Once in Patagonia, I was hooked! Eager to continue exploring, after my foray in Chile I re-entered Argentina to travel along the Southern part of the Routa 40, a National Route which crosses Western Argentina from the extreme South up to the North, at the border with Bolivia.
Travelling along Route 40, which in its Southern part is still gravel for many miles, allowed me to almost touch the immensity and remoteness of this land that goes on and on under forever changing skies. My soundtrack was Astor Piazzolla’s tango Vuelvo al Sur (I go back to the South) and its beautiful lyrics of a longed-for South with a huge moon hanging in a upside-down sky.
Some memories of the thirty-hours and counting that I spent on the bus are a pit-stop at a remote estancia (ranch) aptly called Siberia, a hill’ side where guanacos soaked the sunset golden light, and flamingos-dotted lagoons on the way to El Calafate.
I wasn’t alone on the road. Thanks to a local’s tip I had discovered my literary yet very real guide to Patagonia: Julius Beerbohm, an engineer who had traveled the region in 1877 for a land survey and later published the book I had in my backpack, “Wanderings in Patagonia”. I was fascinated by the tales of how, coming from his 19th century Victorian England, he adapted for a long period to the harsh lifestyle of his travel companions, a group of ostrich hunters, with whom he met native Indians, rode for days on end and shared life-threatening experiences like the crossing a flooding river.
Inspired by Julius’adventures, I entered the Argentinean side of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, which feeds the many glaciers of Los Glaciares National Park. My first stop dazzled me with the ice-blue beauty of its majesty glaciar Perito Moreno , a true wonder of nature around which they built the town of El Calfate.
Perito Moreno Glacier is so popular for a few reasons. It is not receding despite the global warming and is comparatively easy to get access to. A good walking circuit allow appreciating its extension – a 5 km-wide front, raising 40-60 meters above the water and 30 km long – and the dynamic nature of its front, where ice forms and falls unpredictably. To complete the experience, I joined a trek where I trodded over its hypnotic surface with ice-crampons.
The next stop was in another unforgettable spot of Los Glaciares National Park: El Chalten, a village built in 1985 to fend off territorial claims by Chile. As I had a chance to experience myself, there is not much love between Chile and Argentina and I was surprised by how two neighbouring countries are so different. Yes, they both have dulce de leche, telenovelas, Spanish language and possibly other things in common, but the people are different, both physically and character-wise. Chileans are more subdued and introverted in comparison to the chattier and warmer Argentinians, though I met some proverbial exceptions on each side.
Like for El Calafate, what is amazing is not el Chalten itself, with its make-shift feel, but the wilderness around it. This is a heaven for climbers who dare to challenge the imposing Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains and I had some of the most jaw-dropping trekking of my life, like the one to the Laguna de Los Tres.
While travelling up along Routa 40, the landscape started softening and becoming greener as I arrived in the oasis of Los Antiguos, meaning The Elderly, where old Tehuelche Indians use to “retire”. It is a tiny village on the Chilean Border, right in the middle of Patagonia, known for its fertile land and the growing of fruits like cherries and strawberries.
In line with its fame of slightly off-the –beaten-track place, I found a host of real characters there. One of them is a Chilean peasant with red and pink cheeks and a placid air about him, who crossed the border and came to the chakra (farm) where I was spending the day looking for one of his cows which got lost. Then there was the farm owner, a feisty and cheeky Chilean entrepreneur bubbling with energy. He, in turn, introduced me to another character, an Argentinean-Chilean with South African blood, considered a lost soul by the little village because of his love of recreational drugs. With him and his friend I had a memorable horse-ride –Argentina is a land of huge spaces and superb horses, after all!- by the shores of Lake Buenos Aires , so big and wavy that you’d be forgiven to think it is a sea and not a lake.
My next stop, Trevelin, showed me yet one more facet of Patagonia. It is a village in the province of Chubut, with mixed influences of Welsh settlers, who came here in the first half of the 19th century, and of indigenous Mapuche, both still well alive.
From the base of a cozy hostel, Casaverde, in the good company of a variegated trio of friends, I ventured into the National Park Los Alerces, with millenary trees almost as big as the Californian sequoias.
Last stop on Routa 40, or I could have gone on for weeks as Patagonia stretches further up for many more kilometres, was El Bolson. It is a pretty lively town in an Alpine-looking setting, which Argentinean hippies colonized in the 70s. Now is evolving into a mountain holiday destination thanks to its wide web of trails, but still manages to keep an alternative vibe. Herbal medicine and New Age are rife, so much so that its touristic tagline is “Where the Magic is Natural”. My kind of magic there was to connect with a group of new-found Argentinians friends, with whom to laugh heartily and walk in beautiful scenery to mountain refuges like El Retamal.
This was a memorable ending to my exploration of Patagonia that, as you might have guessed by now, had gotten under my skin.
Stay tuned! On the next post we chill out, sipping Malbec wine in Mendoza, while I answer one of the questions that I have been asked the most: how is it travelling solo?