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Picturesque Patagonia

Hiking in front of the granite pillars of Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, cruising through the fjords with Minke whales and summiting the active Villarrica volcano.

sunny 25 °C

Handing in the keys to our BA home for the past month is sad, we´ve loved our spot on the 20th floor right in the middle of it all, but we´re also excited about getting into the Patagonian countryside.

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It´s just a 10min taxi ride to the domestic airport and we wizz through old fashioned light touch security controls (no little bags for liquids here) and board our flight to El Calafate. The guy sat next to me is an elderly Argentino who is a retired cyclist (who had raced in NZ) who grew up in El Calafate and is visiting his family who still live down there. He´s really chatty and doesn´t seem to mind that my spanish is rather stilted...When we start getting clear views of the Andes and lots of bright blue lakes he´s almost as excited as us - apparently we´re very lucky as there is normally a lot of cloud surrounding the mountain tops. Mt Fitz Roy is instantly recognisable, standing proud with it´s sheer granite walls absent of snow and ice.

The weather is definately on our side and we land at 6pm to 18 degrees, blue sky and only a gentle breeze! M heads through to see if he can sort us out a hire car while I collect our bags. We´re in luck and drive off in a brand new VW ´Gol´. [Although it´s rather pricier than a similar hire would be in the UK, and with much steeper excesses - especially if you roll the car, which is surprisingly common with the high winds here, so we´ll try to avoid that...]

We check our bags into Hostal Buenos Aires [he he] and head out for an evening drive. The gravel road is slow going, but the views are great! Snowy mountains, glaciers and lakes - perfect. I spot some people picking berries on the roadside - must be the calafate berry. The saying goes that 'once you eat calafate berries you'll be back'. At our next photo stop I spot a bush and we do some sampling - when you get a juicy ripe berry they sure are good!

We watch the sun set behind the mountains and head back to the hostel for a good nights kip.

Next morning, following a gorgeous drive to El Chalten we get the low down on the hiking in the region, pick up a map and some empanadas and set out to Laguna Torre.

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The walk is undulating through stands of ragged beech trees and scrubby, rocky plains with plenty of viewpoints of the striking three peaks of Cerro Torre (3102m), Aguja Egger (2990m) and Cerro Standhardt (2800m) and glacier Torre. We drink from a clear, cold, spring-fed river - deliciously pure and so refeshing in the heat of the day!

Our lunch is eaten here....not bad eh?!

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The camping spot is just beautiful, and we are now wishing that we'd hired camping gear and were spending the night. But we're staying at a hostel back in town so start the hike back.

Three hours of driving and six of hiking have used up our energy, so we treat ourselves to dinner out. Estepa is a guide book recommendation, but we're surprised when it is empty at 9pm...it seems that even in trekking country late dinners are the norm. M starts with a rather strong local beer while I order a bottle of malbec. We both go for the lamb in calafate berry jus, which turns out to be a great choice - succulent lamb chops and a steak accompanied by a dark purple sauce that compliments the lamb perfectly. It's served with great accompaniments and is getting very close to being Michelin star standard. Oh and the malbec is rather tasty too :)

Our hostel turns out to be rather chaotic and noisy, but luckily we're sharing with two very nice people who also want a good night's sleep...

I'm up early and head to the tiny kitchen to rustle up some pasta and hard boiled eggs to sustain us through the day's trek ahead. There are no matches for the gas cooker so I head to reception and get given a flaming metal stick which creats quite a stir as I walk through the common area full of sleepy travellers with their morning coffee! M turns up just as I finish (timing being a strong point...) and we grab some breakfast. We're then told that we have to change rooms, so bags are quickly packed, put back into storage and we head out onto the trail.

The sky is once again clear and blue and the day warms quickly. The trail is a little longer than yesterday's with a steep last 90 minutes to get to Laguna de los Tres and the famous views of Mt Fitz Roy. It was a challenge, but we are raring to go :)

It takes us 5 1/2 hours, with plenty of stops to take in the views, observe a woodpecker with a vivid red tuft (he was a bit of a dandy, as you can see) and drink more cold fresh mountain spring water (better than anything you could get out of a bottle!). And the final views of Mt Fitz Roy are awesome!!

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We linger, watching the tiny black dots that are climbers head up through the snow and ice and wonder which peaks they will head to.
The path down is tough - I've always found steep downhills harder than the climb up - but we are entertained by two Andean Condors playing in the afternoon thermals. I wish that I could use the thermals to float down!

