Magellan is said to have described Patagonia as ‘The Land of the Giants’ – not surprising once you’ve experienced the magnitude of the landscapes. Its southern proximity, majestic and endless mountains and vast steppe make it an isolated destination with a cold and windy climate and, lucky for me, perfect for glaciers!!!
Passing the Atlantic we got our first sightings of guanacos (from the llama family) congregating by the side of the road.
We crossed the Strait of Magellan by ferry and continued onto Punta Arenas; a very gusty town but with a few interesting spots to visit. After a spot of shopping at Zona Franca (a fenced off duty free zone created in the middle of the city to generate tourism to the area) we ventured into the cemetery. It contained some pretty interesting crypts/mausoleums; with areas dedicated to the local nurses and police as well as some areas for the British settlers to the area. It was evident that Punta Arenas was a multi-cultural society with graves and crypts for people of other nationalities including Yugoslavia and Croatia. Family, please note that I’ve included some photos of the type of crypt I’ve envisioned you’ll erect in my honour!!!
After a wander up to the lookout we visited Braun-Menendez House; a show case of the riches drawn from the Chilean sheep stations in the late 19th century.
Next we were on to Puerto Natales, gateway to the famed Torres Del Paine National Park. We spotted a few gauchos (South American jackaroos for the estancias; sheep stations) along the way. All sporting the local traditional beret and colourful woven ponchos and giving us that international nod of the head.
We were now entering The Megallanic Region of Patagonia, which was first explored in 1520 but towns such as Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales weren’t founded until the mid 1800s. The former sheep and cattle farming has now been largely replaced by gas, oil and fishing industries.
Torres Del Paine (pronounced Pie-na) is an amazing National Park – created in 1959, included in the UNESCO biosphere reserve list in 1978 and covering more than 200000 hectares. The mountains are independent of the Andes.
There was a lot of oohing and ahhing as we drove toward our campsite; the lakes were gorgeous – milky aqua and turquoise. Apparently the colour is created from the diluted glacier sediment. It was breathtaking.
On the first night of camping it was evident that my summer grade sleeping bag wasn’t going to cut it – another piece of advice I should have heeded from the dossier (an all season grade had been recommended)! Extra layers and some heavy breathing into the bag made it bearable.
A respectable amount of sleep and we were off to hike up to see the glacier moulded granite towers (Torres). There had been rain overnight so I think we were all a little nervous about this 8hr hike (18km) that laid ahead. We’d been told there were two potential spots we could turn back but you could see the steely resolve of the 10 strong hike group (only two declining the hike) that we all wanted to make it to the top.
We ventured off hoping the clouds would hold back long enough to give us a clear view.
The hike was tougher than I had anticipated – up, down, up, down, coats off, coats on, coats off, gloves off, gloves on, gloves off, beanie on, beanie off, beanie on – it was exhausting just changing!
Thankfully no serious rain and so we all made it to the second checkpoint. It seemed our guide, John, was concerned that the weather might change on us on the way to view the peaks and so asked two of the slower hikers to stay back and wait for us. Then we climbed and climbed and climbed for an hour, for some part scrambling over rocks and up loose gravel.
The hard work paid off. We were rewarded with the most spectacular views of the three towers, it’s glacier and aqua lake below. The wind was incredible with us hanging on for fear of being blown off the large rocks on which we had perched ourselves. Reminded me of the day Cath got blown off the boat in the Manly harbour.
It was then down – it was then that I realised it’s true what they say about the downhill of a hike being as exhausting as the uphill; I was very grateful for my bush walking pole. No need for lunges before bed tonight – my quads, glutes and hammies didn’t know what had hit them!
Even the hour back to the campsite was great – more fantastic mountain viewing. It’s the last week before winter season starts and so we were blessed with seeing fresh fallen snow on the peaks of the mountains.
A walk the following day helped prevent the muscles seizing from the day before’s efforts and the cold weather. The wind was fierce again (not uncommon in the park where they can reach up to 170 km/hr). John gave us some instructions before commencing the walk and one was that if it got too bad he would ask us to sit!
We then arrived at the hosteria from where we would start our day trip to Glaciar Grey on Lago (lake) Grey. My breath was taken away as we entered the coffee shop – we had a birds-eye view of beautiful blue icebergs that had made their way from the glacier down the lake to the shores of the hosteria. Wow- I was then very excited at the prospect of what would be seen from the boat!
It was a 17km trip out to the 27km long and 4km wide glacier. This glacier is part of a system that’s the third largest in the world. The grey colour of the lake is due to the higher concentration of sediment.
