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Homage to Patagonia

ARGENTINA | Saturday, 31 December 2011 | Views [1909]

Fire fighters from Ushuaia. Haha.

Fire fighters from Ushuaia. Haha.

Since we arrived in Argentina, a lot of Argentinians have been asking us if we were planning to visit Patagonia. I guess that Patagonia is for Argentinians what the Outback is for Australians – a large, sparsely inhabited area, where life can be tough and those that make their lives there, even tougher. For us, it had been one of the areas we have been most looking forward to throughout our trip, with the remote windswept landscapes, snow filled mountains surrounded by glacial lakes and the unique vegetation that has developed in the area.

Patagonia is actually split between Argentina and Chile, with a rather arbitrary divide between the two countries that has been subject to a lot of conjecture over the years. And upon reflection, there is something significant here, at least for Argentinian Patagonians – land possession is a huge part of the regional psyche. Forming a border between Chile and Argentina has been a long and arduous process. Every Argentinian island will be marked with a giant Argentinian flag. Towns were settled just to ensure land ownership. Indeed, the region was originally settled by the Spanish to ensure they owned Patagonia. Any map you see in Argentina will go out of its way to include the Islas Malvinas (the Falkland Islands), marked as Argentinian territory. Territory is an important thing here.

I digress. We spent a while in Patagonia, so I’ll split it into two separate entries – this entry will cover Bariloche, Puerto Madryn and Ushuaia. Puerto Natales (and Torres del Paine), El Calafate, El Chalten and Puerto Varas will be done in a second entry.

Bariloche – The Argentinian Switzerland

Bariloche’s reputation proceeded it. A land of lakes, mountains, skiing, chocolate and food. And unfortunately, more recently volcanoes. Many people in the southern hemisphere may have been inconvenienced by the eruption of Volcan Puyehue, which disrupted flights in Australia for a while there. For Bariloche, and nearby Villa Angostura, it has been disastrous. The volcano still dumps a thick heavy load on the town on a nearly daily basis, wiping out forests, filling lakes with pumice and turning the picturesque villages into bleak, grey ghost-towns. 

More pummice - it's actually floating, a layer about 1cm thick, and looks really weird with ripples.

Despite the ash raining down, Bariloche is still gorgeous, described by one Swiss person in our hostel as ‘like Switzerland, only with bigger lakes and less people’. Teams of people remove the ash from the streets, keeping things pretty, although the ash is still easily seen around the town. We had a great day of riding around the area, with some amazing views of the forests and deep, snow-fed azure lakes (all-be-it with small patches of grey pumice floating on the surface), capped off with a beer at one of several local microbreweries, and an excellent picnic and nap at a lake beach where we didn’t see another soul. A walk up Cerro Otto offered different, but equally amazing views. Wind dependent, the country side around the town didn’t seem too badly affected, even if the airport remains closed.

Not too badly affected at least, until we hired a car and headed out of town on the Seven Lakes Circuit. The trip took us through Villa Angostura, once regarded as one of the prettiest towns in South America. The people of Villa Angostura look like they are at war. The streets are piled deep in ash, their majestic lake views obscured by thick clouds of ash, the people move around like ghosts in the street as the tourist dominated industries struggle to stay afloat.  It was heart-breaking stuff, and you can only hope the volcano settles down soon for their sake. Further around, and further from the Puyehue, the drive took us to amazing lakes, crystal clear trout-filled waters, reflecting snow-capped mountains: truly Swiss scenes. We got around to planting trees in one of the park areas (another on our list of ten items on the scavenger hunt), and had an incredible day all up, followed up with a party back in the hostel.

More Seven Lakes goodness.

The ash may be impacting upon Bariloche, but it’s still an amazing place to visit. The chocolate is really world-class, and complemented with some tasty game meat (local specialities are wild boar and venison) and delicious hand-crafted beers. The people are friendly, there is still a lot going on in the streets and it was an excellent 5 days or so, combining some nice outdoor time with some stomach-expanding relaxation. The weather was so warm we spent most of our time in T-shirts, enjoying the very long summer days. Given the number of services, the food options and the weather, it was hard to believe we were in Patagonia at all!

Puerto Madryn – Who’s Watching Who?

Initially, we weren’t sure if we’d make it to Puerto Madryn. It was a fair way out of the way from our overall itinerary, but after hearing some of the tales of marine wildlife spotting from a few of our friends who’d visited there, we decided it couldn’t be missed. We are so glad we didn’t skip this incredible place.

The primary attraction at Puerto Madryn is the wildlife, especially around Peninsula Valdez. It’s the only place in the world where orcas hunt by beaching themselves on the shore to take seals and sea lions. We arranged a tour out there. On our way out, we saw a pod of Southern Right Whales swimming out near the beach at Puerto Madryn – good start! After a quick stop at a little information centre, we headed to the dock for a whale watching cruise. In the promotional video, we’d seen footage of whales passing under the boat, and we were one part skeptical and one part uneasy about this – the idea of the boats approaching the whales so closely was one that we didn’t think was a good long term idea.

