Argentina Part Five: El Chalten, and our final fun adventure, Tuesday 10th March – Saturday 14th March 2020

Hungover, we made our way to our bus, through the sunrise and the early morning chill. Our next trip was from a poster: everywhere in Argentina were images of the mountains above El Chalten seen from the road in, and we were both so excited to get to see that incredible view for ourselves. It was only a 2 hour drive away and we gazed in wonder from our bus window at the incredible sights ahead. The mountains approached, impenetrable, a fortress of rock and ice. We contoured around a vast lake where the southern tip of the Patagonian Continental Ice Shelf poured outwards into the water. Among the plains flamingos congregated in the sparse bodies of water we passed, and our grey cloudy morning felt all the more atmospheric for its brooding sky.

We arrived at 10am and didn’t expect to be able to get into our hotel for hours, so we were beyond delighted when they said we could check in. We rested for a while, just happy to be able to stretch out and get over the worst of the hangover in our lovely quiet space, although strange that we had staggered twin beds, so couldn’t actually see each other.

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In the afternoon we took a walk to the National Park Visitor Centre to get some advice for hiking. It was so exciting, seeing all these mountains so close to the town, so accessible for adventure. It was an excellent visit, as we got phenomenal advice from the knowledgeable staff about different routes and options. We opted for the more popular treks for a multi-day hike because we weren’t sure how Jay’s brain would cope with the exertion after the head injury, and keeping where there would be people was important as there was no phone reception in the park. However we also decided to do a couple of off-shoots, on paths marked as risky and where you had to register with the centre to be able to take them. Once you returned you had to notify them of your arrival, or they would send out search and rescue teams.

Speaking of this, on the registration forms we had to put our experience, so Jay wrote about his search and rescue experience and mountain leader qualification. The staff were really excited and we were promptly introduced to someone from the National Park Search and Rescue Team, who thankfully spoke English. We had a brilliant talk about the role of SAR there. They cover an exceptionally large area, made of mountains, glaciers and lakes, with innumerable hazards from terrain, weather, and of course tourists. We talked about the equipment they used and Jay had stretcher-envy.They are a paid team, part of the National Park, however in the town there is an Andean Club (an equivalent to the European Alpine Clubs), and they have a voluntary SAR team. If a rescue involves technical rope access, as many do, they are the ones who come and put up the rigs and manage that part of the evacuation, especially important given that there is no helicopter rescue in the region. It’s a brilliant system, and the teams train together to ensure interoperability, in the same way that Jay’s Urban Search and Rescue team, Serve On, train with other European teams in EVOLSAR so that we can all work together in a disaster.

We saw that the park had opportunities for volunteering, even for a single day, so we signed up to spend the following day with the path building team. We would work from 8am – 3pm and then hike the 12km to our first campsite when done (yes, with hindsight, we realise this was rather a lot to take on!).

After we’d left the ranger station, fully excited about our days ahead, we took the 2km trail to Las Aguilas, a viewpoint South of the town from which the plains and lake could be seen. We passed a lot of day-trippers from El Calafate and other towns, struggling up and down the steep, well-formed path. We followed a slight valley through lovely uplands, with beautiful Andean plants and ever expanding views. At the end of the trail, the viewpoint showed us the North tip of Lago Viedma, fed by the great Glaciar Viedman. We could see along the valley, the great Rio de las Vueltas and the towering mountains to the East. These sedimentary giants encapsulated multiple hues in their strata, which we wished we could have seen at sunset, where the light would have made them glow in all their glory.

Back in the small town we found a cafe that made vegan empanadas so we bought some for lunch tomorrow, and headed off to get camping supplies. We were ecstatic to find a shop that sold individual packets of dried goods – they clearly knew their market. We bought couscous, smash, dried veggies and stock cubes. Sadly we couldn’t find any dried protein, but we did find our first South American jar of peanut butter.

Back at the hotel we were exhausted, but managed to pack well. We sorted out our rations for the next 3 days of trekking, and put everything we didn’t need into bags to store at the hotel, for our return. We had bags of oats, dried fruit, nuts and coconut cream powder for breakfast, some with spoons of PB ladled in. Our lunches and dinners were various combinations of couscous or smash, with different spices, veggies and stock, and some with a hefty squeeze of extra hot chilli sauce in for good measure. We had empanadas, and bread and dried sweetcorn soup for another day too, so all in all we were pretty happy. But we were also exhausted, and Maeve was asleep by 20:45 with Jay following soon after. Well, we did have an early start the next day!

The next day when our alarm went off at 06:45 we still didn’t feel rested, but we were keen to get on and start the adventure. We ate as much as possible at breakfast and headed off to the ranger station for 08:00, with our big camping packs. We met Pablo, a ranger we’d be working with all morning, who gave us gloves with holes in the fingers and thumbs. We would be spending the day moving rocks from a collection point to the trailhead for the team who were laying a new track, to protect the mountain from erosion due to the existing paths being vastly over-used. As there are no helicopters here, all the rocks in the path have to be either found at the path location, or taken there manually.

We drove through the beautiful early light, North along the valley to a particularly rocky roadside, and began hoiking rocks into the truck’s trailer. It was beautiful watching the sun emerge from the hills, and the waters of the valley sparkle as it touched them. Geese chattered nearby, oblivious and uncaring toward our presence. When the trailer was full we drove to the trailhead and unloaded armfuls of rocks into huge piles. And that’s basically what our day consisted of: very hard manual labour, with a thousand squats, and a lot of weight-lifting!

We had a great morning with Pablo. He had been with the team for 2 years, and surprisingly, he was also a Psychologist by profession! We talked a lot about the role of psychology in Argentina, and then our conversations turned to other areas of common interest. Primarily we talked about how language is changing in Argentina, to become less binary and more inclusive of people with other gender identities. Everything in the Castellano language is gendered – emotions, activities etc, all gendered based on the subject. This is especially problematic for non-binary people, but also lots of professional roles are gendered as male, in a stunning feat of patriarchy. Hence the last president who was a woman, had what was literally a ‘man’s’ job. The current president, it emerged, has a son who is a drag queen, and was championing the changes to the language, by using gender neutral language on television. Predictably, the more conservative half of the country were in uproar about it, but mostly it was a welcome change.

At lunch, we ate with the rest of the park ranger team. They were so knowledgeable of the area, and shared with us their yerba mate, a drink that of hot water with dense tea-like herbs, drunk through a filtering straw. It’s something that is very social and people share together (another thing that is interesting to reflect on in the time of Covid-19). After lunch we moved more rocks and then were back at base around 15:00. Surprisingly we were given vouchers as a thanks which would give us discounts in the local restaurants! That would come in handy when we came back ravenous from our trek.

We had a quick stop for more empanadas on the way to the start of our trail, and a couple of coffees which helped enormously. We were exhausted and the prospect of a long hike was not appealing. But we had no where to stay so off we headed. The trail left town and immediately headed up a steep valley, giving us a taste of what was to come. It was funny seeing everyone coming back from day hikes, or from camping at the free campsite we were headed for, when we were just starting off. It was a long and tiring journey, but every step was stunning. It was largely sunny with some occasional cloud, cold out of the sun, but the lowering light was incredible as it picked out every rock feature, every gleam of water. The green of the valleys and mountain slopes was slowly turning to orange in readiness for Autumn, and the season felt ripe and ready to turn.

