A Travellerspoint blog

February 2014

It takes 'toe' to tango!

Our escapades in and around Buenos Aires and Iguazu falls

Ok so after the cold of Patagonia, we decided it was time to head to sunny climates (we hoped!) and so made our way to Buenos Aires - the home of the tango!!

Our hostel was in an area called San Telmo. This is a great little area; an old part of town (but fairly close to the centre) which is filled with vintage and antiques shops, great little bars and the ornate, but often run-down, buildings and facades (often also covered in worn street-art) that BA is known for.

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On our way to the hostel from the airport, I noticed a familiar smell coming from Shaun...wine. Just as I was starting to wonder whether we had drunk so much of the stuff, that Shaun was beginning to sweat pure Malbec, he broke it to me that he thought one of the nice bottles we had bought in Mendoza had smashed in my rucksack in transit! True enough, after checking in at the hostel, we discovered this was the case, disaster!! Not to worry though as while I was busy trying to wash the entire contents of my bag in our small room sink to prevent everything from being completely ruined, Shaun was busy fashioning a makeshift wine glass out of a water bottle and salvaging the small amount of wine that had remained in the bottle. Talk about getting your priorities right?! :-)

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Anyway, on our first day in BA, after spending the morning doing some trav-min, we headed off on the obligatory pilgrimage to La Boca, the area of BA that contains the iconic brightly painted houses that BA is known for the world over. The area would have been incredibly pretty if it wasn't so unpleasantly touristy. It is absolutely brimming with its thousands of tourists, pushy touristy restauranteurs, ticket touts and those God awful wooden stands with pictures tango dancers with their faces cut out ready for you to stick your head through! Nonetheless, it does provide some great photo opportunities and is a must see in BA. We escaped the area for dinner though, instead finding a great little wine bar near our hostel called El Refuerzo, which offered an awesome cheese and meat plate and had a great selection of red wines. And so the Argentinian diet continues!!

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The following day we had decided to explore Palermo, known to be the trendy district of BA, great for shopping, bars and cafés. The day got off to bad start however as, almost as a soon as we arrived there, Shaun tripped and ripped open his toe. He complained he was in so much pain he thought he may have broken it! A pretty extreme way to get out of the tango lessons I was planning I thought!! Next mission was therefore to find a pharmacy. With Shaun patched/drugged up and limping, we did our best to still explore Palermo, which we loved. Tree lined avenues filled with gorgeous independent shops and delis/bars and restaurants. Very reminiscent of New York's West Village. Talking of delis we had our best lunch of the trip yet in Cafe Voltaire (order the Voltaire salad!). The afternoon brought more shopping than we could afford (but less than I would have liked!) and more great cafés (Bartoli Corner) before we headed back to the hostel to seek out a meal locally to minimise Shaun's walking time/distance.

The next day we woke to torrential rain (errr we thought it was summer here!) so we took the opportunity to do some more trav-min. When we finally headed out we visited the Plaza de Mayo; famous for the government building Casa Rosada (or officially Casa de Gobierno) situated on the east side of the plaza, which has provided the backdrop for many an important political speech/rally (as well as Madonnas rendition of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" in the film 'Evita', her controversial (in Argentina) portrayal of the much revered Eva Peron, who appears to have near god like status here - Evita that is, not Madonna!). Afterwards, we went back to Palermo to spend the evening there, since our plan to do that the day before had been scuppered by Shaun's injury. Palermo is brimming with pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants so we had a great evening although perhaps stayed out later than we should have done as the next day we had a very early start planned! We were getting up at 5.30am to catch a bus to Junin, approx 4 hours outside of BA, where we had arranged to go and stay at an Estancia (La Oriental - http://www.estancia-laoriental.com) for a night.

La Oriental is a 2,500 acre traditional estancia. Estancia literally means Estate, and is the word used for the traditional Argentine ranches, which were often gifted to esteemed servicemen and war heroes in the 1800s (in the Buenos Aires region in particular). The Estancias are particularly famous for the impressive colonial or renaissance style houses and gardens that were built on them, many of which endure today as monuments to those times, and for the gauchos that worked on them and their impressive horse skills (including polo which became a huge sport in Argentina after being established in the Estancias).

Unfortunately, we woke to an enormous storm, with deafeningly loud thunder and torrential rain. Not ideal conditions for a day out in the countryside! Almost the entire 4.5 hour bus journey we drove through horrendous storms and rain and I had to move seats after the rain literally started pouring through the a/c unit above my head! Amazingly, despite the weather and some of the flooded streets we passed through, the bus arrived in Junin only 30 mins late, where incredibly the sun was shining! We couldn't believe our luck! We jumped in a taxi and were at the Estancia by 1pm, where we were immediately wowed by the beauty of the place. A long tree lined driveway led us to the white facade of the French Renaissance style building, which is surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens, and were greeted by Marta, the lovely housekeeper who led us to our room. The owners have made a conscious decision to preserve the Estancia as it was when it was built in the late 1800's and the property contains furniture, paintings, books and original fittings from that period. Our room was a gorgeous mini suite which had one of the biggest beds we'd ever seen (I could roll over twice and still not kick Shaun out of bed) and was full of all original features. The bathroom too was quite extraordinary with its original fittings and plumbing. Our room was just off the main living area, which had equally been beautifully preserved and was peppered with original furniture, art and antiques, including huge tapestries, a 150 year old billiard table and an antique piano. Truly impressive.