The boat motored out into the bay where the Southern Right Whales were resting from their migrations along the coast. The boat stopped, and we could see a whale swimming around and slapping it’s tale about 150 metres away. Within a couple of minutes, a couple of other whales surfaced nearby, with some more tale and fin slapping. Out of the blue, one surfaced up right next to the boat, and actually passed underneath it, looking up at us with one huge beady eye! At this point another whale was breaching in the distance. A mother with a white skinned calf was swimming alongside the boat for a few minutes. Several other whales were swimming up to, or under the boat, to check out these weird small critters hanging about in the bay. We couldn’t stop grinning, it was an amazing experience. Towards the end, it met its crescendo, with several whales playing around the boat at the same time; breaching, slapping, watching and more baleen fun and games. We didn’t know where to look! Really, really incredible, and it seems that the whales were as interested in us as we were to them. Huh.

Southern Right Whale. Like, right there.

Our next stop was at a penguin rookery, home of hundreds of Magellan penguins. Whilst the whale watching impressed me with its environmental sensitivity, this was much less impressive. The carpark ran right up to the nesting area, a two foot fence keeping humans on their side. A penguin standing guard of its nest didn’t seem overly impressed with the number of gawking visitors coming to within an arm’s length of its nest. Apparently a little while ago, someone was caught trying to steal a penguin and eggs to take out of the country. Poor carpark environmental design principles aside, it was fun to watch the penguins playing around doing their thing on the beach front, swimming and flapping around and the like.

They love all those tourists parking metres from their nests

We had a couple of stops to look at elephant seals, as well. The big males were all out hunting at this time of year, but we could see all the pups and mothers, as well as a few adolescent males, who were starting to develop their trunk. At the last place, as well as more of the elephant seals, we also got to spot an armadillo and, as we’d really, really hoped, but not expected: a pod of orcas! Admittedly, they were a fair way away, but still we got to see them hunting around, jumping and even catch a seal. A cool highlight to cap off a very nice trip.

Puerto Madryn has more going on than just Peninsula Valdez: the beach area is nice too. We went for a walk along the beachfront at sunset, and were treated to a really nice sunset, as well as continuing our habit of being the local street-dog whisperers, gaining some more faithful followers for the walk. We’re really glad that we decided to include Puerto Madryn into our Patagonian wanderings. The wildlife spotting was the best we’ve had since the Galapagos, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have a whale encounter like that again.

Ushuaia – At the World’s End

For us (and many other travelers), Ushuaia represented the end of a huge journey south: from Whitehorse, Yukon in Canada all the way down to the southern-most city in the world. Coming in, we weren’t completely sure what to expect, but Ushuaia, located in Tierra del Fuego (the land of fire) really does feel like you are at the end of the world. Pristine waters, oddly attractive bogs and snow-capped mountains combine with the famously strong winds to produce a place that really feels like the end of the civilised world. Finally it felt like we were truly in Patagonia.

Ushuaia, the city, is a strange creature. As the staging point for the vast majority of tourist trips to Antarctica, it caters for the more cashed up sort of tourist. In this harsh, wet and wild island, it is dominated by souvenir shops, cafes and parrilladas. The sun set sometime around 10:30pm, and it was light by about 3am, without ever being properly dark. The hostel was filled with people writing up their monuments to driving, bicycle or motorbike trips south from the north. Our (rather fraudulent) contribution was thus:

Our *humorous* addition to the Ushuaia 'End of journey' notes.

The fun to be had here is in getting out of the town (although it can get some amazing sunsets) and into the surrounding national parks. Some amazing walks reveal bogs, mountains, glaciers and trees. Others reveal the damage from a fairly unexpected feral species, causing massive environmental damage in the area: beavers. Yep, the little toothy bastards were introduced into the area in the 1940’s to create an alternative industry for the area. The unfortunate timing coincided with the death of beaver as a popular clothing material. Without any natural predators, they thrived, damming up many of the rivers and quickly reaching plague proportions.

To celebrate our arrival south, we headed to a parrillada to try the local lamb, which has a very good reputation. Most of the parrilladas here serve what they call a tenedor libre, a ‘free fork’, or buffet. This is the stuff of carnivore dreams – several types of animals, spit-roasting on open flames, before being pulled off and flame grilled. The result is succulent, delicious meat, accompanied by a good selection of salads. After months since our last taste of lamb, it was a real treat – we’d almost forgotten how strong the flavour is!

Parrillada in Patagonia. More meat loving Argentine goodness.

To best experience Tierra del Fuego, we hired a car for a couple of days, allowing us to camp and to access some more remote areas. This allowed us access to check out some glacier valleys, lakes and mountains that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen, and to camp at the gorgeous national parks.

It took us three places to find what we considered the ‘true’ Patagonia, but as soon as we found it, we were entranced. The wildness of it, the wind and cold, the unique trees and vegetation, the mountains. This is what we’d travelled so far south to see, and it sure is some place.

Tags: argentina, chile, fauna, hiking, patagonia

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