Patagonia (part 1) and the end of the world (but not in the Nostradamus sense)

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January 5th 2008
Published: January 8th 2008
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Happy 2008 to you all!

On Boxing Day, we crossed back into Argentina, heading further south to Bariloche, another picture postcard tourist town situated in the heart of Argentina's lake district. We were treated to wonderful views of lakes, mountains, and meadows of flowers by the roadside. Crossing the Chile-Argentina border was memorable because we ended up playing table tennis in the middle of a national park whilst waiting for the rest of the group to get their passports stamped - clearly, sporting equipment is an important part of securing one's national borders.

Bariloche resembles a Swiss town with its chalets and lakeside setting - it is also famous for chocolate and St. Bernard dogs, which loll around the main square waiting to be photographed with the tourist hoards. It was a good choice for our first boys and girls nights out of the tour - the girls had the opportunity to eat as much chocolate as they wanted whilst the guys had the chance to visit an Irish bar with the rumour of Guiness on tap.

Naturally, the girl's night out was a slick, well organised operation (which included bowling where a man manually stacked the pins after each go), whilst we bummed around the campsite playing poker and pool until enough of us felt sufficiently thirsty to go into town. Unsurprisingly, there was no Guiness on tap so we resorted to trying all the local beers until we drank them dry. Having regained the use of our legs (we'd been sat by the bar for several hours so that whilst our heads were fine our legs were pissed), we tried to find the best of Bariloche's nightlife. Sadly, it was a Thursday and not Friday or Saturday which are the good nights to go out - our tour regularly seems to turn up on the 'wrong days'. We admitted defeat at 4am having decided the club full of 12 year olds really wasn't for us and almost starting a fight with a local armed copper over the entry to another Irish bar, where only we were forced to pay as Gringos, and our clumsiness at dropping all our glasses once we'd finished our drinks.

The area surrounding Bariloche is renowned for its skiing and walking. On our second full day, I left the masses behind - all the lakeside is built up - to go trekking in a local wildlife reserve. Exhausted, - I must have done at least 4 hours walking and there was a hill! - I returned to find that night's cook group literally roasting a full pig over the fire - Argentina is brilliant for buying pretty as much meat as you can handle at ridiculously low prices.

However, the Argentines seem to have an aversion to handling change. Several times, I have not received the full amount but instead the shopkeeper has presented me with a sweet or another object at I presume the same value but never with any choice as to what I receive. They also are happy to refuse payment if you present them with a note that is too big, which on one occassion meant I was wandering the lakeside road stopping in shop after shop asking 'tienes cambio?' for a 100 Peso note (less than 20 quid). Each time I would get the same quizical look, rueful shake of the head and directed to the next shop in the line.

Leaving Bariloche, we had a 14 hour drive down to a stopover town called Perito Moreno. The first hour was a continuation of the lake district but after that we crossed the Patagonia steppe, a desolate expanse of nothingness, where one truely appreciates the expression 'middle of nowhere'. You know your travelling expectations have changed when stopping at a petrol station, which is literally the first building you've seen for two hours, is the highlight of the day because you might get instant coffee with powdered milk. We also got our first experience of the winds that have battered us for the past 10 days or so.

The next day, we rolled into El Calafate, which is where we spent New Year's. A town of 90,000, it is how I imagine Port Stanley in the Falklands to be like - a town in the middle of nowhere surrounded by farmland and the sea, with very little protection for the strong winds, but a strong community spirit. The town itself was surprisingly nice - previously a place for sheep farmers and fishermen - it is now the last tourist stop-off before going to Torres del Paine. If Salta had the best steak we've sampled, then Rick's all you can eat grill house had the best lamb, I think any of us had tasted. Having learnt my lesson from early in the tour, I knowledgably left all the salad on my side plate, and proceeded to tuck into the plate after plate of meat that came from the massive open grill. Forget all you can eat Chinese, all you can eat meat feasts for a fiver are the way forward!!