We both agree that while the two day hikes have been fantastic, having a small, light tent and the necessary camping gear would have been even better as the campsites were so beautiful, the weather fantastic, and then you could do the walk as a 3 day loop - which would be much easier too.

A small detour to a nearby waterfall is made for dinner, and then we head back to the hostel to find our room, shower and flop into bed. Unfortunately our plans are scuppered by the two Israeli girls we are sharing with who keep the light on, gossip, and straighten their hair until 1am, then come back at 3am, turn the light on again, leave the room, come back...Ahhhrrr!! We get up at 5am and leave with no lights and minimal sound to show them how travellers should behave...

We head back to El Calafate taking in the sunrise and the morning light hitting Mt Fitz Roy. Birds of prey pick over carrion on the road and we disturb foxes sunning themselves on the tarmac.

In town we fill the thermos, grab a bag of croissants and head straight to Glacier Perito Moreno. The viewpoints along the way are pretty, but it is once we reach the walkway facing the glacier that we are 'wowwed' by the height, enormity and beauty of this very grand glacier.
We spend a lot of time watching out for chunks of ice to crash into the lake, wandering around the paths admiring the collosal ice wall and beautiful aquamarine blue of the freshly cut ice and listerning to the glacier creak and groan. Man can she be noisy!!

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All of this after our lack of sleep last night leads us to stop in a picnic spot to take a brief siesta in the car...Apparently this is the thing to do - every other car seems to be full of snoozing Argentinos!

8am the next day and we're on a bus to Puerto Natales in Chile. We get chatting to Alex and Anna (two Brits who live in Clapham Junction - barely 2 miles from where we were in Southfields) who are also booked on the Navimag cruise through the Chilean Fjords north to Puerto Montt.

We get some views of the stunning Torres del Pain mountain range from the bus and from the port area of Puerto Natales. Even though the mountain tops are covered in cloud they still envoke a sense of drama.

We buy wine, fruit and snacks for the cruise and check in at the posh hotel on the waterfront while we wait for our ship to arrive and be cleaned. Check-in has been moved to midnight and so as soon as we're onboard we tuck ourselves up into the cosy, curtained bunks and are asleep by 1am.

Sailing out of Puerto Natales we are surrounded by stark granite hills, narrow channels, Andean peaks and glaciers. Soon the moody clouds clear to reveal a bright hot sun. And while enjoing a few rays we spot our first whale spraying it's fountain of water, only 200m from our boat!

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At breakfast, we meet Geannie and Dean, who are on their second date no less! They are an American pair with rather alternative lifestyles (she's a tour america guide, he's a marine biologist who works on a research ship), hence meeting for only the second time in Chile for a 5 week date. We figure that the fact that they keep disappearing means things are going well ;-) Appropriately for a cruise in this part of the world, we finish the day watching "March of the Penguins" on the large screen.

Morning call for Puerto Eden wakes me and I jump out of my bunk to see this colourful little village of only 172 inhabitants. M is close behind me and we enjoy a peaceful moment in the Captain's bridge as the ship navigates some narrow channels.

We see a lot more minke whales today as the channels open up. They are in small pods and sometimes we can see 4 or 5 pods at once. One pod comes super close to the ship and we watch one do a barrel roll at the ships bow - Wow! We also love watching the sea lions as they jump over the waves and dive through the clean blue waters. They are so playful! And as we approach a wreck the sunlight streams down in a god-like moment and there are flocks of many kinds of sea birds all circling around the rusted masts.

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Before we know it we're out at sea rolling on the swell. It's not at all rough, but lots of tummies are getting wobbly...I'm fine with my ginger tea, but I manage to score the last sea sickness tablet from behind the bar for M as soon as I spot him turning green. We watch a documentary on South Georgia and by then the tablet has taken effect and we pass out.

Next day, the morning's view from the Captain's Bridge is of mist rising from the fjords, filling the valleys and blanketing the mountains.

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A chilly wind takes us into the bar where we meet Christel and Joost (a Dutch couple who have just spent 3 months driving around Africa in a 4x4). So as the sun comes out again we have quite a gang together on the back deck devouring the booze we've all bought on board.
Tonight's entertainment is Bingo, with prizes of wine, 'Navimag' fleeces and shot glasses. Christel and Joost come up trumps with wine and a rather fetching fleece. The rest of us are well entertained losers who get to share the wine - Cheers!

