La Tierra De Los Glaciares
There’s nothing more refreshing than discovering a preconception about a place is very much wrong. Even after 3 long, sweaty flights (a feat that usually veils my vision with a mood of tiredness and grumpiness), I was pleasantly surprised with Buenos Aires. I guess I’d assumed that the name was more wishful thinking than literal, or a clever marketing strategy to encourage early settlers, or just plain irony, but here was a city that was covered in green. Arriving in November, the Jacaranda trees were in full, glorious purple, bloom, and they were everywhere, adorning parks and avenues at every turn.
From the hotel, it was an easy walk down chaotic streets to the city docks, a sight that I hadn’t expected either. The water was a dirty muddy brown, but lining the waterfront was a multitude of boutique bars and cafes, and sitting in the dock was a beautiful collection of tall ships. I suddenly felt naive, and shameful for having pre-judged the city on it’s South American location and assumption that it would be poor and run down. Running along one side of the waterfront was a temporary art exhibit of painted torsos, reminiscent of the cow statues that toured the world. One of the cities’ beautiful green spaces was the rose garden, filled with roses of all types and species, and with ponds running in amongst it, filled with waterfowl. It was a glorious sunny day to be wandering round parts of the city, and my first taste of the amazing Argentinian ice cream was at the square along the street from the presidential palace, scene of Madonna’s famous song in Evita. As the sun lowered, we took a quick tour of La Boca, an artisans paradise.
Unfortunately, the airport staff were striking the day of the flight to Ushuaia, so it was after much delay and a waste of half the day, that I reached El Fin Del Mundo (the ‘end of the world’), the southernmost city of the world. It may have been late spring but it was freezing, and by the time we reached the base of the ski field behind the city it was snowing. We hiked up to the viewpoint, but the Beagle Channel below us was shrouded in low cloud. The following day was still cold, but the sun streamed through the patchy cloud, illuminating the beautiful landscape of Tierra Del Fuego National Park. Looking across Bahia Ensenada, I got my first glimpse of Chile, at the far side of the water, and further round the park across the Rio Roca, the southern Andean mountains were snow capped. That afternoon, a group of us took a cruise on the Beagle Channel to see some sealions and Magellanic penguins. It was over a month later, when looking back at the photos, that I realised there had been a second species of penguins present, what I reckon are Southern Rockhopper penguins. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed at the time.
The city of Ushuaia is relatively compact. Its social hub is restricted to just a few blocks, and a few streets from our hotel, my travelling companions were delighted to find an Irish bar. I, on the other hand was more eager to go somewhere Argentinian, or at least less European, but eventually I was persuaded on the premise that it must be the southern-most situated Irish bar in the world. Inside, it couldn’t have been less Irish if it tried, and we settled in to some beer drinking. Heading out for dinner, I was disheartened to discover another Irish bar one block further south, meaning I’d only been in the 2nd most southern Irish bar in the world. Another block east, and there was a third Irish bar, relegating our drinking hole to just the 3rd most southern Irish bar in the world. It didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
It had repeatedly been mentioned to us about the supreme taste of Argentinian beef, and there were several restaurants dedicated to whetting up a carnivore’s appetite. We selected one, sat down and were presented plates and pointed in the direction of the buffet. There was a multitude of meat and veg options, and we all filled our plates and stuffed ourselves silly, several people helping ourselves for seconds. We sat back satiated, and were about to consider dessert, when our waiter appeared out the kitchen with 2 mini grills laden with meat of varying types. Our lack of Spanish had fooled us: the buffet was designed as a starter or side, and here was our main. Laughing at our foolishness, we force-fed ourselves as much of the meat as we could stomach, then laughed our way home, wondering what the waiters must have thought of the strange tourists.
It was a long drive across Isla Grande de Tierra Del Fuego, and a slow border crossing into Chile, racing against the clock to catch the ferry across the short, but choppy crossing of the Magellan Strait. Staying overnight in Punta Arenas, a port city with no real tourist draw, it was another long drive via Puerto Natales into the stunning Torres Del Paine National Park. The mountains seemed to appear from nowhere, and then suddenly they towered over us from all sides. Littered in between were beautiful lakes, and rolling green hillsides. Our first view of the Cuernos del Paine, the park’s most famous mountain area, was across the expanse of Lago Torro, and I was getting increasingly excited the closer we got to them. The lake was massive, and it took some time to reach the other end of it, where the road followed the route of the Rio Serrano through the valley at the base of the mountains. I was giddy when I discovered that my bed for the next few nights was in one of the little wooden cabins down in the valley on the bank of the river. The view of the mountains from the balcony and the river bank were divine.
