At the end January we reached El Calafate, a very touristy town on the argentine side of the Andes. El Calafate is the gathering point for everyone who wants to see the famous Perito Moreno glacier 60km away. Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers in the world that are still growing. Its fame is due to its unique geography. The glacier ends in a lake very close to a peninsula and every few years the glacier ice actually reaches the peninsula and forms a natural ice dam that cuts the lake in two and causes the water level to rise in the smaller part. The water can rise up to 30 meters before the pressure causes the dam to break. When this happens, there are thousands of people and several TV stations on site to watch it.
The glacier is very exciting on any normal day. Every few minutes we could see pieces breaking off, some of them as big as a bus. The pieces crash into the lake and the waves they produce sometimes cause other pieces to fall of as well. Perito Moreno is also a very beautiful glacier with dark blue ice and views over an icefield that is 14 kilometers long.
Our next adventure was to be tough a bus journey along the Andes on the Ruta 40, 30 hours and 1200 kilometers of gravel road. To lighten the stress we put in a few stops, the first one in El Chalten, hiking paradise of Argentina. We decided on a little to tour to get to a mountain lake about two hours away. When I pointed out to Lilian that we had to take a turn, she must have misunderstood me and walked on, very much to my liking. We now walked on the path to the viewpoint for the Fitz Roy mountain, about six hours away. It was a beautiful and strenuous hike with Lilian swearing badly next to me but the view was worth it in the end.
The next stop on the way was Los Antiguos, a 12 hour bus journey from El Chalten, originally a place where indigenous people spent their last days, hence the name. We chose the place not to get old but purely to break up the journey and rest a little and so expected little. We were so wrong! In the two days they were there the village put on the biggest event of their year, the 59th birthday of Los Antiguos. We got to see the biggest Asado (BBQ) ever. 190 skewers full of lamb, pork and meat and the best of it, it was all free and the entire village was out fighting for the best pieces. What a show!
Ever heard of Bariloche? At least for me this has been a place I wanted to see ever since my first stay in Argentina in 1993. It felt and looked a little like Switzerland, the only bad thing being the masses of argentine holiday makers. We spent a few pleasant days hiking (well, more like walking) and swimming, before we travelled to Puerto Montt in Chile.
Puerto Montt is ugly, but then again it is a port and working class city so it has every right to be. The fish restaurants at the harbour are worth a visit though and we tried Locos (Giant Barnacles, somewhere between snail and mussle), which were excellent. Puerto Montt is also a good base for trips to the surroundings. On a day trip we got to see volcano Osorno up close and got to swim in two beautiful lakes. No hiking this time.
Our next stop was Valdivia, a pleasant town near the coast with, at least for us, one main attraction: see lions. They swim up the river because they know that they can pick up some fish at the local fishmarket. It is a strange symbiosis. The market traders feed the see lions that attract visitors who buy fish at the market. Everyone is happy.
About three hours from Valdivia we visit Villarica and end up staying five days. An Australian guy at Perito Moreno glaciar told us about neighbouring Pucon (which is very touristy) and that we could climb the active Volcano Villarica from here. That was enough for me, we had to go and do this. We stayed in a hostel built by a Swiss couple who had cycled around the world or at least a good bit of it. They knew exactly what travellers needed most (good breakfast, information and a place to meet other travellers).
The hike up to the summit of Volcan Villarica is a daytrip. We got up at five and were shuttled to Pucon to get the necessary equipment (protective clothing, crampons, ice axe, helmet etc.). Another bus took us to the base of the mountain at 1400 meters. During winter this is a ski area, in the summer one of the chair lifts is taking up tour groups that want to save about an hour on the way up. Well, not today. It was too windy for the lift to run.
Villarica is 2847 meters high and snow covered all year round. Due to fairly cold and rainy weather in the last few days there was a lot of snow so that almost the entire hike was on snow. Our guide, a swiss ski instructor, pushed us a little and only allowed short breaks so we could get to the summit before the fog rises up from the valley. We did not need the crampons as there was plenty of soft snow, which made every step difficult. Lilian did complain about the speed and the conditions and was close to giving up, when the smell of the volcano started to hurt in our eyes and lungs. But she did not, brave girl. Our guide was also sceptical about today's ascent because of the smoke and the direction of the wind. This combination blocked the easiest ascent route. He found another route though and after four hours reached the summit as one of the first groups and had the view for us.
The surroundings were hidden under a cloudcover, only three other volcanoes pierced it. I was fascinated by the crater itself. We could see no lava (the week before we could have seen some) but we could hear a constant rumble while smoke, mainly sulphate and chlorine, was coming out of the crater.
The best was yet to come. The classic way to get down a snow covered volcano is on your bum with the ice axe as a brake. Maximum fun!
Concepcion on the Bio-Bio river is the second largest city in Chile and not really a tourist destination. Lilian had been here 18 years ago to visit some relatives together with her grandmother. We wanted to see if we could find them again and who was still alive after all these years. We established first contact over the phone the day before and found out, that most of the family had gone south on holiday, but Anneliese, the cousin of Lilian's grandmother, was there. Her husband had died the week before so we felt a little awkward to intrude on them, but her son Walter had plenty of time to show us a few places. We ended up staying the night and visited a fishing village, a hospital (you don't want to get sick here!), a coal mine and a beach. We would have seen none of that by ourselves. Thanks Walter!
Time to move on, we are well behind schedule and there are so many things we still want to see. Next on the list was the port city of Valparaiso with its famous city escalators. We stayed in cute Hotel del Rincon up the hill in a very quant part of the city. This place had a top floor kitchen from where we could see the see as well as surrounding hills. Very romantic, who needs a restaurant when you have a place like this?
Neighbouring city Vina del Mar is a 20 minute metro ride away and the modern, clean and, as a local said, make up covered sister city of Valparaiso. We spent a day in Vina and now we know what a beach full of people really looks like.
We found what we needed after a busride further north to La Serena. A wide sandy beach with decent waves and a shop that rents out boards and neos (you need them here). We stayed three days and did nothing but sleep in, walk to the beach around midday when the morning fog had burnt of, swam or surfed, went shopping and cooked dinner. Relaxing! We needed it before the next 16 hour bus ride into the desert of Northern Chile. We are now in San Pedro de Atacama preparing for a three day four by four trip through the desert to Uyuni, Bolivia. Wish us luck!
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