This Vagabond Life

And then we turned North... Argentinian Patagonia

ArgentinaBridget BoulleComment

There was a lot of umming aahing... Not exactly unusual for us but this was probably more umming and aahing than usual. This choice was this: continue on South all the way to the southern most drivable point, tick the Ushuaia box and explore Tierra del Fuego OR turn around and join friends, Johny and Ruby in heading North towards some climbing spots (and for us, towards our final destination Buenos Aires).

It was now the 28 December so we had about a month to get up to Buenos Aires which is plenty of time but we had our eyes on climbing spot Piedra Parada and we needed to build in some time for potential car troubles or paperwork admin. While we would have liked to see 'the end of the world', we wouldn't have had time to explore it properly and taking the peopled route is always more fun so, after 16 months of heading South, we turned around and drove North. It was quite strange.

Going North with Johny and Ruby in the back

Johny and Ruby had jumped in with us as they had left their bright yellow VW Kombi 'Bluey' a bit further north having some repairs done. This meant we didn't have any space for hitchhikers (devastating) and off we went, north to stop at some of the places we had skipped on the way down. The first was the giant Perito Moreno glacier which is a glacial tongue coming off of the huge Patagonian Ice field up in the mountains. The glacier snakes it's way down for 23km until it joins (and forms) a lake. It's massive - over 70m high at the face and stretching across over 5km and by a trick of geographic location, the L-shape of the lake makes it easy to get up close and stand face to face with the larger than words can describe glacier. As the glacier pushes forward (on average 2mtrs per day), it blocks the lake off at the elbow making it into 2 separate lakes and then as the water pressure builds up on one side (apparently the water levels differ by up to 30m at times), the ice spectacularly ruptures, water smashes through and the lakes are joined again thus beginning the cycle once more. The cycle repeats itself every 2-5 years with the last rupture taking place in 2014. Our visit did not coincide with a grand rupture but we were lucky to see at least 3 huge pieces (we estimate about 3 to 4 times the size of Pepe) calve off from the glacier and topple imperiously into the lake. This event was always met with resounding cheers and excitement from the crowd on the viewing deck, as everyone was drawn into the primal enjoyment of watching ice falling into water. Just like the unconscious addiction one has to watching fire, we were all entranced by the giant groaning glacier and trying to spot the next piece that would fall.

Perito Moreno glacier calving

We didn't actually have huge expectations of the experience beforehand, thinking it would just be a nice view of the glacier for an hour or so and maybe a lucky calve. Expectations – smashed, we totally taken back and mesmerised by the experience and it was truly a highlight of our trip. After 5 hours staring at the huge chunk of ice, we still didn't want to leave. The immense size, the incredible azure colours and shapes and the power of the massive chunks breaking off, kept us enthralled all day as we walked along the 1.5km stretch of walkways to get views of the whole thing drinking tea along the way (Johny and Ruby are huge tea drinkers, much to the delight of Bridget).

Fitzroy Massif at sunset

From Perito Moreno, we headed to El Chalten and the great Fitzroy range. Its majestic granite walls and famous peaks attract hardcore climbers and mountaineers from all over the world - especially its two most famous – Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre (or Tower Hill in English, little chuckle for Londoners). The peaks have been at the centre of legend, mystery and plenty of scandal, particularly Cerro Torre whose first 'ascent' by Maestri in 1959 resulted in the death of his partner and has been widely disputed (pretty much no one believes he did it) causing him to return with a huge compressor drill, bolting his way to the top. Climbers coming here experience some of the most difficult climbing conditions in the world so most climbers hang around for weeks hoping for a good weather window to take on a summit. Unknowingly, we stayed at the camp site where most of the long term climbers stay and we spent many hours reading and chatting about some of the famous first ascents (or alleged first ascents). We had never imagined taking on one of the summits ouseleves (Johny and Ruby have imagined) but, in chatting to some of the other climbers we realised its easy to become over-awed by the legends and mystery. Far from being superhumans accompanied by big expedition teams, most climbers are just regular groups of friends (usually pretty crusty!), living as cheaply as possible and hoping to summit something before the season ends. They were so normal and yet so awesome that they inspired us- perhaps one of these days we might also be able to scale one of the great summits. But not yet.

We spent a great week in El Chalten climbing the not so hardcore sport routes in the valley around town, celebrating New Years eve together (the end of a full calendar year on the road), cooking up a storm and hiking up to get a closer view of the legendary peaks. It really is a magnificent place but we were concious that one week in El Chalten could quite easily turn into four, so we made plans to head north again.

