Southward bound - still!!!
17.08.2011 - 24.08.2011
Following my adventures climbing the Pucon volcano, I awoke stiff limbed and aching muscled to a rainy miserable dawn and yet another early morning bus journey to the small Argentinian town of San Martin de los Andes. Due to a heavy night of rainfall, we knew early on that the driving conditions would not be ideal and that there was a probable possibility of the border crossing being closed due to heavy snow. Despite the worsening weather and increasingly treacherous roads, the driver still insisted that we would reach San Martin on time, whether this was due to the bus schedules taking bad weather conditions into account or the driver disregarding them completely and driving at the same speed no matter what, still remained to be seen. We finally arrived at the Argentinian border crossing, to an all out blizzard, where even the winter foxes braved the company of men to escape the freezing conditions outside.
Amazingly, despite the icy roads (which had already claimed a couple of cars along the way), the driver was proved to be right and we arrived in San Martin on time. Unfortunately the weather continued to disappoint, turning as it did from heavy rain, to heavier snow, to a brief spell of clear skies shortly before sunset, to yet another blizzard shortly after. Although San Martin is an extremely attractive and charming little town, it is also fairly expensive (with a simple burger and chips costing over 7 pounds instead of the 70 pence I was used to paying in Bolivia, although thankfully came without the complimentary food poisoning which seemed to accompany some of the less appetising roadside Bolivian burgers), and has very little to do in bad weather. As a result I spent a fairly boring evening sheltering from the falling snow in a warm and comfortable hostal.
Having already checked the weather report for the following day, and discovered that it wasn´t going to be improving any time soon (which would only have left the option of staying for expensive skiing trips or wandering around town looking into the windows of all the nice restaurants I couldn´t afford), I chose not to stay in San Martin and quickly booked a ticket to the larger, and hopefully more interesting, town of Bariloche, on the shores of lake Nahuel Huapi. Waking up early the following morning to a heavy carpet of snow, which unfortunately had turned to deep rivers of muddy slush along every road, it was an unavoidably damp and unpleasant trudge to the bus station, ankle deep in icy water, with nothing but my non-waterproof (and to be fair, already nasty smelling) trainers to wade through them in. There´s nothing quite like starting a four hour early morning bus journey with frozen feet and sodden shoes. Let´s just hope that the other passengers were able to ignore the smell of damp rising from beneath my seat as I craftily dried them out on the under chair heaters. I certainly have to hand it to San Martin though, never have I seen a town so perfectly fit the profile of a picture postcard worthy image of a snowy Swiss Alps christmas card cover than San Martin in the early morning dawn light after a heavy dose of pristine white snow.
Not my photo - but you get the idea
Arriving in Bariloche just four hours later, it was immediately clear that I had made the right decision, as the snow had now turned to rain and as I had hoped, Bariloche thankfully offered a larger town feel and more convenience than little San Martin. Having said this, it was still not great weather to be exploring scenic lakeside settings or catching buses to panoramic (cold and misty) viewpoints, and so another day was spent sheltering in a hostal and running from building to building, diving for cover from the incessant rain and snow. Brief periods of relief came as the sun broke through once or twice, allowing for a few photo opportunities, but on the whole it was not a great place for exploration for someone who doesn´t handle the cold or the rain very well, and has his adventurous nature tamed by freezing winds and unpredictable showers.
With that in mind, it may come as a bit of a surprise that instead of heading north (to warmer climates), as I had initially intended, I had a very last minute change of mind (standing at the ticket booth in the bus station) and booked a 30 hour journey to the small southern Patagonian town of El Calafate instead. Despite the trepidation of a 30 hour bus journey, it actually turned out to be extremely comfortable, with its single sleeper bed and onboard entertainment. Disappointinly though, the large meal we were served just two hours in the journey made us believe that we would be well fed for the entire trip, only to later find out the hard way that there would be no more food for the remaining 28 hours. Wafers and biscuits do not constitute a healthy breakfast! Surprisingly, for a 30 hour journey, the scenery was also fairly non-descript, with large periods of extremely flat, uninspiring landscape.
Upon arrival into El Calafate, with an entire afternoon free and weather that was admittedly still cold but mercifully dry, I quickly headed out to explore the surrounding lakeside scenery. I soon spotted some flamingoes further out along the shore and having had such a disappointing encounter with them on my tour of the Bolivian salt flats, I quickly made it my mission to get a few better pictures than those from Uyuni. Unfortunately there was an entire marshland of thick and sludgy mud to wade through, barring the way between us. Undeterred, I headed out anyway (shoed at first, but very quickly unshoed when it felt as though I was walking on muddy platforms) and got as close as possible (without my feet falling off in the ice encrusted frozen waters of the lake). As it turned out, this was also a great position for an incredible sunset, which slowly descended from the blood-red sky behind a wall of snowy mountains surrounding the lake.
The following morning I caught a bus to Perito Moreno, the world´s best viewed advancing glaciers, which spews forth into Lake Argentino as though it is being regurgitated by the landscape around it. Appearing through the mountains like a static river of solid ice, and towering dozens of meters above the lake, breaking off in enormous icy shards right before your eyes and crashing into the still waters with thunderous effect, it´s an indescribable sight to behold and a truly unforgettable experience to have.
