Articles tagged with "patagonia"

The hardy migrants

The hardy migrants

We wanted to see some penguins while we were in Patagonia, but we were there at a bad time of year. All of the magellanic penguins come here for the summer, and it was just barely out of winter now. No trips were going to Isla Magdalena, the largest penguin colony in the area, but we found a trip going to Seno Otway and went there to see if we could see some.

It was a wild and windy day at Seno Otway. We walked out to the beach where the penguins come in and go out to sea, and we found just a handful of penguins there. 5 or 6 of them were testing the waters, bracing themselves for a day out in the ocean. We watched them for a while and then wandered inland to their colony. Again, just a handful of penguins were here, scattered across the grass. They reminded me of people who arrive at Glastonbury three days before the festival starts, nicking all the best camping spots. But I also thought that these were the coolest penguins. While thousands of their comrades were still lazing about on Uruguayan beaches, these ones were the hard core, the pioneers. No easy life in the sun for them. Patagonia had called them, and they had come.

We walked back to the beach. The penguins had gone out for the day and it was empty. We headed back to Punta Arenas.


Flight back to the mainland

Flight back to the mainland

The boat journey to Navarino had been amazing, and a short flight back would surely be an anti-climax. But once more in a tiny Twin Otter, our Aerovias DAP flight took us over some stunning scenery. We flew along the Beagle Channel until the border with Argentina turned north, and then we turned north too. We crossed the Darwin Range and experienced some epic turbulence on the way over. I was lucky to have a window seat on the packed little plane.

As we got further north, the scenery got less incredible, the snow line got higher and eventually we were nearing rainy Punta Arenas. As we descended over the Straits of Magellan, I saw a duck fly by not very far from the plane. Probably a duck could do quite a bit of damage to a little Twin Otter, though the Twin Otter would certainly win the fight.

Being back in Punta Arenas gave me some kind of culture shock. This was a normal place, with people and cafes and cars and noise and life. Puerto Williams was a different world and felt incredibly remote in comparison.


War relics

War relics

We went for a walk along the shores of the Beagle Channel. We found some old gun emplacements, relics of tensions between Chile and Argentina. In 1978 the two countries almost came to war, with Argentina seriously on the verge of mounting an invasion over the sovereignty of islands in the channel. I can’t get over the madness of going to war over uninhabited and uninhabitable territories, and when you have two countries that share such similar histories and cultural heritages, fighting over desolate scraps of land, it becomes even crazier.

I looked over the straits to Argentina, just a few miles away, and wondered whether these guns ever actually fired at anything.


Cape Horn

Cape Horn

After our epic boat journey we slept in late the next morning. But not too late, because at 11am we had a flight to catch. And this was a flight I did not want to miss – it would take us over Cape Horn.

Even though Cape Horn is just south of Isla Navarino, it never occurred to me that we might be able to go there until a few days before we got to Puerto Williams. It just sounded too impossibly remote. I didn’t know that there was a way to get there, and if there was a way I imagined it would be ruinously expensive.

But then I discovered that Aerovias DAP fly over there from Puerto Williams, for 80,000 pesos. This was not ruinously expensive. This was pretty reasonable for a flight to the world’s most savage and terrifying cape. We didn’t hesitate.

I was incredibly excited as we boarded the plane, and nothing about the trip disappointed. The pilots warned us that even if it was calm and clear at Puerto Williams, it might be too stormy to make it to the cape and we might have to turn back half way. They told us later that they only make it there about half the time they try to get there. But today we were fortunate. We flew over the wild Dientes de Navarino, over rugged and empty Wollaston Island, and then over a strait to the legendary Cape.

We circled around a few times, lower and lower until we were pretty much at the height of the high cliffs. We could see the two little huts in which Chilean navy people spend months at a time, defending the island against Argentinian invasions. And we could see the waves crashing on the rocks. It was an incredible place to be flying over, although I couldn’t help hoping I’d get the chance to set foot on the island, or sail past it, at some point.


Down the Beagle Channel

Down the Beagle Channel

We passed glacier after glacier as we sailed down the Beagle Channel. This was wild uninhabitable land and it was amazing to see it. We stopped briefly at Yendegaia, an incredibly remote place supposedly being developed as a national park but currently just a ranger station in the middle of nowhere on Tierra del Fuego. I immediately put it on my list of places I want to go.

A few hours after Yendegaia, we passed Ushaia. This was my previous furthest south, on my first trip to South America back in 2005. It looked pretty awesome from out in the straits, surrounded by mountains. After Ushuaia it was only a couple more hours to Puerto Williams.

The boat journey had been incredible but also long and tiring. We’d been quite lucky with the weather with only one epically rough patch in the night, and a bit of rain during the second day. But we hadn’t appreciated what the food and drink situation on board would be like. The drink situation was that they would give you one cup of orange squash at each mealtime. The food situation was a tray of pretty nice food for everyone except me and my dad; neither of us eat meat, which is something that often bewilders people in this part of the world. Our meals consisted of cold vegetables, mostly peas. Dad doesn’t much like peas. So we were a bit thirsty and bit hungry by the time we got to Puerto Williams at about 11pm, 31 hours after we’d set off from Punta Arenas.


