Land of fire

11 Feb
Beware of guanacos, Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego is both harsh and beautifully desolate.

El Calafate, Argentina
[by Paula]

When European explorers reached ‘the end of the world’ at Tierra del Fuego in the 1500s, they called it the ‘land of fire’ because they could see hundreds of little blazes on the coastline and believed the indigenous natives were waiting to ambush them.

In fact, the people were just minding their own business. They were living in a pretty inhospitable place with a wind-chill factor that – as the Brits say – would freeze the balls off a brass monkey, yet they went around naked. Not surprisingly, they lit a lot of fires, including inside their wooden canoes while they were out fishing.

With that in mind, it seemed rather churlish of us to complain about the cold.

Jeez though, it was freezing. But we’d made it to Tierra del Fuego and absolutely nothing was going to piss on that bonfire.

On leaving El Calafate last month (we are now back here again), our first quest had been to find somewhere to fill our propane tank. We headed to the industrial city of Rio Gallegos, where our Buenos Aires friend Gustavo is originally from. He hadn’t exactly over-sold Gallegos as an ideal holiday destination, and it felt as miserable, wet and windy as we’d expected.

But on the sunny side, we did find the gas plant and they were at least able to partially fill the tank. The van feels kind of sad without the cooker, which is also a source of heat in the evenings, so it was relief all round when we pulled away from the factory and headed south again.

Before long we were exiting the country and boarding the ferry to Tierra del Fuego, which is a series of islands split between Argentina and Chile.

Tierra del Fuego National Park

Colourful yet brooding – Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina.

Given that we were arriving about a year later than we’d originally estimated, it might sound strange to say that suddenly it all felt like it was happening in a rush! We so wanted to get there without anything going wrong, but at the same time we were aware that arriving might feel like the end of an era, and almost started to mentally drag our feet.

Meanwhile, we had two separate superstitions going on.

Jeremy had his ‘Spurs fan’ syndrome. This is something that supporters of the football club Tottenham Hotspur suffer from – as soon as they are winning they become convinced they are going to ‘throw it all away’ and behave in a far more nervous, negative and irrational way than when they are losing. As we got closer to our goal, with every mile Jeremy was thinking: “I can hardly bear the fact that we are almost there. But at least even if we break down here, we can get a tow to Ushuaia.

I had my ‘morbid journalist’ syndrome. This derives from reading/writing too many headlines about people who are tragically cut down just as their lives have reached a high point – such as, ‘tragic newlyweds eaten by shark on honeymoon’ or ‘crash victim was travelling to meet long lost twin’. You get the idea. As we got closer to our goal, with every mile I was thinking: “I hope we get there before we die.”

So with those cheerful, unspoken, thoughts we set off from the fabulous campsite in Tolhuin to very carefully drive the final 100km to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia.

“I thought: ‘This is it. This is how we die’.”

Big days such as these can sometimes turn out to be an anti-climax, so I was genuinely surprised that as we played Jeremy’s ‘end of the world’ playlist during the drive, we both got a bit choked up. It’s a cliche, but during the trip we really haven’t focused on our so-called destination. But during many months of uncertainty when our van was broken down in Ecuador, we realised it would matter to us if the chance to reach our goal was taken away.

About 5km before the city, we both needed to pee. As we pulled over to a riverside parking area, a guy came running over to ask for our help. His jeep had become totally wedged in a muddy dip near the river, with its nose pointing upwards. We couldn’t get the van down there to pull him out, so tried a few other ways to get traction on his wheels, to no avail.

What was really needed was a lot of weight on the front – he asked us to stand on the bumper while he tried to get it moving. It seemed a bit dangerous because if the car did lurch forwards into action, we’d have nothing to hold on to but fresh air.

We climbed onto the bumper and bounced up and down while he cranked it, the tyres throwing mud about 10ft in the air.

I thought: “This is it. This is how we die. Squashed under a little jeep, in the mud, 5km north of Ushuaia. Tragic, and yet also a bit embarrassing.”

The bumper tactic was unsuccessful, but at least we were alive. He called his mate to come and drag him out, and we were out of there. Within a few minutes we turned a corner and there was Ushuaia, and we were jumping about and celebrating, which we briefly blogged about the day after we arrived.

Ushuaia - we're here!

Made it!

It was great to bump into our friends Rike and Martin that night, who helped us mark the moment with a few Cape Horn beers and some Patagonian lamb. Within a few days we were also making new drinking buddies of Rebecca and Bruce, of Yellow Van Days – Brits who shipped a T4 van like ours from the UK and are at the beginning of their journey.

Being a Brit in Argentina has caused no issues for us but there is, to say the least, a difficult relationship between our two countries. The Malvinas/Falklands dispute with Britain is a significant part of life all over Argentina, but it’s particularly noticeable in Tierra del Fuego – which considers itself to be part of the same region as the Malvinas.

'The Malvinas are Argentinian'

‘The Malvinas are Argentinian’

There are signs, monuments and references to the 1982 war with the UK all over the place. One notice at the dock quotes a local law banning “English pirates” who are there to plunder Argentina’s natural resources. It’s an ever-present topic for debate here, and it’s something we want to blog on later in more detail.

From Ushuaia we spent a couple of days wandering in Tierra del Fuego national park, where some of the colours and landscapes – not to mention the wild weather – are reminiscent of Scotland.

It’s in the park that the road actually ends for real, at Bahia Lapataia, about 20km south of Ushuaia. After that, you’re just staring across the Beagle Channel, towards the more remote islands of the archipelago and the Antarctic.

Beagle Channel

Bahia Ensenada, Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego National Park.

After a few days it was time to turn north. North! A new chapter was beginning, and it got off to a damn good start. We headed straight back into the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, towards one of the biggest wildlife ‘must sees’ on our list – a relatively new King penguin colony south of Porvenir.

It doesn’t open til 11am but, like keen little penguin nerds, we slept outside the gate the night before, alongside another two campers. At 8am the next day, the park guard knocked on our door and asked if we’d like to go in before opening – a film crew was there and they wanted some foreign tourists wandering around in the background. We were out of the van like a shot.

To spend more than two hours watching the penguins reflected in the water under a blue sky, with hardly another soul around, felt like a massive privilege.

These chaps are amazing. Being royalty and all that, they’re not so silly and clumsy as the proletariat penguins, with their daft antics and lack of balance. Oh no, they do a lot of dignified standing around, looking like they feel rather important.

As if the day wasn’t quite going well enough, in the late morning a little furry head appeared on the bank about 100 metres away. It looked like an otter at first, then someone pointed out it was a tiny baby sea lion.

We couldn’t believe our luck when the wee guy then plopped into the water and started making a beeline for where we were standing.