No thesaurus contains enough adjectives to describe the beauty of Torres Del Paine National Park. No photograph will ever do its beauty justice. I certainly tried, taking photographs from every conceivable angle, in an effort to find that perfect panorama that could relate what I was seeing before me. The mountains were snow-capped, the lakes were glacial blue and grey, the rolling hills were green, the blooming flowers were red, and the ice-bergs shelved from the glacier fronts were monumental. The first day in the park was spent visiting Lago Grey which was littered with icebergs that had shelved from the front edge of the glacier of the same name. Standing on the stony beach, there were remnants of previous icebergs melting away at the lapping edge of the lake, and a hike to a viewpoint gave a spectacular view across to the main icebergs in front of the glacial wall.
A further drive from Lago Gray, crossing the Rio Paine, we stopped at what I can only describe as the most beautiful panorama I have ever seen: a little island in the middle of a large glacial lake with Torres del Paine towering over it. With blue skies above and the sun beating down, it was gorgeous. Further along the road, we reached the start of a hike taking us past guanacos, raging waterfalls, bright red chilean fire bushes, and towards the Cuernos, keeping to the far side of the lakes to afford a fabulous panorama over the range. Whilst standing at one lakeside, there was the thunder of an avalanche taking place on the mountain across from us, and we could see the snow tumbling down towards the rocks below. Everywhere we went in the park afforded a spectacular but alternative view of the range, and I couldn’t get enough of it. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, and somehow I managed to miss my chest with the suncream, resulting in a large red arc at the base of my neck.
Throughout the national park we were greeted by the sight of Andean condors circling the heavens above us. They are magnificent, and massive birds, and whilst difficult to spot the first one, on achieving that, suddenly you could spot them everywhere. We took another hike in the late afternoon up to the Mirador Condor (Condor viewpoint) where ironically we didn’t see any condors at all. The view was worth it anyway: more mountains, more glacial lakes, more colour, more blue sky and sunshine. Taking a short cut down, however, was a challenge for some in the group. Our guide decided that skipping down a sheer scree slope was a much better return route to the bus than hiking down the well maintained path that we had come up. There was not one of us that made it to the bottom without ending up on our arse at least once. Back at our cabin complex, we enjoyed dinner overlooking the view of the same granite mountain range glowing red in the lowering sun.
Our last full day in the park was the one that most of us had been waiting for: the hike up to the famous 3 towers. Our luck had run out with the sunshine, although at least it remained dry. The hiking trail was exceedingly busy, being at the start of peak season, and we were sharing the initial steep ascent with groups on horseback, as well as hikers on foot. Circling above us for company were scores of condors. After the initial steep ascent, the path levelled out for a reasonable length, exposed on the side of a valley, before disappearing into a forest. For a while, the 3 peaks were hidden, and even when the trees petered out, all that was visible was a massive boulder scree and a path marked through the boulders. It was a long and steep climb up the side of, and then over, the large granite boulders. So many times we thought we were near the summit, only to reach the ‘top’ and discover there was another slog ahead of us. The group thinned out by this point, and we fell into silence as we focused on our breathing, and for some people, their constitution. The oldest of our party was in his 70s, and he had fallen behind in the forest section. At our meeting point prior to the forest, he had voiced concerns that he wasn’t going to make it up to the summit, and insisted that we all continue on without him. One by one, we made it to the summit (not technically the summit as the 3 towers protrude some height above, but more of a ‘rim’ surrounding a glacial lake at the base of the towers) and went about regaining our breath prior to competing to take the most pictures from as many different views as possible. As a group, we sat around together, smiles beaming at our achievement, reflecting on where we were and generally chit-chatting about the landscape around us. All of a sudden a cheer went up behind us, and here was Allan, our septuagenarian companion and Santiago, our guide. They had made it, to tremendous applause all round, and a big beaming smile on his face. Santiago was clearly proud of him, having kept him company the whole way, and remarking that he was the oldest person that he had guided up there. Allan was understandably proud of himself. Allowing him time to regain his breath and take some photos, we started on the ascent back down, surrounded by condors and happening across a skunk on the way back to our cottages. That night, we had a double celebration: my roommates’ birthday and Allan’s triumphant ascent of the mountain.
Leaving the park behind, we set off back to Argentina. Border crossings between Argentina and Chile are a double border affair: you queue to get your passport stamped on leaving the one country, cross a ‘no-mans-land’ for a mile or so, then queue up to enter the other country. It dragged out the whole crossing by an extra hour or so more than was really warranted. Our destination was El Calafate, the tourist city famous as the stopping off point for visiting the Perito Moreno glacier. On the bank of Lago Argentino, the largest lake in Argentina, a wander through the compact city takes you through a ream of tourist gift shops, eateries, pubs, and down to the lake side where flamingos wander through the shallow lake edge. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of the birds as far as the eye could see, but getting near enough to photograph them was impossible. Every time we had stopped at lake sides on the drives to photograph them, they had flown away as soon as the bus started to idle. A few of us picked our way through the pools of water and soft earth at the lake edge to get as close to them as we could. Whilst they didn’t fly away, they simply waded further out, resulting in the same distance between us at all times. Flamingos clearly don’t relish the human attention.
