South America, 2017

December, 2017

Our Southern South American trip was one of the few that we enjoyed more in anticipation and reflection than in actuality. But we get ahead of ourselves.
The flight from Sydney to Santiago, via Auckland was long and uneventful, and our local agent met us, gave a useful overview of the city and things to do in the next two days, promising to pick us up for the transfer from the hotel to the airport for the flight to Punta Arenas, the major starting point for excursions into Patagonia on the Chile side. From the plane we had good views of Andean volcanos.
In Punta Arenas we were met by the EcoCamp group, and with a fun Indian couple born and bred in the UK, spent the next six hours in a shuttle bus on very windy roads with a welcome lunch stopover in Porto Natales. After the flat and dry terrain the lake and snow capped mountains and quaint village offered visual relief as well as practical comforts. But first our two days in Santiago.


Our hotel was centrally located albeit on the wrong side of the Boulevard (Avenida Libertador), as it were.
Over the two days we were there we explored most areas in increasing concentric circles, including a visit to the National Museum of History and the Pre-Columbian Museum, the latter giving us a much appreciated overview in English of the indigenous peoples inhabiting South America, mostly dating between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago - much younger than the 50,000 - 60,000 years of human occupation of Australia.
Santiago was established in 1541 by the Spanish, and was built over the top of an Inca village, remains of which have been found under buildings in the city centre.
The highlight of the stay was exploring the photogenic old castle, Cerro Santa Lucia, which offered wonderful views of the city. It was built on the remnants of a 15 million year old volcano, following it being conquered by Pedro ed Valdivia in 1540. In 1816 two forts were planned (Fort Hidalgo finished in 1820). In 1870 a road accessed a chapel at the top with features such as gas lighting, fountains and sophisticated irrigation.
On the first night we had the best meal of the entire trip at BocaNariz, where we ordered slow cooked lamb (in sweet potato puree), conger eel with black rice and mushrooms, a salad, and a 2015 Lucero Syrah from the Casablanca Valley. The name of the restaurant represented the combined effect of smell and taste. On the wall they had provided the Spanish for the senses: Orega (sight), Boca (smell), Ojo (hearing), Nariz (taste) and Dego (touch). Food for the rest of the trip is probably best not emphasised except that one has to recognise the challenge of getting any produce, let alone fresh vegetables into Patagonia.
Our second day in Santiago involved exploring the areas on the way to the San Christophe Chapel on Paraque Metropolitano, a quite high hill and the only substantive hike in the city. By this time Tim's cold had evolved into quite serious coughing but we managed the 11.7 k with 405 metres climb. It was hot, windy, dusty and dry, and the views were illustrative of the smog and expanse of Santiago.
Strolling through the art district on our return revealed interesting architecture and a bohemian atmosphere that reminded us of Dinky Town near the University of Minnesota.

EcoCamp - Patagonian Chile in the Torres Del Paine National Park

EcoCamp is an enterprise with a focus on sustainability. Our Superior Dome was small, heated and with its own shower and toilet. We had views of the Torres Del Paine, which we photographed from many angles over the next five days. The camp routine involved evening briefings over a free Pisco Sour, and dinner with hiking partners from the day, all in the Community Dome. Briefings covered the hiking and other activities on offer for the next day (taking weather into account), and a requirement to make a decision at dinner so that breakfast seating with others on the outing and the guides could be organised.
At breakfast one was provided with an array of fillings for self-made sandwiches or rolls. Several fillings were based on leftovers from the dinner the night before, but on the whole there was plenty of choice with sufficient non-meat options.
Over the four days we were at EcoCamp we engaged in full day hikes each day with the weather ranging from very cold and very windy to very cold, extremely windy, pouring rain and sleet. But as always, there were a few opportunities for photos when the weather permitted.

Day 1 - Grey Lake Glacier

After a one-hour bus shuttle, followed by a one-hour crossing of the lake on a catamaran, we started the hike that required us to meet our boat in four hours at a point closer to the Grey Glacier. The guides barely allowed us time to take photos because of the deadline. As this was our first experience of Patagonian bush, we felt sad, but Beryl worked out a strategy of walking really fast to the 'lead' guide and then stopping to take photos, joining the hike just before the 'tail' guide showed, and then repeated the activity. Her camera is a 'point and click' variety so is efficient. Tim's photos were much better but not as numerous.
Tim's cold had deteriorated, but he soldiered on, and our guides managed to get us to the end point in under four hours, but the boat was about two hours late! Trying to keep warm in the rain while we waited was challenging, and although there was a refuge, we were not permitted to use it. Beryl found a wood shed, and encouraged the group to move there. Our check with the guides indicated that the boat would arrive 15 minutes after we could see it on the lake - that was as much information as they had. Understandably we all spent the next hour or so seeking out dots on the horizon that might have been the boat. It arrived, and took us past three wonderful glaciers. Tim donned the obligatory life jacket, and got lots of photos from the deck. Beryl stayed warm inside.
Statistics: 11.8 k, with an altitude range from 27 to 289 metres, and a total climb of 937 metres. We were able to track the hikes with our well travelled GPS (Lucinda) and a South American map we purchased for it.