Boat journey to Isla Navarino

Boat journey to Isla Navarino

My mum and dad and aunt came to visit me in Chile, and we planned an epic journey around the whole country. We’d been planning the trip for a long time, and one of the things we really wanted to do was the four day boat journey from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, so when they booked their flights the first thing I went to do was book tho boat journey. Unbelievably, Navimag had cancelled the route just a few days before, running it for freight only. A vague notice on their website said that they hoped to be open to passengers again “at some point”.

But there was an alternative. For a long time I’d been reading about Isla Navarino and Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world. There was a boat that went there, too, from Punta Arenas. So we decided to head south, really south, and see what there was at this frontier of human existence, where the only human beings further south than us would be the 1,000 or so living through the winter on Antarctica.

We set off from Punta Arenas on a beautiful calm evening, and stood on deck as it got dark and the lights of the town disappeared behind us. During the night, the weather got rougher and for a while the boat was rolling and riding some huge waves, but by the morning it was pretty calm again. When I woke up around sunrise, we were in utter wilderness. Sombre snow-capped mountains all around, wild forested islands which probably no-one ever sets foot on, and our little boat chugging through it all.


Morning hike back to Pehoé

Morning hike back to Pehoé

The schedule for today was tight. We had to get to Pehoé in time for a ferry to be in time for a bus to be in time for another bus to be in time for our flight back to Santiago. Any missed step would be disastrous. So we packed up and left Campamento Italiano before dawn and headed off down the trail. It was a beautiful morning, clear and calm, and bitterly cold.

We made it back to Pehoé in plenty of time for the boat back. And all the other steps worked out as well, until we got to the airport to find that our 11pm flight was delayed by four hours. After four days of hiking we were not in the mood for this. There was another flight leaving at 1.30am, but LAN were very reluctant to let us onto it, so it looked like we would be getting home at about 8am. As I argued with the LAN people, ex-president Michelle Bachelet walked by. She was on the 1.30am flight, and eventually LAN decided that we could be, too. We trudged wearily onto the plane, brushed off some Torres del Paine twigs and dirt, collapsed into our seats and headed out of Patagonia.


Valle Frances

Valle Frances

We hiked back to Pehoé the next morning, and headed on to Campamento Italiano. The wind had dropped, the skies had cleared and we had two stunning days of sunshine and autumn colours. We hiked up the Valle Frances and watched avalanches roaring down the slopes of Paine Grande.

From the campsite, sometimes, you could hear the roar of the avalanches. They normally lasted 10 or 20 seconds On our first night there, we heard a roar but this was something different. It got louder and louder, much louder than the noisy river that we were camped by, and it just kept on going. I knew that there was no chance of any avalanche reaching the campsite. But did I really know that? As the roar kept on going, and getting louder and louder, I began to wonder. It was dark and there was no point getting up to see what was going on. So we sat in the tent, listened, and waited. Finally the roar died away.


Hike to Lago Grey

Hike to Lago Grey

We got straight out onto the trails. The W is the most popular trail in the park but we only had a few days, just enough time for a V only. We hiked out to Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier.

It was windy. It was unbelievably windy. We were lucky that most of the trail was quite sheltered, but on the open bits we could easily stand at 45 degree angles and not fall over. But the views over the lake were worth getting out onto the open bits for. I was wondering why on earth I hadn’t been back here since 2005.


Return to Torres del Paine

Return to Torres del Paine

On an epic four month voyage around South America in 2005, one of the most awesome things had been a week-long trek in Torres del Paine. Until now that had been my one and only trip to Patagonia; after 18 months of living on the same continent as this fabled wilderness it was time to put that right.

Last time I’d hiked from the park administration to Lago Pehoé. It was a long trudge, carrying the full weight of a week’s provisions, and the views weren’t that spectacular. So this time, with a friend from London who was in Chile, I took a different approach and got a boat across the lake. We set off in heavy drizzle, and all of the outrageous peaks were hidden in thick cloud. I was wondering if we were in for a miserable few days in the park. But then suddenly the clouds began to part, and the Cuernos del Paine began to appear.


Time for a holiday

Time for a holiday

I arrived in Chile at the end of September 2011 and by April 2012 I still hadn’t left. The last time I spent more than six months in one country, it was 1999. So even though this six months has been spent in a foreign country, I’ve still been getting ever itchier feet. But a nightmarish situation with a herniated disc meant that for a few of those months I could barely even leave the house let alone the country.

With the back situation easing a bit, and having just completed my first solo night shift at the observatory, I decided the time was right to hit the road again. I’d long fancied a trip to the Falklands, had started actually planning it a few weeks ago, and finally a week before I wanted to go, I booked the flight.

And what a flight it was. I came down from Paranal on Thursday, had Friday to get used to daylight again and pack, and then at 4am on Saturday I headed out into the streets to grab a taxi to the airport. I had a fun ride with a friendly driver who thought it was really funny that I was going to the Falklands. “There’s nothing there, right?”, he asked. True enough, I said, but I was in the mood for getting away from it all and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. More or less my whole life these islands have been in the news every now and then, but I had no idea what they actually looked like, didn’t know anyone who’d been there, never met anyone from there.

The flight took off just as the dawn sky was beginning to brighten, and we had spectacular views of the country as the sun rose. As we got down to Patagonia the weather was amazing and the landscapes below were mindblowing. I’d been to some of those places, six years earlier, and looked down nostalgically on the Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine.


