Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Friday, December 23, 2005

60. The Lake District (Bariloche, Rio Negro, Argentina)

From Ushuaia I first flew to El Calafate, where I had a two day wait for my next flight to Bariloche. Because December is the high season, I couldn't get a direct flight from Ushuaia to Bariloche as they were all already booked. So I opted to take the two flights, paid two sets of departure taxes and 4 taxi fares to and from the airports (grrr). Ushuaia's at the very bottom of the map where it says Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, and Bariloche's in the middle where it says Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi.

map of argentina
map stolen from

Travellers note: I probably could have eventually gotten a direct flight if I'd tried again and again over a few days, as many people cancel flights or change their dates at will at the last minute, as it seems you can do so here without penalty. And, I'd forgotten to check the availability at LAN Argentina, the newly-launched offshoot of LAN Chile.

I flew with LADE, which is the Argentine Air Force's airline, from El Calafate to Bariloche. That was a bit of an experience... As is my custom, I usually try to be one of the last to board my flight as I figure it's more comfortable to wait in the boarding area than be sitting on the plane waiting for everyone else to board. So when I walked across the tarmac and climbed the stairs and entered the plane, I asked the stewardess which seat was mine. Es libre (it's free), she told me, which meant we could sit where we liked. Oh-kay. Fortunately for me the only seat left wasn't right at the back.
The flight went El Calafate -> Bariloche -> Buenos Aires. So when we touched down about seven of us disembarked and waited at the baggage carousel for our luggage. I could see the handlers unloading the bags and couldn't see my suitcaseonwheels, and sure enough it didn't come through. So I told the handler they'd forgotten my bag and he asked me to describe it (negra y plastica) and he raced off to find it. I was standing there waiting, thinking to myself that I thought Bariloche would have a bigger airport. And then I said to myself, hmm, I thought more people would have gotten off as Bariloche is a popular place. Doubt was beginning to creep in... no, surely not. After a few more minutes I asked a lady - are we in Bariloche? No, this is Neuquen, she told me. Oops, I gotten off the plane one stop too early! It wasn't a drama though, as people were still boarding my plane to take their flight to Buenos Aires. But the poor guy was still searching for my bag - oops, my mistake, sorry fella. I noticed that when I got back on the plane the cabin crew started making their announcements in English as well as Spanish.

Everyone who comes to Bariloche says they'll stay a few days and ends up spending a week there. Probably because there's lots of things to do, lots of great restaurants, lots of chocolate shops, and a pretty good nightlife too. Its downtown is very picturesque, with log and stone buildings built in the 1930s but kept in good condition ever since.

Bariloche - 06 - Clock Tower
Main plaza in Bariloche

The first 2 days I was in Bariloche were absolutely freezing, although it was spring a freezing cold gale was blowing in off the lake, which itself looked more like the ocean thanks to the waves whipped up by the wind. It was colder here than in El Calafate or Ushuaia, which was surprising since Ushuaia's so much further south. Then again, Bariloche's at 770m but Ushuaia's at sea level.

Bariloche - 07 - Lake
A wave crashes into the lakefront jetty

Because of the cold weather, I didn't really get out and do much those first two days. I was staying in a great hostel run by a Kiwi, 41 Below, whose DVD collection I made good use of.
On about the third day I met some other Kiwi guys and we walked up Cerro Otto, one of the many nearby hills, for the view of the city, lakes, and mountains.

Bariloche - 15 - Cerro Otto pano
The view from Cerro Otto

We could have taken a gondola ride up but had opted to walk it instead - it took us over an hour and was extremely steep towards the top, but atop the restaurant was a revolving restaurant which we recuperated in. I'd never been in a revolving restaurant before.

Bariloche - 21 - Sunset
Looking down on the main plaza at sunset from Hostel 1004

A couple of days later I met some Spanish guys who wanted to hire and share a car, to see the surrounding countryside. Of course I was keen to do it again, as we'd had a good time when we'd hired the cars the other times. Although I did meet one Dutch backpacker who hadn't had such a good time.
When you hire a car in Argentina, it comes with some insurance, but the insurance excess is for the first $2000 pesos (US$700) damage. And if you vuelco (roll) the car the excess is $10,000 pesos (USD$3300) as it's assumed that you were driving recklessly. Well, the Dutch guy hired a car with 4 others he didn't really know, and they all set off to see the whales and penguins of Puerto Madryn (see my entry #56. Penguins!). The Dutch guy was driving, and everything was in his name and his credit card.

