Journey to the end of the world...(or close enough)
Puerto Natales, Chile
Actually I should confess now I didn't quite make it to Ushuaia, the designated southernmost town of Argentina and supposedly the world before you cross the ocean into Antarctica. Lack of time (and yes that can happen even when you have eight months) and money meant that we had to settle for Torres del Paine in Chile, a worthy end to a memorable visit to Patagonia. But more on that later...
So last time I wrote I think I was crossing into Argentina from Brazil through the Iguassu Falls - one of my top highlights of South America. Well, I had a few days to spare until I was due to meet my brother in Buenos Aires before the trekking began, so what better way could there be for me to start acquainting myself with the country, I thought, than another hideously long bus journey? It was a 24 hr ride to Salta, where I enjoyed my first steak (pretty good it was too - not something you can honestly say about all steaks in Argentina despite the reputation) and welcomed decent red wine back into my life (thank god, I'd missed it), before I felt ready for the 18 hr bus to Buenos Aires.
My brother Jason was coming from Australia for three weeks, and we had planned a detailed itinerary around Patagonia and ending in santiago to make the most of his limited time - the most thoroughly researched and planned part of my trip probably since arriving in Colombia; hostels and flights had been booked, bus schedules checked, etc etc. Then two days before he arrived, I had to go and sprain my ankle during a nonchalant stroll down the street. What can I say - I have weak ankles and am typically prone to managing to find that one slippery/uneven/rocky patch in the whole smooth/clean/even path, without the aid of alcohol/sky high heels. Fortunately in this instance, the sprain was pretty mild in comparison to past incident(s), meaning I was lucky enough to still be able to put weight on my swollen ankle, so I managed to hobble back to my hostel, where I spent the next day in my dormitory bunk bed with an icepack on my elevated foot.
I was desperately hoping that a few days of taking it easy in BA would allow the ankle to heal sufficiently to manage the 8 hr trekking days to come. So we visited all the usual tourist haunts: requisite tango show, markets, the historical El Caminito area, while indulging in more wine and red meat. Three days later we flew to El Calafate in the Argentinian Patagonia for the first test: Mt Fitzroy.
Everywhere we visited in Patagonia was absolutely stunning, and I would say, Fitzroy was certainly as amazing a spectacle for me as the famed towers of Torres del Paine would later be (and achievable in one day!) Stunning peaks and blue skies in particular helped. Afterwards, we also visited Perito Moreno - a staggeringly humungous glacier that goes on for as far as the eye can see (surprisingly, I later found out its part of the southern icefield you can see on the western side of the W trek in Torres del Paine - that's how huge it is!)
Another seven hours bus took us to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine in Chile. Now for anyone whose used to doing lots of trekking, or in possession of a relatively good level of fitness (that is to say, more active than I have been since I began travelling), Torres Del Paine will probably be tiring but not too big a challenge. I fell into neither category above, and had a dodgy ankle to boot. As a further ominous sign, there was also a girl in our hostel who had returned from the trek with a huge cast over her leg after she had supposedly been knocked off an edge by the infamous strong winds near the peak. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive, plagued by constant visions of me crawling 3 hrs down a rocky cliff edge on my hands and knees - the only way, the trekking specialist at Eratic Rock assured us, to get down in the absence of any mountain rescue team. Great.
We had opted for the W trek in four days, starting west to east which meant that we would enjoy the towers as the grand finale; luckily we had decided to hire our camping kit (tent, sleeping bags etc) from the refugios, which meant they were set up ready for us at the end of each day - a sight I'd never welcomed more at the end of our first drizzly day; it also meant that I escaped with just carrying a day pack instead of the huge backpacks that i saw many people carrying throughout their whole trek - some looked bigger than the backpack I'm carrying for all of this trip! So despite some long days (i think our longest was 10 hrs on day two), and feeling sick from all the biscuits and choccie bars we guzzled all day (recommended by the trekking specialists though so allowed - seriously), and a few scary near-twists that exacerbated said dodgy ankle, I (barely) survived. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Although I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn't needed to be so cautious with my ankle (apologies again to my brother!)
As amazing as Patagonia was, I was looking forward to a final week of chilling in Santiago and Valparaiso by this point. Unfortunately, fate decided that would be too easy, so I spent my birthday at Punta Arenas airport (the only 3hr bus we could get from Puerto Natales got us there 4 hours early) and then Santiago airport (where my brother's backpack was delayed, and delayed, and...then finally showed up two days later).
Despite the hitches, we enjoyed the few days in Santiago, wandering the city and going to a Manu Chao concert, followed by lovely, colourful Valparaiso, with its zillions of hills (great views, hard on the knees), bohemian street art, and scrummy seafood (best of South America so far - although the Peruvian ceviche and pisco sours beat their Chilean counterparts hands down). I liked it so much, I decided to come back for the new year celebrations, which are apparently the biggest in South America (and costing it too, so fingers crossed it lives up to expectations).
Then my brother abandoned me to return to Oz, and I had to learn to be sociable again while deciding where I wanted to be for Christmas. Another trip over the border into Mendoza (closer to Santiago than to BA) and lots of winetasting was enjoyable but didnt help with decision making, except to help me decide I wanted to jump of a big hill with a parachute (great fun and views - descent a little stomach churning).
Then i was back to Chile and after umming and ahhing for an eternity, and being swayed by meeting lovely people in La Serena, I headed up to San Pedro de Atacama, in the desert on the border with Bolivia - a trip I had vowed I would not try again due to expense and distance (roughly 23 hrs from Santiago) three months ago when failing to get a bus ticket from Arica (due to a local holiday, which spurred the decision to go directly to La Paz instead). However, I figured the budget had been well and truly stretched since my brother's arrival, and was being completely blown for new year, so why not for Christmas too? (An attitude I will have to address again after new year - very unhealthy for the purse!)
San Pedro was as lovely as others had previously told me, the terrain and feel of the place much more similar to Bolivia than the rest of Chile. The tours, which ran every day including Christmas day, were also vastly similar, although I couldn't help feeling, a paler imitation of the Salar Uyuni tour across the border. I hope this doesnt signify I'm becoming one of those weary travelers whose always thinking - the mountains are bigger/the sea bluer etc etc in etc etc...??!! Anyway, I got my first (I think) 'white' Christmas finally - no freaky snowstorm, but at the salt flats after an afternoon floating in Laguna Cejar, a 90% salt lake 30 km from San Pedro. Missed my mum's Christmas dinner though!
So now i'm back in Valparaiso for new year. Only six more weeks! Wishing everyone at home or abroad a very happy new year. What an incredible year 2013 has been - here's to an equally awesome 2014!!!