Zig-zag through Chile / Argentina
20.01.2014 - 08.02.2014
So after leaving the thieves behind in Santiago, we headed to Pucón and were lucky enough to meet an Aussie guy on the bus who was living and working at a small guesthouse there so he called ahead to book for us and the owner came and picked us up from the terminal. Pucón is in what is known as the Lakes District in Chile and is so so lovely. It is what you imagine thinking of American snowy mountain towns, with the timber lodge-style buildings and smell of firewood. The black-volcanic-sand lake is really pretty and full of activity, as is the harbour which is lined with beautiful gardens and the active Volcan Villaricca looms over town. Coming to South America, we did not know we wanted to climb a volcano…
The guesthouse was really nice and family run so they invited us to have breakfast with them and then as it rained all day took us with them to the Los Pozones hot springs that evening, apparently best in the rain. A few lazy days in Pucón as we kept forgetting to book the volcano trek actually worked out perfectly as by the time we did it, it wasn’t so icy and our sicknesses were on the mend. This remains one of our favourite places so far, and up there with the most awesome experiences.
Hailey, me and 3 others of the group chose – against the guides´ advice – to trek the first part of the mountain while the others took the chairlift. It is meant to be most difficult as the gravel here is loose but of course, being seasoned hikers (not) we wanted to do the entire mountain. We didn’t realize that this meant once we got to the next section, we would have to play catch ups with the rest of the group. We were literally jogging up the volcano slopes at times. This is when the first thoughts of ´WHY do we do this? We hate hiking!´ entered our minds. Then as we reached the snow, Gianni, our lacking-people-skills-guide, started yelling at us ´CRAMPONS! CRAMPONS!...PUT ON YOUR CRAMPONS´ and we eventually had to yell back ´WHAT THE HELL ARE CRAMPONS????´ so he dug through all of our packs and pretty much threw them at us. This didn’t help, as Hailey and I still had no idea what to do with them so he huffed and puffed and strapped them on for us. He became even more pleasant when he yelled at us for taking photos (does he KNOW who he´s talking to??) and then for stepping out of line. Eventually he gave up on us and intercepted another guide, Ricardo, palming Hailey, me and another girl off to him while he carried on with the other 2 running up the steep climb. We cheered. Ricardo was awesome, couldn’t understand the hurry and no photos rule and literally held our hands as we made our way up. The views over the area were beautiful, lakes, forests and distant volcanoes and we were lucky it was the perfect clear day. As we zig-zagged our way to the top, the air becomes painful to breath and it tasted and felt like we were swallowing sharp metal flakes.
Then WE MADE IT to the top, which is freeeeezing and so windy, you can only really enjoy looking into the mouth of the volcano for a second before it becomes unbearable, and then it was time for the most fun part of the day – sliding down the slopes! Half of the time it´s in carved out snow shoots (like a water slide) and you may or may not use the plastic seat in your pack, the other times one of the guides will just slide down to clear some snow and you are on your way. It is the kind of fun where you are screaming hysterically laughing. You get some speed too, actually getting airborne (bruised bums were worth it). What a blast, you forget the pains in your legs, the blisters, the sunburn, the exhaustion for 2 hours of childlike fun. Pucón, we love you.
Next was Bariloche, crossing back into Argentina but still in the Lakes District. Another beautiful area but as we had just done Pucón and were in a hurry to complete Patagonia before Carnival we just had one night there and the most amazing steak before the 28 hour bus to El Calafate. When the sealed roads ended and the gravel began, we were happy we hadn’t hired a car ourselves. Plus, the bus was Cama class again which meant too much food and English movies. The people by now were getting friendlier too.
Time for our first destination in Patagonia! El Calafate was freezing, but a pretty town. We did a day trip to Parque Nacional de Los Glaciars and even the drive there was stunning as the lakes in the area are the colour of the Great Barrier Reef. Entering the National Park, the road winds around the milky blue lake and then we spotted our first iceberg! At the last bend the Perito Moreno Glacier appears between two mountains as though it is a frozen tsunami. The icey blue colour of it is spectacular. We spent a couple of hours viewing it from different angles along the boardwalks – you would think hours spent looking at the same glacier is too much but no way – and everyone scrambles for their cameras when you hear the thunderous cracking of huge chunks of ice falling off and crashing into the water. We then boarded a boat to take us to the glacier to trek on for an hour, after being strapped up with our crampons….now aware what they are. While on the glacier, the colours take on an almost fluorescent tone when the sun highlights it. It is the height of a 20 storey building and while most glaciers in the world are shrinking, Perito Moreno is stable and even advancing. At 2575 sq kms it is the worlds´3rd largest icefield. Facts! As we turned the final corner, we were met with a table set up with whiskey to have over glacial ice. This place is so beautiful!!!
We then got the bus back into Chile to Puerto Natales, the base for Torres del Paine National Park. Most people come here to do a famous 3 or 4 day hike through the park, however having decided we don’t actually ENJOY the act of hiking only the destination, we settled for a one day bus trip to the main viewpoints of the park. But first I took the bus to the park by myself for an 8 hour day hike to the Base del Torres viewpoint. Easy, right? Not if you´re me. The bus stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere but for a few buildings, so I thought this may be the park entrance where the shuttle buses come to take you further into the park. I started to get my things ready and once the guy next to me moved for me to get up and only 3 other people on the bus got off I was for some reason too embarrassed to stop even though I had a feeling it may be the wrong stop and continued to exit the bus. I tried to convince myself that maybe the rest of the bus were doing the 4 day hike and there could be another stop for them. Nope…and the long line of people at the ´information office´ were in fact lining up for a border crossing. What. An. Idiota. I found a café and tried to ask the lady where I was in my limited Spanish. A bit later another bus showed up – the same company as I had taken – and a ranger got out. He kind of understood me and told the driver where I was supposed to be going so he let me on. Arriving at the REAL park (about an hour further away) the driver tried to take my ticket but it was the one I needed for my return. Then LUCKILY the 2 men that had been working on my original bus walked past and being able to point to them along with ´estoy ESTUPIDA!´ was just enough for the driver to understand and laugh at me for being sleepy.
