Tag Archives: Patagonia

Day 19 – It’s the end of the world as we know it…..

Today we leave Puerto Natales for Punta Arenas, the most southerly point on our journey.  You know you are in the less populated parts of the world when Google Maps doesn’t have the roads never mind street view (have a look at Puerto Nateles for yourself). However Punta is a much bigger town and has over 100,000 people and therefore Google has deemed they can have roads.

When booking our tickets we decided that we would bring a bit of financial rigour to our trip and looked at all the bus companies available and bought the cheapest ticket with Buses Pacheo – saving $1000 Chilean Peso. Result.

As we approached the bus station we walk past the more expensive Bus Sur which looks swish and modern compared to our slightly older transport for the day.  Boarding the bus we are greeted by the sight of an open engine compartment. Always encouraging.  We sit patiently in our seats watching Bus Sur pull serenely out of the station with an almost Germanic timetable adherence whilst listening to the sound of hammering, drilling and the cracking of a soldering iron before we are eventually told that the bus has mechanical issues and is not going to Punta Arenas.

A mad dash ensues as people make their way for refunds and other bus companies – we can split the task and thankfully bag the last 2 seats in the next bus leaving so we are only delayed an hour but end up paying the extra $1000. But when that works out to be £1.20 it’s not too bad – think we might book a more modern bus next time.

We arrive at Punta Arenas airport where our accommodation host collects us and 2 other bus passengers staying at the same place and we drive to the B&B.

It’s a way out of town but a beautiful location and find a selection of log cabins in the woods complete with log burners and a beautiful but shy puppy called Hugo.  The buildings and almost all the furniture (beds, tables, chairs etc) have all been made by the owner out of wood – very impressive.

The people that run La Casa Escondida (literally the house that is hidden) are incredibly welcoming and helpful, and nothing feels like too much trouble.  This extends to Mauricio offering a personal chauffeur service to guests for the duration of their stay, which given that the ‘Hidden House’ is quite a way out of town is very useful as taxi costs could soon add up.

We had booked to visit a penguin colony on an island off shore but the Chilean Navy (who are in charge of allowing access) deem the weather conditions to be unsuitable.  The second time in a week that the Patagonian weather – in particular the wind – has scuppered our plans.  Perhaps not that surprising given we are at ‘the end of the world’, but still disappointing.

Our fellow guests (that we shared the transfer with) are Joe and Christina from the USA, who normally live in San Fransisco, but are at the very end of their own ‘Big Trip’ having spent 3 months in S.America.  They were also scheduled to be on the same penguin tour so we all get our ‘chauffuer’ to take us into town to look at other options and grab some food.

We both book on a afternoon tour to a land accessed smaller penguin colony for tomorrow, but Joe and Christina’s flight time out of Punta Arenas on Tuesday means that they get another ‘shot’ at the larger island colony.

Mauricio has given our ‘group’ a mobile phone so that we can contact him when we need picking up (told you the service was good), and we have both booked to have dinner at La Casa Escondida at the same time.  All of a sudden Joe & Christina and ourselves are ‘stuck’ each other for a reasonable portion of the next two days….just how will the ‘Limeys’ and ‘Yanks’ get on?

The simple answer is, very well indeed – though I have to say nice things about them as we exchanged ‘FaceBook’ links and they might be reading this blog 😉

First we have a bit of lunch (with some laughably slow service at times) and then have a short walk and see the sights of the town.  Not that Punta Arenas has many if we are being honest – it’s a working port town and used mainly for the airport to enter/leave Patagonia, however we do find a comedy statue with bin bags (under construction) and a lovely old wooden jetty.

In the evening back at the accommodation we share a traditional Patagonian BBQ and chill out on the sofa in front of the fire.

We knew at the start of the trip that language would be a challenging (especially for me) and interesting part of our travels.  What is more surprising is that it’s just as difficult talking to people that claim to speak the same language!  I am not sure how far we set back Anglo-American relations during the day but some highlights included explaining cockney rhyming slang (http://londontopia.net/londonism/fun-london/language-top-100-cockney-rhyming-slang-words-and-phrases/), trying to explain Marmite to our Chilean hosts and mocking the use of zip locked bags (Christina would give our friend Judith a run for her money in terms of OCD organisational systems).

