Saturday, February 21

Photos More

I took much longer to write these entries than I would have liked. I'd prefer to update every 2 or 3 weeks. Hopefully I'll be able to find time to get everything written down on a more regular basis, which will be easier when I'm not spending so much time in parks.

Also, I've published some more pictures, which can be found

Patagonia 7

The last few days of my week in Ushuaia were spent at the home of Yanina and Veronica, who are both from Buenos Aires but have been working in the tourism industry of Ushuaia for the last several years. Both were very kind, and because of their work, know just about everything about the area, and were happy to share it with me.

After leaving Ushuaia, I headed a bit northwest into the Chilean part of the Patagonia. It's a very isolated area, where the only way to reach the regions of Chile farther to the north is by ferry or plane. Unfortunately, the ferry is much too expensive ($500) and so I had to settle for a plane. It would have been very nice to take the cruise, as it passes through many fjords, but it will have to wait for next time, along with other prohibitively expensive excursions such as Easter Island, the Isle of Robinson Crusoe, the Falklan (or Malvina) Islands, Antarctica, and Port Williams, the southern most colony on the planet. The prices of all of these were hundreds, if not thousands of dollars just for transportation. Yet the distances aren't anywhere near as far as the prices would imply.

It will be nice to get a bit farther north and take advantage of some nice weather for what's left of the summer. I've had a great time here, but after so many weeks in the Andes, mountains are starting to lose their thrill. It's the same for everyone, I think. After a while, even something spectacular can become routine, and it's good to get some distance to be able to be properly awed by it again later on.

It will also be very nice to get back to a region where public transportation is a bit easier to find. In a way, I feel a bit trapped here. Even though it's only a few days till my flight, knowing how isolated the region is brings an odd feeling. Yet it's been nice to find places that are a bit off the beaten track. Still, the village that I'm in at the moment exists mostly as a supply depot for hikers heading to the Torres del Paine trail, which has been fitted with so many conveniences that it can lose a bit of it's splendor.

Previously, this village, Puerto Natales, had existed more for fishing than anything else. The people here and in Punta Arenas, the other major town, feel distinct from the rest of Chile due to the isolation from the rest of the country. They feel that they have more in common with those living in Santa Cruz, the Argentine province on the other side of the border. It's not hard to understand why...

Patagonia 6

Finally, after Rio Grande I arrived in Ushuaia, the southern-most settlement in Argentina, and which is described as the end of the world. It's nestled in a lush valley, made possible by the mountains which block the wind. Still, the temperature is very cold, even during a South American summer, and the people here rarely see anything higher than 15 degrees. Yet the winters are comparatively mild, averaging about ten degrees below zero. All of this is much more consistent than in northern countries, where temperatures can vary from 35 in the summer to -35 in the winter.

Despite the consistency in temperature, the weather itself changes very rapidly. Blue skies can turn to torrential rain in a matter of minutes. This makes planning outdoor activities a bit of a challenge, and it's always advisable to bring a warm coat and rain gear.

There are many activities here, and I tried to do as many as possible. One of the most memorable was an organized tour to a penguin colony, where we got to walk among several hundred birds. They were close enough to touch, and very curious. It's amazing to see birds with so little fear of humans. The tours are tightly controlled to avoid any abuse of the animals, and touching is officially forbidden. Still, some penguins walked right up to my feet. It was also amazing listening to them singing. They would break the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the rocks with high pitched cooing, which was unfortunately a bit hoarse.

The story of the aboriginal Yamana peoples here is amazing but tragic. They had quite possible the hardest lifestyle that I've heard of, having lived for thousands of years in the region wearing nothing but a layer of oil to help generate heat. The idea of always being naked, even in -15 degree weather with piercing winds, is hard to imagine. The logic was that since it rains so much here, it was more trouble to wear furs than it was worth, since they were usually wet. And during the winter, they were still constantly needing to dry off, as they navigated in small canoes. I can't even begin to comprehend being naked in a small boat in the middle of winter, being constantly splashed by waves coming up over the sides. It's not really surprising that at their peak, they numbered fewer than 3000. But when exposed to western diseases, almost all were dead in less than 100 years. Today, there is only one full-blooded Yamana left, and at 80 years old, she probably won't be around for much longer.

Raul, one of my hosts here, is a fascinating person. Born into extreme poverty, he never attended school, and didn't learn to read until he was 28. Today, at the age of 48, he's a history teacher in a public high school. It's amazing how far people can go if they have the proper motivation.

Patagonia 5

Farther south, Argentine tourists are rare. Prices rise substantially, and in general those that you meet are European or North American. The bus that I caught to go farther south along the Andes was an example of this, as although the bus was full, there were only two Argentines on it. This was a major change from where I'd been, as January being Argentine summer, the buses and hostels had been packed with tourists from within the country.

