Tuesday, 8 January 2013

PATAGONIA. Meandering between Chile and Argentina

Perito Moreno Glacier
Stretching from the southern end of the Andes Mountains in Argentina and Chile to Cape Horn, the Americas’ southernmost tip, lies the storied land.
To say the landscape is dramatic would be an understatement. A visit to Patagonia could include a hike around the legendary granite mountains of Torres del Paine camping on the shore of a glacial lake, or strapping on crampons to trek across a glacier. You could travel the plains where cowboys still roam by horseback, and hit the road all the way down to the land of fire, Tierra de fuego, at the southern end of the inhabited world.
Magellan dubbed the local Indians Patagones, meaning “big feet.” The name stuck and gave Patagonia its moniker.
Torres del Paine. Chile
Fitz Roy. Argentina
We left New Zealand at 4pm on the 16th (April 2012) and after an 11 hour flight we landed in Santiago at 12 o´clock midday the same day. Long day, isn't it? Actually the longest in my life!
Our first night in Chile and South America we were welcomed by an earthquake 6,3 Richter scale. Everything shook for some time and sleeping on a bunk bed in the dorm, I was ready to jump down and run outside but none of the other 9 people in the room did it so I kind of sat on the edge of the bed and waited. I guess the foreigners are not really trained what to do in case of an earthquake.
Santiago is probably the most polluted city I’ve been to, excluding all big cities in China. The smog is so intense that one cannot see the surrounding mountains. We didn’t stay too long there, just enough to see the main sights, organize ourselves and plan the route…which was going south all the way through Patagonia to Punta Arenas.
Also met up with Mauricio who I hosted 2 years ago in Barcelna (CS), he took us out and we left some of the summer clothes and camping cear at his house thinking to pick it up on the way back.
Santiago from cerro Santa Lucia
Chess mania
In the mean time my friend Marcelo who also coaches the team I played for in Spain, (I play table tennis in First division in Spain) told me I have to visit his family in Concepcion. So we headed straight to the city hit by the tsunami and the second biggest earthquake in the world just a year ago.
Marcelo parents and his sister were so lovely.  After all the camping and poor backpacking life in Australia, Pesho and I felt like home. They actually live in Talcahuano, where the tsunami first hit. Its amazing how more than a year later the city was still recovering. They didn’t have water and electricity for more than a month after the earthquake.
Javi, marcelo´s mum was our guide for the city and surroundings. They took us for a marisco in a caleta the first night, next day had homemade cazuela (amazing). Instead of staying just 2 nights, we spent almost a week going to different places and trying homemade food. One night I had a bottle of Pisco until 3 am with Marcelo´s parents!

Universidad de Concepción
Another country, another STOP sign
The action...
...and the result

Seafood heaven
Penco - looks clean but it was pretty dirty
Playa de Tumbe
Tsunami signs everywhere! Of course they were installed after the tsunami
The weird church of Chillán
Human chess in Chillán
"El Clasico" - Barca- Real Madrid
Barca is losing but Alexi Sanches scored - something to make the Chileans happy
Marcelo´s family
Gave us so many presents – a thermal pajamas, Marcelo´s mum sewed my jeans (the only pair I had, in a deplorable state, she gave me a bag full of tea, coffee and sugar for the road J, a Chilian National team T-shirt to Pesho, etc…I kind of knew it knowing Marcelo, but the way Chileans speak and the slang they use have nothing to do with the Spanish I know from Spain! And they speak really fast! Words like "carrete", pololo (novio), caña (resaca), etc., can not be found anywhere else. 

After Concepcion we headed to spend a month in Patagonia maneuvering around the Chilean and Argentinean border.


The start off was Puerto Varas – one of the most beautiful towns I’ve been to in Chile. Mauricio from Santiago told me that it was his favourite one in Chile.  It´s pretty quiet but the views of the volcano are just stunning. There is something about the mix of lakes and mountains that inspire relaxation. Add snow capped volcanoes into the mix and it is picture postcard perfection. We had a nice host there – Claudia, who made us some pancakes and told us enough about the town. 
Calbuco Volcano from Puerto Varas
The perfectly cone shaped Volcano Osorno
One of the most beautiful views in Chile

Puerto Varas
Iglesia del sagrado corazon

The old train station converted into an art gallery
Chiloé, the biggest island in Chile was next destination. The island is reachable by bus and ferry from Puerto Montt. We stayed in Castro famous with its palofitos – colourful houses on stilts. You can also see blue whales while on the island but it wasnt the season (of course, I guess I´m always too late or too early for them). 
Castro. Los palofitos - houses on stilts. 
From the hostel in Castro 
Curanto is a typical dish is made by digging a hole in the ground, filling that with red hot stones, and using this to prepare the Curanto, a dish with shell fish, meat, potatoes, potato bread, Chapaleles and vegetables. Unfortunately  we didnt try it and now I regret it :(. 