We took a back road to Perito Moreno, giving us the chance to observe ‘real’ Argentinian life. Rural Argentina is littered with massive livestock ranches, and these are mustered by gauchos on horseback. We passed by the gated entrances to multiple ranches, prior to stopping at what can best be described as an Argentinian version of a service station. It was essentially a wooden cottage with a cafe inside at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, some toilets round the back, and sitting on every spare piece of ground possible was a multitude of goats. It made for a smelly toilet stop. Heading onward, we wound our way round the very long shore of Argentina’s largest lake, entering yet another National Park, until we were treated to the delightful site of Perito Moreno glacier in the distance. This was a place I had been dreaming about coming to for years, and when the bus pulled in at the visitor’s centre and let us out, I raced to the top observation deck to get a glimpse of it close up: and what a sight it was. Standing at the top of a series of winding walkways descending down the hillside, directly in front of me was the immense 5km wide glacier itself, the width dominating the bulk of my visual field, and like an optical illusion, it really felt like it was coming to get you, as if it would swiftly mow down the trees that stood in its way and swallow you up in a heart beat. It was another of those pinch-yourself moments that I love so much when I travel. Following the varying levels of the walkway allowed differing views of the glacier and its advancing edge, and everyone fell hush when the thunderous noise signaled a shelving of a fragment of glacier into the lake water below. The resultant splash created woops and cheers all around the crowds. I could have spent all day there staring at it without getting bored. It was mesmerising, and for me pure heaven to stare at. After a couple of hours, I felt rushed to leave to make a boat trip which took us out onto the lake and up close to the wall of ice from water level. It was a totally different viewpoint on what is one of the most beautiful forms nature has ever produced.
El Chalten is one of the cutest little villages I have ever been to, nestled in a valley by the Rio de las Vueltas, and a stone’s throw away from Mt Fitzroy and several glaciers that lead onto the Patagonian Icefields, playground of only a select few explorers and ice-treckers (a year later, this select number included my boss at the time who has a passion for adventure travel). I got my first experience of wearing crampons and hiking on a glacier following a boat trip on nearby Lago Viedma to the glacier of the same name. Whereas Perito Moreno glowed a relatively pure white, Viedma was narrower and due to the slopes of the surrounding mountains, it had collected a large amount of sediment, staining most of it’s surface a dirty brown colour. Picking our way round the sometimes massive crevices, and ascending ridges of ice was surreal, and was topped off by our glacier guide presenting us with a bottle of Baileys liqueur for us to enjoy. He scooped a handful of glacier ice into everybody’s glass and served us a dram. Whilst not the most environmentally friendly maneuver, it was an enjoyable end to our hike (I was informed that the ice is thoroughly rinsed prior to being returned to the site of collection – you can debate amongst yourselves the ethics of such a practice).
El Chalten itself is little more than a collection of tourist accommodations, a couple of supermarkets, a few tourist shops and, most importantly to a lot of people: a microbrewery. Now not being an imbiber of beer, I found their home-made ales distasteful, but it was an excellent social place, and a great way to spend the evening after hiking. Our first hike in the region was through a beautiful alpine landscape to Lago Torre and it’s associated glacier. The cloud hung low over some of the neighbouring mountain tops, but it was otherwise a spectacular day for hiking, and another day to get a bit more sunburnt where I hadn’t already got sunburnt before. Our guide, who was one of those lucky few to get up on the icefield, pointed out the disappearing track up to the glacier that was the entrance route to the ice field. I can’t imagine anything more spectacular than hiking up onto that ridge of ice and seeing nothing but ice stretching out for miles in all directions.
Our luck changed with the weather. We had apparently done exceptionally well with our hours of sunshine for our trip so far (by this point 2weeks in), but on the day we had set aside to hike up Mt Fitzroy to the glacier viewpoint, the cloud level descended and the rain came in. We had to settle for a hike up through the valley and up a lower track. It was a beautiful trail surrounded by trees covered in dead man’s beard, a lichen that only grows in the purest of air, and alongside rivers. At one point it gently snowed and the clouds closed in on us, but by the final hike through the forest and the hillside descent back towards El Chalten, the cloud lifted, and the sun beamed once more. We were disappointed not to get up Mt Fitzroy, but it was a spectacular hike none-the-less. The cloud and rain came and went as we ascended yet another Mirador Condor for an alternate view of the town and the river valley, before heading back to the microbrewery to heat up. A morning playing gaucho on a rather petulant horse rounded up the visit, but the top of Mt Fitzroy was not to be seen again, hidden behind a layer of cloud for days on end.