Sailing up the coast

Sailing up the coast

The boat north was supposed to be going at 11pm but when I bought a ticket I found out it was running late and would not be leaving until 3am. I had many hours to kill but luckily Carlito, the owner of the place I was staying, said I could wait in the hotel even though I wasn’t paying for an extra night. He was waiting up for the ferry as well, as his daughter was on board, and I spent a lot of the evening trying to improve my Spanish by talking to him. He turned out to be an ardent Pinochet supporter, and was quite aggrieved that after years of legal wranglings, the ex-dictator had just been stripped of his immunity from prosecution and put under house arrest.

Carlito’s view was that the general was 90 years old and should be enjoying a quiet life instead of facing jail, and that although lots of bad things happened during the dictatorship, the responsibility for them lay not with Pinochet but with other senior government people. Carlito was not just a fan, he’d actually met Pinochet on several occasions and had had dinner with him when he visited Chaitén. “A lovely man”, he said earnestly. He asked me what I thought, and I tried to explain my feelings on the situation while avoiding getting kicked out and having to spend the small hours on the streets. In the end my Spanish wasn’t really up to making complex political arguments, and we talked of simpler things until 2.30am. Then he drove me to the ferry terminal and I got on the boat, looking forward to a long journey up the Pacific coast.

We pulled out into the ocean at about 4am, and I watched the lights recede until we were in inky blackness, then slept uncomfortably on a reclining chair. I had wanted to get up and watch the sunrise, but in the end I slept through it and by the time I awoke it was broad daylight. A small serving hatch opened and I got a slightly oily-tasting coffee and a sandwich, and went up on deck to watch the mountains on the shore slowly drift by. We were sailing through the straits between the island of Chiloé and the mainland, and the waters were calm. I found a ladder up to the top of the boat, which had a sign saying ‘crew only’, but two old men climbed up it and told me no-one would mind, so I went up as well and enjoyed the panoramic views of islands and boats dotted across the sea.

We arrived at Puerto Montt at 3.30pm, almost seven hours late, and I hurried to the bus station to get a bus to Pucón, a couple of hours further north and situated at the base of the constantly erupting Volcán Villarrica. I got there at about 11pm, checked into a hostel and headed straight for the shower, finally getting out of my shoes which were still damp from Pumalín.


Pumalín

Pumalín

There was a boat from Chaitén to Puerto Montt leaving the evening after I arrived. I spent my spare day exploring the nearby Parque Pumalín, with the two Italian girls who had arrived with me from Coyhaique. The park had been controversial in Chile, being private land, owned by a non-Chilean, and stretching from the coast to the Argentinian border, apart from a narrow strip in the middle. People were sceptical of the owner’s motives.

Ignoring the politics of the situation, we asked around Chaitén and found a friendly guy called Juan who had a 4WD and was willing to drive us up to the park for the day. As it had been ever since Coyhaique, the weather was not great, although the rain had eased off from being torrential to just being quite heavy. Most of Pumalín is inaccessible without serious preparation, but we drove for about an hour north of Chaitén, to a place where a couple of trails run a short way into the park. The first took us to some waterfalls, and the second through a grove of alerce trees. Alerces are the largest tree in South America, and are related to the Giant Redwood. They take hundreds of years to grow to their full size but they are now endangered due to centuries of exploitation. It’s illegal to cut down living alerces, but apparently it’s very common for people to strip them of their bark or set fire to forests so they can harvest the dead trees which are not covered by the law.

The massive sombre trees dripped on us as we walked through the grove. By this time all four of us had slipped at various points on the trail – two of us had a left leg covered in mud while the other two had the right leg. We decided it was time to head back to Chaitén, and I was looking forward to going further north where the weather might be drier.


Carretera Austral

Carretera Austral

I spent a couple of relaxed days in Coyhaique, always intending to go walking in the surrounding hills but somehow never quite getting there. The town was laid back and seemed quite bourgeois, with a well-to-do atmosphere and nice cafes on pedestrianised shopping streets. It also had the biggest supermarket I had seen in South America, with all sorts of produce that you wouldn’t expect to find in a small rainy town in Patagonia.

I had wanted to get a ferry up the coast from Puerto Chacabuco, not far from Coyhaique, but it appeared that boats only go from there at random irregular intervals. A company which used to do the run had gone bust due to rising fuel prices, and it seemed I would have to go north by bus. This was no disaster though, because the road north is no ordinary road, but the legendary Carretera Austral, which runs through the wild temperate rainforests of seldom-visited central Patagonia. Early on a Sunday morning I walked through the rain-soaked streets to the bus station and caught a minibus to Chaitén, a few hundred miles further up the country.

There were about 12 of us on the bus, all locals apart from me and two Italians. We drove out of Coyhaique under heavy skies, and before long rain was falling. Gloomy mountains covered in dense forest rose all around. I hadn’t been able to get a coffee before leaving Coyhaique so I was relieved when we stopped after a couple of hours at Villa Mañihuales, a tiny village with a warm cafe where I got my coffee and a nasty empanada containing some kind of gritty meat.