The colours of the glacier an icebergs were amazing as was the size of some of the icebergs (85% of an iceberg is under water).
We were served up Pisco Sours with genuine glacier ice cubes – hopefully not contributing to the reduction of glaciers! These glaciers are decreasing in size each year. The only one not (in the world) is Perito Moreno and it was yet to come! I was convinced it couldn’t be more impressive thank Glaciar Grey.
Our last night camping – yeh! This body isn’t geared for sleeping in such extreme conditions – I do wonder how I’ll go in Machu Picchu, which will be even colder.
We left our camp and headed back to Puerto Natales for a night before heading onto El Calafate – back into Argentina.
First ice-cream of the trip – Calafate – deep purple berry of the region. It is claimed that those who eat calafate will come back to El Calafate and those who eat a lot won’t leave!
In the wander around the streets I saw a lovely cutlery set with armadillo armour handles – knew I’d never get them through Customs even with a tale of them being plastic imitating armadillo so passed.
We collected our new tour members Canadians Ruth, Stephen, Kathryn, Rod and Grant, Dutch Peter and Swiss Jonas and headed for Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and the famed Perito Moreno Glacier. We scooted alongside Lago Argentina most of the way. Half an hour into the trip and the bus won’t start after our photo shop; a push from us all and we’re away again – buzzards and eagles flying above us.
Our tour guide for the trip informs us that most of the estancias are now closing or turning to ecotourism. Seems the guanaco would be a much better grazing option if it wasn’t for the fact they spit and buck when being sheared and clear the fences with no trouble at all.
We were teased with views of the Glacier as we approached it but that didn’t prepare me for the beauty of this glacier. It has a five kilometre front, which rises 60 metres above the water. It is viewed from ‘balconies’ and a boat. We enjoyed it for hours just sitting and listening out for the next mass of ice to crash into the lake with resonating roars – the crashes were spectacular, particularly from the boat where you were only ten metres from it. The colours were amazing – hues of blue, grey and white. Images locked in my memory for ever.
On the way back into town a few of us got dropped off at the Glaciarium for a bit more education on glaciers… oh and there might have been an ice bar there – bizarre to drink from glasses made of ice while sitting on seats made of ice!
Farewelled El Calafate and moved onto El Chalten. Thoroughly enjoying reading In Patagonia (thanks Don and Jim), imagining the extremes suffered through the revolutionary times of Argentina. The anarchists had a red hot go (emphasis on the red) at forcing the estancias to secede land and belongings to their compatriots. The Trotskyites failing again.
I try and imagine the attempts of Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid and Etta Tiffany to hide out in Patagonia all the while robbing the estancias and setting up their next big heist – generally the ‘local’ bank. We even had a coffee stop in a roadhouse once visited by the gang – only known after the authorities came looking for them.
As with so many other towns in South America that are associated with national parks, we were presented with a gorgeous vista of the glacier in the distance one way (this time Viedma) and the imposing FitzRoy granite spires of Los Glaciares National Park….another hike.
At the commencement of our 10 hour hike it was minus two degrees. Three hours of reasonable hiking (with the sound of avalanches from the glaciers) and then it was an hour and a half of up, up, up. Again the pain was rewarded. Another stunning lake below the majestic granite spires. For those who know the locations it was like Kings Canyon (NT) on steroids with the emerald lakes of Plitvice National Park below! Stunning. We spotted two groups of mountaineers (like ants) who appeared to be heading up for the spires – good luck to them!
The hike back presented some lovely scenery along with the noise of the funny little woodpeckers. Interesting to find out they have a large tongue that wraps around the inside of their head to protect them while chipping away.
Left El Chalten with the most beautiful sunrise ahead of our long drive to the town of Perito Moreno.
I was a little disappointed that we wouldn’t be taking the opportunity to stop at the Unesco listed Cueva de Los Manos (indigenous rock art) on our way by – our tour guide informed us it wasn’t on the published itinerary and we wouldn’t have enough time.
Ruta 40 – the South American route 68! Unfortunately this one is blessed with awful dirt roads. We had no end of truck trouble for the journey. First a flat tyre and then a fan belt issue – the sacrificed tights let us hobble slowly toward a town and from there we piled into a mini bus and 4WD utes to get to our destination.
Not great news on the truck or transfer bus – seemed no one was interested in working Easter Sunday. We celebrated Jo’s birthday with cake and got the good news we’d now be able to visit the rock art given a departure before 9pm was unlikely.
