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Pottering down to Patagonia


Richard and I had been meandering through the Lake District for months, when we found ourselves on the brink of Patagonia and knew we were dawdling.  Bariloche, Argentina, is a chocolate-scented Alpine chalet of a town, where we spent several days distracted by the anxiety of planning.

Relying on public transport to travel around Patagonia, we’d quickly realised, was near impossible.  And impossible to go the way we would have wanted to go, or the way that would seem most logical, or convenient, or cheap or easy.  We worked through at least three potential routes before landing back at the original one.  We contemplated renting a car, expense be damned, and doing it the easy way.  Then it occurred to us that none of this was supposed to be easy.  The journey was our destination.

So we hopped a southbound bus to the unremarkable town of Esquel.  Patagonia, as expectations would have it, was vast, sparsely populated and face-numbingly windy.  After the gentle prettiness of the Lake District, it was a shock to the system.  Esquel, sitting at the bleak foot of looming mountains, seemed unexciting to our then high standards.

We spent a day visiting nearby Trevelín, a tiny town built by Welsh settlers some 150 years ago, and now mostly only Welsh in its charming teashops. Charming, but mercilessly generous – ignoring our request for just two cups of tea, our groaning table was loaded with piles of homemade breads, scones, jams, and two slices each of five different varieties of cake.

Still full-bellied the next morning, we made for the Chilean border, when our first bus breakdown in over four months of travelling left us stranded a few hundred metres short of the border.  Growing tired of waiting for the promised replacement, we finally gave in to a gleeful pair of opportunists who bundled us into their minivan and brought us to the Chilean village of Futaleufú.

Futaleufú

Tiny Futaleufú – though nestled in idyllic scenery amongst more snow-capped mountains than you can shake a ski-pole at – was unfortunately also achingly dull. The ever-present “open” sign in shop and restaurant windows was an ever-present lie. The plaza was deserted, traffic was scarce, and townsfolk stared out of their windows at us as we passed by. Which we did often, because we were desperately bored, and pacing the blocks seemed the only way to pass the time.  That, and pestering the old lady in the little shop that sells bric-a-brac and bus tickets for a way out of there.

Having no option but to make for the only road passing through those parts and await buses going down it, we managed to catch another van north to the slightly larger – but still oddly quiet and rather depressing – Chaitén, where we arrived the next day and yet again were lumbered with an afternoon to kill.  The most entertaining thing about Chaitén is the sheer lack of entertainment.  A weather-worn Canadian introduces himself to strangers and whispers praise of the area’s misty hills, while the streets prove perfect for amateur remakes of post-apocalyptic films of the “where is everyone?” variety.  I started to fear for our sanities.

Salvation came in the form of a bus leaving the next morning, finally to Coyhaique along the Carretera Austral, the unkempt road that had itself been the aim of that particular detour through Chile.  And it was visually delicious, with soaring peaks stretching into the distance, coated in dense forests.  It was a long journey, but wouldn’t have seemed so if it hadn’t been for our fellow passengers.  It dawned on us we had unknowingly hitched a ride with an elderly tour group, who liked to stop often for photos, food, a rest, the toilet, and at one point, a roadside spring, which apparently provided endless amusement as they stood around cheerfully filling up 5-litre bottles of natural mineral water to show off to the folks back home.  Meanwhile we and two other backpackers sat quietly at the back of the bus, trying hard to maintain our last shreds of patience – but softening somewhat when a pot of sausages was passed around.  Finally, thirteen hours later, I awoke to the triumphant cries of Bonnie Tyler on their radio, and the glorious lights of Coyhaique appearing out of the undulating darkness.

And in Coyhaique we found sleep, traffic, noise, and civilisation – all unexpectedly wonderful. Knowing by now to investigate in advance, we soon discovered that the ferry we wanted to take across the lake General Carrera, toward Argentina, was more erratic than we’d hoped.  There was a late ferry that evening… and there was another one in a week’s time.  Suddenly panicking, we ran back to our hostel to pack up and check out – a flurry of apologies to the sweet hostess who had lit our fire and served us breakfast like a doting grandmother – and hurried into the slick backseat of the taxi heading for the ferry port.  We tried to relax as the long, rough ride was spent in a cabin with a group of Chilean businessmen watching Lord of the Rings on someone’s laptop.

Then in the chilly middle of the night, unloaded at another border town, Chile Chico, we found no energy to refuse the inevitable eager local offering a lift in his pick-up truck and a cheap hostel room with breakfast.  Picked up in the town’s circulating Argentina-bound van early the next morning, we never did find out what Chile Chico actually looks like.