A few highlights stood out among it all, one of which was spotting the giant Magellanic Woodpeckers. We had desperately hoped to see these but not held out much hope as they were reportedly quite rare. However, we stopped at a viewpoint where the incredible Cerro range was in full view and Rio Fitzroy snaked below. Maeve went to use the drop toilet nearby, and as she emerged from the loo, there was one just casually sat in the tree opposite, looking right at her! Jay went racing down at the news, and they were everywhere. The noise of them smashing their faces into the trees, tunneling for insects, reverberated through the woodland and they didn’t seem to mind being watched at all. These huge black birds were magnificent, and the males had bright red heads. They were instantly recognisable and unforgettable.

At another point in the woods we stopped because we could see and hear a ridiculous number of birds. They were surrounding us, in all the trees, across the ground, just everywhere! It was magical and the area thronged with motion and life. Large striped brown woodpeckers hopped near our feet and didn’t seem to mind our excitement one bit. As we walked into the great river valley, a tiny and very angry looking owl glared down at us and twittered with disapproval.

Sadly we didn’t see any puma(!), however we were extremely lucky, thanks to Maeve’s acute eyesight, to spot on a distant hillside a number of grazing Huemul, the very rare native deer. Jay took a GPS reading on his watch as sightings are supposed to be reported, as they are such an endangered creature. When we reported the sighting to the rangers after our trek, they did indeed take it very seriously and we filled out a form with all the details, including the coordinates Jay had taken. We were delighted and surprised when the rangers told us there was a reward for a sighting, and gave us a beautiful and detailed poster with information about their habits and life cycle. It’s in Spanish but we can understand a few bits of it!

After many kilometres we eventually reached the free De Agostini campsite, near the source of the Rio Fitzroy. We were relieved to find that although the campsite was busy, we could still get a flat and comfy looking pitch. Exhausted, we put up our tent, and got on with making our dinner. The water from the river was so cold it actually burned, and Maeve managed to stick her whole foot in it whilst filling the kettle. The water was grey with glacial sediment, but we’d been told by the rangers that it was safe to drink if taken upstream from the camp. We still filtered and boiled it just to be safe.

It soon got dark and we snuggled into our tent, and decided not to set an alarm because we were so tired and achy from all the work and the three hour hike. We felt that if we were going to enjoy the next day we were best off getting as much sleep as we could. We fell asleep quickly but slept fitfully. Every half an hour or so the aches from the cold, hard ground against our hips and legs kicked in, waking us up as we tried to change position. At one point, we thought someone was shining a head torch at our tent, but it was the almost-full moon shining brightly down through the trees. The roar of the river accompanied our restless night, providing a backdrop to the occasional hoots of the owls and other creatures in the woodland.

As the sky was lightening and the hills turned to pink, we got up to watch the sunrise. We left the woods and clambered over the otherworldly rocky landscape to a vantage point. We were surrounded by red and silver rocks, sand, and incredible beauty. And a backdrop to it all was the Cerro range: a length of exceptional and jagged pinnacles, crested in snow, and clasping enormous glaciers. We watched the sun touch the tops of the range, and they briefly glowed red before the clouds swept in. They refracted the light, making the glaciers glow pink, instead of the usual hues of blue and grey.

Slightly awed, we headed back to camp and ate a boring breakfast of porridge, punctuated by visits from white-throated caracara: enormous eagle-like birds with tufty trousers that hopped disconcertingly near to us on the look for scraps.

After we’d packed we headed up to Laguna Torre, the lake that feeds the Rio Fitzroy. We gasped as we gazed down into it. Not only could we see the Glacier Grande which feeds it, but this mountain tarn was also littered with large icebergs. Deep blue and white, they glistened in the grey water that reflected the black and white mountains holding the laguna in their corrie. What a morning: sunrise on a glacier and icebergs in a mountain lake. It got more exciting as we were leaving and heard a noise like thunder reverberating around the mountains: somewhere nearby was an avalanche! We didn’t spot this one, but regularly heard the thundering noise as we walked back out of the range.

We set off quite late on our morning hike, and we passed dozens of day hikers who had set off early to get to Laguna Torre in good time. We were very happy when we reached the junction with the path to Poincenot campsite, which was much quieter, as it is only used by people doing multi-day hikes with and staying at the campsites. Where the path had been following the river valley before, it now rose steeply up one of the range’s spurs, through exceptionally beautiful, noisy bird-filled forest. By the time we eventually reached the top we were utterly exhausted. We had planned an additional off-path challenging ascent to an outlying summit, for which we’d had to register, but we sensibly recognised how tired we were and decided to just continue on to the campsite. Thankfully the rest of the walk through the woodland was gentle, but still stunning: beautiful lenga trees which felt familiar after so much time in New Zealand, huge black and white woodpeckers, and Jay especially was very excited to find a tiny dark brown frog with yellow stripes and a red bum: a nannophryne variegata.

We stopped for lunch alongside the beautiful twin lakes called Laguna Hija (daughter) and Madre (mother). Hija was very green, while Madre was bright blue, and both were crystal clear. We descended through a long stretch of bog which mercifully had wooden bridges crossing the wettest parts. Finally we came to an area with white shale beaches hugging the fast-flowing river, and we knew the campsite was nearby. Nevertheless the last 30mins of walking seemed to last forever! We finally reached the campsite and there was plenty of space. We found a pitch under dappled sunlight, with dozens of tiny birds hopping around to clear up the crumbs of the previous residents. We filled our water bottles from a nearby stream with a ‘potable’ sign, it was crystal clear and tasted earthy. At 4pm after pitching the tent we lay down for a ‘little rest’, and woke up 2 hours later! We managed to make some dinner and were asleep again at 8:30, drifting off to the constant groaning of the nearby glaciers, and the occasional rumble of tumbling snow somewhere in the valley.

We slept far better that night as it was slightly warmer, thankfully since we had an alarm set for 5:15. We were planning to get up long before dawn for the hour-long steep ascent to the world-famous Laguna Los Tres. This lake sits high in the mountains, and looks directly west across at three mountains including Fitz Roy. On a clear morning, the rising sun hits the tops of the mountains and they glow red against the blue sky, which is reflected in the lake, pictures of which adorn a multitude of posters and postcards everywhere in Patagonia.

We dragged ourselves out of bed into the freezing cold night and the light of the moon. We could hear other people in the campsite already clanging pots and pans to make breakfast. We packed up our pre-soaked porridge and our coffee, along with extra layers since we figured it might be even colder up at the lake. The moon shone on the silver snow-clad peaks of the Fitz Roy range. It was utterly magical as they towered silent and watchful above us, their millenia of observance barely noticing our presence. Unfortunately we were exhausted, cold and hungry, and so we missed out on some of the wonder as we were busy arguing about the heavy bag! We followed a procession of head torches zigzagging up the mountainside, which reminded Jay of running through the night on the Lakeland 100. As we approached the top of our ascent, the sky was beginning to lighten, and its early morning glow picked out Lagunas Hija y Madre far, far below.

After 45 minutes of sweaty, panting ascent, we crested a huge bank of rocks to see the laguna below and Fitz Roy above, shouldering its enormous glacier. All along the rock bank dozens of people sat huddled in the freezing pre-dawn, their cameras on tripods, ready and waiting. The sky lightened gradually, every moment revealing further details of the rock as the moon hung benevolently above on its slow descent. Sadly, due to a cloud bank on the horizon, it soon became clear that we wouldn’t get THAT photo. So we made our porridge and coffee, snuggled in and just watched the changing view. A tiny mouse scurried amongst the rocks at our feet, and a woman in a sleeping bag nearby shrieked and stood up as it tried to join her warm cocoon.

