Horsing around

12 Jul
Lake trek moment

Riding in to a glistening mountain lake was the highlight of our Chilean horse trek with Lot.

Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina
[by Jeremy]

We haven’t seen another soul all day. The mountains reflect as if the lake were a shimmering sheet of tinted glass. The gentle swish as we ride through the shallows of the clear lake waters is the only sound. This is nature, on a grand scale and at its raw and unspoiled best.

It would have been hard to make the trip – the visit of my sister Karen and 19-year-old nephew Callum – more perfect at that moment – but it hadn’t started so well.

Keen readers will recall that when Paula’s parents came to visit last year they got delayed in the US due to freak storms. Then when they finally got to Buenos Aires they couldn’t reach us in San Martin de Los Andes because of unseasonal snow. Two days later they finally landed, having been diverted to Bariloche and then had to endure a 5-hour drive through a blizzard back to our cabaña.

That’s why we left nothing to chance when Karen and Callum came to visit. Everything’s organised – now I can sit down and read the paper. What’s that? A national general strike? On the day they are due to land in Buenos Aires?

Bugger. We stand right behind those fighting for better wages in the face of high inflation – we just wish the struggle had taken place on a different day! Nothing to be done but put in place Plan B.

Apartment view

View from our apartment in Bariloche – all we needed now was someone to share it with.

Frantic phone calls to our good friends Karen (yes, another Karen – this could get confusing) and Gustavo in BA to beg for their spare room and their services as tour guides for a couple of days, and accommodation and friendly faces are sorted.

Now to rebook the flight. No problem. Aerolineas Argentinas book it for the day after the strike ends and they will arrive with us only about 30 hours later than anticipated.

What’s that? Aerolineas Argentinas have cancelled the reservation? Why? What do you mean you don’t know? Who asked you to? You don’t know that either. I don’t know the words in Spanish for incompetent bunch of shits but another 24-hour delay is now inevitable.

At least they can enjoy a nice time in BA. So it’s off to Boca to visit the famous football stadium and dockers’ houses. Does that man have a knife? Yes, he does and he seems to want all their money and jewellery. Quick thinking by our friend Karen persuades them my sister has nothing on her and they make do with yanking off her gold chain and stealing Karen’s phone and some useless bank cards.

So by the time they finally arrive with us it’s fair to say we are feeling more pressure than ever to deliver the holiday of a lifetime. My sister isn’t demanding – she just insists we see a smoking volcano, a snow-capped volcano, a glacier, spend a night in the Andes, go horse riding, see some waterfalls…oh, and photograph lots of birds including a condor and a woodpecker.

Day one in the Lakes District we are lucky to see anything at all, but at least when the clouds obscure the views in Argentina you can rely on great wine and sumptuous steak to make you feel better. We order three big steaks between the four of us – they bring us five. Why? Because this is Argentina and they didn’t think we had enough meat.

And from then on things just start getting better and better. By the next day we have blue skies, incredible views over the lakes, we climb to a mirador and snack on chorizo and blue cheese, we drink great wines, catch up and plan the next few days.

Lake selfie

Together at at last. Whoop!

Karen and Callum, Cerro Catedral, Bariloche

Karen and Callum at the top of Cerro Catedral – with view of Lago Nahuel Huapi – Bariloche.

One thing you can be sure of with my sister is there will be no sitting around relaxing – she hasn’t come all this way not to spend every minute seeing something.

So we hit the road early next morning for the spectacular Ruta de los Siete Lagos, a wonderful scenic drive bathed in blue skies and sunshine, a fantastic wine bar en route, a few delicious alfajores, a comfortable – if slightly strange – cabaña in San Martin de Los Andes and a slap-up binge on boar, venison and craft ales at El Regional.

Suitably fortified we break for the Chilean border and the first – but not the last – f&@king hell – moment of the trip. After a bird-filled drive, a lakeside picnic and the customary border sign photo opportunities, there’s still disappointment about the volcanoes hiding in the clouds.

We wind our way down the cordillera towards the house in Curarrehue owned by the very generous parents of Santiago – one of the pupils in my sister’s class back in the UK (no, she’s not educationally challenged, she’s the teacher) – which has been offered to us for as long as we need it. As we approach the village I take a glance in the wing mirror to be greeted by the sight of the massive snow-capped peak of Volcan Lanin graciously emerging. Bing! First target down.

Volcano Lanin Chile

Karen gets her first look at the majestic Volcano Lanin, Chile-Argentina border.