Hello! Baby sea lion

A baby sea lion pops up to say hello, Bahia Inutil, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

We all held our breaths. Did he realise we were there? Yes, he clearly did – not only that, but he put on a show for a good 20 minutes, posing this way and that, even doing a back-bend at one point and looking at us upside down with his big milky round eyes.

Baby sea lion pose

Striking a pose – this baby sea lion was really turning it on for the cameras.

The park guard explained that he was three weeks old, and spent all day alone while his mother was out hunting for food. Perhaps he was just lonely?! Exhausted from his performance, he flaked out on the bank and took a nap at our feet.

We were tickled pink as we drove off towards Porvenir. Not only had we seen amazing wildlife, but it was the first properly summery day we’d had in ages and we were basking in it.

As we approached Bahia Chilota, we were hoping to see some more dolphins. Just as we turned into the bay, a whole group of Peale’s dolphins started somersaulting and racing along in the water in front of us, their white bellies glistening in the sun. Let me say again, we couldn’t believe it.

Dolphin back-flip, Chile

A Peale’s dolphin does a back-flip, Bahia Chilota, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

We decided to drive out to a lighthouse just beyond the town, and there found the most incredible free-camping spot overlooking the bay.

Camping near Porvenir

Great free-camping spot at the lighthouse, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

The dolphins continued to put on a show, especially when a ferry passed and they went nuts with excitement, leaping in front of the bow and always seeming to just miss a collision by inches.

For the first time in ages, we ate dinner outside, the sun still warming our necks well after 9pm. We knew it was going to be a cracking sunset – all we had to do was try to stay awake til then! One of the many joys of this part of the world – as in the north of Britain – are the sunsets that come as late as 11pm.

It truly was a perfect day, the blazing skies providing an ideal end to our trip to the land of fire.

Great free-camping spot at the  lighthouse, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

Sunset, Porvenir, Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

Days: 1,227
Miles: 32,176
Things we now know to be true: Perseverance pays off.

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Ice, ice baby

30 Jan
Perito Moreno glaciar, Argentina

Perito Moreno glaciar, Argentina

Punta Arenas, Chile
[by Paula]

It would be fair to say that Christmas Day 2014 did not begin with a cheery festive smile.

Anyone that knows me will be aware that without an early morning cup of tea, I am a non-functioning mess of a sub-human, as well as being really very unhappy.

Jeremy knows this more than anyone. So when he put the kettle on on Christmas morning, only to hear the propane gas go put-put-pssssh, he was really very afraid.

We’ve only ever run out of gas once before, so for this to happen on that day of all days was pretty unlucky. Filling up in Argentina is tricky at the best of times, but over a public holiday? No chance.

Luckily, the night before we´d bumped into road-trippers Adam, Emily and their little girls Coco and Sierra – of Our Open Road – at our campsite in Esquel. Their Christmas wasn´t going brilliantly either, as their VW camper was in serious trouble and they were trying to find mechanics and parts during the shut-down. On top of that, they´d also run out of propane weeks before and couldn´t find a place to fill up.

They generously let us use some of the final trickle of gas in their back-up camp stove and equilibrium was restored. Over breakfast, we launched Project Forgetallthat-drinkwine-buildabigfireandcookchristmasdinneronit.

We didn´t feel too sorry for ourselves as we tucked into rum, baked cheese, a load of steaks, potato salad and pears poached in red wine. Crisis averted!

Adam and Emily set off from California more than two years ago, with little Coco in tow. Last summer, Sierra was born while they were in Brazil. They look lovely and sweet, don´t they?

Our Christmas companions Emily, Adam, Colette (Coco) and Sierra, who've been journeying through LatAm in a VW campervan and blogging at ouropenroad.com

Our Christmas companions Emily, Adam, Colette (Coco) and Sierra, who’ve been journeying through LatAm in a VW campervan and blogging at ouropenroad.com

That may be so, but I’m still holding them responsible for the first two-day hangover I´ve had in a very long time. Ouch.

On hangover day two, some serious carbs were needed. We drove to the nearby town of Trevelin, one of several communities established by Welsh settlers 150 years ago. These towns, in the region of Chubut, still retain much of that character to this day – something we were delighted to take advantage of by indulging in a Welsh afternoon tea. This involved five types of cake, a scone and jam, a cheese and ham sandwich, homemade bread and unlimited tea.

In the spirit of festive excess, we ordered one each, which was entirely unnecessary and almost led to a cake coma.

Welsh afternoon tea, Trevelin

I think we may have over-ordered. Welsh tea of five types of cake, sandwich, homemade bread, scones with jam and unlimited tea. Each.

We spent a painful morning trying to fill our propane tank at a shop in Esquel, with a guy who obviously had no clue what he was doing. Only a trickle of gas went into the tank, but it would do for a few days, we hoped.

Having fully expected to spend Christmas and New Year alone, we were very happy to then hear from our Swiss friends Rike and Martin (see Rike-Martin on Tour!), whom we´d first encountered in Buenos Aires, and were in the area. We met at the nearby Parque Nacional los Alerces, and spent an excellent night camping together with a fire and plenty of food and wine.

RikeMartin on tour!

Meeting up again with Rike-Martin On Tour! Parque Nacional los Alerces, Argentina.

We could have lingered at that lovely lakeside spot, but were feeling an itch to make some headway on the road south, so set off to tackle the long, isolated, infamous Ruta 40. Some people say this route from northern to southern Patagonia is boring. Boring is an over-used, abused, word. Sure, it’s a very long and straight road and there aren’t very many towns, nor roadside cafes, nor big sights to see.

No overtaking, RN40

‘No overtaking’… Ruta 40, Patagonia, Argentina.

But so what? It takes a lot more than that for us to declare we’re bored. Besides, there was all the excitement of not knowing if we’d get stranded in the middle of nowhere because we couldn’t get hold of enough petrol.

Whilst in theory there are plenty of petrol stations to get you down the Ruta 40, they don’t always have petrol in them. At Tecka we had to drive on because the gas station was empty. At the next town it was the same!

“The delivery truck should be here by 10pm” said the pump attendant.

He suggested we went off to find a campsite and come back in the morning but, at 5pm, there was already a queue forming in anticipation of the delivery that night. Now, we Brits cannot resist a queue. So we accepted that was the end of driving for the day, got in line, popped the roof, cooked some dinner and settled down with a movie for the evening.

In the town of Perito Moreno we picked up two French hitch-hikers, Alex and Marie. We were only planning to drive about 80km that day, with the hope of spending new year’s eve at a place where we could do a long hike to a famous cave filled with ancient paintings.

“Sounds good,” they said. “We’ll join you and do the hike too.”

