… (and getting to the end of the world)
05 November to 05 December 2010
Chile and Argentina have some of the best scenery in South America but the biggest draw for travellers and trekkers alike is the Lake District and Patagonia. After arriving in Santiago, we headed north to the pleasant port town of Valparisio am then crossed the border into Argentina to explore the wine region of Mendoza. For Kirsty this meant a tour of some of the local wineries, for me it meant drinking as much cheap plonk as I could lay my hands on (I have been on previous tours in other counties and found them as dull as dishwater – let’s me honest, who actually cares where the stuff comes from?).

Santiago Chile 7Santiago

Valparaiso Chile 3Valparaiso

Mendoza Argentina 2Mendoza

Canon del Atuel San Rafael Argentina 23Canon del Atuel San Rafael

Canon del Atuel San Rafael Argentina 28Canon del Atuel San Rafael

It was upon purchasing our ticket to leave Mendoza and head south that it hit home how great the distances are in this part of the world. The bus to Bariloche, gateway to the Lake District, was to take 21 hours. OK we thought, not too bad given that you do this in a very comfortable bus with seats that recline to almost flat (*) and you get to cover a lot of ground in one hit, so we went for it and booked our ticket. In fact this ended up being one of the shortest distances we did. Our record was 37 hours and we met several people who were hitting the 50 hour mark. Why do it you may ask, but the fact is there is bugger all except for grassland, cows, sheep and mountains between towns of any size so there is little option unless you fly.

Our second shock of the day was the expense of said bus tickets. A twenty hour journey will set you back about £75 per ticket. Having been here for nearly a month now, we have sort of got used to (but not happy about) these sort of prices but having come from Asia (and indeed the UK where National Express charge between £1 and £6 for a ticket from Southampton to London – God bless ’em) where you can live for a week on a similar amount, this came as a real kick in the knackers to begin with.

Anyway, we eventually get to the Lake District, which is exactly what it says on the tin; loads of stunningly blue lakes that you can either walk around, drive too or cycle. We did a bit of all three and to expand on the title of this piece, when we walked and rented a car the weather was brilliant but when we hired bikes it was dull and overcast and in this part of the world it’s the weather that makes or breaks a nice day out. You may think I am exaggerating but ask anyone who has been here and I am sure they will say the same thing. This part of the world is very exposed and it’s not unusual to get blue skies one minute and howling rain and wind the next and even though we are coming into summer down here, you still need a fleece, coat and hat for most of the day.

Lago Nahuel Huapi Bariloche Argentina 11Lago Nahuel Huapi Bariloche

Parcque Nacional Nahuel Huapi Bariloche Argentina 24Parcque Nacional Nahuel Huapi Bariloche

Parcque Nacional Nahuel Huapi Bariloche Argentina 32Parcque Nacional Nahuel Huapi Bariloche

Also, going back to the expense of the region, it’s necessary to take a lot of tours in this part of the world to see the things of interest and they are not cheap. If the weather is good then it is money well spent, if it’s a howler then simply put, it’s a pisser and a right waste of money. For example, we went as independently as we could to see the world-famous Perito Moreno Glacier (near El Calafate) and it chucked it down all day. The whole thing cost us £100 and we spent six hours sitting in the cafe hoping for a break in the weather and 45 minutes out at the glacier getting soaking wet and frozen to death. The glacier didn’t look any way as impressive as it should have ad we were very disappointed. The days before and after were cloudy but sunny.

But every cloud and all that…. when we visited Torres del Paine national park, probably the biggest attraction in Patagonia we couldn’t have asked for a better day, the sky was perfect blue, there was hardly any wind (‘hardly’ is as good as it gets, there is always some kind of wind in Patagonia) and the trail was dry and the famous Towers (see enclosed pics) looked incredible. The following day it hacked down all day. This excursion also set us back about £100 but was worth every penny. Like I say, it’s all about the weather!

Laguna de los Tres trek Parque Nacional Los Glaciares El Chalten Argentina 46El Chalten

Laguna de los Tres trek Parque Nacional Los Glaciares El Chalten Argentina 20El Chalten

Mirador Torres trek Torres del Paine National Park Argentina 40Torres del Paine National Park

Mirador Torres trek Torres del Paine National Park Argentina 27Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine National Park Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine National Park Torres del Paine National Park

We have enjoyed the national parks and done some great day walks (no treks though, for the time being at least I sticking to my retirement plan) and are now on our way to Ushuaia, which literally lies at the end of the road. This is as far south as the road goes on earth and although the original plan was to look for a cheap cruise to the Antarctica, we have shelved this idea in favor of a bit of pre-planning in order to get some semi reasonable flights to onward destinations (Columbia, Los Angeles and the Philippines but that’s another blog).

Next stop; the end of the world.

Otway penguin colony Punta Arenas Chile 20Otway penguin colony Punta Arenas

The Beagle Channel Ushuaia Argentina 18The Beagle Channel Ushuaia

Ushuaia Argentina 4Ushuaia

Martial glacier Ushuaia Argentina 16Martial glacier Ushuai

Martial glacier Ushuaia Argentina 22Martial glacier Ushuaia

(*) the seats are very comfortable and are not dissimilar to the old fashion business class seats you used to get on flights before flat beds were introduced.

A quickie about the hostels; basically they are all fantastic and work out great value at about £10 per person a night. They are all very sociable, clean, have kitchens, free wi-fi and include breakfast. The one in Mendoza (the wine making region) even included free wine! Often or not we are in bunk beds and the only downer is that they don’t have side bars or a ladder. It is not surprising then that, given I haven’t slept in bunk beds since I was about five, I fell out of the top bunk one night and bloody well hurt myself! It wasn’t in the hostel that gave away free wine but I must confess I had imbibed a couple that night…

A quickie about our fellow travelers; all in all a great bunch of lads. It’s expensive down here so the region doesn’t attract the ‘types’ that sit around all day, smoking dope and sleeping. Lots of Aussies and Brits and a surprising number of Irish plus lots of Argentinians and Chileans who seem to love the outdoors and are very polite and friendly.

A quickie about the food; Basically Thailand it ain’t. If you like eating pizza, steak, fried chicken and fries everyday (with ‘everyday’ being the key word) then you will be in your element but if this is not your bag then you either have to go to expensive restaurants where the quality and variety is better or cook for yourself. By default (given our money is disappearing at a more than alarming rate) we have opted for the later. So our daily routine always includes at least one visit to the supermarket and although we began by getting by on pasta and other simple dishes, over time we have got more and more inventive (**) and Kirsty is even thinking of writing an App on healthy and inventive hostel meals! The kitchens can get busy, especially around 9-10 pm when the Latinos start to cook (***), but they are social places and a good place for picking up ideas for the App. We have eaten out twice and joined the hostel BBQ once since arriving in South America and Kirsty reckons she hasn’t cooked so much since leaving the UK two years ago. No prizes for guessing what are the bargains at the supermarket – half a cow costs about £4 and a good bottle of red (Malbec) will set you back £2 but a man can’t live on steak and wine alone (or can he?????).

(**) I say we, but we all know I just hold the basket, choose the booze and do the washing up and that all the culinary delights are down to Kirsty.

(***) don’t get me started on this. I am no northern monkey and like to eat reasonably late but many people don’t sit down to eat until 11pm which is nuts in my mind. The Chileans and in particular the Argies have well and truly adopted this most annoying of Spanish habits. As it is (and don’t ask me how) we don’t end eating much before 10pm most nights.

And how is the Spanish coming on you may ask? Terrible would be the honest answer. Too many Gringos in the hostels and staff that speak good English.

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