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After we settled in, we were called for lunch, an incredible traditional Asado (BBQ) of some of the juiciest cuts of beef we've had yet.

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We were joined for lunch by Rafael, the owner, who gave us the story of the Estancia and a history lesson. La Oriental was built on land that was originally gifted to a General in the early 1800s but he died before he could claim the land. A few years later the land was bought by a rich Argentinian pioneer, who built and furnished the property in 1880 and was well known for building the first airport in the area, as well as for the raucous parties he held at the property where he entertained politicians, celebrities of the time and even presidents. After his death, the property was bequeathed to a nephew, who never came to live there, and so it sat empty until the family of the current owners took ownership in the 1940's. Today it remains a working ranch, which grows mainly grain and soya beans as well as providing grazing land for hundreds of cattle. The owner claimed the Estancia was cursed however because in its entire history, it had never followed proper lineage. We cheekily asked if that was the case, maybe he could give it to us seeing as his sons and daughters were pre-destined to never inherit it. He said no...

After lunch, we were taken around the estate on horseback which was great fun!! We rode out through the pampas with our guide, Miguel, visiting some of the many cattle who call the ranch their home and taking in the wildlife. This was also Shaun's first experience of riding a horse! I told him donkeys on a beach didn't count. Luckily the horses were really docile and well behaved so we both enjoyed it greatly. (Edit by SR - nailed it!)

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It soon became clear that, despite the Estancia having 9 bedrooms, we were the only people staying there and so had the entire place all to ourselves! The property was so peaceful and, with the wonderful Marta attending to our every need and waiting on us hand and foot, it all felt very exclusive and we felt very spoilt. It was like having our own exclusive stately home for the night. The evening turned out to be a stunning one, with a bright moon and perfectly clear sky and, much to our surprise, Marta had laid us a beautiful candlelit table for dinner under the stars. We really felt like we were getting the 5* treatment (although their prices are nowhere near 5* prices!)!

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Our second day on the estate brought lots of sun and another fantastic lunch (this time chicken done asado style). We had thought we might take the horses out again, but the day proved to be an absolute scorcher and we decided it was far too hot to be sitting on a horse, so we spent the day around the pool which was bliss, with it (and the rest of the grounds) all to ourselves - the owners having left for a party. Heaven!

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When it came time to leave, although we were very sad to go as we could have easily stayed there a week, we were happy to say it actually felt like we had been there much longer than one night and we had had the most wonderful time. I can't speak for other Estancias but La Oriental felt like a completely authentic experience and the hospitality of our hosts was second to none. We would highly recommend it for anyone considering a trip out here.

After our Estancia adventures, we headed back to the city for a final couple of days in BA. During this time we took in the famous Sunday market in San Telmo; a fantastic market full of antiques and vintage stalls, as well as many other souvenirs, with a great atmosphere. It is full of street performers and musicians and we even saw some people doing the tango in the main plaza. (Londoners - think Broadway Market meets Brick Lane on a Sunday with a bit of Covent Garden thrown in!) A must-do if you find yourself in BA on a Sunday.

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That night, seeing as we had been deprived of any opportunity to try the tango out for ourselves, we went to see a tango show at Cafe Tortoni, one of the oldest cafés in BA. The shows are mostly put on for tourists, but this one came recommended and certainly felt at the more authentic end of the spectrum (and was great entertainment in any event).

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Finally we visited the Recoletta cemetery, which is the final resting place of BA's rich and famous residents of the past (including the omnipresent Eva Peron). This might sound like a bit of a morbid place to visit but the tombs are incredibly ornate and wandering around the cemetery definitely makes for an interesting couple of hours.

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After nearly a week around BA, it was time to move on and we took (yet another!) night bus to Puerto Iguazú, a small town in the upper north corner of Argentina which houses Argentinas entrance to Iguazu Falls.

The day we visited the falls, the weather was absolutely scorching, with temperatures reaching 40C! Good job then that the falls were in full flow and we got absolutely drenched by the spray, as some of the photos below will show!

We are very lucky to have previously visited Victoria Falls in Zambia, which are incredibly impressive, so we weren't sure how Iguazu would compare. But, I have to say, we were both pretty much blown away!! The falls are 2.7km long and the rock formations around them direct the water into over 150 separate waterfalls and cataracts, varying between 60 to 82 metres high, although around half of the river's flow falls into a long and narrow chasm called the Devil's Throat. The comprehensive system of walkways that have been established around the falls on the Argentinean side (which houses more than 80% of the falls) allow you so many great vistas of the different waterfalls and to get as close to the water as possible. Walking around the park there is also lots of wildlife to see, with butterflies and birds everywhere, as well as monkeys and coaties (raccoon like creatures), making all the walks super pretty and interesting.