We made the steep descent back down the mountain, passing a few people on the way up who were content to just see the famous view in the daytime, rather than at dawn. At the bottom, before reaching the campsite, we started looking for another off-path route, the second one we had signed up for at the National Park office. Even with the best map available, we nearly missed the path as it had branches laid across and a sign saying no walking, which we assume was just there to dissuade unregistered hikers. As we started along the route we were amazed at how good the path was: a very distinct, flat route through the scrub which topped a small cliff along the river. By our map, the path was about the same distance as we’d climbed that morning to Laguna Los Tres, and had only a few hundred metres of gentle ascent. With the quality of the path, we expected it to take us less than an hour to reach Laguna Suica at the head of the river.

How wrong we were. The path soon dropped down to the riverbed, where we saw that people had built cairns all over the huge boulders that were strewn everywhere. Unfortunately very few were actually useful for wayfinding. We spent ages scrambling over the huge rocks until we came to a natural barrier: the river was funnelled between two sheer cliffs and there was no footpath through. We searched around and realised we’d dismissed the path: an almost-vertical scramble a few stories high up a muddy chute surrounded by vegetation, with nothing but tree roots to hold on to. Somehow Jay made it up with his enormous backpack on!

At the top of the cliff we joined another lovely clear path through shin-high scrub, and across a bog, before stumbling into our next obstacle: a vast, unstable, sheer sided boulder field, on scree. There was no path, so we tried to ascend over the boulder field, but the unstable scree below our feet shifted, and threatened to uproot the larger rocks and boulders. We had no choice but to stay low and clamber over and between the largest, most stable boulders. It was a real hazard area, made more challenging with our big bag, but eventually we rounded a corner and a clear path appeared, snaking through the debris up to a corrie where the mountains and glacier towered overhead. As we finally reached the top of the path, we had our first sight of the vivid blue lagoon. It was worth every ounce of effort to sit at the foot of the huge bowl: the only people there, whilst high above us people streamed up to the foot of the Fitz Roy range.

The glaciers opposite were vast, and we sat and made a brew while just gawping at them in wonder. We were treated to the remarkable spectacle of huge slabs of ice and snow falling from one high glacier onto a lower one, in a tremendous avalanche. It was fascinating because when we heard it and looked, there was nothing to see. The sound was so much slower. As we sat watching the shearing ice, the sound caught up a few moments later, demonstrating that the glaciers were so much bigger and further away than our perspective suggested. The glacier was extremely active and the thunderous reverberations rebounded within the hollow bowl of the corrie. This enormous cataclysm left us feeling insignificant in its scale, humbled and awestruck.

Eventually we had to leave. We really did want to stay but we’d only eaten porridge a few hours earlier and didn’t even have snacks with us. We had underestimated the challenge of the hike to this laguna, and wanted to get back with enough energy to safely negotiate the boulder field.

We made it without incident back to the campsite, ate everything in sight (accompanied by the ever-present birds), and packed up our kit. We set off for town far later than we had planned, but the lower sun had the advantage of picking out the hues of the autumnal leaves as the lenga forests began to turn. The path felt so busy after our relatively isolated laguna trek, but it did give us exceptional views of the range behind us, and the river valley which houses El Chalten ahead. The 9km hike passed all too soon, and Jay popped out to deliver our ‘return slips’ to the rangers office, before we headed out for burgers and beer. And once again, we were asleep before we knew what was happening.

On our final day in El Chalten we tried to make the most of our time in the charming and beautiful town. We had to do our duty and visit the rangers to tell them about the Huemel we’d spotted, then after lunch we took a gentle walk along the valley to a waterfall further North along the valley. As we approached, a sign informed us that this was a place of contemplation. Indeed it was, a beautiful cascade glittering into a crystal pool below.

Vegan empanadas in hand for the journey, we wound our way to the bus station on the edge of town for our late night bus. We were looking forward to our next stop – Bariloche – where we had finally booked the spanish course we had been wanting to do since we arrived in South America. We were really excited about it, and at that point still fairly unaware of the changes happening in the country concerning Covid-19. When we had returned from our trek, the guy at the hotel told us that the government were starting to think more seriously about it and we checked the FCO advice. It was all about being alert (sound familiar?!), but at that point we had no idea that our travels would soon be coming to an end. In Argentina, unlike most of Western Europe, Covid-19 had been well managed up to that point. Although the odd case had been confirmed, they were isolated and only in people returning from affected regions. Peru was more severely affected, and we were worried we might end up only visiting Chile and Argentina, and have to change our final flight home to leave from one of these countries. We had no inkling then that we would have to actually leave early, that it wouldn’t continue to be controlled in Argentina, and that we’d soon be in lockdown back in England. How much things can change in the course of a week.

Argentina Part Four, El Calafate: Saturday 7th March – Tuesday 10th March 2020

After the terrible hostel in Punta Arenas, we decided to treat ourselves in El Calafate. We had found an online deal which meant we could stay in a 3-star hotel (with a bathtub! Such luxury!) for the same price as two dorm beds in town. It was a very easy decision to make.

After a few hours on the bus we arrived at Puerto Natales and had 30 minutes to grab a coffee before our next bus. The view from the bus station stretched over the town to a fjord and mountains beyond which shimmered in the late-morning heat. Our connecting bus was due to take 3-4 hours to El Calafate, passing the Torres Del Paine national park, and crossing the border into Argentina. We should be at our destination around 17:30. The TDP park was glorious, the mountains towering and grand on the horizon, rising from the Patagonian steppe that continued unbroken in all other directions. Clouds hugged some summits while others gleamed in shattered rays of sun light. Our border crossing was the easiest so far – a cursory glance at our passports, and we were through.

At about 18:00 we stopped at a gas station, and confused about where we were, loaded up google maps, where we discovered we had overshot the turn to El Calafate, and were half-way to the coast! Luckily as we left the town, we did start heading in the right direction, but we had no idea why we’d ended up so far East.

The sun had almost set, it was cold and we were ravenous when we finally arrived at 20:00. We had been excited about spending the evening with beer and take-away in our luxurious hotel room. But here we were, on a dusty gravel road as night was falling, just hoping we could find something we could eat. As luck would have it, one of the first places we passed was open, and had a sign outside advertising vegan food! It was lovely, and after feeling refuelled following a day of only having crisps and biscuits, we set off in search of our hotel. We finally found it at 21:30, bought two ridiculously priced beers from the bar, soaked away the day in a hot bath, and were asleep before our heads hit the pillows.

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The next day our plans didn’t quite work out as anticipated. We woke late, found little we could eat at the hotel breakfast (despite being assured there would be plenty for us), and had no luck getting any info about hikes from the woman at the tourist info office. Eventually we found a National Parks office and it became clear we were in the wrong town for easy hiking. From where we were, all the walking routes required transport to access. Scuppered, but with a hotel for a few days, we just planned to take it easy, soak up the sights (we could at least see the nearby mountains), and use the time for organising our remaining months in South America. We booked an intensive Spanish language course in Bariloche for a week later, still in Argentina but on the way to Santiago. This was a real source of excitement for us. We’d planned since leaving the UK that we would do this the moment we arrived in South America, but Jay’s head injury had delayed that, as he wasn’t able to concentrate on learning anything without it bringing on concussion symptoms. This felt like a step toward fulfilling the plans we’d had all that time ago, and it was great for Jay to finally feel able to do it.