Our final day in Patagonia was spent based back at El Calafate. Essentially a free day to please ourselves, a few of us took a boat tour of the lake. Lago Argentino is fed by several glaciers shelving into the lake from various fjords. We sailed for several hours, working our way round and up several of these to visit a few of the accessible glaciers. The most impressive of these was the Upsala glacier, not so much for the glacier itself, but for the immense icebergs that littered the entrance to its fjord. They were huge, and packed so tightly that the compressed water molecules made them a deep blue colour which simply added to their beauty. They towered over the boat, and their sheer size was impressive enough, never mind the knowledge that in these icy waters, only 1/7th of their mass was above the surface. Again though, the weather failed us, and the clouds descended, and the snow began to fall, obscuring our view of the last 2 glaciers, and dulling the vision of the Perito Moreno glacier which we visited again, this time approaching from the opposite side.
In the reducing sunlight we flew north-east, away from the Andes range and towards another region that I had been desperate to get to for some years: Peninsula Valdes. The peninsula is a wildlife-lovers dream, and is not only a protected area for the myriad of land animals that call it home, but it also creates some relatively shallow bays for Southern Right whales to use as a nursery for rearing their young calves prior to introducing them to the open water. These were the same species of whale that I had encountered in abundance in South Africa, and I was eager to see them again (whilst the same species, they are a genetically diverse group of whales, following completely different migratory routes to Antarctica, and therefore their paths will never cross). To whet our appetites for the whales, we took a tour of the peninsula witnessing an assortment of wildlife all over the plains: mara, foxes, rheas and lizards; and marine wildlife: immense numbers of elephant seals sunbathing on the shore and a small group of sealions. The highlight of my day however, was getting on that boat in Puerto Pyramides and setting off into the bay in search of whales. We got an absolute treat, finding a mother and a white calf, estimated to be just 3weeks old. The calf was very inquisitive, often coming up to the boat, followed by the mother who often floated just under the surface at our side, as if contemplating us. The calf frolicked at our side, and the mother at times stuck close by, and at other times left it to explore on its own, letting it circle the boat, then following behind. We watched in joy as they floated on the surface, only to have a seagull land on the mother’s nose, prompting her to snort it off, and later the same seagull also gave the calf a bit of a fright when it landed on its back, causing it to splash quickly under the surface. It was a pure delight to watch them, and once again, I could have happily stayed for hours just marvelling at them. Even back at our hotel in Puerto Madryn, the whales were both visible and audible playing out in the bay, often breaching and lobbing just out from the beach.
South of Puerto Madryn is a place called Punta Tombo which as a place holds no significance other than the fact that one of the largest colonies of Magellanic penguins choose to make nest here. There are thousands of them, nesting in shallow burrows away from the sea, mating for life, and rearing their young ones almost on top of their neighbours, as well as under and right next to, a wooden boardwalk marking a relatively safe footpath through the colony. The boardwalk was extensive, as was the colony, and it was entertaining watching these birds carrying on their routines as if all the people weren’t there: preening themselves, renovating their burrows, bonding with their mates and fighting with their neighbours. It was a magical end to the South American adventure.
With one day back in Buenos Aires, I took a trip to Tigre, a marvellous town on the edge of the Paranas delta. Interwoven with waterways, it is a beautiful place to go for a day trip, to either wander the streets along the edge of the waterways, or to get out on the water itself. Unfortunately, my visit coincided with a public holiday and the queue at the ferry terminal was too prohibitive. Instead, a wander along the water’s edge brought me to the Museum of Art where a classic car rally had ended, with all entrants parked up on the grounds for all to see, and many of the drivers were dressed up in old-fashioned clothing in preparation for a function within the museum itself. It was such a novelty to see all the old models of cars so well maintained. The final morning in Argentina, following a visit to the sarcophagus of Eva Peron, I took a walk to another of Buenos Aires’ many green spaces: a massive nature reserve at the edge of the city on its border with the Rio del Plata, the river which separates Argentina from Uruguay. The good weather finally gave in as a thunder storm began to roll in, but despite the grey skies, the trees were filled with colourful and loud parrots. When the heavens finally opened, the rain came down with intensity and the thunder rolled around the city. I took shelter in an ice cream parlour, and treated myself to my last taste of the amazing Argentinian ice cream. It was with a full belly, but a sad heart, that I returned to my hotel to collect my belongings and head to the airport.