After El Chalten, we dropped Johny and Ruby off in Gregores for their date with Bluey (who would be fully functional in just 24hours) and continued up the long (and fairly boring) road North towards Esquel. We arrived after an uneventful drive 2 days later and stayed just outside Travellin to do a bit of catching up with the world before stocking up with 2 weeks of food and rejoining Johny and Ruby again at Piedra Parada.

Piedra Parada was to be the last place we'd be properly visiting with Pepe so it was a bit nostalgic but also a very happy time. It is the most peaceful and beautiful place even in high season with far more people around than the previous time we'd popped in and the climbing is just endless. We spent 2 glorious weeks there, chilling out by the river in the mornings, reading, dissecting the worlds problems, befriending plenty of beautiful people from all over the world (we are pretty convinced the climbing community has some of the friendliest people going around!) and of course getting in a fair bit of climbing. The weather was hot and dry – quite a treat after Patagonia and the steep sides of the gorge make perfect shade for many an afternoon of climbing (and lots of tea drinking).

Camp vibes, Piedra Parada

It was to be fitting final place to be camped out with Pepe. An unforgettable setting, living a dirt bag lifestyle & shared with beautiful friends. After two glorious weeks, we said a very sad farewell to the absolute legends, Johny and Ruby who we made the grand presentation of our trusty milk frother to. Our milk frother was the vital piece of machinery in the creation of over 500 morning cappuccinos on the road, it lives on a new and happy life in Bluey.

And then we set off for Buenos Aires and the grand finale...

The grand haning over of the milk frother

Torres del Paine

ChileBridget BoulleComment

Torres del Paine National Park (TDP) is probably the most iconic national park in all of South America. Its twisted peaks and rose granite walls make it a Mecca for hikers, day-trippers, mountaineers and, well, just about everyone really. When we first met Shannon and Danny back in October, there had been vague mutterings about hiking around the park together, vague mutterings became solid ideas to more solid plans and then, after our sojourn down the Carretera Austral, we decided to make them happen.

But first we had to get there. This involved three solid days of driving through the Argentian pampa with flat scrubby bushy scenery, a really cool hitch-hiker called Daniel and a whole lotta wind. The difference between driving through the ever stimulating scenery of the Carretera Austral and the bland emptiness of the Argentinian pampas was stark. The landscape had its charms – namely one awesome riverside free camp, herds of Guanacos (wild lama-like animals) and families of Nandus (South Americas version of the Emu or Ostrich) - but they wore off hour 4 into the 20 hours of samey samey driving.....

Driving across the pampas

Our little fivesome planned to hike the 8 day circuit going all the way around the park starting just before Christmas. TDP is a famous national park, very famous. Unsurprisingly, this means we weren't the only ones wanting to hike the circuit (the park receives over 200,00 visitors per year). So, TDP is one of those places, not unlike Macchu Picchu, where one is confronted by two distinct feelings: 1) total awe at the beauty of your surroundings 2) total frustration at the annoyance of human beings (like us). We wanted to focus this blog on the first of these feelings – i.e. just how beautiful the hike is. But, we felt that the blog isn't complete or honest without touching on some of the other side too. So, at the end* there is a bit of a discussion/rant on some of those issues which you may peruse if it interests you.

We started with an extra little bit, meaning we did the 'Q' and our first day was 23km. The extra bit allows you to start a bit further away thus getting a view of the whole mountain range for a few hours as you walk closer and closer and the view narrows and narrows until you're right at the base and smack bang in front of Paine Grande mountain. It a was long first day and we were finished at the end but it was definitely worth the extra few kms for the ever changing views. (the day was made a bit longer by the craziness of trying to deal with the camping 'system' in the park – more on this at the end*)

Day 1looking fresh, Cuernos del Paine in the background

On Day 2 we got lucky – really lucky. The weather was incredible – a rare event in this part of the world and we hiked up the French Valley, which turned out to be one of our favourite parts of the trek with steep granite walls, glaciers and snowy peaks all squeezed into a mind blowing 360 degree vista on a sunny day. Every way you looked was a feast for the eyes as we were completely enveloped by the scene.

The French Valley

After walking back down the valley to Campamento Los Cuernos to rest our heads for night 2, the madness of the camping situation was turned up to 11. Campamento Los Cuernos felt more like arriving at a party-oriented ski resort than a camp ground inside a national park.