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The following day, we made the border crossing into Brazil, to start our Brazilian adventure by seeing the falls from the Brazilian side. We had heard that the experience from this side was quite different to that gained on the Argentinian side and that both were well worth doing so figured...when in Iguazu!

The Brazilian side of the falls certainly offered a better panoramic view of the falls in their entirety, but otherwise there is much less to see. I think it's fair to say that we both much preferred the Argentinian side, and not just because the sun was shining that day! Having said that, something that is pretty cool on the Brazilian side is a fairly awesome bird park full of Amazonian and other tropical birds, including macaws, toucans, parakeets, flamingos, harpy eagles and many others. We may sound like total 'bird-watchers' (we prefer the term ornithologists ha ha!) but we really enjoyed it as it gave us the opportunity to see a lot of the birds we'd seen in the rainforest up close and personal (as opposed to flying overhead). To make it even more reminiscent of our rainforest experience, the weather obliged and as we were walking around the park the heavens opened and we got absolutely drenched! Ring any bells?!

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Well that's it from Iguazu. Our next stop is the Brazilian coast for some long overdue beach time, so here's hoping that rain doesn't follow us there!

Hasta luego or, since we're now in Brazil, Tchau for now!

Posted by shaunandhan 17:57 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Weather with you or four seasons in one day?

The ups and downs...and ups...and ups...of our adventures near the Antarctic Circle!

all seasons in one day

If you're reading this, WE SURVIVED!!!

Now, before I begin, you might want to fetch yourself a cup tea or coffee first, maybe even a pot...it's been a while since our last post!

So what was it like I hear you say? Well...

Our first flight in 2 months and a bus ride brought us to the city of Puerto Natales (a city about the size of Market Deeping!) situated right at the bottom of the South American continent, lower than the Falkland Islands (no, not Las Malvinas...they are British - I say as I type in a dark corner where no Argies can see me) and only 270 miles from the end of the world, it is the hub to the Torres Del Paine National Park. This was the part of our adventure I was looking forward to the most, hoping to capture some great photos both day and night.

After a hectic time in Valparaiso and Santiago, it was great to find that our hostel was within walking distance of the bus terminal (and everything else!).

Tin House is a tiny little hostel with only one 4-bed dorm and 2 private doubles. It's so small and cosy, it's like being in the owners own home. We immediately fell in love with this place and we highly recommend it if anyone fancies a trekking trip to Patagonia. The owner was very friendly and helpful, booking all our buses to the park and out of Puerto Natales for us. If this is not your cup of tea, and for those looking for something a little more upmarket, there's Hotel Indigo, owned by Chile's first high-end boutique hotel company. If we could've, we would've...

Puerto Natales, though small, is surprisingly nice with some great little cafés and restaurants just off of the main Plaza de Armas. As is the local police station. No idea what it is they do down here, as the crime rate must be zero! Everyone knows everyone. Our first night took us to a little pizzeria called Mesita Grande which was superb. Having had the spicy lamb and smoked salmon pizzas, our minds were made up where we were going when we got back from Torres Del Paine. We also found a little vegetarian cafe/restaurant called El Living, another recommendation from a friend. Londoner-owned, this place serves the best coffee (it's Italian) and cake in town! Also a must!

Following another recommendation from the same friend, we hired our tent, sleeping mats and trekking poles from Casa Cecilia, a small hostel just off of the main square. For anyone thinking of visiting Patagonia and wanting to hire gear, I would highly recommend this place. Very friendly staff, the equipment is in good condition and also decent too. We had Therm-a-Rest and Exped sleeping mats which were light and rolled up relatively small, as well as a 4-season two-man tent which was very easy and quick to put up (we planned to camp for 5 of the 8 nights, staying in Refugio's for the other 3 for a bit of respite). We also found that they were relatively cheap compared to many companies (such as erratic rock) who charged much more. And if you pay in cash, they will give you a 25% discount - welcome to Argentina!!

Anyway, onto our route! It is colloquially known as "The Q", an 8 night / 9 day trek which consists of three parts (Yellow, Red and Blue Routes combined): Part 1 (Yellow Route) - from the edge of the park to the main area called "the tail", Part 2 (Red Route) - the main "W Trek" and then Part 3 (Blue Route) - hiking from where the "W Trek" ends, around the rear of the park and over the mountain pass, completing what is known as "The Circuit".

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Our food for the 9 days consisted of whatever we could carry that was light and involved the boiling of water which would be collected from all of the mountain streams. Basically, I'm talking sachets of soup, porridge oats, dry pasta and pasta sauces - nothing our little MSR stove couldn't handle (though after just a few hours, I questioned whether my back could handle it all! - 9 days worth is a lot!!). And no camping trip would be complete without an abundance of teabags!