We went to buy our bus tickets to El Chalten, and found that we would get a significant discount if we paid in cash. We didn’t have nearly enough cash, as we’d avoided using ATMs since Buenos Aires, when we’d been stung with 10% fees to withdraw cash. We quickly learnt this was standard for using foreign cards in Argentina, so we’d relied on paying for everything by credit card. A few weeks earlier, someone working at a hostel had suggested we use Western Union to get cash, as they don’t charge the extortionate withdrawal fees. We hadn’t managed to sort this out before, but it seemed worth it to get these cheaper bus tickets. We were astonished to learn when logging in to the app that WU were offering an exchange rate better than the official rate. In taking out cash, with the various fees, we were getting approximately 60 Argentine pesos to the pound. By paying with our credit or debit cards we got nearer 75 pesos. The official rate was about 80 pesos, but from WU we could get 106 pesos to the pound! We have always been of the impression that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, so we were very sceptical. But we spoke to other travellers who confirmed they had taken advantage of this and it was indeed real! Things would suddenly cost close to half the amount that we had paid before! So we transferred money to WU, and then we had to wait. The next day from 1-4pm we could collect the money from one office in town. Apparently it could run out of money quite quickly, so we would need to be there early to queue, but we’ve had lots of practice at waiting around on our travels, so were prepared for that.

Over dinner, we heard chanting and shouting coming from outside the restaurant, and soon a procession of women came down the street, holding up placards and singing. It was International Women’s Day! We paid up quickly and ran out so Maeve could join in. Jay walked with some other men at the back of the group, but it became clear that there were men in the main body of the march too, so Maeve came to get him. It was wonderful to mark the day with this group, to be able to take part, and stand in solidarity with women in Argentina. Later in our trip we learned that one woman is killed by her partner every 30 hours here, and so protests like this are essential. Protesters were wearing green bandanas, marking them as members of the pro-choice movement in Argentina, who are currently fighting for legal abortions, and are winning the fight. Maeve managed to get hold of a couple after, making a donation to the cause in the process. At one point, walking down the street we both turned to look at each other. We had just walked past a guy who was the spitting image of one of our friends back home. It was uncanny. Later on we passed him again sat outside a bar. We just had to ask for a picture, and ended up having a hilarious and slightly drunken night with some new friends.

We lost most of the next day to a bit of a hangover and queuing up at Western Union. However it was all worth it. Everything we’d heard about the exchange rate was true, and we came out feeling flush with cash. We bought our bus tickets to El Chalten and our onward tickets from there to Bariloche with our exciting new cash, saving us a full days budget compared to if we’d paid by card, and we went for a walk at the lake the town nestles alongside. Flamingos wheeled above the water and we sat on swings in a beautiful wooden park at the waters edge, watching the birds soar like strange arrows.

That night we again met up with our new friends, and ended up dancing until 02:30 at a local bar that we wouldn’t have found if we didn’t have the language skills of our new Basque friends to draw on. The next morning was a blur, and we stumbled to the bus station at dawn to catch the first bus out of town. It had been a strange visit to El Calafate, as we hadn’t managed to do any of the hiking we’d anticipated, but we had relaxed, enjoyed new company and made some happy memories. We were now looking forward to moving on and finally getting out into the mountains.

Argentina Part Three: Ushuaia, Sunday 23rd February – Tuesday 3rd March 2020

Our bus journey to Ushuaia. UK for scale.

Getting to our next, very exciting location was no easy feat. We would be getting two buses for one night and a lot of hours, crossing into and then out of Chile, and taking a ferry to the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. Our first issue however was that our first bus wasn’t there when it was meant to be, and Maeve in particular was full of cold.

Our bus did arrive, two hours late. There’s no way of knowing when a late bus might turn up, so you just have to sit there and wait in the sweltering heat, watching all the time. Confusingly other buses from the same company to the same destination arrived, but we weren’t allowed on those. Eventually we were ensconced in our almost-fully-reclining cama seats, and excitingly found that the snacks aboard were mostly accidentally vegan. We’d made a ton of food though so as not to go hungry. It was about 2pm, and we expected to finally arrive in Ushuaia around 8pm the next day.

All the way from Trelew the desert scrub expanded outwards toward the never-ending horizon. At one point the ground dropped away to the side of us and we realised we’d climbed to about 600m, with exceptional views across the plains to the sea beyond. Toward sunset we travelled South along the coast where huge waves smashed immense sand-coloured cliffs. It was dark by 9pm and we tried to sleep, but we didn’t know if we’d be chucked off the bus randomly in the night like our last journey. A few hours later we were boarded by Argentine police who came through and checked all our visa stamps, but we were able to doze a bit shortly after midnight.

It got light around 5am, and Jay was woken by the sound of another passenger vomiting in the toilet. On the horizon a deep blue was gradually changing to orange. Dotted around the steppe occasional lights twinkled in the murk, some red and blinking highlighting a distant phone mast. As the land consolidated in the dawn we moved toward a large glittering town and our next, temporary, destination. We had expected to arrive at Rio Gallegos around 5am on the 24th, but with the delays we only arrived at 7am. Luckily our connection was still about 90 minutes away, so we had plenty of time to find a local supermarket for onward supplies. Sadly there was predictably nothing vegan, except a couple of really rough bananas, some biscuits and some crisps. But we anticipated being able to get dinner when we got to Ushuaia so we thought it wasn’t going to be a major issue.

With 10 minutes to go before our next bus was due to leave, there was still no sign of it. Luckily we asked because it turned out it was there and boarding already, it was just randomly, and for no reason we could ascertain, a completely different company to the one we’d booked. With 5 minutes to go Maeve showed the conductor our tickets, and was directed inside to a ticket office. It turned out that they had to be checked against our passports because we would be crossing borders (although we had to show our passports to get them in the first place). There was an enormous queue at the ticket office, but with gestures and urgency Maeve managed to get the situation across and someone let her into the queue. We finally boarded, both full of adrenalin from the last-minute ticket ordeal, but then the bus didn’t leave for a further half an hour. This time we were in slightly less luxurious ‘semi-cama’ seats, which don’t recline as far as cama, are narrower, and have less leg room, but were still pretty ok. As we weren’t planning to be on the bus overnight, we naively weren’t too worried.

We still had some bread, avocado, and burgers left from our food prep and we made some tasty sandwiches. As we headed South the conductor, a solid-looking weather- beaten man who was obviously used to tourists, appeared with some visa forms we had to complete to go through customs. He slowly and carefully explained that we couldn’t take fruit or vegetables over the border with us, so we panic-ate almost everything! The sands of the desert landscape gave way to grasses, short harsh looking yellow and brown stalks that rattled in the Patagonian wind, swaying like waves in the sea. The road we bounced along – a main highway – gave up its tarmac to long stretches of gravel. At a road-block we were again boarded by police who checked everyone’s ID. It was starting to feel like China again. Herds of guanaco occasionally raised their long necks to stare bleakly at us as we passed. A giant rea (basically an ostrich) watched us from the scrub. On the grey horizon dark hills appeared, lone peaks, isolated extinct volcanoes. Closer, their craters had collapsed and they yawned brazenly into the wind. The sky glowered with low clouds, the grey meeting the washed-out yellow of the flora. Patches of ancient lava fields appeared, large black gnarled rocks, which the road builders had chosen to skirt around rather than attempt to build over, making wide sweeping curves in otherwise endlessly straight roads. Occasional breaches allowed shafts of light to pick out vivid greens and reds in the rocks, which quickly dulled again into blackness and char as the clouds swallowed and contained the sunlight.

