Wednedsay March 5th to Saturday April 19th
What a downer! What do we do now? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Antarctica was like a drug and we're coming down. It's really hard to get going again after such a high. We spent about 4 days uploading, rotating, sorting and naming the hundreds of photos we took. Episode VII took quite a while to write too - there was so much to tell. Just as well the buses north were booked and we were stuck here. This is a beautiful place and there are several treks possible but, since we are about to head to some of the best trekking territory on the planet, we limited our excursions to visiting the old jail, now a museum. In 1902, in order to establish their claim to the territory, Argentina created a penal colony in Ushuaia. It was built by the prisoners out of the native rock. As everyone was essentially a prisoner in this "God forsaken place at the end of the world", the inmates and guards got along pretty well and there was little trouble during the 45 years of operation. Ushuaia is now a tourist town serving cruise ships and overplaying the "End of the world" thing.
Punta Arenas, Chile
From Ushuaia we travelled 12 hours by bus up through Tierra del Fuego, entered Chile and crossed the famous Straights of Magellan. Founded in 1848, Punta Arenas was originally a military garrison and penal settlement that proved to be conveniently situated for the ships heading to California during the gold rush (there was no Panama canal back then). In its early years its economy depended on wild animal products including seal skins, guanaco hides and feathers. However, their economy did not take off until the late 19th century when the governor authorized the purchase of 300 purebred sheep from the Falkland Islands. This successful experiment encouraged others to invest in sheep and, by the end of the century, there were nearly 2 million animals in the territory. The resulting pastoral empires couldn't have been built without the help of the English, Irish and Scottish immigrants.
In Punta Arenas we stayed in a small apartment of typical magellanic style - corrugated tin panelling on the outside. We immediately began to indulge in Chilean wine (it's been our favorite for years and is our real reason for coming to South America :-) ). Good wine that we would pay 20 pounds for in London costs less than 1 here. We also discovered the local speciality - pisco sours -- and what luck, it's happy hour and they're 2 for 1. We think we might like this country.
Due to our interest in Antarctica we had just read "South" by Ernest Shackelton, about his ill-fated attempt to cross the the continent. In 1916 the Chilean navy helped Shackelton rescue his men from Elephant Island. They brought them back to Punta Arenas where huge crowds turned out to cheer the men who had survived almost 2 years in the frozen south. It's really cool to visit places with such history.
Puerto Natales, Chile
This sleepy town is the main base for trekkers to Torres del Paine, travellers to Southern Argentina and voyagers on the Navimag ferry. As we are all of these, we ended up coming in and out of this place 3 times. Not much to say about this little place except we found a restaurant that played the 70's & 80's music that we like. One night (we went there three times) a local guitarist came in and played to all three occupied tables. He tried to get us to sing along but we didn't know any of the words to the Spanish songs. He did know a few chords of "A Hard Day's Night" and "House of the Rising Sun" so he played and Peter sang (Peter doesn't let Jackie sing for very good reason).
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
The Towers of Paine (pronounced 'pie-nay', Paine was an early settler), are some of the most magnificent mountains in the world. As usual, no words and even the best photos just don't do them justice. We planned to do a 10 day camping trek around "The Circuit". When we arrived we were told a bridge was out and we couldn't do the circuit. This turned out to be a lie (there never was a bridge). Because it had been so rainy lately there was a lot of mud and the rivers were high so the park rangers were discouraging people from doing the back half of the park. It's just as well, the circuit would have been really hard work and we'd really rather do short walks and have long rests. We headed off to do the "W" (the most popular section of the circuit). Carrying all of our equipment, cold weather gear and 10+ days worth of food, the first hill just about killed us. Fortunately, the first day's trek wasn't very long but it was mostly uphill and in the pouring rain.
Why are we here? This is a question we asked ourselves often on this outing. We had rain, rain, more rain, snow, sleet, wind and cold for most of the time we spent in Torres. We were, however, quite lucky in that the next day the weather cleared as we headed up the right side of the "W" to the mirador (view point), to see the famous towers. The people that went up the day before and those that were there a few hours after us, didn't see them. They really are spectacular. Two days later we were at the base of the "Valle de Frances" (the middle of the "W"). But we skipped going up the valley because the clouds and rain would have meant we saw nothing. Three more days of rain, snow and wind and we were about ready to pull out. On the morning of the 6th day, after a night of howling wind, the weather was a little better. We decided to give the park another chance and headed up to Glacier Gray on the left side of the "W". By that afternoon we actually saw the sun and the wind had died down. As it was quite a nice campground, we decided that the next day we would just stay there and rest. What a decision! The day was totally cloudless and still. We strolled up to the mirador again and spent the day lazing in the sun and admiring the glacier.