On day 3, we arrived at Campamento Torres, which is the closest camp site to the actual Torres Del Paine (Towers of Paine). Most people arrive at the camp in the afternoon and then wake up really early the next morning to hike the remaining 45min to the Towers and see them at sunrise. When we arrived in the late afternoon, however, it was starting to cloud over and the forecast for the next day didn't look good so we went up straight away. We were glad we did, apart from the amazing views at the top, the next morning was raining and for those who did venture up in the dark (not us), there were no Towers to be seen. It was also quiet in the afternoon as most people had left so we enjoyed it, as it is supposed to be enjoyed, in silence and peace (with Santa hats).

Merry Christmas rom Torres del Paine

Halfway through Day 4 marked the end of the front side of the hike (the W, as it's called), the half which takes in most of the iconic scenery and is therefore a lot more busy. For the next three days, we'd be on the back side which is quieter and although not as jawdroppingly incredible, we preferred it. We ambled along lakes and fields of flowers and incredible forests with a bit of wind and luckily, very minimal rain. The hiking isn't particularly difficult but each day is very long – usually upwards of 20km – so it really grinds and at the end of each day, we were finished. But, we did have time to enjoy one of the upsides of being on a popular hike – you can buy cold beers at each camp! On the 23rd of December, we reached Refugio Dickson (day 5) which has a beautiful little restarant/lodge which we decided would be our treat Christmas celebration night. We ordered a meal, sat at a table with a lovely Dutch couple, Lammert and Tamara, we'd met along the way and ate an early Christmas meal (this would turn out to be Christmas meal number 1 of 4) complete with Christmas decorations (thanks to the Lammert and Tamara) and hats (thanks to Gareth).

The next day was a quiet walk through magical forest with flurries of snow falling through the trees, making it all the more magical. And then it was Christmas - the day we'd be taking on the John Gardner pass, the hardest day of the trek and the most unpredictable one – the changeable weather means that the rangers often close the pass so you can be stuck at the camp for a day or two before it opens again. The day we arrived, it was closed but on Christmas day it opened and the walk up was truly incredible – completely still, not a breath of wind with beautiful snow falling all around us. A rare white Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere! It was cloudy but as we walked down the other side we caught a few glimpses of the endless Grey Glacier that stretches all the way back and joins up with the 280sqkm Southern Patagonia Ice field beyond. A really special day.

The top of John Gardner pass on Christmas day

Until... we started walking down the other side. And as we got lower and lower, the beautiful dry snow became slushier and slushier and the path muddier and muddier until it was pouring and we were drenched, cold, muddy and just a little bit miserable. To make matters a bit worse, all the signs saying the number of kms to go were wrong– and underestimated the total distance by about half. When we eventually did arrive at Refugio Grey, we realised that we'd just rejoined with the front side of the hike again so were back with the masses. The place for campers to cook was jam packed and like a sauna inside (as in a sweaty smelly sauna as opposed to the nice wooden smelling spa ones) as everyone put their wet clothes in the tiny oom to dry. We managed to extract some dry clothes out of our bags but there was no where to go (you're not allowed to cook anywhere but designated areas due to fire risk).

Grey Glacier

So.. when life throws you stinky hikers... find a table at the plush hotel next door! Yes, there is a hotel next door so we celebrated Christmas meal number 2, which wasn't cheap or gourmet ($14 for a tuna and rhydrated potato patty) but we had a spot to sit that was dry and warm and worth every cent. We also managed to play a few rounds of dice before everyone reluctantly made the trek across the snow back to our tents (which were dry inside!!). A day of high highs and low lows.

The next day was thankfully the last as we barely had enough dry clothes to put together an outfit between us - Bridget wore her pyjamas down (stylish) and Brendan had his delightfully damp and mouldy thermals on. The day was dry and breathless - the calm after the storm as we walked to the ferry (which would take us to the cars) along the glassy lake past the chunks of floating ice bergs, snowy forests and ever so often a patch of blue sky with a mountain peak or two revealing themselves.

The complete calm after the storm

Asado time

Getting back to Puerto Natales was a bit of a sad feeling – yip, we were pretty excited to have a hot shower and some nice food but it also meant the end of our time together – our merry fivesome. And so, in celebration of our time together, we made a long-term culinary dream come true – we made a huge fire and cooked up our own half lamb asado in the back garden of the hostel (thanks to the legendary host Oscar) and ate a feast joined by a few friends we had met on the trail as well as Johny and Ruby (who are about to feature in our next blog post) with plenty of beers, plenty of sides, sunshine and smiles – Christmas dinner 4.

