Whales, sea-lions, and still plenty of snow!!!
24.08.2011 - 30.08.2011
Having decided to stay an extra day in Puerto Natales, to make the most of my cheap, comfortable private room, with cable TV, free internet and free breakfast, giving me a chance to have an entire day of rest after weeks of almost continuous travel, I was extremely put out to be told when booking my onward bus ticket that the bus had been cancelled due to lack of passengers. I was then given the choice of either travelling early the following morning, the day after my Torres del Paine tour, or waiting a further four days until the next available departure. Not having a spare four days to waste, I was forced to buy a ticket for the following day, resulting in yet another early morning, followed by another long and boring 13 hour bus journey, with no time to rest of relax. To say that it was an enjoyable bus journey would certainly not be an accurate description due to a few details omitted by the staff selling me the ticket. Initially I was led to believe that it would be a direct bus (given that the sign on the wall read "Puerto Natales - Ushuaia directo"), only to later find out when studying my ticket more closely that there would not only be one change of bus, but two. Immediately prior to departure I asked if this was correct and was told that I would need to change in Punta Arenas and Rio Grande. It wasn´t until 20 minutes into the journey, with over 200km still to travel, that I realised my connecting bus in Punta Arenas departed in little over an hour. I may have had my fair share of reckless drivers, but 200km in an hour was pushing it even for the worst of them. I pointed this out to the ticket inspector on the bus who still said that I would need to change in Punta Arenas, and it was only when I asked the arrival time, to which he replied 10am (at which point I showed him my onward ticket with a 9am departure time) that he said, "well, ok, maybe you need to change before Punta Arenas then" and with that, promptly walked away. Carefully working out the distances, and realising that the connecting bus would have to head in our direction for around an hour before turning onto a different road, I calculated that we should pass each other around 9.30am and amazingly reminded the driver that I needed to swap buses just 4 minutes before we spotted the outbound Punta Arenas bus heading in our direction. I have no idea if the driver or ticket inspector would have remembered to stop the on coming bus, or if swaps are a common feature of every journey, but being the only passenger wanting to connect, I wasn´t about to take the chance. Flashing an on coming bus and switching luggage by the side of the road seems like a fairly risky and inefficient way to make bus connections, however, it seemed to work and I made it without incident, and after a quick ferry ride across the Straights of Magallan, yet more stamps in the passport at the Chile - Argentina border, another bus change at Rio Grande, and a hair raising drive along the dark and icy roads further south, we finally arrived at our destination, the southen most city in the world, Ushuaia.
To be completely honest, there wasn´t anything in particular that stood out as a reason for spending yet more money on expensive buses to visit Ushuaia, except for the novelty of having visited "the southen most city in the world". This may sound like a pointless reason for visiting a destination, however, when you´ve travelled countless miles, spent hundreds of hours on southward bound bus journeys, to arrive so close to the end of the road without actually having reached it, seemed like something which would inevitably haunt me forever. Therefore, here I was, exhausted and cold, literally at the end of the road.
It may not come as too much of a surprise that being so far south, in the middle of winter, there wasn´t a great deal to do in town. With thick layers of slippery and compacted icy along every sidewalk and dirty, slushy rivers of mud along every road, it was an effort simply wandering the town. I had heard that the Tierra del Fuego national park was a worthwhile excursion, until I was told by the tourist office that a large proportion of the park was closed due to ice and snow. Considering the Lonely Planet guide book´s description of the park during summer season as "a tiny system of short trails", it didn´t inspire much confidence in the worth of visiting when most of these tiny trails were closed due to the weather. In fact, so much of the park was inaccessible that they had temporarily suspended the entrance fee (which for a country which has doubled most of its prices in the last year, was enough to ring alarm bells). As transportation to the park still cost quite a large amount, I decided to give it a miss entirely. This however left me with the dilemma of what to do intead. Fear not though, adventure wasn´t far away.
