Sunday, 17 February 2013

Tales from Argentina: a Patagonian jaunt ©

Most people have heard of this ethereal and beautiful land but how many people know exactly where it is? Given that I know a few people who think that Argentina lies roughly in the region of Greece and Turkey, I suspect it is probably not common knowledge that Patagonia lies in the bottom third of this diverse and quite huge country! Having been lucky enough to travel around this area (three times the size of Britain) in 2004 and 2009, I feel I’m in a good position to give an honest account of the life and places of this land and convince you to throw caution to wind and give it a try! Adventure awaits you…
Patagonia is triangle-shaped like Argentina itself and a place of barren and lonely stretches of land interspersed with sights and national parks of extraordinary beauty. We’re going to begin our journey in Puerto Madryn before travelling west to Bariloche and San Martín de los Andes and then south to El Calafate, Torres del Paine and the southernmost city in the world: Ushuaia.

Puerto Madryn, Trelew & Gaiman
After the bright lights and chaos of the capital, Puerto Madryn makes an underwhelming first impression with its quiet residential streets and unimposing city centre. That said, despite Argentina’s immense size, with a surface area roughly 11.5 times that of Britain, the rugged coastline of Puerto Madryn represents one of the few places in the country where the water takes centre stage. To take advantage of the views over the Atlantic, I took a bike ride along the coast back in 2004 with a fellow backpacker. For hours we cycled against roaring winds down empty roads and I got my first glimpse of the desolation and wild charm that characterises this part of the world. 

 However the real draw of Puerto Madryn is the Peninsula Valdes national park and its whale watching opportunities (winter only). Having a disappointing whale watching experience in Iceland with which to compare Puerto Madryn, I can confirm that the whale watching at Peninsula Valdes is in a different league. In contrast to the ship I boarded in Reykjavik, the dinghies at Peninsula Valdes seemed worryingly small as they sped into the swirling black waters of the Atlantic. But Peninsula Valdes is famed for this excursion and navigating the ocean is second nature for the experienced guides. Sure enough, we were soon showered in ocean spray as one thrashing tail after another thundered through the waves and we were treated to an out-of-this-world encounter with one of nature’s most magnificent beasts. As with most things in Argentina, the tour was relatively low-cost but experiences like this are priceless.

Summer visits to Peninsula Valdes are somewhat less spectacular with the whales out of action, but that means the penguins are in town! That’s right, on a yearly basis up to one million penguins waddle their way to this part of the world to set up home and they can also be spotted in Trelew, one of the traditional Welsh-Patagonian villages. 

The Wales-Patagonia link is famed and no visit to Patagonia is complete without a sojourn to these villages, which lie just a short distance from Puerto Madryn. The impression that I formed of Trelew was that of a very quiet grey town, offering no monuments of interest, few eating establishments and none of the famous teahouses that we had heard so much about. Discouraged, we boarded a bus to the nearby Gaiman and immediately stumbled across a teahouse offering a mouth-watering selection of cakes with fresh cream and pots of tea. Strangely for a Brit, I am no fan of tea, but I was so enchanted by the whole experience that I managed to swallow an entire mug as I strained my ears for any notes of Welsh drifting my way. I was sadly disappointed as I heard only Spanish and English and asking one of the tea ladies whether I was likely to hear Welsh on my visit, she replied that while she had Welsh ancestors, she spoke no Welsh herself, nor did she know of anyone that did!

With the illusion shattered, we walked to the bus stop to journey back to Puerto Madryn before heading down to El Calafate the following day. But as we waited, tired and weary, we heard the unmistakable tones of a Welsh accent coming our way: a woman and her husband were on the trail of distant ancestors they believed hailed from these parts. I never did find out whether she found them but I the following day, I left happy, my Welsh-Patagonian experience complete.
Bariloche and San Martín de los Andes

Typically the coming-of-age destination for newly graduated 18-year-olds, Bariloche is something of a legend in Argentina and before I had even set foot in the place I had been regaled with poetic descriptions – “it is a slice of heaven”, one of my students told me – of its beauty along with countless photos of turquoise-green lakes, cobalt-blue skies and snow-capped peaks. Expectations were high and as we coiled around the lake-lined roads and eased ever closer to the city, my excitement mounted as I clutched at my camera, lest I miss what turned out to be a mere warm-up for the wonders lying in store. The waters of the lakes sat poised and stock-still with barely a ripple to break their surface, as they shone silver with crystal-clear reflections of the trees lining their banks, each one more spectacular than the last. 