We stopped at the first border point where we sat on the coach for a long time waiting. Outside the police were training a sniffer dog among the cars, and it was not going well. A guy hid drugs (yeah, we think it was actual drugs) under wheel arches or in bollards, and the dog made its way around the obstacles, having the time of its life. It rarely found them, but when it did it was rewarded, as all search dogs are, with a toy. This dog loved its toy, but was very easily distracted and would rush off if it saw another person who might play with it, much to the frustration of its handler, and mirth from the drugs-guy.

Flags around the checkpoint were horizontal in the wind, and rain rolled in, moving in swathes across the plains toward us, engulfing us, and then letting us go as we watched them proceed into the distance in long grey sheets between the clouds and the ground. Within minutes of passing, the wind had dried the fallen rain as if it had never happened.

Eventually we were called from the bus with our hand luggage, to stand and queue outside a shed in the biting, bitter wind. Once fully numb, we were allowed inside where a small man behind a big desk gave our passports a cursory glance and stamped us into Chile. Our bags were scanned and a security officer took Jay’s bag, squeezed it, and gave it back. After another long wait in a holding shed we were all back on the bus, and back on our way, glad to be inside again. The freezing aircon of travel through the North of Argentina had now given way to actual heating for this leg of the journey, and we were all profoundly grateful for that. We settled down to try and catch up on some sleep, while a man behind us stared out of the window and sang quietly into an imaginary microphone he held up to his face.

After a while we started to follow the coastline, where epic waves ravaged the shale beaches and the wild sea looked relentless. After a few minutes we started to see the sea on both sides of us, and we realised we were coming to the end of mainland South America, and would soon be on a boat in said torrid and raging waves. The road here doesn’t really stop, it just continues into the water and disappears.

This end-point was a strange place to be. It was thoroughly wild with a small light-house marking a promontory. There was a low naval building, a cafe and a tiny shop, and then nothing but huge sea, vast sky and never ending plains. We waited for some time with growing anxiety as a few ferries rocked violently side to side, before they disgorged their loads, and each time we were told we’d be on the next one. It just didn’t look like the sort of sea you’d want to be anywhere near! So it was with some relief that we were told that the ferries were stopping because of the weather, and we’d cross once they started again. We didn’t fully understand the implications of this, so happily got out of the bus and went to top up on caffeine in the cafe. It was only a few hours later that we learned that recently one of our drivers had been stuck at the other side of the channel in a similar situation, for 27 hours. Suddenly we were faced with a very late arrival to Ushuaia, an Airbnb we’d paid for but might barely use, and a hungry night on the bus!

Walking to the cafe the wind was so strong that we could lean into it and be supported to stay standing. Sand was blown in a low haze that made the surface of the beach appear to shimmer, leaving its boundaries indistinct. In fighting the wind the waves appeared to roll backwards and lost their surfaces to spray. A flag on the navy building fought ferociously to escape its confines. The cafe predictably had nothing we could eat, but it did have tremendous picture windows that gazed out into the wild channel beyond, and it was warm and dry. The building was clad in tin on the outside: yellow tin for the walls, red faded tin for the roof. Inside it was a cocoon of pine, and we huddled up watching the remaining ferries lurching round the headland aiming for the safety of the harbour. We nursed a terrible coffee, sitting at a table topped with sticky, dark wood, lamenting the weather and our misfortune.

Outside we initially thought snow flurries were coming in clouds past the window, but although the wind was icy, the sun was hot, so it couldn’t be snow. When the cafe door was opened some of these lovely white seeds floated in and moved gently in the breeze as the door closed behind. Like seeds from dandelion heads, the small fluffy motes flowed quietly into corners, and drifted in a tiny silent tornado to settle behind a bin.

We stared blankly through the steamy windows at our destination across the water, a whole world away now. The grasses outside lay flat in the face of the onslaught; as we left we were blown back to the bus, unable to hear each other over the screeching gale. It was wild and raw here at the end of the continent, where Argentina and Chile began fragmenting into the sea.

At around 6pm the driver appeared with sandwiches for everyone, predictably filled with ham and cheese. At Jay’s “soy vegano”, he just nodded sympathetically and took ours back. We didn’t expect any replacement! Jay headed out to try the cafe and shop again, and returned with a somewhat unusual dinner combination of a tin of peaches, a carton of juice, crisps and chocolate biscuits. Our despondence was short-lived however as soon after a ferry appeared from the harbour, and we were told we would be getting on it.

We had to leave the bus while it was carefully maneuvoured aboard the rocking ferry, but then we followed, racing down the slip-way, eager to get on the boat and underway. We settled on some plastic-covered seats dreading the tumultuous crossing, which would take 30 minutes. However, out in the channel while the wind whipped froth off the waves and the sea clawed at the hull, the ferry was exceptionally stable and we barely felt a thing. It was still a relief though to arrive at the other side. On the island there was nothing – no open cafe, no shop we could see – and we were very grateful for the few amenities we’d had access to. On the ferry we had briefly had wifi, and Maeve had managed to send a message to our Airbnb host to say that we were underway and would likely be arriving at her house at 2am. At least then we still thought we would get some sleep, and although we weren’t relishing a 30 minute walk in the middle of the night, we were fantasising about a comfy bed.

Somewhere around 11pm, out of the darkness lights appeared, and we were stopped at the border back into Argentina. We waited on the bus for a long time, then were told to get our passports and queue at immigration. We stood for a long, long time in the snaking queue as it seemed none of the staff were rushing to process us. At the front eventually, we just gave the immigration official our accommodation address in Ushuaia, and our passports were stamped. Back on the bus we tried to warm up, waiting for what felt like an eternity to get going again. Well over an hour later the driver came to tell us all to get off the bus. We had to take all our luggage, including our hold luggage, and go back inside to have it scanned. Everyone was confused, tired and fed up, and the atmosphere was bleak as we stood again outside in the freezing queue. Almost 45 minutes later the queue started to move, and about 30 minutes later we had our bags scanned. Despite rigid rules about putting everything through and random questioning as we handed over our documents, it didn’t appear as though anyone was actually paying any attention to the scanner.

Back on the bus it was now 2am, and we had no way of sending another message to the Airbnb host without wifi. We waited and dozed, angry acceptance slowly seeping in with the heat of the fans. We were still at the checkpoint at 4am, with no understanding about why. Then three passengers, who we hadn’t noticed were missing, boarded, the engines started, and we were finally again on our way. We found out later that the three poor tourists had been held and questioned by border police the whole time we’d been there.

We must have finally fallen asleep as the next thing we knew dawn was breaking, and the scrub and desert was replaced by mountainous wooded valleys. We rounded a corner and Ushuaia appeared before us in all its strange and conflicted glory. Bordered by the Beagle Channel on one side, and the Marshall Mountains on the other, Ushuaia looks like a strip of Scandinavian port-town. The mountains form an immense and seemingly impenetrable embrace, their ridge-line towering above the town, preventing expansion. In their peaks glaciers hulk like waiting beasts glaring at the conurbation below.

The bus stopped at the terminal on the seafront at about 7.15am, and we began a long, soggy slog through the stirring streets. Along the sea shore a biting wind found faults in our clothes and pulled at our big backpacks. Maeve was struggling to breathe through her cold and feeling pathetic and weak after very little sleep on the bus.

As Jay excitedly stopped to take pictures along the way, Maeve wobbled under the weight of her bag and tried to stay upright. It was with utter joy that at 8am we finally found our accommodation, 12 hours and one sleepless night later than our expected arrival time.

