Diverse habitats

Trip Start May 03, 2011
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Trip End Mar 22, 2012


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Flag of Chile  , Magallanes y Antártica Chilena,
Friday, November 11, 2011

After four weeks exploring the north of Argentina it was time to head south and into the remote and wildly contrasting regions of Argentina and Chile.

The north of Argentina is where most of the population is concentrated and also has a fair share of different landscapes, we had seen the wine areas (sandy with irrigation providing the source for bright green vines), the violent colours of the desert canyons, the vast open grasslands of the gigantic cattle stations and the vibrant city life of Buenos Aires and Cordoba.

Setting out from Buenos Aires on yet another overnight bus we were venturing into the unknown.... and a great big heap of it.  After stopping briefly on in the quiet town of Viedma it was back onto the bus and the long, straight roads to Puerto Madryn. Nothing but scrub and small bushes for as far as the eye could see. Puerto Madryn is the jumping off point for the Valdez Peninsula, remote and seemingly barren, but abundant with wildlife, penguins, elephant seals, whales and seabirds. We spent the day (and a 250 mile round trip) visiting the peninsula and marvelling at the wildlife. The next day we hired a car and drove down to the penguin colony at Punto Tombe, another desolate place in the middle of nowhere (but the 50,000 penguins seemed to like it)!. One day in a hire car and we were happy to let the bus drivers take the strain, of the sheer boredom of driving such vast distances with no diversions!

An hour south of Puerto Madryn and another change, Trelew and Gaiman are Welsh farming communities, founded by settlers who had no experience of farming (and nearly starved to death in the process)! Now the valley is lush and fertile, with beautiful green weeping willows and sparkling water channels with waterwheels. More importantly, one of its major exports these days is traditional Welsh afternoon teas. Being experts in this field we needed to see how they measured up, and they did not disappoint!

Another overnight bus, zipping west across the country to the Lakes District and  Bariloche. Now we were in mini Switzerland with beautiful mountains and lakes, and a cute high street full of log cabins, chocolate shops and St Bernards!  Bariloche is still recovering from the eruption in June of Chilean volcano  Puyehue, with a fine layer of ash covering the streets and being blown around in the wind. However the dust could not spoil the beauty of the pine clad hillsides and snow capped mountains.

From Bariloche we crossed the border into Chile, as the bus wound its way up through the hills, the ash became deeper and the effects far more catastrophic with whole swathes of forest smothered and dying. At the side of the road, ash piles several feet high had been cleared. The worst hit was Villa Angostura, a picture postcard village on the border which looked like it would be struggling to get back on its feet for many years to come.  Then, something very strange. We crossed the border and immediately noticed that there was no ash! The trees were green and thriving and the air was clear. A few miles later we came to a viewpoint where we could see the volcano still belching out smoke, but it was all coming down on the Argentinian side (a bit of a sore point to the Argentinians).

 The road wound its way down through the forests for a few miles and suddenly we were presented with the lush green fields and spring flowers of Chile's main dairy farming region which is inhabited predominantly by German settlers with German architecture and a fine range of kuchen, strudel and blackforest gateau! By way of contrast, this region around Puerto Varas sports a string of perfect snow covered volcanoes and sparkling lakes.

Just a few miles south of Puerto Varas is the Chiloe peninsula, renowned for its wet weather, emerald green land, unique wooden architecture and an end of the world feel. In two and a half days we saw hardly a cloud in the sky, and were able to enjoy the quiet river estuaries (which could be Cornwall..) and quaint houses reminiscent of Norway. The peninsula has many ancient wooden churches, 16 are listed as World Heritage, with native wood and wooden shingles they are painted in bright colours. On the Pacific coast there are endless beaches with wild crashing seas and some quite formidable surf. 

South of Puerto Varas and Chiloe, the Patagonian fiords slice up the land into thousands of islands and channels, making road building impossible. We changed tack and boarded the Navimag ferry (originally a freight ferry carrying a few passengers it is now a passenger ferry carrying  freight). It takes 3 days to travel the thousand miles down to Puerto Natales and it was a very relaxing trip watching the fiords, islands and mountains slip by. At times we were accompanied by the odd sea bird, penguin and even a humpback whale. In places the channels between the islands seemed barely wide enough to take the ship, at other times we were at the mercy of the open sea. When not on deck, the days were spent chatting to other passengers and eating. Being so far south (almost falling off the end of the continent!) the days were long, a nice change from the short days of the north.

