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Argentina & Patagonia tour

(Remains of the house where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived for a number of years, near El Bolson - they were not in when we called!!) ARGENTINA – Part 1: Saturday 8 November: we left Puerto Montt on Bus Norte public transport bus for San Carlos de Barioche in neighbouring Patagonia, Argentina. This was yet another shining example of a public bus that was modern, punctual, efficiently run, with friendly staff and had all mod-cons on board. We even got served a cheese&ham roll with a tall glass of hot, sweet black coffee – all included in the price. Eat your heart out Citylink! As we headed first north via Osorno (the town, not the volcano), and then east towards Argentina, the weather improved steadily. And the mighty Andes got closer and closer – impressive serried ranks of jagged snowy peaks with huge hanging glaciers between them. And all in glorious sunshine. We crossed the Chilean/Argentinian border with the minimum of fuss ( only standing in line for paperwork formalities). We were now at just over 3,000ft and the road became gravel from here for a good bit, with snow right down to the road, the gravel mountain pass snaking its way towering peaks and skirting umpteen lagos (lakes). We were in Patagonie (another name which conjures up all sorts of exotic images). The passing countryside was a continuous system of lakes set among the gothic peaks of the “Cordillera” – the evocatively named “ribs” of the Andes. Chilean flame trees and giant gunnera (Chilean rhubarb) lined the roadside and crags. Reached our destination of Bariloche on the shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi with Andean giants towering right behind the town. Like a picture postcard! Bariloche is a very smart and tidy town – also a prime Argentinian ski-resort. It made Aviemore look exactly like the second-rate “ski-resort” it is. This was more like Interlaken! We stayed 3 nights in the Hostelria Ciervo Rojo (Red Deer) – basic, but comfy and clean. What more do you need, and breakfast is included. Bariloche is also famous for its manufacture of chocolates – the best in all of South America. Why? Because of the Swiss immigrants who settled here in the mid 1800´s. We enjoyed many a fine cup of hot chocolate. ( see ) Fondues are also all the rage. Remember them? They used to be in vogue in the 1970,s – well, here they still are! It is diffcult to believe that we are really in Patagonie! Explored the local peak behind Bariloche – Cerro Otto; its summit providing splendid views of the surrounding mountains, valleys and lakes. Hired a car and drove south to the village of El Bolson, 130km away – in search of the house where the real fugitives Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (as portrayed in movie by Paul Newmand & Robert Redford) hung out for a good few years, before finally being tracked down by the Pinkerton law officers from the US. Ah – all those bank robberies. El Bolson is situated at the foot of the 2284metre mountain called Piltriquitron (Piltri to the locals) and the town is more typical of a small Argentinian town in the backwoods: dusty dirt streets (except for main drag), chaotic traffic (but we coped by driving like the locals!), gauchos on horseback trotting in between cars, dogs everywhere slouching across the streets unconcerned about traffic, small, dark corner shops selling everything and anything you might want from PC floppies to saddle for your hoss! The area is also famous for its berry production for use in making very tasty jams and preserves; as well as hops for the local El Bolson cerveza!!! We stayed 2 nights in a self-catering Cabana Montana (cabin) at the very foot of Piltri. Sitting on the verandah in the evening drinking coffee and listening to the crying of lapwings and croaking of frogs was utter bliss! After a good deal of searching and asking around locally, we finally located the remains of the house where Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid and holed up. It was about 65km further south from El Bolson, the final bit was 30km down a dirt road, near the hamlet of Cholila. We had been told to ask directions of the local bobby. So, pulled up outside the one-room police station in the middle of nowhere and asked. The non-plussed Argentinian policeman nonchalantly pointed to a scattering of derelict wooden buildings about half a kilometre away across some fields in which one horse was grazing. There