A bit further north we stopped for a while in a deep valley with a wild river rushing through it. I wasn’t sure why we’d stopped but it turned out that a new bridge was being built here and they were about to dynamite the rock face. I took photos in the drizzle, and stretched my legs. A colossal explosion rocked the valley, followed quickly by two smaller ones, and with that we all got back into the minibus and drove on.

In the afternoon the road took us through Parque Nacional Queulat, which was stunning. Impossibly steep mountainsides were covered in lush forest, with mist draped over everything and snatches of cloud hanging on the mountaintops like candyfloss. Wild rivers and towering waterfalls plunged into the valleys. North of Queulat we reached the town of La Junta, which had a giant statue of General Pinochet on its main street. Some locals got on, others got off, and the journey continued. The road, previously potholed and bumpy, became smooth, and we soon reached Chaitén, 12 hours after we’d left Coyhaique. For the first time on the journey it wasn’t raining.


Ruta 40

Ruta 40

It seemed like it might be quite difficult to head north from El Chaltén except by travelling right back over to the east side of the continent where the endless plains allow good roads. Luckily, though, there are occasional buses which use Ruta 40 to get from El Chaltén to Los Antiguos. My guidebook described Ruta 40 as ‘one of the world’s worst roads, passing through some of its most boring scenery’, but I’ve been on that road, it’s in Zambia. So I headed north on this road, and actually I found some of the scenery pretty spectacular. We passed through some astonishingly remote places, tiny villages with just a house or two and a cafe which must get no business at all except when buses pass through. The sun shone and I dozed a lot of the way. Late in the afternoon we stopped at Perito Moreno, where a lot of passengers got off, before turning east along the shores of Lago Buenos Aires, South America’s second-largest lake. Snowy mountains lined the shores of the deep blue lake.

Late in the evening we arrived at Los Antiguos, a small town by the border with Chile. I tried to find a camp site but discovered that the municipal site was three miles out of town. I didn’t feel like walking several miles along an unlit road in the dark, but the hostel in town was full. However, the woman at the hostel phoned her friend Gladys, who appeared to operate some kind of overspill accommodation in her house. I ended up in Gladys’s spare room, feeling slightly ill-at-ease in her very large but very quiet house with no other travellers around. I was having a bad Spanish day and failed totally to make any conversation throughout my stay. I was glad to leave early the next morning.

I headed back into Chile. Chile has very strict regulations about bringing fresh produce into the country, which promise vast fines and possible jail terms for those surreptitiously importing evil substances like cheese. At previous border crossings checks had been cursory, but here the seven of us on the minibus were very thoroughly searched. As my bag was being emptied I heard another passenger being asked “Who sold you this orange?”. I had bought a sandwich that morning and had failed to declare it on the form, but luckily the border guard believed me when I said I’d forgotten I had it. Eventually, after a lengthy investigation, we were all allowed to pack up and get on the way into Chile.

I spent a quiet day in Chile Chico, a small town on the shores of Lago General Carrera. Apparently the town is a major fruit-growing centre because it has a very sunny microclimate. I spent the night at a slightly odd ‘hostel’ that was just some spare rooms in somebody’s house, along with five other travellers who had also arrived from Argentina. We all chipped in to cook a feast of a dinner, and stayed up very late, eating, drinking and talking.

The next day we all got a boat across the lake to Puerto Ibáñez, a beautiful few hours on the waves with towering snowy peaks all around. The lake was pretty choppy and everything outdoors quickly got pretty soaked with spray, but there was not nearly enough space in the small covered area for everyone. But along the way I got talking to a girl from Finland, and she managed somehow to find us two spare seats in the covered area. As we approached Puerto Ibáñez, the waters calmed and I went outside again to watch the beautiful mountains gliding past. When we docked I got a bus to Coyhaique, at the south end of the Carretera Austral.


Laguna Torre

Laguna Torre

Later in the morning I set off to walk up to Laguna de los Tres, at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. I was cold and tired and I walked slowly. The trail wound gently up to the tree line, at which point it became much steeper and I walked even more slowly. Before long the path was winding through thick snow. Suddenly, just as at Torres del Paine, I crested a rise and there was the mountain right in front of me. A few minutes more to cross a rocky outcrop and I was by Laguna de los Tres, frozen and covered in snow. Far below to the left was Laguna Sucia, liquid and deep green. While I was there several avalanches raced down the steep slopes into Laguna Sucia.

There had been no-one else up at Laguna de los Tres when I arrived, but now lots of people were appearing over the ridge. A haze was thickening over the clear blue skies so I headed back down. Still tired out from the cold and my early start, I trudged wearily back down to Campamento Poincenot to grab my tent, and then right back down to El Chaltén again. The next day I set off for more hiking, this time to a lagoon at the base of Cerro Torre.

I walked very quickly and shook the tiredness out of my legs with a half hour speed-walk up a steep hill just outside El Chaltén. For the most part the walk was not very interesting, but when I finally got to Laguna Torre I found myself surrounded by snowy mountains with a close-up view of Glaciar Grande across the water. Heavy clouds over the glacier hid Cerro Torre from view, but the views were none the less impressive. What was also impressive was the strength of the wind blowing down the valley, which as I stood on the lake shore actually made it impossible to stand up when it gusted. I sheltered behind a rocky ridge, popping up occasionally to take photos of the lake, the glacier, and the streams of snow being whipped off the mountains by the wind.