To end the day here is a summary of some very normal English phrases that caused either genuine confusion and/or laughter amongst our friends from ‘across the pond’:

  • Should we give Mauricio a bell? (Why would he want a bell?)
  • (When asked the time) It’s half five (Isn’t half 5 2:30?)
  • Bin bags
  • Faffing
  • Torch (I didn’t think you needed one of those unless you were storming a castle or burning a witch)
  • Christ on a bike – which I think Joe might try to introduce into the San Fransisco colloquial vocabulary.  I hope so.
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Day 14 – Ice Ice Baby

Today we headed off to the Glacier Perito Moreño which was named after Francesco Moreno, an Argentinian hero, who despite the challenging geography of the region defined and gained international recognition for the border with Chile in the Patagonia region.  His name is associated with lots of things in the area, including the glacier.

Located in the ‘Los Glaciares National Park’, which covers 600,000 or 740,000 hectares depending on whether you read the English or Spanish leaflet!?!  This is the 3rd largest ice field in the world – bonus points if you can you name the first two? (*answer at the bottoms of the post trivia buffs)

The ice field covers 13000 square km in total with the Perito Moreno glacier itself covering 257 square km.

Our guide for the mini-ice trek is either French (from my view) or Spanish (from Niki’s) and very knowledgable.  Given that (a) Niki is better at accents than me, and (b) the two of them strolled down the beach together ‘geekily’ chatting about all things glacial I think I’ll have to concede he was probably Spanish. But maybe from a French border town 😉

Having studied Geography to A level and Degree level between us we both love glaciers.  For those less inclined you might want to skip the next few paragraphs which contain a good bit of natural geography…..

There is approximately 8000 mm precipitation per year in this part of the world, and this falls as snow higher up the valley creating the glacier.  As the snow compacts with more and more snow falling on top, it compresses and forms ice – a process that takes around 15 years.

Due to the angle of the valley and the relatively shallow lake (approx 110m deep) the % split of the glacier that is in formation / melting zones means that the glacier is not shrinking in size.

This makes the Perito Moreno glacier unusual in that it’s one of the few glaciers that not receding – in fact it maintains equilibrium, or even slightly increases.  What makes the glacier unique is that it’s the only  one in the world that creates a dam due to its expansion.

With not set frequency – but a cycle of 2-4 years seems normal – the glacier extends to the point it reaches land and causes a dam. The  differential height will reach 8m before the pressure forces through leaving an ice bridge and eventually a famous scene when it collapses.  When this occurs thousands of people descend on the area – sadly it wasn’t happening today though it did appear to have made land but water was still flowing freely (presumably underneath the ice).

We don crampons and head out on the glacier with our guides instructions of “walk like a duck” up hill, and a “marching soldier” down hill ringing in our ears.  Crampon are brilliant. We almost feel like Spider-Man with the ease you can move up and down steep slopes.

Up close the glacier is beautiful and other worldly.  The colours of the ice look an almost unnatural bright blue and the holes and crevices that mark the surface make it far more complex structure than you might imagine (similar to how we found Uluru in Australia).

The scale of the glacier may not come across in the photographs – but the front face is 6km a wide and the face is 40-60m high above the water (plus the 110 below).  And this baby is quick – debunking the stereotype – moving at 2m a day!

Even still this means the front face is still 350 years old. And therefore the glacial ice cut from the floor and used to serve us a glass of whiskey and ice at the end of the tour was older than the drink!!  Ideal preparation for a tricky final decent off the ice and back to the park 🙂

The national park is really well organised.  They manage to create superb access but at the same time manage to have a really light impact (there are no rubbish – basura – collections so everyone takes their rubbish back to El Calafate).

We drive over to the viewing platforms for an hour and get some great up close pictures – in the rain – before ordering a cup of tea in a rush for the bus and ended up with something weird that definitely didn’t benefit from the addition of milk…yuk!

Tiring day ends back in El Calafate where we buy bus tickets for tomorrow and have an OK vegetarian dinner at the accommodation.

*Antarctica is largest and Greenland is second largest.

Day 13 – The winds of change

Early departure from warm and sunny BA for a 9:00 flight to El Calafate in southern Argentina, in an area known as Patagonia.

Neither of us are great flyers – which given the amount of time we are spending on airplanes over the next 6 months may seem a bit odd!  Maybe we will become blasé by May time?  Anyway, when the pilot pops on the tannoy to say “its a bit windy out there” is doesn’t necessarily help.

