Southbound to the end of the world

Ushuaia Travel Blog

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Leaving Santiago in search of some cleaner air I headed for Pucon, a small town in the lake district. It had the look of a ski resort in somewhere like Germany and seemed to be Chiles equivalent of Queenstown in New Zealand with everything from skydiving to kyaking to horseriding and hiking along with allsorts of others inbetween. Having spent the first day doing nothing in particular I decided to go horse riding on the second day. Apart from a few very short bursts of cantering while in Mongolia I´d never really done much other than trot on a horse so it was great fun (and well worth the resulting John Wayne walk!!) to spend most of the afternoon hanging on for dear life cantering around the countryside.

Day three in Pucon saw me having to use my brain properly for the first time in years as I started Spanish school. Three hours a day for five days one on one lessons, at several points I wished I was in a proper class and could hide at the back when I didn´t know the answer! Pretty intense but well worth it as at least now I can say more than ¿habla Ingles? and no entiendo!

Last full day in Pucon and with a blue sky day I was off to climb the volcano Villarrica. Its a pointy little sod especially near the top but an absolutely amazing day. Needed crampons and with ice axe at the ready on the way up, on the way down we were provided with a waterproof "nappy" and bum sized plastic plate and slid down the top 1/3 on our bums - so much fun.

Next up was Puerto Montt in northern Patagonia, an industrial port town with little charm. That said I had the funniest night I´ve had in a long time there while staying in a small hospedaje owned by a slightly potty lady that had poodles dressed in house coats and that she put frilly skirts on and took to dancing competitions. Along with Christiana (my traveling companion for the next week) and a few other travelers we sat with the lady and her young helper drinking wine. Everyone but me spoke conversational Spanish, think I only managed to understand about 1/4 of the conversation but still laughed so hard my stomach hurt and I had tears in my eyes. Cant really remember what was so funny now but she had the most contagious laugh I´ve ever heard!

Next day we were off on the Navimag ferry heading south through fjords to Puerto Natales. Day one was pretty but cloudy and very cold, day two was clearer and we started to get some fantastic views, snowy mountains, seals and dolphins jumping in the water and even some whales (well saw the tail flip out of the water at least).

Arrived into Puerto Natales in a blizzard and started thinking I must be mad to want to do a five day hike/camp in Torres del Paine. Two hours later though it was still very cold but blue sky. The hostel I was staying at was known for being a meeting place for (slightly crazy) people like me who want to go hiking, and it was there that I met Jonny, Martin and Matt my walking partners for the park. We set out the following morning armed with tents, sleeping bags and food for 5 days.

Day one was a nice easy walk. The views were pretty good although a little cloud was covering the tops of the mountains. Think the most surreal thing was the lack of noise, never been anywhere so quiet. Not just that there was no man made sound but there wasn´t any wind either and when we stopped walking it was complete silence. Arrived at the camp and as we set the tents up the tops cleared and we got our first views of the Torres - stunning.

Day two, we´d decided the previous day that we were going to need to be up early to fit in the 10 hours of walking we were expecting to do. The day got off to a bad start when we were up an hour later than planned! Not being a morning person at the best of times I was very unimpressed when I was told by Matt we would have to miss breakfast if we were still going to head up to the glacier before setting off to the next camp and if I didn´t like it I should wait at the camp till the boys got back!. Having my fair share of walking experience (but common sense would surely also say) that you cant do a 10 hour day, particularly in conditions that can change from one extreme to another in a matter of minutes with no fuel in your body. To say there was a little tension between the two of us would be an understatement!! We set off (minus breakfast). Before too long Matt arranged to meet us at camp two and headed off on his own. From my point of view a good thing as it ment I enjoyed the rest of the day rather that being pissed off and by the time we met up in the evening it was all water under the bridge. In the end day two took us to a view point of Glacier Grey and then around the bottom of Cerro Paine Grande to our camp in the middle of nowhere. Set the tents up and headed up Valle Frances. Interesting walking, lots of black ice and snow. Went as far as we dare to make sure we left enough light to get back down - wouldn´t have fancied doing it in the dark as it was tricky enough in the light. Were a bit later coming down than I would have planned but it ment that we had some stunning views of the changing light on the mountains opposite as the sun set. Arrived back in camp just as it was getting dark, fetched water from the stream to make the noodles and then into bed to keep warm - it was only about 6pm! Remember waking up at some point in the night and thinking it was strange that I actually felt warm, then realized that I was very close to the side of the tent and couldn´t move away from it - turns out me and Matt were sharing the 2ft width of my sleeping matt!