The rock art was amazing – Unesco listed because of its significant preservation despite its age – carbon dating suggests some is up to 9500 years old. We got some great guanaco, rheo (like emus) and armadillo viewing along the way also. Seems Leo and Lee had taken to naming the dead ones – they were up to Frank by the time we realised.
Funnily enough there was a Queensland plated trail/road bike loaded with travel gear at the stop. I couldn’t resist leaving him a good wishes note from us Queenslanders on the trip. I had just started reading Lois on the run; autobiography of a BBC reporter who throws in her job to ride from Alaska to Ushuaia. My motorcycling friends you need to consider this adventure for your bucket list!
Our Tucan leader was so impressed with the rock art she’s considering how she can now weave it into the itinerary. Everything happens for a reason I guess.
Our bus arrived at midnight for our journey to San Carlos de Bariloche. As expected we were all quite shattered from the overnight drive but a few of us managed to head up in the cable car to Cerro Otto for some views of the town and surrounding parks.
Bariloche was a bit of a disappointment in that its very touristy and probably best enjoyed during ski season. The abundance of chocolate shops and our great fondue meal made up for it somewhat! A nice surprise was to stumble on an Isla Malvinas (Falklands Island) commemoration in the square on our way home at midnight. It was a very sombre affair with members of the armed forces playing national songs and the large Argentinian gathering singing along. The Brits among us understandably held their tongue while in earshot of the gathering.
Farewelled Sharon, Paul and April and then there were 15….Jonas didn’t wake for the departure after a big night out with Peter so was left behind. I felt it was a little harsh given all the dramas with the truck he’d tolerated and helping with the repairs but the Tucan guides were insistent we would not be waiting more than 30 minutes.
This was certainly a zig zag trip. We ventured across the Andes for re-entry into Chile and our last stop of Pucon, in the Lakes District, before Santiago.
Lovely scenery as we approached Pucon, the imposing Volcan Villaricca in full view. Some on the tour were still undecided on whether they’d climb it given the deaths on it last year and the high prevalence of being turned back half way because of the weather changing. No decision needed here – my mind had been made up on the Torres Del Paine towers walk!
Jo and I were allocated an apartment with a large terrace facing Villaricca – immediately designated the happy hour terrace.
Pucon is a beautiful town; lovely national parks and lakes surrounding it and ….. thermal springs!
Whike four of our group went up to tackle Villaricca, Ruth, Jo and I ventured up to Huerquehue National Park for a stroll around the lakes or at least that was what we thought. Another one that’s just up, up, up! I practically ran back down in a bid to catch the next bus (it only ran every three hours) but was informed by two Melbourne guys about to hike up that I’d missed it by two minutes. Of course the park ranger had a mate who could give us a lift back to town for US$50. It was an hours drive and at that stage I was prepared to pay anything.
And then there were 16…. Jonas managed to get over the border and take a combination of taxi, hitch hiking and bus to reach us in Pucon. He had missed our departure by 10 minutes and took a different border crossing otherwise would have caught us en-route.
During a fun night on the terrace some of decided we were deserving of some pampering at what’s claimed to be “the best thermal springs in Chile” and so decided to venture off the next morning. I’m sure they do live up to the claim. Termas Geometricas – I’ve never experienced anything like it. There were a series of slate lined pools of varying temperatures poised above mossy rock, bubbling creeks, some with waterfalls flowing into them. They were accessed by cute suspended timber walkways. Humming birds flitted between the flowering and prehistoric looking plants. Changing cabanas with grassed roofs dotted between the pools. I kept thinking of you Lea and how we could do something similar in Bali! An absolutely wonderful way to spend my last free day on the trip – well worth the hour and a half drive from town.
Left Pucon early for the long drive back to Santiago with a lunch stop at the Salto del Laja waterfall. We were all amazed at the fabulous weather we had been blessed with during the tour – “we don’t do rain” could have been our catch cry.
It has been a wonderful leg of my trip; so much more than I had anticipated. I’m now glad I went on the tour in this direction as it just seemed that the sites and activities got better and better (I originally planned for the reverse but it was sold out).
I’ve met some wonderful people who I truly hope to stay in contact with – Facebook friending frenzy on the last night in Pucon! I know I’ll be remembered as “that very talkative Australian”!!!
It was lovely to farewell some of my tour buddies with plans of potential catchups as our travels over the coming months interconnect.
I feel very strong and fit after all the hikes but now looking forward to a bit of S & S in Colombia – salsa y sol me voy!