The next day we walked along one of the less popular routes and found that we had the campground for our last night entirely to ourselves. Or so we thought. That night a couple of mice visited us. They nibbled away at a packet of rice which we didn't mind because we were going to throw it out anyway. Unfortunately, after they had their fill of food they were bored and started nibbling hole through one of our waterproof bags and our precious folding basin. Little blighters!
El Calafate, Argentina
The main draw of this town is the famous Perito Moreno Glacier and the Los Glaciares national park. Moreno is one of the world's few advancing glaciers. It's not the biggest or the highest but it continually calves into a lake and there's a great viewing platform just across the water. After seeing it from a few different angles we spent 3 hours just watching from the platform. The thunderous noise and the rifle cracks that the glacier makes when a piece calves off is incredible.
The next day we took a boat trip to see several other glaciers. The glaciers all form part of the Southern Continental Ice Field. This is the third largest on the planet after Antarctica and Greenland.
We also visited a working estancia where we saw a demonstration of kelpie dogs herding the sheep and sheep sheering. For dinner we ate the poor little things, very tasty they were too.
We had lots of fun at our hotel. The first morning we found the key would not work in the lock on the INSIDE of the door and so Peter had to climb out the window onto the garage roof then shimmy down the wall (memories of childhood). The next morning there was no electricity. On our last day, we returned after lunch to find an official notice posted across the door closing the place. Our landlady hadnít paid her taxes or something.
El Chalten, Argentina
This town was created less than 20 years ago in Argentina's on going effort to lay claim to the area. (In 1978 Argentina and Chile just about went to war over an area of mountains and glaciers in which no one lives.) It is also the access point to the Fitzroy mountain range. It's much smaller than Torres del Paine so we planned to trek around for four days and arranged to do some ice trekking on one of the glaciers. Unfortunately we both had some sort of stomach bug that left us very weak. What should have been an easy walk was quite a struggle. We ended up just camping in the same place for three nights. What made up for feeling crappy was the fabulous weather. We had four days of bright clear skies and fantastic red sunrises. A great change from Torres.
One the third day (feeling a little better) we went onto Glacier Grande with a group. We trekked for 2 hours to get to the glacier. The trek included a river crossing where we hung in our harnesses from a fixed rope and pulled ourselves across. Great fun. When we reached the glacier we put on crampons and followed the guides as they wound their way across the top of the heavily crevassed glacier. We also had a chance to try climbing an ice wall with ice axes and crampons. More fun.
After a week back in Argentina we returned to Puerto Natales, Chile and boarded the MV Magellanes. This is a cargo and passenger ship that sails through the Chilean fjords to Puerto Montt. The journey takes 3 days and passes rolling green hills, snowcapped mountains and small fishing villages with their brightly painted houses. Some of the channels are very narrow, one being only 80 meters wide. The captain must have nerves of steel. The trip is mostly smooth as the route is protected by the islands. The only bit that is exposed to the Pacific is the crossing of the Gulf of Sorrows. This was originally called the Gulf of Rocks (Golfo de Peñas) but, when the British Admiralty charts were being made they didn't have an ' ñ ' so it got changed to Golfo de Penas (Sorrows). (Good thing English has an 'a' otherwise it would be Golfo de Penes - go look it up).
The trip was a nice rest for our weary legs. At night we were lulled to sleep by the mooing of the cows on the deck below. We slept in berths in a cabin with 20 other people. The berths have curtains so it wasn't too bad except for the first night - many of our shipmates had come directly from trekking in Torres del Paine and hadnít had a chance to shower. Phew.