Day 2 - Base of the Towers

The weather was comparatively good at the start of the hike, which we took slowly as we were accompanied by a father and daughter team, the father with early onset Parkinson's Disease - and his daughter wanting to give him a lifetime experience. The group split after about two hours, and we had a young woman as our personal guide who took us to the Base of the Towers, while the other guide remained with the daughter and father team who made it much further than we would have expected. I think the father felt a real sense of achievement.
After we split, the weather deteriorated, and we walked up and down in rain, sleet and hail, but the footing was much better than we had anticipated, and we did have a few photo opportunities, although the cloud and mist dulled the effects.
Statistics: 21.2 k, from 117 to 892 metres, and a total climb of 1662 metres - there was a lot of up and down! It took us 9 hours, and the time on feet was a challenge for Tim. We had to monitor his feet for the rest of the trip - lots of plasters, padding etc., and different shoes.

Day 3 - Patagonian Bagual Experience

Beryl woke to show signs of the bug. This activity was on the West Side of the Torres Del Paine in what is known colloquially as "horses valley" as it hosts approximately 100 wild horses. A veterinarian and his team were our guides for the day. They are researching the ecosystem of the valley, and have been given responsibility for its management by the Parks authorities. Getting to the site involved an hour bus drive after which we arrived at a quaint 'puesta' (cottage), where they provided a spread of vegies and dips, and coffee with Baileys Irish Cream - yum! Given the weather, the latter in particular, was most welcome.
After this we were given a power point presentation on archaic equipment in a tiny room, but it worked, and from an information perspective, was the highlight of our trip. The talk covered the ecological aspects of the valley that have somehow managed to keep the wild horse population down to the 100 level even though wild horses in other alpine areas (including Australia) are expanding exponentially, causing serious environmental damage (there was a major feature article on this in the Australian on the day we returned - here they have to cull about 1000 Brumbies). The reason for the stability in the Bagual Valley is probably the existence of puma (we saw a scat), condors and the fact that there is sufficient food to ensure that the wild horses demonstrate cooperative behaviour rather than the formation of competing herds.
They have a web site:
Most of the hike through the valley was off track, up hills and down into the valley, with access to some views. Lunch was in an idyllic spot, fortunately out of the worst of the wind which was gusting at close to 80 - 100 km/h most of the time.
The highlight of the trip was noticing a woodpecker family, the male with a red crest, and the female less colourful, but both looking after and feeding young in a typical woodpecker nest hole in a tree.
The hike was followed by drinks at the puesta (base shed) and a BBQ at a spot on the lake on the way home. Fortunately it was indoors, as the wind was extreme. The food was good - the only other meal worth a mention - good variety of meats and more vegies and greens than we had and would see, although we were sharing with the EcoDome team and the Vet and his team, who obviously also preferred vegies, so one could not be greedy.
The only other couple at the camp older than us and our Indian British tour companions were on the trip, so it was a good social day. We enjoyed them.
Statistics: 11 k over about 5.5 hours from a low of 391 metres to a high of 641 metres, with a total climb of 450 metres. This was the easiest of our four days.

Day Four - French Valley (Rio Frances)

