09.01.2012 - 25.01.2012
Hola from the country of the meaty slow cooking Asado, where young people gather with friends at Park's and street corners to sip Matte green tea with their top up hot water flasks, everything slows down mid day for a siesta and where night clubs don’t even open til 2am....!!!
Time to head over the Andes from Chile to Argentina........ Both countries may have united to drive out the Spanish but are far more frosty neighbours these days with various claims and disputes over differing sections of land! The trip was about 7 hours in total and we certainly passed some impressive scenery along the way. The cameras were definitely snap happy when we reached the Argentinian side of the Andes because the whole place was covered in a thick layer of grey volcanic dust. It felt like something from another planet and such was the thickness of the dust it seemed to be killing the trees and plants it covered! Surprisingly though the volcano which caused all this greyness isn't actually in Argentina but it's in Chile and it has dumped most of it's debris over the boarder and over the town where we were headed, San Carlos De Bariloche!
The city is perched lakeside with great views of the amazing scenery looking back north west at the Andes, where the water uniquely drains west to the Pacific through the Andes. After exchanging money at a shop we jumped on a local bus into town & we found our nice hostel, Pudu located up the hill, but with great views out back. The area is famed for its skying and hiking and the town for its Chocolate delicatessen shops but due to the ash over the previous months the tourists have stayed away. In the good old lonely planet it describes cycling round the Circuito circuit as a must, so off we go, hopping on the local bus for the Quetrihue peninsular watching out for the bike hire location, which happened to be right next door to our first welsh tea house, but no time for cake this time. The terrain was definitely not flat, undulating between lakes and forests, and the beautiful weather accompanied the beaches,viewpoints and windy road well, stopping for a picnic lunch in a bay (ham and cheese sandwiches for a change) and the odd pit stop to allow Sian to catch up. The peninsular had an alpine feeling with fresh crystal clear water, rocky cliffs, tall trees and a fresh breeze, and not surprising quite a popular place to cycle, walk or just go for a cruse in the car. At the highest point we treated ourselves to a cup of tea and milkshake at a very well located vista cafe, before heading down hill back to the bike hire location and catching the bus back, thankfully the bike hire hostel had some spare pre pay bus tickets because “we” left ours in the room. We liked the area and the cool hostel and ended up staying a 4th night so we could go on a ½ day canoe trip further up in the hills on Lake Guherrez. We took the decision to not get the pick up from town and head up to the lake by the local bus and chill out by the lake and have lunch (ham and cheese again) only problem being the company didn’t turn up where we were told to wait, but we eventually go exploring a near by camp site and find the group already heading off. We jumped in and off we went with our nice guide and caught the group up, where we stopped and had tea and medialunas (croissants) on the pebble beach. The area is a lovely national park, land donated by Puerito Merino the Argentinian legend who helped claim the land for Argentina and draw the modern boundaries with Chile disclaiming the fact that if the water drained west to the Pacific and therefore should be part of Chile (the Argentinians have a few land claim issues). The lake is so crystal clear it's safe to drink and at best you can see 6-8m down, great place to canoe, and we passed some lush waterfront houses on the way back and can imagine it to be a lush place to live and holiday.
Unfortunately it was time to leave Bariloche and an early start to catch the bus south about 5 hours to Esquel, where we would head west to the small village of Trevelin (does something look slightly similar to home???). Trevelin or Trefelin (Mill town) head of the Chubut River or Afon Camwy which reaches down to the east coast where the first welsh settlers landed. So we couldn't pass by the village without a little stop over as the place had a nice hostel with lovely views and a 'casa de te' or tea house preparing all kinds of delights e.g. teisen and bara brith. Unfortunately there was a small issue with ongoing bus along the infamous Ruta 40. The bus wasn't going on the day we expected, so it was that day or in four days!! We had to opt for the earliest departure as we couldn't fit in a 4 day pitstop – the schedule is tight, so much to see so little time! All was not lost as we had the whole of the afternoon to visit Trevelin and indulge in some delicious cakes and all you can drink tea...... lush. The funniest part of the whole visit was the fact that the cafe owner couldn't speak English and we couldn't speak Spanish so the only way we could communicate was to speak Welsh to each other, amazing considering we're so far from home and he was about 5th generation Argentinian! There were a few welsh flags around the main village square and the hostel where we were meant to chill out in for 2 days also spoke Welsh, home from home! It was time to return to Esquel after a fruitless attempt to find the statue of John Evans' horse, the founder of the settlement who was saved from a sure death accident by his horse.
Back in Esquel our basic but not cheap ruta 40 bus turned up late, great considering the journey was already scheduled to take 18 hours. The road follows the Andes along the western side of Argentina and is famous among travellers due to the length of the not so comfortable journey past miles and miles of undulating dessert like Patagonian steepe over unsealed roads. We will never moan about a few pot holes in the roads at home, we love tarmac!!! So the journey ended up being 22 hours, a fair few dodgy films and a little sleep through fairly mind numbing scenery but an experience nonetheless and the destination was well worth it.....
El Chalten is an Argentinian hiking mecca for people wanting to experience the Patagonian outdoors, and unsurprisingly most of the hostels were booked up but we managed to get a fairly expensive place for the first night! The town is not very old, it's only been around for about 20 years and was Argentina's way of putting off Chilean claims to the area, and has turned into one of the up and coming tourist destinations. The main attractions being the peaks of Fitz roy and Cerro Torre and the surrounding walking paths in the area. Also the more adventurous types flock there to make the most of the peaks with all their climbing gear. The town wouldn't win any awards for beauty but the national park Los Glaciers on it's doorstep most definitely would. We had planned to do a couple of hikes whilst we were there the first being the hike up to Cerro Torre and the glacial Lago Torre. The hike took around 6 hours to complete and had a fair few ups and downs but the view of the peak, and glacier flowing down it, and icebergs in lake beneath it was amazing.