Hangovers mist our early start to disembark in Puerto Montt. A much more plesant mist is lifting from the port with bright sunshine sparkling through - beautiful.

We all went for an amusing walk along the promenade - loving the 'outdoor gym'/adult playground (or at least that's what Geannie and Dean tried to turn it into...). And then we headed onto Puerto Varas along with Anna and Alex.

After checking into our hostel we head to a Rodeo that's in town. A rather lengthly detour on the bus later we arrive to this oddball show. There's no lassoing, or barrel racing here. Just two horses at a time hearding a steer around the track and then slamming it into a cushioned part of the coral. Hmmm, while I could see that this required a lot of skill from both the gouchos and the horses it was not my cup of tea. And neither was it M's. Despite being a fair distance away from the horses, the dust swirling in the air set his allergies off and soon we are hitching a ride to get a swollen faced M back to the hostel and under the shower.

Moving onto Villarrica we catch a glimpse of an international triathalon (which leaves M pining) and then stumble across Chile's version of a country fair. Asados of whole lambs, locally produced cheeses, fruits and baked goodies, plus lads that were only too pleased to give me a rather enormous glass of wine. We watch a traditional game called 'Pallin' which is a little like hockey, but on a very narrow pitch and bought some honey shampoo and lip balm. Then we head back to our comfy family run B&B for the best night's sleep :) Breakfast is a really social affair with all the Chilean and Argentinian tourists giving us tips around the big breakfast table - and with cake coming at the end it feels more like a dinner party!

Pucon is our next stop and a random hostel finds us with a guy approaching us outside the information centre. His private room is the same price as a dorm and while it's a tad rustic, we decide to stay. We want to climb Volcan Villarrica, but wake to a storm so decide that hot springs are a much better choice. We arrive at 'Los Pozones' in the middle of a torrential downpour, so despite wearing all our wet weather gear we start out cold and wet. So the soothing warm waters are even more welcome to warm us through. We get chatting to Darren and Deborah, a couple from Yorkshire who are also heading to New Zealand. See you guys there :) And then, after a false start (who would have thought there were two tourist information offices in one town) we meet up with Cristel and Joost at an Italian restaurant for a yummy meal.
The forecast for Volcan Villarrica is getting better, but it's recommended that we wait one more day for the best conditions. So off we head to Huerquehue National Park instead. The park is beautiful, with mist rising off the peaty lakes, dense forest with monkey puzzle trees standing tall and the clouds parting to give us a glimpse of the volcano.

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We're up at 5:45am to prep for our climb. Porridge for breakky, thermos full of tea, sandwiches and snacks packed and we head into town to Summit Chile, the company who will get us to the top. We meet Claudio, our Swiss trained mountain guide, Chris, the assistant guide, and the rest of our group; Kathleen and Emily - sisters from Florida, and Stephan - from Austria. On goes the gear - gaters, windproof pants and jacket. Our packs hold crampons, ice axe, mittens, plastic and material as protectors for our descent and hard hats.

A short drive to the base of the volcano and then a brief ascent on an old rickety ski lift gets us started. Claudio gives us a briefing on how to climb - Frankenstien steps, two points of contact for every step, and how to use our ice axe - and then we're off. The first section is rocky but soon we're on icy snow. Claudio stops us and we get our crampons out. Our next lesson is on how to walk wearing crampons - 'cowboy steps' this time. With the crampons on there is no sliding around and we can safely take a steeper route than the other groups, which we steadily overtake.

While most of the time we are concentrating on the simplest of tasks - putting one foot in front of the other - every now and then we look out at the view. Wow!

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Finally we reach the top and go check out the crater. It is steaming away, throwing out noxious fumes, but unfortunately no lava (recently this has become a rare event).

Sliding down the volcano on our butts makes the descent a highlight! It sure beats trudging down :) We'll be looking out for snowy mountains/volcanoes to climb and slide down from here on in!

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And we were really pleased that we did the climb with Summit Chile - Claudio was a very professional guide, where elsewhere there looked to be a lot of cowboys. And we learnt a thing or two too!

Back in Pucon, we drink a well earnt beer on the pumping lakeside beach with Kathleen and Emily. Chris soon joins us and the beach volleyball tournament is entered, and won! Great work chicos! Emily and Kathleen have a rule that if you go to a lake (or anything else watery) you HAVE to go in - so off they go with M in tow. I decide to stay dry, guard our gear and take photos...

