Location: Ushuaia, Argentina
Tierra del Fuego
So we crossed the Straits of Magellan to the island of Tierra del Fuego. At first the landscape was exactly the same but on about hour 8 (man these distances were killing me) it suddenly became dramatic high mountains and steep green valleys. The city of Ushuaia is very quick to tell you that it is the most southern city in the world. Loads of things in the city also remind you of this. The cafe at the end of the world, most southern hardware store things like that. It is nice that they don´t let the presence of the Chile town Fort William further south across the strait prevent them from making these claims. Unlike Punto Arenas, Ushuaia was a lively town full of tourist and lots of things to do. Sadly most of the things were expensive including a unbelievable 3000 US dollars to go to the Antartic but the pictures looked amazing!
The hostel we stayed in was pretty social and all the rooms were named after the crazy spirits that I had liked so much back in Punto Arenas. It was run by a man who I think has literally seen everywhere on the planet. He proves this fact by placing pictures all around the hostel of him in Mongolia, South Africa, Istanbul etc. He was roughly the same age as me and on top of having travelled everywhere he own a hostal and is expecting his first child. He is lucky I did not kill him in his sleep.
Despite the extortionate price to go to the Parque National Tierra del Fuego we decided to do a walk to the top of a high peak. In order to get there we were told we needed to go to the unoffical city bus station. We decided to get up early and get the first bus at 9am. There were a number of minivans and minimen (ok just one dwarf) but due to some weird allocation system only one of the companies approached us. Another american girl arrived soon after and she was nabbed by another company. Just after nine about three buses all mostly empty left the bus stop. Presumably the other two went directly (they did we checked) we however began a strange tour of the city. Every so often the man would stop, tell us we would be picking up more people, he then walked up and down the street, talked on his mobile for about 10 mins then get back in and drive off. We did this about five times! No one else ever got into the van. Eventually we did get to the park but the driver took some convincing that we would not die if we did the walk to the top and that he should take us to the start of that walk and not the two hour coastal path. The walk itself was amazing and quite steep at the end with yet more stunning views. No matter how many times I see glaciers, snow covered mountains and crystal clear lakes and sounds I know that I will never get sick of them. They take my breathe away every time.
When we came down again we decided to do the coastal path too which was also great and then we waited at the meeting point for our van. Many minivans came and went (again mostly empty but unable to take us) each time we hoped it would be our man. Everytime the drivers promised us he was coming later. We were starting to get worried but eventually his clapped out empty van turned up to take us back into town.
The next day we did a very similar walk behind the city not in the national parque and had very similar views at a fraction of the cost.
One thing I loved about this part of the world was the sunlight. From about 9pm to 12am it was still very light but the sun had a beautiful twighlight glow that made everything seem a lot bluer than it really was. Very pretty.
We were only there for four days but apart from the fact that we were burning money and the journey to and fro was quite tough I had an amazing time there, yet another highlight of the trip.
So we were in Esquel and needed to get to El Calafate. The only road that went directly there is the notorious Route 40. For sometime we had been debating whether we should take this route. It is about three days of driving on dirty roads. The guide book says it is beautiful but has all sorts of warning about making sure you have two spare tyres, extra water, extra petrol and your life insurances is up to date. We looked at companies that offered tours but they were very expensive. We later met a guy who did this tour. His bus broke down and they were stranded for 24 hours in the middle of no where without food or water. When a replacement bus did come they were a day behind and so they had no bookings at any of the accomodation.
Anyway so took the more sensible route on major roads. Sadly this meant travelling all the way to the coast and then back again. It was 21 hours to Rio Gallegos the most southern city on the mainland of Argentina then another 8 or so to El Calafate. The journeys were made even more tough by the fact that there was literally nothing outside to look at except desolate flat tussock covered land. My expected vision of Patagonia was endless green fields of sixty million cows. For a country that eats as much beef as it does I have yet to find where on earth the keep them all.