Siete Lagos - 03 - Car crash
Random pic: a different hire-car crash

Well, he pulled out to pass someone on the ripio (gravel) roads, and for whatever reason, as he was passing, the other guy swerved left, possibly to avoid a hole in the road. So our guy swerves left to avoid being hit, but then the car starts sliding, so he steers right to get back on the road, does the old over-correcting, gets the wobbles, and eventually the Ford Ka he's driving does the dreaded vuelco (roll). Luckily no one was injured, but while they were waiting around the other guy took off. So the $10,000 peso franquisia (excess) had to be paid by the Dutch guy and the others. That's $2000 pesos each - ouch. The two English girls of the group fronted up with their $4000 peso share, but the other two, an Israeli couple, pleaded poverty, emptied out their pockets, and stumped up with about $1000 pesos between them. Forcing the Dutch guy to have to pay the rest, since it was on his credit card - $5000 pesos. Double-ouch. He wryly told me those were two Spanish words he'd never forget - ripio, and vuelco.

Monte Tronador - 01 - Jose Sergio
Jose and Sergio, the Spanish guys

The first day me and the Spaniards set off to see Mount Tronador, a mountain with a black glacier. I was intrigued to see what a black glacier looked like and it was pretty cool - it was black because the ice was full of volcanic ash. It didn't quite look like the black crystal I'd imagined but more like a dirty glacier.

Monte Tronador - 09 - Black Glacier
The black glacier

We gung-hoed it past the "Do not pass" signs down to the lakefront, where I asked Jose if he was going to do some iceberg hopping polar bear style. To my surprise, he took up the challenge! Man, this was gonna be funny, especially if he slipped and ended up in the freezing water!

Monte Tronador - 10 - Jose icebergs
Our hero psyches himself up - click to watch video

He had a bit of a leap to do - about 2 metres from a standing start. I figured he'd be able to make the leap but he'd either slip on landing or the iceberg would sink under his weight. Well, he actually made it! The iceberg started to sink as he landed but he hopped onto the next one and then the next one which was big enough. Getting back wasn't so successful though, as one of the ones he'd jumped on sunk under his weight and he had to clamber up off it onto a bigger one, icy-wet feet and all. I'd say the water was pretty deep where he was too.

Monte Tronador - 13 - Jose icebergs

After that we visited some waterfall on the way back to Bariloche.

The next day we headed north, up to the town of San Martin de Los Andes, via the famous Seven Lake Route. As the name implies, the route passes a number of lakes, all of which are beautiful but nearly identical. It was definitely a case of seen one seen 'em all, but the day was great, our first day of beautiful weather, and the lakes were amazing.

Siete Lagos - 02 - Lago Espejo
A speedboat crosses Lago Espejo

Siete Lagos - 05 - Puente
Amazingly clear river

Siete Lagos - 09 - Sergio Jose lunch
Lunch stop

On the way back we took a different route further from the mountains, and the change was dramatic. Whereas the Seven Lake route had been all lakes surrounded by forest, away from the mountains it was lakes still, but surrounded by dry grass - maybe we were now above the tree-line. That night we returned the car without a scratch and only 10km under the 700km we'd pre-bought - sweet.

That night we had a bit of a boy's night out - inch-thick steaks in a parilla (steak house), ten-pin bowling in a manual bowling alley, which meant I kept score with pen and paper and kids working at the end of the alleys re-set the pins by hand (surprisingly efficient, although sometimes there'd be a bit of a wait), and finally off to some bar for a bikini contest.

Bikini Contest - 03 -
Bikini Contest

Bikini Contest - 06 -
Quality Argentine meat

(According to, that picture is my most viewed picture - and that's before I've even published it here!)

The next day I bid the Spaniards farewell and headed south to El Bolson, a former hippie town that still has a Greenpeace kind of feel. I watched some concert in the central park and enjoyed the best icecream I've ever tasted - from the Jauja icecream shop. They must have had about 50 flavours, I opted for one scoop of cinnamon with one scoop of mate (the Argentine herbal tea). From there I visited nearby Lago Puelo, got sunburnt, and had a swim (well, a plunge) in the icy mountain lake.