Curarrehue is a small village. The house is 7km further out in the wilds, along a gravel road. It’s a spectacular setting and a beautiful wooden house. On the way, in the distance we can make out the smoking cone of Volcan Villarrica. It just about counts as target number 2 but we’ll have a much closer encounter in the coming days.

We arrive at the house to be welcomed by Santiago’s granny , Isilda. And what a welcome! A delicious cazuela has been lovingly prepared and we quickly become aware this is no one-off. Isilda wants to look after us – and I really mean look after us, so well. She won’t hear of us going to buy bread, she’s up first thing in the morning getting the fire going and baking delicious bread. We offer to cook dinner – she looks at us witheringly and serves up another scrummy treat. Callum gets his first – and definitely not last – taste of the super-sweet caramelly dulce de leche. He’s in heaven.

In return for all the kindness, we accidentally leave the door open and let a mad goat in to the house to run amok. Whoops.

Karen and Isilda

Karen and Isilda, our adopted Chilean granny! Curarrehue, Chile.

Slice of pie

Isilda supplied us with a constant flow of homemade treats.

Over the next few days we never stop. We all brave the challenge of some tough white-water rafting – fantastic fun if a little nerve-wracking at times. We drive as close as you can to the smoking mass of Volcan Villarrica – the exclusion zone is still in force after it erupted just two weeks before we visited. We take a madcap night-time drive up in to the mountains to bathe in an ‘unofficial’ thermal springs with no electricity, but a few candles and plenty of wine and laughs.

Volcano Villaricca, flanked by monkey puzzle trees, near Pucon, Chile.

Volcano Villaricca, flanked by monkey puzzle trees, near Pucon, Chile.

Next day we take to the horses – this is no conventional tourist horse ride. Lot, Santiago’s uncle who lives next door, takes us out to round up his wild horses, then we saddle them up and prepare them before setting off over the mountains. We ride across the plateau, through a monkey puzzle tree forest to a hidden lake, accessible only on horseback, where Lot had grown up. We ride through the lake. It is incredible. The reflections are perfect. The stillness eerie. It is one of those days when you can’t stop smiling, except when finally you grimace after 8 hours in the saddle. Or if you are Paula and you ride smack in to a tree and almost end up in the enchanted but freezing lake. Honestly, we didn’t laugh.

Craving a night out we head for the village. The first restaurant is open but apparently has little or no food. Nor does the second. Like many a time on this trip we end up somewhere unexpected – at the restaurant attached to the gas station. It’s surprisingly tasty and serves a good bottle of wine too.

With our departure fast approaching we get ready for the big family send-off. A lamb asado is prepared, relatives gather, we chat, laugh and frankly wish we had more time to spend with such a welcoming and fun family.

But there’s no rest for the wicked – some targets haven’t been met yet. We have the most stunning day’s drive back to Argentina. Volcan Lanin is majestic. And it’s like we’ve organised a bird display – they swoop, they sing, they dart and then the condors glide high overhead. Bing!

Our final adventure is to get high up in to the Andes, sleep in a refuge and do an ice hike across a glacier the following day. The route up to Pampa Linda is incredible but as we arrive at base camp the wind and sleet begins – we have no choice but to try and make the 4-5 hour hike up to the mountain refuge. Within half an hour the skies begin to clear and the vistas become amazing – back down in to the valley, up to the snow capped peaks, across to the burning red of the autumn forests.

Hiking to Refugio Otto Meiling, Argentina

Hiking through autumn leaves to Refugio Otto Meiling, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina

As we near the trickiest part of the hike the massive glacier and its accompanying 1,000ft waterfall makes itself heard and then seen, crashing down in to the valley. It is stunning. But it’s also not good for a vertigo sufferer like me – sheer cliffs and a precarious route along the edge to the refugio. To make matters worse the snow is starting and it’s getting late.

Castaño Overo glacier

The snowy weather closes in as we approach the Castaño Overo glacier, with its massive waterfalls. Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina.

I decide I cannot go on, I urge the others to go ahead and I will retreat to the van. They, understandably, don’t want me to have to go down alone, especially as it will be dark in two hours. An impasse. I win. I head back down, at a trot to start with, then a full-on run – I make it back down the five-hour route in well under two hours, persuade the cafe owner to open the door, sell me a beer and fall shattered in to bed with views of where I hope they have arrived.

They have arrived, and while I’m worrying about them they have no such worries. The park ranger has let them know I’ve made it back down and they are happily tucking in to a gourmet feast, courtesy of the owners of the mountain refuge. Their climb up wasn’t easy, as the snow had got heavier, but the warmth of the welcome more than made up for any hardship.

