Published: May 2nd 2008May 2nd 2008
Having reached the end of the continent at Ushuaia, the only way was north, and the only bus available was to El Calafate. So after a desperate last minute scramble, and a last night on the town at Ushuaia, I boarded the 6am bus north. El Calafate is a tourist town built to accomodate the many visitors who want to make the visit to Perito Moreno glaciar. Having seen a glaciar in Ushuaia, I imagined Perito Moreno to be something similar. That couldn't have been further from the truth! The glacier's vastness defies comprehension. It stretches for 30km, its face is 5km wide and it towers 60m above the surface of the water. It advances about 2m each day, accompanied by huge groans, and drops icebergs off its face at frequent intervals. It truly is one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen.
Having gotten down to the glacier for dawn, we then set off for Chalten that afternoon. Along with the English couple Neil and Kerry, and another Irish guy called Ken we had rented a car to get us about for the few days. Thank God for such motivated people as Neil and Kerry - I
managed to see as many sights in two days as would normally take me a week. They were my alarm clock, drivers and secretary all rolled into one - thanks guys!
El Chalten is a mountainside village beside the Cerro Chalten and Cerro Torre mountains, and an acclaimed spot for trekking, as well as being a very pretty place. The roads there are all dirt tracks, and it feels a bit like a place town forgot. Even to get there you have to drive for some miles along Route 40 - a dirt track road that is one of the main transport links for the southern half of Argentina. Top speed possible is about 50km per hour, and the road can be closed for hours or days at a time in the presence of dust storms. Makes for a bumpy ride! So after a bit of a late night when we arrived in El Chalten (we decided to sample the local whiskey), we trekked along the mountains, armed with ham sandwiches and hangovers. As we set out there were clouds hugging the mountains, which we hoped would clear before we got to our destination. After a four hour trek
the hangovers had cleared, the clouds unfortunately had not. Regardless it was a very enjoyable trek in beautiful countryside.
The 'W' trek at Torres del Paine national park (infamous in Ireland for where the Irish backpacker died last December), is possibly the most famous trek in the continent and its neighbouring town of Peurto Natales was where we set off to next. Unfortunately the weather took a bit of a turn for the worse. Winter was approaching fast and when we got there the sky was grey, the wind piercing and the rain pouring. Not being one for too much hardship, I decided not to try and do this trek (maybe some other time), and made a swift departure for Punta Arenas for a couple of days.
My main reason for going to Punta Arenas was in order to be able to get a bus back north after a day or two. It turned out to be a very interesting and unexpected stopover. The hostel owner, a Chilean in his 30s, was a very nice guy that I got on with very well. So on my second and last night there, he decided to invite all his friends
over to the hostel and then on to a bar in town for the evening. And it turned out to be a very entertaining evening. The owner was quite a well known and liked man around the town, and since I was with him and his friends at the bar, I was treated as almost royalty. For about the first hour in the bar, I had a constant line of people coming over and introducing themselves to me and welcoming me to the city. One of his friends offered me a place to stay and help with getting a job, despite my insistance that I was leaving the following morning. Another of his friends was not quite so lucid: he could only manage half sentences, and then he would burst out laughing at the apparent wit of what he'd just said. It was clear he had had one or two more rum and cokes than he really needed. About 20 minutes later I hear a loud bang, turn around, and our friend is sprawled out on the floor after falling off his chair. No harm was done (except to the chair), but entertainment was provided for all!
next morning I got on a marathon bus journey to get north, and away from the bad weather. 30 hours later I was in Osorno in Chile, and after two hours break I was back on another 6 hour bus journey to Bariloche in Argentina. When I was back in Ireland, I would have considered five hours on a bus torturous. Now anything under 24 seems very acceptable!
After the amound of sight-seeing and trekking I had done, I was glad to get to Bariloche just to do a bit of relaxing. After a few days, and with the batteries recharged, I got down to doing and seeing a few things. With Conor and John now also in Bariloche we went up to get some beautiful views of the city at Cerro Campanile. Then, along with some other people from our hostel we took a day out white water rafting. It was a very wet and cold, but thoroughly enjoyable experience. Our instructor was determined to get us into the water as soon as possible, so when the boat listed precariously on its left hand edge he shouted "high side left" - meaning everyone jump to the left side
of the raft. The result was inevitable, and breathtakingly cold.
From Bariloche we crossed back over the border to Chile to the town of Pucon. Pucon is situated right next to a volcano, which we set out to climb very early one morning - 5 am to be precise. I had been warned that it was a bit of work to climb. In fact it was a lot of work! Five hours climbing to get to the top, including climbing over a glacier for some of the way. It was a real endurance test to get there, but worth every minute of it. The volcano is active, and at the top the sulphur billows out in poisoning clouds which don't go very well with sandwiches. I got a real sense of achievement for getting all the way up - it was a really fantastic experience!
We then hit Santiago in time for the weekend. Alot of travellers we had met along the way had spoken ill of Santiago, but we all liked the place quite alot. One of the downsides is that the city is perenially covered in a layer of smog - so much so that they
work a system with licence plates that every second day of the week only odd numbered plates can drive, and on the other day the even plates can drive in order to try and reduce the smog! On the positive side the locals are very friendly, they have a range of very good sights and museums, and good nightlife. One of the more interesting places we visited was the Parque de la Paz - the former site of Villa Grimaldi. Villa Grimaldi was where DINA, the Chilean Secret Police - interrogated and tortured opposition to the dictator Augusto Pinochet. From 1974 to 1978 5,000 people were detained at the site, at least 240 of whom were killed or 'disappeared'. Now all the buildings are gone, but the park has been developed as a memorial to the attrocities of that govenment. The former main entrance to the old building is now firmly closed and bears a notice reading "This door will never again be opened". In the metaphorical sense in which this statement is intended, I hope they are right.
Santiago proved a bit of a challenge to leave - the border crossing high in the Andes was closed for
a few days due to snow. Three attempted bus rides later we eventually got to cross over and leave Chile behind, for now at least.
There are more photos below