The woman who answered was thankfully not at all surprised at our random arrival time, and showed us to our small pine room. After practically inhaling some toast and jam, we collapsed on our squeaky beds and immediately fell into a long and deep sleep.

The next few days were a bit of a blur. We did little as Maeve recovered from her cold and Jay from the fatigue on top of the concussion. After a few days however we moved to new accommodation and took the opportunity to start afresh. Before we left though we chatted with some other people staying at the same Airbnb. They told us they’d just gone to some of the travel agents in the town, and because of the coronavirus affecting tourism (particularly from China), there were very cheap last-minute deals to be had for trips to Antarctica, they’d managed to get tickets for less than half price, around £4800 each. While we would never in a million years have considered spending that amount of money on a holiday, the discount was huge, and we were both aware we were unlikely ever to be here again in our lifetimes as we really do want to stop flying after this trip. Given this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity, we thought seriously about whether we could possibly afford it. We set ourselves a top limit and firmly stuck to it. For a few days we asked around in all the agencies, and we even became quite friendly with one travel agent (an aspiring vegan who reassured us that all diets are well catered for!), but even in these unprecedented times, the cheapest tickets were more than we could afford. And so after briefly having the door opened for us, we closed it and walked away. It was a really hard decision, but one that we are both fortunate to be in a position to even be able to consider, and one that we definitely made the right call on.

Four days after arriving in Ushuaia, we had gotten to know the town quite well and had enjoyed just soaking up the atmosphere of the place. We were however getting itchy feet and were feeling a need to get out into the surrounding mountains now Maeve was feeling physically better and Jay was once again well-rested.

The easiest walk to do directly from the town was up to the Marshall Glacier, high in the peaks overlooking the city. The footpath snaked up through the woods, occasionally crossing the road up to the hotels and ski lifts higher up. A beautiful glacial stream gushed past us in its rush down the hill to the sea. We both commented on how familiar the woodland felt, filled with Magellan’s beech trees which are quite similar to our own beech trees but with smaller leaves. This was somehow comforting after spending months among very alien flora in New Zealand.

After an hour’s climb, we reached the top of the road where several cafes and hotels marked the start of the ski field in winter. For now, the ski lift hung silently swaying in the sunshine. We stopped for sandwiches and gazed out over the Beagle channel at the last land before Antarctica. From here – and to a lesser extent, from the windows of our new accommodation – the extent of the tourism industry in Ushuaia and Antarctica was truly apparent. Every day in the small channel new boats arrived, and every couple of days a smaller cruiser would depart for Antarctica, whilst the humongous cruise liners paused for a brief stop on their tours around the southern coast of South America. It was quite bewildering to see these enormous boats parked up along this tiny city enclosed by mountains, and more concerning to think about the impact of all the boats going to Antarctica. Another factor we had considered in our decision not to go there ourselves.

The next bit of the hike up to the glacier was much steeper, as the path approached the ice sitting at the top. Maeve was struggling with the strenuous exercise, and we eventually decided to split up, so that Jay could stretch his legs and Maeve could rest. As she made her way back down and relaxed in the cafe, Jay ascended the steep zigzag path to the glacier, then enjoyed the exhilarating run back down: a lovely, technical 5km over mixed terrain, and the first chance he’d really had to run since his concussion. Luckily it was a good test, and didn’t bring on any symptoms!

We treated ourselves to one proper tourist excursion during our stay in Ushuaia, a boat trip to “Penguin island”. Predictably, there is a very expensive option for those who have the means, which allows you to disembark on the actual island and walk around a specified area with the penguins. This is suitably restricted to a small number of people each day, which means it was priced out of our range. So we joined the hundreds of other tourists – most from a docked cruise ship – on one of the many catamarans that leaves each day to visit the birds from the boat. The trip stopped at a couple of other islands first to view the hundreds of sea birds currently nesting there. At another island enormous sea lions lounged on the rocks, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

As we arrived at Martillo Island, there were penguins along the beach as far as we could see. We were hoping the boat would get close enough for some pictures, and were astounded when it actually banked up on the sand! We were practically on top of the poor birds, but they seemed utterly unphased by it. They hilariously went about their business, pottering around, darting in and out of the water, and resting face-down in the sand. A highlight for us was witnessing a few shooting around in the water next to the boat at incredible speeds, before hopping out right alongside us. On the journey back to Ushuaia we saw dolphins, and Jay had the remarkable luck to spot a couple of whales, but they disappeared again before Maeve (or anyone else) could get a glimpse.

On our last day in Ushuaia we got a bus to Laguna Esmerelda, which promised a muddy walk up to this glacial lake. Muddy was an understatement! For the first half of the walk we picked our way around and over the mud patches in the woods, trying to keep our feet dry. But after an hour or so of this we were confronted with a huge open field of bog, with no clear path across. Some other hikers were trying to get through by sticking near the vegetation, whilst others were up to their knees wading dangerously across. We followed the markers which vaguely suggested a certain direction, but there was no clear path. Eventually we made it across with only partially muddy shoes. The path became solid and rocky again, and joined up with the gorgeous stream flowing from the lake, which was opaque and whitish from the glacial grinding of the bedrock.

Eventually we reached the hanging valley which housed the lake: a stunning aqua pond that distorted the colours reflected in it. There were dozens of tourists sat at the top of the path, so we made our way around the beach to a quiet spot to eat our lunch. We were joined by a very bold sparrow who hopped all around us on the lookout for crumbs. As we finished eating, there was a big splash and a whooping noise as two tourists decided to go for a dip in the icy water.

We wandered around the lake, following a path as far as we could before it disappeared into bog again. But on the upper side we were surprised to find a second lake, this one of clear, dark, peaty water that contrasted starkly with the whitish one below. Between the two, handily, were large dams built by beavers, long since abandoned and grown over with grasses and shrubs. We were able to walk across the dams to get across the bog to the other side. The surrounding wooded area was full of evidence of beavers, teeth marks scarring almost every tree.

On our descent Jay went off for another 5km run, trying to get back into the daily routine he’d had before his concussion. Thankfully he made it through the woods without any collisions with trees, but he did fall afoul of the bog!

Back in Ushuaia we spent the evening prepping LOADS of food for our next long road trip, to avoid a repeat of the night without dinner on our last delayed bus. We had only a vague plan of where we were heading to next, but we’d arranged to get to Punta Arenas, just over the border in Chile for a few days to plan our next steps.

Punta Arenas, Chile: Tuesday 3rd March – Saturday 7th March

We woke early on our last day in Ushuaia, sad to leave but ready for more adventures. We had lots of plans to make for our remaining months of travel (little did we realise we would be heading home a few weeks later), and we knew we wanted to start exploring the Andes, so we decided to head for Punta Arenas in Chile. It was a good place to spend a few days planning, as we hoped to walk the famous ‘O-Trek’ in the nearby Torres del Paine National Park and would need to sort out the logistics before setting off.

Our bus crossed the border from Argentina to Chile with relatively few problems. We both had a hatred for the border crossing after our extended stay on our bus in the opposite direction, but this time we barely got off the bus. We made the ferry port in good time, and were treated by a Feugian Red Fox that clearly knew its audience, and spent our waiting time running between cars trying to steal food! Again our ferry crossing was uneventful, and this one had the added bonus of a tiny cafe. We had made a ton of food for this trip (just in case we were stuck again at the port), and had potato wedges, but no sauce. The kind woman in the cafe gave Jay a container and pointed to a couple of bottles of sauce when he asked if he could have salsa to take away. He wasn’t sure what was in them but filled the container. We still don’t know what was in them, only that whatever else there was, they were full of very hot chillis.