From the other side of the border, we braved sixteen hours on a bus to the transport hub of Rio Gallegos, on the Atlantic coast in the east, before spending another five hours on a bus the next morning heading back west.  It was geographically illogical but such is traversing Patagonia, and all we could do was edge our way south for as long as it took.

Patagonian plains

Meanwhile, through bus windows, the drama of the Andes had faded into endless flat Patagonian plains.  Land and sky were suddenly vast; the horizon a stark boundary.  It sounds dull but was incredible, driving so far for so long, and yet days later, everything still looked exactly the same.  There is an uncompromising stillness about Patagonia, an absolute calm that pervades your state of mind.  It is as if time and distance are meaningless there.  Which is not very practical for travelling on a schedule, but accepting the challenge means doing so on its terms.  We had to stop caring about such trivialities as time and distance.

We had already crossed the Chile-Argentina border twice and were faced with a few times more, severely restricted by roads and buses, neither of which occurred with much frequency in Patagonia.  I was exhausted, had taken a long distance bus every day for over a week, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had taken a shower.  But it wasn’t rest or comfort we had come for.  We were in El Calafate near the unique Glaciers National Park, where we could at least pause for a while, in the company of countless huge chunks of ice.

We splashed out on a two-day glacier tour extravaganza, first a short hike to the famous Perito Moreno, then taking a rather luxurious catamaran through iceberg-filled lakes to visit another five.  While the Perito Moreno was impressive, the Spegazzini – tallest in the park and surging over rocky hills – was unimaginably beautiful.  It shimmered and calved, pristine white and baby blue, while we stood on the deck of the boat so close to it that we were frozen by its cold and our awe.  The violence of the calving was exhilarating: as you see the rush of ice dust pour down from above you know it’s about to happen, then a boulder of ice glides off the glacier face and a second later you hear the roar.  Then it tumbles down and disappears in a cloud of spray and drama, before the rising wave works its way outward and you’re convinced you’re about to capsize. (Then while the boat sways gently, you start to feel a little embarrassed for screaming in fear.)

Though reluctant to leave the glaciers, we pushed ourselves on into Chile once more, for the town of Puerto Natales, popular starting point for treks to the Torres del Paine national park.  Feeling a little apprehensive, as it was the first trek we had done on our own – no expensive tour operator with porters to pitch our tent and chefs to cook our meals. I had a vague suspicion I once swore never to do it, but travelling-induced delirium must have set in as I found myself with a hostel room filled with camping equipment, and a very excited Richard poring over trail maps.

We did, of course, survive the trek just fine.  The park was stunning, filled with jagged rocky peaks and perfectly aquamarine lakes, all of it ruggedly Patagonian.  Trekking on our own meant we got up late, ambled along at our own pace, and found ourselves stopping often to admire the view. But on the flip side, tired from clambering through rough terrain all day, we then had to force ourselves on long enough to pitch a tent and cook a meal.

Torres del Paine

We spent four days feeling slightly hungry, drinking river water (refreshingly ice cold, logically enough as it was streaming straight off mountain-top glaciers), eating crunchy rice and denying ourselves tea out of terror of running out of gas.  The cold was relentless, and whistled through the forests despite the bright sunshine, then crept into our tents every sleepless night.  Thankfully, fires were allowed at the first night’s campsite, and in an inspired moment of resourcefulness, Richard burned our trail map and started an impressive blaze that, for one evening at least, warmed us up, made us tea, and filled a hot water bottle.

We returned to civilisation refreshed from our days in the wild, but unexpectedly grateful for modernities like beds and plumbing.  Then, we went on to take a long, slow bus ride to the end of the world.  Or so Ushuaia’s ridiculous gimmick would have us believe. Capital of the Argentine island of Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia proudly declares itself the southernmost city in the world.  It wears thin after a while, but often made us laugh; we had a few good cups of coffee at a cafe with “Enjoy; it’s the end of the world” printed on all their napkins.  We also felt surrounded by “southernmost [insert otherwise uninteresting entity] in the world!” signs.  Actually there’s a naval settlement called Puerto Williams that’s just slightly further south, but no one speaks its name around these parts.

Ushuaia does feel like the edge of it all, in that way that has desolate mountains on one side, and an ominous stretch of ocean on the other. Far from needing a gimmick, it is a welcoming town, and a pleasant place to spend some time. Which was fortunate, because we arrived only to find we couldn’t leave.  Buses to the mainland ran every day, but they were fully booked for a week. Flights were expensive but they were full too.  As I’m learning the hard way, travelling means flowing with the possibilities, and sometimes finding yourself at the end of the world with no way back again.

Much more by Lisa on her very excellent blog.

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