 And that’s Bariloche for you; a place so photo-ready that picturesque somehow fails to cut it. On my second visit, I arrived mid-afternoon and took a walk into the town to re-familiarise myself with the place. The wood-coated city centre is wonderfully cosy and situated right on the waterfront and I took a walk down, stopping to browse in the stores packed with mementos and outdoor gear before purchasing some delicious artisan chocolates encased in red tins from Mamuschka. The centre is easily small enough to navigate on foot and makes for a pleasant stroll, giving you chance to get your bearings and visit the many travel agents scattered  about offering outdoor activities aplenty. As with all natural spots, stunning stands shoulder to shoulder with rugged, and Bariloche is perfect for fishing, hiking, climbing, biking and water sports in summer, and skiing in winter.

After a foray into the shops, I wandered down to the shores of the Nahuel Huapi Lake, which lies just a stone’s throw from the main street. There, I gazed down along the lakefront, studying the houses and apartment buildings which, in contrast to many famed holiday destinations in Europe, remain low-key and in keeping with the tranquil feel of the city. It is difficult, somehow, to imagine that Bariloche is such a holiday hotspot and as I made my way back to the hotel, passing locals shooting the breeze, I felt that I had left city life behind me and reconnected with something more authentic. Indeed, travellers in search of club lights and glamour would be advised to stick to Buenos Aires and the lively Cordoba but Bariloche still offers a pleasant selection of restaurants and bars packed to the rafters with locals and backpackers alike.

  Probably the most famous attraction of Bariloche is the Nahuel Huapi national park, just a short bus ride away.  The park has its charms all year round, but I had a very different experience on my first visit in winter then my second in Autumn. While Argentina is famed for a hot Latino spirit, Patagonia is in the southernmost reaches of the country and in winter months, temperatures plunge and the beautiful skies in the pictures may turn white as the snow comes down. And so weather can have a large say in whether your photos turn out dark and moody or sparkling with an ethereal glow. My first visit took place in July, in the depths of winter and the forest floor was blanketed in thick white snow, the sky dark and brooding, and all of my photos show black and white vistas, the landscape devoid of colour. 

 On my second visit at the end of March, the contrast was dazzling; it was as though a black and white film had been switched to colour. We pulled up at the pebble-strewn shores of Lago Gutierrez and I didn’t recognise the place as I posed happily for pictures, with the sun beating down. 

Our second stop took in the Islas de Corazon, a duo of heart-shaped islands floating on a bed of shimmering turquoise and one of the most sensational sights I have ever seen. The shadows fell perfectly on the water, blending with sunlight and the deep turquoise waters seemed to hold secrets in their depths. With the Tronador volcano rising strong on a blue horizon, Nahuel Huapi national park was a different place to the park I visited five years earlier. That said, Patagonian weather is changeable all year around so check the weather forecast, book and hope for the best!

 For a real feeling of escape, Bariloche’s lesser-known neighbour San Martín de los Andes offers one of Argentina’s most peaceful and tranquil experiences. More of a village than a town, it sits and minds its own business, tucked away in a crook of the mountains. Ideal for outdoor pursuits or the tired and weary to rest and recharge their batteries before resuming their jaunt, San Martín de los Andes is the perfect getaway.

El Calafate & Perito Moreno

With Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes behind us, there’s a long road ahead to El Calafate as we plunge south through barren scrubland and cruise along roads ribboning out into the distance. To put it into perspective, on my last visit to Patagonia, I spent 30 hours on a coach from Bariloche to El Calafate, with a brief pit-stop at Rio Gallegos, a small, windswept city in the Santa Cruz province. As I sat in the bus station, pondering the true sense of, “in the middle of nowhere”, I experienced a sense of profound isolation as I contemplated my location: more than 1,000 miles from Buenos Aires and a mere bus ride away from the tip of the continent and nothingness. While melancholy is not the best way to sell a holiday destination, as you near the end of the world, loneliness is part of the territory. This is a place where nature overwhelms humanity, serving us a bold reminder of its dominance. 

The town of El Calafate owes its existence to Perito Moreno, an immense 250 km2 jaw-dropping feat of nature and one of the world’s few advancing glaciers. While the town is pleasant enough with rustic wooden buildings and a tranquil atmosphere, there is really very little to do here in the way of entertainment. There are a few attractive cafes and a literary bar that caught my attention early on, but prices are steep by any standards and interestingly, among the hundreds of photographs I have taken in Argentina, the town of El Calafate is curiously absent: enough said. It is, however, the perfect base from which to explore the glacier and the stunning Torres del Paine national park. 

Getting to the glacier is simple enough, though it is by no means on El Calafate’s doorstep. Like most far-flung destinations, Perito Moreno is destined to be viewed only by those who really care to see it, adding another dimension to the experience. Most accommodation will help you to arrange tours, though driving there yourself is also an option. Once inside the national park, there are several ways in which to view the attractions, and the boat trip, allowing you to get up close and personal with the glacier, is not to be missed. 