was even a rudimentary, drunkenly leaning sign which had “Cabana Butch Cassidy” painted on it in rudimentary black lettering. And that was it! We duly walked across the field to make our ongoing filmic homages (ER, Twin Peaks and now Butch Cassidy)! As we walked back to the car it started to drizzle and the film´s theme tune of “Raindrops keep falling on my head” seemed very prophetic and somehow just right. Who knows, perhaps the lonely grazing hoss was a descendant from either of the 2 outlaw´s hosses? From El Bolson we head back to Bariloche, bus back to Puerto Montt in Chile.Argentina Part 2 to follow once we have been down to Punta Arenas in Chile first and then back across the border. ARGENTINA PART 2 ( 23rd Nov to 30th Nov): Our 2nd foray into Argentina kicked off on Sunday 23rd November, when we were picked up in Puerto Natales by Mick Johnston in his trusty Land Rover Defender 110. He drove us across the border into Argentina and to his ranch – Estancia Stag River – some 240kms from Rio Gallegos. Mick and his wife Julie have run the ranch since 1975. Mick has been in Argentina since 1964, but still have his soft Dumfriesshire accent with a curious South American touch to it. A bit of ranch history: Julie´s grandpa John Tweedie came over from Scotland with Captain Eberhard to Punta Arenas in Chile in the 1890´s. At Lago Toro (in the Torres del Paine area) he joined up with George Chester Paton and Cluny Carstaires Luke, the 3 bought land and started the farm Stag River in 1894. They went to Bahia Blanca to buy their first sheep and drove them back to the farm. Later Paton and Luke sold their shares to Tweedie, the farm then passed on to his son (Juilie´s dad), in turn it was passed on to his 2 daughters Julie and Lucinda Tweedie. Which brings us back to Julie and Mick who now run the estancia. Stag River (50,000 acres) of pampas, forests, mountains and rivers. The main activities are breeding and rearing horses from wild ones caught, and a tourist farm-stay lodge as well as renting out huge tracts to a local shepherd Raoul who runs thousands of Correndale sheep (they look a bit like Merinos) on the farm. Some new horse-tamers had just arrived from Correinte, north of Buenos Aires and they were definitely feeling the the chill down here in Patagonia: the wind always blows and there were even some spring snow showers about! The home cooking, from an enormous range in a traditional farm kitchen, was exquisite, the location utterly peaceful (only the diesel generator which came on for 6 hours in the evenings disturbed the peace) and the views were extensive and never-ending – all the way to the distant horizons. And everywhere horses, sheep, hens, ducks, dogs and cats were in evidence – just like a farm should be. We were shown around the massive sheep-shearing shed – erected in 1908 and still in excellent order, despite the best efforts of the ever-present persistent Patagonian winds to blow it down! The old fleece-presses and baling machines dating from 1898 were still used and working perfectly well. Everywhere there was the comforting and pleasant smell and feel of lanin from the fleeces. Bales of these were packed 30 feet high at one end of the shed, awaiting collection. Mick drove us around his ranch, down some real 4WD tracks and across a boulder-strewn fast-flowing river. “Rover” took it all in its stride. He showed us a colony of some 46 Andean condors, sitting on ledges on a towering cliff-face; they would land, take off again and catch a thermal and climb higher and higher until they were mere specks in the blue sky. It was truly impressive to see so many of these huge birds (10ft wingspan) in one place. Mick was also full of amusing anecdotes, especially regarding the Argentine army base at nearby Rospentek. It reminded us of the Good Soldier Schweig. Thank you very much Julie and Mick for a memorable 2 days on your farm and for your generosity and warm hospitality. Then it was on further north to El Calafate, 400kms away and via 2 public buses (with a 7-hour enforced wait at Le Esperanza ((Hope)): It consisted of a motel with restaurant, petrol station and police station and that was it. And almost horizonless vistas across the pampas! We whiled away the 7 hours, eking out our Argentinian 35 pesos which gave us 2 coffees, 2 empanadas, 2 omelettes and a half bottle of the “vino de casa”. All this came to 32pesos so we had 3pesos left for a tip, after which we were now penniless (or rather peso-less) in Argentine terms. We watched various