I could see a huge bank of heavy black cloud heading my way, and thought it would be prudent to head back to El Chaltén. I walked as fast as I could, with the black cloud gaining on me slowly. Luckily I’d just got to some forest after a long stretch in the open when the weather finally caught up with me, and was somewhat sheltered from the heavy snow which began falling.


El Chaltén

El Chaltén

From El Calafate I got a bus to El Chaltén, a great journey around the shores of Lago Argentino, stopping at a remote estancia for a coffee, then along the shores of the other big lake of the region, Lago Viedma. Heavy clouds and fading light made the glaciers bearing down into the lake look very threatening. We arrived in El Chaltén in lashing rain and high winds at about 10.30pm, and the word was that bad weather was expected for the next few days.

But the next day dawned bright and clear, and I bought myself some provisions and set off for a two day hike, to Campamento Poincenot near the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. The walking was excellent, with the path quickly rising up to some incredible views back down over El Chaltén. After an hour or so, Cerro Fitz Roy came into view, soaring into the sky in the same astonishing way as the Torres del Paine. The path went through some woods for a while, and on this section I found a huge woodpecker hammering away at the trees. He was unconcerned as I took photos of him from just a couple of feet away.

I wanted to get up before dawn the next day to see the Sun light up Cerro Fitz Roy. My alarm didn’t go off, and when I woke up at 5.45am the granite tower was already blazing red in the dawn light. I grabbed my camera and coat and rushed out to a nearby viewpoint. Luckily I hadn’t missed the most spectacular light, but I had forgotten to grab my gloves. It was well below freezing, and very soon I couldn’t feel my fingers. As the Sun rose slowly higher, the light on the towers gradually got less spectacular, but the air got fractionally warmer and before too long I regained the use of my hands.


Moreno Glacier

Moreno Glacier

From Torres del Paine, I headed back into Argentina, getting my second set of Chile exit stamps and fourth lot of Argentina entry stamps. I got a bus past a series of minefields – legacy of long-running border disputes between these two countries – then along the shores of vivid blue Lago Argentino, to El Calafate. After the wilderness of Las Torres, this was quite a dramatic return to easy travelling. El Calafate is one of the major tourist towns of Patagonia, and it is well supplied with cafes, bookshops, hotels and tour operators. And I was here for the same reason everyone else was – to see the Moreno Glacier.

For independent travellers the options seemed limited. The only buses that went to the Glacier came with a guide, and so reluctantly I booked a place on a tour and hoped it wouldn’t be too cheesy. I was well out of luck though – the journey to the glacier was an exercise in herding the punters from sight to sight, with guides telling people to get off the bus and photograph whatever they were pointing at, and then thirty seconds later rushing everyone to get back on. I focussed my irritation on a spectacularly annoying man who was wearing inappropriately smart shoes and awful clothes, and telling everyone what an adventurous traveller he was when this was clearly just about the most daring thing he’d ever done. By the end of the day I really detested him.

When we got to the glacier we were shepherded along a short trail which took us down to the shores of the lake, and then to a view of the glacier. Even though I was trapped in tour hell I was still impressed at the vast towering cliff of ice, and the jumbled mess of icebergs in front of it. And thankfully, at this point the guides disappeared and said ‘be back at the bus in three hours’. Happy to be away from smart shoes man and the others, I had a look around the glacier.

It surprised me. I’d seen glaciers close up in Iceland, but they were nothing like as huge as this one, which pours off the South Patagonian Icefield and is one of the few advancing glaciers in the world. Most startling was the noise, an almost constant soundtrack of creaking and grinding. Clearly, something was going to fall off soon, and I was almost certain I’d be looking in the wrong direction when it did. And so it was, a couple of times, until I finally saw a huge lump of ice fall off just as I looked at a particularly precarious piece of glacier. An icy wind was blowing off the glacier, and it was raining occasionally, but later on the sun tried to break through. The weather over the icecap seemed to be improving, and the views of sunlight on the ice in the distance while we were still in gloom were pretty impressive. Not long before I had to get the bus back to El Calafate, two condors slowly glided down the glacier from over the icecap.

I had a day to kill before the next bus to El Chaltén, my next destination. I lazed around in cafes and caught up on e-mails from home, and also met an Irish air traffic controller. She was interesting as I’d never met an air traffic controller before, but also worrying because her sense of direction was so bad that she wore a compass on her wrist. “But as soon as I sit down at the controls, I know exactly where everything is”, she claimed, but I think I might avoid flying into Shannon for now.


Leaving Las Torres

Leaving Las Torres

The next day I walked 17km along the shores of Lago Nordenskiöld to get to Albergue Las Torres, my last destination of the hike. The first couple of hours saw the path rise steeply for a while, then drop down to the lake shore and a beautiful beach. I sat down and relaxed in the hot sunshine for a while. Every now and then I’d hear the roar of an avalanche on Paine Grande from behind me, followed a couple of seconds later by its echo from the mountains across the lake in front of me.

Further on I reached the Albergue Los Cuernos, and stopped for lunch. While I was there, two tiny colourful birds seemed to be having a fight, dive-bombing each other frantically by where I was sat. One of them landed about an inch away from me, squawking furiously at the other. When his opponent flew off, he sat for a moment before noticing me and flying off. After that it was a long walk under a hot sun to the Albergue Las Torres.