Having heard that there was a glacier in the neaby mountains (unfortunately describes as a "piddly ice cube" in comparison to the Perito Moreno glacier) I decided that it was still a worthwhile adventure and headed out towards the outskirts of town where the trail to the glacier began. Barely managing to follow the poorly marked signs, I finally found the beginning of the trail and was presented with a choice of a safe and dry road, or a much quicker but much more trecherous snowy and icy path. I´m sure you can imagine which trail I chose to take. It wasn´t long before I came to admit that perhaps this decision wasn´t such a wise one as the snow began to thicken and my feet gradually became lost further and further down with each passing step. If you´re wondering how deep snow has to be before you realise that it´s futile continuing on and finally decide to make your way to the safe and dry road, which you should have taken in the first place, then this should give you some idea:
This is not perspective, it really is thigh deep
After following the winding road up into the mountains I arrived at a ski resort, where the road suddenly ended and a chairlift began. Not wanting to pay for the chairlift, I tried to creep past and make my way up the snowy mountainside on foot. It wasn´t long before I was spotted by one of the guards and firmly told that there was no walking in such trecherous conditions. Obviously this wasn´t about to stop me, and if anything, the strict safety regulations probably put me in more danger by forcing me to find an alternative route up the mountain, rather than allow me on the only ever-so-slightly dangerous path under the chairlifts. I quickly found a heavily snow laden bridge, across an even more heavily snow laden river, and figured that the building of a bridge would inevitably imply that it would have to lead somewhere.
Snow laden bridge
Shortly after crossing the bridge I descovered faint markings on a few trees leading up into the mountain, along with some very old and snow covered snow shoe markings. This was all the incentive I needed to begin my snow-bound climb, and to be honest, with the description of the glacier being less than enthusiastic, it was more about the adventure to reach it than actually getting there. This turned out to be fortunate as I never did reach the glacier, but certainly had an adventure trying. Following the faint snow shoe marks and painted trees, I gradually made my way along beside an icy river into the mountains. Entering a dense forest, with no sights or sounds of civilisation, and the increasingly deepening snow all around, I had the impression of being transported to some uninhabited realm or Narnia-esque landscape.
It wasn´t long before I was faced with yet another dilemma, as the market trees suddenly veered off to my left, while the footprints I had been following continued up the steep hill ahead. I initially tried to continue along the route indicated by the painted trees, however quickly found myself once again thigh deep in snow. I immediately retraced my steps to the other trail and carefully placing each foot directly onto the snow shoe footprints (which had compacted the snow just enough to allow me to step on without falling through to the deep snow beneath) I continued up the mountain. As I proceeded however, the footprints became harder and harder to distinguish, causing me to stray from them and suddenly disappear under half a metre of snow with every fifth or sixth step, until after an hour they disappeared altogether. By this point I had reached a semi-clearing and searched desperately for any sign of a trail, only to be disappointed at every turn as I slowly sank deeper and deeper into the freezing ground underfoot.
It was at this point that I realised I wouldn´t be reaching the glacier, having the distinct impression that I wasn´t even in the right valley of the mountain for a start, and with no path to follow, worried that I would end up completely lost in a landscape that looked frighteningly similar in every direction. Another problem I faced was that I had stopped being able to feel or move my toes for some time, trapped as they were in my ice encrusted trainers which had been sinking into the snow for over an hour. What´s more, the river I had been following had now completely disappeared beneath the thick blanket of snow, meaning that at any moment I could plunge straight through a metre of powdery unstable ground into the flowing icy water hidden below. I decided that it was important to warm my frozen feet up before attempting the descent back down the mountain and looked around for any suitable place to do so. Unfortunately, when the ground is completely covered by snow, the only option is to climb a tree, and so this is what I did. I quickly removed my shoes and socks, shaking free the compacted ice within, and layed them to rest on the outstreched branches, wondering how I was going to warm my frost-biten toes. The only option was to use my gloves. I have to admit I was very thankful that I was in such a remote part of the forest, as I don´t know what someone would have thought coming around the corner to discover a strange tourist, perched in a tree, socks and shoes dangling from its branches, with glove covered feet, casually eating a bag of crisps, seemingly without a care in the world.
After my brief lunch, and with fainly warmer feet, I decided it was time to head back down to drier land. It wasn´t long before I realised that stopping off to warm my icy feet probably wasn´t such a good idea after all as while my feet were certainly warmer, my socks and shoes had literally frozen solid in the icy breeze. With sensation now returned, it was an extremely painful exercise trying to get a pair of stiff frozen socks, not to mention frozen shoes, back onto previously frozen feet. To make matters worse, the faint snow-shoe prints I had followed up the mountain (which had been compact enough to step on once) were certainly not compact enough to step on a second time, making the descent an entirely different matter. Finding myself sinking down to my knees with roughly every third step, and with no warning that it was about to happen, I decided to throw caution to the wind and simply head down the path as quickly as my aching, frozen feet would allow. Despite this meaning that I was deep in snow for most of the descent, at least I made it down far quicker than it had taken me to climb up. You would think that reaching the bridge where the ascent had begun would be a relief, and a sign to head back to town, however I suddenly spotted another faint trail leading in the opposite direction, and with feet slightly warmer (if now soaking wet), and back on firmer ground, I stupidly decided to follow it (thinking once again that a trail must lead somewhere). After about half an hour, and gradually getting deeper and deeper into the snow again, I realised my mistake. As it turned out, it wasn´t actually a trail that I had been following, but instead the slight sinking of the snow due to a small stream flowing beneath. This I only discovered when the trail became less obvious and all of a sudden my foot disappeared through the snow and into the icy water below. I finally conceded and headed back to town. Despite suffering near frostbite in my toes, and almost getting swallowed up by the ever increasing depth of snow, I still enjoyed the day out, although not quite as much as reaching the hostal for a well needed hot shower and warm fire.