Once again, El Calafate is a very touristy town that is so popular because it is very close to the Perito Moreno glacier. Although it is not the largest in this part of the world it is special because it is growing at a very fast rate and you can get really close to it. As it grows it blocks the gap between the two sides of the lake it meets. Eventually the blockage melts in the lakes´water and it collapses in a very spectacular fashion. Details on which state the glacier was currently in were a bit sketchy but we had heard it was very close to breaking (hmmm right). In the town there were plenty of TVs playing video footage of it breaking, it looked amazing. It was one of those "we might just get lucky" things you get when travelling. As it turns out the video footage was from 2001 or something and although the lake was blocked we only saw a few very minor bits break off. I saw someones video of a big bit that feel off a few days after us, it was pretty amazing. It didn´t take anything away from the awesome sight though. It was a huge block of ice only a few metres away from where we were standing.
Our hostel in El Calafate was beautiful. It was on the hill behind the town with a view that I could have and actually did watch for hours. The hostel was quite busy during the night but during the day we would sit on the comfy sofa with a view out over the town and lake sipping our mate. Very glad to be relaxing for a change.
Staying in the hostel was an Australian family who had taken the bold decision to take their three all under 12 children with them backpacking to Patagonia. I watched them with a mixed sense of awe and horror. I can see that the children were having a great time. The father too seemed quite relaxed and chatty. The poor mother however was clearly taking up the strain. She had booked everything about 12 months in advance and she was running the holiday with the sort military precision you´d expect to see in a war movie. The had sixy bags each with great names like "First Aid and Beauty", "Daily Excursions", "Utilities 1" and "Utilities 2" as well as "Passports and Itineraies". I have to confess Mara and I did enjoy watching their panic as the couple discussed the possible location of the sunscreen. Was it in "First Aid and Beauty" or "Daily Excursions". Oddly the location of these bags was in no doubt. Like I say awe and horror at that level of organisation. When I need something from my bag I usually have to remove most of the contents and often even then I don´t find it for a few days.
After a few days of bliss we caught a bus to Puerto Natales, yet another border crossing to Chile. Just another take all your bags in the little office and be interogated as to whether you have any fruit, meat or honey. Which is crazy because a lot of the fruit, meat and (possibly) honey comes from Argentina in the first place. Puerto Natales is the jumping off point for the Torres del Paine hike. The town of Puerto Natales is quite weird. It is full of people stocking up for the Torres hike and it may be the only place on the planet that can justify a dried fruits store. To be fair they had some damn fine dired fruits thought. The best thing about about the town was an amazing café that had fantastic food, comfy sofa and a fine collection of trashy magazines to read.
After a bit of discussion Mara and I had decided to do what is known as the W trek in Torres del Paine but in the reverse direction. This was based largely on the advice of a friend of Mara´s who had done the hike a few months earlier. The hike was quite challenging at times (well for me anyway) and basically involved a walk up and down a lake to see the huge Grey Glacier then up two separate Valleys, both with stunning views of peaks and glaciers. The weather for the four days was not brilliant but it behaved itself when it needed to and almost gave us some time to see the stunning scenary, even if it was just 30 mins at the top of Vallé Francés before returning to driving sleet and at times snow. The second valley is where the Torres (towers) are and we had amazing weather the whole time. About 1% of all the photos we took during this hike are in the photos section. It really was truely beautiful.
Once back from the trek we headed further south to Punta Arenas which is a city I had known about since my childhood when a geeky little boy used to stare for long periods at a world map and imagine a place he might be able to hide from his evil sister Pip (kidding Pip). I remember thinking wow it was about as far away and remote as you can get, sure enough it is. Apart from the odd cruise liner that deposits large collections of old American tourists on the sleepy city, there is not a whole lot going on there.
The whole remote bit was one of the things I was really hoping to experience on this part of the trip. What does it feel like to be at the end of the world? Where the sunsets just before midnight and rises five hours later. For a time this was one of the most important part of the world because it finally gave the European countries a way to get around the huge continental land mass of the Americas. It is also an amazing part of the world because of the local indigenious people. The thought that people had (as they think happened) crossed from Russia into Alasaka and then walked the length of the American continent (obviously with a few stops) just seems incredible to me. The was a very good museum of Indigenous peoples in town, that explained a lot about the different groups of people who due to their remote location managed to avoid western contact until the 19th century. My favourite were the Selknam people. I love the big fluffy animal skins they wore they also have some amazing costumes where they dress up as spirit getting totally naked and painting there bodies with stripes a little like ancient blue man group people.
