So I finally arrived into Bariloche, a town in the Argentine lakes and in Northern Patagonia, after a 28hr bus journey. By complete chance I ended up in the most wonderful hostel. By the end of my first evening there I was sat around a table with guests and staff from various different places having a beer.
The next morning my friends from Southern Patagonia had arrived and a group of 8 of us headed out to explore. Bariloche is a beautiful city that sits on the edge of Lake Nahuel and very close by there is stunning views. One of the best ways to get around is by bike, so that is what we did. At this stage the weather was cloudy and not too cold. I decided to go with wearing shorts with the hope the sun would come out. This proved to be a bold decision.
We took the bus a few miles from the city and arrived at the bike hire place. Conveniently there was a nice walk to a viewpoint next door which we headed up. The walk was nice, the view incredible but unfortunately it had just started to rain so we quickly headed back down the hill. The rain seemed to be light and it looked to be clearing it so we hired our bikes and set off on what we were told was a 3 hour cycle. After about 15mins the rain became torrential. It continued this way the rest of the day. The cycle ride passes through beautiful surroundings and many great photo spots. I did not see any of these. Instead we all cycled the path as quickly as we could in order to get back home. By far the highlight of the whoke experience was getting back to the bike hire shop afterwards where they had a fire, tea and chocolate for us. I think this was the first time I had laughed for around 2 hours!
However, as is often the case with these things there was a silver lining. Having survived our experience we were all suddenly great friends and that evening we cooked together (steak and wine obviously) and all felt we had earned our meal a lot more than if the weather had been good!
The following myself, Camila and Monika (2 girls I had met in South Patagonia) hired a car to do a couple of days road trip around the area. The famous road Route 40 takes you through stunning mountain scenery and past a number of different lakes. We finally set off in the car by late morning with Camila driving and me as co-pilot. The weather continued not to be on our side, so the photos all have rather large spots of rain in them! Since we had all come from places where we had spent a lot of time hiking none of us were keen to do anymore. Instead we spent a lot of time finding good places to have coffee and ate a huge amount of amazing chocolate (a speciality of the region). This proved to be a great way to spend our time!
Both Camila and Monika were near the end of their time in Argentina, so we decided to indulge in some of the specialities of the area which included Barbequed Patagonian lamb, fresh trout from the lake and locally produced beer. In essence our road trip was as much about food and drink as it was about scenery.
We arrived back into Bariloche on the 3rd day and had our first day of sunshine, so we headed down to the lake to soak up some rays.
A group of friends from the hostel decided that we should have an asado (barbeque), so a couple of us went to the supermarket to get the food. Just as we were buying the food the girl we were with collapsed and hurt her knee. We were really worried about her, so got someone to call the ambulance. After about 10mins we hear sirens assuming the ambulance has arrived, instead 4 firefighters walk in in full dress. One of them treats my friend (remaining in full fire gear throughout, including a helmet), after about another 10mins the ambulance finally arrived and a doctor sees my friend and sends her home.
The 2 of us who had witnessed this whole episode were feeling a bit shaken up, but after a beer we were ready to get back on with our asado. By this time it was pretty late and I was told food would be ready around 11.30pm. When I complained this sounded rather late I was told to stop being so English. We had a fantastic evening and drank far too much wine. I remember being taught to salsa dance, comparing my tiny tattoo with a guy who has a tattoo sleeve and trying the local drink called fernet which is disgusting.
I got into bed at 7am. I managed to make my bus later that day, only just though. 20hrs on a bus is not fun normally, but it is significantly less fun when hungover.
I arrived into El Calafate on Thursday afternoon and spent the afternoon having a look around. The town itself seems to be solely there as a base for people seeing the famous Perito Moreno glacier. Along the street you pass countless tourist restaurants, tour agencies and gift shops. It is quite a nice place besides this, and the sun was shining so I was happy!
On Friday I took the 2hr bus ride into the nearby national park to see the glacier. The reason for Perito Moreno being such a spectacle is how close you get to the glacier. There are various walkways set up at the face of the glacier and you can be around 100m from the glacier. Even to the most hard to please, it is an awe-inspiring sight. I spent the day wandering around the walkways, but mostly just sitting and watching the glacier. The glacier seems like it is alive, as you continually hear cracks and groans as it moves. We were lucky enough to see it carving, which is basically watching a huge chunk of ice fall off the glacier. Whilst this is visually spectacular it is the noice that is more impressive. As the ice falls it sounds like thunder. All in all the glacier gives you an incredible show.
