Southern Patagonia on Route 40

Trip Start Aug 26, 2009
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Trip End Aug 26, 2010


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Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I cannot believe that a little over a onth ago I was on a tropical deserted island... the early part of January spent continuously drenched in sweat and living in a sauna for a house in beautiful Buenos Aires; and now I'm freezing my little toes off in Patagonia...

In the height of summer here the temperature is supposed to average about 10-15C and the wind chill I believe takes a good 10C off of this. Coming from sunny Sydney means that my lower limit for temperatures is really not much less than 15C and I really, really struggle when it goes below that... It has been a cold, nasty summer in Patagonia this year and so for this trip most days have been in the 5-10C range, not factoring the wind, and so to me, this really feels as frigid as Antartica! Some parts look like I imagine Antartica to be too, all icy and grey and barren... I thought I had come prepared for the cold, but even if someone had described it to me directly nothing could really have prepared me for the ferocity of the biting wind down here. I have pretty much been living in my wind jacket and 3 layers of thermals for the last 2 1/2 weeks - thank god for Icebreaker I say: best ever thermal invention... although unfortunately this has created a bit of a wardrobe crisis. And no I havenīt been washing either :)

The wind is completely indescribable, if you haven't experienced it, it really is difficult to imagine. It is literally strong enough to blow you around. Although I didn't see it, one of the towns apparently has handrails along the streets so that you don't get blown away on a simple trip to the shops... And its neverending, there is no respite. Its enough to burn your nose and make your eyes water.

I decided to do this trip as an organised tour and in hindsight I probably could have done it myself. I certainly didn't particularly enjoy driving around in a big yellow truck... although I have to admit that it was a convenient way to cross the desert. And in this case, the group was probably not who I would have originally selected to play on the team... but I certainly gained a different perspective from travelling with these guys and within the group there were some interesting, humourous characters that made the trip more than entertaining for me: a pair of retired British ladies, from somewhere up north of England, somewhere near Scotland I think, completely eccentric which always intrigues me...  and who's main concern on a daily basis was where to get the next good bottle of red... They hosted me for happy hour one day in their room... nibbles included! Great for a laugh. My crazy roommate, bless her, also travelling for a year and doing a much better job than I at keeping fit and healthy... managed to run most days despite the freezing weather, and on occassion even used her 16kg bag for an improvised weights session. If only I'd been that disciplined my white water adventure (one of my upcoming blogs) would surely have been a walk in the park :)  And then my favourite, the gadget guys - if you wanted to know the temperature, the altitude or our GPS location, right through to needing a battery recharge for your IPod or other device - they had everything. Already they had the battery operated recharger but one night when walking back from washing our plates at camp one lamented his decision not to buy a solar powered re-charger for the trip which obviously would have been much more useful in servicing the needs of the group :) And I was not surprised the day after one of the aformentioned guys was inadvertently left on top of the mountain when we were hiking; that they whipped out walkie talkies for their own future safety... LOL They were also the ones who frequently managed to pack a traveler thermos of hot chocolate (made from real chocolate and perfect for the icy weather) and whipped up gourmet lunches and dinners, complete with knives and forks, regardless of our destination. LOVED IT!!

And so the group met in Bariloche, technically the end of the lakes district, before heading south to Patagonia. Bariloche is a swiss inspired little town, surrounded by snow capped mountains framing a dark, dark blue lake. The water so deep it looks like the ocean. The town plays on the Swiss similarity with chalet style cabins dotted around the place and an abundance of saint-bernard dogs with little red-cross barrels around their necks, the owners of which get them to pose for you for photos. Lots of pine trees and fragrant roses blooming everywhere too. Its a bit touristy but I still thought it was quaint. And the chocolate, OMG!! I haven't experienced anything decent in almost 6 months, so I was in heaven to find that the chocolate here was not only relatively decent, but in absolute abundance too. I spent my free day there going from shop to shop, eating the free samples, the ice cream and then drinking delicious hot chocolate that was exactly like an Italian dark from Max Brenner... oh how I've missed my friend Max... :)

The next day we were off on Route 40, a classic overland route down south through Argentina... miles and miles of desert scape, windswept terrain that looks void of life so that you are surprised and in turn excited when you occassionally see a wild guanaco (llama like) or rhia (emu like). It reminded me a lot of the Bolivian antiplano. Inhospitable. After hours and hours of endless desert you would come across a windswept, dusty little one street town that if you were lucky might have a shop selling something of a snack, really lucky would be if you scored coffee. The 'highway' seems to be under miles and miles of contruction, it looked prepped for a bitumen surface and every few hours we would pass heavy machinery stood in wait by the side of the road, but the place was completely deserted and nobody seemed to be actively working on it. At one stage we even travelled parrallel for a good 30km to a section of sealed road, divided, cut and unusable thanks to bridges over air that weren't even commenced being constructed... very strange.