buses, mini-buses, cars, trucks, pick-ups come and go. And a real odd assortment of people: trekkers, locals, oil workers in for their tea, 2 beefy Mitsubishi 4x4´s loaded to the gunnels with 15 gitanos (gypsies), an Army lootenant and his driver in for coffees – the latter making joking references to Princess Charles! Even here in remote La Esperanza, Charlie´s supposedly male liaisons in Saudi were the talk of the banos! Arrived in El Calafate at 0115 and found a room in Hotel Upsala by 0200 and crashed out. El Calafate is a very busy tourist & trekking centre and the season was already getting into almost top gear. Unbooked accommodation was at a premium, but a kind lady at the local tourist office phoned around and found us a very nice room for 4 days at Hostal Del Norte. The town´s main street, Avenida de Libertardor, was full of hotels, shops, restaurants, car-hire firms, internet-cafes and so on- Obviously boom-time here! Great lunch at Rick´s Cafe – it was definitely the place to eat. Also saw Chris Bonington walk into a fancy leather goods shop. We are sure it was he!!! El Calafate is also the home town of Argentine President Nester Kirchner; he visits the town often and walks around without any security, behaving like a local. Based at El Calafate, we booked ourselves on 3 day excursions. Thursday 27th Nov: a bright and sunny day and we were off to the 600,000ha Los Glaciares National Park in the SW corner of Santa Cruz province. The park was created in 1937 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. Went to view the beautiful and famous Perito Moreno Glacier (30km long, 195 sq km surface, 4km wide and 60m high). The carpark was full of buses and cars with some really huge buses – lots of people – the place was “going like a fair” as they say in Scotland. Access to the head of the glacier was via a series of descending wooden walkways to different-level viewing platforms. What an awe-inspiring and gob-smacking spectacle to have such a huge glacier right in your face! Seen nothing like it before. An immense wall of blue, grey and white ice 60m high, stretching for 4km - contorted and twisted mishapen ice structures: spires, pinnacles, turrets, cathedral-like domes, blocks, bridges, castles. With seracs and razor-sharp nunataks on top stretching “inland” like a series of insurmountable and inpregnable defensive positions. Every now and then a crack like a rifle shot would herald a lump of ice breaking off, teetering briefly before crashing down into the glacial-green lake waters below, sending up huge spumes of greenish-grey water skywards. Then the broken-up ice would refreeze into flat pancake-shaped floes – spreading out in ever-increasing arcs from the glacier wall. We had 3 hours to marvel at this wonderful natural phenomenon. Perito Moreno Glacier had advanced to this point 2 months previously and blocked the Brazo Rico waters from Lago Argentino (normally a through channel.) This causes water levels to rise and eventually the ice gets eroded, leaving big holes, then a tunnel forms. This finally collapses resulting in spectacular ice crashes, allowing water to flow freely again between the two arms of Lago Argentino. This last occurred in 1988 and was now long overdue according to our guide!!! Friday 28th Nov: another bright sunny day with extensive blue skies above. This was a full day tour by catamaran from Punta Bandero along the various arms of Lago Argentino to view even more glaciers; Spegazzini, Upsala, Agassiz, Bolado and Onelli. What a treat! We boarded the 32m catamaran SERAC (capacity 320 pax) and set off. Bit of a shock at first on board with 250 plus folk, but once under way and out on the deck, things improved. We are not fans of mass tourism or being part of huge group excursions, but this is the only way to view these glaciers. No private vessels allowed on the lake. Magic, majestic mountain scenery all around us as we cruised along. The water was littered with icebergs of all shapes and sizes. These had broken off the various glaciers, then drifted due to wind & currents, before grounding or beaching themselves in shallower waters. We were reminded that only 20% of the iceberg/floe is above the water. Which explains why the Serac approached and passed them with some caution. They emitted a brilliant electric blue colour due to the refraction of light through the ice. First visit to Spegazzini Glacier (25km long, 66 sq km surface, 1.5km wide and 80-135m high) – what a stupendous sight. Then it was on to Upsala