Nov 16, 2005
|The journey through the Andes to Argentina from Chile was amazing. We basically spent the day driving across the mountains to the Argentinian resort of Bariloche. So many snow-clad mountains and lakes as well as the bizarre monkey puzzle tree (native here).
Bariloche is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and is on the shores of a huge lake (Lago Nahuel Huapi). It is a major tourist mecca with lots of outdoorsy shops and chalet style buildings. It is slightly larger than Pucon in Chile and we didn't think it was as nice. However I (Heidi) have to say that it was great on the chocolate front - every second shop on the main street was a chocolate shop (there are loads of factories around here). We got a box or three and half-heartedly thought of bringing some back to NZ so you lot could try them, but then realised they would melt in the sun in Brazil. So that meant they needed to be consumed - oh well, we thought of you as we munched our way through a box!!
Bariloche is a major ski resort in the winter - one of the largest fields in Argentina is here. Unfortunately we were outside of the ski season but there was still plenty to do in our two days here. There is a huge national park here (Nacional Nahuel Huapi), named after the lake, which is the centre piece of the park. The lake is a glacial relic over 100km long and at the end of it sits Monte Tronador which is an extinct volcano on the Chilean border.
The first day in the area we decided to do some hiking (well Becca, Paul, Shaun and I did). We caught a local bus down one side of the lake and got off at Hotel Llao Llao. This is Argentina's most famous hotel and is rather large to say the least. It sits overlooking a lake with snow covered mountains behind it. Four of us went for a brief stroll up to it for a better looksy but were soon asked to go no further by the gardeners (obviously didn't have our glad-rags on!!). Anyway, we then carried on for a walk along the lakeside through southern beech forest which had an undergrowth of bamboo?! Very bizarre! We made it to another little lake (Lago Escondido) which had a huge towering mountain beyond it - very scenic (see photos). After this walk we caught the bus back to kilometre 17 - most places are known by their kilometre marking over here. This was a small hill known as Cerro Campanario which there was a chairlift to the top of. Us being seasoned trampers, decided to walk up (it was also free to do this and the chairlift cost money!!). It only took 30 mins of rather steep climbing, but we were rewarded with magnificant views from the top, down over the lakes, mountains and forests where we had spent the morning walking (see photo). It is very beautiful here.
To celebrate our being active, we decided to meet up with the others in the group at an Irish bar for a couple of cheeky ones (Quilmes at $3 US a pint - and yes they had pints so Shaun felt at home again).
The following day, Shaun, I and Aaron decided to do the Circuito Chico. This is a 65km excursion around some of the lakes in the area, and past where we had walked the day before. We decided to do this by mountain bike (you can actually take tourist buses). Most of the roads were paved however there was a long gravel section which was very scenic through flowering broom (see photo) and woodlands adjacent to the lakes. Our first stop was at Colonia Suiza which is a small village in swiss alpine style. Unfortunately there wasn't too much going on there (being out of season), so we had to stop for a hot dog at a small kiosk next to a river further down the road. The whole trip took us 4.5 hours which is pretty good going really considering how sore our butts got and the number of hills there were. Riding back to the hostel at the end of the day was hard work though.
We got back and went out for a cheese fondue (see photo) although Shaun just had a steak given his affliction with cheese. The fondue was fab however and he was even tempted to try one dip of bread in it. Some of us sensible ones went back to bed at that point where as the others went to the irish bar for a sopt of dancing and drinking (see photos!).
We left Bariloche and headed south through windy Patagonia. Patagonia is slightly different from what we expected. Most of it is fairly flat with large expanses of barren grassland. We did two free camps on route to our next town (El Chalten). During the first free camp we really experienced true Patagonia.....it was blowing a howling gale and we thought our tents were going to blow away in the night. In fact it was so cold and windy that we couldn't even get the gas burner to light at breakfast the next morning! Despite this, the large open Patagonian sky provided a fab sunset that night. Our next free camp was in the back garden of a garage in the middle of nowhere. This had a sheltered courtyard so we were extremely happy compared to our previous night.
The day we actually drove into El Chalten was wet, windy, freezing and basically horrible! We saw a Japanese cyclist cycling against headstrong winds to get there - silly man (see photo). El Chalten is set in a river valley edged on one side by the snow-capped mountains of the Fitz Roy Range (not that we could see these through the clouds on the first day there). The town itself actually shuts down between the months of April and October as it gets snowed in and is not much to write home about. The government however have realised its potential for tourism and offered large plots to locals for virtually nothing. Of course these were snapped up but then nothing built on them! So the government then told the people that if they didn't build on these plots by a certain date the plots would be taken back.....so the locals built wooden shacks on them!!! We arrived in the town and managed to get into a hostel (there was talk of camping but that thankfully did not occur). That night we went out for a steak...and oh my god what a steak it was! Basically you got an entire cow on your plate with no room for anything else! Fantastic and one of the best steaks yet for only $7 US. Not bad.