And then after 35 hours of infinite dessert we saw the andes again in the distance; the temperature dropped further, the landscape started to green, and we were soon rewarded with our first glimpse of Mt Fitzroy - stunningly beautiful - one of the most dramatic mountains I've ever seen, all sharp and pointy granite... located at the gateway to the southern ice fields...

I have to fess up to my naivety at this point and mention that I didn't really realise the existence of these ice fields... I've obviously looked at maps of this area before. I did quite a lengthy paper on Chile Tourism for my final marketing subject last year for my Masters; and yet I didn't
realise that there was this massive ice field in the bottom section of the continent, crossing both Argentina and Chile :) I just thought I was coming to visit a couple of glaciers that were conveniently located close together LOL

And so I took advantage of this close proximity to the masses of ice and I went trekking on one of the larger glaciers one day; Viedma Glacier. To get to the glacier we first had to travel across a lake: milky grey, green in colour because of the glacier sediment that reflects the light and never settles. As you travel you sort of round a corner and are suddenly confronted by all these icebergs bobbing about in the water - brilliant bright blues and whites in contrast with the milky lake. The glacier was also in the distance at this point and the captain said we could go up top to watch the approach... Good in theory but really, really gusty when we got up top. My eyes watered and burned, but this was my first glacier and the view was so amazing that I considered it worth the pain. I had waited my turn and was just lined up to take a shot of the glacier front on when a big wind gust came and dumped a heap of freezing spray over me. 4C water, 5C air... I was a little chilly and the boys and their hot chocolate weren't with me that day :(

Once we were at the edge of the glacier we put our crampons on over our shoes and we were away. The feeling of walking on the ice and in the crampons was a little unusual at first; it felt instinctively like you should be slipping but illogically you could actually walk up ice hills... The other tricky thing was that it was very blowy and every so often a great big gust of wind would come up and destabalize your feet. I thought for sure that this would have to be one of the few occassions where my 'good solid legs' were to my advantage... but I still felt as though I could have been blown away and I found that I had to really focus on stamping my feet in to get a good grip. At one point the lady next to me got caught in one of these wind gusts and was literally blown done the side of the glacier hill... not long after, one of the guides was hacking away with his ice-pick when a gust came, picked up the loose ice and one of the girls got hit in the head with a flying ice chip. Of course for me this added to the adventure, although it was a little crazy.

Before I started this trip I was beginning to worry that my travel fatigue was making me lose appreciation for the amazing things I'm getting to do and places Iīm getting to see. But travelling down to Patagonia has restored my faith that all is well. I think the place is simply amazing, Iīve never seen nor imagined anything like it - the glaciers, snow, lakes and mountains and then desert right next door... its all so picturesque and special. One day I was hiking in the national park at Fitzroy, crappy day, and no views of the mountain were to be seen, when all of a sudden it started to snow!! The others weren't so excited by this turn of events but this was my first snow so I was thrilled... Of course I've seen snow, over there, on mountains when I have travelled... and I vaguely remember playing in slush as a small child after snow on Mt Kaputa... (most of you won't know where that is...you should google it:)) but I have never been snowed on before so it was quite magical. And later in the week I was to experience enough snow for a snowball or 2... which naturally rocked my world too!! :)

By far my most favourite experience was the trip we took to Perito Moreno glacier, further south along the ice fields, though still in Argentina. Perito is one of the last advancing glaciers in the world and because the top is moving faster than the bottom, on a daily basis large chunks of ice crack off with a sound like thunder and fall into the lake in front with a giant splash. It requires some patience, but if you stand still watching you are guarenteed to see it. Every so often a bridge of ice advances enough to hit land at the edge of the lake and this blocks off the water which raises the level, sometimes up to 12m in height, until the pressure builds enough to break the bridge allowing the water to flow back through. The remnants of last years ice bridge was still there and there was a bit of activity around this area and you could even see the stress fractures in the side of the ice.

The glacier is much higher than Viedma, and much bluer and cleaner which makes it really impressive. It looked kind of like light blue merengue, all fluffy on top. But the shapes below the surface along the face were all jagged spikes and the compacted ice looked like blue marble. It was really impressive. In the afternoon we caught a boat right up to the face, no more than 30m away, and the detail at that distance was all the more vibrant. I think I took about 600 photos that day.... although when reviewing them later I was really only happy with a half dozen - obviously I was too trigger happy in the presence of something special :)

And so after our first taste of the ice and dramatic landscapes; we were back on route 40 heading further south, further along the icefields and into Chile before our final destination: the bottom of the world...
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