In pursuit of penguins

30 Mar

 

Rockhopper penguin

‘I spent ages getting my hair right this morning’ – Rockhopper penguin, Puerto Deseado, Argentina.

Bariloche, Argentina
[by Paula]

If, like us, you’ve got a bit of a thing for penguins you’ll probably enjoy this blog post.

If you’re not that bothered about penguins, well, you are clearly dead inside. Not enjoying this blog post is, therefore, the least of your worries.

Come on, can you really resist this face?

Bed-head penguin

The bed-head look for this young penguin, Cabo dos Bahias, Patagonia, Argentina.

From the Andes we headed across to Argentina’s east coast in pursuit of some of the best wildlife-watching in the country. Even though we were out of season for whales – which are one of the biggest draws to the area – we were more than happy to settle for the gazillion penguins that live on some beautifully wild stretches of coastline. Not to mention the sea lions, guanacos, armadillos, nandus (ostriches) and massive cormorant colonies.

Guanaco, Cabo Dos Bahias

See, it’s not all about the penguins. Guanaco, Cabo Dos Bahias, Patagonia, Argentina.

Penguins have got a lot going for them. They waddle around like little old ladies out on a shopping trip. They do silly things like falling over, running around erratically or hopping about in an comedic manner. They tend not to run away when humans are around. And I’m not saying that only the ‘cute’ animals should be admired, but they do also happen to be damn cute.

They just make it too easy for us to amuse ourselves by giving them human attributes – the posh word for it is anthropomorphism. It’s kind of childish, yet irresistable.

We were pleasantly surprised by the lovely Monte Leon national park, south of the superbly-named town of Comandante Luis Piedra Buena – it’s one of those friendly little national parks that never seems to get over-run with people.

It was the first time we’d had a really close encounter with a penguin. We were watching the huge colony from a bluff above the beach, when suddenly one appeared right at our feet. Moments later its (rather sickly looking) chick popped its head out from under the boardwalk we were standing on.

Magellanic penguin

Magellanic penguin, Monte Leon national park, Patagonia, Argentina.

Penguin chick

A penguin chick pokes its head out from a hiding place under the boardwalk, Monte Leon national park, Argentina.

As we later stood watching a sea lion and cormorant colony, the low tide created an artistic marble effect. We later found out that the phenomenon only happens a couple of times a year.

Low tide marble effect

Marble effect at low tide, Monte Leon national park, Patagonia, Argentina.

Our old friends the Magellanic penguins will always be dear to us, but at Puerto Deseado we were heading to see, for the first time, a type of penguin that had been on our wish list for years – the delightful Rockhoppers.

With their punky yellow and black hair-dos and red eyes, they are a bit of a cut above the rest.

Rockhopper penguin

Rockhopper penguin, Puerto Deseado, Argentina.

We were amazed at how close they let us get. We could have stayed there all day observing them interact. And they are hilarious to watch because (the clue’s in the name) they move around by hopping across the rocks. They’re sometimes even partial to taking a big feet-first hop into a rock pool for a swim.

Dive in Rockie!

Rockhopper plunges into a rock pool, Penguin Island, Puerto Deseado, Argentina.

Hopping Rockhopper

Whee! Rockhopper penguin does what he does best…

Most species of penguin chicks in these parts are born in the spring, and live in the colony’s nesting sites until the end of summer (April). Until they are juveniles, they have non-waterproof fluffy feathers and can’t go swimming to find their own food.

As autumn approaches, all the penguins (including the adults) start to moult, and the old coat is replaced with a new smooth, hydrodynamic swimming suit. After that they all dive into the ocean and head to warmer waters for the winter.

The in-between phase makes them look like a bunch of awkward, scruffy, surly teenagers. We all remember those excruciating days when you just couldn’t get your hair to do a thing right.

Penguin bad hair day

Bad hair day for this Rockhopper. Not a photo you want to be published on the interweb.

 

Moulting penguin

This moulting penguin tries to ignore the mess by closing his eyes. Cabo dos Bahias, Argentina.

Our time spent with the Rockhoppers was part of a boat trip out to a ferociously windswept place called – can you guess? – Penguin Island. En route we also saw a spectacularly noisy, not to mention pungent-smelling, sea lion colony. One the way back a dolphin circled the boat. It was a spectacular day.

Sea lions

Sea lion colony in the morning light, en route to Penguin Island, Puerto Deseado, Patagonia, Argentina.

 

Sea lions

What you looking at? Sea lion colony en route to Penguin Island, Puerto Deseado, Argentina.

Further north, we diverted off the main highway again, to the little town of Camarones. From there we explored the superb coastline around Cabo Dos Bahias, home to yet another quiet and unspoiled Magellanic penguin colony. There was no one there other than the two hitch-hikers we’d picked up on the way.

Magellanic penguin

Magellanic penguin, Cabo dos Bahias, Patagonia, Argentina. I’m sure he’s smiling…

Afterwards we had a fabulous couple of nights wild-camping on the coast near the colony, with not another soul in sight.

Camping at Cabo Dos Bahias

Camping at Cabo Dos Bahias, Patagonia, Argentina.

It was all well and good, hanging around with penguins and camping on the beach, but we had a deadline to consider. We were heading north to the towns of Welsh Patagonia to gather material and interviews for a series of articles for the BBC, and time was ticking away.