Due to sheets of relentless rain and a closed campsite, we never did make it to the cave. But we made some lovely friends, with whom we were still travelling 10 days later.

So new year’s eve was looking like a bit of a washout. We agreed to just keep driving until…erm… we stopped.

What was definitely not boring was the amount of wildlife we saw – herds of guanacos, rheas (or ñandús, which are like ostriches) racing along the plains, and even pink flamingos mingling with sheep within view of the road.

Guanaco, Patagonia, Argentina

Guanaco, Patagonia, Argentina

Flamingos, Ruta 40, Argentina

The wildlife on isolated Ruta 40 even included flamingos!

Rheas (ñandús), Patagonia

A family of rheas (also known as ñandús), Patagonia, Argentina.

When we got to Bajo Caracoles it felt more like the middle of nowhere as just about anywhere we’d seen. It had that wild west feel about it – a couple of petrol pumps adorned with stickers from passing travellers, a ‘hotel’ and shop that combined with the gas station, a howling freezing wind, black skies and nothing else. There was a restriction on the amount of petrol they could sell – we took our half-tank allocation and kept going.

Petrol purchase were limited to half a tank at Bajo Caracoles - one of the few stops on a long and isolated stretch of Argentina's Ruta 40.

Petrol purchases were limited to half a tank at Bajo Caracoles.

About 200km on, the curiously named town of Gobernador Gregores was where we decided to hang our hats for new year. The sheer randomness of it was somehow quite appealing. Not least because for quite some weeks Jeremy had kept looking at Gobernador Gregores on the map and declaring how he wanted to go there, imagining it to be a fascinating outpost, being the only proper town for miles and having such an odd name.

Well he got his wish, we’d be spending new year there! It was actually quite nice – we pulled into a sweet little municipal campsite which was free for anyone kind enough to visit. Result. We fired up the BBQ, cooked some meat and enjoyed a remarkably sunny evening. At midnight the town’s skies filled with fireworks, and we were treated to a free show from the campground.

Next day we took our fuzzy New Year’s Day heads down the last unpaved 80km section of the the Ruta 40 which, after all the rains, was a quagmire. Bump, bump, splash, ouch. We were all knackered but elated when we arrived in El Chalten, the ‘trekking capital’ of Argentina at the north end of the Glaciers National Park.

The views of the Fitz Roy mountain range as we approached the town were phenomenal. It’s another area where the weather can deteriorate in a moment, clouds obscuring the very sights you’ve come to see, but luck was on our side again.

Incredible views as we approached El Chalten and the Fitz Roy mountain range. Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina.

Incredible views as we approached El Chalten and the Fitz Roy mountain range. Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina.

El Chalten was insanely busy. As the four of us pulled up at the campsite, we gaped in disbelief. We’d heard Patagonia was popular in summer but we’d never seen a place so packed with rows and rows of motorhomes and tents – overall we’d had a really quiet three and half years on the road, seeing just handfuls of other campers at any one time, and mostly seeing no one, so where had they all come from?!

We were all there to see what was some of the most incredible scenery in the country – jagged granite towers, luminous lakes and giant glaciers. We made the most of a few days of good weather and got out on some day treks. Setting off very early to avoid the crowds, we were particularly lucky to enjoy a tranquil few hours of glorious weather on the way to Laguna de los Tres.

A bit like some of the other huge highlights on this trip, this area’s beauty kind of defies adequate description.

P&J, Fitz Roy mirador

Glorious views of the Fitz Roy range on our hike to Laguna de Los Tres, near El Chalten, Argentina.

Laguna de Los Tres, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina.

A vibrant Laguna de Los Tres, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina.

Laguna Torre, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina.

We got some good views of the towers before the sun pushed the clouds down onto them. Laguna Torre, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Argentina.

While the weather was relatively good, at times the wind was ferocious, freezing and energy-sapping. We were occasionally forced to pull the van’s pop-top down, for fear it would be ripped off in the gusts. Welcome to southern Patagonia.

As the weather truly dive-bombed, we headed off again – Alex and Marie still happily ensconced in the back with their backpacks and tent. The sun returned as we made our way to the southern end of the park at El Calafate.

Hitch-hiking friends

Driving to El Calafate. Alex and Marie hitch-hiked with us on new year’s eve, and we were still travelling together 10 days later!

Finding a lovely family-owned, wind-sheltered spot for camping, we settled in for a few days. Next morning, we ran out of propane again, and the local gas plant didn’t have the equipment to fill it. Argh!

This time it was Alex and Marie to the rescue! We could improvise on evening meals for a few days but quickly grasping our need for tea in the morning, they boiled water on their tiny camping stove every day and made ‘home deliveries’ to the van with a little thermos flask. Now that’s human compassion for you, and we’ll never forget it.

But really, should we keep banging on about propane when one of the most remarkable sights in South America was on our doorstep?

The biggest draw to this part of the national park is the 250km-sq Perito Moreno glacier – a beast of a block of ice at around 5km wide, 30km long and an average of 60m high. And the beast lives –  it advances along the valley by about two metres per day, causing noisy, dramatic ice falls and much ooh-in and ah-ing from the watching crowds.

We spent hours and hours gazing at it from every angle. Who would have thought one could watch ice for the best part of a day? Unforgettable.

Perito Moreno glaciar, Argentina

Panorama of the Perito Moreno glaciar, Argentina [Click on photos to enlarge]

Perito Moreno glaciar, Argentina

Perito Moreno glaciar, Argentina

The propane situation (see, I just couldn’t let it lie) was one reason we decided to slightly change the route we assumed we’d take – we’d have to divert eastwards and drive to the city of Rio Gallegos for a refill. It meant we’d be taking a faster route to ‘the end of the road’, at Ushuaia, and coming back up the slower way.

We said a sad goodbye to our French companions, and suddenly it all seemed real – maybe we really were going to make it to Tierra del Fuego?! Then what would we do?

The end was nigh.

Days: 1,215
Miles: 31,554
Things we now know to be true: Life is not worth living without tea.

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Charming Chiloé

19 Jan
A penguin tries really hard to get everyone's attention, Parque Ahuenco, Chiloé

A penguin tries really hard to get everyone’s attention, Parque Ahuenco, Chiloé

Ushuaia, Argentina
[by Paula]

Last week we blogged ‘live’ from our arrival in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. But there’s still some catching up to do about the places we visited on the way here, over the last month. Here’s a flashback to Chiloé, Chile, in December.

In these chillier climes, there are fewer things that can drive us out of bed at sunrise.