And onto the trek...(the map will help you with the route)

Day 1: CONAF Administracion to Las Carretas - 2hrs walking. This was a very short day as we first had to take the bus into the park, arriving there around lunchtime and as our bags were at their heaviest, and was spent walking across the pampas. Las Carretas was a free campsite next to Rio Grey. Free means there is nothing there other than a small sign which could be missed and a little shelter which blends in with the hill where you could cook. But we loved it! It was so peaceful. Nothing but nature could be heard. There was nobody there except us and a nice Czech couple (whose tent we used to identify that we were actually at the campsite) who were cycling around South America (not jealous at all) and had just returned from Ushaia (still on my bucket list along with the Antarctic seeing as Han wouldn't go anywhere colder). Our first night (8pm bed time) also brought about our first taste, albeit mild, of the Patagonian winds. We both slept well except for some mice who took a liking to the walking pole / ice axe mounts on our daypack, practically knawing through them, clearly looking for food even though it didn't contain any! It also brought the arrival of 'Spanish Guy' who had pitched up after we had gone to bed. A very nice guy who was doing the same route as ourselves and who we saw everyday thereafter. In true style, we completely forgot his name immediately after he told us (Heimann? Simon?) and is now forever known as "Spanish Guy".

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Day 2: Las Carretas to Campanento Italiano - 5.5hrs. Woke up to a beautifully sunny day for the walk to Paine Grande and then on to Campamento Italiano. Not before having a delightful bowl of porridge made from water and powdered milk! Mmmmmm!? The hike crossed more pampas before following Rio Grey to the edge of Lago Pehoe where you got to see the reason why you walked "the tail" - the landscape of Torres Del Paine and the turquoise lakes at the baso of the mountains are all spread out in front of you, a sight you just don't see if you decide to miss out on this trail. We then followed the edge of Lago Pehoe to Paine Grande and a closer view of the Paine Massif and the Los Cuernos, stone pinnacles that look like spikes that have just come bursting up out of the ground, twisting towards the sky with sides so steep, snow cannot settle on them. This was also the first time we saw a glimpse of the destruction caused by the forest fire in 2012 and the start of new plant life in the area. The trees were still charred from the fire and looked like ghost gums found in Western Australia. Lago Pehoe itself looked amazing - a perfectly blue lake full of glacial water and one of the most beautiful lakes I've seen. It reminded us both of Lake Pukaki near Mount Cook in New Zealand. Upon arriving at Campamento Italiano, we pitched our tent right next to the river in a perfect spot, away from the masses. From here we could watch the sunset on the snowy mountains above.

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Day 3: Campamento Italiano to Refugio Los Cuernos via Valle de Francés - 7hrs. Following a great nights sleep, waking to the sound of rushing water from the river (helping to drown out any snorers), we had another breakfast of the best porridge the world has known(!?), this time with raisins added to make it so much more special before leaving camp and hiking our way up the Valle de Francés and back. The walk up the valley takes in so many micro climates such as woodland, stand alone rock formations as well as several smaller mountain glaciers and many waterfalls. At the end of the valley there is a short but steep climb up to a mirador and view of the Los Cuernos and back to Lago Pehoe. Whilst an impressive sight, for the walk, we felt that the view from the mirador was a little bit disappointing as you still felt some way from the stone pinnacles and so, did not feel able to get a true sense of their behemoth size. Feeling peckish after our morning hike, we decided to eat lunch (yes, more cuppa soups) at the former Campamento Britanico just below the mirador of the Los Cuernos. I say former campsite because it is no longer in use, being the sight of a forest fire which started as a result of a wild camping stove. The lovely Czech couple we met on day 1 told us it was in fact a Czech guy who started it, which caused massive devastation across a very large part of the park. The lunch spot is now a deliberate reminder to tourists of the forest fire and cooking safety in the park. Indeed, much of the day was spent amongst burnt and destroyed forestation. We also heard that the guy who started the fire, campaigned for the Czech Government to make a large financial contribution to the Park's restoration, which unfortunately, the Chilean government spent on their military! Following lunch, we headed back to camp, packed up the tent and walked a further 2 hours to Refugio Los Cuernos, via a beautiful pebble beach on the edge of Lago Nordenskjold where we stopped and chilled out for a while, soaking up the last of the sun, skimming a few stones. We had arranged to spend a night in the Refugio here, as a break from the camping, and upon our arrival, we were very excited to get a hot shower and meal (half a roast chicken and mash!!) and a warm bed. We were lucky to be in the Refugio for the night too as you could see the gale force winds blowing in from the west, across the lake, creating big waves which crashed on the shore and whipping up the surface of the water into twisters and directing them straight at the Refugio and campsite. Typical however, as soon as I got my camera out, they vanished like an apparition! At one point when I was in my third story bunk, I thought the roof was literally going to blow right off. But after a few hours, the howling winds died and the sound of very loud and very annoying snoring from a Frenchman took over!! Just what I needed when we had a long day the next day and it being mostly uphill...

