Chasing the Liberator - Patagonia

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January 25th 2007
Published: January 27th 2007
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Full steam ahead on the Navimag.
Since the last blog entry from Easter Island, Last Train To Transcentral have upped the pace even more and covered a whopping 6000km by plane, boat, bus and foot to reach Punta Arenas, one of Patagonia´s southernmost cities.

From Easter Island we flew back to Santiago, took an overnight bus south to Valdivia and pushed on down to Puerto Montt, the capital of Chile´s Region X. The sun was shining brightly on this industrial town which usually sees rain, fog and winds. A quick check of the forecast for the region confirmed that the fine weather was set to continue for another few days. We took advantage of this and luckily managed to grab two tickets for the Navimag ferry which travels from Puerto Montt south through the Chilean islands, glaciers and fiords to Puerto Chacabuco (you couldn´t make the name up!). There were no cheap bunk tickets left so we took a 4-berth cabin which was empty apart from us, score!

The Navimag is primarily a commercial ferry which has been renovated to allow passengers to share the journey with containers, horses and huge trucks. The 24 hour journey south took us past Chiloé, one of Chile´s largest islands, and past some beautiful snow capped peaks, narrow fiords and tiny fishing villages. During the journey we were followed by a pod of about 30 leaping dolphins which was an amazing sight. Strangely, the bridge was open to passengers and the captain spent a lot of time chatting in Spanish and English to many of the passengers and explaining how all the high tech navigational instruments worked. Our ferry journey ended in Puerto Chacabuco, where we took a bus to Coyhaique, capital of Region XI.

Coyhaique is a city of 45,000 and the largest town on the legendary Carretera Austral. The Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) is a 1240km stretch of road connecting some of Chile´s most remote communities. Construction of the highway was begun in 1976 by General Augusto Pinochet. The last section of the road between Cochrane and Villa O´Higgins was only completed in 2000. Most of the road after Coyhaique was unpaved and involved bumpy minibus journeys which had to be well planned as space was limited and they only ran on certain days of the week.

The summer is the only time to attempt to travel the length of this remote and lonely road
Camp Cat, Parque Nacional Torres del PaineCamp Cat, Parque Nacional Torres del PaineCamp Cat, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

This was our rented home for 4 days. Amazing views to wake up to.
as during winter it is covered in snow, meaning a wrong turn on a windy road could be fatal! We were exceptionally lucky with the weather and saw some beautiful unspolit scenery. You might wonder why travellers would bother with this road when there is a perfectly good highway less then 200km east in Argentina. Well, the reason is that there were hardly any other tourists here, the people were really friendly, the sense of adventure heightened, and if you can cross the border into Argentina at the last possible Andean frontier, well you might as well try! So we did.

After a few stop offs and a bad flu on the way south, we arrived in the last accessible Chilean town before the land breaks up into thousands of tiny islands. Villa O´Higgins (pronouned here as Veeeeea O Heeeeeeeeeegins), population 450, is a tiny town perched at the base of magnificent mountains, glaciers and the Parque National Bernardo O´Higgins. A quick diversion is necessary here to explain the status of legendary "Liberator" Bernardo O´Higgins.

With a name like O´Higgins you can be sure there is an Irish connection here. Bernardo O´Higgins was the illegitimate son of Ambrosio
Hold Me!Hold Me!Hold Me!

Isla Magdalena, Penguin Colony
O´Higgins from Sligo. Ambrosio, a Spanish officer, produced an illegitimate son with Isabel Riquelme, a prominent Chilean lady. Bernardo O´Higgins was educated in London and went on to secure Independence from Spain through his band of Chilean rebels. He is known here as the "father of Chile" and most if not all towns here have a street or main square named after him. O´Higgins went on to secure the disputed southern territories of Patagonia as Chilean lands and founded the town of Punta Arenas in Southern Patagonia, where we are today. There is supposedly a plaque in his honour in Merrion Square in Dublin which we will certainly be looking up on our return home.

