Published: March 14th 2012March 14th 2012
Reaching Patagonia has been paramount on our list of things to do thus far on our travels. After almost two months in the tropical heat of Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina, the cool, subpolar winds that hit us as we stepped out of the airport at Ushuaia, along with the icy sharp, pyramidal mountains rising ahead of us, presented a shock to the system. After a four hour flight from Buenos Aires, we had finally arrived in the southern most city in the world with nothing left ahead of us but antarctic sea; a stark contrast of everything that had come before.
Ushuaia lies on the south island of Tierra del Fuego in a wide bay with forest, glaciers and mountains rising up behind the settlement which would become our home for the next week. After settling in at the hostel we took to the mountain road, having been told it would permit access to the Martial glacier, which can be clearly seen cutting through the mountains from the sea-level perspective of the town. From the main road we followed a forest trail until, emerging from the tree line, we continued uphill, assaulting scree footpaths, occasionally slipping on the loose stones, that led to the viewpoint. Disappointed at the lack of ice at the mirador we continued to ascend a further hundred meters or so, navigating boulders and meltwater streams in our path in order to fully access the glacier where our view of Ushuaia and its surrounding area would drastically improve (however the day's views and spectacle of seeing our first glacier would soon be dwarfed as we travelled deeper into Patagonia).
Having hiked into the hills of Ushuaia, we decided to take on the rough coast line within the following days. After a day's rest, we managed to acquire rented mountain bikes and headed west out of the town following the harsh coastline along an undulating gravel road. After a few miles the track ended abruptly, giving way to a dense forest through which we would navigate a route to the windswept hills which rise sharply out of the sea. En route, we were presented with our first obstacle, a wide stream followed by a steep incline. Ben was the first to plough a course through the water with ease as the rest of us followed in his wake. Mike's crossing however cost his bike's front tyre a puncture which remained unnoticed until we arrived at the top of the ensuing slope. Whilst stopping to mend the puncture, the cold weather of the south which we had been warned about manifested itself in an icy wind which, whilst chilling us, encouraged haste in fixing the bike until we were back on course along the challenging terrain.
After four days in Ushuaia, we decided to extend our stay in order to sample as much of what the town has to offer as we could. Our decision was justified wholly by our next excursion to a desolate island south of Tierra del Fuego inhabited solely by penguins. We took a small boat from the mainland across a narrow straight of water until, mooring on a pebble beach, we were surrounded by the penguins, some of which, excited by the boat, dived into the sea. Others edged away towards the safety of their nests while the majority stood their ground in an attempt to protect their territory. After taking extensive photographs and trying to fit a penguin in a rucksack (our efforts proving entirely futile) we noticed one, lone Emperor Penguin standing proud amongst the masses of smaller, speckled birds. We were informed that the Emperor had either lost his way from his Antarctic home or was ill and had come further north to die. Whilst this was a depressing sentiment, we were still amazed to see such an unexpected animal and watched it in awe until it was time to re-embark the boat and head back to the mainland.
Our final night in Ushuaia involved extensive sampling of the local ale, named after the Beagle channel, in the town's sole Irish bar (imaginatively named 'Irish Bar').This was followed by a night of table tennis matches from which Ben claimed a prize of four hundred pesos (much to my, and my bank account's dismay). The next morning, having worked out a payment plan, we left Ushuaia, heading north by coach to El Calafate.
Our arrival in El Calafate was delayed. Our coach from Rio Gallegos (where we made a brief stop to drink cold beers in the sunshine and await our transfer) broke down mid-journey leaving us stranded on the dark plains south of our destination, thus we did not reach El Calafate until 2am. The ensuing night's sleep was well received and continued well into daylight hours.
It seems that everywhere we have stayed, we have arrived at a pivotal moment in time, and El Calafate was no exception as, to mark the celebration of the centenary of Lago Argentino, a huge concert stage had been erected in the centre of the town. Music, comedy, dance and, most importantly, parties were scheduled to take place for the whole weekend therefore we decided to extend our stay in order to lap up the festivities.
Meeting up with two English girls and a Canadian couple that we had met in Ushuaia, we headed towards the concert stage. After being apprehended by a policeman who confiscated our alcohol before de-cantering it onto the dusty street, we entered the confines of the arena. Various bands, whose lyrics we failed to comprehend due to our lacklustre Spanish, performed before an inebriated comedian took to the stage, proving that a well timed joke can be funny in any language.
El Calafate allows access to the Perito Merino glacier which stands as the world's third largest freshwater reserve; it stretches for miles into the distance until the deep, blue cravasses are no longer visible; it's size is overwhelming. A labyrinth of walkways, rising out of the opposing hillside on stilts, offers a route downwards towards the face of the advancing glacier, providing a range of views from different perspectives. We spent, what seemed like hours but in retrospect was probably less, observing the ice. Occasionally a flutter of excitement from a nearby group of Japanese tourists would indicate an ice fall. After half an hour of observation, one huge column of ice, nearing fifty meters in height, gradually began to fall. It's speed increasing as it collapsed into the lake silently, followed seconds later by the delayed cacophony of echoed sound which resonated around the valley with surprising volume.
From El Calafate, we travelled A few hours north to El Chalten, a fairly new town which was originally founded in order to settle border disputes between Argentina and Chile, however it's sole purpose today is, ostensibly, to accommodate tourists seeking the thrills of the Los Glaciares National Park. The town lies in the shadows of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, once considered the world's hardest climb.