...Also, this day was our ten year anniversary of our first date so we celebrated in true style with a much needed...can of coke...each!

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Day 4: Refugio Los Cuernos to Campamento Las Torres - 6.5 to 8hrs. Today was a relatively early start with about a 3.5-4hr hike across lowland and marshes, with mountains to our left and turquoise blue lakes to our right. Not so many hills at the star which came as a welcome break. After this time, we came to a shortcut up to Refugio Chileno, our stop for lunch. I say shortcut, but in truth it saved us only about half a kilometre and was a pretty steep uphill section. Turning left into the next valley brought what we were expecting...very strong winds, which had blown in from the west and were then being channeled down the valley, exploding on the bend where we were stood, high up on a narrow trail, blowing us backwards. Heads down, bent forward we plodded on waiting for the next hill to shelter us from the gale force winds. Fortunately, once we were over the head, we were pretty much sheltered all the way to Refugio Chileno, just an hour further up the valley. On arrival, we found the little cooking shed and set about making our spicy pumpkin soup! Ooooh! Whilst tempting to stay here for fear of the strong winds at the campsite further up the valley, we decided to be good and carry on to the campsite. Again, in truth, it was the thought of having to trudge for 2hrs in the morning to watch the sunrise on the towers at 5am that really drove us on (in contrast it's only 45mins from the campsite). After another hour we arrived at Camping Las Torres and a nice little campsite it was too. Tucked away just off the trail in a small bunch of trees, it was sheltered from most of the wind and the worst of the weather with a little stream running through the middle to get your drinking water. From the campsite you could see the very tips of the towers tucked behind a hill so we knew how far we had to go in the morning which helped us (just!) with the idea of getting up at 4am! We did both think at the time that seeing as all of Patagonia and Torres Del Paine's scenery is so stunning, what's all the fuss about these three bits of rock?! And having had a long day already, we were happy to get settled in for dinner and an early night. However, just as the pots and pans came out, we saw that the towers were clear and the evening sun was coming in. Hoping we might capture some nice evening light, the "ah, f*** it, why not?" mentality kicked in and on the spur of the moment we decided to make the climb up to the top and see what all the fuss was about. As the sun was quickly dropping, and being eager to catch it before it descended to dusk, I made a speed ascent with nothing more than my camera and a walking pole to get some shots. Han was happy to stroll up behind and let me go with the warning that if she was not there within the hour, to come looking for her. I made it to the top in 27 minutes but sadly, I was too late to catch the sun. It did not matter however because as soon as the towers and the lake below broke the horizon, I instantly knew what all the fuss was about. They just looked incredible!! I still managed to get some shots of the towers, and with no cloud! What also made it more spectacular was that it was oddly quiet as, having gone up in the evening, pretty much everyone else had already been up, seen the towers and then made their way back down. Bang on the 45 minute mark, Han then arrived and we spent a few minutes there, just us (and literally 2 other people up there) soaking up the sheer beauty of nature at its best! I say only a few minutes because there were some crazily strong winds at the top, so strong that they nearly blew me off the rock I was standing on to take photos and into the glacial lake! That would not have been funny! I can't say whether these winds are nature at its best or at its worst but they were pretty fierce! The journey back down to the campsite was much slower due to the strong winds and the fact that clambering over rocks is much harder going down! With no more plans to go anywhere that evening and the thought of the 4am start, to head back to the top and watch the sunrise with our sleeping bags, camping stove, cups and the obligatory teabags, we had dinner of pasta and sauce (again) and then headed straight to sleep...or so we thought...Rain and strong winds in the night coupled with mice made for another restless nights sleep.

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Day 5: Campamento Las Torres to Refugio Torres Norte - 2.5hrs - The ridiculously early alarm call song of "American Woman" and the continuance of the precipitation outside, meant only one thing...we were not getting up at 4am. Instead, we woke up at 9:30am! Much more like the Round's everyone has come to love and know! But what did we find when we woke up? We discovered that we had nailed our decision to go up the day before. Immersed completely in low cloud, the towers were nowhere to be seen! A quick high five and fist pump later, our tent was down and drying, sleep mats were rolled up and rucksacks were ready to go. Not before we had noticed while having a nice brew that it was in fact snowing!! An hour later, the tent had been packed and we were back at Refugio Chileno for breakfast. Yep, you guessed it...porridge and raisins! Today was always planned to be a very short day due to the really early start we had expected to have. So when we got down to Refugio Torres Norte for our day of relaxation, recharging and refuelling, ready for our gruellingly long day tomorrow to Refugio Dickson (32km and time estimate of 11hrs!!), we didn't really feel like we needed it. Spanish Guy also stopped at Refugio Torres Norte but only for lunch before carrying on to Camping Serón, a campsite 4 hours further along the route and halfway to Dickson. He was somewhat surprised by our decision to have a short day and thought we were crazy when we told him about our intended hike the next day. He said he looked forward to seeing us at Refugio Dickson to see how knackered we looked. How very nice of him, haha!