The following day the sun shone brightly and Shaun and I went our separate ways for the day. Myself (Heidi), Paul, Jock, Alison, Katie and Janine went off to do a super trek (a guided two days of walking including a climb on a glacier). This was quite expensive, hence the reason why Shaun didn't go because he had already done a glacier walk on the Franz Josepf, NZ). We set off walking through a river valley with mainly beech trees in sight. Once we had climbed above the river valley and the trees dropped away we were rewarded with spectacular views of Cerro Fitzroy (3441m). This is basically a huge hunk of rock jutting up into the air and is a climbers paradise (see photo). Quite frankly there is no way in hell I would even try to get to the base of it as the vertical rock faces are enough to scare anyone. Beneath Fitzroy is a glacier (Piedres Blancas) which travels down the valley into a little lake. Quite beautiful and I cannot really do it justice by trying to describe it. We continued on past several more small lakes and though more beech forest until we came to another valley where we set up camp for the night (actually it was already set up for us!). It was the coldest night in history and with the two snorers from our group next door (thanks Paul and Jock), I didn't get a hell of a lot of sleep.
The next morning however we got up early and were fixed with harnesses and given crampons. We then headed further up the valley to Lago Torre, a glacial lake with huge morraines either side. This glacial valley looked straight up to Cerro Torre which is another jagged tooth of rock puncturing the Patagonian sky - this is also a climbers paradise (see photo). We walked around this lake (crossing the river by zip-wire) and up to the snout of the glacier (Glacier Grande). Here we got our crampons on and walked over the glacier to an ice wall which we were allowed to try and climb with the aid of two ice-axes (see photo of me attemping this). This was quite fun although very hard work especially if you lacked a bit of upper body strength. After all having a go at the ice wall we headed back to El Chalten, which was slightly disappointing as I was expecting much more time on the glacier (good job Shaun didn't go as it sounded like the one on Franz Josepf was much better). By the time we got back it was around 5pm and we were all worn out (well we did have 9.5 hours of walking that day). A nice hot shower was in order and then we all went back to the steak place for our last night in El Chalten.
I (Shaun) decided to make the most of my day without Heidi (and the peace and quiet that came with it!) by going on a long day hike to Loma Del Plieque Tumbado (a hill overlooking a glacial valley). Myself and Lynne decided to do some research, found ourselves some maps and guided the rest of the group on an unmarked path (as it turned out it was actually quite well marked!) to the summit. Like Heidi's walk we passed through wooded areas full of beech trees and paddocks filled with flowering Calafate flowers, which also opened up to provide stunning views over to Fitz Roy. After the forested area we found ourselves in the snow and being the seasoned hikers we are, decided to make a snowman which the girls nicknamed Harvey after Lynnes' make believe love child. After a spot of lunch by the river we continued the last leg of the trail over boulders and through scree and snow to the summit, which provided views of the glacial valley and the retreating glacier which Heidi was climbing on (Glacier Grande). At the top we decided to make another snowman, then had a snowball fight before making the descent home. The following day we had a well earned rest after the 8hr trek spending most of it in the microbrewery in town (excellent home brewed beers and only $2US dollars each). Jo managed to do a superb R2D2 impression after a few drinks as well to keep us laughing.
The following day we drove four hours to the town of El Calafate. This is the most visited tourist destination in Argentina and is located on Lago Argentino, the 3rd largest lake in South America. The main reason to visit this town is to visit the huge Moreno Glacier which we did the following day.
That night however, Aaron decided to let Jo and Cam cut his hair in our room - very funny as it ended up pretty patchy!
The Moreno Glacier is the centre piece in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. This Park is a UNESCO world heritage sight and contains 356 glaciers. The Moreno Glacier is the most outstanding of these and is one of only two advancing ice fields in the world. It has a front of 5km long and a height of between 40 and 80 metres over the lake (Lago Argentino). It stems from the southern continental ice cap above the mountains (the glaciers we had seen in El Chalten are also part of this National Park). We spent the whole day there watching vast blocks of ice carve off the edge of the glacier (it made a sound of a small cannon and formed small tidal waves and bobbing ice bergs across the lake). The sheer size of it was pretty amazing and the photo above simply doesn't do it justice.
Tomorrow we are back in Chile to see its side of Patagonia...