The stretch of road going from Perito Moreno to El Chalten, the next village down, is the most desolate of a very desolate route. During the 500 km. trip, there's only one sign of civilization, a collection of about 6 houses that's called Baja Caracoles. And as luck would have it, the bus broke down in this hamlet. I say that with only a little sarcasm, as it would have been much worse had it broken down anywhere outside that area. At least we had a cafe to sit in, where we could drink overpriced beer and soft drinks and play cards till the replacement bus arrived.

The next couple of stops were some of the most beautiful sites in the Andes. El Chalten is a newly established village, built mostly as a supply station for people hiking the nearby trails. I ended up doing the hikes there with five people that I met on the bus, which turned out to be quite an international group. With one person each from America, Israel, Scotland, Belgium, and Germany, there was quite a variety.

The hike itself was spectacular, with mountains towering over lakes and valleys, and amazing views that went on for many miles. Often it seemed that the summit of a mountain was only a few kilometers away, when in fact it would have been several days hiking to get there.

A few of us stuck together afterwards and went farther down the country to El Calefate, which is mostly known for the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the last in the world which is still growing. The entire glacier is in water, forming a huge rectangular block of which pieces fall off every couple of minutes. The sound of the cracking cutting through the air makes it hard to believe that you're standing half a kilometer away, and the waves produced by the falling blocks of ice hitting the water ripple for minutes afterwards.

After stopping for a few days in the industrial city of Rio Gallegos, which is in many ways capital of the Pategonia, I continued to the southern-most province, the island of Tierra del Fuego.

Rio Grande, the largest city on the island, is quite wealthy due to oil in the region, but in many ways one of the harshest environments I've seen. The land is so flat and the wind so strong and frequent that there are no trees and very few birds. It's not uncommon to have winds in excess of 150 km an hour, and often times emergency warnings are issued to stay home to avoid flying objects. While there, I stayed with Cristian and Clara, who gave me tours of the region and explained a lot of the history.

Patagonia 4

Esquel is the last common destination going south on the 'ruta 40', or highway 40, which goes all the way down the country along the Andes. From that point on, bus schedules become much more sporadic, and the road much rougher.

To get to the next town down, Rio Mayo (May River), the bus schedule fell to only twice a week. And no one working for any of the bus companies was able to say anything about how I might continue once there. The only option was to go there and ask.

It's a very depressed town, not accustomed to tourists at all. Perhaps one of the most interesting things that I saw there were the horses, roaming freely in the streets. Beyond that, not much. Something that struck me as strange was that, despite the town being very small, no one seemed to know about where and when buses arrived and left, even the person working at the bus station. Only certain buses went to the station, and others stopped instead at the local gas station. Still, everyone told me to wait for the bus at a different time, and in the end, my only option was to call the company in Bariloche. To be honest, the lack of organization in public transport is pretty common all over the Patagonia.

It turned out that the next bus south was not for another two days, so I decided to try hitchhiking to the next town down, where buses farther south were a bit more regular. The road itself, known as Ruta 40, is something like Route 66 in the U.S. It covers pretty much the whole country, starting in the north at the border with Bolivia and finishing in the south, at the end of continental Argentina. At times it's paved, but often it's barely even graded. It was something of an experience to be standing on the road, waiting for rides, in what is one of the most desolate places I've seen. The land is completely flat, and too dry for trees. Beyond the bushes, there really aren't many signs of life. Cars pass only about every 15 minutes or so, making for something of a surreal atmosphere, like being on a different planet.

My first ride was in the back of a pick-up truck, which gave me a great panoramic view of the area. Again, it's hard to explain how impressive so much emptiness can be. This ride took me as far as a ranch, and after waiting for another couple of minutes, a mini-bus chartered by Estonian tourists took me the rest of the 200 km. trek to Perito Moreno, in the province of Santa Cruz.

A popular stop near Perito Moreno is a village called Los Antiguos, but to be honest, I didn't really see why. The village is by no means ugly, but at the same time, nothing special compared to many other villages in the Patagonia. Their main claim to fame is a large cherry industry.

As I was staying in a rather small camp site in Perito Moreno, I didn't expect to meet many people while there. Yet I was surprised at how friendly the locals were. While killing time one morning, I wandered into a hardware and toy shop, thinking about browsing more than anything else. Yet the shopkeepers were fascinated to talk to me, as they don't get many tourists in their town. They invited me to their house for lunch, and we also went out for drinks later on. It's amazing how friendly people can be in quieter areas.

Patagonia 3

My next destination was Epuyen, a village about 100 k.m. to the south. My stay there was quite uneventful, with the highlights being the tranquillity of a place which could barely qualify as being a village. It was the first time in ages that I'd been in the countryside at night, away from all types of light pollution and able to take in a star-saturated midnight sky.

Next up was Esquel, which is known for being close to both one of the nicest national parks in the Andes and also to a village founded by Welsh settlers. The park, Los Alerces, is indeed something to behold. With trees that are over two thousand years old, and lakes that look like something out of the garden of Eden, it's a very special place indeed.

