Can be found, courtesy of flickr at:

Flickr Dave
Dave looking out over Villarica
and
Flickr Loz
Loz Sunshine Torres del Paine

Dave’s pics are much better than mine. Some may attribute this to a better camera, some to taking more photos, some to Dave having more talent. All would be correct.

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Spanish is a wonderfully expressive language – to the extent that to my ears poerty sounds far more beautiful in it. Take a look at Pablo Neruda if you don’t believe me. Even that book’s title sounds better in Spanish – would you prefer Twenty Love Poems and One Song of Despair or Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada. My knees quiver at the second one, the first one sounds like something that waste of organs and blood Pete Doherty would name an album. As a result, Tierra del Fuego (lit. Land of Fire) sounds exciting, thrilling and adventurous.

It ain’t.

The name must have come from the same people who saw an icy frozen expanse in the far north and named it Greenland. By and large, Tierra del Fuego (the Chilean side especially) is a flat dull expanse of taupe pampas. It’s only once you hit the south eastern (Argentinian) corner that the hills crennelate and the forests begin to blanket you. And nestled here by the quiet waters of the Beagle channel is Ushuaia, the capital of Argentinian Tierra del Fuego and Malvinas Argentinas (or Falkland Islands as we didn’t call them down here). A thoroughly lovely little city, surrounded on one side by snow-capped mountains. The one minor quibble is the large signs welcoming you to the end of the world, the furthest south permenant settlement in the world. Which I wouldn’t mind, except for the fact that it’s not – Puerto Williams sits just south of the Beagle Channel on Isla Navarino like an annoying Chilean pebble in the Argentinian sandal. Not that you’d wear sandals here as it’s ruddy cold (even in high summer).

And, well, that’s it. End of the World, end of our journey, and just a series of flights back to London. It was a wonderful adventure, the Chileans were extremely friendly (once you got them out of their cars) and a great break from life. Further reflections to come.

(Somewhat delayed by return, Christmas and New Year, here’s the last days)

We returned to Pto Natales at a fairly reasonable time, allowing us to catch our breathe (lest we ingest our steak and pisco sours too quickly) before an early rise took us to Punta Arenas. By this point the weather was getting positively Albionic (with the strange catch of it being light from about 4:30am till 10:30pm). An extremely pleasant paella set us on our way to Isla Magdalena to see some penguins. The island, site of an abandoned lighthouse, positively teems with cormorants and Magellanic penguins. They nest and feed, surf and swim through the rough waters and winds in the summer in Magellan’s Passage, migrating north up the Chilean coast over winter.

Sadly this was our last night in Chile, and another early morning set us on the 14 hour bus ride through Chilean and Argentinian Tierra Del Fuego to Ushuaia.

The next day dawned with far, far nicer weather and as we finished (a relatively late) breakfast we were greeted by some of the people we’d met the previous night who had gotten up at 5am to see the Torres in all their glory. Of course they had perfect weather and clear views and of course they rubbed it in. There’s only really one way to deal with smug people like that, and that is to point out that there wasn’t any breakfast left.

Anyway, the second day was in general much more like trekking as Loz would design it, i.e. a late start and not too much walking. To tell you the truth, it was a bit dull and I may have to reconsider my design. What we did realise, however, was a general weather pattern – good in the morning, but rainy and cold in the afternoon. This would inform day three’s trekking…

…which was a far earlier rise and we set off well in advance of 8am. Both Dave and I were feeling a bit knackered by this point and it looked as if we had two choices for the day – either a 5 hour hike or a far longer 9-10 hour one up the valley. Not really fancying the sound of the second one, we put off the decision as long as possible… and then found out that the map had been lying to us. Rather than 5 hours it would have been sub-4 and the 10 hour one was actually going to be more like 7 hours – half of which we wouldn’t have to carry our packs for. Heartened by this we redistributed our loads and set off up the valley.

It was a good decision. The weather was fantastic and we got some utterly stunning views of the glaciers and the ‘Cuernos’ del Paine. We weaved in and out of trees, forded small streams and crossed rickety bridges. I think this was probably my favourite day of the whole holiday so far and is up there with Lauca as being the most beautiful. A small sprinkle of rain was little barrier and soon the sun was out again to dry us off.

The fourth and final day was  much simpler, a short hike to glacier grey before we returned back to Puerto Natales. Sadly the weather wasn’t too warm or dry after being so kind to us the previous day and the glacier was a touch misty, but it was all worth it. One of the most interesting contrasts in the park is the difference between the rain-water lakes and the glacier fed ones. The rainwater lakes are a pure dark blue, but the glacier lakes match the icy polar blues we last saw at Glacier Pio XII from the Navimag. The translucent turquoise might seem more reminiscent of Carribean warmth, it is truly something to behold.