On our way down the valley from Chileno to Torres Norte, we had fun watching all the 'day-hikers' and also the fresh-faced Patagonian trekkers on day 1 of the 5-day "W trek" going in the opposite direction, eager to see the towers. Though the feeling could not be helped at the time, Han was very happy to express it every time another poor soul (hoping to see what they came all the way to the edge of the Antarctic to see only to be disappointed on their arrival) walked past...smugness at the fact we had done it the day before! What made it better was the fact that as soon as we had finished our very short hike, getting to the Refugio for lunch (scrambled egg sandwich...heaven!), it absolutely threw it down with rain, whilst we were all toasty lying on a sofa in front of a wood burner. Couldn't have timed it more perfectly! Who's crazy now Spanish Guy?! :-)

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Day 6: Refugio Torres Norte to Refugio Dickson - 9 hr 30m - Today was an early start after a night of loud, annoying and snoring Germans. We did however leave later than the planned 6:30am but only by 15 minutes which is pretty normal by Round/Lacey standards. We hiked around the edge of the park and into the next valley and on to the "Circuit" trail. A new trail and with it, new weather. After a day of light rain and an evening of heavier rain, the temperature took a dramatic drop and the winds picked up - and an icey cold blast it was despite the fact the sun was out the majority of the time. On came the hat, gloves and waterproof (more for wind protection than anything else). Walking down into the valley, there was field after field after field of daisies with rabbits running through them and snow-capped mountains as the backdrop. It was like walking into a children's story or something out of the sound of music! Much better than the 6:45am scenery, which was wet, and whilst still beautiful, looked more like Scotland. We arrived at Camping Serón, just under 3,5hrs along our trail where we stopped for lunch - cream of mushroom soup but with the added bonus of a chicken liver pâté sandwich - at 10:45am! Best lunch yet...well up there with the scrambled egg sandwich. As we were just about to leave Serón, we saw two massive birds that were either hawks or some sort of eagle (I'm not up to date with my ornithology I'm afraid) swoop down and land right next to us. We managed to get some close ups of them before they flew off to grab a rabbit! We also saw Spanish Guy just getting up for breakfast, who couldn't believe we were at Serón already and had already hiked for 4 hours. Well, when you don't have siestas, you can get loads done!

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Our walk from Serón to Dickson was around 6 hours. It was much the same terrain as Torres to Serón, although, to Hannah's dismay, with much more uphill than the map suggested! In fact, it soon became clear that the sections of the map that related to the 'circuit' were much less accurate in terms of distance, time estimates and terrain than the sections which related to the W. We actually started to question whether the person who created the map has actually walked the full circuit!!. Anyway, upon arrival at Dickson, the location of the Refugio was amazing. It was placed in a small clearing on the bend of a river surrounded by mountains and two glaciers coming towards it. On a clear day, you also got a view of Los Cuernos from behind. Dickson was a cosy little Refugio with a warming wood burner and made all the more better because it had an amazing shower after our longest day yet, did great food and because we were the only people booked in for the night, which was funny given we booked back in August for fear we wouldn't get a bed. Safe to say, I had the best nights sleep so far.

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Day 7: Refugio Dickson to Campamento Los Perros. This was a shorter 4.5hr trek but it was all uphill to a mirador and our penultimate camp site. The day started with porridge and raisins and a cup of tea although the smell of toast coming from the Refugio was hard to ignore and we so nearly caved in!! The hike took us through another change in terrain, from the flat bottom of the valley, through the forests to the first signs of what was to come, rocky outcrops along a fast flowing and powerful river. Once again, we camped next to a beautifully clear river right at the base of the mountains. Amazing! The only downside was that, being at the base of a glacier, meant the campsite was pretty much freezing, so we spent most of the afternoon in our sleeping bags inside our tent, only venturing out to boil much needed cups of tea.

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Day 8: Campamento Los Perros to Camping Grey via the infamous John Gardner Pass (where winds have been known to hit 187kph!) taking in views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and Glacier Grey - 10.5hrs. The hardest, longest yet most scenic day of the trip. Our first 5.5hrs took us to Campamento Paso, the halfway point for the day and our rest stop after the John Gardner Pass, where winds have been known to hit 187kph! It had rained all night so when we set off in the morning, it was extremely muddy to the point of ridiculousness. If you have taken part, seen or heard of 'Tough Mudder' races, they are nothing compared to this. I stacked it several times with two of those occasions being quite spectacular. One resulted in two black and very wet shoes, a severely bruised backside, wet trousers and rucksack and the other resulted in any clothing that survived the first fall becoming muddy and a snapped trekking pole. I immediately felt better to see that Han had stacked it just as much as me and in equally spectacular fashion. These conditions made the pass incredibly slow going, but it was all worth it! As we came out of the forest, we saw the day had turned into a stunningly clear one and we were surrounded by mountains, glaciers and snow. And the views from the top of the John Gardner Pass were even more spectacular! The horizon gave way to amazing views of Glacier Grey, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and the Paine Massif and surrounding mountains. It was a truly incredible sight and one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. For a moment, I forgot about the 90kph winds and the fact that my hands were like ice cubes!

