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New Years and Old trees: Esquel & Parque Nacional Las Alerces

ARGENTINA | Thursday, 1 January 2009 | Views [1012]

The night journey across the continent towards Esquel was pleasant enough, although I thought I had left a bag containing all my gadgets behind. A man got on selling hand-made wooden rosary beads which I bought as a sort of superstitious insurance policy and slept uneasily.

Upon arrival in Esquel, a beautiful town nestling under the Andes, a Polish guy, Krys, who had been staying in our hostel in Trelew said hello as I ripped open my bag to make sure I had everything. Thankfully the rosary insurance paid out and with all gadgetry intact the three of us wandered off into the still sleeping streets to find a hostel. No response at the first two we called at and after about 20 blocks of walking we arrived at a place that not only answered the door but felt like a nice place too. After our experiences over Christmas in Puerto Madryn the 'feeling' of a place was now a key factor. We drank mate and swapped stories until we were allowed check in to our rooms and freshen up.

The Argentinean Andes are much more similar to the Swiss Alps than to Peru or Bolivia with chalets and lodges built in wood and cute little towns dotted around. Esquel is a fine example and our first day saw us wander around and get ourselves organised with laundry and restocking supplied etc. We had a fine asado in a restaurant just off the square and finished the evening in the bar in the hostel having a few beers with the hostel staff.

The following day we had planned a trip into the nearby Parque Nacional Las Alerces, Krys deciding to join us. We took an early minibus which snaked its way though the picturesque park with its many lakes and matte painting style mountainous backdrops. The bus left us at Lago Menendez where we alighted a trimaran (MOT 24). The boat chugged its way across the pristine lake (you can drink from almost all the lakes and rivers in the park) where we came to a glacier. It's a very real indication of the existence of climate change that the glacier thousands of years old and a rocky part beneath is only started showing 2 or 3 years ago. Apparently it will have melted away within 20 years or so. Even if reduced in size it was still incredibly beautiful, its blue ice indicating the maximum level of compaction. The trimaran continued around a large lake island before setting us off for a 2 hour guided walk through the rainforest towards the reason why the park was given its name.

Alerces, or Patagonian Cypress are the second oldest species of tree on the planet after Californian Redwoods or Sequoia. There is a direct correlation between age and diameter but not with height; they only gain 1mm a year in girth. The largest and oldest tree we visited, El Abuelo or grandfather had a diameter well over 2m and had been carbon dated to about 2600 years old. Quite incredible when you think that the tree was a sapling as the Greek empire was in its heyday and witnessed the birth of Christ, the dark ages and the invention of sliced bread! Bizarrely the trail and many of the leaves were covered in a thick layer of grey ash from the surprise eruption of El Chaiten volcano in Chile. It had been dormant for 9000 years.

After the boat trip and walk we waited for the bus and bade farewell to Krys, he was moving up North to a place called El Bolson and we were going to camp in the park that night. We befriended an Australian fisherman, Gus as we got our bearings and bought some supplies in the local victualer. We rented tents and sleeping bags in a lovely campsite just off Lake Futalaufquen and, lacking cooking or eating utensils, ate excellent T-bone steaks with our hands and choripan, all washed down by red wine from a carton. Great meal and craic with Gus who had been moderately successful at catching trout in the lakes and rivers of the park.

We slept like babies, this being our first night in a tent on the trip and woke the next morning to the dramatic views of the craggy mountains overlooking the campsite. We spent the day doing the Cerro El Dedal trek. It took us seven hours, climbing to almost 2000m and gave us the most spectacular views of many lakes and mountains. We passed through a bamboo forest then climbed past the tree-line up beyond the line where the vegetation stops growing. All the way up to the snow spots left over from winter, allowing us to refill our water bottles before a very difficult scramble up to the pass. Thankfully we not only had bamboo walking sticks to help (near impossible without I would imagine) but had brought DEET as some form of measure against the particularly vexing species of horsefly endemic to the area. They wouldn't even bother finding a bare piece of skin, content to bite me through my t-shirt! The volcanic ash had pretty much completely covered us by the time we finished. Tired but contented after the trek we waited for the bus back to Esquel, 2008 soon to become a memory.

The guys at the hostel (Casa del Pueblo) had put on a fabulous spread, the piece de resistance of which was 2 roasted turkeys. About 15 of us sat around the table and rang in new years in a very relaxed fashion... no countdown or Auld Lang's Ayn, just a slighly strange moment at about 12.02 when the gringos, unable to control their urge to count, or shout or do something, all started cheering and then everyone started clinking and kissing in the new year. We moved outside for some fireworks, mostly big bangers rather than the more visual ones, illegal not only in Europe but in Argentina and all set off by the 12 year old son of the boyfriend of the hostel owner. How more Argentinean children don't have stumps for arms I don't know. They're basically sticks of dynamite. We had a sneaky play on the swings and see-saws in the kid's playground in the nearby square before heading off for our first sleep of 2009.

We had a midday bus to El Bolson on new year's day. Everyone was sleeping in so there was no chance of a taxi for the 3km to the bus station so we walked in the heat of the sun. It also seemed as though we would not be lucky regarding food but thankfully we spotted a deli which was willing to make us some lovely chicken sandwiches. Originally she wanted to sell the roast chicken in her fridge whole but thankfully she backed down. Esquel had definitely treated us right and all boded well for 2009 as we boarded the bus and settled down to a passable movie, in English for a change.

Tags: fireworks, lake, mountain, party, trekking

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