Week Twelve: Patagonia

I’m sitting in a chair with a cup of tea. This is more the kind of writing style I’m used to, in contrast with last week’s pothole-interrupted bus journey scribing. I’m back in Buenos Aires, back in a big city and very thankful for that while missing Patagonia, which is an enormous area of mind blowing beauty.

Hola a todos,

I’ve now only got 11 days left in Buenos Aires, a city I have undoubtedly fallen in love with and which contains some very good friends and some of my favourite ever places. That’s sad, but even though the last seven weeks have flown by, there are so many memories that just need a little trigger to come to the front of my brain again and remind me just how much I’ve done here.

These last couple of weeks will be great, just like the six preceding ones. Going to Patagonia was worth every day and every peso. It’s never something I thought I would do while on this trip in South America because of time and expense. And yet, abut a week ago I found myself knee deep in snow, 2,000 metres above sea level, looking at the most famous peak of the whole district, Monte Fitz Roy, and singing Oasis with two mates in the sun after a 20km hike.

Patagonia

That hike is a good place to start. The tiny town of El Chalten is one of the hiking capitals of the Andes region and the journey to Laguna de los Tres (lake of the three) is an incredible one bordering lakes, winding through forest, crunching frosted soil and traversing chilled, glacial streams, all the while looking up every few seconds to gawp at the view of the Andes in winter.

We set off with many layers and lunch prepared in the icy darkness of the Patagonian morning, with the temperature eight below freezing. After ascending rapidly into the trees, clothes were coming off, though my folded-over socks remained on my hands as makeshift gloves that would later be a complete necessity. Our first stop gave us an incredible view over The Valley of the De las Vueltas river. The mountains a silhouette blocking the deep purple sky, we caught our breath and headed onwards, the sun quickly rising and the colours of red, blue, purple and yellow converging in the sky.

The Fitz Roy rock formation that sells so many postcards took about two hours to reach, and we just managed to catch the final red tints of sunrise when we first glimpsed the jutting slab of granite.

Onwards we continued, moving down into another valley which opened up one of the hike’s best buenavistas. While we descended the hillside, a gap opened up all the way down the valley. We couldn’t stare, for risk of slipping on the ice that was becoming more and more frequent on the track.

Soon, the sun was blocked by the mountain and the reality of the crisp freezing air hit once more, with layers being thrown back on. I sipped from a glacial freshwater creek and we carried on.

Eventually, after crossing a few rivers on rickety bridges, we found ourselves faced with a staircase covered in pure ice. My Israeli friend, a former army medic in his home country, turned to me and said, ‘have you got insurance?’, and we climbed up. The worst (best) was still to come.

The final kilometre of the Fitz Roy hike is a sharp ascent on an incline of roughly 60%. It would have been fine, though tiring, had the final two-thirds of this section not been covered in ice of at least a foot’s thickness. Utterly impossible to use the ice-covered track which could have been more appropriately used for the Argentine bobsled team, we climbed up to the side, hanging onto leaf-less trees until the branches broke and catching ourselves on rocks. My Adidas Continental trainers were not designed for this. For two hours, we hung, grabbed onto snow desperately and continued to look up to see only more and more distance. Eventually, the very tip of Mt Fitz Roy peeked over the lip of the mountainside and we continued. It had been far too long to go back down, though I was glad with a former-army medic.

It was worth every bit of effort to wrench ourselves up a route not fit for someone in trainers, jeans and a t-shirt. While we went up, climbers with sticks, clumpy boots and all the other kit looked at us in mild disbelief. They were right to do so, because the way down would prove even harder.

Before that, though, was the view at the top. We sat in the snow, finally ate and listened to Oasis with an unspoiled 360 degree panoramic view to ourselves. Only one other man was anywhere near the top, and we soon joined him at the lake that suddenly appeared below us when we moved over the lip (a formal frontal moraine of a glacier). The Laguna de los Tres is called so because it’s in between three massive rock formations and maybe because it’s beautiful enough to come back every day for three lifetimes.

We moved down to the lake, walked and lay on the frozen water with some brief scares. The Korean man came worryingly close to slipping into a man-made hole in the ice, and we soon left. We had three hours to climb back down the hardest section before another 10km back to El Chalten for our 6:30pm bus.

We raced up the snowy section before finding ourselves at the top of the iced drop and started immediately. Once more, we found ourselves hanging from trees, though this time with our momentum going down the hill. A few slips, broken branches and near misses aside, we were surprised to find ourselves at the bottom with no broken bones. We walked back quickly, managing the 10km in under two hours and stopped for a hot chocolate before grabbing our bags to catch a bus.

El Calafate

That bus took us to El Calafate. It was only two hours, a relief after the 25-hours earlier in the week. I had my third and fourth ham sandwich of the day, though one had the unbeatable addition of crisps to spice things up.