 Climb aboard, camera at the ready, and prepare to be stunned. Thirty km-long with an average height of 74m, the glacier is awesome, rearing up ahead like a throwback to the ice age. The setting is perfect: the boat floats in teal-green waters and the glacier glows with an ice-blue so fierce it hurts the eyes, while black mountains loom in the distance, reaching into the heavens and throwing the jagged spikes of the glacier’s summit into stark relief. 

 Clicks and snaps pepper the silence as travellers peer through their lenses, before the silence is broken by a thunderous roar as blocks of ice the size of double decker buses come crashing down, throwing the waters into tumult. As the glacier advances this is nothing unusual, but for those who visit Perito Moreno, that heavy drumroll lingers into the future, reminding us that the extraordinary is out there, if you know where to find it.
Following the boat ride, the park can be further explored on foot along the many observation platforms which showcase the glacier in all of its glory as it stretches endlessly into the distance, blending with the clouds on the horizon. Glacier trekking is also an option for more adventurous travellers wishing to delve deeper into the mystery of the ethereal Perito Moreno.

Torres del Paine

Long before I visited Torres del Paine, I’d had a picture of it taped to my bedroom wall. My hopes to visit in 2004 had been scuppered by the winter snow and with no plans to return to Patagonia, I’d had to shelve that dream and settle for someone else’s photo. Missing out on Torres del Paine was probably the biggest regret I had from the 2004 trip; it was so wild and distant that I couldn’t see how I would ever visit. Living vicariously through others, I would often read about this famously capricious and uncooperative national park, devouring tales of its gushing lakes and ominous towers, but visiting was off the cards; until mid-2009 that was.

As I planned my return to Argentina, a place where I had spent five wonderful months as an 18-year-old, and a place where I found my feet and came of age, I was wondering where I should go this time around. I was keen to discover some new and exciting places but there was also a huge element of nostalgia in this trip and I wanted to return to and rediscover, through adult eyes, the places I had first visited as an 18-year-old. My north vs. south dilemma was finally resolved by nostalgia itself when I realised that I had a friend in that lonesome southern city: Rio Gallegos. 

This was my chance. Situated at the tip of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine is nonetheless accessible from El Calafate and according to my research, day trips were common. So the plan was to head south, drop in on the cities I’d seen in 2004, spend a day or two with my friend in Rio Gallegos and then head on to El Calafate. I could cross Torres del Paine off the bucket list after all! I was over the moon. After a few weeks of excitement, my friend informed me that she would be away that week but by that point, my mind was made up. And so it was, on 6 April 2009, I woke at dawn and boarded the minibus that would take us across the border and into the confines of the famous Torres del Paine.

 Everything about the day was sublime. The price was reasonable, the minibus arrived on time and the other occupants of the bus were friendly and charming. Upon crossing the border, I was befriended by a 50-something Chilean holding a British passport, as he recognised the burgundy of my own and introduced himself and his wife. I never fully understood the reason for the British passport but as they handed me an empanada, gave me some Chilean pesos for a drink (I had foolishly forgotten to bring any), chatted on the bus and took photos of me in the park, they became a part of the experience. But approaching our destination, stopping to snap pictures of grey foxes, we all gazed ominously at the leaden sky and feared we would see little of the park, known for its tempestuous weather. That said, spirits remained high and as we trundled along the dirt track, we were rewarded for our optimism. The bus came to a halt and, as if on cue, the veil of clouds lifted and the sun shone down, highlighting the famous duo of towers and the park’s namesake: the Torres del Paine, known in English as the Towers of Pain. 

 “We are lucky”, commented my new friend, as it was so rare for both towers to come out of hiding. I stood at the towers and snapped photos, noticing that the reflections in the mint-green waters of the lake came out perfectly in the pictures: no special effects, no photoshop, no SLR tricks, simply nature throwing its hair back and posing for the cameras.

Guanacos strutted freely around the park as did we, clicking on the camera shutter ten times a minute, capturing the wild waters of the lakes as the wind ripped through them, the sharp black peaks on the horizon, the thunderous roar of the waterfall and the sunlight piercing through the gap in the towers, throwing its rays onto the waters below.

We walked, we climbed, we travelled in the minibus, we even braved a few showers, and yet still, we saw only a corner of the vast and magnificent Torres del Paine. 

 Campers spend days or weeks in this national park, travelling in a figure of eight, braving the wind and rain to witness glaciers, waterfalls and meadows in the sun. Torres del Paine is a bold beauty, forcefully aware of its pull, demanding commitment and strength from those who step on its turf. My guide fell for the park, as many do, and packed up her life in Poland to move to this lonely spot.   