The glacier was great and my day would have been made just seeing it. However, my day was made a whole lot more interesting by the friend I made for the day. I met David, from California, on the bus on the way to the glacier and since we were both travelling alone we started chatting and ended up spending the day together. After the usual introductions we started talking about other places we had both visited (standard travelling chat…), he told me he had spent 2 years in Ukraine. I said I thought that sounded interesting (I was struggling to locate the country on a map in my head at the time) and he replied he had spent 2 years as a missionary there.
My first thoughts were that this conversation was going to take a turn for the worse. However, David was quick to mention that he no longer believed in God and had since left the Mormon church. I had met a real life ex-Mormon. Perhaps many people with a sense of tact and decorum would have left the conversation there. Not me. I spent the following 2 hours questioning David all about the Mormon church. He very kindly indulged my questions and told me a huge amount about their beliefs and what his life used to be like. Most of my responses involved me saying how weird it is or being outraged at how women are viewed as inferior in the church.
I can honestly say that David is one of the most interesting people I have met since I’ve been travelling.
After farewells to the group I had spent the last few days hiking with I headed a few miles down the road to a village called Puerto Bories. I spent the next 4 days at Bories hotel, which is owned by Heidi and Gustavo (Heidi is originally from Yorkshire), where I helped them with riding horses in return for a bed.
On arrival at the hotel it was one of the windiest and coldest days I had experienced, possibly ever. Heidi had a group she was taking for a ride, so I offered to join and help out. After 2 hours of being outside on a horse unable to even speak to the person next to you as the wind made hearing impossible I was starting to think Patagonia wasn’t quite as great as I had thought. Once we got back inside however it all changed. Within a few minutes of being inside the lovely cook who works in the hotel put a large cup of tea and a slice of lemon meringue pie in front of me, things were definitely looking up! That night I sat in front of a fire, as it teemed down with rain outside, and finished the last book in the Hunger games trilogy. Pretty much perfect!
The following 3 days the weather got back on track. We had beautiful sunshine everyday and luckily no wind at all which meant you could enjoy the surroundings.
Riding around the area is a truly stunning experience with snow capped mountains in all directions, the sea and glacial lakes it is a wonderful place to spend some time. The horses that Heidi and Gustavo have are mostly a criollo and arab mix, which produces a hardy pony-type horse which is excellent for endurance riding and very quiet to handle and ride.
(Disclaimer for this photo-I rode everyday with a hat, except when this picture was taken. I had to give my hat someone with greater need than myself. I do not in anyway endorse riding without a hat. Mum, please take note!)
One afternoon Heidi took me to see the estancia where they own land and used to be based. It is the most beautiful location, with its own bay and fjords set in front of the mountains. We then went to a nearby tourist attraction, the Miladon cave, which is a huge cave formed from glacial melt water. Inside the remains of a prehistoric sloth were found amongst other fossils. From there you can climb up to a viewpoint which affords great views of the surrounding area.
After 4 lovely days spent riding in the sunshine in Chilean Patagonia it was time to say goodbye to Heidi and Gustavo and also to Chile. Time for me to head back over the border and to the Argentine side of Patagonia.
We arrived into Puerto Natales on Monday at lunchtime after 4 days on the boat. I had met a Swiss girl called Carla who had similar plans to mine regarding heading out to the Torres del Paine national park to do a few days trekking. After a fantastic fish lunch (with all this coast around it seems a pity not to have fish!), we headed off to a very informative talk about trekking in the park then went out to rent all our gear, including tent and stoves. The hardest part of the afternoon was shopping for food. We planned to be out for 4 days and were both keen to keep weight to an absolute minimum. We bought a lot of chocolate! We spent the evening packing and drinking wine and enjoyed a final shower before our big expedition.
We ate as much as we physically could on Tuesday morning before catching a bus for the 2 hour ride into the park. Once we had signed in at the entrance we got on another bus further into the park where we met a catamaran which took us over lake Pehoe and to the start point of our trek. The weather at this stage was beautiful sunshine and fairly warm with little wind. The trek we planned was the famous W trek (you walk up 3 valleys so the path looks like a W).
