The last stretch in Patagonia .....
Trip Start May 01, 2005
17Trip End Mar 25, 2006
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It was, as they say, a piece of piss - sorry Mum - compared to the Cerro Torre glacier near El Chalten, a small and wind-blown village overshadowed by the Fitz Roy peaks, and full of bearded mountaineers (yes, even the women) with enormous rucksacks and even bigger maps. It's real Lord of the Rings country, where the local dogs look slightly elvish, whippet-thin with pointy ears. The village also boasts an ice-cream shop called 'Helados Tit' where presumably you can get a 99DD with a flake.*
Encouraged by my ice-trek in El Calafate, I decided to try my hand at the full-day outing to the Cerro Torre mountain to trek on its glacier. It turned out to be a 30k hard hike up mountains and over lakes. After trekking to the mountain's base camp, we were each fitted with a harness by the guide who, whilst demonstrating how the harness would be used should anyone fall into a crevasse, accidentally gave me a full-on wedgie. Not a good start. When we eventually got to the lake at the foot of the glacier, we were attached to a zip-line and pulled ourselves over the water. My photos show me looking like a slightly startled hydrophobic gnome.
The rest of the day passed in an knackering blur of mountain climbing, ice-trekking with crampons, and some inadvertent scraping down a hill on my backside. Surrounded by the towering snow-capped peaks, I did feel slightly Hobbitish at times, and an invisibility cloak would have been a bonus for those caught-short moments on the glacier. I attempted to give ice-climbing a go, but I was smarting from the wedgie so gave up.
I was still crippled two days later and so just to make things worse, I got on a bus for the two-day journey up the famous Ruta 40 road to Bariloche. The road, unpaved in parts, passes through some of the most desolate scenery in Patagonia. Smudges of dirty brown mountains are the backdrop for huge expanses of scrub-land dotted with the occasional abandoned estancia, fluttering flags of loo-roll caught on bushes and discarded plastic bags snapping in the wind.
At one point during the first day, the bus driver suddenly slammed on the brakes and legged it out of the bus into the scrub-land. He'd seen a Darwins-rhea, an ostrich-like flightless bird, and was chasing one of it's babies to catch it and show it to us. The rhea won. The bus journey was bone-chippingly bumpy, but a much cheaper way to get rid of cellulite than buying one of those silly vibrating belts.
We stopped for the night in the twilight-zone, tumble-weed town of Perito Moreno where the hotel's waitress, an Argentine version of Mrs Overall, provided hours of breath-holding entertainment as she stuttered from table to table. The hotel was also where I was introduced to bed-bugs for the first time, and where I met a very gay bloke from Manchester who had been away for weeks and was desperate to know if Sharon Stone was better as he'd seen a headline on the hotel's TV saying "Sharon Stroke".
The second day began ominously when the bus broke down. When we finally got going, the driver tried to take our minds off the imminent loss of bone density by playing at the highest volume possible a CD on a loop of The Greatest B-Sides Ever, which included Imelda Marcos singing the classic "I Love To Love (But My Baby Loves To Dance)". Thirteen hours later as we pulled into Bariloche at 3 o'clock in the morning, I was ready to rip the loudspeaker out and shove it up the driver's arse where at least there would be some volume control.
Bariloche is where every Argentine goes on holiday (it's also, disturbingly, home to a baby clothes shop called 'Mr Cock'). Packed full of tourists, Bariloche is the place to go river-kayaking, para-gliding, white-water rafting, cliff-rappelling, mountain-climbing and anything else with a hyphen. Unless of course you're like me, where it's the place to sleep, drink beer, eat chocolate and plan your route into Chile.
After four months in Argentina, I'm oddly apprehensive about going to a different country. Argentina is fantastic, with friendly people, great steaks, cheap wine, and the most stunning scenery. There's still so much of the country I haven't seen - I didn't, for example, make it down to Ushuaia to go beaver watching - so I'll just have to come back. But for now it's onwards to Chile, with a difficult-to-work-out exchange rate and hopefully no more bed-bugs. They really itch.
* credit to sister Louise for that one.