It was the perfect ending to our 6 weeks on the road together – open fires, good food, ample booze and endless shit-talking into the wee hours which encapsulated our travels together and so this was le piece de resistance. The asado of all asados. The next day we bid a very teary farewell to Shannon, Danny and Gareth who have been such a special part of our trip in a very special place in the world. We know our paths will cross again... we hope its soon.

Some thoughts about the downsides on the hike:   It's a famous national park and there are a lot of people who want to experience the beauty of it - we went in high season and were, of course, part of the hordes and added our sizeable footprints to the already well trampled trails. And, sure its easy to centre your frustration on the 'other people', and yes, there are a lot of people that make you a bit embarrassed to be a human (washing dishes with detergent in pristine steams, leaving their rubbish at camps etc.) but the issues are wider than that. The longer we were there, the more we saw that there are systemic problems with the park that are really hard to solve - How do you protect a beautiful place and while raising enough money to reinvest into further protecting it? How do you make it available to anyone and yet keep it wild? Is 'sustainable tourism' in wild places even possible?

Parks all around the world struggle with these problem and, undoubtedly the amount of money flowing into this park further complicates matters. You might think that such a popular place would have a system to regulate numbers but it doesn't - TDP makes no attempt to regulate the number of people in the park or the number of overnight hikers so hikers can arrive at the camp sites only to find them full at which point there is nothing hikers can do but squeeze in somewhere (the next camp is usually a day walk away). To add to this, most of the camp sites are private which to us seemed counter-intuitive for a national park and are also monopolies (there is no choice, at each site there is one camp site and you can't camp outside camps) so they're expensive and by and large, not that nice for the price you pay. Like all global National Park services the Chilean park system has funding issues but as far as we can see the private camp site system further deepens this problem as the bulk of the money people spend in the park (camping fees) is leaving the park via two companies rather than being reinvested in the protection and management of park via the augmentation of resources and services.

Its all a bit chaotic and one feels that the whole park infrastructure (toilets, waste) and natural environment (erosion etc.) is potentially reaching breaking point during high season. Hopefully, they will realise this and come up with a permit system or something in the future. But its worrying, a fire started accidentally by a hiker that wiped out nearly 40,000 acres of the park (nearly 10% of the park) in 2012 (it will take 100 years for this environment to recover as it is just not adapted to fire) and if that wasn't the catalyst for change, we're not sure what will be. (certainly not this blog) Anyway, the issues are complicated and go far deeper than this blog is able to cover but it consumed a lot of our thinking and conversation during the hike and therefore we wanted to mention it.

The Carretera Austral

ChileBridget BoulleComment

The Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) is the long (mostly) dirt road that makes its way through remote, wet, windy and spectacularly beautiful Chilean Patagonia. Its construction was started in 1976 under the (really awful) dictator Augusto Pinochet who wanted to connect remote communities in Southern Chile (what is it with murderous dicators and building great road infrastructure?). It runs about 1300km from Puerto Montt (interrupted by a few ferries) until it reaches a town called Villa O'Higgins (named after the Chilean liberator and founding father with the unChilean name Bernardo O'Higgins) and then it runs into the the Southern Patagonian Ice Field which makes it sort of hard for the road to go on, so it doesn't.

Our plan (us with ShaDanGar and their kombi Massi) was not quite to go to O'Higgins (if you do, you have to double back 300kms, so we thought we would give the Kombis a break and assumed our insides would be well and truly rattled out by then) but rather to Lago General Carrera (or if you're Argentinian, it's called Lago Buenos Aires - they really can't agree on anything Argentina and Chile). So off we went, and the beautiful bumpy road began.

The Futaleufu river

We didn't go too far, just to Futaleufu (or Futa as its is know to locals & wannabe locals) which we soon realised was the friendliest place in the world. It was so cute and nice and so incredibly friendly that we all had the sneaky suspicion that something had to go horribly wrong so we kept our stay to just three nights (in which time everything went amazingly right). The first day we spent river rafting the incredible Futaleufu river which (everyone in town made sure we were aware) is one of the top 5 (or potentially top 3 depending on who you speak to) rivers to raft/kayak in the world. well, none of us had much to compare it to but it was amazing. The water is so blue and so clear that you can see the bottom, there are dramatic snow-capped peaks all around and incredibly fun rapids which we handled with great skill according to our young guide (and town ladies-man) during beers afterwards. Unfortunately we have no photos of this great day as no one was too keen on taking their camera down category 5 rapids but it will be in our memories forever.

