Hostel El Mosco was welcome relief from the last few days of relentless and somewhat unpredictable travel. From the outside it had the look and feel of a basic estancia log cabin (think wagon wheels, rusted farm equipment, discarded gaucho gear), but inside it was well equipped, warm and cozy. Operated by a live in family (señorita-mother and young son) and a French eco-maiden it also had a homely woman's touch and some local panache with avant garde art works adorning the walls.
Julie, was from Brittany and seemed to be escaping from something; she had manly-practical look about her and a rough pixie hair cut (self administered we guessed). I asked what she liked about the place and she earnestly told me "the solitude", then adding quickly "but of course I prefer living in the woods"...she wore a tradesman belt around her waist and was a jack of all trades around the cabin and property. Although a local man did arrive later casting a shadow over the exact paternity of the child and the structure of the family unit.
Julie also confirmed that each day here was essentially the same, save for the subtle variations of the seasons - the passage of time regulated by the arrival (or non-arrival) of the weekly boat/plane/bus...the plan had been cancelled this week and the boat was already in doubt, given the high winds.
We cruised the plaza - in reality just four blank streets - and found ourselves in the local library where the staff knitted, drank mate (tea) and warmed themselves over a wood burner. All of the shops (three of them) were in Siesta - and it seemed the deeper we penetrated into remote Chile and the smaller the settlements, the longer the Siestas...this one stretched to 4pm! Fortunately, the library was well appointed with big plush leather recliners and a wide range of books, including a tract of "modern art in the post colonial era in Latin America" - all provocative pieces in a milieu trying its hardest to distinguish itself from Spain...an ongoing theme here and an unfinished story.
A small museum, dedicated to the erstwhile Padre Antonio Ronchi -who pioneered the settlement and provided pastoral care for the settlements's hardy residents - was the only other place of culture we found. Living in a small one room wooden shack for most of his life, including an open-all-hours confessional, you had to admire his tenacity if nothing else. A plump teenage girl sat knitting an enormous scarf in thick hot pink wool as I wandered idly examining all of the exhibits.
I sent the boys back into town to buy ingredients for dinner (I was cooking in the Señorita's kitchen). And without a word a Spanish between them, and limited experience in actually preparing a meal I waited with baited breath for their return...
Results were mixed; they came back with: pasta and tomato paste (good/adequate), 2 packets of cookies (hard to fit into my dinner menu), a huge block of chocolate and a large bottle of coke (their dessert) and a bottle of cold beer for the chef (redeemed).
But before I had time to map out our one-course-two-ingredient meal, Julie came in, sat down, looking serious and said "I have some bad news - the weather forecast is bad and the boat will not sail tomorrow and we are not sure about the next day either." Consequently, dinner was a sullen affair until we began talking to the only other "guest" at the lodge, a rather windblown and malnourished Swiss man. We enquired about his travels...
Us: "and where have you come from?"
Him (slurping down a meagre bowl of chicken noodle soup), but sounding incredibly upbeat: "Oh, I've come from Ushuaia."
Us: "Oh, we're going there too. How did you get here?"
Him: "I walked."
Us: "You mean you have been trekking?"
Him: "No, I've walked the whole way: I've been walking for two months."
Silence (Ushuaia was more than 2,000kms away, across the Andes and beyond the Straits of Magellan in Tierra del Fuego...
Us (fumbling for something to say): "It must have been windy?"
Him: "Yes, of course, some days the wind was so strong I could not walk, so I found a big construction pipe and camped inside that..."
With no particular appointments or places to go or people to meet, we slept in and attended to some domestic chores: laundry (a'la bottom of the shower stomp), refuelling and hunting for dry food for our upcoming trek and camping. The best we could muster was some out of date packets chick pea soup, some dried fruit and nuts (for cooking) and bars of chocolate - not ideal but at least something to sustain us, and an improvement on our last trek where all we had was porridge...
Julie encouraged us to take a "short, easy walk", just "over there" (her pointing vaguely at a large mountain in the distance)...which in reality was a challenging, sweat breaking 10km excursion far from town and deep into the forest. Although we were glad we did...virtually alone (we met only one other party) we had the area to ourselves and began to connect deeper with Mother Nature again, observing woodpeckers, birds, frogs and all the beautiful flora.
And Parents, we can be proud of our sons: for they are clever and ambitious but with very different aspirations - revealed in a tender moment sitting on a log contemplating life - for one wants to be a Doctor, the other to own the Coca Cola Corporation...I'll let you figure which is which.
We took a late lunch at our favourite stand up bar but our order was somehow lost in translation with a "churito" pizza (us thinking sausage) coming out as soft dough with tomato and mussels...we did our best, anxious not to offend the best intentions of the work-from-home mum.
Dinner was an improvement with us actually finding a sausage and mixing it in with more pasta and salsa - quickly becoming our staple. We ate big, carbo-loading for the 24km trek back into Argentina tomorrow.
