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Colin and Sue’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 09 Jan 2007

Location: Patagonia, Argentina

MapHappy New Year!

We've just finished our tour of Patagonia - travelling from Bariloche in the Argentine Lake District to Tierra del Fuego, finishing in Ushuaia - the most southerly city in the world. It´s about 2,200km by the most direct route with a mixture of paved and gravel roads. Because of the distances and the peak holiday season we booked an organised tour with a company called Tucan so have had 17 days travelling on a bus ("Peggy" to be precise) with 20 or so other people - an international mix of Brits, Irish, Aussies, Swiss, American, Canadian and Japanese. It's been quite different having everything organised and being with the group - generally really good.

We started off in Bariloche on Christmas Eve. The main Christmas meal here is on Christmas Eve so we started with a group dinner to meet everyone - most of the others had joined the tour in Santiago. Christmas Day was a free day so we had a great walk up a valley to a refugio above the snowline (snowballs on Christmas Day - what could be better?). Unlike England, the buses run, cafes and restaurants are open and the whole Christmas thing is much more understated.

The tour proper started on Boxing Day with two really long driving days. Although the bus is comfortable and well kitted out, these days were amazingly tiring especially on gravel roads. On driving days Peggy (the bus) provided lunch - an amazing production line with everybody chipping in to grate carrots, wash lettuce, prepare guacamole etc and then wash up afterwards. The results were always delicious - best lunches of the whole trip (not the ubiquitous cheese and ham sandwiches that rule in Argentina and Chile).

By this time we were in El Chalten where we walked on the Viedma Glacier with crampons - very exciting - finishing the trip with Baileys and glacier ice! After that we basically drove from one national park to the next travelling through some incredibly bleak and windswept landscapes. The park scenery is great - we've had boat trips and walks to see more glaciers (including the huge Perito Moreno glacier) and had some stunning walks. We´ve seen a fair amount of wildlife - guanacos (like llamas but not domesticated and much more elegant), foxes, flamingoes, rheas, some great condors, Magellanic penguins, hares and lots of rabbits.

We spent 3 days camping (cold) in Torres del Paine National Park - the scenery was magnificent and the campsite had the best view imaginable. We were very lucky there - we felt a bit glaciered out so chose to go horse riding over another boat/walk/boat/glacier trip. The rest of our group had a 4 hour walk from one boat to the next, discovered at the end that their boat ride back home was cancelled due to the high winds and had to turn around and rush back the whole way for the last other boat which was still running . Meanwhile we were bouncing along on our horses, having a nice walk and enjoying coffees in a lakeside cafe.

It´s hard to believe that it's the middle of summer here although generally the weather has been kind to us (when it does rain though, it's more like horizontal hail). Can't imagine actually living here all year round.

We took a ferry to Tierra del Fuego across the Magellan Straits that connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans - luckily choosing not to stand at the front of the boat, where everyone got soaked when we reached the huge waves in the middle of the crossing. We've also had a boat trip in the Beagle Channel (named after Darwin's boat) seeing sea lions and imperial cormarants but no whales or dolphins.

Ushuaia is really good - surprising big and bustling - mostly due to being the jumping off point for all the cruises to Antarctica. Loads of shops here and some great restaurants with delicious king crab and fish. A group of us went to the poshest restaurant in town, Kaupe, for their Degustacion del Mar menu - two delicious king crab starter dishes followed by probably the best sea bass we have ever had (better than Rick Stein's in Padstow) - with good wine and wonderful views over the town and bay. Slightly odd for the coffee to be accompanied by a glass of champagne - but no-one complained. Expensive for here but cheap compared to home.

The tour ended with a traditional asado (barbeque) down at the local football club/camping ground - big steaks and lots of wine. Sail and Steve (our driver and tour leader) now have to turn back and do the whole trip in reverse with a new group - our flight up to Santiago is definitely more tempting.