We set off for our first camp at around 1pm and made fairly slow progress. Nothing to do with the 15kg backpacks, it was due to the fact that the views were so stunning. After about 2hrs hiking you get your first glimpse of glacier Grey, which is one of many glaciers off the Southern Patagonian ice field. In the sunshine it looked amazing, especially as it was the first time many of us had seen a glacier.
We arrived at our camp at around 4:30pm, we set up our tent, then headed further along the path to get a better view of the glacier. On our way back we got chatting to sone guys who run kayaking trips on lake Grey in front on the glacier. After a bit of persuasion we managed to get a discount for a trip the following morning. We had dinner (rice mixed with soup powder, surprisingly nice actually!) and spent the evening chatting to other trekkers who would become our W trek friends as we would see each other along the way and at each camp every night.
We got up early on Tuesday and headed down to the lake for our mornings kayaking, although it wasn’t sunny it was clear. After getting our kit on we had a short briefing and got into our kayaks. As soon as we paddled out there were huge icebergs everywhere which had carved off the glacier the previous day. As I asked our guide if we could go closer to one of the icebergs we heard a huge crash as the said iceberg broke into 2 splintering ice everywhere and causing a huge wave. The guide started laughing and asked me if I would like to get closer now, I said I was happy here! We paddled up close to the face of the glacier which was pretty special, you only start to get an idea of how big glaciers are when you get up close to them. We then left our kayaks on the shore to get up close on the side of the glacier and have a lovely warming cup of tea. After this we paddled back and were back into our trekking gear by 11:30am, time for a hot chocolate and a quick lesson about the glacier and we were back on the path trekking to our next camp by midday.
We arrived at our next camp at around 5:30pm and set up our tent straight away. After a mornings kayaking and an afternoons hiking we were feeling pretty exhausted, to add to this the wind had really got up in the afternoon so this had added a certain challenge to walking in a straight line! We had another rice and soup meal (sensibly finishing all of our rice, we decided there was bound to be a shop at the next campsite) and had an early night.
The next day we hiked further into the valley del Frances (the middle part of the W) whilst we left our bags at the campsite. We were rewarded with beautiful panoramic views made even better by glorious sunshine.
By the time we got back to camp we were hiking in t-shirts. We packed our bags and hiked to our next stopping point. We were at another campsite by 2:30pm and had the big decision to either keep hiking to the next campsite which would mean that we would do the trek in 4 days or camp where we were and do it in 5 days. As we sat in the sunshine looking at the map another hiker told us about the amazing hot showers at the campsite. That made our decision. We had showers, washed our hair and then sat in the sun all afternoon, with SPF30 on as the rather large hole in the ozone layer means you burn quickly as we both learnt the hard way! We managed to persuade a guy at the campsite to sell us a bag of pasta and he gave us some leftover cooked pasta and sauce from the kitchen as well. We made friends with a very professional looking hiker called Thomas who insisted he cooked for us aswell, so we enjoyed a couscous and vegetable starter that evening!
The following day we hiked up the last leg of the W. This involved most of the day hiking uphill which was tough at times. In the morning we had glorious sunshine but in the afternoon the winds were really strong again and at times this meant you had to stop walking just so you didn’t get blown away! We made it to our final campsite by late afternoon, by then we had made a lot of trekking friends so the campsites become very sociable places. Within an hour of being there someone is offering to make you a coffee and asking if you have enough food! We were lucky enough to be with Thomas again who made us a lovely vegetable soup starter then we had a mountain of pasta afterwards. Feeling unpleasantly full we went to bed ready for an early start the next day.
We woke up at 5am, got dressed and hiked up to a viewpoint further up the valley in the half light with our head torches on. The plan was that we would see sunrise come up behind the 3 towers (the namesake of the park, Torres del Paine), basically 3 massive shards of rock sticking out of the ground. As we hiked up to the viewpoint it was snowing hard. The higher we got the harder the snow fell. We arrived at the viewpoint and could see nothing. No towers, no sun, in fact we could hardly see each other! It was freezing cold so we decided that the best thing to do was to get back to camp and have a hot drink!