And that then was it, walking done with. Back to Puerto Natales for the evening and then off to Punta Arenas…

One of the great things about Chile is you can almost always see mountains when you look east, the Andes are an ever-present forming the country’s frontier with Bolivia and Argentina. It’s perhaps surprising therefore that Chile and South America’s most popular tourist destination, trekking in the Torres del Paine National Park in the far south region of Magellanes, is not actually part of that range. A grasping fist of granite thrust through the earth, it’s a stunning and startling change from the undulating faded pampas that usher you there from Puerto Natales.

We were in the Park for 4 days (3 nights) and were looking forward to some yomping about after four days cooped up in the boat. That being said, a certain amount of apprehension sat upon us, 5 weeks with good weather, there was no way this was going to last, was there?

There was not.

After an easy 7km meander from the bus drop off point to the first hostel, we glanced upwards at the sun peeking through and chuckled at our good fortune. Which of course was when hubris whacked us in the head. The next section was a similar distance, but far more uphill. We started off, hairpinning our way up the slope towards Refugio Chileno (on the first arm of the ‘W’ walk) as the clouds slowly gathered and the wind began a-whispering. As we continued up, reached Chileno and deposited our packs for the day the was a hint of rain in the air, but our optimism got the better of us and we decided to try for the Base del Torres to see the famous towers themselves. The hint became a spit, a sprinkle, a shower, then a constant drizzle. We reached the next campsite and steadied ourselves for a scramble up rocks, streams and boulders.

The next section was definitely a killer on the knees, even more so for my inflexible unfit self. As the wind began to howl and the rain turned to hail and sleet, this was beginning to seriously lose its fun value. Nevertheless, we pressed on, reassured that it would all be worth it at the top.  Every postcard seller in Chile had been tempting us with this view for 5 weeks and we would make it! And so we slogged on through the gale, over the rocks, soaked through and then finally we reached the top, where there it was, awaiting us, our reward… an awful lot of fog. We could see about 20 metres, no sign of the Torres. Bugger.

So, cold, wet and a bit disheartened we sloped our way back down to Chileno. Fortunately the refugios in TdP are well set up and will happily sell you overpriced alcohol.

First day then? This was old-school trekking that Skip would be proud of, cold and rain, wind and snow with nothing to see once you reached the top… but a hot shower, a warm meal and sufficient red wine to ease the damp and pain.

The boat from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales is a 4-day trip on a (semi-)converted cargo ferry. The ferry is run by a company called Navimag (whose logo is, quite brilliantly, a deformed dolphin breathing fire) and the beds are split between 4-person cabins with bathrooms and 22-person dorms without. One of the nice advantages of doing this sort of travel in your late twenties when you have some money, rather than as a gap-year student when you have none, is you can have these small luxuries. The two basic benefits are sharing a shower between only 4 people and not being woken up all the livelong night.

The route itself passes east of Chiloe and through the Northern Patagonian channels which are, well, very pretty. A trip out toward the pacific and then a crossing of the Golfo de Penas (less scary than it sounds) then brings you to Southern Patagonia, which is stunning. Mountains and glaciers pour themselves into lakes and channels that are perfectly still, but for our presence. A particular highlight was the Pio XII glacier, the only glacier in the world that is still growing. It seems to almost fluoresce with a light but intense blue. I’ve not seen many glaciers before, but I doubt that there are many that can match the setting of this one, the mix of ice, sea and craggy mountains is impressive.

The trip itself was an interesting blend of sleep, scenary, tedium and alcohol. The demographics were amusingly matched to the cabin quality (being about 50 in our AA-class cabins and barely 25 in the C-class dorms) but it meant there were more than enough interesting people to distract you from the occasional bloke who wanted to discuss the internal workings of the latest Jaguar engine. For pretty much the first time in Chile we actually met a bunch of English people too, previously our gringo exposure split between Yanquis and Continentals (and one slightly mad Irishwoman). Despite my general concerns about meeting English people overseas (I’ve gone half the world away to avoid them afterall) this lot were perfectly nice, in a pleasingly inebriated way. Needless to say, many rounds of cards were played. My parents will be pleased to hear, I’m sure, that not all of them were drinking games.

All-in-all, the Navimag is a great experience, you meet new friends and see some stunning scenary. We were pretty lucky with weather and seas and there was little seasickness aboard. As we pulled up in Puerto Natales (a cute little village on Last Hope Sound) we all exchanged hungover nods and diverged to our hostels.

Taking the half-hour roll-on/roll-off ferry to Chiloe, the skies started darkening and the temperature started falling. We’ve had pretty much perfect weather so far (nary a droplet of rain in four weeks) but as we head southwards this can’t last.

Chiloe is a pretty interesting and cute little island, but the weather and the fact we only had one night there dampened our mood a bit. Really we’re just killing a couple of days until we get the boat from Puerto Montt for the far south. So a barely pleasant bass dinner was consumed and then we headed back to the hotel for some kip. Or we would have, apart from the vociferous shagging that was occuring in the room below us. All the livelong night.

After finally succombing to sleep, we were then awakened the next morning to a familiar chorus. I’m glad they were enjoying themselves. Anyway, it was time to bail from Chiloe and make our way back to the tiny town of Puerto Varas. The pleasing settings here (like Pucon it’s on a lake near a volcano – in this case Osorno) meant we could chill and prepare ourselves for the 4 day boat trip ahead.