Another interesting village, on another island actually is Achao, the oldest houses on the island are supposed to be here. 
Some old houses in Achao
Chilean Foosball table (taka-taka)

View of Achao
We also went to Cucao National park. Ate so many cranberries that my belly started making some weird noises. The bus back to Castro didn’t appear for a while and it was getting late so a truck with 2 guys our age stopped and gave us a ride to Castro. They almost drop us off in front of the hostel. Run quickly to get our bags and we were off to Puerto Montt.
Probably ate a kilo of these

Puerto Montt
Stayed 2 days with Felipe from CS, despite his busy schedule and lots of work, he found time to spend the evenings with us over nice wine and dinner. The town itself was colorful as everything in Chile, lots of “artesanias” for the tourists and as both of us were getting a bit sick, we decided to treat ourselves and bought jackets for the south. Do I really need it? Of course no. Just another one of my special moves – when I wanted to get rid of some clothes due to the weight of my backpack, instead, I bought a really expensive jacket that I don’t need! But the feeling after shopping is amazing! A few days earlier, presenting my “declaración de la renta 2011”(the annual tax declaration in Spain), I found out that Im gonna get 1346 euros….Wohoooo, so at least I can afford a nice and warm jacket (have at least 5 back home but…) and maybe 2 months more in South America!!!
Puerto Montt
The market street
Don´t remember what Felipe was showing but the wine was good
26th of April, again on the road – 32 hours on the bus to Punta Arenas, the most southern city in Chile. To get there, the bus goes almost all the way through Argentina – first going to Osorno, then crossing the border 2 hours away from Osorno, passing by Bariloche and crossing the border again south of Puerto Santa Cruz.
Micah was our host in Punta Arenas. She recently married a Chilean guy (he was working in Torres del Paine at the time we were there) and was such a bubbly and active girl, was so lovely to meet her. We realized we have a friend in common on FB, a Mexican guy who hosted me 5 years ago in Mexico city and whom she met in Colombia through CS. Small world! She gave me as a present a hair band that she knitted herself. 
Micah and her friends in the whirl of yoga
Always with  a glass of wine
The cemetery
One of the nicest cemetery I´ve seen so far
Punta Arenas
The new casino on the right. they love their casinos
I´ve been having such a bad luck with seeing whales and penguins on the way..seems like i´m always too late (in Australia they were supposed to be there in a month) or too early (they just left, the whales probably to Australia J and the penguins to Antarctica). I was really disappointed that the penguins had migrated to Antarctica already. Thats how Isla Magdalena (more than 200.000 penguins) is supposed to look like:
Isla Magdalena
Puerto Natales
There is one CS host in Puerto Natales that everyone should visit and that´s Gloria´s house. Our first night we were 12 people, 8 of them csurfers. Gloria and Oscar are so friendly and warm, you feel immediately at home. In the evenings we had these huge meals, where everyone prepared something from their country. . A friend from Barcelona has also been here, a saw it in the references, small world again. Looks like South America is a pretty popular destination for the Frenchies, so many of them. Gloria said that 80% of the Csurfers they receive are French. Something like the Germans in Australia and NZ.
Oscar took us on the ferry where he works to the other side of the town.

El capitan (on the ferry)
On the other side
Game time in Gloria´s house
Torres del Paine is the main reason people from all over the world come to Puerto Natales. Mainly to do the famous W-circuit. The park is characterized by the granite towers of the Paine Massif and the small valleys, glaciers, and lakes that occupy the space below the rock walls. We hesitated what to do cos it was the end of the season, even the “refugios”  were closing the next day and it was freezing cold. I really wanted to hike it but the weather forecast convinced me to do a full day tour instead ((20 000 pesos tour + 15000 entry fee, for Chileans is only 4000). Good decision cos we got rained on and completely soaked. At least the people with us were cool so despite the bad weather, the time went by quickly. We still managed to see the “torres” peeping through the clouds. Also went to Laguna amarga, Glaciar Grey and Lago grey, Lago Pehoé, Salto grande…Saw quite a few animals too, including Andean condors, Chilean flamingoes, llama-like guanacos, ostrich-like rheas, I guess just missed the pumas.