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Later that night, which is very clear, we manage to see the red glow of the volcano through the smoke and steam above the crater from our hostel window in the dark, very cool!

Next day we catch the bus from Pucon to San Martin de los Andes in Argentina. It is a beautiful ride through lush, rugged scenery which changes to become much more arid once we hit Argentina. On the border we have amazing views of Volcan Lanin, another text book volcano.

Arriving at San Martin we find a hostel a couple of blocks from the lakefront and head straight down to catch the last hour of sun on the beach. Lago Lacar is steep sided and is picturesquely surrounded by craggy Andean foothils.

It happens that we have stumbled upon San Martin's national day and there are parades through town celebrating the local services, polo teams, gauchos and other local groups. And amongst all the activities, there is even a triathlon too. That evening, we decide to head out to the Chapelco Golf Club for a picnic and an evening of classical music. Very civilised!

We hitchhike back and are immediately picked up by Rachel, Isaias and Judit who offer to take us to see their father's art gallery. This is one artistic family! As well as the father's amazing oil paintings with their thick texture and wonderful colours created with a palatte knife (for a look go to www.georg.com), the children are all talented too. Isaia's photography is stunning and the other brothers and sisters are painters, potters, designers... And some of this great work is housed in a stunning custom built gallery of four levels on the edge of the national park. And as if painting was not enough, we are even entertained as we browse by the father playing his grand piano! Once our eyes have stopped popping out, Isaias drops us off in town and we head back to our hostel via a serving of Mamusia's helado - yum!
We opt to take the bus to Bariloche that goes via the seven lakes route. Ash from Volcan Puyehue in Chile is in the air and has settled thickly, floating on the surface of some of the lakes and changing the feel of this area.

We want to head straight out and get trekking, but we need sleeping bags to stay warm in the refugios, and the one shop that rents these is closed. So we find a hotel and head out for a yummy steak dinner - being delayed isn't so bad.

Next morning I pop out to hire some bulky, old fashioned sleeping bags and we grab food for lunches and snacks. Trekking permit issued and we're ready to go...only the bus takes pre-bought tickets only and while it waits for me to run across the road, they are out and it won't wait any longer...so we have two hours to kill until the next one comes along. Time to sort out our flights to Bogota.

Back in BA our friend Carlos has some of our stuff and is holidaying a little longer than originally planned, so we're having to rework our schedule...return flights to Iguassu are $900 for the pair of us...a bit too steep for a waterfall we figure, even a really big waterfall. Instead we find flights from Montevideo, to Bogata via BA for $200 less than the very same flight from BA. It doesn't make sense, but we book it anyway.

Back at the bus stop we see a pretty blond lady who looks a lot like Emily - and is Emily! So it works that we got the later bus in the end anyway. Emily joins us on our hike to Refugio Lopez :-) She's just doing a day walk though and so heads back down the hill after we find a beautiful viewpoint and a stream to dangle our feet in.

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Up at the refugio we have great views to sip red wine and watch the sunset from. Bliss.

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Next is the tough day of the hike with two steep climbs, one very steep descent and some bouldering (a surprise addition to finish the day off). As we work our way up to the first ridge it is calm and sunny, but as we approach the top the wind sweeps powerfully over the ridge, so we keep ourselves low to the ground until we have dropped a safe distance over the other side. We had been told that this is the most dangerous part of the hike and we zig-zag down the steep scree slope carefully. At the base we are greated by a tranquil valley full of pretty little streams and only two people hiking the other way. The last ridge we have to cross would be easy in calm weather, but the strong winds that Patagonia can get make it slow and treacherous going. We can now see Refugio Italiana on the far side of Laguna Negro, it looks deceivingly close, but it takes another hour to scramble and boulder our way around the steep sides of the Laguna while the wind whips the lake into white caps and tries to soak us from below. Hot tea inside the refugio never tasted so good!

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Our hike out in the morning is down the mountainside and then along a river - easy :) While waiting for the bus some Argentinian tourists pull over and ask if we know the way back into Bariloche. We do and want to go there too, so get a ride into town in exchange for giving directions. Then it's back to the hotel to pick up our stuff, and the next thing we know is we're on a 21hr, $US180, bus ride back to Buenos Aires. But the big comfy cama seats make it alright.

Posted by DebandMatt 03:29 Archived in Argentina Tagged mountains sea hiking fjords whales chile argentina lions patagonia villarrica navimag

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