Bariloche - 22 - Matt sunset
Me and the sunset in Bariloche

I returned for one more night in Bariloche, before taking a 19 hour bus-ride back to Buenos Aires. I was actually looking forward to this bus ride, as I'd finally gotten to reserve a supercama seat. I'd been waiting all year for this - the cream of the Argentine bus service, as the seat and footrest recline (almost) completely flat. And being high season I'd had to book this ticket a week in advance, when I first arrived in Bariloche. And yep, it was comfy, I slept well and arrived in BA fresh enough. The only downer was they only played 3 movies on the trip and I'd either seen them already or didn't want to see them. The 81 year old Argentine-Russian lady I sat next to was more interesting than the movies anyway, telling me her life story in her good English which she hadn't had the chance to use in 20 years. They served meals on the bus, airline style, and the champagne cart came around late at night.

Bariloche - 25 - Matt supercama

Feliz Navidad everyone! I'll be spending Christmas and New Year in hot and sweaty BA, but at least I'll be with friends and my girlfriend. I've been busy here in the week since I returned, researching a business idea I have to start something up in Ushuaia. We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

59. The End of the World (Ushuaia, Argentina)

My next destination from Punto Arenas in Chile's far south was Ushuaia, in Argentina's far south, in fact the southern-most city in the world. Unfortunately, there's only 2 buses a day to Ushuaia and they were already booked in advance, so I had to wait 3 days in Punto Arenas.

Traveller's note: Although it should be a short journey from Punto Arenas to Ushuaia across the Strait of Magellen, it's not, in fact the route goes north up to Punto Delgada and then all the way back down again to Ushuaia, 12 hours in total. This final 12 hour journey meant I'd pretty much come through Chile for nothing, as I could have gone direct from El Calafate to Ushuaia in about the same time and for about the same cost.

Ushuaia sits at 54 degrees south on the massive island of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) at the very bottom of South America, as close as you can get to Antarctica. Back in the old days Argentina followed Britain's example of Australia by shipping their worst convicts off to Ushuaia, since being a remote island, escape from a prison on Tierra del Fuego would have been impossible.

Antarctica, with South America at right

Despite being at the end of the world, Ushuaia was very nice. Surrounded by mountains and sea, it sits on the Beagle channel, through which came Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle in the 1830s. It's also usually the last stop for cruise ships on their way to Antarctica, thus it's possible to pick up a last minute return ticket to Ushuaia for around US$2500. That's a 10 day excursion everyone would love to do, but out of my budget. There's plenty of tourist activities to do in Ushuaia, but I already had my flight booked so I only had 2 days there.
Because we're so far south and it's nearly summer, it gets dark really late and light really early. Sunset is at about 10pm (although it's not dark until 11) and sunrise is at about 5am. And Argentina doesn't have daylight saving time either!

Ushuaia - 07 - Sunrise
Sunrise over the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia

The first day me and an Argentinian guy Mauricio walked up what is a skifield in winter (dry now in summer) to see the Martial Glacier. After 2 hours of walking I don't know if that glacier exists, if there's one there it must be covered with snow because we couldn't see anything. Nevermind, the views of Ushuaia from the top were worth the walk.

Ushuaia - 08 - Park axe
The trail up to the glacier

Ushuaia - 10 - View
Looking down on Ushuaia

The next day a group of us decided to check out the National Park there in Ushuaia. Most of the trails can be covered in a long day of walking, so that's what we did. The walk covered all sorts of forest as well as nice coastal views.

Ushuaia - 21 - Beagle channel
Beagle channel again

Years ago they released Canadian beavers into the wild here, I was hoping to see one as I've never seen them except in a cartoon, but I'm told you'll only find them when no one's around, in the early morning or late at night. I did see their handywork though, which was dam impressive (heh). The mountain of sticks they'd created was holding back a wall of water about a meter high and 30m long.

Ushuaia - 17 - Beaver dam
Beaver dam

And that was it for my 2 days in Ushuaia. It was dissapointing to have come all that way to the end of the world and only spend 2 days there, but I'd wasted 2 days waiting for a bus in Punto Arenas. And I was looking forward to taking a flight for a change as I'd been bussing everywhere so I figured I deserved a plane ride. Flying is usually about twice the price of the buses, but then you have to add in the cost of airport taxes and taxis to and from the airport which dent the budget some more. But you get some good views:

Ushuaia - 25 - Town view
Ushuaia's airport, with the city in background at the foot of the mountains

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

58. Tour of Pain (Torres del Pain, Region XII, Chile)

From El Calafate I headed north 5 hours to nearby El Chalten, Argentina's youngest town, which was founded in 1985 to scare Chile out of the area.
Patagonia Map
Map of Southern Patagonia - brown is Argentina territory