Gourmet dinner at Refugio Otto Meiling

They tried to get over our separation.. with a gourmet dinner at the mountain refuge, Otto Meiling. Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina.

In the morning they were greeted with new snowfall and views they will never forget.

It’s fair to say everyone finds the ice hike a bit scary as they lowered themselves in to crevasses on the end of a rope but, hey, it’s another incredible and unforgettable experience and surely the final target is met.

Er, no. What about that woodpecker? While they are hanging off the end of a rope I’m trekking in the picturesque valley below. What’s that? A woodpecker? Sure is. I take a picture with Karen’s camera to prove it. Bing? They insist it is photoshopped. It’s so unfair!

The worst thing about having family and friends to visit is having to say goodbye – but that isn’t the case this time. Hold on. Before you think me cruel and heartless it’s because we knew we were heading back to the UK for a visit just 12 days later – knowing the luck they had getting here, we wonder if we might arrive before they do.

Days: 1,378
Miles: 37,366
Things we now know to be true: There’s no point in arguing with a Chilean granny.

See no evil, hear no evil...

What happens on the trip, stays on the trip.

EVEN MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW! Click on any image to open as a slideshow.

Hell of a hike

2 May
Hiking to Hielo Azul glacier

Steep scramble to the lake at glacier at Hielo Azul, near El Bolson, Argentina.

San Rafael, Argentina / Kent, UK
[by Paula]

Occasionally, I may be prone to over-stating things – just a little.

So when we woke up in what should have been a peaceful mountain refuge, to the sounds of 30 hysterical children rampaging around in the dorm we were sharing with them, I looked at Jeremy and said: “This is like waking up in hell”.

But for once he didn’t accuse me of being melodramatic. His face told me that he knew I was spot on.

We were hiking for a few days in the spectacular mountains around El Bolson, back in the Argentinian Lake District. We’d come full circle after having left the area in November to head to the deep south. Although the journey since then hasn’t been so much of a neat circle, more a zig-zaggy, not entirely logical, route.

Basically, our route map looks like it has been crayoned by an unsupervised toddler.

Argentina route map

On the way back north we spent the best part of two weeks gathering interviews and photos in Welsh Patagonia, for a series of articles we are writing – starting in the towns of Gaiman, Trelew and Rawson on the Atlantic side of the country, before crossing through the magnificent Chubut Valley to the Andes side of the province and the settlements of Esquel and Trevelin.

Chubut valley

Driving through the Chubut valley was spectacular.

Our time in the area – settled by Welsh colonists in 1865 – was intriguing and occasionally a little surreal. The Welsh are from our own country of the UK and so, in theory, should be more familiar to us than the people of Latin America. Problem was, we couldn’t understand a bloody word anyone was saying – we had to wait for someone to repeat things in Spanish or English.

It was a productive time, and also a great excuse to stuff down more tea and cakes, in the name of research. Once we’ve written the articles, we’ll return to the subject with more of our thoughts on a fascinating social experiment that has endured to a surprising extent.

Cup of tea

Tea time again at a Welsh tea house, Gaiman, Patagonia.

After taxing our brains for a whole two weeks, it was great to get the hiking shoes on again, hit the trails and chew a few things over in our minds.

We were busy forming plans for an upcoming visit from Jeremy’s sister Karen and our nephew Callum, as well as a trip home to the UK to visit family and friends. From June we’d arranged to do a work-exchange placement back in Argentina, at which point we also needed to start finding more freelance work.

In many ways, things felt they were coming to some kind of conclusion, if not necessarily an end.

We were thinking about all this as we tucked the van away safely and set off for a refuge in the mountains, about a five-hour hike from El Bolson. Although it made some of the uphill hiking a bit more difficult, we were glad of the late summer heatwave and willed it to last as long as possible.

Hiking near El Bolson

Don’t step back! Hiking back down from Hielo Azul glacier, near el Bolson.

When we arrived at the refuge, it wasn’t busy but soon filled up by evening. The refuge system works on the basis that no one is turned away – when hikers arrive they claim a mattress on the floor in a dorm and everyone bunks in together. We thought we were being smart by choosing two mattresses on a raised platform in the eaves, with barely any space at either side. “No one can squeeze in next to us here!”, we said.

On the contrary, by 11pm, a hairy hippie was indeed wedging himself in between Jeremy and the wall, using a lighter flame to see his way through a sea of highly flammable sleeping bags in the dark.