We arrived in Punta Arenas that evening with no difficulties and had a 45 minute slog uphill to our Airbnb. On the way from the bus station we passed through the town and were surprised to see very recent vandalism and graffiti. It was very reminiscent of Hong Kong. While we knew there had been civil unrest in Chile, we had been monitoring the FCO advice, and there had been no indication of very recent troubles. Shop windows were smashed, slogans scrawled everywhere. We started to recognise words though, and it was soon clear that this was a strong push for the rights of women in Chile. Many slogans were about abortion rights, the epidemic of violence against women and girls in the country, and about International Women’s Day on the 8th March. Some statues of men in the town had been painted pink and adorned with spray-painted vulvae.

We arrived at the homestay just before dark, in a dilapidated area full of stray dogs and spiked fences. Every garden contained an angry snarling dog as well as the ones on the street. The woman who met us at the accommodation expressed that it was a very safe area, but could we please keep all curtains, doors and windows closed when it got dark! The place itself was comfy enough though, and would meet our needs for the next few days.

The next day we heard about a cafe that sold vegan donuts. Jay has been fully craving donuts more or less since we left the UK. Every time we pass a bakery or supermarket he has gone to check, and we have never, in the last 9 months, found any (in fact we were pretty much laughed out the door at various bakeries in China and Japan). So, this was a cause for celebration! We took the exceptionally tedious 4km walk down a long and busy main road, out to what we thought was a shopping centre at the edge of town. The houses we passed were mostly made of tin and wood, with some even having damp looking walls constructed of untreated MDF. A few were made of brick or concrete, but all were run-down. Every block had a small park with some playground and outdoor gym equipment, which looked well used by the local communities. As with many of the places we’ve visited in Argentina, many walls were covered in amazing artwork.

Eventually we arrived at an enormous industrial estate comprised of huge warehouses, which bordered a cruise ship terminal. Most of these were some form of duty free shop and we walked the whole area without any luck at finding one which looked like a vegan cafe. In the end we found that one of the unassuming looking warehouses was actually a shopping centre, and the cafe was inside. It took us another 40 minutes once inside to actually find the cafe. But joy of joys, they had donuts! We stayed for hot chocolate and burgers, deciding to take our donuts and cinnamon swirls home with us. Jay took a mouthful of hot chocolate and almost spat it out. When you haven’t had dairy for a long time, cow’s milk and cheese takes on a rancid flavour like it’s off, and that was exactly what this tasted of. Maeve tried it and had the same response, so we concluded that they’d mistakenly given us cow’s milk. Jay went to the counter but the owner showed him the carton it had come from. As it was all in Spanish, he couldn’t tell at a glance what the base ingredient was, but it clearly wasn’t dairy, and the brand was called ‘Not Milk’. A few days later, a chance encounter shed some light: we met another traveller on holiday from Santiago, who told us his girlfriend worked in the lab for the company, called ‘Not Co‘. Their aim is to engineer foods that are plant-based, but molecularly as close to meat and animal products as possible, so that they will appeal to omnivores as well as vegans/vegetarians. We realised later that we’d already had their chocolate chip ice cream in Buenos Aires, it had gone down very well with all the non-vegans at the party! On our way out of the enormous shopping centre we popped into a huge discount warehouse and discovered a boxing helmet that Maeve thinks Jay should wear permanently to prevent future concussions…

The next day we got up very early to take part in a local beach clean-up that had been advertised on airbnb. We wandered down to the seafront in the icy grey morning, and met the organiser, a Canadian woman who runs a local outdoor touring company with her Welsh-Patagonian husband. She knew loads about the area, and we spent an informative few hours collecting over 20kg of litter from the beach together. We sat after and chatted until mid afternoon, watching a pod of dolphins playing just off shore, oblivious that the sun had come out and we were getting pretty sunburned.

We walked back to our temporary home via a cemetery in the heart of Punta Arenas, famous all over the world for its architecture. The rows and rows of mausoleums and tombs were fascinating, even though some contained creepy zombie Jesus!

That night we spent in agitation trying to plan our trek through the Torres del Paine national park. The logistical problems were extensive. The multi-day hikes are heavily regulated to protect the environment. You can only walk the route if you have pre-booked accommodation for each night at the designated campsites or fancy ‘refuges’. The sites are run by three different companies with different booking systems, and different levels of availability. So you might find the first and second campsites are available on consecutive nights, but the third site is unavailable on the night after. Confused? So were we. Some bookings had to be made by email, which nobody replied to (we still haven’t had any replies). On top of all that the park would cost us £50 to enter, and it would cost £40 per night just to pitch our own tent at a campsite. At a minimum of 5-nights for the shorter ‘W-Trek’ it was going to be extortionate. Eventually we decided to cut our losses. Just over the border in Argentina was the Los Glaciares National Park, with free entrance and plenty of excellent hiking from the town of El Calafate, on quieter trails than in Torres del Paine. Unfortunately the cognitive load of all the planning triggered Jay’s brain injury symptoms, so we took it easy for the rest of the weekend.

For our last night in Punta Arenas we opted to move to a hostel in the centre of town, to make it easier to catch our early bus to El Calafate the following day. We seriously regretted this decision! The hostel was awful, a delapidated building with ‘rooms’ screened off the corridor by sheets of plywood that didn’t reach the ceiling. Extension cables daisy-chained through the property into each sleeping area. And since the rooms weren’t enclosed, there was no respite from the noise of the 20 year olds partying in the common area. The less said about the bathroom and kitchen the better.

Desperate to get out of the miserable and bleak hostel, we took a taxi to the Reserva Magallenas out of town. We got there only a couple of hours before it closed, but were able to get in a pretty spectacular walk. Half-way to a look out post which towered above the trees and hills, with spectacular views over the town and bay beyond, Jay went off for a run. The forest that the trail traversed was made of Magallenic beech and lenga trees, and signs at the visitor centre warned of puma. Sadly neither of us saw one, although Jay, in a remote trail section, was uncomfortably aware that he was small and running, and would easily make good prey for a puma. He sang the whole time to avoid startling one, and instead scared some other hikers who presumably did not expect a tiny orange-clad English man to come running from the shrubbery loudly shouting made-up songs in terrible Spanish.

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The next morning we escaped the hostel as quickly as we could, opting to brush our teeth and make sandwiches at the bus station where at least there was soap in the bathrooms. We briefly chatted to a guy who had just arrived from 18 months in Antarctica working for the British Antarctic Survey. He was struggling a bit with the number of people having been mostly isolated from all but a small number of other scientists. Before we knew it, our bus arrived and our short stay in Chile was over. We would move up through Argentina, and come back to Chile later in the month to go to Santiago and the Atacama desert. Or at least that was what we thought at the time. So we stowed our luggage, grabbed our passports, and prepared to cross the border once again.

Argentina part two: Welsh Patagonia, Monday 17th – Sunday 23rd February 2020

The return of our long-distance travel maps!

The bus from Buenos Aires took 18 hours through the night, arriving at 8am. We were delighted to learn that the long-distance buses in Argentina have toilets as standard, since we had to get used to holding our bladders until the unscheduled stops during long bus journeys in Asia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, Jay’s first experience with an Argentinian bus toilet was not a good one! Shortly after leaving Buenos Aires he went to use the facilities, but couldn’t get the door open. A staff member gestured that it wasn’t locked, but just needed yanking open really hard. Which Jay did, right into his nose, dislocating his septum. And just as his concussion was getting better! Luckily the impact didn’t seem to worsen his headache, and his nose is still attached, if a bit more wonky than before.