As I was now running late to start my trek I was jogging for the first part and really had to rush, having 1x5 minute break on the way up, 10 minutes at the top and then a bit more of a relaxing return. It was a really nice day, being alone for the first time in a while was peaceful and the hike took me through a variety of landscapes. It started off in hilly grasslands, then wound between 2 mountains until after a couple of turns the snowy mountains appear through the valley. The day started cloudy and rainy but just in time cleared for this view. Stumbling across rocky rivers with crystal clear water, balancing over rickety bridges, then heading back up through the forest where when it rains it is hard to tell whether you are on track or walking up a stream. Then it started snowing and I just felt ecstatic at my luck. Each time I considered turning back as I was struggling and the clouds rolled in it would clear up and some other fantastic view would appear. The last hour was rough but by then the 3 towers (The Torres del Paine) appeared and finally I reached the striking blue lagoon at their base. On the way back down I was happy to have people stop me in desperation asking how much longer until the top, reassuring me I was not the only one struggling.
After enjoying too many banana and nutella crepes in the cold weather of Puerto Natales and too many Chorillanas (hot chips over beef, chicken, chorizo, eggs and veggies) this had been my day to cut down on food (poor timing)….so by the time I returned to the starting point, a nice lodge in the park, I was exhausted. And freezing. And early as I had rushed so much panicking I would miss my bus. I asked a driver of a tour company who was sitting in his van where my return shuttle would pick me up from and then curled up on a bench trying to warm myself after finding the kiosk for food closed. He must have seen. About an hour later his tour group loaded into the van and started to drive off then he must have spotted me still huddled there looking hopeless and a lady jumped out of the van and came over to me and said the driver had seen me there for a while with nothing to eat and he didn’t need his lunch pack and wanted me to have it. Scores! Chocolates, chicken and avocado sandwich (still warm!), cokes and biscuits. I just love people!
The next day the 3 of us headed back to the park in the safety of an organized tour getting us there without a hitch. The mountains in the park are so imposing, although we have seen higher I think these ones seem larger as they are dark granite and almost eerie looming over spectacularly coloured lakes. There are 4 seasons in one day here so again we were lucky the day always cleared when it needed to.
Our final stop in Patagonia was Puerto Madryn, back in Argentina on the southern coast. This was a last minute decision as it looked like a good halfway point to shorten the 40 hour journey from Puerto Natales to Buenos Aires. Once again, the unexpected are some of the best places we find ourselves. The main reason to visit is for the Reserva Faunistica Peninsula Valdes as the area is a major whale watching point at certain times of the year. We got to arranging our activities here straight away and our possibly-involved-in-illegal-businesses-as-well-as-his-day-job seal tour guy Peter – or his ´friend´- sorted us out with some money, dropping it off at our hostel for us after stopping by his ´friend´ after work. We then became known as ´Peter´s Angels´. Another thing I didn’t realize I wanted to do in life was to snorkel with sea lions. But I´d better add that on to my bucket list and tick it off because it was awesome. Even better that they don’t encourage them to come to us with food, they are just so playful they approach you by themselves. As soon as we jumped in the water they were all around, and for 45 minutes we swam with them, patted them, high-fived them and had our arms ´playfully but firmly´ bitten by them. Oh my gosh soooo much fun and probably the only time I´ve been kept entertained the entire time snorkeling.
We had another non-backpacker style meal of Patagonian lamb and of course more Argentinian wine before our Peninsula Valdes tour the next day. Juan, our guide, was one of those amazing guides that you can tell is actually so passionate about the area and Orca´s – the big hope for the day – and in turn the whole bus gets really excited. He shared his mate (aka yerba mate, the caffeine rich drink Argentinians are constantly sipping on) with us all as we went from one point to the next. First Punta Norte, the beach lined with thousands of sea lions and the odd elephant seal. The pups are born in January so there were so many in their little daycare sections. In March, the Orca´s stalk this beach as the pups enter the water for the first time but we were a few weeks early for this. Along the dry coastal scrublands we saw plenty of Ria´s (the emu of Patagonia) and Guanacos (the Patagonian llama with the most expensive wool in the world). Then we stopped at Punta Cantor to see more elephant seals slumped on the shore, looking too heavy to move on land. Then Juan yelled for us all to run to another point on the cliff – he had spotted orca´s!!! we were all sooo excited and bolted to get to the front of the crowd to see the 2 adults and one calf swimming along the shore. We ran alongside them, viewpoint to viewpoint as we realized they were headed for where the seals were beached. I have never wanted a seal to be killed before…haha. We were so lucky, in February you only have a 10-20% chance to spot them and we watched them catching the waves to shore metres from the seals teaching the young one ´intentional stranding´, the hunting technique only practiced here, nowhere else in the world! So lucky. We then watched as they continued along the coast out of sight, and then we carried on to another point to get within metres of Magellanic penguins. What an amazing day! Patagonia was so spectacular and I can´t believe how many amazing things we saw in a few weeks.