The next day, was New Year's Eve. In the day we visited the Moreno Glacier, the world's largest glacier that is still growing (unlike many elsewhere in the world - clearly global warming hasn't reached this part of Argentina yet). On the coach journey there, we were able to see a lot of local wildlife including condors, eagles, rheas and goats, all without having to go outside! The glacier is a truely spectacular sight - 30km long (although we could only see 14km), 30-40m tall and with a 5km face, and a very vivid blue colour that is caused by the reflection of the light. We were able to view it from further down the valley, from the shore and from a boat ride but it is only from the boardwalk almost directly above it that one can truely appreciate both its size and beauty. The ice forms into jagged columns and every so often great chunks break off and crash into the water below. Again, I should post a photo to save myself writing a thousand words...

On our return, a few of us set off for a local wildlife reserve where we had to jump the fence to get in (what rebels) and the local microbrewery where we hoped to make an early start on the festivities. Unfortunately, we couldn't find it which I guess proves that it's not always possible to organise a piss up in a brewery.

We spent New Year's Eve in the restaurant of a local hostel enjoying a group meal where we spent most of the time drinking heavily and amusing ourselves my taking increasingly 'funny' photos. Strangely, it didn't get dark until after 11pm, which made it feel like we were drinking on a late summer's evening. After taking half an hour to wish everyone a Happy New Year's - we have a big group - we hijacked a passing minibus and went into town to what seemed to be the most crowded nightclub in the world (one where it takes ten minutes just to get to the otherside of the room). Having outlasted the rest of the group and dancing with some girls from Buenos Aires (hopefully useful contacts for later in the trip), we called it a night at 4.30am.

We were rewarded for our late night antics by another tough travel day as we tried to nurse our hangovers whilst we were thrown around on the bumpy roads. Once again we got to experience Chile's fanatical border crossing procedures where the truck was searched from top to bottom and our tour leader was reprimanded for trying to bring apples and honey into the country. No seriously, everything got incinerated and she received a black mark on her entry form.

Our next stop was Torres del Paine, a massive national park (180,000ha plus) in Chile that used to be a single ranch but now attracts over 200,000 tourists a year. It is truely Lord of the Rings country with a stunning range of habitats including the Paine Masif mountains, lakes, andean shrub, decidiuous forests and rolling hills of grass and desert. It is also the windiest place I think I have ever been to where you can experience all 4 seasons in one day. Fortunately it is summer at the moment so we got off fairly easily camping the first night in the near freezing cold with the rain lashing down.

The next day we did the famous three towers walk that took us up a steep valley and scaling massive boulders to view three granite columns that sit on the top of a ridge of mountains. Naturally, we turned up on the 'wrong' day again as our views were obscured by a massive blizzard of snow, which reduced visibility to a few metres. Dressed for an artic expedition, we stayed at the top for an hour waiting for it to clear to no avail. It also turned out that I spent most of the time looking in the wrong direction, as I had precious little idea about what were meant to be looking at and the visibility was so bad! However, the walk was very enjoyable, especially coming after a few tough travel days in the truck. We managed to get panoramic views of the surrounding valleys, walk across rope bridges, through forests and over river beds. We finished the walk, running down the final hill to avoid missing our transfer, which was not the easiest thing to do in hiking boots, three layers and after seven hours of walking. That night we were buffeted in our tents by 50mph plus winds, which threatened to blow the tents out of the ground - however, Jules and I felt we had sufficient weight in ours to be safe (and so it proved!).

The following day we took it easy with a four hour stroll around Lake Azul. Predictably the weather was clear, if a little cold and windy, and so we got near perfect views of the towers, abeit from several km away. Having overcompensated for the previous day by taking loads of photos, we wandered to the viewpoint by the lakeside through forests and vast meadows of flowers, including daisys and dandelions. It was almost like being back home but without the campervans clogging the roads. One surprising sight was the power of the winds, which made the water on the lakes crash onto the shoreline in waves - it did genuinely look like we were on the coast.