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After a further couple of hours of very steep descending (or mud-sliding), we arrived at Campimento Paso for lunch, the halfway point for the day and our rest stop after the John Gardner Pass. We were both exhausted, and were tempted to set up camp there, but after (another!) cuppa soup, we decided to continue with our plan to push on to spend the evening at Refugio Grey, a further 4 hours walk away, given that the map suggested it was all downhill. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the map lies(!) and this section was much harder than we anticipated, especially on our already tired legs, requiring the navigation of plenty of steep and rocky ascents as well as some crazy ladders! By the time we got to Refugio Grey, we were beyond exhausted both physically and mentally!! Weather beaten, covered in mud, tired from the concentration required to descend the pass safely in the conditions the rain the night before had presented us with our tanks...completely empty! Refugio Grey was a welcome sight and was by far the best Refugio on the circuit, and the one we were 100%...not staying in! At least, however, after the longest and toughest day yet,we were able to head to the bar for a well-deserved beer and chill in front of the wood burner, before heading to our tent where we quickly passed out!

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Day 9: The last day. Camping Grey to Paine Grande - 3hr trek. We both saw this as an easy day despite saying it was still a 3.5hr trek to Lago Pehoe to catch the catamaran to Pudeto for the bus transfer back to Puerto Natales. This was a very undulating section, not what the map said, which distinctly showed it being downhill! After 1h 20m, we saw a sign saying that we had done the hardest section, we were over the high point and 6km in...4km to go. After another hour of solid hiking, feeling the end is nigh and ready for our last cuppa on the stove before the boat, we saw the sign we had joked about but hoped we would never see...Lago Pehoe 3.5km!! What!?! We had just walked at a pretty fast pace for an entire hour!! 500m? Five hundred metres?!? Seriously? For f**** sake! Damn inaccurate signage!! So on we trod, upping the pace once more and 30mins later, appearing on the horizon, our final destination and the boat home. That was the fastest 3.5km we've ever walked! Anyway, most importantly we had completed the 'Q' trail, joining only a small percentage of trekkers to do so (the majority of trekkers only complete the 'W' or 'Circuit' routes). And to celebrate...of course, we had a brew!

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I have to say, we were extremely lucky with the weather the entire time we were there. It was mostly dry and clear yet also sunny on the odd day. We certainly experienced the ice cold Patagonian gale force winds but not so much that it made it too tough or an unpleasant experience. The only day of rain we had was day 5 and that was spent curled up on a sofa in front of a wood burner, book in hand. I say extremely lucky because we are told they are currently experiencing their coldest summer in a long time (apparently they had warmer days in June and July - the middle of their winter) and it had rained for two weeks straight prior to our arrival. We met a couple in Puerto Natales who knew a couple of Australian girls who spent 9 days in the Park doing the 'Q' and saw absolutely nada because of the constant rain and low cloud. That must have been one depressing experience...

CONAF (the administrative body that maintains the national park) do a great job of marking the trails and it is difficult to go wrong, but, as alluded to above, the signing and mapping of the park is terrible! Especially on the "Circuit". It's clear to see that the money is spent on the more trodden and popular "W trek" rather than the "Circuit" or "the tail". The signs constantly change and every map in the park you see is different with regards to times, distances and altitudes, and these are also different to the signs you see. Our recommendation, if you go to the park, ignore the times and profiles of the trail, these will only disappoint. Enjoy the adventure of the unknown!

Whilst any able and fit person can walk the "Circuit", I can safely say that given the unpredictability of the Patagonian weather and hiking conditions at any given moment, it should not be decided upon lightly and is not for the faint hearted. If you are unsure, I would say go for the "W Trek" or even day hikes from the various refugios.

Cold and unpredictable weather, strong winds, stupidly muddy and poorly maintained paths (on the circuit), aching and broken bodies at the end...would I do it all again? Most definitely! Definitely a wonder of the world not to be missed...

To celebrate our completion of the trail, once back in Puerto Natales we treated ourselves to a nice aromatherapy massage and spa day at Hotel Indigo, with its sauna and outdoor jacuzzi overlooking the lake and mountains (something I had promised Han at the start of the trek, and the incentive that kept her going throughout I suspect!). Best massages ever!! Not very backpacker of us but much needed (after all that walking our legs pretty much seized up on the bus back to Puerto Natales and we could barely walk when it came time to get off!).