Having chosen not to go for a tour but instead to simply catch the morning bus to the glacier, this allowed me the oportunity to spend five hours on the coutless walkways and lookout points directly in front of the icy monster. At one point early on I was tempted to hop over the fence and descend to the lakeside, until I suddenly noticed a sign at this very location informing the adventurous or insane that 32 people had already died attempting to do the same thing. As a result, and probably for the first time in my life, I decided to adhere to the rules and kept within the walkways. To be fair though, with views as close as this, there was little point risking life and limb trying to climb any closer. What´s more, as the massive towering blocks of ice began to crash down to shore, showering the lakeside with car sized ice cubes, I breathed a large sigh of relief that I wasn´t standing any closer.
Unfortunately trying to capture falling ice is a lot easier said than done, as you sit listening to the giant glacier creak and groan before you, wondering where the next break off will be. I only managed to capture the aftermath of destruction, but enjoyed the waiting game of trying to do better. At first I believed that five hours sat before a large glacier would be a little too much, until I realised that it was suddenly time to go and wanted nothing more than to spend longer in its awsome presence.
The following day I headed to the bus station, only to make yet another last minute change of plan, which as it turned out, happened to be one of the best decisions of the trip so far. Having decided that I wanted to continue heading south, to the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia, I checked the prices of bus tickets, only to find out that it would actually be cheaper to cross the border into Chile and catch a connecting southbond bus from there and then cross back into Argentina, than it would taking a direct Argentinian bus straight through. As a result I chose the cheaper option and booked a ticket to the Patagonian border town of Puerto Natales, to later discover on arrival that the connecting bus to Ushuaia didn´t leave until the following morning. This also turned out to be a stroke of luck, as the hostal (which admittedly was undergoing a little rennovation) offered me my own private room, with private bathroom, hot showers, central heating, cable TV, free breakfast and free Internet, for the same price that I would have paid for a shared dorm room in Argentina. They also convinced me not to leave for Ushuaia the following day and promptly signed me up for a day tour of Torres del Paine national park instead.
Rated as Chile´s most popular national park and best tourist attraction (and rightly so), Torres del Paine encapsulates everything you have ever heard about rugged and wind swept Patagonia, featuring incredible landscapes and stunning scenery, amazing rock formations, mountain backdrops and multi-coloured lakes, it is without doubt one of the most impressive locations I have ever visited. With a kaleidoscopic climate, which continually changes from one moment to the next, and a blasting arctic wind (which even the trees are forced to turn their backs on), it also encomapses the entire range of possible views and conditions.
The muti-day trips hiking the park were unavailable due to heavy snow and winter weather conditions, which suited me fine due to time constraints and gradually diminishing warm blood running through my veins, so along with a French family and South American couple, we were driven to the park in a private mini-van. With a run of good luck, it seemed as though each time we stopped at a well known look out point, the clouds parted and the sun came shining through.
This is not to say that we didn´t experience the full extent of the Patagonian winter weather, getting battered by icy winds and driving through torrential downpours. We were also shown the incredible changability of the climate as we stopped to view the Grey Lake and glacier (kind of like Perito Moreno from a distance) and experienced every weather type in less than half an hour. As we drove up to the hiking path, the sun quickly disappeared to be replaced by a heavy downpour (forcing us to sit in the van and eat our lunch), which in turn quickly changed to a driving blizzard (which we decided to head out in anyway), only to have the sun reappear by the time we reached the look out point.
Another highlight was as we were leaving the Grey Lake lookout point, when an enormous condor swept up from the rocks below us, only to hover in the sky just above our heads as though waiting for a photo opportunity. As if that wasn´t enough, as we were all captivated by this incredible bird still hovering above us, another two larger condors came whistling through the air by our heads and joined in spectacular circular dance around the sky. In fact, they were so close that I couldn´t retract my zoom quick enough to get two of them in the same shot.
After several hours in the park we headed back towards Puerto Natales and stopped at large cave, famous for the discovery of bone fragments belonging to an unknown species of animal, the Milodon. With a large statue of this strange creature, kind of like a cross between a bear and beaver, at its entrance, the cave was fairly impressive, although more so for the discoveries made in it in the past rather than its current size or scale.
Having braved frozen gusty winds, rain, sleet, snow, cloud, sun, mist and fog, we finally returned to town, happy and exhausted. I have to reitterate what I said before, deciding to head south and stop off for a vistit at both El Calafate and Puerto Natales for the Perito Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine national park, was one of the best decisions of my trip so far. Having initially believed Patagonia to be an inaccessible no-go area during winter, and very nearly missing it out entirely, I find it hard to believe, yet thank the heavens, that I have not only made it this far but am now planning on heading further south, to the southern most city in the world. If anyone thinks that Patagonia is cold, hostile, expensive and difficult to reach, you may very well be correct, however to miss it would be a terrible mistake.