The next day I set off early to climb up to the base of Las Torres themselves. Still tired from the previous day’s walk, I hated the first section, known apparently to early British climbers as ‘The Slog’. It’s a relentless uphill stretch at an uncomfortable gradient, and it took me an hour to cover it. Then, all the hard work of getting to the top of the rise was undone because the path then dropped right back down to the banks of the Río Ascencio.

I stopped by the river for lunch, then pushed on. The next part of the trail followed the river for a while before climbing into the woods. I wound my way through the trees for about an hour, emerging at the bottom of a great swathe of huge boulders cutting down from a high ridge to the left. This, it soon became apparent, was the path, and I set off up, scrambling over the rocks. An exhausting 45 minutes later, I scrambled over one final huge boulder, and suddenly the towers were in front of me, soaring unbelievably into the clouds from a green icy lagoon in front of me.

I sat for a while by the shores of the lake, looking up at the tops of the granite towers, a mile and a half above me, as they appeared and disappeared within clouds. It had been a good hike to get here, but for serious mountaineers it would just be a prelude to the main objective of the towers.

Descending back down over the boulder field was treacherous, and I drew blood by falling heavily on my elbow. But from there things were easy, and I covered the ground back to the campsite more quickly than I had on the outward journey. I cooked up the last of my food, had a very weak coffee with all the grounds that I had left, and watched a beautiful sunset over the mountains. It was my last night in the park and I felt sad that the next day I wouldn’t be cursing my slightly-too-heavy pack on a wild Patagonian trail. But as I left Torres del Paine on the bus, a gale of astonishing violence starting blowing and I was happy that I’d be spending the night under a solid roof.


Middle of the W

Middle of the W

My next day was an easy one – a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possible flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep.

In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep trail, but very quickly it was high enough for the views to be amazing. Paine Grande loomed to the left, and occasional icefalls sent rumbles down the valley. Far below I could see some people hiking along to the glacier that feeds the Río Francés. The weather was perfect, with not a cloud in the sky.

Higher up, the trail levelled out and went through some forest. The trekking was not so fun without the views, but eventually I reached the campamento, and then walked a few minutes further on to a rocky outcrop above the trees. From here there were views up to the Cuernos del Paine, which seemed very close by, and down over Lagos Pehoé, Nordenskiöld and Toro far below. I’d brought my stove and sat on the rocks cooking up some lunch, listening to music and enjoying the spectacular location.

After a couple of hours there I headed back down the trail. As the sun was setting at 9pm or so, I was relaxing in my tent when there was a huge roar. I walked out to the river to see what was happening, and lots of other campers were emerging from the woods as well. The whole face of Paine Grande was obscured by a cloud of snow, and there must have been a huge avalanche from right near the top. As the cloud cleared it revealed rivers of snow pouring down the mountain which lasted for several minutes. I waited to see if there would be any more avalanches but that seemed to be the evening’s show over. In the morning I packed up and headed east, towards the Torres del Paine themselves.


Glaciar Gray

Glaciar Gray

My first day of real hiking at Torres del Paine was to take me up the left hand end of the W and back, to Glaciar Grey. Despite being among some of the wildest scenery in the world I struggled to muster up enthusiasm for the hike for a while, thick cloud and heavy drizzle encouraging me to have a relaxed breakfast first.

Luckily the rain stopped, and I set off at 12.30. The first hour’s walk took me through a fairly nondescript gully, at the end of which the path climbed up to a small windswept lake. Cresting a rise a few minutes after that, I found Lago Grey, milky white and dotted with icebergs, stretching out in front of me. The path now wound its way along side the lake but high above it, and soon I got my first view of Glaciar Grey itself, basking in the sunshine and seeming to glow from within where beams of sunlight fell on it.

The path took a detour inland for a while, and without the lake views the trekking was not too spectacular. Occasional glimpses of the towering face of the glacier provided encouragement though, and I pushed on. I bumped into two Australians I’d met the previous day, when they’d given me some wildly inaccurate information about how far I was from the campsite. We chatted briefly but I made sure not to ask them how far it was to the glacier.

As it turned out, we actually weren’t very far from it at all. At about 4 pm I reached a sign to a viewpoint, and a few minutes later I reached it. A chilling wind was blowing off the glacier and I couldn’t stay there long, but the views were pretty incredible. Though I was high above the level of the lake, I was a good way below the level of the top of the glacier.

After a while scrambling over the rocks at the viewpoint, I headed back down the trail and down another path to a mountain hut on the lake shore. I cooked up some dinner there, and as I ate I heard two enormous booms from the glacier, which must have been icebergs calving off it. As I found later at the Moreno Glacier, icebergs inevitably calve just after you’ve left, or just as you’ve turned to look at something else.

I left for the trek back to Lago Pehoé, and though I didn’t see any calving, the glacier looked incredible in the late afternoon hazy sunshine. Back at the camp, I ate a carbohydrate-laden dinner and drank some restorative coffees. 7 hours of hiking had been a good start to my week on the W.


Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine

I had an awesome day’s travelling. I was up at 4.30am, and after a quick bowl of porridge I set out into the cold morning to catch the bus to Río Grande. Various other backpacked figures were emerging into the semi-darkness from hostels along the road, and we all trooped in tired silence towards the bus stop. A blazing sunrise was starting by the time we left for Ushuaia at 5.30am, and no clouds troubled the clear blue skies until the sun was setting 16 hours later.

We stopped for breakfast at Tolhuin, on the eastern side of Tierra del Fuego, and I got a coffee and a couple of empanadas. I watched the empty plains drift by as we rolled on towards Río Grande, spotting just the occasional guanaco or two. We arrived at about 9am, and caught a bus to Punta Arenas, across the Straits of Magellan in Chile. This bus was largely occupied by a depressing group of about 20 fussy women and henpecked husbands, and as I was in a travel-snobbish mood I avoided letting any of them know I was English lest they talk to me.

As we boarded the boat to cross the straits, I realised there were two depressed young people who’d somehow ended up on the same tour as the awful group, and I chatted to them as we crossed. Their relief at a temporary escape from their nightmare travelling companions was palpable. As on the previous crossing, small black-and-white dolphins accompanied us across, leaping from the waves in groups of two or three. It was a beautiful sight in the warm sunshine.

A few hours later we were at Punta Arenas. On the way I’d had an excellent Spanish-learning experience – a bad film played too quietly for me to hear the words, but subtitled in Spanish. The outrageous predictability of the dialogue meant the subtitles were easy to get the gist of, and I learned loads. Finally, one more bus journey in the late evening brought me to Puerto Natales, access town for the Torres del Paine.

In Puerto Natales I spent a day buying up supplies for trekking. My plan was to spend six days hiking in the national park, doing the trek known as the W. An early morning bus took me from Puerto Natales to the park administration centre, passing extensive minefields along the way – a legacy of border disputes between Chile and Argentina. I was in a great mood as I left the administration centre in hot sunshine, with six days of hiking and climbing ahead of me.

My first day of trekking took me to Lago Pehoé. The walk there turned out to be probably the hardest of all that I did, as I was carrying all my food, and the scenery on the way was not particularly remarkable. A strong headwind also dampened my morale, and the hike took a lot longer than I’d hoped. Towards the end there were a number of rises, and over each one I expected to see the campsite, but each time I was disappointed. I finally got there at 5.30pm, just over six hours after I’d set off. I set up my tent for the first time on South American soil, cooked myself some dinner, and prepared myself for a hike to a glacier the following day.


The southernmost

The southernmost

The next day I hiked up into the mountains outside Ushuaia, to see the Martial Glacier. I had my first real experience of how quickly Patagonian weather can change – twenty minutes after I set out in bright sunshine, I was struggling through a blizzard. Twenty minutes later it was sunny again. A few miles up the switchback road I reached the bottom of the trail, and set out into the forest. Half an hour up, there was a small cafe at a ski-lift station, and I stopped for a coffee as the blizzard briefly returned. Then, I climbed up to a viewpoint, where there were stunning views of the Beagle Channel and Isla Navarino, under bright sun.

Heavy cloud was soon approaching rapidly, and I left the viewpoint for a quick look at the ‘glacier’. I am actually not sure whether I saw it or not – there just seemed to be a lot of snow at the top of the trail, and nothing that looked particularly glacier-like. Everyone I spoke to later who had been there agreed it was pretty rubbish, but it was still worth the trek up there for the views back down to Ushuaia and beyond.

For the next two days I was laid low with a heavy cold, probably the result of my miscalculation in not taking a hat or scarf out with me up to the Martial Glacier. I stayed in the warm hostel quite a lot, but did walk around Ushuaia. It seemed really pleasant and friendly, and my only moment of worry came when there was an anti-Bush demonstration to mark a visit by the US president to Argentina. I very much agreed with the sentiments of the demonstrators, but there were people handing out Argentine flags and I was wearing gloves with Union Jacks on them. In this part of Argentina there are signs by the road declaring that the Falkland Islands belong to Argentina so I thought I’d better hurry on by and not look too British.

Once I’d recovered from my illness, I visited Tierra del Fuego National Park. I was lucky here – the weather was great and it stayed great all day. I walked for a couple of hours along the shores of Lago Roca, reaching the border with Chile. There’s a marker that says ‘don’t go beyond here’ but nothing to stop you entering Chile illegally except a vague suspicion that there could be soldiers in the woods. It really emphasises how ridiculously arbitrary national borders are, and I put a foot across before walking back.

I really liked Ushuaia, and Tierra del Fuego, and I would happily have spent much longer there. But my time was not unlimited, and having reached the very bottom of South America, I had just under three months to make it to the Equator. It somehow seemed improbable that I would be able to get there at all from this far flung corner of the continent. There was, though, still much to see in Patagonia, and I bought a bus ticket to Puerto Natales back in Chile, from where I was going to visit one of Patagonia’s legendary sights – the Torres del Paine. The bus left at 5.30am the next morning.


Land of Fire

Land of Fire

The journey to Río Gallegos was great. It seemed amazing to be getting a bus such a long way through such wild country. After a brief stop in Trelew the endless featureless plains began and few signs of human influence could be seen. Occasional decaying car bodies by the roadside indicated what a bad place this would be to get a puncture. The only major negative was that The Motorcycle Diaries came on the bus TV, and it would have been perfect viewing, but inexplicably they turned it off after a few seconds and put on a film so dire it makes me cringe to think of it.