Glacier (60km long, 595 sq km surface!!!, 7km wide and 60-80m high). Upsala is big bugger in glacier terms, the biggest in South America. It is also a branched-valley glacier, fed by several minor glaciers. We then sailed to Bahia Onelli where we could go ashore. We strolled to Onelli Lake where we had our picnic, sitting on the iceberg-strewn shore facing 3 different glaciers; Agassiz at 31 sq km, Bolado at 16 sq km and Onelli at 45 sq km – all three feeding into Lago Onelli. Not a bad spot for a picnic we thought and certainly a bit different to the bonny banks of Loch Lomond that´s for sure!!! The slopes in between the glaciers were heavily wooded with Lenga (southern beech) and Nire shrubs. We had 3 hours in this beautiful location. What a truly memorable and magic day – it did not disappoint despite the 250 odd other people traipsing about. You couldn´t really expect to have such a place all to yourself. Saturday 29th Nov: This was our “do-it-yoursefl” excursion by public bus (5 hours each way) to the wee settlement of El Chalten, 230km north of El Calafate to have a wee peek at a peak: Cerro Fitz Roy with its massive granite blades and attendant tops and summits. Our route – along gravel roads of differing quality – some sections smooth and finely graded and other bits were real bone-shakers! We had seats 1 & 2, right next to the driver, and so had unparalleled views of the passing countryside through his multi-cracked windscreen (like crazy paving). This goes with the territory and is caused by stones thrown up by passing vehicles. Some vehicles have complete wire-mesh structures fitted to avoid this – our bus did not. Our driver had a sidekick (sitting on a kitchen chair next to him!) who kept his mate bowl topped up. What a sight: there he was driving one-handedly, negotiating potholes, boulders and ruts, while nonchalantly sipping his mate from the bowl in his other hand – truly a rural travel experience. Not TURBUS-approved of that I am sure! His mate had also provided a paper bag containing various pies and pastries, which they gobbled up in between sipping mate. We passengers had to wait 2 hours before the coffee & loo stopped appeared at Estancia Flora. This was a wee diner with one tethered horse outside in the middle of nowhere. But the owners did provide exceptional home baking: all sorts of pies and cakes, both sweet and savoury. Driving alongside Lago Viedma for about 3 hours we had brilliant views of the Mt Fitz Roy range getting closer and closer. The sky was clear and blue, with only faint wraiths of smoky cloud encircling the bases of those impressive and huge granite blades. Just like a postcard. Arrived at El Chalten at 1300 – given a “do´s and dont´s” talk by a very amiable Los Glaciares Park ranger. The park is very well run indeed. The settlement of El Chalten is still very much a frontier town and looked and felt like it. It was founded in 1985 for military reasons to pre-empt any Chilean territorial claims! We went for a 4 hour return walk long the Rio FitzRoy valley to the Cerro Torre (3128m) viewpoint, along a good trail. Picnic at viewpoint and by this time cloud had arrived and all but obscured most of the surrounding summits. We had definitely had the best views on our approach in the bus. Mount Fitz Roy (3405m) was named after the captain of Darwin´s ship, the Beagle and it towers over El Chalten. It was first climbed by a French expedition in 1952 – a year before Everest. Our bus departed at 1800 for El Calafate where we arrived at 2230. For some reason the driver never switched on his headlights (or even sidelights) even when it got quite dark! Instead he closely followed another bus in front of him, no doubt relying on his lights. But as the speedo in our bus was not working either, perhaps his lights were also non-functioning. Sunday 30th Nov: by public bus back across the border to Puerto Natales in Chile and onwards by 2nd bus to Punta Arenas where we spent 2 nights, before flying north to Santiago on 2nd Dec for our onward flight on 3rd Dec to Auckland in New Zealand. Sadly, our month in Chile and Argentina has come to an end, but we have vowed to return again once we have improved our Spanish considerably. There is still so much to see and experience. So, once we arrive in The Land of the Long Cloud on the 5th – losing a day due to crossing the dateline – you are cordially invited to visit our NEW ZEALAND page to see how we get on there.

Abuela Goye Chocolates
Cabana Montana - El Bolson
San Carlos de Bariloche