El Calafate is the city closest to the famous Perito Moreno Glaciar, one of the only glaciers in the world that is advancing (meaning, growing in length).

It’s 70m tall. That’s similar to Tower Bridge, or the equivalent of three Buckingham Palaces on top of each other. There’s a further 160m of ice beneath the water, too. It goes back 30km and is 2km across. It’s massive.

We set off there the next day and after the lakes and hikes of Bariloche and El Chalten, it was an instant difference, and a great one. You can stare at the glaciar for hours while small (though they are actually metres-wide) chunks of ice break off and sending a crashing, gun-shot like sound to reverberate around the valley.

Walking on the metal viewpoints for a few hours, we then settled down for some cards before an hour-boat trip right up to the face of the glaciar. The lake was a milky blue because of the ice and the ice itself was a piercing light blue. Pictures don’t do it justice, but they are still better than words.

After returning to our hostel, a great place with a log fire in the middle of sofas and tables, we had a steak dinner. The steak in Argentina is cheap and great, but this was the first time I’ve been amazed by one. Served as a slab on its own plate, it was perfect. With chips and salad, too, plus bread with the brilliant chimichurri sauce, it cost us £11 each. And someone gave us free wine from Mendoza to have with it.

Ushuaia

We left the following morning for a flight to Ushuaia, the end of the world. It’s the southernmost city in the world and it knows it. Every bar, every boat and every possible part of the city tells you where you are. Looking on a map and seeing our location was slightly surreal. We couldn’t have been further south without heading to Antarctica.

Another matter which is constantly on reminder is the fact that we were very near the Falklands. ‘Las Malvinas fueron, son, será Argentinas’ = The Falklands are, always have been and always will be Argentina’s. Ushuaia is the capital city of the ‘Malvinas’ province of Argentina. They care. Thankfully they don’t mind English tourists anymore, though the loss of apprehension is only a recent thing.

In Ushuaia, we rested for a day with Netflix in our AirBnB where I failed to convince Americans and a Dutch girl that English comedy is good. Life of Brian came close to drawing a laugh, but the Inbetweeners was a no-go.

In our first full day, we headed to Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) national park. Ushuaia used to be a prison city, with a brutal prison open during the first half of the 20th-century. Prisoners wore blue and yellow jumpsuits in the bitter cold and would be carried by train from the prison near the heart of the town into the forests of Tierra del Fuego. Here, they would chop down trees for buildings and firewood. Though the conditions were harsh, all prisoners were taught a life skill so they could find a job after they left and no one ever escaped. Those who did try to do so returned after two days of living in what is now the national park and attempting to move north.

That prison train has now been converted into a private tourist attraction, with 7km of the original 25km taking us from the edge of the national park just inside it. We did a return trip, taking just under two hours, seeing the stumps of the trees cut down a century ago, horses chewing on frosted bushes and more brilliant views. The steam from the top of the train made only for an even better picture.

Afterwards, we took a bus right into the national park, tried to hike towards the Chilean border (only 3km away). We were stopped by the unavoidable ice. We slid on the roads, fell on our faces and had a great time in the rain. We didn’t make it to Chile.

On Monday, we took a three-hour boat trip on the Beagle Channel, the home of sea lions, sometimes penguins and the channel between Argentina and Chile. The penguins had, unfortunately, left due to the oncoming winter cold, but the channel has some birds that look almost exactly the same, without quite replicating the waddle.

After the boat trip, we took advantage of some free hot chocolate vouchers in a chocolate shop (the area is famous for this) before taking a taxi to do the Glaciar Martial hike. The taxi wound up the mountain for 20 minutes until we reached the start of the hike. It was covered in, and yes there is a pattern here, ice. We climbed up for about 100 metres before stopping for lunch in the rain with the view of the Beagle Channel in front of us. As we ate lunch on the side of the ascent, leaning against a snowy rock, we were provided with entertainment of the highest order. Imagine a ski slope completely covered in ice and rocks instead of snow, and that’s what the path was like, though narrower. Halfway through my ham sandwich, someone came sliding down the slope on their arse at huge speed before catching himself on a rock. Soon after, with him in tears, his Dad came down and ploughed into him. That five-second memory on loop is one of my favourites.

We decided to slide down, too, and it was a great fun, though I stayed on my feet instead of on my arse. Later, we penguin-dived down a slope to make up for the lack of penguins on the boat trip. Anyone who wants to see that video can request it!

We went out to the world’s southernmost Irish bar (to add to the highest one I drank at in La Paz) and had pizza and beer and flew home on Tuesday afternoon to be greeted back at the hostel and settle immediately back into the routine of Buenos Aires. Public transport, shops open after 8pm, cheap food, Uber. All the luxuries of big cities that I can’t live without.

Buenos Aires

There’s not long left, but the next week and a half will be great. After that, I head to Brazil for one week for the Copa America football tournament. And then home…

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