Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ushuaia. The town at the end of the World

Around 5 weeks before we'd seen a sign on entering northern Argentina which said something like "Ushuaia 5216km" (can't remember the exact number but it was over 5000km anyway. This was the first time I'd heard of it, and I very much doubted I'd be going so far. Funny how things work out.

(Looking out over to Chile from Ushuaia)

(looking out over the Beagle)
(the Beagle Channel, once again)

Ushuaia lies at the very bottom of the world. Its the most southerly city in the world, though Chile's trying to set up a town around a military base to nick this crown, but, for the time being at least, if you want to go any further south, you're heading for Antartica. Ushuaia is also the most horrific bus ride anywhere we've traveled to. The ride started at 4am in El Calafate and changed at the horrible Rio Gallegos where we had about 2 minutes to get off one bus and onto another and exchange our voucher at the office for a ticket. We boarded a bus that was seriously below the Argentinian fine standard of buses, in fact it was dreadful. The following 17 hours were spent going into border crossing offices which were perhaps the most poorly run of any we've seen. Anywhere. 4 Border crossing offices, a ferry ride and 17 hours later we arrived in Ushuaia. All this and Marie-Therese decided the best plan was to taking a sleeping pill. I was thrilled by that.

(some modern art in front of the Beagle Channel)

(Looking back over town with the snowcapped mountains in the background. It looks as though there's enough snow for snow-mobiling to me, but what do I know?)

(looking out over town from near where the Ski-lift is)

We were now on Tierra del Fuego - "The land of fire". This made me think we'd be engulfed with large volcanoes spilling lava out over the land everywhere, but no. The first 10 hours or so through Tierra del Fuego are dull, quite frankly but the last couple are filled with massive mountains on all sides and snow everywhere, despite the fact it was spring.

Ushuaia offers lots of snow season sports: skiiing, dog-sledding, snow-mobiling, snow walks, glacier walks etc etc etc. Somehow we managed to arrive on the day after the season for everything closed, so there was nothing much to do on that side of things. Thankfully there was loads of other things to do there.

We climbed a large mountain (well, took a ski-lift up half way and walked for about an hour or so) to try and find a glacier. They're usually quite big, but we couldn't find this one. That said, the snow drifts were pretty deep and it might have just been that it was covered in snow, who knows. Anyway, this allowed us plenty of time to see the amazing views over the pretty town, out across the Beagle channel (named after Darwin's ship) and over to Chile on the southerly side of the channel. Anyway, it was a laugh running around in deep snow, but if we'd have had a sledge or a t-tray there would have been some awesome fun, but we got by with just sliding down on our arses.

(the hill we climbed)

(footprints in virgin snow, lovely)

(and the view back down over to Chile and the town)
(Marie-Therese sliding down the hill on her arse)
(deep snow almost hides the sign. The sign iddn't help. We never found the glacier)

(us on the ski-lift)
(relationship advice on the ski-lifts)

The following day we took a trip onto the Beagle channel and enjoyed views of the fabulous coast line, the mountains, the towns and got to do lots of wildlife spotting. We got to see quite a few large flocks of Cormarants and a couple of Sea Lion Colonies. Sea Lion are like seals but far more entertaining. They have silly hands and waddle around a lot more and the big adult male (upto around 800Kgs, so he really is big) has a hareem of 10 or so females, sounds like like a bit of a nightmare, one's too many to manage if you ask me. (a lighthouse on th Beagle Channel with the huge Tierra Del Fuego mountains in the background)
(wildlife: the big adult pup is the big black one in the middle)
(more wildlife)
(views over the Beagle Channel, the light was incredibly crisp, probably something to do with the latitude, but I don't know)
(more sea-lions, gulls and cormorants)
(another view over town from the Channel)(big male)

We took a trip to the prison musuem which was why Ushuaia kind of came to be. It was a prison built by the prisoners where they were far enough away from anyone to be any trouble, and where it was cold enough for them to stay near a fire or something rather than run away. There were some very gruesome stories of murders and things equally nasty. Its quite nice being sat in the room where a murderer spent many years and reading about his dreadful deeds, or rather a bit unnerving really. The entire place had a very strange air indeed.

(I think the outfit kind of suits me)

We also took a trip to the Tierra Del Fuego (by this point I'd learnt that the land was so named because when Ferdinand Megellen had passed through the channel named after him, all he could see was rows of fires on the coast line but by the locals, so no lava then...) National Park. We took a walk through the park for about 3 hours where we got to see some woodpeckers and a big bushytailed fox, as well as lots of cool mountains and lakes. I had to skim stones until I could feel the ligaments in my arm about to snap and spent the majority of the rest of the day rubbing my arm.
(a big mountain)
(a bushy tailed fox)

(a lake in the national park)

(and another)
(a V shaped valley in the national park)

We managed to miss our bus (which had miraculously changed colour since the morning) and had to wait over an hour for another one. We managed to amuse ourselves with a game of rounders using branches and stones.

(that was the rounders bat. It was no good as a devining rod either, I know, I tried)

The following day it was time to leave. We'd made it all the way from Lima to here on buses. That's a hell of a long way with probably close to two weeks of that time being spent purely on buses, wow the pleasure. We decided not to go to Buenas Aires via the bus, it was close to 50 hours and wasn't that much cheaper than the four hour flight. The views over the massive mountain ranges from the plane were pretty special and it struck me how fast planes were, we'd been in the air for less than five minutes and had covered the area which had taken the bus over 2 hours.
(it really is miles from everywhere)

(views from the plane of Tierra Del Fuego's southern edge)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Torres Del Paine National Park (Chile)

From El Calafate we took an early morning start day trip to Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile. This is a world renowned park and is nearly always featured in photos of either South America or Chile.