After kitting ourselves out with tents, sleeping bags and a stove, we took to the national park trails aiming to complete a circuit based around Fitz Roy, making various ascents off course as we progressed. Our first day in the park saw us assault a steep incline, rising to a flat riverbed at the base of the sharp, spiked peaks before continuing north out of the park, navigating the breadth of the raging torrent of water in a vague attempt to create a shortcut. However, our makeshift route weaved in and out of thick brambles, over and under fences and across more streams until we finally regained our desired footpath leading to our first camp site.
The ensuing day involved more hiking but this time over much tougher terrain. Navigating the boulders leading up to a glacial lake, Ben and I soon lost sight of Pete and Mike. We waited at the top of the boulder field for them to appear over the sprawl of rocks but to no avail. Descending rapidly (almost breaking an ankle in the process in a crevice between two boulders) we found Pete and Mike eating lunch in the comfort of a nearby campsite having avoided the craggy ascent to the lake. Full of energy the two of them stormed ahead towards to base of Fitz Roy, the approach involving a 400m, lofty incline, while Ben and I, exhausted from our jaunt across the boulder field, lagged behind on the scree. The views from the base of Fitz Roy are some of the best in Patagonia. The mountain's spire rises sharply ahead to the north behind a deep blue lake reflecting the mountain's jagged outline, whilst to the south, the lakes and forests of the national park sprawl for miles onto the horizon.
Our final day in the park involved a brisk walk (mostly) downhill back to El Chalten, our spirits encouraged by the promise of an 'all you can eat' pizza restaurant and microbrewery on opposing sides of the town's main road. Upon arrival in El Chalten, we discovered that the pizza restaurant was closed leading us straight to the microbrewery where we would spend the next two days (along with almost a weeks budget) drinking their PPA (Patagonian Pale Ale) and taking full advantage of the complementary popcorn constantly justifying the sizeable bar tab as a reward for our efforts in the national park.
After a few days recovery, both from the trek and the alcohol, we headed south to Puerto Natales. Having flirted with the Chilean border, zig-zagging across it on our course through Patagonia, we finally entered the country proper. Whilst Puerto Natales has little of interest in the actual town, there is a supermarket, a scattering of outdoor shops, bars and an artesan market, it acts as a gateway into the national park of Torres del Paine. From Puerto Natales, we headed into the park, weighed down by tents and five day´s worth of food (the weight was significantly reduced by water supplies due to the wealth of fresh water streams that populate the park, navigating their way off the mountains towards the glacial lakes and rivers).
The southern summer provides extremely long days allowing walks to be prolonged well into the evening hours. Having travelled for half of the day to the beginning of our hike, we took advantage of the extended sunshine walking north along the western flank of the park. To our right walking along the footpath, a steep slope dotted with rocky outcrops and forest rose up to mountainous formations, whilst on our left, to the west, the huge Glacier Gray carved its way down the valley extending well into the snow-capped mountains lining the horizon. The cool southern air rising off the ice offering some respite from the high, hot sun. That night, we slept at Campamento Paso, re-gaining energy for the assault of the John Garner Pass the following day, which is hailed as the hardest ascent in the national park.
We rose early and before too long had taken to the path leading up through the forest towards the pass. As we progressed up the winding slope, the trees became less dense giving way to an exposed mountainside and elevated views of Glacier Gray. Continuing up the slope we finally arrived at Paso John Garner, a rounded bowl in the ridge separating a huge Col of greenery and lakes to the east and the arctic panorama of Glacier Gray to the west; two binary opposite landscapes. We layered up to protect outselves against the harsh winds that surged through the funnel-like pass and soaked up the views before descending back to our camp. After lunch we continued on our path towards the beginning the infamous ´W´trek; the most conventional walk in the park which the majority of visitors attempt.
On our third day in the park, Ben awoke me at an unnaturally early hour. ¨This is going to sound weird, but can you take a look at my eye?¨he asked, however with no torch to hand and in need of sleep, I agreed to do so in the morning. When we finally awaoke in the morning, Ben´s eye was fully closed, swolen and glazed with thick tear-like film. I couldn´t help but laugh hysterically waking up half the campsite. Annoyed at my lack of sympathy and uncontrollable laughter, Ben proceeded to show Pete and Mike whose laughing, doubly loud, could be heard from even further. Hazarding guesses at the causes of Ben´s mystery ailment, we walked with ease and without too much haste making gradual and steady progress, enjoying the sunshine and views of Lago Gray before it disappeared behind us. That night however, we were taught a strict lesson in the changable nature of Patagonian weather. Waking in the tents in the early ours of the morning, we heard the onslaught of rain lashing against the flysheet. This continued well into the afternoon, dampening not only our belongings but spirits also as we trudged up footpaths that now resembled rusty torrents.
Eventually the sunshine steered the rainclouds away encouraging us to continue on our penultimate day around the eastern tip of the park from Campamento Italiano to our final camp where we drank rum, dried our rotting socks over the stove, and savoured the warmth and dryness. After a well earned night´s sleep we began our final day, storming the trail downhill towards the park entrance. Here we sat, relaxed and ate what little food we had left awaiting transport back to Puerto Natales. Consulting the map, Ben worked out that we had covered roughly 110km during our time in Torres del Paine; quite possible the most naturally beautiful place in the world.