But the film aside, all was good. I read Ernest Shackleton’s Heart of the Antarctic, watched the bleak scenery go by, and as night fell I watched the sky fill with stars. In the morning things looked a bit colder and a bit harsher than they had the night before, and at 8.15am we arrived at Río Gallegos under heavy grey skies. I bought a ticket for the bus to Ushuaia, and left for the southern-most city in the world a few minutes later.

A strip of Chile lies between Río Gallegos and Ushuaia, and it wasn’t long until we reached the border. I accidentally broke the law here by having cheese sandwiches with me – Chile strictly prohibits ingress of dairy products, and garish notices threatened enormous fines. I’d forgotten I had the sandwiches until I was safely through, which was lucky – I’m sure I’d have given myself away had I known I was being a cheese mule. Soon we reached Punta Delgado on the Straits of Magellan, where we took a ferry to Tierra del Fuego. The deep green waters of the straits were filled with small black-and-white dolphins, which followed us across, leaping from the waves.

Half an hour later we were on Tierra del Fuego – the wild end of a wild region. We drove on to Río Grande, where we had to get off the bus for a while. The wait there was enlivened when two alsations stole a Frenchman’s waterproof coat and ran off with it. And then it was the final leg to Ushuaia, which took us from the flat plains of eastern Tierra del Fuego into the mountainous western half. The change was abrupt – suddenly the horizon was full of Andean peaks. The grey skies got thicker and gloomier, and as we approached the mountains rain was hammering down. We arrived at Ushuaia at about 8.30pm, and in fading daylight and heavy rain I walked to the youth hostel.


Into Patagonia

Into Patagonia

The next day I bought a ticket to Puerto Madryn, about 700 miles south of Buenos Aires and one of the largest towns in Patagonia – a name so evocative of wild mountains, glaciers, winds and rain that I found the thought of large towns there quite strange.

So I headed up to Retiro bus station for the last time, and left the homely surrounds of Buenos Aires for parts unknown. On my journey around the ‘guays I’d only taken a small pack of stuff but now I was carrying everything I’d brought for the first time. I really had only brought essential stuff but the weight and bulk of my pack were pretty considerable, and my hiking pole hanging off the side was a danger to passers-by, but I got to the bus station without maiming anyone.

The Puerto Madryn bus which pulled in first was huge and luxurious, and I feared a repeat of my journey to Asunción, but this time the big bus was mine. I slept pretty well on the way down, only waking at one point to see a sky stunningly full of stars. When I woke in the morning I was in Patagonia. What a great place to be! Endless flat grassy plains extended away as far as I could see, with no sign of human influence beyond the road. Eventually, Puerto Madryn appeared out of the mesmeric plains and we arrived there at 2pm. It was a cool, sunny, windy day.

This part of Patagonia attracted immigrants from Wales in the 1800s, and it’s strange to see places with names like Trelew, Rawson and Trevelyn on a map of South America. Nearby Trelew was hosting its annual Eisteddfod while I was in Madryn. Madryn itself today isn’t very Welsh, though it has streets with names like Calle Jones and Avenida Williams, and the occasional Welsh flag flies.

I hired a bike to cycle to a nearby sea lion colony, Punta Loma. The colony was 17km away, not really far at all, and before I had left for South America I’d competed in a 12-hour overnight cycle race on forest tracks so I felt easily up to this. However, I faced three serious problems. First, a continuous strong wind was blowing against me; second, after a few kilometres of tarmac the road became a sandy track; and third, even the largest bike I could hire was far too small. I suspect I cut a ridiculous figure as I pedalled through the sand slightly slower than walking pace, a determined expression on my face, almost kneeing myself in the forehead each time I pushed the pedals.

It took me two hours to get to Punta Loma, and I was exhausted by the time I made it there. But it was impressive – a huge colony of sea lions, grunting and honking as they lay on the beach. There must have been a hundred of them. As I watched, the tide was coming in, and the animals were heading out for a swim. More and more of them dragged their massive frames up off the beach and into the sea, and once they were in it was astonishing to see how quick and agile they were. On land, they looked like everything was a struggle, but in the water they raced about.

As the incoming tide encouraged the last few sea lions to get off their arses and go out swimming, I decided it was time to head back to Madryn. The journey back was far more fun, with a tailwind propelling me through the thick sand a little bit faster than walking pace. I listened to some music as I rode, tried to pretend I didn’t look preposterous, and made it back in about half the time my outward journey had taken, even with a brief stop at a secluded beach called Playa Paraná where a rusting shipwreck lay just off shore.

The next day, it was time to push on south, to Ushuaia – the southern-most city in the world. I was having a good Spanish day, and successfully found out how to get to Ushuaia, worked out which company was going soonest, bought a ticket and had a little chat with the person selling it, and I even managed to give my Spanish a bit of an Argentinian accent. I hit such form only rarely during my journey, and left Madryn in a good mood on a bus that would be my home for 18 hours as it rumbled another 600 miles further south to Río Gallegos, near the southern tip of mainland South America.