Our final full day in Torres was spent walking to and observing Glacier Grey. After a short catamaran journey, we proceeded to complete a four hour walk in 2h45, as we only just had enough time to cover the distance before our boat left for the glacier tour - again this meant running the final stretch. I can't remember the last time I ran twice in a week but at least it was worth it. The walk itself was challenging, especially at the top of the first valley, as we had no protection from the 50-70kmph winds (they have a board at the start of the walk informing you just how bad the weather is). The winds were so strong that we were actually blown backwards as we tried to take our usual mountain-lake-iceberg-glacier shots (it's all becoming a bit predictable).

Having rested at the hippy refugio, we proceeded with our boat tour where we happily accepted our whiskey and pisco sours chiiled with ice from the glacier. The glacier itself was different to the Moreno one with the ice forming in different ways, including waves of ice stacked upon each other and a massive block of ice with so many holes in it, it looked like a Swiss cheese. This time we also got much closer to it, as it is more stable, and so were able to get a different perspective. Back on dry land we celebrated like the true outdoors types that we are with a big steak sandwhich whilst sat in a luxury hotel, next to a radiator on possibly the most comfortable sofas of the tour so far - we definetely know how to rough it.

It was interesting to see how many people on our group seemed either unprepared for Torres or simply didn't enjoy being there. A number of people chose to foresake some of the excursions simply to stay in the campsite. Also, there were a number of strange comments over the days including: "I didn't expect it to be so uphill" (note - it's in a mountain range), "I didn't come on holiday to climb rocks", "there's nothing to do", "it's too wet / windy / cold", and my favourite "is this all the f*@k there is?". About a third of the group are going to miss out the five day drive up the east coast of Argentina and fly directly to Buenos Aires and civilisation. This has been dubbed, perhaps uncharitably, the Princess Flight by the rest of us.

Leaving Torres, we headed to Punta Arenas, a fairly industrial town that was our stopover on the way to Ushuaia, the most southerly town in the world. To be fair to Punta Arenas, it wasn't as grim as we imagined - the town is relatively wealthy so there were a number of shops and excellent restaurants. Also, people were so happy to be back in a hotel with comfy beds, tvs and internet that they didn't leave their rooms!

From Punta Arenas, we crossed the Strait of Magellan by ferry and were back in Argentina heading for Rio Grande, and our first sight of the Atlantic coast. Quoting the guidebook "unless you're an avid fisherman, there's no reason to stop for long in Rio Grande" and to be fair we didn't, about 12 hours. On the way there we visited a couple of ship wrecks, an estancia founded in 1876 (which is still used for sheering sheep), dumped our Santa who had been on the front of our truck in a bin by the roadside (too heartless?) and drove over a road that had been converted into an emergency airstrip during the Falklands war. To be fair, having seen that 'facility' and the naval base in Ushuaia (three ships and a dingy), I have a feeling that even our overstretched armed forces might be able to keep the Falklands for a bit longer.

Ushuaia is the capital of the Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina and is situated at the mouth of the Beagle channel, which was used by ships to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific before the Panama canal was built. Nowadays it is a busy tourist town for visitors to the national park and those taking cruises to Antartica. We are spending a couple of days here before 5 long drive days up the east coast of Argentina to Buenos Aires. Our accommodation is Ushuaia Rugby Club where on our first night we were treated to litre beers and massive steaks - if this is what Argentine Rugby players experience after games then no wonder the game is so popular out here!


9th January 2008

the real land down under
what an interesting trip that must be. it reminds me of travelling in madagascar on a bus with my entire study abroad class. it has its ups and downs (btw, i really liked your torres del paine quotes). ushuaia is generally considered the most southerly town (esp by tourists and argentines). there is actually a chilean settlement further south called puerto williams. it's not that large, about 1500people, but there are schools and a small military instalation and people do really live there. it's harder to get to since it's on an island, but it is technically the most southern "town", though ushuaia is actually a real town. for a long time, punta arenas was considered the most southerly town, but ushuaia has grown much the last couple of decades and has stolen the title (though punta arenas, with over 100k people, now bills itself as the southern most "city"). happy trails and enjoy the rest of your adventures in south america. (¿how's your español coming along?--just curious). cheers!

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