...next up, a 6hr bus ride to Argentinian Patagonia...

Another slow border crossing back into Argentina though only an hour and a half this time so definitely in record time!!

El Calafate is the hub to the Argentine side of Patagonia with access to various national parks and El Chalten, home of Mount Fitz Roy or El Chalten as some call it. For us, it meant a trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier. As much as we would have loved to have visited El Chalten, the terrain is not dissimilar to Torres Del Paine and the glacier for us was just something not to be missed, so it wasn't exactly a difficult choice to make...

The Perito Moreno Glacier lies in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, home to around 300 glaciers. It is 30km in length and at its vertical front stands 60m above the surface of the lake (it stands 110m from the valley bed at its front, increasing to over 700m deep in the middle of the glacier!). It is the most stable glacier in the park and also in the world; it hasn't changed position in 120 years. This is due to the accumulation and melting zones sitting in equilibrium, the glacier growing and receding at the same rate in the winter and summer months respectively. The glacier also reaches the bottom of the lake rather than floating on its surface, further adding to its stability......right enough information...

On arrival at the glacier platforms, it hit us instantaneously how incredible it was - not only in size but also how it looked like a solid, vertical wall of ice, completely unlike any other glacier we have seen. The platforms are positioned at a 'rupture point', where two lakes meet with one flowing into the other. As the water from one moves across and under the glacier, it causes the glacier to form tunnels and then crack or rupture, sending broken shards of ice into the water or emerging like submarines from underneath. The 'rupturing' occurs almost constantly making sounds like thunder each time, making everyone (including me) jump for their cameras and scan the face of the wall waiting for the next big chunk to break. Sadly, the sounds come from deep within the ice and so, we only saw small sections drop off into the water (which was still pretty cool to see).

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Leaving the platforms, we then took a short boat ride up to the side of the glacier where we then continued on foot for another hour (more hiking, groan...) to the height of the glacier. Here, we were provided with safety harnesses and crampons ready to climb on to the ice and take a Sunday stroll across the glacier. After about an hour, we had walked to the centre of the glacier where we found a little spot for some lunch. This was not before passing some amazing crevasses and streams, where you could see the deep blue colour of the ice and the crystal clear water which you could drink to your hearts content.

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The glacier moves 2 metres per day towards the northern side of the glacier but only 20cm towards the edges, which makes it accessible for hiking on without the need for additional equipment like ice axes and ropes.

After lunch, we hiked for a further 2 hours where our guides managed to find some cool (no pun intended) little tunnels and caves as well as turquoise blue lakes for us to stare in amazement at (and crawl through if we dared). It was truly an awesome spectacle and we both agreed, this kicked Franz Josef Glacier's ass! We even found Superman´s Fortress of Solitude (the Lego version anyway!)

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After 3.5hrs on the ice, it was back to dry land before the short boat ride back to the mainland. But not before a complimentary whiskey on the 'glacier' rocks! This was not really Han's cup of tea, so I happily had a double of an already decent dram! Han managed a few sips with the classic look of "urgghhh!" thrown in after each swallow...

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Our last night in El Calafate brought around our second parilla, La Tablita - a recommendation from a friend that was just around the corner from our hostel. And it was fantastic! Han couldn't help but order the Bife de Chorizo again (a ma-hassssive steak - enough to share with me! ;-p) and I had the Cordero Patagonico (Patagonian lamb). I had seen them roasting it over hot coals whilst stood in the reception area (yes, they make a feature of this method in the waiting area - pic on Facebook and Instagram) and it just looked too good to pass up. How could I say no to my favourite meat? When it came, it was still on hot coals and basically was a chopped up lamb on a plate for you to pull apart! It was the most tender and juiciest lamb I have ever tasted and is a must for any lamb-lover visiting El Calafate. Not bad for around seven quid too! It is ridiculous how cheap the meat is in Argentina, yet is about 100 times better quality in terms of cut and size than anywhere in the UK!

The next day brought an end to our months of trekking, an end to the rainy seasons and an end to cold weather...we hope! So in true British style, anticipating temperatures in double figures, we dumped our worn out, disgusting walking tops and trousers in the hope they would no longer be needed and prepared to don our shorts and t-shirts! In doing so, we created some much needed space in our backpacks, ready to fill with other random, and no doubt probably pointless, souvenirs over the next 8 weeks...(I know, only 8 weeks left! Where has the time gone?!) Obviously I don't include a hammock or countless pairs of Havaianas as pointless. Who doesn't need a hammock in London?! Essential living.

Next up, the home of the tango, steak, gauchos and crazy football fans...that's right, it's Buenos Aires!!

Blimey...thats even tired me out! I hope there were enough pictures to break up the read!

Well, that´s all from me folks! Next up is Han so I shall sign out until Brazil!

Ciao!

Posted by shaunandhan 19:39 Archived in Argentina Tagged glacier argentina patagonia q_trail Comments (0)

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