Beryl now had the 'bug'. After an hour bus ride and another hour in the catamaran we started the track to French Valley. One of our group members was recovering from a knee operation, so progress at the start was unfortunately slow in the only part of the day when it was not raining. At least it meant we had time for photos of the flowers, especially the orchids, the fire bush, lady's slipper etc. The fire bush must be related to the Tasmanian Waratah, with a bit of wild grevillea in it as well. The similarities and differences of plants in the Southern Hemisphere given the common origin of Gondwana Land are fascinating.
Once the weather started deteriorating, the party split and we joined the main guide and a young American couple for the serious hike up to the French Valley Col. It was actually not too hard a climb, but the wind and rain did make it a bit challenging. We walked next to a major deafening watercourse with its origins in the glaciers and snow - it reminded us of the Huka Falls in New Zealand.
The wind at the top meant very rapid picture taking before retreating to comparative protection - but at least it was marginally clear. Then all the way down it poured with a strong cold wind. One of the streams we crossed on the way up had become a raging torrent, so a temporary log bridge was built, and we managed to get across without falling in or getting feet wet with help from the guide; others were not as fortunate.
Back in the shelter, waiting for the boat, one had to try to wring out wet socks, find something dry to wear (which we fortunately had) and recover. Beryl probably suffered from a bit of hypothermia that did not help the latent 'bug'. But the boat arrived on time, and two hours later we were able to shower and have a late dinner although the day seemed to dull the appetite.
Statistics: 19.2 k in 7.25 hours; low altitude of 28 metres to a high of 528 with a total climb of 2052 metres - lots of up and down!

Transfer from Torres Del Payne EcoCamp to El Calefate in Argentina in the Los Glaciares National Park

After a last photo of the spires, an EcoCamp van took us to a junction where we caught a standard bus that was absolutely packed - we had the last two seats. First we had to emigrate from Chile (long queues), and then 10 minutes later we had to go through immigration into Argentina, also long queues. We arrived at El Calafate around mid-day and briefly explored the village before retreating to a very comfortable room in the Sierra Nevada. We had been led to believe that obtaining money at ATMs in El Calafate was easy, but this was not our experience. We used credit cards where we could but all banking systems failed frequently.

Perrito Moreno Glacier

We were booked on a one day outing to the Glacier, which is probably the only source of tourism for El Calefate - but there were hundreds of busses traversing the 1.5 hour drive to the jetty, from which one took the obligatory hour cruise. We did pass a few ranches that used to run sheep but the drop in wool prices put them out of business. The most recent price rise has seen a small resurgence of activity. Rainfall away from Park Nationale Glaciares is very low, but in the park there are Lenga and Nire trees (fairly stunted), and of course lots of melting ice and snow. We did get glimpses of the lake and snow capped mountains through the rain and wind.
The boat trip itself was disappointing and an hour was too long (Beryl dislikes being stuck on a boat, a hangover from the immigrant ship taken from Cape Town to Auckland in 1972.) Tim managed several close up photos from the deck, but the best views involved hiking along terraces provided to show every angle and depth of the glacier. We, of course, sought the longest route (only 4 k), and managed lots of photos capturing the changing colours from white near the top because the ice is aerated, down to blue in the crevasses, and green at the bottom where the ice is fairly compressed - the glaciers don't go into the other side of the spectrum.
The one free day in El Calafate was probably necessary in the cold and wind with quite a bit of rain. We explored the town and visited the wetlands with simply wonderful bird life. We returned to this when we were forced to spend another two days in El Calafate, but more of that later. Tim has put together the best of our photos from these two trips (see later).

El Chalten and more Park Nationale Glaciares

The bus trip was 3.5 hours with a brief stop over. It was full and rather uncomfortable. Our hotel in El Chalten was comfortable, and we braved the wind to explore the small town at the end of a very long road (over 100k) that runs right into the centre of the park. The houses were multi-coloured, with lots of coffee shops and restaurants, none of which accepted cards, and there was no ATM - connections are too poor. As a result we ate for the three nights at the "Pangea Restaurant" that did manage to take a credit card. At least Beryl was able to get a medicinal whisky, which she needed.
El Chalten is only about 15 years old, and was established to ensure that Argentina had a foothold in this area to fend off border wars with Chile.
We completed two full day hikes with the same personal guide each day. This was a blessing, as he matched our pace, left time for photos, and was a great informant. Tim spent lots of time chatting to him while Beryl coughed and spluttered at the back.

Lagoona Torre

The hike was long and easy, covering 20.6 k in 7.5 hours with 850 metres up and down, on typical Patagonian flat (rolling hills). As we walked up the valley through lovely hobbit-like forests, the show capped mountains appeared and we reached the lake behind a double moraine. The lake edge afforded a break from the unrelenting wind, so we lunched and took photos of 'the bird' that had yellow feet and a yellow beak with some resemblance to a MacCaw. Vague outlines of the Fitzroy mountains emerged and disappeared. This was one day that it did not rain.