But given that we were in one of the most stunning parts of the Chilean island of Chiloé, where the mist hangs on the river at dawn, where the waters are teeming with birdlife, and where the best way to enjoy it is to drag your sorry buttocks outside while the day is young, we were prepared to make some exceptions.

Moreover, we’d again been blessed with some atypically fabulous weather, so it seemed like a good time to once more embrace our inner outdoorsy.

We’d made our base in rural Chepu, where an exceedingly friendly couple had allowed us to camp on their land and helped us arrange some water-based activities in the area. They had a prime hilltop spot, from which we had an amazing view of the river from the van.

Dawn river mist, Chepu, Chiloé

Dawn mist over the river in Chepu was the daily view from our van, Chiloé

On day one the water was deathly still as we took a boat across the river to a trailhead that lead to a penguin colony at Parque Ahuenco. On the way we saw kingfishers subduing their relatively large prey by thrashing around on a branch, knocking the fish senseless before swallowing it whole.

The five-hour hike passed long stretches of wild beach and peaceful forest, taking us past a massive beached shipwreck.

Shipwreck, Chiloé

Shipwreck, Chiloé

With it still being low season, we only saw one other person (a park employee) all day. We couldn’t have felt luckier to be able to spend an hour watching the penguins without another soul in sight. From a little viewing area about 50 metres from their colony, we were basically treated to a free slapstick comedy show. The thing about penguins is that when they’re not in the water, they really are a bit rubbish. They can’t fly and they can’t walk very well either. They trip and fall over – a lot. And that just never stops being hilarious.

We watched them huddling for little conflabs, chattering to each other, kissing, throwing their heads back and honking loudly, and playing in the water. They would climb on the rocks then slip and fall on the way down. Oops! Sometimes they would fall while just walking along on flat sand, landing on their protruding bellies and bouncing back up to carry on as if nothing had happened. Oops! As I said, it just never gets old.

Penguin huddle, Chiloé

Penguins huddle for a conflab, Parque Ahuenco, Chiloé.

We left very reluctantly, tearing ourselves away because it’s only possible to enter and exit the colony at low tide, and we were running of out time.

The following day we took a longer boat ride along the Rio Chepu to Laguna Coluco. The glassy early-morning water gave off some incredible reflections.

Boat trip to Laguna Coluco, Chepu, Chiloé

Boat trip to Laguna Coluco, Chepu, Chiloé

En route we passed through an enormous colony of nesting gulls (gaviotas cahuil, or brown-hooded gulls) who migrate to Chiloé from the north every summer. Hundreds flew overhead as we quietly puttered along, and were constantly swooping in among the reeds where they were nesting. They made a big commotion and often flew uncomfortably close to us, by way of protecting the eggs and fluffy brown chicks that were secreted nearby.

Nesting gull, Chiloé

Brown-hooded gulls (gaviota cahuil) migrate to Chiloé for summer, and nest in reeds on the rivers.

Boat trips around Chepu have an additional fascination, in that they pass through a blackened, sunken forest that lends a creepy air to the misty reflections on the water.

The valley was flooded after the 9.5-magnitude Chilean earthquake and tsunami of 1960 – the largest recorded quake of the 20th century – leaving huge sections of forest drowned in salt water.

Early morning mist on the river at Chepu, Chiloé

Sunken forest, Chepu, Chiloé

On day three Jeremy opted for a lie-in, while I headed off on a kayak, which I’d been hankering to do for a while. Having found a pal to go with – a Norwegian woman whose husband was equally unmoved by kayaking – we set off early and pushed our boat into the misty river. It was so tranquil we felt compelled to talk only in whispers.

We had been drawn to Chiloé for all sorts of reasons. Islands so often have a cultural identity that is ferociously independent, almost rebellious against the nations they inhabit, and Chiloé is no exception. And while modern life has very much arrived here, there remains a rugged feel, where fishing still dominates, ancient traditions and beliefs endure, and community is all.

Chiloé’s famous wood-shingled architecture – including colourful ‘palafito’ homes which are raised on stilts, and a wealth of UNESCO-acclaimed churches – has probably become its most famous ‘brand’. While most remain simple family homes, smoke puffing all day from wood stoves used for cooking and heating, streets in towns like Castro have been given the shabby-chic treatment, with old houses turned into boutique hotels and organic cafes.

After leaving Chepu we spent a few days exploring the towns and villages of the northern half of the island, including a trip to sleepy Isla Quinchao – one of many islands in the Chiloé archipelago – and a few peaceful days walking in the national park.

During our nine days there, we ate out for lunch more frequently than we had done in a long time, not least because we were so thrilled about the abundance of fish and seafood and the chance to sample some distinctive local cuisine.

We slurped shellfish soups and casseroles, chowed through Chilote ‘milcao’ (a dense, usually steamed, potato cake that’s often stuffed with pork fat) and got very excited about having ‘real’ fish and chips again.

But the star of the show was Chiloé’s famous dish, curanto. We do love a challenge, and curanto is a pulse-racingly giant platter of food that – following two attempts – only one of us ever managed to complete. It’s a protein overload of giant mussels and clams, smoked pork belly, chicken, chorizo, potato and two types of milcao. In case you haven’t had enough food, or salt, a cup of strong broth is served on the side.

Curanto, Quetalmahue, Chiloé

Curanto is a pulse-raising platter of giant mussels, clams, smoked pork, chorizo, chicken, potato, and two types of ‘milcao’ (dense potato cake). A cup of salty broth is served on the side.

The traditional way to cook curanto is similar to old-style Polynesian methods, involving burying the food in a shallow earth ‘oven’ of hot stones, leaves and damp cloths. It’s still used on some occasions but these days many people do the curanto in a large pot, which still follows the same method of tightly layering the food and slowly steaming it.

In the village Quetalmahue, we asked if we could watch some of the pre-Sunday lunch preparation at one of Chiloé’s well-known curanto restaurants.

On the way there we’d picked up two German hitchhikers, Rafael and Annali, and the four of us made polite faces as we were offered some raw oysters to sample. My previous memories of oysters were dominated by a sensation of gulping down seawater. I hoped I wouldn’t gag as it went down, but luckily these were delicious!

Preparing shellfish for curanto, Quetalmahue, Chiloé

Preparing shellfish, Quetalmahue, Chiloé

When we returned north to Ancud, the weather turned a bit colder and wetter. We’d booked a ferry from Puerto Montt to the small Chilean port of Chaiten, for a couple of days before Christmas. But we’d been continually changing our minds about what route we wanted to take after that – more of Chile or back into Argentina?

We headed to Puerto Montt and spent the day pottering around before our 10-hour overnight ferry journey. As there was no point in going to a campsite, the day included spending a long time sitting in the car looking out to sea and eating snacks. During our time around Osorno and in Chiloé we hadn’t spotted any of the promised dolphins, so were delighted to witness several large groups playing in the shallow waters right in front of the van.

