18th - 27th March (Towers of pain to ocean of soup)
The bus from Punto Arenas to Puerto Natales only took three hours and I spent most of that chatting to a middle aged Brit/NZ couple; Kevin and Sue. I checked in to a cosy place called 'Patagonian Adventures' who are also well equipped to deal with all of your trekking needs and very helpful. Puerto Natales itself is pretty small but nice enough. I spent some time researching my five day Torres del Paine trek and doing some urgent laundry. I met Rafael from Switzerland who needed a trek partner which seemed like a good idea. We went to a nearby restaurant with Kevin and Sue where my huge plate of delicious lamb cost only 4,500. At a nearby shop I bought a wooly hat and gloves for my trek. Back at the hostel I arranged the hire of a rucksack, stove, chunky fleece and a sleeping mat. It is possible to hire tents en route to avoid carrying them around which is a bit more expensive but I thought worth it. I have my own sleeping bag. I went to the supermarket and stocked up on mostly noodles, dry soup, flavoured rice and a large nestle choc nut(yum).
We were up bright and early and joined a bus load of people for the three hour journey to the start of the trek, this point would also be our camp for the first night as our trek went out and back here. There are luxurious refugios at these places which charge a fortune and also go against the spirit of the adventure. For a while we couldn´t find anyone to hire a tent from and while searching we met Jim and Sian, an English/Welsh couple in the same predicament. Eventually, thanks to Rafael's Spanish we were sorted and on the trek with the bulk of our stuff left at the site. We walked for about six and a half hours, in warm weather but with gusts of wind that could almost lift you off of your feet. At the end of the track, culminating in quite a hefty climb, we reached the view of the three 'torres' with only a little cloud to obstruct the view - the wind was very cold here so we went back down to the trees to light our stoves; noodles never tasted so good! Back at the camp ground I had an ice cold shower before someone told me they turn on the gas a little later. Unfortunately I had to share a fairly small tent with Rafael which got smaller as the side nearly caved in in the wind - not a great nights sleep!
The second day was supposed to be a gentle four hours but the four of us went the wrong way meaning a two hour uphill walk in the strong sun with all of our stuff on our backs, another little diversion later and the walk became six and a half hours. The chap from the first campsite had called ahead to the next one to reserve us a couple of tents. It´s amazing how good this crap food tastes when you are hungry enough! For the second night, as everything went totally black the sky became mad with stars but this time the tents were more sheltered and I slept pretty well.
An early start on the third day as this was to be the longest and hardest. I awoke with a cold and sore throat. After two hours of walking my knee was giving me some niggling pain but I continued past the end of the track up a steep, slippery pile of boulders as the cloud turned to drizzle then snow trying to reach a summit. The whole of my chocolate rations were used up today. Eventually I turned back defeated but the journey down was hell on my knee and painfully slow. Rafael meanwhile had left me for dead, some trek partner he turned out to be. Luckily I met Jim and Sian at the bottom who walk at a much more leisurely pace and continued the rest of the way with them.
With my Inca trail not too far away I decided not to risk further aggrivation to my knee and took the boat and bus back to Puerto Natales. I was dissapointed not to complete the trek but it had been a good 3 days. Back at the Puerto Natales I bumped into Christian (who I met in Santiago) and his friend Nathan so we went to the restaurant where we has a veritable smorgasboard including fish and seafood soup, king crab, mussels, clams, lamb, chorizo and of course virtually no vegetables (as is the South American way).
The next day I took an 8000 peso bus across the border (no problems) to El Calafate, Argentina. The journey was through miles and miles of flat browny green fields, always with a snow topped mountain range somewhere in the distance. Along this mostly empty lancscape there were occaisionally sheep, guanacos (from the llama family), ostriches (all of these I guess were being farmed) and ostriches at a small shallow lake. The 'hostel del Sur' had been recommended to me and some others from the bus were heading there so that´s where I went. The hostel was fantastic and a great place to sit around and chat. The town is small and nice but clearly set up for tourists. I spent some time exploring the town and skyping home before going back to the hostel for bbq, beer and wine (all you can eat/drink for 30 Argie pesos, 6 Argie pesos = 1 pound) The hostel is 30 pesos per night and that is apparently about as expensive as it gets.
In the morning, two dutch girls, a 47 year old American bloke and I hired a car and went off to see the rather impressive Moreno glacier. A short walk allowed us to see the glacier from several viewpoints quite close to the huge terminal face.
There was regular creakings as the thing inched slowly forward and a few loud bangs as large chunks fell off, usually not visible as they were on the inside but sometimes falling off of the front and splashing into the lake. We stood around for quite a while hoping to catch a large collapse on film but eventually it got cold so we left. This soup doesn´t taste so great now I´m not exhausted but I brought enough for at least five days, luckily now I have some lovely Argie Malbec to wash it down for under 6 pesos (that's a pound) a bottle. The cheap boxes of wine cost half that and also taste okay to my discerning palate! I spent the evening chatting to among others, a cockney geezer with a swedish wife who had become totally cockney!
And so, at 15.00 the next day I was once again on a bus, this time to Puerto Madryn. These bus journeys seem to make up the bulk of my spending but then they do cross huge expanses of land. This one was 22 hours in a nice leather lay-z-boy. Again, large open planes, never far from sun, clouds and rain so rainbows are common, at one point I could see both ends of a rainbow that arched over the road ahead of us like a gateway into the unknown. I watched Tom Hanks in 'Terminal' and 'Batman begins'. Cadburys chocolate over here is not so good.
'La Tosca' was recommended to me, but both the hostel and the town seemed pretty dead at first (it was siesta time). Puerto Madryn is a big town, there is a lot here but seemingly not that much going on. There is no-one much to talk to at the hostel and the only interesting thing I did here was scuba dive. 470 pesos is a little expensive but the prospect of diving with the sea lions won me over. A bright blue sky and the sea looked fairly calm, however the boat was tiny and by the time we reached the sea lions I was feeling a bit dodgy. The dive itself was pointless as the ocean had been replaced by pea soup, we did get to swim right up to the sea lions on the surface though and the cute young pups were intrigued by us. As soon as I was back on the boat I got rid of my breakfast before going on to another site where I dived about 20 metres to the ship wreck 'Albatross', the visibility was much better and despite my thick dry suit the water felt extremely cold. The ship had sunk 45 years ago and was covered in barnacles etc. it was good to go right inside and look around. Once back on land I went for a pepper steak to fill my empty belly (27pesos) and spent the rest of the day lazing on the not so pretty beach listening to music. Back at the hostel boredom reached new levels, with the Martin Amis book finished I read bits from a NZ book about how to save for your retirement (it´s near impossible to find a good English book anywhere!) This asparagus flavoured rice has really lost it´s appeal!