A rainbow but no "torres"
And a bit later: no rainbow but the "torres"

When we got back to Gloria´s house there was a new supply of CSurfers, a French couple, French Canadian and a kiwi girl. All of them came back from Torres del Paine after doing the W-track for 7 days. Somehow they were full of energy and made pizzas for all of us. 
Couchsurfer´s dinner
Early in the morning we left to Ushuaya, 12 hours on the bus and 2 more stamps in the passport. If this border crossing goes as often it has been so far, there will be no pages left in my passport by the time Im done with Chile and Argentina.

Ushuaya is by far my favourite town in La Patagonia. The most southern city on earth, it also called “Fin del Mundo” (End of the world). It is in Tierra del Fuego, an island of extremes (half Chilean, half Argentinean) and the world's southernmost national park accessible from the world's southernmost city.
Stayed in a cozy hostel called AONIKENK, run by a guy from Salamanca, Spain (Jose). Was nice to be somewhere warm and have my own room (stayed in a 3 bed dorm but it was just 2 of us).  The owner was really talkative and generous – he was inviting all the guests to try the food he made, at the end he gave me a book as a present (by Jorge Borges, cos he was so surprised I didn’t know who he was).
One of the French couples who we met in Gloria´s house made me a list with the things you can see and do for free in Ushuaya and it was really helpful. First day we went to Estancia Túnel, which was quite nice – 3 h easy hike and the weather was just perfect. It´s already out of season so there was no one there.
Main street in Ushuaya

View from Estancia Túnel
You can also stamp you passport at the information center, a stamp from the end of the world. Silly, but also kind of cool.
We tried to hitch from the end of town to Laguna Esmeralda (Valle del lobo, only 18km away) but it didn’t work, just a truck driver wanted to take one of us but we didn’t go for it. So we went back and decided to try the other end of town and get to the National Park Tierra de Fuego. There is a public bus, called “A” bus that runs from end to end and costs only 2,75 pesos (50 cents). That was much easier, the bus droped us off 5 km away from the park and we were happy to walk it but in 5 min we got a ride. Of course there is a touristic bus that goes to the park from the center but as always it was very overpriced.

The Argentinian still think they can get the Falkland islands back (Islas Malvinas)

Back to the city after the not very successful hitching

The end of the world train
We walked instead, itś only a few km

I just can´t resist, love the stop signs in different countries

The fox just didn´t mind us!

The end of the "Tren de fin del mundo"
The bus to Calafate from Ushuaya cost the equivalent of 120 euros in pesos so we decided to go back to Puerto Natales (Chile), spend the night with Gloria and Oscar again (and probably 10 more CSurfers) and leave to Calafate early in the morning, its only 3 hours from Puerto Natales but this way we saved around 40 euros. For some reason the buses in Argentina are way more expensive than the ones in Chile. And of course we got 4 more stamps in the passports, its getting a bit annoying already.
Back in Puerto Natales, we found another French hippie crew at Gloria´s house, this time 2 French girls and a Belgian guy traveling together. They were selling bracelets and singing on the streets to get them by. We ended up staying 2 nights as it was nice to be somewhere warm and not worry about anything but dinner. The first night we arrived after 10pm and the dinner was served so we went straight to the table but the second one was our turn to cook for everyone. Made it simple – baked potatoes with muchrooms and Gloria made some ”merluza al horno”, plus ¨пържени тиквички с кисело мляко и чесън”. Next day bus to El Calafate, it is so close but takes 5 hours and costs 12 000 pesos (around 20 euros). Got 2 more stamps at the border. Some fucking idiot put one diagonally (I went to the bus driver to complain and he just shrugged his showders and told me “eran mujeres”, means women did it) so almost used the whole precious page (when it is supposed to fit 6 stamps)...Means I’ll have to be nice and smiley to the border officers every time so they put the stamp exactly where I want them.

Getting there
Got to El Calafate, Nacho was waiting for me at the bus station. Pesho and I decided to separate for a while as we travel differently and he has only 2 months left to go through Chile, Bolivia and Peru, since I am more relaxed with time. So I had this host from CS and he went to a hostel. We ended up doing things together though cos Nacho offered to take us to Perito Moreno (70 km away).
Perito Moreno. Glaciar Perito Moreno, near the southern end of Los Glaciares National park, is the most famous glacial cap. You only can say WOW when you see it, the most impressive glacier I´ve seen so far. But show is never-ending. You can watch the detachment of ice blocks of different sizes from a short distance, hear the roaring they produce, and then watch them turned into wonderful floating icebergs. Entrance fee to the park are free for locals, 30 pesos for Argentinians and 100 pesos for foreigners.