After the Volcano climb (where we bumped into the Swiss and Irish from Talca) the order of the next day was to relax and recover. Pucon is pretty well set-up for just touristy bumming around – one of the very few places in Chile so designed really. So a late rise was followed by intermaneting, some concerted nothing-doing, dinner at the excellent Trawen and drinks and the chilled Mamas & Tapas. All the while not having to watch England be rubbish against Croatia (although we watched Chile be rubbish against Paraguay).

The next day was an excellent adventure in the form of hidrospeed. This is a fairly new activity (there’s only 3 people in Chile running tours) but is great fun. Basically it involves travelling down rapids. In a wetsuit. With only a float for company. Awesome. The guy running was great value too, we spent an hour after discussing tourism and Chile in general.

For our final full day in Pucon we decided to hire some mountain bikes and head over to Lago Caburga to see the waterfalls. Sadly after about 5km the gears on my back wheel decided to shear away from the wheel making cycling impossible. A short time spent rigging the chainset so it wouldn’t interfere with the wheel, we then proceeded back to town with Dave half pushing/half pulling me along the cycle path. The odd looks we received escalated as we started overtaking people.

Anyway after making it back (possibly quicker than we came, aided by a tailwind) we managed to rescue the rest of the day and spent the afternoon kayaking around the lake.

After six nights in Pucon we finally departed for the isle of Chiloe, in search of its mermaids and witches.

After the helter-skelter voyage down the country, we decided to put down roots for 6 days in Pucon, a small town in the Lakes region of Chile. Caught between an active volcano and a placid lake with easy access to hot springs, rapids, waterfalls and mountains it’s an idyllic spot to laze around and chill for a while.

However, we didn’t come to Chile to merely chill, so once we dumped Shakira in the hostel car park we got right on with the activities. First day was a chance to ease ourselves with a gentle horse ride to see a quiet waterfall. Of course, this presumed we wouldn’t get grumpy, ball-busting nags to carry us around and a sharp gradient hike to go with it. Horse-riding for treks is a very romantic sounding notion, but the reality for me is a rather less comfortable experience. I’m not sure I’d be up for a few days with only these solid, muscley, non-plush creatures for company. Plus, there’s no cigarette lighter to charge my notPod from. On the plus side, the waterfall was gorgeous (pics when internet speeds pick up) and it was a good way to get into the swing of the town.

The moon that had been so slivery in San Pedro de Atacama was now waxing gibbous and it brought about a certain… rabidity in the many stray dogs that patrol the town. Beyond the usual car-chasing and spring-time ‘exuberance’ that such animals are often known for, they would now stalk your every move from hostel to agency, cibercafe and restaurant. The midday sun was pretty much the only respite, these dogs might have been mangy and creepy, but they weren’t nuts. Fortunately, the 21st century Englishman comes equipped with high-factor sun cream and wide-brimmed hat, allowing him to pass more or less unharmed at this time. I say more or less, I managed to get a tiny spot of sun-burn on the underside of my nose when the sneaky UV rays bounced off the snow and outflanked my defenses.

The snow in question was that capping Volcan Villarica. This volcano emits a steady stream of sulphurous smog 20km away from Pucon. The town itself has been devasted in the past by eruptions, but Villarica’s activity has been diminished over the last two decades. In the winter a mildly competent ski resort is run on the slopes here (I say mildly, the road that takes you there is often impassable), in the spring and summer gringos swarm to the top to get their money shots of liquid magma and smoke. While it’s a steep 5 hour trek up ski slopes to get here, it is worth it for the rarity of the opportunity and the views. The trip down is far more enjoyable and involves the complicated task of sitting on your arse and sliding your way down the mountain. The previous snow-boarding trip alloewd me a lot of practice at this so needless to say, I excelled at it.

After Shakira ably negotiated our dragging her through dusty rocky roads for the sake of a brief 30 min walk in the mountains near to where Uruguayan Rugby players had taken to eating each other we arrived in a nice little river-side hostel in Talca, a city in the Chilean wine-growing heartland. Some very tasty fish and a nice bottle of Carmenere sent us to sleep, preparing for a full day of sampling, supping and inevitably snoring the next day.

We headed off into the depths of the Ruta del Vino the next day to Villa Donoso. This was a very exclusive vineyard/hotel, alongside wine production (almost exclusively for shipping overseas) they offer full retreat type holidays, including wine baths (why this is a good thing I don’t know, seems like a waste to me!). In the evening we headed off to a local wine festival which was much better value – 8 samples for 2500 CLP (about 2 quid 50). Met up with some fellow travellers heading south the next day, a garrulous Irish woman (I’m sure there are other types of Irish women) called Alice and a quiet swiss girl called Andrea who is soon to spend 4 weeks on a cargo ship from Valparaiso to Holland. As adventurous as this trip has been, that’s a level far beyond what I’m prepared to commit to, so fair play to her!

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