Historical diversions aside, Villa O´Higgins was the launching point of our adventurous crossing through the Andes into Argentina. Since the road ended in Villa O´Higgins, passage across the border was only possible via a boat across Lago O´Higgins (Lago San Martin in Argentina) which spans the border. From the Chilean border we hiked 25 kilometers by foot to the Argentinian frontera at Lago Desierta where we connected with another boat and a bus to the town of El Chaltén. If anyone is thinking of
The Navimag, ChileThe Navimag, ChileThe Navimag, Chile

Luckily the weather held up for this trip through Patagonia on the renovated car ferry. The Navimag.
doing this trip, I would highly recommend it. We didn´t have to carry our backpacks as pack horses tramped through the forests with them, allowing us to enjoy the most breathtaking scenery imaginable. From the forest on the Argentinian border the trail ends at Lago Desierto, where a stunning glacier and an amazing view of the Fitz Roy mountain range was waiting for us. This is possibly the most beautiful place in the world to queue up to get your passport stamped. The weather also held up and the views were absolutely magnificent. The bright blue of the lake with the granite peak of Cerro Fitz Roy in the background was more than a worthwhile result for our aching feet.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and on arrival into the tiny mountaineering town of El Chaltén we discovered that there was absolutely no budget accomodation to be found, there was no bank, no ATM and nobody to change Chilean pesos to Argentinian ones. Groan. We wandered the streets until nearly midnight when we managed to find a room for US$70 and begged the owner of a restaurant to give us a cash advance on Mastercard.
Curanto, ChileCuranto, ChileCuranto, Chile

Rather unappetising concoction of seafood and meat all bolied together in the pot. Speciality of Chiloe.
She agreed happily and charged us a whopping 20%! (MISSING)Ouch. Moral of story, plan ahead in Argentina in high season. Sadly, we had to leave El Chaltén, and some amazing hikes in the Fitz Roys the next day due to lack of funds.

Next stop was El Calafate in Argentina, a very touristy town near to the Perito Moreno glacier. We managed to get the last two beds in a hostel and visited the stunning glacier the next day where huge blocks of ice crashed into the lake below.

We crossed back into southern Chile at Puerto Natales, a small town near to Parque National Torres del Paine, the most visited national park in South America. For those not familiar with this park, it´s the location of the ´W´ trek, a 3-5 day trek through glorious scenery culminating (or beginning at - depending on which way you start the W) in a spectacular view of the granite Torres (towers) del Paine. You bring along camping equipment, food, stoves, rucksacks etc and walk roughly 70km in 4 days. Eek. (Cat scurries away into hiding at the thought of carrying that load for 4 days).

Before we arrived in
Chiloe, ChileChiloe, ChileChiloe, Chile

Late night sunset over Chiloe island, taken from the Navimag.
Puerto Natales, we had chatted to loads of backpackers who had done the Torres del Paine trek. Some people had great experiences and others had horrible ones where they were pelted with rain for 4 days, slept in wet sleeping bags, waded through waist high rivers and lugged heavy bags up steep hills. Hmm, those stories didn´t make it sound like the best craic ever. We weren´t exactly sold on the idea but we decided to give it a go and gathered all the necessary camping equipment from stores around town. The cost was US$16 per day for everything, including the worlds largest sleeping bag, which I decided to bring to keep me cosy at night! I also packed some trek essentials such as super thick Patagonian woolly socks, plenty of food, a spare gas cannister for tea emergencies, various hats, gloves and scarves and of course, plenty of tea bags for chilly mornings. Fortunately it all fit into my rucksack so I didn´t look like a total trek wimp. Patrick carried the tent and all other heavy bits and we attached the bed rolls and cups to the front to complete the Torres look.

Gear sorted, we only had to pray that the weather would hold for the 4 day trek. On arrival into the park, we chatted to an Isreali girl who told us they had been stuck out in the park in the worst rain for 3 years and were abandoning the trek. Bummer for them, but the sun was shining and our enthusiasm was not going to be dampened by more nasty stories. We decided to trek the ´W´ from west to east because it seemed like a good idea and there was less people going from left to right. We overheard some Aussies discussing their plans for the 4 days and they seemed good so we stole them and planned the exact same route. It involved camping at the base of the valleys and doing treks from the campsites without the rucksacks slowing us down. A couple of Californian blokes stole the ideas too, so the 6 of us all set up camp at Lago Pehoé. The three nights/4 days were absolutely brilliant fun. The weather was fantastic, we needed more suncream than gloves in the end, we met loads of nice people and we didn´t get wet once! The nights were cold but since I had my Pole-proof bed, I slept like a baby and barely managed to get up at 9am for a day of trekking.

