Where was I? Oh yes. Time to leave Ushuaia the southernmost city in the world and head for Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile. As luck would have it, it was a timely departure. The next day the President of Argentina arrived for a memorial service for the Argentine dead from the Falklands conflict. She had some strong words for the UK government and some soft words for the islanders.
So it was 7.30am on Sunday morning and we boarded a bus for a 12 hour trip to Punta Arenas. We had one stop the whole way, at the border. It wasn't that the driver didn't want to stop it was just that there was nowhere to stop.
The drive took us off the Tierra del Fuego archipelago and on to the Patagonia steps. This is just mile after mile of desolate land. The wind batters it unmercifully. Along the way there were Rhea and Llama and Alpaca. They looked wild but apparently there are no wild ones left anymore, they are all farmed. I'm not sure who by as there were no houses.
After hours of endless barren land we arrived at the Argentine, Chilean border. As desolate places go this is right up there. Cold, windy and feature less. The last hour had been on a gravel road. At the border there are guards for the customs etc. How they get to work is any ones guess.
There was a small cafe for a much needed coffee. Off the bus and your passport is stamped. After coffee it's back on the bus for a 10 minute drive through no man's land to the Chilean border. Off the bus again. This time all the bags are x rayed. It's the usual story; no one gives a s*** what you take out, only what you are bringing in.
Anyway we are off again. Eventually we reach a small ferry port. A 20 minute ride across to the Chilean mainland. The ferry was as basic as could be. A roll on roll off design with nothing on board. We boarded with a farm lorry full of sheep going to market, a few cars and a lorry. As it went to sea it rolled a lot and waves crashed over the side. We had all rushed on to a platform for the view. Big mistake, we all got drenched. The coach driver thought it was funny.
After 12 hours we arrived at Punta Arenas. It was to be a one night stop over. We were dropped outside the bus office on the edge of town. We had the address of the hostel and asked the girl and guy in the office for directions.
Now I do understand that the onus is on us to learn their language but.............
If you have a map and ask 'where are we now' in Spanish and 'where is this address' it should only need two marks and a point in the general direction.
The map had four circles drawn on it and lots of lines and arrows. First it was two blocks then it was six. They refused to call a taxi saying it was easy to walk. The light outside was fading. In the end we walked off with no idea where we were going.
We stopped up the road and hailed a cab. Soon we were in the hostel which was warm and cosy. It was a nice room with a good shower and comfy bed. We dumped the bags and headed out for a cash point and a beer. A different country, a different currency and exchange rate. We had gone from 7 to the pound to 777. Nightmare.
We were soon fed and watered and snuggled in bed.
Breakfast was interesting. The hostel is basically a family home with a big extension. So breakfast was a family affair. The Chileans apparently are very nice but love s*** TV. So it was cereal, coffee and Chile's answer to Jerry Springer at full volume on a 42 inch TV.
As I said this was a one night stop so straight after brekkie we were off to the bus company office to board a bus to Puerto Natales. The town looked run down last night but in daylight it was worse. There had clearly been an incident. The streets were ankle deep in mud and a cleanup operation was underway. Not pretty. Add to that the standard Patagonian packs of stray dogs and we were not sorry to be leaving.
3 hours later and we were in Puerto Natales - the gateway to the Patagonia national park where we were going trekking. It is awash with yoof carrying backpacks and decked in Gore-Tex. Oh and us.
The hostel is warm and comfy. Lots of places to eat although they keep odd hours. We ate in a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet called Afrigonia. It is run by a Chilean/African couple. We had curried chicken breast stuffed with nuts and spinach. It was divine. The best food we had had in weeks.
We also found a bar run by a couple of Americans called 'Base camp'. Cheap beer and a warm fire.
Puerto Natales is not somewhere you come other than to go to the national park. So next morning it's on the bus with our day sacks stuffed with clothes (the hostel stored our big packs) and we are off trekking.
At the park we booked into the Refugio. We were staying in a 6 bed dorm. If I'm honest I had my fill of this sort of living during the miners' strike but there is no choice. So having identified our bunk we kitted up and headed off to Torres del Paine. This is the must see sight in the park. The trail is 18 kms there and back. It's reckoned to be 8-9 hours.
The beginning was quite steep and quite warm. As we started to climb the temperature dropped and the weather changed. Soon we were hiking through a snow storm. It made for a very pretty sight but boy was it cold. Then the snow was joined by mist.
About half an hour from the summit we met a guy who said 'keep going, the view is amazing'. We could see the tips of the towers (3 rock formations) above us. Spurred on we picked up the pace. When we arrived you couldn't see your hand in front of your face...... w***. Oh well sit for 10 minutes and head back down.
By the time we arrived back it had been a six and a half hour hike. We had made good time but not seen the towers. I guess that's mountains for you. We were totally dead on our feet, so it was shower, a hearty meal and an early night.
Day 2 and we were heading across the valley to the next refugio for the night. The plan was to stay the night then head to the Valle de France. We left the refugio and within 800 yards we had to turn back. There was a hail storm and 40mph winds in our face. We couldn't walk and it hurt to stand still.
We headed back to take stock. Over a hot cuppa we decided to wait an hour then try again. We agreed to walk for an hour and if it didn't improve we had time to come back and catch the bus out. At the second attempt the wind had eased and we battled for the hour and then the sun came out. Onward and upward we thought. At about the point where we had gone more than half way the snow came and the wind picked up. Oh well too late now so we kept going.
The second refugio was more basic and smaller. We had a good meal and met some lovely people but the weather was awful outside. The dorm had 8 bunks and was not great. Despite people saying the weather would be great tomorrow the prospect of hiking for 8 hours getting soaked and seeing nothing again was too much. We decided to head back in the morning.
We didn't sleep well with the noise and the mountain river thundering outside. The wind was so strong it felt like the roof might blow off. Next morning there was no light in the place and brekkie was by torch light. In fairness the weather was clear and the sunrise was amazing with the mountain background.
It was tempting to stay and do the hike but the decision was made. As we headed back it wasn't long before the mountain peaks were shrouded in mist. We got back just in time before the heavens opened. First rain and then snow. A good decision in the end. We were a bit disappointed but had loved the hiking and the scenery.
We are now back at the hostel. Tomorrow (Easter Sunday) we are going to El Calafate back in Argentina for a few days. Here we hope to take a boat out to the base of a sea glacier. I'll update when we return.
Oh one last point. My bank have slightly redeemed themselves. After several e mail exchanges they paid my phone bill and put an extra £60 in my account for my inconvenience.