we travelled...as did the wind speed! First stop was Bariloche- the Lake District of Argentina, famed for its chocolates, Swiss-style architecture and skiing. Chocolate shops were the size of a B&Q warehouse with every possible chocolate confection you can imagine. Pete managed to get pins and needles in his cheeks within five minutes of arriving! A boat trip on one of the lakes were of course beautiful etc. but the highlight were the hoards of tourists on the top deck holding out crackers and biscuits to entice the pursuing seagulls. A couple of packets later, to the detriment of our pack lunch, Finn finally managed to get this photo.
A lot of people we had met travelling had told us about a hippy town two hours away from Bariloche called El Bolson. After checking in to our hostel, which seemed to be carved from one single piece of wood by the German Herman Munster look-a-likey owner and his shot putting wife, we went in search of the famed hippy market. What a load of old tat! There is a
rule that every one of the 200 stalls must sell products that are handmade - a class of 5 year olds would put them to shame. It must be either the amount of dope they are smoking or the remnants of acid they dropped in the 70s that could make them think that anyone in their right mind would reach into their pocket and buy a painted pebble. Cool man!
Another 14 hours bus ride took us to Puerto Piramides, the prime spot for whale watching in South America. We were like kids in a sweetshop, checking the weather forecast and sea conditions repeatedly to increase our chances of spotting as many Southern Right whales as possible. Sadly, they are named this due to the fact that they are the 'right' type of whale for hunters to kills as once they are dead, they float to the surface making it easier for the hunters to drag em back to port. Thankfully, they are now protected and numbers in peak season top 600 whilst there are only 400 people in the town! The whales come to breed in the bay and stay until their calves are strong enough to face
the open ocean. The photos can never do justice to the experience of having a 45 tonne whale and her calf 5 metres away from our boat. One trip merely whetted our appetites so we went on a sunset tour which saw us surrounded by 30 animals. This trip really validated our decision to come to Patagonia....best 20 quid we have ever spent!
Not only was it prime whale spotting season but there were also half a million Magellan penguins down the road with their newly hatched or just about to hatch chicks. We were lucky enough to be able to walk through the colony getting up close and personal due to their apparant lack of interest in the gawping, photo snapping humans wandering past. Seeing a whale leap completely out of the water, a penguin hatch and discovering a restaurant that could could cook chips well, all in the space of a few days made us realise why the Welsh settled here in the late 1800s. Speaking of the Welsh, according to our guide, the Welsh didn't actually intend to settle in Patagonia. They tried in vain to get into the US but they were suitably rebuffed. Canada
also had sense and sent them packing and as for Australia, they didn't have enough points. Hearing of their plight, the Argentine government gave them some land where even the Argentine people didn't want to live. Next thing you know, Bara brith cake and tea shops abound charging tourists extortionate prices for a plastic Welsh experience. Their entrepreneurial 'talent' (i.e. daylight robbery) could teach the valleys a thing or two!
One Argentine military flight and 2 diazepam later, we arrived in El Calafate in the far south of Patagonia - home to glaciers, icebergs and even higher prices. The star attraction here is the Perito Moreno glacier - a 30km long, 5km wide, 60m tall wall of ice. Almost uniquely in the world, this glacier is not retreating; it is actually advancing 2m every day resulting in building-sized chunks of ice to fall off the front into the lake below. To be able to stand in front of this, listening to the groaning, creaking and cracking as it moved is pretty damn special. We learnt that the ice tumbling into the lake actually fell as snow on top of the mountain behind when Christ was alive - it took
that long to get to where we were standing.
There are many other glaciers in the national park so we took a boat trip to see a few of them. Some of the routes were blocked by giant icebergs which 'calve' off the glaciers and can take up to 4 months to melt. The photos you can see of the icebergs only show the top 15% of the actual piece of ice - the rest is submerged. The startling blue colour on some of the icebergs is a result of massive compression which forces out all of the air and therefore only absorbs the blue colour from the light spectrum. I hope you have paid attention as there could be a surprise test set at any time. And yes Justine - there will be bonus points for moraine knowledge!
As you know we are not likely to be guests on a Question of Sport anytime soon so rocking up in the national trekking capital of Argentina (El Chalten) in flip flops ensured we got lots of earnest, disapproving looks from weather-beaten skinny people with bits of crockery dangling from their rucksacks. In order to show willing we committed
to a 22km hike the next day......no, that is not a typo....22kms. Us!! And shock horror we actually enjoyed it! A new experience for us but not quite as shocking as the look on Finn's face on seeing the bunk bed he was expected to sleep in that night! If only Pete managed to stop laughing long enough to take a photo.....
To completely mess our heads up, we then flew to the far north of the country, to the jungle on the Brazilian border to see the Iguazu Falls. To give you a sense of why we wanted to come here, it is said that upon seeing them for the first time, Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed 'poor Niagara!' 275 individual waterfalls along 2.7km of the Iguazu river - some of them up to 270m in height (thanks Wiki). As well as getting completely drenched by simply being anywhere remotely close, we decided to take a 'thrilling' boat ride in an inflatable right up underneath some of the falls. As it was 40C that day it was a welcome power shower relief! For the benefit of our passports, we nipped over the border to see the Falls from a Brazilian
perspective - much more sexy!
We had picked up a lonely stray traveller by this point who was also staying at our hostel - let's call her Mona, because that's all she ever did. It makes you wonder why these people bother getting on the plane in the first instance! Surrounded by stunning scenery, amazing bird and butterfly life was simply not enough. The fact that it was forecast rain for the next day (in a rainforest - really??), meant she panicked and changed her flight to escape back to BA. Then it stopped raining. More moaning. Her room was more expensive than ours. More moaning. She was too late booking a seat on the shuttle so had to get a cab on her own. Super moaning! We love our fellow travellers!
After spending 4 months travelling and only scratching the surface of the countries we have been to, we have come face to face with Caimans and poisonous frogs in Costa Rica; eaten guinea pig and done the Inca trail (sorry train!) in Peru; survived the saltflats and witches market in Bolivia; eaten a herd of cattle and heard glaciers groan in Argentina it is time for
us to shift continents and head to New Zealand for Christmas. We are genuinely sad to be leaving this amazing place but at the same time are excited about the next chapter.
Tune in next time to see exactly how we manage to stay sane and not kill each other after spending 31 days in an NZ campervan smaller than some of the steaks we have eaten....
There are more photos below