The trip took us across the Patagonian steppe where the road went long flat and straight for long periods at a time. Out of the flatness suddenly emerge a mountain far on the horizon we reached after seeing lots of ducks hanging around in pairs.

Chile is quite strict with their immigration laws on what you can and what you can't bring in so we all had to eat our apples before we got to the border crossing but we managed to get in with cheese and ham sandwiches (both of which were on the list of items displayed on a poster above the officials head).

(3 Condors sitting a field)

As if by magic the moment we entered Chile we were greeted by a flock of Condors, at points there were about 8 or 9 in the sky, which isn't bad considering they're so massive. A few sat in fields to complete the display. Excellent: a lovely warm welcome to Chile. We drove for around three quarters of an hour in Chile before we had our first glimpse of the national park. We were presented with a pristine blue lake, behind which were 3 huge mountains, again, towering straight out of pretty much flat land.

(the first view of Torres Del Paine, literally the towers of blue. On the right hand side of the biggest peak you can see the famous granite towers. Sadly that was pretty much the best view we got as the weather worsened)

(again the towers and the blue lake)

We continued into the park and occasionally stopped to look at the final type of Llama thing, the Huanaca (sounds an awful lot like wanker when they say it). We got out a couple of times to take pictures etc and realised that the stories of the wind here were true. It was completely ferocious, and if you were walking into it, you had problems.

(it was very windy)

(Huanacas and a rainbow)

A little while after we reached the amazingly turquoise lakes (again, from Glacial milk). There were views across to the three huge mountains that we could see earlier and there was a waterfall between two of the lakes which was very pretty just because of the colour of the lakes. Its a completely staggering location, everything is very beautiful.

(one of the two turquoise lakes feeding towards the other)

(the waterfall)

From here we took a small stroll to antoher lake to better views of the large mountains. Taking a short stroll in 100kmph winds is a tricky tast, especially when you have girl hair like I do. Most of the time I couldn't actually see anything....

(another arty shot of a bit of wood with the "Horns" in the background. The mountains have been whipped by the winds and by ice which is present quite a lot of the time throughout the year)

We learnt of the Hilton adventurer which is nearby and costs £5000 a night apparently, not sure why, but there you go. Its a bit of a rip off considering if land in the region is free on application from the government.

(The horns in the background with us up front, somehow I managed to keep the hair out of my face for long enough for a photo)

(another picture of the turquoise lake and imposing mountains, as usual, covered in cloud)

(More pictures of the Horns)

(and more of turquoise lakes)

We left that night to head back for an adventure on the ice the following day. From there we'd leave El Calafate to get to Rio Gallegos when which would take four hours and from there a further 18 hours to get to our most southern destination: Ushuaia.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

El Chalten

El Chalten is a tiny town, mainly horrible, with lots of tourist facilities and not much else. The roads aren't paved and there's plenty of mud everywhere. It has no redeeming features in itself as a town but it does sit at the foot of some of the most incredible mountains anywhere on Earth.

(and some chickens)

On approach, you pass the huge lake Viedma which has some very pretty glaciers flowing into it. All very fun, and then all of a sudden, out of no-where, these huge mountains make their presesence felt, lots of them very spickey and very jagged, like no mountains I'd ever seen before.

Anyway, we arrived, and were debriefed in the national park office which gave us lots of info and we set off on a walk to a great viewing point of one of the two star attractions here: Mount Fitz Roy (the other being Cerro Torres). We walked out of town and promptly got lost, no major suprise there...

(a hill right at the edge of town, its quite a big hill, but nothing compared to what's around)

(a view we found when we got lost, all in all it wasn't that bad really).

We found our way back onto the path where we found a mad German we'd befriended a couple of days ago. We'd heard the weather had been awful the last few days and any views of the mountains just weren't there. Had the weather had been poor there'd have been very little to do in El Chalten, but thankfully it was crystal clear.

We carried on over the crests of a few hills and made it to a view point of the mountain range. It was totally massive. 3,500 metres of tall, almost vertical rock sticking out of the ground. It was incredible. Patagonia has some amazing sites. The surrounding mountains are covered in snow but this one is just too steep for the snow to stick.

(a view of Mount Fitz Roy. At sunrise the mountain lights up red briefly, apparently, I've not been there at that time).

We continued along the walk for a little while until we reached a lake and decided it was time to head back as it was going to get dark rather soon. There was no where to eat in town, or even buy food. Everywhere was shut, boarded up for the season. This was something of a problem but we managed to eat in our hostel who were the only people serving food. It was also the only place we could find with an internet connection - it wasn't cheap but it was through a satellite connection. This place is extremely remote.
(a lake with Fitz Roy in the background, and me and the woman in the foreground)

The following day was my birthday. We could barely celebrate in style here so we went for another walk instead. I got my present, a hat (too small for an infants head) and some gloves (which I promptly lost one of) and some socks (itchy). So, I was happy.
(views of a meandering waterfall)

The walk took us round to a different viewing area where we got to see the other attraction, Cerro Torre, literally "Mount Tower". A beautiful and steep mountain, actually the hardest mountain in the world to climb we've been told, only climbed by a few people ever, and the first chap was only in 1974. There was some excellent scenery knocking around again, the mountains obviously, a few waterfalls, lakes and there were some condors having a bit of a swoop around just for good measure. Things got quite exciting.

(Marie-Therese attempting a handstand)

(That's me and Fitz Roy)

(Cerro Torre, might not look that big but its over 3km tall and its nearly all vertical. And the wind whips around it about 100kmph on a regular basis. I wouldn't want to climb it)

We spent one short night there and one long birthday there before getting on the bus back to El Calafate.

(an arty black and white picture of the most difficult mountain to climb in the world)

(views of the whole range as we left. Its great)