The next day was Bridget's birthday which was mostly spent eating banana pancakes, talking to family and then, much to the surprise of the birthday girl, the lovely Shadangar and organised a little party with tea and cake, candles, presents, games and wine in the afternoon and then the amazingly friendly people of Futaleufu (the campground owner also gave Bridget a hand sewn birthday present) invited us for a Patagonian lamb asado (kind of like lamb on the spit except it's on a giant spike which you hammer into the ground at an angle over the fire) all of which made for a pretty epic day. We did eventually get kicked out of the Lamb Asado party - although in Futa, everything is done so nicely that you'd barely know - we and a few others were making a little too much noise - in the backyard at 1am on Sunday night (not started by us, we might add) so we were invited to go to the bar down the road with everyone. Well, off we went but no one followed - that's a kicking out 'Futa style'!! ;) The bar turned out to be, well, possibly a strip club but without the strippers? (which would be very apt for the wholesome Futa). We weren't sure, it was all a bit weird, but they would sell us cold beer which appealed to our pressing needs and unsurprisingly for Futa the 'Madame' offered us controls of the music selection via youtube videos that were projected onto one whole wall of the bar. After a few rounds of beers we were ushered out, very politely, by the madame as the local Gauchos - the only other clientele in the bar that hour on a Monday morning - had finally been fed up with our selection (we are of the belief that it was not the Nick Cave but the Goldy Lookin Chain - Gareth's Welsh inspired selection - that finally pushed the locals over the edge ). The next morning, we thought it had all been a bit too amazing and still a little fearful of the chainsaw massacre or something, we left with that overly sentimental warm fuzzy feeling that urbanites get when they experience the wholesomeness of a small-town community (FYI: no one has ever been massacared by a chainsaw in Futa. In fact, I don't think anyone has ever had their pocket picked in Futa).

Lamb asado time

2am shenanigans... strike a pose

Over the next week we slowly bumped our way along the beautiful road Southwards. Southwards also meant towards the ice and Danny and Shannon finally got their first glimpse of a glacier at Parque National Quelat which has, not just any glacier but a 'hanging glaciar'. This is basically a glacier formed in a valley at the edge of a precipice so as the glacier moves and creaks forward, it can't go anywhere but crashing down so as we sat at the viewpoint, we heard and saw plenty of seemingly small chunks of ice crashing down the precipice making a lot of noise. Apart from the hanging glacier Quelat Park gave us another chance to explore the dense & green flora of a Valdivian temperate rain forest (basically cold rainforests) which had us all suitablely capitavated. Pablo Neruda (Chiles most famous poet) has a quote that sums up the sizable impact these rain forests have on its guests “He who does not know the Chilean forests, does not know the planet”.

Cold rainforest

Cold rainforest

Massi following Pepe up through the forests

Hanging glacier

We continued along the breathtakingly beautiful route Southwards amid ever-changing weather and ecosystems joined by a plethora of hitchhikers (more on that in a sec*). We stopped briefly at the camp-site of friendly (albeit a touch over zealous host) farmer Nacho and then a little longer than we'd hoped (minor electrical troubles for Massi) on the main town along the way Coyahaique (which was neither interesting nor awful). I will let the photos do most of the talking on the beauty of the scenery except to say that we were all blown away at just how grand and how varied the scenery it was - cold rain forest, mountains, occasional glaciers, lupins, turquoise lakes... IIIIImpressionante, as they say in Spanish.

*[so about those hitchhikers... I know Danny (the Perpetually Perturbed as he now calls himself) plans a bit of a diatribe on this topic on their blog so I will leave it to him but just to say it has become a bit of a 'thing' to hitchhike down the Carretera Austral so now there are definitely more hitchhikers than available vehicles. We picked people up everyday and while they were all pleasant enough, after a few days we all just got a bit irritated with being a free bus service and literally picking up the bill for someone's Carretera Austral 'experience'. We met a German guy later on the trip who had hitchhiked but said afterwards that he 'felt like he was part of something terrible'. We wouldn't say it was that terrible but after a while, we just got a bit miffed especially as we paid for petrol and the hikers lamented the ridiculous price of bus tickets. Saying that, we did pick up some lovely people and one even contributed to petrol.]