Having so much daylight makes a huge difference too, you can take your time on some of the walks and really enjoy it. We saw some magnificent scenery and also saw some great Patagonian wildlife such as condors, guanacos, woodpeckers, hares and sweaty trekkers. Carrying the bags was not nearly as bad as we had imagined either. The longest we carried them was about 7 hours but the weather, the scenery and the experience was so fantastic that we hardly noticed them. The other great thing about trekking for 4 days is that you can eat as many biscuits for "energy" as you want without feeling the slightest big guilty. In the end we survived the ´W´ without any problems, apart from the fact that the view of the Torres themselves was shrouded in thick cloud when we finally made it to the top on day 4. Oh well. Maybe we´ll come back and have another go some other time.

After Torres del Paine, it was time to slow the pace a bit so we bussed it to Punta Arenas, capital of the most southern region in Chile, Region XII, the Magallanes region, the heart of Chilean Patagonia. Punta Arenas is where Ernest Shackleton planned the rescue mission of his stranded crew, marooned from the ship Endurance on Elephant Island, after a failed attempt to cross the Antartic in 1914. A key member of his expedition was First Officer Tom Crean (The most famous of Creans), who hailed from Co. Kerry, Ireland. The Naval Museum in Patagonia has a special section on Antartic Exploration and lots of pictures on the crew, including pictures of Tom Crean. Pat was delighted to hear all about his namesake who completed one of the greatest small boat voyages of all time to rescue his crewmates and received the Polar medal for his efforts. Read loads more about Tom Crean here .

Following a good dose of research at the museum we popped out to the Isla Magdalena penguin colony, where there are 50,000 breeding pairs of penguins. The little guys just come right up to you and stare and are breeding like crazy, creating thousands of more fat little penguins. That´s all from Patagonia for now. We are heading up the coast of Argentina next. Awaiting the arrival of AnneMarie, Cat´s little sister in Buenos Aires and looking forward to the warmer weather. Stay tuned....

Additional photos below
Photos: 40, Displayed: 30


The FitzRoy Range, ArgentinaThe FitzRoy Range, Argentina
The FitzRoy Range, Argentina

Stunning FitzRoy Mountain range in the background.
Lago Desierto, ArgentinaLago Desierto, Argentina
Lago Desierto, Argentina

Our first stop in Argentina was the eerily deserted lake. Quite an apt name.
Cat and Dog, Lago Desierto, ArgentinaCat and Dog, Lago Desierto, Argentina
Cat and Dog, Lago Desierto, Argentina

Catherine wastes no time getting in a tango with her first Argentinian friend.
Packing for the trek, Puerto Natales, ChilePacking for the trek, Puerto Natales, Chile
Packing for the trek, Puerto Natales, Chile

Mmmmmm, four days supply of cup-a-soups and noodles. Check out the gas stove. cat´s new favourite camping accessory. Essential for the cup of scaldy after a days hiking.
Salto Grande, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, ChileSalto Grande, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile
Salto Grande, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile

Stunning waterfalls at Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
Cerro Paine Grande, Parque Nacional Torres del PaineCerro Paine Grande, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
Cerro Paine Grande, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

View of the highest peak in Torres.
Iceberg, Parque Nacional Torres del PaineIceberg, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
Iceberg, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Ice floats slowly away from Glacier Grey.

27th January 2007

wonderful adventure
wow, you guys have had one hell of a trip! i just wanted to add something about bernardo o'higgins. despite what wikipedia may say, he did not found the city of punta arenas. punta arenas (the oldest chilean city in patagonia) was founded in 1843, but o'higgins died in 1842, exiled in peru. both argentina and chile disputed the southern region of south america and the area was only divided between the two countries around 1880, while chile was fighting bolivia and peru in the war of the pacific. bolivia and peru were hoping to draw argentina into the confilct against chile. argentina would have attacked in the south and taken all of what is now southern chile. chile knew it could not defeat all three countries, so in a treaty with argentina, chile renouced all claims to what is now the argentine patagonia (it had previously claimed al this land to the atlantic) and the boundaries between the two countries were set, similar to what they are today. o'higgins wanted chile to expand southward but the chilean patagonia was only secured around 1880, but he was long dead when this actually took place and didn't actually do any of it himself. cheers, and enjoy the rest of your time in south america!

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