The border between Argentina and Chile in Southern Patagonia wasn't firmly established until the mid 80s, and squabbling had been taking place over it for years. Which is probably why Chile secretly took Britian's side (by providing intelligence) in the 1982 Falklands War - something Argentines resent to this day.
El Chalten itself is nothing great, lots of A-frame ski-lodge type houses and hostels, but what makes it a big backpacker drawcard is its proximity to a lot of great treks, most of which can be done as daytrips. It's a bit extreme mountaineer though - most of the people walking around town are wearing full on colour matching hiking gear, 2 metre tall backpacks, walking poles, etc, and that's just when going to the supermarket. The ol' suitcaseonwheels felt a bit out of place being dragged down the gravel streets. Fortunately I met a nice Irish couple in my hostel who themselves had been having a snicker at the Everest climbers and the wannabes and were relieved to meet another traveller without any Goretex. We set off the next day on one of the day-treks, to Lago Torre to check out another Glacier. Unfortunately the weather wasn't the best so our view of El Torre (The Tower), the mountain which sits behind the lake, was crap.
El Torre - 04 - Matt Lago Torre
Me in front of Lago Torre, the glacier, and El Torre
We carried on another 20 mins to get closer to the glacier.
El Torre - 05 - Lago Torre Glacier
The glacier
We had a lunch stop at the campsite near the lake, where we met the real hardcore - including a guy who'd been there camping 15 days waiting for clear weather. El Chalten's a real mountaineer town, a lot of people come to climb nearby Mt Fitzroy, which although not too high at around 3100m, is renowned for being difficult because of its steepness. Unfortunately, I couldn't see Mt Fitzroy's jagged peak because of the crap weather.
The next morning the weather was still cold and cloudy and windy so I caught a bus back to El Calafate. If it had been clear I would have stayed but I didn't feel like another long day treking if the views would be spoiled by the weather. And I was still tired from the 7 hours walking the day before.
From El Calafate I arranged a trip to the famous Torres del Paine National Park, just across the border in Chile. My hostel in El Calafate had a day trip which they'd told me was a day of walking in which we'd see the main sights, weather permitting.
Unfortunately, the trip was a real letdown (hence the title of this post). Once we'd crossed the border into Chile we changed to a larger tour bus where it was evident we wouldn't be doing much treking - on board were a couple from Italy in their 80s. The guide explained the plan for the day and the only treking would be half an hour around lunch.
When she showed me a decent map with the distances marked it was evident there was no way we could possibly cover what the people in my hostel told me we would cover by walking. The map they'd shown me in my hostel didn't have a scale. So I was pissed off - we'd be in a bus all day, and it was a expensive - the tour was like US$50 plus another US$20 just to enter the park - welcome back to Chilean prices.
Everyone comes to Torres del Paine to see 3 things - the famous Torres del Paine (3 granite towers), Glacier Grey, and the Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine).
The Torres we could not see because of the cloud. Couldn't even see their outline. We weren't even very close to them anyway. Here's what they look like, so you know what I missed:
Torres Del Paine
Torres del Paine (image stolen from web)
We did see Lago Grey, in which sits Glacier Grey. More icebergs.
Torres del Paine - 02 - Lago Grey
The shores of Lago Grey
Down on the shore were heaps of little icecubes, which looked quite spectacular as the ice was perfectly clear, like crystal. I'm not sure why, maybe because it was formed hundreds of years ago. Or maybe because it was formed under pressure or something.
Torres del Paine - 08 - Ice cristal
I just had to try a piece. It tasted like... water.
Torres del Paine - 09 - Matt eat ice
Thousand year old popsicle
Torres del Paine - 11 - Glacier Grey
Glacier Grey at the head of the lake, 18km away
Back into the tour bus we piled, and on the way back to the park entrance we passed the Cuernos del Paine. The Cuernos (horns) are in the background, in front of Lake Pehoe. The hotel sitting on the island is a few hundred dollars a night.
Torres del Paine - 12 - Cuernos del Paine Lago Pehoe
Cuernos del Paine in the back-right
After the tour we drove to Puerto Natales in Chile, where I got quoted US$17 a night for a hostel, so I didn't stay and caught the first bus out of there that evening to Punto Arenas, which sits on the Straight of Magellan just across from Tierra del Fuego, where I'd be heading next.
Images from the bus ride to Punto Arenas:
Punto Arenas - 02 - 20-49-30

Punto Arenas - 03 - 20-52-30

Punto Arenas - 07 - 21-00-57