Puerto Montt, Chile
This bustling little port city has two shopping malls! The first malls we'd seen in many months and we made a beeline for them. You can take us out of the city but you can't take the city out of us. Other than seeing the movie "Chicago", we spent most of our time uploading a month's worth of photos and eating at fast food restaurants. In the Southern Cone it seems every restaurant has the same menu: Pizza (usually with ham and cheese), lomito (thin steak with ham and cheese), milanesa (breaded steak with ham and cheese), hamburgesa (hamburger with ham and cheese) and, of course, you can always get a ham and cheese sandwich. It may not be haute cuisine but after months of monotonous and pretty bland food, even Taco Bell was wonderful. We would kill for a good Indian curry.
The Isla Grande of Chiloé is South America's largest island and has a unique culture. The east side is sheltered from Pacific storms, it is intensely cultivated and is home to a traditional culture of subsistence farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen. The Jesuit order made this place their special responsibility, erecting schools and over two hundred wooden churches. When the Spanish arrived in 1567 the island was already settled and farmed by the Huilliche indians. The new arrivals mixed with the local population and so, today, most of the people are mestizos (mixed blood). The culture and religion also mixed so there is a rich mythology - populated by strange trolls, sea monsters, and eerie ghost ships. One particularily useful mythological being is the Trauco. He is very short and hideously ugly but he has an incredible ability to entrance and seduce women. So, whenever a young virgin falls pregnant or a man returns home after a long absence to find his wife with child, the woman simply explaines that the Trauco got her. This saves many marriages and prevents the need to excommunicate many young girls.
We visited the town of Ancud where we did some sea kayaking and saw the local fishermen raking in seaweed that will be dried, sent to Japan and returned in the form of cosmetics and shampoo. Other fishermen were diving for shellfish using boat mounted air compressors. We also went for a cruise to a sea lion colony. It was an impressive sight to see hundreds of them sliding down the hill and splashing into the water in their effort to come and check us out. We were also lucky enough to spot penguins and dolphins. Whilst in Ancud we experienced a mild earthquake (no damage). In 1960 a major quake created a tsunami that wiped out miles of coastline and many people were killed.
Further south, the town of Castro, founded in 1567 and the capital of the region, has a large fleet of yellow fishing boats and distinctive palafito houses built on stilts above the tides. Here we visited the local crafts market and tried the island's famous seafood.
Sushi!!!! Hurrah, we're in a big city again. Santiago is the smog choked capital of Chile with 4.5 million people. According to the guide book "Andean peaks dwarf even the mightiest of skyscrapers" but we couldn't see the mountains for the haze. We stayed in the area known as "Paris Londres" which has cute, windy little cobblestone streets. One block away, thousands of noisy buses race at breakneck speed along the 10 lane Avenida O'Higgins. Santiago doesn't have a whole lot of major tourist attractions but we did visit the Presidential Palace* and Palacio CousiŮo. The latter being Santiago's foremost mansion that had been built by a wine, coal and shipping barron in 1871. It was furnished with the best that European craftsmen could offer and is now a museum. Another museum that was worth the visit was the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino with its impressive collection of pre-columbian art. It was quite interesting to see the high level of technology in ceramics, textiles and metalwork that existed before the Spanish arrived.
Another day we visited one of the vineyards of the oldest and biggest winemaker in Chile, Concha y Toro. The grounds were impressive but the tour lacked substance. One minute they're showing us the vines and the next the cellars with thousands of 225 litre barrels of wine. We're pretty sure there was some minor process between the two that they had left out. We did, however, enjoy the wine tasting and, feeling that there's more to learn about winemaking, it gives us an excuse to visit other wineries in Argentina.
As Friday was Good Friday and most things were closed, we used the day for a relaxing stroll through the hilltop park in the centre of the city. The air did clear a bit and we were able to catch a glimpse of the nearby mountains. The next day we took the bus to Mendoza, Argentina on a particularly spectacular road across the Andes. The twisting climb with about 30 hairpin curves to the highest point was really impressive.
We're now back in Argentina staying comfortably numb on the cheap and good wine. If we can remember any of it, we'll tell you about it in the next episode.
* When we visited the Presidential Palace a couple of guards asked where we were from. When Jackie said Scotland, he asked if the film Braveheart was a true story (with our limited Spanish, it took us a while to figure out what he was asking). We told him that some of it was made up but that the lifting of the kilts was definitely true. We all couldn't stop laughing as Jackie mimed doing a moonie and one of the guards mimed lifting a kilt from the front. They were pretty casual guards, we guess the president wasn't there that day. :-)
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