Glad to have some work, but sad to see an end to our wildlife extravanganza, we dragged ourselves away and headed for our ‘office’ in the town of Gaiman – the mosquito-infested backyard of the local fire station.

From there we turned our minds from penguin colonies to the intriguing world of the Welsh colonies of Argentina.

Days: 1,274
Miles: 34,519
Things we now know to be true: Even penguins have bad hair days.

NOT HAD ENOUGH? PLENTY MORE PHOTOS BELOW.
Click on any image to open as a gallery.

 

Because I’m worth it

16 Mar
Picnic stop with a view

Picnic stop with a view – Lago Nordernskjold, Torres del Paine national park, Chile.

Esquel, Patagonia, Argentina
[by Jeremy]

Well, we’re here now. I suppose we better go and see what all the fuss is about.

There are some places that are so hyped, so over-hyped, so busy with group tours, so universally covered in glossy travel magazines or eulogised by backpackers that you instinctively feel like you’re going to hate them, or at least fail to see what the awe’s all about.

We felt like that years ago when we went to the Taj Mahal – and yet it is a truly amazing building with an astonishing history, that you cannot help but feel the wonder. We felt the same about Machu Picchu – it would probably just be a big tourist trap. I suppose to some extent it is but, wow, it was truly incredible.

And so to Torres del Paine, the jewel in the crown of Chile’s national parks, the towering granite spires gracing posters, t-shirts, stickers, keyrings and just about everything else – all probably made in China.

We’d heard about its beauty from so many other travellers – and about the crowds, the shuffling along hiking trails and the sky-high costs.

But once again, whilst some of that is true, every negative is far outweighed by the stunning scenery.

Las Torres, Chile

The spectacular Las Torres mirador, Torres del Paine national park, Chile. Not too shabby.

There were lots of hikers on the route to the Mirador de las Torres but it is the most amazing sight. The kind of view – set against yet another stunning clear blue sky – that makes you think it’s been photo-shopped until you realise you are actually looking at it through your own eyes and not the computer-enhanced vision of the tourist brochures.

The azure-lake set against the glacial backdrop, and the greys, reds and browns of the spires make it hard to tear yourself away.

But do so you must, because Torres del Paine is much more than just one amazing view. It offers – depending on your fitness – days of excellent hiking and jaw-dropping vistas. Fresh from our hike to the towers we shoved a rented tent and stove, our sleeping bags and the obligatory hikers’ pasta/noodles/soup/crackers into our rucksacks and set off for three days walking around Lago Nordernskjold to the massive peaks of Los Cuernos and up the valley to Glaciar del Frances and the mirador Britanico, with its panorama of peaks, waterfalls and glaciars.

Mirador Britanico, Torres del Paine

The view from Mirador Britanico, Torres del Paine national park, Chile.

By night the glaciar treated us to what sounded like a thunderstorm as chunks of ice crashed down the mountainside; by day we had the chance to view the spectacle. Weary but happy, we retired to camp to cook up a one-pot feast, straight from the packet. Washing up was scenic but freezing as we doused our dishes in glacial meltwater. Sleep came easily.

We love a good hike but three days carrying all our own food, tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment and clothes is about us much as the old bones can take these days. We always felt pretty pleased with ourselves after conquering another 6-8 hour trek, only to meet someone way older than us doing the full eight-day circuit.

But we had things to do and places to be – at least that was our excuse. So reluctantly we waved goodbye to Torres del Paine and headed back towards Argentina and the excitement of meeting old friends from home.

Sharon and her husband Mark are travelling for a year with their three children – Isobel, Leo and Rory. Having completed their Australian leg they flew to Santiago, hired a car and were now steaming down Ruta 40 towards us.

Despite the fact we had already visited El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier, and El Chalten with its world-class trekking, we were up for a return visit.

And so we hiked, barbequed, ate, laughed, gossiped, planned, marvelled at the scenery and drank our way through a week or so with good friends. Of course meeting new people has been one of the joys of this trip, but spending time with people you’ve known for decades is like nectar for the soul.

At Perito Moreno we struck lucky. Within minutes of arriving we got a ringside view of a skyscraper-sized chunk of ice crashing down in to the lake. At El Chalten, we set out trekking in cloud but as we approached the Fitzroy viewpoint the craggy peaks poked out of the cloud and the skies turned blue.

Ice fall! Perito Moreno

Aftermath of a massive ice fall at the Perito Moreno glaciar, Argentina.

All too soon it was time for the inevitable selfies and reluctant goodbyes. When would we ever see them again?

Well, in about 12km actually. We were at the side of the road, I was under the van trying to find the source of a worrying rattle. They stopped. Looked concerned. Waved. And left. Bye!

Actually the rattle was nothing to worry about and soon we too were battling the fierce Patagonian winds as they headed north and we drove a dirt road to the east, in search of penguins.

We knew they’d be worth it.

Days: 1,260
Miles: 34,195
Things we now know to be true: Thinking of things we now know to be true is much more difficult after 1,260 days than it was at the beginning.

More photos in the gallery below. Click on any photo to open the slideshow.

 

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.

MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW. CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO OPEN THE SLIDESHOW:-

 

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:-

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