This was also the first time in almost ten years that I spent a rainy day camping. Sitting in a tent, with little else to do but watch water slowly dripping through a hole in the roof wasn't the most enjoyable way to spend an evening, but the feeling of having such a fragile shelter between you and the storm is something that's hard to describe, in a way, cosy.

Trevelin, the Welsh colony, was a bit of a disappointment. Although the people who originally founded the village spoke Welsh fluently, after several generations the culture has been largely lost. What's left are English tea houses that boast wide varieties of biscuits and something of a British complexion in the locals, meaning lighter skin and more freckles than their compatriots of Latin ancestry.

Patagonia 2

From the oil plains of Neuquen, I caught a bus to San Martin de los Andes, near the border with Chile.

It's surprising how similar it is to other mountain resorts, for instance in Canada and Switzerland. The same log cabin architecture, all buildings no more than two stories high, and all signs made of hand crafted wood.

Moving south, my next stops were Villa La Angustura and Bariloche, which took me through the Seven Lakes Path, a stretch of winding dirt road that connects the towns. It was amazingly beautiful, one of the prettiest pieces of scenery I've seen.

Whereas Villa La Angustura is a relatively quiet village nestled in a valley, Bariloche is the long established economic center of the region. Most tourists head straight there, and it's one of the only towns in the region with a notable night life.

From Bariloche, I headed south to El Bolson.

This is basically the hippy mecca of Argentina, one of the few places where dreadlocked teenagers still roam the streets commonly. It was interesting to note the differences between the Argentine hippy and the North American variety. While both tend to be quite into handcrafts and talking about abstract ideas such as positive energy, the overall peaceful mindset seems to be missing in Argentina. And where most American and European hippies tend to be vegetarians, the Argentine type still love their asados (a slowly barbaqued beef).

The town is most known for it's crafts market, which is very nice, but at the same time a bit limited for the size. It tends to be 5 times bigger than others, but it ends up just being 5 of the same thing, over and over again. There are some nice things on offer, but nothing that would stand up to being in a backpack for the next 6 months.

While exploring the very nice hiking trails in the area, something that stood out were the decrepit hanging brides that connected sides of river banks. It was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie...

On my way out of El Bolson, one of the most depressing experiences of my trip happened as I was getting on a bus heading south. A crack-head (or someone on paco, a much cheaper, much more destructive Argentine version of the drug) walked up to me and told me that I owed him money. I say he was a crack-head because of the absolute crazed look in his eyes and his rotten teeth, despite only being in his twenties. He asserted that he was the owner of a campsite, and that I had stayed there the previous night and not paid. I had actually stayed in a hostel, but that didn't matter much to him. He showed me a piece of cardboard with a number scribbled on it, which was supposed to amount to proof of what he was saying. There were about 75 other people around me, all getting ready to get on the bus. When I told him that it wasn't mine, and that I had stayed in a hostel that night, he picked up on my accent and told me that as a gringo (roughly translated, a stupid American), I had to pay him. When I refused, he started punching me in the face.

Since I still had my bags on, I couldn't even defend myself. And of all of the people around me, all young and in good shape, not a single person offered to help me. I had to run around the group, while getting punched in the back of the head, into a shop (of which the girl threw me out because she 'didn't want to get involved'), to the door of a bus (of which the driver wouldn't let me on because my ticket was for the bus behind him, and capped things off by laughing at me), and finally around to another bus of which the driver reluctantly let me on board. Of the Argentines that I've told this story to, few are surprised. The degree of 'look after yourself, first and last' that actually goes on here is still shocking to me, even after having been here for a year. Luckily, I came out of it with only a slightly blackened eye, but things could have easily gotten much worse.

Patagonia 1

After leaving Buenos Aires shortly after the New Year, I flew to Neuquen, a petrol city in the south-central part of the country.

Luckily I was able to make use of Couchsurfing while there, and stayed with Daniela, a local girl who lives with her 5 year old daughter. Since Neuquen is largely an industrial city with little tourism industry, it would have been quite boring to stay in a hotel.

The streets often aren't named, but divided into blocks, where each block has a letter and number. Yet even these aren't marked, and the only way to find a street is to ask for directions while wandering around.

Also, the buses only accept pre-paid cards, and to get such a card, you have to be a resident of the town. Anyone from out of town has to ask if someone will swipe their card for him in exchange for the money the trip is worth.

Still, it's obvious that Neuquen is a city of opportunities. There is much more wealth on display than in other parts of the country, which is of course due to the amount of oil in the area. You can also tell that the city was assembled quite hastily. For instance, it's very difficult to walk along the sidewalks, as they aren't in a straight line, but tend to zig zag between the curb and the houses, and often go up and down in the form of stairs.

It also feels like a fairly protected city, spared from as many ghettos as other towns. There's also a sense of tranquillity that's missing in many other parts of the country.