He actually put her down smoothly, no worse than any other normal flight.  Before they opened the doors, he came back on the tannoy to say the usual thank you and enjoy your day etc. but also to be careful when leaving the plane on the steps as the winds were at 49 knots (55 mph).  Outside the winds were indeed ferocious and we were both in admiration for the skill of the pilot.  Good work sir, good work.

Airports are generally not attractive places.  To steal from Douglas Adams, no language on earth has the phrase “as pretty as an airport” in it for good reason (and in particular Geneva airport deserves special mention for its ugliness in my opinion).  El Calafate does a good job of trying to overcome this stereotype with exposed stone walls, carpets, light and airy glass / steel atriums and a view out over the runway of a strikingly blue glacial lake.

Our hotel arranged to collect us for a reasonable fee – I was quite excited to see someone stood there with my name on a piece of paper like in the films (never had it before) – and on the way the driver pointed out that the presidents plane was on the runway as she was down in the area for a mini-break and in fact has a house about 300 yards from where we were staying.
The hotel is a little out of town – perhaps 10 to 15 minutes walk – but it is near the shores of Argentino Lake and therefore the walk is worth it for the beautiful vista from our window.

El Calafate is a different experience to that I have had in South America before – on this trip or on a previous trip to Bolivia 10 years ago.  Its very clean and tidy, has a wide roads built on an American  style grid system, and resembles a north american small town crossed with a ski resort.  There are outdoors shops everywhere with opening hours designed to be there when the tourists are back in town after days out on tours etc to the local scenery.  Blimey are they expensive though – a pair of branded gloves costing the best part of £80 that would be probably half that in the UK.  To be fair this place is a long way from anywhere and does not have an international airport so the costs of getting stuff here must be high, but even still you feel as though they are making a fairly hefty profit from the un prepared (which we are not – though Niki does spend a lot of time trying on bobble hats).

The area is famous for a glacier that is 80km away, but there isn’t time to do that today.  After a wonderful lunch of savoury crepes (lamb, creamed leeks and honey) courtesy of Niki and the Lonely Plant we do have time to visit the Glaciarium though.

This is a museum that opened 3 years ago that is focused on all things ice related.  I would say that this part of the world is not short of land – a look at Google Maps will show you its an exposed little place – which makes the decision to put the museum 5km outside of town a little hard to understand.  There is a bus service that shuttles you there and back but you do wonder why it is where it is.  The bus is now free but previously you had to pay for it – I presume that they made it free as they weren’t getting the numbers of visitors.

It is an imposing structure.  All white concrete and glass in a irregular structure we presume in an attempt to look like a glacier / iceberg.  Inside is a very modern audio-visual experience type museum that takes you through the science of glaciers (erratics etc) and icebergs using touch screens, video screens and a 3D theatre and finishes off with a thought provoking sensory overloading view of the environmental future of the planet that had us thinking about how we can offset our carbon on this trip.  A brilliant experience.

In addition to the scientific and educational exhibits, the Glaciarium also hosts a more basic attraction – an ice bar!  Yep for 100 Arg Pesos (about £10) you get to don a ridiculous silver insulated set of over gloves and fur lined poncho and enter a bar made of ice for 30 minutes.  You get a glass made of ice, you can sit on chairs made of ice, and order drinks from a bar made of ice served by a S.American version of Lister from Red Dwarf (complete with what looked like a iridescent blue spacesuit).  Whilst you are in there you can drink as much as you like for the entrance money – I did my best to get our money’s worth 😉

Post the Glaciarium we need to wait outside for the shuttle bus and its a bit cold and wet.  Soon the numbers of people begin to exceed the capacity of the next bus and there is concern from one visitor about the people getting back in the correct order – thankfully you can rely on the Professional Queuers of the World and some fellow Brits quickly recount the order that people joined the group outside.  This didn’t stop one lady jumping the queue which exposed a cultural difference – in the UK nobody would have said anything but we’d have all have a good old mutter about it under our breath, but here the lady was challenged by a fellow S.American immediately (thankfully a second bus arrived immediately afterwards and prevented a fight breaking out).

The change in climate from BA means we won’t be needing our shorts etc for a few days.  It gives us chance to get some washing done at the hostel – so the key to packing light is to change your climate as often as you need to wash your clothes!