There was no other option she told me, it got under her skin. There are tough days, she admitted, days where rain thrashes against your skin and wind howls in your ears, berating your presence. Torres del Paine is, and always will be, capricious and insolent, breaking promises and scattering disappointment. There’s no guarantees with this park, but it may just be worth the risk.


My trip to Ushuaia got off to a bad start. I boarded the bus after a four-hour stopover in Rio Gallegos, tired and weary of the long journey ahead of us. I was sat in a narrow seat next to a woman holding a small child and as we pulled away, I was given a landing card. I looked at it, perplexed. We were in Argentina, we were going to Argentina. Why did I need to fill this out? We’re going through Chile, an attendant answered brusquely, and so it began. Customs was nothing short of a nightmare as I stood in a crowded room with no idea of what was going on or how long we would be there. After waiting an hour to have my passport stamped, I waited outside for the bus, shivering in the cold with tears running down my face, wondering what on earth I was doing there. But as the bus picked up and we trundled on, my mood began to improve; then when the bus boarded a ship and we sailed across to Tierra del Fuego, I began to understand that we were nearing the very end of the world, and were closer to Antarctica than the world I knew: this was to be expected. As we neared the city of Ushuaia, we passed through tiny communities as we left civilisation behind and I remember wondering what it would be like to live somewhere so empty and devoid of life. As we pulled into Ushuaia, almost 24 hours after leaving El Calafate, I hoped the traumatic journey would be worth it.

The following day I explored the small city of Ushuaia as the rain came down in sheets and I had to duck into the Irish pub to keep dry. Tucking into British grub with the rain tapping on the roof and a board listing the Premier League matches in front of me, I felt as close to home as I had throughout the entire trip. Comforted and happy, I assessed the city’s layout and decided how I would spend my three days there. I accomplished little that first day thanks to the rain though I did take a few snaps along the main street, taking particular interest in a sky blue London bus, parked at the kerbside: another remnant of home. Before I went to bed that night I booked a tour to sail the Beagle Channel and made friends with some Argentinians who had flown in from Buenos Aires to discover the Land of Fire. Comparing their comfortable flight with my gruelling coach journey south, I resolved to book a flight back to Buenos Aires: the back-breaking trek was nearing its end.

The next day, after taking in a Liverpool match at 11 in the morning, I made my way to the harbour and boarded the boat that would introduce us to the Beagle Channel, the stretch of water around Ushuaia, containing islands of seals and cormorants, and the famous end of world lighthouse. 

As I dressed for the trip, safe in the knowledge that Aerolíneas Argentinas would be zipping me back to Buenos Aires in two days’ time, my common sense deserted me and I stepped out in a pair of lovely brown leather ballet pumps and my new, favourite jeans.

I should have known better: when you book a trip in South America, there is always at least a 30% chance that the day out will entail some form of rock climbing or daring outdoor pursuit that I would normally avoid like the plague. Sure enough, just as I was relaxing, the boat docked at a small, mountainous island and the captain ordered everyone off. I refused immediately, indicating my footwear and was told to disembark anyway, that the guides would help me to the top to witness the gorgeous views and then help me back down. Persuaded, I ascended to the top, realising that the danger is never in the ascent, but rather the descent. Sure enough, after taking photos of the views out to sea, I proceeded to tumble unceremoniously down the hill, despite the guide’s efforts to keep me upright. Note to readers: wear hiking boots on guided tours in South America!
 I spent my last day in Ushuaia taking walks along the coast and visiting the museums, which give a fascinating insight into the history of the city. The Maritime Museum houses an old prison that was opened back in 1896 to ensure a permanent Argentine population in the city and help to secure Argentine sovereignity over Tierra del Fuego. Strolling about the freezing-cold prison cells, some of which had been painted in bright colours, and studying artefacts including balls and chains and letters to inmates, you really get an idea of the isolation that the inmates must have felt in this barren part of the world.

The following day, my Patagonian adventure rolled to its conclusion as I boarded the plane and jetted back to Buenos Aires and the world as I knew it. From the white vistas I first spied as we sailed to Ushuaia, to the persistent rain and leaden skies, Tierra del Fuego or Land of Fire seemed an incongruous name for this part of the world. I later discovered it was named  so by European visitors fascinated by the fires lit by natives to keep warm as temperatures plummeted. As I picture orange flames flickering against the stark landscapes I can see that this may have appeared ethereal and alluring to visitors pulling up to the shores of Tierra del Fuego after weeks or months at sea. I can’t say I looked back as I climbed the steps to the plane but I feel privileged to have known this distant land where, away from the noisy distractions of modern civilisation, life is laid bare to the pounding beat of nature.

                                                  13 April, 2009: touchdown in Buenos Aires 

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