Weeks 41 to 42 - Patagonia, Argentina
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The only way is down!
After the high of Antartica, there was only one way to go, and that was down. We finished the trip in the town of Ushuaia, which apart from being the departing point for trips to the Antartic, there really is no reason to keep you there. So as you can imagine, being stuck in the most southerly town in the world (it claims) and the dullest town in the world (not part of tourist ads) for a week (no bus seats), we were bound to start going down hill somewhat. It seemed crazy to have post holiday blues when, technically, we were still on holiday, but we could not stop them. We tried various ways to keep ourselves amused to fight off the blues;
- downloading our Antartica pictures onto our website - too frustrating as the connection was soooo slow,
- sleeping, a lot - hardly exciting but at least we escaped the blues,
- phoning family - good, but very expensive rates,
- drinking - I ended up in tears in a restaurant (embarrassing), so we decided to avoid that for a while, and
- walking through the local Tierra del Fuego National Park to see a small glacier - nice, but it really only killed a day, and it still wasn´t the Antartic!
So we just rode out the Antartica blues and prayed the week would pass quickly.
Finally the day arrived when we could leave Ushuaia and 13 hours later we were back in Chile, in the town of Puerto Natales. I would just like to add at this point that Patagonia is known for being remote, but I can honestly say that for the entire 13 hour bus journey the majority of the scenery was green fields with no human life whatsoever - crazy!
The purpose of our visit to Puerto Natales was to go trekking and camping in the Torres del Paine National Park, which is supposed to be the best national park in the whole of South America. We planned to trek the ´W´, as it is known, for 3 days, which consisted of two peaks and some stunning walks in between. This was the first ´full on´ hiking we had done, in the sense that we bought a camp stove, camping utensils, brought all our own food, our own tent and sleeping bags etc.
The mountainous scenery that should have been stunning was mainly covered by low cloud. Our plan was to walk up the first peak that day via Valle de Frances. However, after two hours of walking in the rain, wind and mist we decided to set up camp at the base and hope the fog would have lifted by the morning. The purpose of climing the peaks was the views, and if you could not see anything there really was no point, so we set the alarm for 4am in the hope that we would catch an amazing sunrise at the top of the peak.
Unfortunately, the rain and low clouds did not clear by the next moring, but our tent was waterproof. We held out until midday and then took the decision to walk to the base of the next peak, which was going to take about 6 hours. After an hour of walking, we had finally left the rain and the sun was burning our eyes out. The views were stunning. The mountains above us were striking, some of which were snow capped and the lakes below were such a stunning turquoise, it was unbelievable. At one point our hike took us right next to the lake and it was sooo inviting, if it had not been freezing cold glacier melt we would have jumped in.
When we reached our campsite the sun was still shining so we could see the very tops of our destination the following day, so despite being exhausted we could not wait. We collapsed into bed at about 10pm with the plan for another sunrise viewing. At 4am, we were too tired to move and headed out at a more reasonable 8am.
After taking lots of pictures we realised we did not have that much time to catch our bus back to Puerto Natales, so we ran back down to our campsite, quickly packed the tent and then ran the majority of the way back down to the bus, despite the sore knees. As we were on our way back down the rains started again, so we could not have timed it better.
The following day we left Puerto Natales and headed back into Argentinian Patagonia to El Calafate, where we would see a huge glacier. Now having seen a lot of glaciers in the Antartic we were wary of how big andhow god it would actually be. Anyway, we need not have worried because when we got there and it was huge; a truely impressive sight! Also, it moved a lot so you could hear it cracking all the time and hear pieces dropping off into the water. We waited for about two hours and witnessed a huge slab of glacier ice falling off and crashing into the water - very cool (no pun intended).
Will the whales still be there?
For our next destination we had to make a choice, to either stay east and head to Bariloche, a pretty ski town, or head west to Puerto Madryn in the hope of seeing whales. The risk was that it was very late in the season and the whales may have, if not already, moved on towards Antartica. But we decided to risk it and head to Puerto Madryn and the Valdes Peninsular. We broke up the very long journey with an over night stop in Rio Gallegos, another dull town, and caught our 9am bus to Puerto Madryn, that was going to arrive at 1:30am.
The next day was an absolute scorcher. This was the first time in about a month that we were back in our shorts and flip flops, it was fantastic. We spent our first day here wondering about the town and checking out the beach. We also discovered that there were no more whale watching trips going out as all the whales had left - boo hoo. But there was still plenty of wildlife to see there, so we hired a car and headed into the Valdes Pennisular National Park the next day.
First stop of the day was the tourist information centre in the park where they informed us that there were still whales watching trips going out as there had been a few sightings each day - hurray! We headed down to the beach, where the trips left from, to see if any boats were going.
Luckily enough the boat left at 12:30. After one hour we had still not seen any whales, but then all of a sudden the captain saw one in the distance. But it was not one, nor two, but EIGHT!!! All mothers and babies, brilliant. All the babies were flapping their fins and tails and generally playing around whilst staying very close to their mums. It was amazing.
If that was not enough, on the way back to shore, we saw pink flamingos, penguins and watched a seal hunting in a shole of fish - superb! After that amazing trip (even the staff were amazed that we had seen eight whales) we hopped back in the car to explore the rest of the park. Along the drive we saw hundreds of sea lions, a colony of Magellan penguins and then on our last stop of the day we walked down to the beach to view the sea lions, but what should we see in the ocean, not far from the shore, but a Killer Whale, an Orca. Not one but two. The fin on that animal was enormous.
We were soo lucky that day, the whales all should have left and the Orcas were not supposed to have arrived for another month. That day was the highlight of South America for us.
Buenos Aires here we come.......
The next day was another overnight bus journey to the beach town of Mar del Plata, which would get us closer to Buenos Aires for Christmas, and the all important party celebrations!!!!.