We awoke to howling winds and were nervous that the boat would surely be cancelled, but were picked up early (trying to beat the weather) and deposited at the tiny boat ramp to board our launch. Commitments to travel are made the previous evening as much here depends on the boat (food, mail, military transport, etc), so we were going regardless...
There are two kinds of people in the world: those that look like they can sail a boat and those that don't - fortunately we had the former today, with a stocky, bronzed Chilean who looked like he was born at sea. He exuded confidence and his gaze seemed permanently fixed on the horizon as he continuously adjusted course and trimmed his vessel. And he slurped on maté throughout, sharing the gourd with his crew in a complex social ritual we were only slowly beginning to understand. Our gaucho of the lago we christened him. The lago (lake) was an incredible shade of milky jade and the wind had whipped up a surprising swell; a tailwind which saw us literally surfing the waves southwards towards the port at Candelario Mancilla. This of course was fine until we cleared the end of the Lago and changed course, crossing the 2 metre swell at 45 degrees. It didn't take long for my colour to change to more closely resemble that of the lake beneath us...Adam and Felix slept through it all
Perhaps I had begun to hallucinate, but for some relief I started staring at the sky, making out in quick succession: a dragon, a llama and a gecko as the clouds boiled away overhead.
We disembarked quickly and began the long slow and hot climb upwards to the valley, stopping briefly at Chilean Immigration (we were exiting) where the soldier on duty looked us up an down, checked out our packs, whistled and shook his head muttering something in Spanish that did not fill us with confidence - the only part we caught was the distance to Argentine Immigration - another 20 plus kilometres from where we currently stood and it was almost noon with the only boat leaving at 6pm.
Slowly but doggedly we tackled the first 6km climb along a dusty rocky track that hauled itself up the mountainside...Felix leapt out of the blocks and made good pace for us, and he was relentless all day long - understanding the consequences of missing our boat later that afternoon (a night of rough camping). Adam maintained a watching brief at the rear of our parade and I was like a domestique in the Tour de France ferrying food, water and messages between them. And we ran a tight schedule, trekking for 50mins in the hour with a 10min break, hour after hour - with me rationing our limited food at each break. Once we cleared the crest of the major climb and reached the valley of the Lago Desierto (the deserted lagoon), the outlook changed dramatically from open scrub and scree to beautiful canopies of tall broad leaf forest and gently undulating dirt track. Sunlight filtered through from high above turning the leaves a beautiful luminous green and it was cool and fresh all around - exhilarating. Occasionally we would come to a clearing full of wild flowers and could see the valley ahead of us bounded on both sides by high snow capped mountains. And Mt FitzRoy took us by surprise, suddenly framed in the arch of the trees ahead as we climbed short incline. Majestic and powerful, it thrust up out of the earth as if punched into place from the ceiling of the inner earth itself. For there was no gradual rise, no shoulder peaks or run offs, just a pure cone of muscular basalt, with the sun highlighting its shards of gun metal grey and sandstone colours. Named in honour of Robert FitzRoy, captain of The Beagle, which carried Charles Darwin on his formative voyages - all centred around South America and Patagonia in particular.
The forest became open heath and scrub for a while and it was hot with the sun bearing down on us. We forded a river, took a wrong turn (easy to do) then righted our course as the track climbed again (we were tired now) and came to the two simple signs bidding us farewell and the other welcoming us to Argentina.
From here the track petered out quickly and became just a narrow trail in the woods. Unmarked, we followed it by judgement as it wended its way slowly downhill through a beautiful dark forest, more like a rainforest this time with mulch and mud underfoot - at times becoming a bog and tricky to navigate without sinking to your ankles. And the water crossings here were unassisted with rock hopping the order of the day.
In places the track was just a narrow (thankfully dry) water course with rocks underfoot and high, almost vertical mud walls, only a few feet apart. Onwards we trudged, eventually arriving at the lonely Argentine border post - just a shed with more dogs than people - where we were invited to rest and cool off.
At the Northern end of the Lago, there was a small open field where few lost souls camped (having missed the previous boat) and there was a little dock where the boys sat like Tom and Huck dangling their feet in the icy yet refreshing lake water and talking. The late afternoon sunlight dappled on the lake and we all just lolled about on the grass, shooing the march flies and recovering. Although Adam was distracted by the nearby horses and tried unsuccessfully to demonstrate his alleged skills as horse-whisperer...
The little launch did arrive, with a few day trippers onboard and we motored smoothly down the lake passing underneath some impressive snow capped peaks and our first glaciers. Massive ice sheets hung on the peaks here, with thick vertical edges turning a cold clear blue in the shadows.
The "port" was a tiny outpost, just a single cottage where the boat master lived with his extended family and after the passengers had all cleared away we discovered there was no confirmed onwards travel - we were still 40kms from El Chalten and it was late and getting cold...