We then arrived at Cerro Castillo (Castle Hill) which, again, looks completely different to anything else around with it's very castle-like spires of rock rising out of the snow. The day hike up to the lake turned out to be the most 'bang for your buck' hike going as within only 4 hours walk, we reached the glacier lake and stood face to face with one our top ten views of our trip...

Cerro Castillo

We trundled onwards after 2 nights bumpyity bump, hitchhikers, beautiful views, bumpity bump etc. until we arrived at Lake General Carrera, probably our favourite large lake on the trip. Hmmm... Ok a lot of competition there but it was definitely the 'largest extremely turquoise lake' we've ever seen. Usually that luminous colour is reserved for small high altitude glacial lakes but this was huge and all iridescent turquoise, it was breathtaking. (I am running out of good adjectives in this blog- beautiful, breath-taking, incredible, amazing... Arghh). We stopped for a bit of kayaking to explore the marble caves situated on a little island in the lake. The caves were truly magical in the perfect light and calm weather as we glided along (I would like to say effortlessly and without getting very wet, but that would be a lie) in our kayaks with no one else around.

It was a strange feeling kayaking on the calm and pleasant lake where just 3 days earlier Doug Tomkins, founder of The North Face and visionary conservationist died of hypothermia after a kayaking accident when 6ft swell flipped his kayak. In 1968, hm and 3 friends drove a van from California to Patagonia– back when it would have been a PROPER adventure - and were one of the many inspirations for our trip.

After our kayaking, we rounded the lake for our final stretch of the bumpy road, stopping at one of our favourite ever wild camps on a tiny beach on the lake where we made a fire, ate noodles, drank boxed wine, talked over the incredible day we had had and huddled together admiring the sun setting on the mountain peaks across the lake. I guess if you could bottle the ample goodness of life on the road – this would pretty much be it.

Our last day on the Carretera was even more bumpy than normal and while beautiful, made us all pretty grateful to put the dirt roads behind us (no one more so than the two Kombis who had both played a blinder on a pitch that does not play to their strengths). We stayed our final night in Chile Chico where we camped at the place of Nacho number 2 (also somewhat over zealous and but very friendly host) where we shared beers and are delicious ribs. We also took a brief visit to the mechanic to sort out an ominous clunking noise where we discovered that the nut at the top of our left front shock absorber had popped off and so we'd been riding just on the spring for probably the majority of the last 800km. Great.

The photo album from the Carretera Austral is probably our favourite album we've put up on the trip and yet, it is still hard to capture just how beautiful and grand this bumpy road is. Lakes, mountains, forests, flowers, birds, glaciers, welcoming locals, it was just perfect.

Lago General Carrera

And then there were 5... roadtrippin Patagonia with friends

ArgentinaBridget BoulleComment

We drove over a surprisingly still-snowy pass (for late November) towards Bariloche. Our excitement was pretty high as we were about to meet up with the beautiful American couple Shannon and Danny plus their charming VW T2 Kombi Masi, who we'd last seen (and introduced to you) in Mendoza when we had spent an awesome and couple of days together.  In the time we'd been driven from Mendoza through Chile, they had driven to Buenos Aires, picked up some friends - "done" Buenos Aires & Montevideo had driven back West again so we could caravan together through Patagonia. 

Together again with Danny, Shannon and Masi

Meeting up with Shannon and Danny again immediately felt like we were on holiday (yes yes, we've been on holiday for a more than a year now but sometimes it doesn't feel as holidayish) as the beers and wine came out, the barbeque was lit for a feast and the copious amount of hilarious (we thought anyway) shit-talking was cranked out into the wee hours. This would become a theme, no, more than that - our life - for the next month together. We are often amazed - and remark about how much we will miss it - at how quickly you become great friends with people while travelling. One minute you are making small talk admiring a perfect strangers Kombi, the next sharing a BBQ and some alcoholic beverages and the next making plans to travel together and share your lives for the foreseeable future. It really is one of the most beautiful things. Its true that we have continually met amazing people - from Baja to Patagonia - that view the world as we do and clicked with from the off and Danny & Shannon are two from the toppest of top shelves. They were with long time friend Gareth the Welshman and his Peruvian friend Marisel (who was about to head back to Peru). Gareth and Danny had a long and distinguished resume travelling together to the worlds far (and not so) flung corners including - to name a few - Namibia, Malawi, Botswana, Mongolia, Russia, India, Basque Country and London so it was time to continue the tradition and see a bit of Argentina and Chile together too. 