Whilst disappointed by the lack of views at the top, both Carla and myself felt like we had had a more authentic Patagonian experience for it. We had been told Patagonia throws all 4 seasons of weather at you in 1 day and so far we had had a lot of sunshine. This way we felt it was balanced out a bit, also it was our last day and we knew we would be having a hot shower and a warm bed that evening so we felt we could handle anything! We walked the final hike back down the valley in time for the bus back to Puerto natales at 2pm.
After hot showers, putting our clothes in to be washed, returning our hired equipment a group of our hiking friends all met for dinner. We went out to an amazing steak restaurant where there was not a grain of rice or piece of pasta in sight! We ate loads, dranks lots of wine and reminisced about how much fun we had had over the last 5 days, but also agreed we were all happy to be back in civilisation again. Then it was time for farewells. It was particularly sad for Carla and I to say goodbye as we had spent 9 days together and had got on so well. We have made promises of meeting up to go hiking together again, either in England or Switzerland, we will have to see if we make it hapoen!
I decided that a more interesting way of heading to Southern Patagonia would be to take a boat, so I booked myself on to the 4 day cargo ferry to Puerto natales. I arrived early at the port and met a couple of other girls also getting the boat, who luckily spoke excellent English! We headed over to go and get onto our boat and as we had our tickets checked we realised we were all in the same cabin! We headed up to our cabin, which was suprisingly spacious with an en suite bathroom, dropped off our bags and went out to explore.
We quickly found out that the cargo was not live (a relief since a number of people had led me to believe this would be the case) and that there were only 30 passengers on the ship, only 6 who were English speaking. This seemed to be no big issue as we quickly ended up chatting with other passengers, our favourites became 2 Chilean lorry drivers who seemed to have a real soft spot for us all!
The first day on the boat it was beautiful sunshine and we were all out on deck enjoying the warmth. We saw the most amazing sunset and the boat hardly moved at all so there was no seasickness in sight. Dinner much exceeded expectations, whilst it was basic school-type food, we had 3 courses at every meal and there was a lot of it. It is slightly worrying how quickly I get used to this/expect this!
Our second day was not quite as we had come to expect. It was grey, overcast and cold when we got up and as the day progressed it started snowing. We couldn’t see any of the wonderful scenery we had hoped for. To add to this one of the ferry staff came around at lunchtime offering us all seasickness tablets as he told us it was going to get rough as we went out into open sea. As someone who has suffered from seasickness before I took the tablet immediately, just as I was told that it would make me drowsy. I spent most of the afternoon asleep as a result. Not that I missed much, as the weather remained poor. That night the boat lurched around a lot, whilst I did not get sick it was not a fun night. Very few people got any sleep at all that night.
The following day was a completely different day. We had a lovely clear day with sunshine most of the day. As a result we saw lots of fantastic scenery including the very impressive fjords. We were also lucky enough to see seals and dolphins which was totally unexpected. The boat was back in between the mainland coast and the numerous islands off the coast, which meant we were back to a steady boat and a sea looking like a mill pond.
One of the great things about there being so few of us on the boat is that you ended up chatting to lots of different people. Many of the people on the boat were there with work, either directly with their cargo or heading south with work. As I mentioned earlier, we made particular friends with 2 lorry drivers from a town near Santiago. They were great fun and incredibly tolerant to my stilted conversation due to my needing to translate everything before I can understand or say it! One of my favourite conversations I had I summarise below:
Toledo (chilean lorry driver) – do you know the pirate Francis Drake?
Me – what? Pirate? He isn’t a pirate, he is… (I burst out laughing)
Toledo – Do you not know him?
Me – I know him. Its just in England we see him as an explorer or a conquistador. Not a pirate.
Toledo – No, he is definitely a pirate.
Me – Yes. From a South American perspective he probably is. I just had never thought about it like that.
Both of us are laughing at this point. Difficult to know if Toledo has understood enough of what I have said for us both to be laughing at the same thing, but it seemed like progress in our friendship!
Our final day on the boat was pretty clear again, so we were able to admire the views of the islands that hug the mainland. At around midday we arrived in Puerto Natales, which marked the end of our voyage. After some fond farewells we all headed off in our various directions. However, the 6 of us English speakers stuck together and all headed to the same hostel in order to start our preparations for the imminent 4 day trek in the nearby Torres del Paine national park.