Having finally reached the "end of the road" there is nothing left but to begin the return journey back north, and as with many journeys in the enormous country that is Argentina, it was another 36 hour ordeal, with two more border crossings, yet more passport stamps, another ferry ride, one bus change and a very boring 3 hour wait in Rio Gallegos bus terminal. Finally though, we arrived at luchtime the following day in the whale watching capital of Puerto Madryn. With an afternoon to kill, I headed down to the beach (where the receptionist at the hostal had said I might be lucky enough to spot a whale from the shore) and sure enough, I spotted plenty. Heading out onto the long pier, it wasn´t long before the whales began swimming directly below where we were standing, mothers and babies, heads and tails breaking the surface of the bay with loud crashes of water and happy gasps from the watching crowds on the pier. I had also asked the guy at reception if there was any chance of seeing penguins, to which he told me "only if they´re lost", as it was still three weeks to penguin season. Luckily enough, one such lost penguin did swim past, possibly scouting out the area prior to the arrival of the colony in less than a months time.
The following day I arranged a tour to nearby Peninsula Valdes, where whale watching trips from the little town of Puerto Pyramides (within the reserve) are the major tourist attraction. It was soon to become clear why, as we headed out into the bay on a relatively small boat, to suddenly be surrounded by whales. One mother and baby seemed far more curious than the rest and spent the entire hour following the boat and swimming almost within touching distance from where we sat.
Further out to sea, in much deeper waters, we also spotted fully grown whales leaping high above the surface and crashing back down with impressive results.
After an hour and a half at sea (far shorter than any of us would have liked) we headed back to shore for a quick lunch break in Puerto Pyramides. We then continued our tour around the Peninsula Valdes reserve and arrived at a beach where elephant seals spend most of their days lying around on, doing not very much at all. Unfortunately, from a distance, these lazy creatures simply looked like fat washed up turds on a pebbly beach. We hung around for a short while, however the seals refused to do any more than roll over once every ten minutes or so, before quickly falling back to sleep.
The remainer of the trip was spent in the vehicle, driving around the fairly flat landscape, with very little in the way of wildlife to see. As it was not penguin season yet, it seemed as though the tour was simply being padded out in order to last an entire day. We did however pass two large salt flats, at 42m below sea level, said to be the lowest place on land in South America, and according to the guide, the third lowest place (after the dead sea and death valley) in the world. Whether this is true or not may just have to be "Googled".
Sunset back into Puerto Madryn
Although the whale watching was amazing, I think that my advice for people travelling outside penguin season, would be to get the public bus straight to Puerto Pyramides, where you could spend the night and arrange the boat trip independently, cutting out the need for the rest of the tour, thus saving quite a bit of money and time. The advantage of being in Puerto Madryn however was that the following day, before my 7pm departure to Buenos Aires, I was able to visit the large sea lion colony just 15km down the coast. With no public transport and being far to windy to hire a bike, I decided not to skip the experience and so made my way on foot. Starting out as not only windy (verging on gale force), but also cold and rainy, I wasn´t particularly looking forward to a 30km round trip walk along the headland with no shelter and no towns or houses to stop off at. Thankfully the weather improved and I made it to the colony in high spirits. With countless squabbles, fights, grunts, roars and plenty of movement, it was an entirely different (and much improved) experience than that of the elephant seals the day before.
Views on the 30km trek
On my return back to town, as the sun finally appeared through the clouds and I headed down to the beach to continue my walk, I stopped momentarily for a bite to eat, only to be suddenly joined by a playful young sea lion, who came bounding out of the water to relax in the sun by my side. After a couple of minutes, and just as I finished my lunch, the curious little fellow picked himself back up and bounded back off down the beach to swim away. Personally I thought this was a perfect way to finish my 30km trek!