Dolphins! Puerto Montt

Dolphins playing in the water, Puerto Montt, Chile.

So distracted were we by the dolphins, that we failed to notice a robbery directly  across the road from the back of the van. The first we knew of it was when a family of Brazilian tourists started yelling, screaming and crying. Their car window had been smashed and all their luggage taken from a restaurant car park while they were inside having a meal. They came to ask us if we’d seen anything. “Not a thing! We were watching the dolphins, honest!” we protested.

We felt terrible. Also, it seemed so unlikely that we wouldn’t have noticed this happening a few feet away, that we felt a little bit under suspicion. They kept finding reasons to come back and ask more questions, while furtively looking around and inside our van. To steal four suitcases and then sit there with them in our parked car would have been audacious to say the least, but we understood their distress – losing all their stuff just two days before Christmas – so let them quietly look while saying nothing.

We eventually headed off to the ferry, and enjoyed the lovely evening with a drink on the deck.

Sunset from ferry, Puerto Montt

Sunset from the ferry in Puerto Montt, before we left for Chaiten.

The night was spent on uncomfortable chairs, while two lumpen pre-teens played football in the space directly front of us (under instruction from their dad), which we’d naively assumed was meant for our legs. The family had also arrived with a remote-controlled helicopter for the children to play with.

A friendly note to parents: toy helicopter + confined space + a few hundred people trying to sleep = high chance your child could be thrown overboard by a mysterious stranger. We quietly chuckled to each other when they couldn’t get it to work. Bah humbug indeed!

We docked in the morning, amid low grey skies and relentless drizzle. All the passengers lined up to disembark, while their relatives waved frantically from the dock, excited about the start of the Christmas holiday. It was then that the ferry staff announced there would be a two hour delay in getting off because the tide was too low to get the ramp down onto the jetty. This appeared to be a surprise.

No one protested, and we all shuffled back into the salon, which by now stank of the morning breath of 200 unwashed passengers. As we waited we wondered why a ferry company would have no prior knowledge of the tides!

Talking of bah humbug, we’d made no particular plans for Christmas, deciding it wasn’t important enough to particularly alter our route. Having said that, when we finally disembarked and drove into the thick mist, it confirmed something we’d been suspecting for a few days – we didn’t really fancy Christmas on a dirt road in the rain. We’d loved our detour into Chile but felt an inexplicable pull back towards Argentina.

We never really had a pre-planned route for this journey. Sometimes these decisions are made in the mood of the moment, with weather often being a major factor. Maybe it would be sunny on the other side of the border?! Maybe we could barbeque a steak?! Maybe there would be unicorns and rainbows in our Christmas stockings?!

With that, we turned east and headed for the border.

Days: 1,204
Miles: 31,249
Things we now know to be true: Penguins walk like they’re wearing someone else’s flippers.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW:

 

 

End of the road?

15 Jan
Arriving in Ushuaia!

14 Jan 2015: Only about a year ‘late’ – not too shabby!

Ushuaia, Argentina
[by Paula]

We did it.

After 1,199 days, with 17 countries visited and 41,657 miles (66,651km) travelled, at lunchtime yesterday we rolled into the southern-most city in the world.

Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, was our ultimate goal. From here, the only way is up.

There were watery eyes as we drove the final 100km, there were hugs when we arrived, and there was the obligatory photo-call. Then there was the two-hour search for a (closed) campsite, the argument about directions, lunch of crappy instant coffee and crackers in a car park, and an illegal manoevre into a busy one-way street – called, ironically, Avenida Malvinas Argentinas – which prompted a queue of irate Argentinians telling us to get the hell out of there…

So, in many ways, just like another ordinary day.

But, for us, not ordinary at all. We are incredulous that, after everything that’s happened, we really did make it here, in that van!

It’s not really the end of the road for us – there’s still plenty more travelling ahead.

The rest of the blog is still a few weeks behind yesterday’s events. There will be more time later for a catch-up on the road here, and for some reflection and thanks.

Today is one of those fuzzy ‘day-afters’. We spent last night at the bar, drinking Beagle beer and – for the zillionth time on this trip – staring at each other in disbelief and saying: “did we really just do that?”

 

 

Return to Chile

7 Jan
Seaweed lady

Members of the Huilliche community make an income from collecting seaweed on the beaches of the Pacific coast, Chile.

El Calafate, Argentina
[by Paula]

It was more than a year since we’d last been in Chile, and what a year it had been.

The country is ridiculously long and skinny. But not only did the northern Atacama desert seem like a million miles away in physical terms, mentally it was a whole world away – back in a time when we’d left our broken home in Ecuador and travelled there van-less, not knowing if we would ever get it back.

Despite those problems, we’d loved the country then and were keen to get another taste.

Shortly after my mum and dad returned home from their trip to Argentina, we stayed in the country for a few more days, doing a short dog-leg to El Bolson. As we went down in elevation, the spring flowers became even more riotous.

We camped at Lago Puelo and from a breezy mirador overlooking the lake, we could see Chile in the distance.

Lago Puelo, Argentina

We could see through the gap to Chile from Lago Puelo in Argentina.

Soon after, we crossed the border at Pajaritos, taking us into the heart of the Chilean Lakes District and taking the van into the country for the first time.

Not surprisingly, the area is choc-a-bloc with pristine lakes, rivers and volcanoes to be admired. But first we headed due west to the Pacific coast, to visit a series of Huilliche villages, which are among Chile’s few remaining indigenous communities.

Our previous experience of Chile’s coast had been quite bleak, so we were blown away to find places like this, and this, and this.

Choroy Traiguén, Chile

Choroy Traiguén, Pacific coast, Osorno, Chile

 

Beach, Maicolpué, Chile

Sunset beer spot next to our campsite in Maicolpué, Osorno, Chile.

 

Tril Tril beach, Pacific coast, Chile

Tril Tril beach, Pacific coast, Chile

Not for the first time we found an obviously blossoming – albeit small scale – tourism infrastructure that seemed inexplicably dormant. Perhaps it was still too early in the season, but all the campgrounds, and facilities like brand new toilets and tourism offices, were closed. Luckily they weren’t very security-conscious either so – after checking with a local – we pulled into the closed campground at the foot of the sand dunes in the village of Maicolpué and used it as a base for a couple of days of exploration.

From our peaceful spot we got our first proper sight of the cute colourful wood-tiled homes so typical of this part of the country, and couldn’t stop snapping photos of them.

Maicolpué, Chile

Colourful houses of Maicolpué, Pacific coast, Osorno, Chile.