After a fitful night, we set off in glorious weather to make the steep climb up to Hielo Azul, a gorgeous lake and glacier nearby.

Glacier and lake at Hielo Azul

It was worth the pain! The lake and glacier at Hielo Azul, near El Bolson.

Back at the bottom we took a brief pit-stop before moving on to the next refuge, at Lago Natacion. It was only an hour away but it was an hour of yet more calf-killing climbing. When we arrived we were perspiring somewhat, but that was nothing compared to the sweat lashing off the brow of the refuge manager.

“You are welcome to stay”, he said, “but it’s going to be really busy. We’ve already got a group of 30 children and 7 adults from the barrio. You’ll have to sleep up there with them and people will be sharing mattresses.”

He also explained that the refuge was being used as a stopping station for hundreds of ultra-marathon runners who were charging up and down the mountains for two days without stopping. That all sounds relaxing, we said. But we didn’t want to go back or move on, so decided to grab a mattress space and hope for the best.

Lago Natacion, near El Bolson

Don’t be fooled by this peaceful scene at Lago Natacion. Behind the camera, it is bedlam.

It was a lovely rustic refuge on a beautiful lake, but we didn’t really get to enjoy it fully. As we tried to compete for kitchen space with people cooking for 30 children, an endless procession of pizzas were going in and out of the oven for the marathon runners. Every five minutes some of them would barrel through the door, grab a slice and a drink and run off again.

The children, aged 9 and 10, were good kids but the sheer volume of them meant it was utter chaos. Most of them seemed to spend the majority of time yelling about, and looking for, their lost shoes or rucksacks, which were jumbled in an mountainous heap at the bottom of the ladder to the dorm.

In the relative peace of the outdoors, it was a beautiful night – one of the starriest we have seen for a long time, with shooting stars dropping like stones all over the place. Meanwhile, lights from some of the last marathon runners could be seen coming down the mountain in a line, towards the refuge.

We decided to head off early to bed, to try to claim a space before there was none left. When we got up there our sleeping bags were lost among the 37 others piled up there, there were children heaped everywhere and a sick runner was getting medical treatment on the floor. We laid down at the edge of the line and tried to rest, but I spent the night trying not to roll off the end and down the hatch onto the storey below, while Jeremy was doing his best not to roll over and inadvertently cuddle the mother than was sharing his mattress. Not surprisingly, the kids were excitable and noisy and in no mood for sleep.

Our alarm call in the morning was a chatter that quickly rose to a crescendo of giggling, singing and shouting. A very sweet little boy came over and asked – with a concerned look – if they had woken us, which was quite cute and amusing given the decibel levels. But that cuteness feeling didn’t last – we got up, got ready and were out of the door like a shot.

It was a hot, dusty, knee-busting descent but we very much enjoyed the silence. Back at the van we camped at a gorgeous spot, put some beers in the cold river and washed the dust away.

After a couple of days of eating crackers and soup, we got back to El Bolson and made up for it with a good old Argentinian beef barbeque, or parrilla.

Here is Jeremy with (almost) all of his favourite things.

Parrilla bliss!

Jeremy heaven – BBQ, meat, tongs, beer, and his Quilmes chair. Bless.

We were meeting Karen and Callum in Bariloche, so headed that way to get some chores done before they arrived. They only had a short trip and we had loads of activities in mind, in the lakes district areas of both Argentina and Chile. But autumn was fast approaching and the weather forecasts began to look more and more dreadful. We started to despair a little – the area is really all about the outdoors, and the unpredictable weather can be a bit of a challenge.

Some people might remember that the first few days of my mum and dad’s trip to the area were thrown into chaos by some unexpected snow in the spring. Flights couldn’t land and they were stranded in Buenos Aires for a couple of days, while Jeremy and I spent a lot of time in the offices of the domestic airline Aerolineas Argentinas, trying to help sort things out.

So when Jeremy was in town one day and picked up a newspaper, he was surprised to read that a 36-hour general strike, including airport workers, had been called for the very day that his sister was due to arrive in Argentina. He emailed me to say “..erm, it looks like the weather is going to be the least of our worries. All domestic flights are cancelled from Buenos Aires”.

We trudged over to Aerolineas Argentinas to see what could be done, only to find that even after the stoppage was over, all the flights were full for another day.

It looked like the curse of Bariloche had struck again.

Days: 1,305
Miles: 36,289
Things we now know to be true: We’re too old for pyjama parties.

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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.
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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.

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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:

 

 

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