Puerto Natales is a tiny town with brightly coloured houses and a keen wind (the taste of things to come) but we were not staying long; the wonders of Patagonia were on our doorstep. First stop the Torres del Paine national park for a 5 day hike. Patagonia consists of the huge southern icefields, stunning mountain ranges and glacial landscapes. The nice thing about the mountains is that there are no foothills, so the peaks and views are easily accessible (well relatively!). We were going to walk the 'W' circuit, which is approx 55 miles over 4.5 days, carrying camping equipment and food, quite a daunting prospect given the dire warnings about the weather "expect 4 seasons in one day". However we were in great company, Aussies Sophie, Janine, Fi and Swiss Monika & Gregor who together helped make it a very memorable (and at times very noisy!) trip. 
The walk didn't start well, 11 miles in rain with a 30mph head wind and no views. The night the wind howled and the rain fell, our little tent felt very insubstantial and we were glad to get up and be on our way in the morning. As we were going up and back one of the arms of the 'W' we could leave our packs at the campsite and just about skip along the track. One small problem; the wind was now about 50mph (but at least the rain had stopped and the skies were clearing). It was 7 miles up to the face of Glacier Grey with the headwind and 7 miles back being blown along with the wind in our backs. Great scenery and quite an experience being buffeted and blown about, at times crouching down till the gusts had passed. 
 Day 3 was the longest day of the walk, along and up the second arm of the W, the first 4.5 miles with the packs, then a 8.5 mile round trip up the Valley Frances and finally a 3.5 miler with the packs back on. The skies were blue, the sun shone, the wind disappeared and the views were jaw-dropping! Up past a huge glacier which literally tumbled down the side of the mountain, we sat and watched huge avalanches of snow, listening to the roar of them crashing down. We walked on up the valley to the viewpoint, a natural amphitheatre with 360 degree views of the mountain peaks, glaciers and far away in the valley, the blue lakes. We both agreed it was one of the best views, not just in S. America but the world!  A long day though with the last few miles the hardest, walking for 11 hours we were more than pleased to reach camp.
Day 4 was a a relatively easy 5.5 hour walk, winding our way up hill (the final arm of the 'W') our target, the signature peaks of the park "the 3 towers of Paine". The day was warm and still, shorts weather.  We camped below the viewpoint with the aim of rising at 5am to walk up for the sunrise the following day. However it was such a nice evening we decided to take advantage of the weather and scrambled up the last few hundred meters to the viewpoint. Perched high above a little glacial lake, the Torres soared above us, and the condors soared around the towers.
That night the wind returned and as we set off in the creeping dawn, the clouds gathered. by the time we reached the viewpoint it was snowing! So it was true, we did get 4 seasons, if not quite in one day. The view disappeared and we set off back down at a brisk pace in search of some warmth and a cup of tea. down the valley, the snow stopped and the sun came out, so the last morning's walk was swift and painless. We all arrived at the end of the trail exhausted but exhilarated with the experience (and sank gratefully into the plush settees of the posh hotel with our scrumptious and well earned hot chocolates!

Back to Puerto Natales and over the border into Argentina, but we were not done with Patagonia yet. The ice fields and mountains cover a significant part of southern Chile and Argentina, with glaciers tumbling down the mountains in all directions it forms an impenetrable border. From Argentinian El Calafete we visited the mighty glacier Perito Moreno, the glacier face is a mass of pinnacles and deep blue crevasses. It is moving slowly forward with constant calving (great walls of ice crashing down). We donned crampons and went for a guided walk on the glacier, this was another experience, peering into the blue yonder of the crevasses and sink holes.

Finally on to El Chalten and the Fitzroy range, another series of pinnacles, glaciers and stupendous views...and our friend the wind had returned with a vengeance!  This time we had 3 day walks, returning each night to the comforts of a roof over our head (which thanks to a mix up at the hostel was a roof in a 4 star hotel for the cost of the hostel room....). We were again blessed with sunshine, blue skies and perfect views. The wind was quite incredible here, not just on the exposed glacier ridge (which we quickly took ourselves down off) but in the high street. It was impossible to walk up the street in a straight line!

Having reached (almost) the bottom of the world, it was time to turn around and head north to the warmth!
 
 
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Comments

Miranda on

Love the penguins!

Pam on

More fantastic photos. What an incredible trip you are having.

Helen Whitaker on

Wow, Chile and the glaciers and your photos are amazing... what a sensational place! love the look of the room with the jaccuzi. Where to next?

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