After the second of which was to eventually become eight crossings between Chile and Argentina, I began my journey north to the small settlement of El Chalten, a town that was explicitly founded to legitimise Argentina’s claim to the area near the Fitzroy massif. That it has also become a trekking Mecca for this area is a felicitous side effect. Even before I arrived, I knew my time as a trekker was to be parcelled out carefully. Just a small stroll down the road was enough to agitate my still raw knees, so I decided to wait out for two days before my first foray towards the mountains. This wasn’t a problem as the hostel was warm (Aylen Aike if you wanted to know its name) with a nice atmosphere (with the best showers in all of South America. I’d put money on that – one of the best showers of my life!) and a local rodeo which was very entertaining.
Mount Fitzroy is well known for never revealing itself – even the guide books note that to see the tops of the peaks is a rare treat indeed, so to spend six days in the town and to not so much as see a cloud around the summits of the peaks would certainly make some people jealous. Earlier in the season a group of climbers waited two fruitless weeks for the weather to clear, which it never did. Every day I ate breakfast with the tops of the mountains bared for all to see against the blue sky. Not bad.
There are three main day walks in this area, all of which are supposedly more beautiful than the last. Such hyperbole isn’t undeserved. My sole walk up to Laguna Torres took me through some of the most pristine and beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. From the foot of the valley, I walked through virgin forests, marshy groves, hot scrub land and Martian scree. The finale is quite impressive – a glacial lake with water cold enough to preserve the calved icebergs that float away from the foot of the glacier. After a couple of empanadas, a sunbathe and a nap, the return journey was just as pleasant, albeit with an increasing throb around the knees. The pain was worth the experience, as I hope the pictures will attest.
My time in Chalten also introduced me to some very pleasant people and so it came to pass that I decided to return to Puerto Natales (border crossing three) so we could enjoy the only other thing that is offered from there – the ferry ride up the western coast to Puerto Montt. This is provided by a converted cargo ferry (and one that still carries cargo, as the smell and noise of cattle proved) and takes you up the fjords of the western coast of Chile.
One can see whales, dolphins, seals, impressive mountains and generally have a fun old time on a boat. I was blessed with some very nice cosmopolitan company, hailing typically from every country but my own which I was actually rather thankful for. Helene (my French compatriot) and I not the only ones to be lugging plastic bags with suspicious clinking noises emanating from within, it was clear that evening entertainment (as well as afternoon jollities) would come mainly from liquid means. And so it was. Days were spent staring dreamily at the scenery, reading on the deck, sometimes to be roused by a call of “WHALE!”, at which point everyone rushed to the side of the boat only to be disappointed by the absence of the damn thing. Beer o’clock was strictly at three. Wine started at supper and ended when the bottles did. Chess on deck. Mealtime Rushes. The three days were exactly enough for us, so when we disembarked at Puerto Montt, it was clearly for the best, despite the town being rubbish.
So it was that we immediately departed for Argentina (border crossing number 4) to see Bariloche, the famed winter capital and the northern border of Patagonia. I didn’t like it at all. It was a Swiss ski resort as built by someone who has never been to Switzerland. All chocolate and faux-wood cabins. The setting was its only (considerable) saving grace, surrounded by mountains and a great lake. Fortunately, I wasn’t to dwell here long. I had to say farewell to my Gallic companions, and move… south? Only 80km to the hippy town of El Bolson.
Back in the 60s, Argentinian hippies congregated in this little town for unknown reasons (unknown to me at least) and many of them stayed for good. The full hippy effect isn’t there, but weekend market shows its effects with crystal healing and several incense stalls present. If you want to score weed, you could do worse. Only outside Camden tube station will you have this many people offering you grass openly. Unlike Camden, they are likely to be actually carrying the real thing and will be happy to show you the goods. Not that I know anything about that.
What really brought me to El Bolson is the setting. It is in the base of a beautiful valley surrounded by snow capped ridges and incredibly verdant forests and meadows. Treks abound, through forests, up canyons (with not everyone brave enough to jump in the icy waters)
across rickety bridges
and orchards. Eating fresh apples ripe from the tree after a three hour walk takes some beating. Local specialities include smoked trout, organic local beers and superb fruit and vegetable produce. Perhaps it’s increasingly obvious why the hippies moved here. Why anyone moves here.
What I also discovered is what is surely the most spectacularly wonderful hostel in all of South America. Casa del Odile is an idyll outside of town set among lavender gardens, crystal streams and perfectly tended gardens. Home made food, local beer, beautiful people and an open wood fire just brings everything that is great about hostels in to one place. You think hostels are scrubby places that smell of BO and unwashed socks? Well most of them are actually, but these heady days of the internet (thanks hostelworld!) mean you can sift the wheat from the chaff. This wheat puts high class hotels to shame at times, and this was one of them. Paradise.
*Puzzled? Think “Dead Parrot Sketch”. Answers on a post card.