Trying our best to understand the accents, we chatted to the ladies on the beach who make a living from collecting and selling seaweed for use in cooking or sushi.

Collecting seaweed for sale

Members of the Huilliche community make an income from collecting seaweed on the beaches of the Pacific coast, Chile.

We drove down the almost vertical road to Tril Tril and walked on a deserted beach, wondering if it ever got busy.

Tril Tril beach, Pacific coast, Chile

Tril Tril beach, Pacific coast, Chile

En route to Manzano, juice dripped down our chins as we sampled one of the very best things about the Chilean coast – fried seafood and cheese empanadas that are so good they make you want to apply for residency.

In contrast to the desiccated north, this region of Chile receives a very regular dumping of rain, with the summer months only enjoying ‘less wet’ weather than the winter. So we were braced for some tricky days, but they hardly ever arrived.

“You’re lucky, make the most of this weather!” people kept telling us – and we did.

We headed south again, along Lago Llanquihue, one of several areas that’s been visibly influenced by German immigrants who came in their thousands in the late 19th century. We kept doing double-takes at the Bavarian style architecture and signs advertising ‘kuchen’ and strudel for sale. It may have turned out to be the most expensive coffee and cake stop of the whole trip, but we did indulge just once.

A major highlight of this leg was a stay in delightful Cochamó and a two-night trip from there to the ‘Chilean Yosemite’ at La Junta.

Only accessible by horse or on foot, it truly was a gem. It had been ages since we’d been riding, so we opted to go up the valley by horse and then hike back down. We’re pretty inexperienced, so the rocky, muddy climb – involving several river crossings – was quite a thrill and a challenge for us. My misbehaving horse had a penchant for taking shortcuts that avoided the trail and went straight through dense bushes instead. Arriving with a wild look and a few more scratches – and twigs attached – than I’d set out with, I decided to put my application for Horsewoman of the Year on the back-burner for a while.

The scenery in the valley was quite something – giant granite peaks that looked just like, you guessed it, a scaled down version of Yosemite national park in the USA.

River beach, La Junta, Chile

The trip to La Junta passes crystal clear waters and river beaches.

 

We spent our free day there choosing one of the hikes to do in the area.

When choosing a hike we usually tend to do two things:-
1. Where possible, we’ll almost always pick the hike that goes up high and gives a great view.
2. We’ll do totally inadequate research so that, every now and again, the above hike unexpectedly scares the living crap out of Jeremy (regular readers will remember his crippling vertigo).

From the off the hike was very steep but was in a forest, so no frightening edges to worry about. Even the parts that involved pulling ourselves up using ropes didn’t faze Jeremy too much. Once we reached sections of exposed sheer rock, he started to feel a bit wobbly.

As we so often have to do, I went ahead to check out the next section for scary bits.

“I think you’ll be okay with that,” I said when I returned.

Ten minutes later he was on his hands and knees, shaking, sweating and shouting “where the hell have you brought me? … ah! ah! argh!” and I realised I might have slightly misjudged it.

We were still in forest, but the knowledge that the trees were basically clinging to a rock face and the view of the sheer cliffs across the valley had sent him into a spin of dry-retching and panic. The exact same thing had happened to us on a hike in Yosemite! Damn.

After a short stand-off, we got him to a place where he felt safer. “Leave me here and go on a bit,” he said. “I really really want you to see the view, I don’t want you to do all this for nothing.”

I walked on, and within a few minutes was thanking my lucky stars I hadn’t dragged Jeremy any further. I have virtually no fear of heights, but even my legs were jelly when I reached the first viewpoint from a ledge that had a worryingly spongy feel underfoot. It was worth it though!

I carried on a little, marvelling at how close we seemed to have got to the tops of the granite peaks. The refugio’s buildings were a series of little dots below.

View from La Junta hike

Spot the refuge below…

Round the next corner I peered ahead to see where the path was. There was no path – just some ropes that disappeared under a hanging rock. I took that as my cue to quit while I was ahead, and go back to check on whether Jeremy’s fingers were still clamped around a tree root.

My legs were shaking with excitement and tension when I got back. We slip-slod back down the hill and found a hot rock by a waterfall to rest and reflect. Phew.

We’d arrived by horse, but to get back out of the area on foot we had to use an old-fashioned-looking – but very effective – pulley system to get across the river. No matter how old one gets, there are some things that just never stop being fun. Weeeeee!

River pulley fun, La Junta, Chile

Crossing the river by pulley in La Junta

After the five-hour hike back down to Cochamó we drove south to Puelo and luxuriated in the steaming shower at a lovely campground in the village.

For Jeremy’s birthday we asked at the only local restaurant if it would be open the following night. Consistent with the kind of ‘half shut’ feel of everything at this time of year, they said they’d be open if we told them what we wanted to eat beforehand and promised to come. We ordered Patagonian lamb and took off for a night of bush camping at nearby Lago Tagua Tagua, and a ferry ride to the other end of the lake. After a hot dusty hike we hitched back to the port and shivered on the chilly boat journey back.

birthday selfie

Keeping warm on the ferry ride back along Lago Tagua Tagua – Jeremy’s 48th birthday.

It was a very tasty, if rather solitary, birthday dinner, and we reflected on how all of Jeremy’s on-the-road birthdays had been odd in one way or another! I promised to at least hire him some friends for his 50th in 2016…

We set off down the coast again the next day, and took a little ferry north towards Puerto Montt. The black skies were more characteristic of the Lakes District we’d read about. Besides, perhaps it was good preparation for the next stage. After a few days we’d be heading towards the island of Chiloé, which has an almost year-round climate described as ‘misting or raining’ when it’s not ‘sprinkling or drizzling’.

Would our luck hold? We’d been pretty spoiled up until now, but it was time to man up, dig out the raincoats again and head into the mist.

Days: 1,193
Miles: 30,488
Things we now know to be true: Seafood and cheese, together in an empanada. So wrong, yet so right.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW:-

Snow joke

18 Dec
Lago Nahuel Huapi, Argentina

Snow in the mountains – good. Snow in my face – bad.

Cucao, Chiloé, Chile
[by Paula]

I like to think that one of the few positives of being away from the family is that my parents have taken some trips to Latin America that they might not otherwise have embarked upon. Each year they can escape those harsh Scottish winters and spend a few weeks somewhere tropical, relaxing with Jeremy and me. [I mean, really, you could argue that we’ve done them a favour by buggering off half way across the world.]

So we felt we had some explaining to do when they arrived to find spring in Patagonia looked like this.

Snowy road to Bariloche

Driving to Bariloche to collect the parents from the airport..

To be honest though, by time they arrived we were all so relieved that no one really gave a stuff about the weather. They had truly had a journey from hell.

