So coollllddd.......

Trip Start Oct 15, 2006
Trip End May 01, 2007

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

I suppose it had to happen - after basically a full year of summer-like weather, winter's finally caught up with me in Patagonia. So, all together now, poor Rob! Two whole weeks down in Southern Chile, where summer's given way to Autumn and the wind and the rain's whipping in straight from Antartica. We've now been in Puerto Natales , Chile's gateway to Patagonia, for a few days and despite the weather, I'm still rather glad to be on dry land following a journey from Santiago that's roughly equivalent of Edinburgh to Lagos in Nigeria, which is rather a long way, when you think about it. Exepct this time, no planes, but an overnight coach and a four day boat trip that should have been three.

But firstly, Santiago, Chile's capital and to be honest a disapointment. As I've mentioned before, Chile is the most westernised of South American countries and nowhere is this more apparent than in Santiago. It lacks the faded glamour of Buenos Aries or the vibrancy of Lima, but is also a lot less threatening than Quito. Walking around the pedestrian areas of the central city, you really could be in any western city, with rather bland department stores sitting next to numerous fast-food outlets. Even the churches lack the opulent gold decorations found in the rest of South America.  The food is also rather disappointing when compared to Argentina,.

Leaving Santiago we decided to take a night-bus to Puerto Montt before catching a boat to Puerto Natales. Firstly the bus - wow! Chile's railway system collapsed about 30 years ago and long-distance buses are now the major way of getting around the country. So we took the first class of buses which gave you a flat-bed sleeper seat, as good as any airline offers. 12 hours later and well rested we arrived in Puerto Montt, possibly the dullest city in Chile.  It shouldn't have mattered as our boat was meant to leave at 4 in the afternoon, but when we turned up at the terminal we were told we couldn't board until 11pm and we wouldn't actually sail until the next morning. Additionally as the weather wasn't so great, instead of arriving on Thursday morning, we'd not arrive till Friday morning. I've been very lucky on this trip so far - I can't really think of any bad experiences - disappointments, yes, but bad, no - until now! Although the boat is in reality a ferry, it's used by an awful lot of tourists and supposedly caters for them. The reason being, at this point in Chile, the road system kind of dies as the country breaks up into islands, with no real mainland and taking a boat affords you the chance to sail through spectacular scenery. Well, yes the scenery was quite cool, but after 5 days on an uncomfortable smelly boat, with awful food, the sight of dry land was a major relief for the 150 passengers. But, our transport had one more cruel trick to play on us - due to the high winds, although we arrived at Puerto Natales at 7.30am, we couldn't dock for 5 hours and even after we'd docked we weren't allowed to disembark for another hour, effectively costing us another day! I reckon the livestock on board was treated better then we were! So here's a travel tip - if you're ever heading down this way, DON'T believe the hype about what a great boat trip it is - it's not - fly instead.

Okay, moan over - now to Patagonia proper. The landscape round here is very beautiful, mountains, glaciers, fjords - really everything you'd expect from Patagonia. And of course the infamous winds, raging in from the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. The weather in this part of the world is notoriously changeable - when there's no wind and the sun comes out, it's very pleasant, but when the sun goes in and the wind picks up, you know about it! I've never really experienced winds like this before - not the sudden gusts, but the consistency of their strength. Winds of up to 150mph are regularly recorded down here.

There are two key natural wonders in this part of the world, Torres del Paine in Chile and the Moreno Glacier in Argentina, both within reach of Puerto Natales. The first excursion was back into Argentina and the glacier. Unlike the New Zealand glaciers I visited, Moreno runs down into a glacial lake. Additionally the face is constantly in flux, with chunks of ice breaking off and tumbling into the lake, forming mini-icebergs. It's not so much the sight of these chunks breaking off that's impressive, it's the noise - they really do make a tumultuous sound and even when chunks aren't breaking off there's a constant buzz of noise from the face with the ice creaking and groaning away. However, as a comparator to the Kiwi glaciers, Moreno was a little disappointing. Whereas Fox and Franz seem weirdly out of place descending into rain-forests, Moreno is kind of right in situ. The face is also not quite as daunting as the other two and overall it just seems to lack the imposing scale of the NZ ones, which totally dominate their landscapes. Saying that, however, it is a great sight and if you're down in this part of the world, it's definitely worth the effort to see.

The following day and to the centre piece of Chilean Patagonia, Torres Del Paine. You're bound to have seen pictures of these mountains before, indeed they're so iconic, the Alaskan tourist board nicked them for their own brochure a couple of years ago. They're located in the, unimaginatively called Parque des Torres del Paine, which is something of a Mecca for hikers and trekkers around the world. Having visited the place, I'm a bit confused by this. The park is essentially barren moorland and looks very similar to the highlands of Scotland and as such, apart from the peaks of Torres del paine, it's pretty desolate. The weather is also a major factor. With no protection afforded by the landscape, it's very easy to get caught in vicious snowstorms or more likely regular freezing gales. Most of the year, the park's pretty much impassable anyway, due to the weather and in the peak months of Jan and Feb, the park's meant to be so crowded, it's not uncommon to see human traffic jams building up as quicker walkers try to pass slower ones. Rather like Machu Pichu, I suspect this is another example of the theory being somewhat better than the reality. But as there was never any chance of me moving more than half a mile from motorised transport, I suppose I'm not one to really pass judgement! As for the peaks themselves, they are quite magnificent. Rising out of the relatively flat tundra around, they dominate the landscape entirely and as the day wears on and the sub shifts position, their different colouration becomes even more pronounced. As a sight, they are worthy of their reputation.

On the way to the Park, we'd passed by a cave where the remains of a giant creature from the ice age had been found, the Milodon. Rather like a lot of things in the world, the remains now reside in London, at the Natural History Museum and all that remains is this rather tacky scale-model.

And now, moving on again - even further south, to the Argentinian town of Ushuaia, the world's Southern-most city, on Tierra del Fuego. From there back on board a boat for a 4 day cruise around Cape Horn and through the Magellan and Beagle channels. Hopefully a more enjoyable experience awaits than the previous boat trip!!
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