Mt Fitzroy Lookout and Lagoona de los Tres

Our last organized hike involved a bus ride of an hour followed by a two hour hike along a lovely valley hosting the White River to the point that one climbs steeply to Mt Fitzroy Lookout (2 hours up and 2 hours down). Part of the walk is through forest that might have hosted Tolkien movies, except that New Zealand was cheaper. It was very windy, so much so that it was a struggle to stand upright, and we could only spend a couple of minutes at the viewpoint, but enough to get pictures of the lake and the mountain. As soon as we started the descent the clouds closed in, and it started raining. We were very lucky to get the glimpse we did. We donned wet weather gear and hiked to El Chalten village through lovely valleys with lots of views, including of the town as we approached it. Fortunately the rain was light, and the wind only patchy, so we had a few kilometres of peace. The highlight was obtaining a photo of the Patagonian Parrot, the only South American parrot, to our knowledge. Thanks to our guide for spotting it because they are rare, and difficult to pick out against the trees.
Statistics: 22 k in 9 hours, from a low of 404 m to a high of 1211 m, and a total climb of 3227. There was more descent (3180) than ascent as we started higher up in the valley. Beryl coughed and spluttered just a little less so could not justify a whisky at the pub.

18th December - Disaster

As we waited at the hotel for our 2.00 p.m. pick up to be driven back to El Calafete to catch the 8.00 pm flight to Buenos Aires we were told that Air Argentina was on a 24 hour strike across the whole of Argentina, apparently protesting the Government's plan to bring their pensions system into line with most other countries. The pension is inflation linked, and with a 25% inflation rate is not sustainable. Also, the age of access to the pension was 60 for women and 65 for men, also unsustainable with current demographics. In general, it seems that the Argentina has had difficulty weaning itself from a welfare state. Chile's economy is much better, and one certainly noticed the difference in the two countries.
We were advised to use the transfer to get out of El Charlten and to El Calafate as there is only one way out. Accommodation was booked for us at the same hotel we stayed in before (Sierra Nevada), and we tried to contact our travel agent to get new flights. This eventually succeeded, and we had confirmed flights for two days later, leaving us with only 1 day in Buenos Aries, and an extra two days in El Calafate (where we still could not draw money, but luckily had a few USA Dollars left!). The queue lines at the Argentina Airline office in the town over the next two days suggested that we were probably lucky to get the flight we did - our travel agent seemed to think so, although we thought they should have acted earlier and at least got us on the next day flight.
We used the opportunity to walk through the local residential areas of the town where we saw very mixed lifestyles - really poor homes, with lots of rubbish on the streets, with some quite lavish houses. As mentioned earlier, the highlight was revisiting the wetlands, and this time there was a little less wind. On the second day, the wind returned, so we mostly stayed in the hotel reading a couple of English books we managed to negotiate on exchanges at a local pub. Crosswords and Bridge Baron were also good time fillers.

Buenos Aires

After an hour delay, and much anxiety about transfers, we were on the flight, arriving in Buenos Aires after midnight. The local agent "Scenery" was there to meet us and take us to our hotel in the centre of the city. It was a wonderfully quaint place, and we just wished we could have spent the full four nights there instead of two half nights, arriving after midnight, and then having to get up at 3.00 am the next night to catch the flight home, via Santiago. The hotel featured artistic internal courtyards that one could easily have spent time in.
We did enjoy walking the streets, seeing the parks and architecture, and visiting the area known for night life and tango dancing (Boca), even though we did this reasonably early in the morning. What we regretted was not having time to visit museums and art galleries, and obtaining more information about the post war influence of the German and Italian fascists, many of whom fled to Buenos Aires after WW2, and we had heard played a major role in the subsequent dictatorial government in Argentina. The Italian influence in Argentina is much stronger than the Spanish in everything except language. The food, architecture, design etc. has a strong Italian feel.

Home and Reflections

The trip home was very long, but we had good food on Qantas - Beryl even ate her first green bean since leaving Australia three weeks earlier.
On reflection, the trip was challenging, but we were pretty pleased that we managed all the planned hikes and more, despite the weather and our colds, and that the only major glitch was the Airline strike, which affected many others far worse than us, or so it seemed from the chatter at the Airports.
Sydney was gloriously warm and wind-free, and we loved walking along the clean streets from our Glebe home to the Fish Market on Christmas eve to purchase prawns and salmon, and of course, an array of at least 10 different vegies.
We plan to use the internet, books etc. to read up more about the politics, economics, and culture of both Chile and Argentina as we did not come away with the depth of understanding that usually follows a trip abroad, mostly probably because of our not speaking Spanish. Tim did get an App to learn Spanish, and it kept reminding him that he was not doing his homework, so Beryl blames him for communication difficulties. At least his French did help a very tiny bit sometimes.

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 4.08.
On 1 Jan 2018, 13:27.