Flamingos seem to be quite popular in Patagonia
Dr Francisco P. Moreno
Golden autumn
Golden autumn
Nacho decided to come with us to El Chaltén. El Chalten, at the base of Mount Fitz Roy and the heart of Los Glaciares National Park, is a fantastic base for day hikes, challenging multi-day treks, ice hiking Monte Fitz Roy. While a summit expedition might be out of the question (they start at 2 am to be able to reach the summit before the ice starts melting), hiking around the base of Fitz Roy is surprisingly accessible, with options that range from a two-hour jaunt to a four-day circumnavigation of the mountain.
It was end of the autumn, beginning of winter so the colours were so bright and it was very, very pretty.


The village of El Chalten

Fitz Roy

This is the time to mentioned that the bus ticket from Calafate to Bariloche was something ridiculous as 120€ which I refused to pay, its just too much, no way im paying that much. The problem in Patagonia in winter is No 1. Too cold; No 2. Not too many cars; and No 3. Distances are hugeeeeee. So the since I didn’t think I magically will get sponsored or given a bus ticket for my pretty smile, the only solution was hitching to Bariloche.
The sign is cool, we are cool, just no cars on Ruta 40!
Didint really work the way we expected. Instead of going 2000 km north to Bariloche we ended up going 300 km south to Rio Gallegos cos there was no traffic going to Bariloche on Ruta 40 so the best way to do it was to go to Rio Gallegos and try to go to Comodoro (800 km) and then 1000 km to Bariloche. Spent the night in Rio Gallegos (nothing to see there) and early in the morning next day I was trying to talk the truck drivers into taking us north.
Well, somehow I made it to Comodoro (according to the Lonely Planet guide – the town with the ugliest church in the world) and Pesho didn’t. I arranged a truck for him (he doesn't speak Spanish) but either the driver didn’t pick him up or Pesho missed it, don’t know. But I was really worried since I didn’t hear from him and he didn’t reply my phone calls. Finaly, 36 hours later, he sent me a msg on FB that he is sound and safe in Bariloche (got there by bus). Me and everyone around me relaxed and I was ready to go. Actually that’s how I started hitchhiking in Argentina and I never stopped until I reached Arica, means all the way through Argentina and Chile.
My ride to Comodoro. Drunk a lot of mate there

I was quite lucky in Comodoro actually because thanks to my host I met a cool group of people who even took me sailing, my first time sailing ever. We were in the sea for just about 2,3 hours but it was great. even saw seals and penguins. 

Setting up the little boat that will take us to the big boat
The "crew" :)
And we are sailing...and I saw penguins there, yeyey!

My first time sailing ever!

Another cool was finding the Bulgarian community in Comodoro. I just saw a sign on a big building and got in wanting to see if they actually speak Bulgarian. There were people of different age studying how to write Bulgarian and when they found out I am Bulgarian they were all so excited: “A real Bulgarian”…We spoke for a while, they all tried to outdo each other in telling me their family story and roots.

Studying Bulgarian
Hitchhiking to El Bolson wasn´t difficult and meeting Emilio, a guy dedicated to the universe salvation J, made it quite pleasant actually. We found an ostrich (rhea) hit by a car on the road, stopped and took it to the steppes but poor thing had its legs broken and maybe other injuries and no chance of surviving. We knew the best decision was to kill it but neither of us was able to do it so we just left it hands of mother nature (Im sure a puma or a condor would have done the needed). Emilio left me in Golondrinas (just outside of El Bolson), where Emiliano, my CS host lives. He even gave me some homemade bread and homely brewed beer and I promised him to give him a call if I stay longer in El Bolson. Which I did. It is actually my favourite place in Argentina, I think I like it even more than the magical villages between Tucuman and Salta in the north which I visited 4 years ago.

First time someone makes the effort to write something in Bulgarian for me! thank you Google, felt really nice!
I went to Lago Puelo with Pablo, another couch surfer who has been staying with Emi for 3 weeks. Met up with Emilio again and his Japanese girlfriend, went to rio Azul with them, they are really into all ecological and natural products so I learnt a lot from them (for example how to use stevia to kill the bitterness of the “mate”).
Lago Puelo
Lago Puelo
In the mean time Pesho came from Bariloche with a Duch girl (Dafne) and all of us headed together to “refugio” Hielo Azul. Left for 2 days and left the house open as always (the documents, money, laptops and belongings of 5 people available to whoever decides to get in and take them). I asked Emi “Aren’t u gonna lock it?” and the answer was really naïve but genuine “Nooo, who is gonna take something that is not theirs!?” Brilliant! Why don’t we live in a world where everyone thinks like him! And no, he left it unlocked.