We’d driven 1,000 miles from Buenos Aires to meet them in San Martin de los Andes, one of the main towns in the Argentine Lakes District – a walk in the park compared with their five-day trans-Atlantic, trans-Argentina epic.

It’s no secret that Patagonia has untamed weather. But it seemed hard to believe it could be that bad, as we sweltered in the heat while driving west across the endless pampas. We started to hit some extreme winds at Laguna Blanca on day four. Then, literally, as we crossed the invisible line into Patagonia at Junin de los Andes, we hit a black wall of rain and cloud. The parents were due in two days, and we’d kind of promised them spring.

Patagonian border, Junin de los Andes

Ominous black skies as soon as we arrived in Patagonia at Junin de los Andes.

We woke up the next morning to sleet and jaw-achingly freezing wind. The one saving grace was that we’d booked a cosy cabin for when they arrived. We toughed it out for a couple of nights in the van, and excitedly headed out to an internet cafe to check that they’d got to Buenos Aires. They hadn’t – they were still in Miami. Extreme weather had also hit large parts of north-east Argentina and beyond, and flights into BA had been cancelled. Bugger.

Thereafter followed three days of crackly Facetime calls, emails, texts, visits to airline offices, taxis to and from airports, hotel searches and a several bouts of frustrated swearing.

After the Miami delay everything, including hotel and connecting flight to San Martin, was shunted back 24 hours. They finally arrived in BA and had to overnight there before the next flight. We checked into the cabin without them, and rattled around, tried to be patient. The next morning we were getting ready for their arrival when Jeremy looked online at their flight status: CANCELLED. Buggeration!

There’s only one flight a day to San Martin, and the bad weather was making it impossible for it to land. Despite the equally bad forecast, the airline re-booked passengers onto the next day’s flight. It was obvious that would be cancelled too (and, in the event, it was).

The parents were getting pretty stressed. “I’m not sure we’ll even make it there til next week,” said dad, before threatening to hire a car and drive the 1,000 miles instead. To add to their woes, they trudged back to central BA from the airport to find that their hotel, and the next seven they tried, was fully booked.

“This really was an almighty cock-up – there was no way today could be the first time in three years that we ran out of petrol.”

Jeremy and I went to the airline office in San Martin – they explained that the airport had none of the equipment needed to land with poor visibility. So why didn’t they automatically fly everyone to the next nearest – fully equipped – airport at Bariloche? Shrugs all round.

We took an executive decision and asked the airline to change their flight to Bariloche for the following day. We’d make the three-hour drive there and pick them up.

I stood in the snow, waving the iPad around for a better wifi signal. “Dad, we’ve changed your flights, you’re coming to Bariloche.” Crackle crackle “what? no… Baril… booked… San Martin…” crackle.

“I know dad, but we’ve gone and changed your flights. You’re getting up early, and so are we. We’ll see you tomorrow, in Bariloche.”

We set off at 5.45am. Half an hour later, we stopped for petrol in Junin, to find the station closed. We drove to the next one. Also closed. Shit. The tank was pretty low and we felt sure there were no other gas stations for a long way. So we did what sensible people do, we asked a policeman, who told us there was another gas station 5km up the road. Phew!

We drove, and drove, and then drove into a snowstorm. “This is more than 5km,” I said, “but why would the police say that when it wasn’t true?” We kept going until it was clear there was no gas station, but by this time we didn’t feel safe to turn around on a mountain road in a blizzard.

Unstraight, and wishful, thinking kept us going for a while longer until we accepted the inevitable. It was 120km to the next gas station and we didn’t have enough. This really was an almighty cock-up – there was no way today could be the first time in three years that we ran out of petrol.

We’d have to go back to Junin, or even San Martin. I could not believe that after everything my parents had been through we were going to be up to two hours late arriving at the airport – that’s if they were even going to be able to land in the snow. We have no phone, therefore no way of letting them know we’d be late.

Spoiler alert - spring sprang eventually.

Spoiler alert – spring sprang eventually.

I drove back over the mountain pass like a possessed maniac. “Would you like me to take over for a while?” said Jeremy, “Cos you’re scaring me a bit now.” I gripped the wheel and refused to cede control.

When we got to Junin, the gas station had opened. We filled up and screeched off, back over the snowy pass and south towards Bariloche in enraged silence, counting every minute as we went. We’d lost 90 minutes, but managed to claw back quite a lot before running into another snowstorm.

When we finally arrived we abandoned the van and ran inside to find mum pacing the floor in the arrivals hall. The relief on her face was a sight to behold. We hugged, swapped war stories, and drank tea, before heading off again.

On the way back to San Martin things were worse, partly because of traffic backing up and sliding around on the hills. We were held up for an hour in heavy snow. As I sat chatting to mum in the back and tried to stem our leaking roof with a tea-towel, Jeremy inched the van uphill and hoped we could keep our grip. Happy holidays everyone!

Once we got ‘home’, Jeremy lit the fire and we gave unnecessary fuel to our excitement and adrenaline in the form of gallons of red wine. It was Sunday evening, and mum and dad had left their house on Tuesday. They were knackered and strung out, but after a post-pub plate of beef stew and mash and a few more drinks, the recovery process was under way.

Cheers!

Cheers! The parents finally arrive in San Martin de los Andes.

Perhaps I’ve taken up far too much of this post with a travel saga that’s not entirely representative of what turned out to be a great trip which even had some fabulous weather. But, really, who wants to read about sunshine and flowers?

We hunkered down for a few days, caught up with the each others’ news and took some bracing walks in winds that come straight off the glaciers and whip across Lago Lacar into San Martin. We also got to work on starting to sample some of the region’s specialities like venison, lamb, boar and trout. Not to mention Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

And the sun came out to play. The spring blossoms were in action, and we set about exploring the area’s seemingly endless selection of lakes, snowy peaks and national parks. It was lovely to share a little of our life in the van again, pootling around for the day and stopping off for lakeside picnics and tea.

We kept an eye on the weather before booking an overnight trip to the gorgeous ‘7 Lakes’ route south of San Martin.

Several hundred photo-stops later, we were heading to one of the final lakes when we picked up a couple of French hitch-hikers for the second time that day. There was just one last detour to make, to the small lake of Espejo Chico, before we headed for the town of Villa la Angostura. Turned out it might not have been the best time to load the van with an extra 200kg of baggage and personnel, as the road turned out to be the steepest, most rutted of the day. Even though our new transmission has – to date – performed brilliantly, I still have a lingering paranoia about the van making it up those horrid uneven rocky dirt roads that used to give us so much trouble.