Day three, from camp Italliano to a camp ground at Hosteria las Torres took us around the bottom of Los Cuernos. Not a particularly difficult day but made harder as a lot of the paths were frozen solid with black ice, never been so glad for lots of trees and bushes to hold onto. The day also saw lots of streams to cross, some with bridges, several without - talk about taking leaps of faith, you were never too sure which ice you could stand on and not fall through or which rocks you´d go flying on when your foot hit it.

The campsite we found was an absolute blessing, next to a really fancy hotel we didn´t know existed, at $160/person/night staying in the hotel was out of the question, and besides it would have been cheating, but it was so good to go into the bar for a cheeky beer or two in front of the fire at the end of the day. The guy behind the bar was lovely boiling the kettle for me to fill my water bottle before we left for bed, don´t know if it was the big smile and pigtails or just the pleading look in my eyes that did it, whichever that extra bit of warmth was much appreciated! Dont think I´ve ever slept in so many clothes, from the thermal top and bottoms, trousers, fleece, body warmer, scarf and hat all squeezed into a sleeping bag and it was still not very warm! (the guy back at the hostel told me the temperature was dropping to minus 7 at night, and there was me last year complaining at work when the air con was turned on!).

Day four was by far my favourite day. The first hour about killed me heading up a big hill and my legs just didn´t want to work. Once we got to the point where the path leveled out a bit and headed up the valley the views were just stunning though. We were going through trees that were heavy with snow, kindof made me think of the type of scene I´d imagined as a kid in something like 'the lion the witch and the wardrobe'. The final push up to the lookout point of the Torres was tough going up a very steep boulder field that was deep with snow. Made our own path up as it wasn´t clear where to go, never too sure if you´d hit a rock or loose your foot/leg in the snow! The view from the top was pretty stunning, sat having lunch and a very hardy mouse appeared to eat the scraps, felt sorry for it so fed it some banana chips. Heading down the boulder field I´m now looking back on and think it was great fun, half walking, half sliding, at the time though I was terrified I´d break an ankle and be stuck! Arrived back at camp to find our food, although hanging in the trees, had been raided by mice and some of the bags were hanging in shreds.....bloody cheek, after we´d fed its kin too!! Back to the bar for more beers!

Day five, only 8km and thank god, we´d been so lucky with the weather and although it still didn´t rain the wind was up and it was biting cold. Made much more tolerable though knowing that at the end of it there were hot showers, fat steaks and lots of vino followed by a day of sleeping infront of the tv....bliss!

Jumped on a bus across the boarder into Argentina to El Calafate to visit the Perito Moreno glacier. Its beautiful and huge rising 60ft high out of the water. Bumped into Jonny and Martin on the bus to the glacier. Had a bus to Ushuaia to catch a 4am so was nice to sit playing cards over a few beers with them till about half two. Knackered by the time I got on the bus. Interesting journey, should have taken 4 hours to the first stop where I´d change buses. About two hours into the journey we hit a blizzard and the driver drove off the road........sure if I was a little less intoxicated and a little more awake I´d have been more concerned! Think it took a good hour of the bus skidding around to get back onto the road. Four hours later than we should have arrived we got to Rio Galligos, missed the connecting bus so had to stay for the night.. It really was the arse end of nowhere, at least on a Sunday when everywhere was closed.

Got on the bus from there to Ushuaia - the end of the world - or at least the most southern city.. The journey filled my passport with lots of stamps having crossed from Argentina into Chile and then back into Argentina again. Dont know what I expected of the far south of Patagonia but the drive down wasn´t what I expected - its masses of really really flat land, until we got near to Ushuaia anyway when it turned to hills lots and lots of snow.

Yesterday morning was great, went up into the hills husky sledding and riding round on snow mobiles. Todays been spent on a boat taking lots of pictures of sea lions in the Beagle Chanel........its a hard life!

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photo by: xander_van_hoof