The beginning - sunny and green
Sandwich break
It was a 5 hours hike and since it was the beginning of the winter, the guys living there had just left for the winter so we had the whole shelter for ourselves. No electricity, no water but plenty of firewood stuck under the roof and the spring at 10 meters. It was like a fairy-tale outside when we woke up – all white and magical. The plan was to go to the glacier but it snowed so much during the night that it was even dangerous to try getting there (some of us tried though J and had some traumas, surprised it wasn´t me this time). 

Refugio Hielo Azul

Fresh snow for the tea

Obviously we respect the signs...
I was never very good at crossing rivers
Emi - one of the my favourite host so far
Back in El Bolson I fixed my camera case and my hiking shoes at shoemaker for 40 pesos. After a week at Emi´s place it was time to go. The company and the hut were so welcoming that made me stay the longest I´ve ever stayed in a place. Undoubtedly there was an "asado" for despedida (farewell) the last night (mmmm, I miss the meat in Argentina).

I easily hitched a ride to Bariloche and found my host Carlos and his dog Kita at km 19. He is a proper climber and told me quite a few storis about climbing in argentina and abroad. On my second day we went by mountain bikes to Lago Moreno with Belén and Carlos. It provided incredible views but taking a shortcut through the bushes I ended up breaking my hand. I was convinced it wasn´t broken but after 2 days in pain, I went to the hospital, did the X-ray and surprise, surprise it was broken. Luckily a friend of Carlos, Martin, hand and knee surgeon, put the plaster in his house, because in the hospital they wanted to do it properly and there was no way to keep traveling with my two backpacks (especially with the one in the front). So I kinda negotiated it and the cast was able to be taken off if I really wanted to..still very uncomfortable though. Five long weeks in cast! 
Carlos´cozy house
Kina begging to be let in
Mirador Campanario. Bariloche
The whole crew after setting my arm in plaster
Got lots of greets fo rmy name day (21st of May) on FB, I always forget it. Last night with Carlos I cooked a vegetarian moussaka and Martin and Noemi brought some Spanish and Argentinean delicacies.
Hitchiking to Neuquen, got 3 rides and the last one, Nicolás, a truck driver my age, dropped me off in front of my host´s house (he crossed the whole city in his truck just to take me there, like a massive taxi J). He even wanted to take me home, ( I wonder what his parents would say J) but it was 100km out of my way. Stayed with Sebastian and Fabian in Neuquén (nothing really to see in the city) and there was a Uruguayan couple who came straight from Uruguay hitching a ride with a truck driver for 4 days. They were on a very low budget and didn’t have their plans sorted so I helped them with some tips (actually I convinced them to go south and see at least Bariloche and El Bolson) Talked to Emi from El Bolson and he promised to host them (Thanks again!).
Leaving Seba´s flat with the Uruguayans 
Got a ride easily to Mendoza (didn’t even have to try, the truck stopped itself) and after a whole day in it (listening to reggaeton and cumbia), I got to Mendoza (800km). I started liking it, hitchhiking is fun, cheap (free actually) and adventurous. And the best thing is that you talk to so many people and it goes faster than it would be on a bus. Plus the truck drivers know everything. Apart from their broken families (they always tell you their life stories, the ones in Argentina always say that the most jealous women are the Argentinians), they are pretty cheerful and waggish. And the seats in the trucks are pretty comfortable, lots of space and you see everything from above. So people, hitchhike in Argentina – it´s safe, fun and comfortable!

In Mendoza I surfed with Marco and his friends (all doctors, physiotherapists and architects)…In the first minute of my arrival I was given a glass of wine (of course, it´s Mendoza) and later on we moved to another house not far away where more of their friends were having a party. Didn’t do much in Mendoza and the surroundings because of my hand and the cast. Went to San Martin park, its huge. Spent a few days walking the Plaza Independencia, Central park and San Martin park. But cooked quite a lot for everyone in the house :)

One the oldests houses in Mendoza
The street ditches in Mendoza are so dangerous, you can fall in them so easily
30th of May – made it back to Chile. I was late for everything because Cristo Redentor border crossing (also called Paso Los Libertadores) into Chile was closed for 4 days due to the snowfall. On the Argentine side, Ruta Nacional 7 winds up to the pass at 3,500 meters. The big feature of this pass is the 3,080-meter long tunnel through the mountains.  Passed by El Puente del Inca, Las cuevas. 
The tunel
El puente del Inca
Way to the border with Chile
I made it in less than 6 hours, which includes getting a bus 124 from Mendoza wich took me to Acceso sur, then hitched a ride for 20km (the first car that passed stopped), then a truck for another 50k (I didn’t even put my thumb up, they just decided to pick me up) and another truck to Los Andes in Chile (Brazilians, they also stopped) and lastly a minivan took me to my hostel in Santiago. 


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