While in Punto Areanas we also did a nice walk that gave us a good view of Tierra Del Fuego (where we were heading next) and its mountains. We also did a tour that took us to the 19th Centaury Fort (Fuerte Bulnes), that they used to secure the Magellan Straits that they occupied around 1840.
Oooops sorry got a bit high school history teacher on your there. I will try and keep that in check.
Christmas New Year and beyond
I was a little nervous to meet Mara´s parents. We had not been together very long and I was more than aware that my resumé for boyfriend of their only daughter would not have even made the maybe pile.
As it turns out I was worrying needlessly. They were very nice and although their english was not as good as I had hoped they were very considerate and tried to use it as much as possible. Actually in the two weeks we spent with them I thought their english improved a lot.
Everything for this part of Mara´s trip had been booked well before I came on the scene so I just fitted in with their plans. Luckily they were going to places that I wanted to see. First of all we spent a couple of days in Buenos Aires. We did a few touristy things and on the last night a work collegue of Mara´s father invited us around to his place for (yet another) asado. He lived quite a long way out of town in a very pretty suburb. It was yet another opportunity to see another side of how people live in this part of the world. They had a great swimming pool and we had a really nice evening. The collegues´ wife had grown up in a tiny town in remote Hondoras and she had some amazing stories about her childhood.
On the 23rd Dec we got a flight to Iguazu Falls and we hired a car. We were very lucky because completely unbeknownst to us it was a full moon and on the full moon they do night tours to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil´s throat) by moonlight. It gave the falls a completely different atmosphere with the very soft light and the deafening roar of the water. We spent three days including Christmas Day at the falls and did all the usual touristy things that you do. Despite this it was an amazing thing to see.
On the 26th Dec we got another flight (via BA) to Bariloche. It is another very touristy town at the bottom of the Argentine lake district and the top of patagonia. We again had a car and so did a drive around some of the beautiful lakes on the first day. The second day we did a hike up to a glacier. It was the first real exercise I had done since I pretended that I was going to run regularly in Mendoza. The hike did nearly kill me but as soon as we got up to the snow I got a second wind. It was fantastic. We hiked to the top of a ridge through quite heavy snow to get some amazing views. The trip down was the thing I had been really waiting for though. Slipping down on my jacket for at least 300m on a very steep slope. Very cool.
Next stop was the Parque National Los Alerces. Which is a park that has a unique micro climate. For some reason the Andes decides to have a bit of a rest and the divide to Chile gets below 2000m. As a result a lot of the rain that usually gets stopped and keeps Argentina as dry as it is gets dumped on the park. Because of this the park is a very green and lush forest. We stayed in an amazing lodge by the edge of a lake. It was quite a long journey to get there but definately worth the effort. We did another walk and got yet more views of the park and the surronding mountains and lakes.
After that Mara´s parents left us to fly down to El Calafate which Mara and I were also heading for but more slowly and by bus. It was New Year´s Eve so we decided to celebrate the new year in Esquel, which was a small but quite pretty ski resort that was closed for summer. We stayed in another "oh we are having an asado and there is plenty to go around" hostel. Unlike other parts of the world Argentina seems to consider midnight just too early to celebrate the new year. I mean, they are hardly out the door at that time of the evening! So we actually spent the special moment in a dodgy little irish pub that until about 11pm had been completely empty. The party back at the hostel did not really get going until 2am, still we joined in the festivities for a while before collapsing into bed.
The nice being flown and driven around bit of the trip was now over. The next phase, that being the take ridiculously long bus journeys bit was started. We had booked a hike in the Torres del Paine but other than that we were leaving ourselves one month to see as much of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Lake District in both Chile and Argentina. The distances were huge and our budgets small but we were going to be seeing some amazing things...