After the sweltering heat of Buenos Aires, the bus was a thermal shock. The air conditioning blasted continuously at us, and we couldn’t adjust it. Unprepared, we each only had a thin layer to cover ourselves with and spent most of the journey freezing cold. This was made much worse when we drove through torrential rain and it poured through the window beside us. Unfortunately there were no other seats we could move to, so we blocked it up as best we could with the curtain and kept all our stuff off the soggy floor. The landscape outside was endless plains of grass with herds of cows grazing as far as the eye could see.

At about 10pm, just as we were settling down to sleep, we stopped at a bus station and lots of people got off the bus. We stayed where we were until the conductor came along and told us we needed to get off. In a combination of broken Spanish and wild gesticulation we managed to work out that we would be getting back on after they had cleaned the bus, so we could leave our main bags in the luggage storage. We were told to be back at 11pm. We pottered around the bus station, establishing as suspected that there wasn’t anything for sale that we could eat, then brushed our teeth in the bathroom and headed back out for 10:50. The bus was nowhere to be seen. We both went immediately into full panic, dreading the prospect of having to spend the night at the bus station, fork out for new tickets, and the logistical nightmare of trying to get our bags back when we couldn’t speak the language. After running back and forth like headless chickens for a while, we spotted some other passengers we recognised from the bus. It turns out they had taken the bus away for cleaning and for the staff to have a proper break. The relief was immense! This is yet another example of something that for local people is so obvious and normal it doesn’t need thinking about, but if you are new in a country and nobody has explained it, can cause massive confusion.

Just before dawn, Jay woke up to see morning light streaming through the red curtains. Peeling one aside, he was surprised to no longer see the green plains of northern Argentina, which had given way to what appeared to be endless desert. On the eastern side of the bus, a millimetre-wide strip of blue stretched across the horizon. Shortly after dawn we crested the escarpment above Puerto Madryn and had our first glimpse of the city, with the brilliant rising sun shining through a blanket of haze. Jay’s first thought in his bleary half-asleep state was that it looked like a town in Wales, before remembering where we were. But the Welsh history was exactly what had brought us there.

We first learned about Welsh Patagonia several years ago, by chance whilst watching a BBC documentary. In 1865 due to ongoing persecution of the Welsh people by the English, Professor Michael Jones was keen to establish a “Little Wales beyond Wales” where the Welsh culture and language could be preserved for future generations. The Argentinian government was offering large tracts of land to immigrants in order to protect uninhabited areas of their territory from invasion by Chile, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

The Mimosa set sail from Liverpool on the 28th July 1865 with 153 people on board, including whole families and pregnant women. One baby was born at sea, and four died during the perilous crossing. We can only imagine the horror that these people must have experienced when they arrived on the shore of the desert to find that the fertile land they’d been promised did not exist. They had been told that the region was similar to South Wales, and would be suitable for farming. For the first two years they lived in makeshift caves carved out of the clay cliffs, struggling to find potable water, fertile land and building materials. Expeditions inland regularly ended with people not returning, and the group dwindled. The only reason that anyone survived at all was due to the generosity of the native peoples, the Tehuelche, who showed them how to cope with the harsh conditions. After two years, many of the settlers opted to repeat the perilous journey across the Atlantic and return to Wales. For the few that remained, habitations were eventually set up along the Chubut Valley, where the river provided a source of irrigation. The Welsh settlers were the first to use modern irrigation techniques to make the wide basin farmable, an idea suggested by Rachel Jenkins. We saw no evidence of fertile land as we arrived into Puerto Madryn, where the surrounding land is as arid and unyielding as when the Mimosa arrived.

The town of Puerto Madryn (originally Porth Madryn) is relatively bustling, considering how empty the surrounding countryside is. During the winter months whales enter the gulf to breed, and tourists arrive by cruise ship and aeroplane to witness them frolicking in the shallow waters. Sadly we were there at the wrong time of year, so didn’t get to see any whales.

We arrived early in the morning, checked into our hostel and used the shared facilities to clean ourselves up before heading off to explore. It was glorious to see the sea with bright sunlight glinting off it after the stifling heat of Buenos Aires. The sea of Golfo Nuevo led out into the warm Argentinian sea beyond. Past that was the Atlantic, and on the other side, home. It felt fitting to be here, now, near the end of our year-long journey. The seafront was dotted with monuments to the Welsh settlers, and even some Welsh graffiti. Jay was moved by the combination of Welsh and Argentinian flags flying. After a coffee: espresso served the Argentinian way with a glass of sparkling water and a sadly milky biscuit, we headed to the museum “de los hombres y el mar”, a very small – but free – natural history museum. The collection was small and slightly esoteric, but there were some interesting displays, including a decent-sized whale skeleton: actual bone, not a cast! At the top of the building, which was originally the house of Spanish merchant Agustín Pujol, a small hexagonal room boasted 180 degree views over the whole town and out to the sea.

The exertion of walking to and around the museum after minimal sleep was too much for Jay, and we headed back to the hostel. As well as the ongoing concussion recovery, he was starting to cough and sniffle with a virus picked up somewhere during our stay so far in Argentina. He went to bed in our “mini room” and Maeve went out to buy supplies for dinner. The room was odd: a decent-sized bunk bed and little else, with just enough floor space to move our bags around, and huge cages for locked storage under the bed. There was a “shared en-suite”: a clever idea to reduce the number of bathrooms by linking two rooms with a shower and toilet, but not executed brilliantly. A sign on the door requested that you knock before going in in case your neighbour was in there, and a plastic concertina door provided the last defence against an errant neighbour wandering in to see you pee. The toilet in our en-suite had a problem and kept draining water, which was surprisingly loud and echoey. When it became obvious that the toilet wouldn’t be fixed that day, we explained that Jay was unwell and we really needed a quiet room for him to rest, and were delighted to be upgraded to a triple (easily four times the size of our mini room) with a proper private bathroom. Jay rested for 24 hours in our lovely new room, then we had an awesome lunch of fried tofu we found in a local health food shop.

The following afternoon we went for a slow walk up the coast, and again we were both very aware of Jay’s physical limitations. With the addition of fighting off a cold, he was in a challenging limbo of recovery: was he feeling lethargic because of illness, concussion, poor sleep or simply because he had barely moved all month? He watched the joggers passing by on the beach with envy. Along the way, we enjoyed watching terns and gulls engaged in aerial acrobatics, clustered around a spot where there had presumably been a fishing boat earlier in the day, as the beach was littered with tiny fish. A solitary person swam the length of the coast with a float bobbing along behind them.

Despite our slow pace, we made it to the Museo del Desembarco which marked the point where the Welsh colonists arrived and settled in their original caves. It was deeply moving learning about the anguish and the trauma they went through. We had real emotion for these displaced people, who were trying to escape persecution and found only terror and threat in those early years.

We learnt about the new flag they created: the stripes of the Argentinian flag with a Welsh dragon in the middle. The highlight of the museum for Maeve was seeing the midwifery bag carried by Esyllt Roberts, la partera of the Mimosa ship and the new colony.

We found a reasonable (if carb-y) dinner and lovely beer. Unsurprisingly we did not partake of the cone-of-pizza that seems to be a thing here!