As we clattered down the track, the French hitchhikers occasionally lurching off their backpacks towards my parents’ laps, I admired by dad’s new-found ability to sit silently in the back and Not Say Anything About Fucking Up The Van.

To my relief, we made it back up the hill and headed to town for some much deserved wine and pizza.

The following day we totally lucked out with the weather during a sailboat trip on Lago Nahuel Huapi, with a lovely stop at the little Arrayanes national park. Turquoise waters, snow-capped mountains, the sun on our faces and wind in our hair, it was the perfect day – only slightly enhanced by the wine and picadas served on the boat as we returned to Villa La Angostura.

Time flew as usual, and before long we were packing up the cabaña and heading back down to Bariloche for mum and dad’s flight back to Buenos Aires. Our last night involved falling into bed far too late, bloated with steak, woozy with wine, and knackered – just another typical night in Argentina.

And with that the parents went home for a rest, while we turned the van west and headed for the Chilean border.

Days: 1,172
Miles: 29,038
Things we now know to be true: It’s being together that matters.

MORE PHOTOS BELOW!

If you’re tired of Buenos Aires, try harder

24 Nov
Casa Coupage, Buenos Aires

More wine?

Villa La Angostura, Argentina
[by Paula]

We arrived in Buenos Aires on an overnight ferry, bleary-eyed and begging for more sleep, and things pretty much continued that way until we left a month later.

BA is the kind of city that you gorge on until you feel a bit sick. So many atmospheric bars, quality restaurants and little pavement cafes give it a decadent Parisien feel. Tempting treats like platters of cheeses and cured meats are practically waved under your nose every time you order a drink. Amazing cakes and ice creams leap out as you try to innocently walk along the street. There’s steak and wine everywhere. Even the bloke at the greasy sausage sandwich stall in the market sells red wine by the glass. Bloody hell, what’s a person supposed to do?

Like a couple of kids who hadn’t seen sweets in years, we crammed everything in until our cheeks bulged.

As if all of this isn’t bad enough for you, everything in BA happens exceptionally late. Turning up to a restaurant before around 10pm more or less makes you a social leper. Steak houses are rammed by 11pm-to-midnight. Most bars only get going sometime after this.

Drinks in Bar Plaza Dorrego

This’ll perk you up. Bar Plaza Dorrego, Buenos Aires.

So not only are you getting fat and pasty, you’re knackered as well.

I realise that makes me sound like a whining old lady. We had a blast, although we were certainly woefully lacking in training for the city life. Years of living on the road and camping had got us into a routine of early starts, active days and ridiculously early nights. Most other countries in Latin America exist on a different schedule to Argentina – meals are eaten early and (except for in larger or more touristy cities) going out late for drinks is not really the norm.

We’d got used to that, but we were up for the BA challenge – it was sink or swim.

Our friends Karen and Gustavo, helped set the scene when we arrived at their apartment from the ferry port.

“We’ll have dinner later and go out to a bar tonight,” they said.

After dinner we went out. It was 12.30am. By about 3.30am we cracked. We’d been awake for about 25 hours straight, so left Karen and Gustavo in the bar and went home.

The next morning Karen got up and went to sit a Portuguese exam, having had about 90 minutes sleep. She passed with flying colours.

We realised what complete wimps we had become.

We had a bit more time to prepare for their welcome barbeque with some friends a few days later, which slowly got going at about 10pm and, in true Argentine style, involved enough meat to feed a small town.

Over the next few weeks we consolidated our initiation with some more training, helpfully aided by our overlanding friends James and Lauren, who have this uncanny knack of getting everyone around them completely roaring drunk, without anyone realising quite how it happened. It was great to coincide with them again in one of the continent’s most renowned party cities. What could possibly go wrong?

We also reunited with Marek, whom we´d first encountered with his partner Zuzka in Puerto Iguazu, and finally met Stevie, Tree and little Sol from Sprinter Life, who’d been travelling around in their van for five years and were preparing to return home to the US. Added to that were new overlanders Rike and Martin, which made quite the little crowd. The over-excitement of having a proper social life again only added to the kids-in-a-sweet-shop atmosphere.

It would surely bore you silly to read a list of all the meals and wine-soaked nights we had. Some of it´s covered in the photo gallery below, but stand-outs include a couple of stupendous steak nights at Gran Parilla de la Plata in San Telmo with James, Lauren and co, great seafood at El Obrero in La Boca, and a sublime way-off-budget meal at Casa Coupage with Stevie and Tree, that involved a 7-course gourmet Argentine tasting menu and a wine-tasting menu so extensive that Tree remembers very little about what we ate that night.

Over our time there we said farewells to Marek, James and Lauren, and Stevie and Tree, who were all at the end of their long road trips and heading home. While we were sad, our livers were quietly grateful.

Of course there were sensible, practical and cultured things to be done as well. As with most of our visits to a major city, there was maintenance work to be carried out on the van. We already had a list of jobs planned, which became a bit longer when we were driving to our apartment on day two and heard a rather loud clunk every time we turned a corner.

Thankfully, we again had the required parts – ball joints and a tie rod end, if you really want to know – stashed in the van, so no drama there. [makes a change – ed].

We ran in the park and walked all over the city – visted Evita’s family vault at the grand cemetery of La Recoleta, gazed at the Casa Rosada, wandered the streets of La Boca with Karen and their little boy Santino and later went to a roaringly loud Boca Juniors game at the stadium. Living in an apartment in San Telmo gave us easy access to its lovely Sunday market and numerous little quirky shops and cafes. We went to a tango show at a cultural centre, and watched an outdoor milonga (tango club) in the square near our place.

And on a more serious note, we were fascinated by watching the Madres de Plaza de Mayo on their weekly march in the plaza near Casa Rosada, and by our trip with Karen and Gustavo to the former Naval academy ESMA, an ex-detention and torture centre which we covered in the last blog post.

Much of the internet we have found on the road in Argentina has been surprisingly poor, so we also used the time to catch up on some jobs and admin, including arranging some things for my parents’ upcoming trip to Patagonia.

When we left BA, we would be driving 1,600km over a few days, to meet them in San Martin de los Andes, in northern Patagonia.

“Shall I pack my flip-flops?” asked my mum. “Well probably”, I said, “but it’s still spring so really you’ll need to pack for all weathers.”

I wasn’t wrong. But little did we know that late spring in San Martin could mean actual snow blizzards. Little did we know that the very day they were travelling was to coincide with the start of some remarkably extreme weather in Argentina. And little did we know that San Martin’s airport was not equipped to cope with landing planes through a puff of cloud, never mind an all-out blast of snow from the Antarctic.

No, that was all to come.

Days: 1,148
Miles: 28,279
Things we now know to be true: You can plan all you like.

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