The second day was a round trip from the town towards Fitz Roy and back. The first part of the walk starts about 10km out of town via minibus or taxi in our case because the bus was full. The 10km if just a walk along the river up to the start of the mountainous area and then the interesting scenery starts!!! The views of Fitz Roy were more impressive than Cerro Torre and we were blessed with a perfectly clear blue sky, apparently this doesn't happen often. The path took us along the opposite side of the river to the peaks and each 200 yards brought about a different view of the imposing range. Whilst making the most of the many photo opportunities we could hear the glacier cracking and parts falling in the valley before us, quite an eerie sound. The path did lead up to the glacial lake but with tired limbs from 2 days of walking and the gravel mountain which led to it being too much of an effort we decided to go back towards the town and take advantage of the various viewpoints along the way. The next morning we found out what the view was like when there are clouds in the sky, not a patch on what we had experienced during the previous two days, we got a bit lucky there I reckon!
The next destination was three hours down the road, El Calafate which is also right next to the Parque National Los Glaciers and most importantly the main departure point in order to visit Perito Moreno glacier. The town was definitely bigger than El Chalten and even more tourists around. We arranged our bus to the glacier for the following afternoon at the not so cheap price of £15 each plus then you have to pay another £15 each to get into the national park. It all sounds a bit steep but once you get to the glacier you soon forget about the price and it is potentially the most amazing natural sight we've visited during the trip. The glacier makes Franz Joseph in New Zealand look like a ice lolly and moves a minimum of 2m a day, shame we couldn't stretch the budget to do a walk on this bad boy! We visited in the afternoon because that is when apparently the glacier is most active and there were certainly massive chunks falling off. The biggest of which Meurig missed because he was ready with the camera for another piece which looked like it would go any minute. The humongous chunk of ice created some big waves when it fell and then rose us a few seconds later to bob around like a big old iceberg, pretty cool sight. The park have definitely catered for the tourists with lots of different viewing platforms and board walks to follow to get the best or different view of the glacier. At least once a decade the ice grows towards the land and attaches itself splitting the lake into two. Over time the pressure becomes too much and a tunnel and arch is created by the water underneath which collapses eventually to reunite both sides of the lake and the process starts again. There are a few walking tracks around El Calafate but the main attraction was definitely the glacier so having seen that it was time to move on.
Unfortunately due to the forest fire in Torres Del Paine we couldn't justify the visit down there for a couple of hours of walking when you are meant to be able to follow a track lasting 4 days to see all the sights, and Ushwaia the southern most city just seemed that bit too far on its own, there's always next time....! So it was onwards and upwards to Puerto Madryn so the 51° parallel would be the furthest south we got!!!!
After an 18hour journey we arrive at Puerto Mardyn or you could say Porth Madryn, the cliffs nearby this coastal town being the first landing point for the Welsh settlers. At first impressions of the area you wouldn’t blame them for doubting their ambition and want to get straight back on the same ship home. The surrounding area is desolate, bleak and varying shades of brown, life could not of been easy for the first who arrived, living in shacks carved out of the mud stone cliffs, but somehow out of probably sheer stubbornness they set up the first successful permanent settlement in this isolated area.
The Wladfa (The colony) was land designated to the Welsh settlers by the Argentina government after negotiation with William J. Parry of Mardyn north Wales. The Argentine government were keen to set up a settlement in Patagonia to ward off any colonisation from other nations such as the British in the Falklands and Spanish and French, therefore offered limited financial support to the would be colony escaping English persecution at home, especially in relation to the attempt to outlaw the Welsh language. All previous settlements in the area had failed badly due to a combination of the climate and also the aggression of the local nomadic indigenous people, with the only activity in the area being the seasonal seal and whale hunting. For some reason apparently the Welsh settlers and indigenous people built up a peaceful coexistence and one of mutual support which helped to create the community which is there today. The only lush green area anywhere to be seen is an inland section of the Chubut valley/canyon the area designated to the Welsh settlers which they then engineered and irrigated to create the surprisingly green fields and villages west of Trelew. The area thrived on producing stock and grain to send back to Europe, even building a railway to connect up with the coast, but all that failed after the great depression. These days Trelew is a big sprawling city, with talk of big hydro and Nuclear projects for the future, but Puerto Mardyn is a big tourist haunt renowned for its Natural abundance of wildlife.
As we arrived early in the day, we decided to walk through the town to our hostel, although Sian later regretted this JOINT decision, booking the Nice Hola Hostel 3ish Km away. The hostel owner Gaston was great and more than welcoming, and gave us a good intro to the area, pointing out the specific Welsh points of interest along with the numerous wildlife options to us and to our delight the all you can eat Asado (Argy BBQ) woop wooop!!!! During our time here we travelled out to Gaiman by bus with Trevor our friendly American traveller, walked round the town and had a good chat to the Museum curator at the Station Museum in very articulate Welsh and of course a Welsh tea at the busy Plas y Coed tea house which was pretty much a museum too. We also walked down the long beach to the Welsh memorial and Museum on the cliffs and on our last day we jumped on a trip to the Peninsular Valdes to sea the thriving Fur Seal colony on the north shore, the location of the Orca beaching technique to claim their seal pup pray, but unfortunately too early by weeks for this so had to be satisfied with a lively Penguin colony close up and some static blubbery elephant seals further down the coast. We had again hit a popular whale destination in the middle of the couple of months in the year that they are far away from home!!! Not destined to see any big blubbery mammals on this trip unfortunately, gonna have to find the buggers somewhere else some other time.... Onwards and upwards to the Argentinian capital!!!