Bariloche is one of those places you hear a lot about - it is the Aspen of South American - the capital of skiing, a chocolate-lovers dream and a climbing and hiking mecca. But despite loving all of these things, Bariloche did not really appeal. It was much bigger than we expected and although in a beautiful spot on the lake, it's just a bit tacky so we headed off after two nights. We realised later that it is the area around Bariloche that is the attraction rather than the town itself, and this was certainly true. We left Bariloche and Shannon, Danny and Gareth (they will appear quite a lot over the next few blogs and will from this point forward be referred to as 'Sha-dan-gar') to meet up with, yes MORE friends. 

So, we had begun to think of ourselves as a little bit smelly as our time from Colombia to Bolivia had failed to produce many consistent travel buddies (notable exceptions being memorable but short stints with Darly & Juan and Heather & Dan). But, we must have showered more or just been a bit nicer because at this point in the trip we were awash with lovely friends - a luxurious position to be in. We met Aussies Ruby and Johnny and Ecuadorians Jose and Clau in Cochamo. They were some of the Cochamo longtermers who had cut their losses and left when the snow came and decided to climb in the Bariloche area for a bit instead. Their loss was our gain as we had all got along so well in Cochamo and it was great to have the chance to hang out again.  They were kind enough to let us come along and teach us some traditional climbing which we had never tried before and don't have the gear for. Johnny and Ruby hopped in Pepe and were the second pair of awe-inspired eyes that Pepe had received that week - they were so excited by van life that they decided they would not be thwarted by the strike by RTA/DMV workers in Chile and find a way to follow through on their plans to buy their own van (which they did, just a week later). We had a great couple of days camping and climbing (or trying to climb) at this beautiful little secret spot south of Bariloche and literally learning the ropes from Ruby and Johnny. We couldn't stay long - as we had other friends to meet (still showing off, we know) and didn't want to be too much of a drag on the real climbers but after long breakfast of banana pancakes for Jose's birthday we all squeezed into Pepe and out of the drizzle and played euphoric game of dice before trotting off with promises to meet up again further down the road.

Dice game!

Us with Clau, Jose, Ruby and Johnny

We met up with Shadangar the next day in El Bolson - the Nentry to Patagonia and the hippie capital of Argentina (there is plenty of competition) and well deserving of its title with its ratio of dreadlocked to undreadlocked hair at about 2:1, and its artisanal markets not so great (far too many evil twisted gnomes) but the artisanal beer, artisanal greenery & artisanal ice cream all to our tastes. We loved its relaxed vibes and local shops and market plus we had the most beautiful campsite amongst an old apple orchard with good friends, cheap beer and a big barbeque (Bridget had everyone saying braai within a few days) etc. Life doesn't get much better and with the two kombis parked next to each and the dappled evening light, at times, it felt like we were starring in a Corona lifestyle advertisement.... Except then it did get better because it was Thanksgiving for Shannon and Danny so we all celebrated with an even more epic feast and a few extra beers. 

The table is set... a thanksgiving feast awaits

Danny had to do some work and he needed good internet for a few days which was a great excuse to hang around in El Bolson a little longer, taking a little overnight hike to Cajon Azul (the intriguingly named 'Blue Drawer') - a beautiful river and deep blue gorge (probably the coldest swim we've ever had) and a good chance to practice our overnight hiking skills (as we had decided that we'd hike the 9 day Torres Del Paine circuit together later in December). With just a little practice in the bag we headed back to El Bolson for a few more days of, well, just hard core hanging out - braaiing/bbqing and playing game after game, with our homemade set, of the addictive Finnish game called Mölkky that Shannon & Danny had learnt on their travels. The game involves the throwing of logs (what's not to love) and we saw many a hazy afternoon drift buy with a piece of wood in one hand, a beer in the other and smiles on our faces. 

Mölkky championships

The blue drawer

A week flew by in El Bolson as we had carved out such a beautiful little home for ourselves, it was difficult to leave but Chile was in sight (again). Before we made the epic journey down the long dirt road known as the Carrera Austral, we made 2 quick stops - the first at climbing spot Piedra Parada where it was our turn to show the ropes to Shadangar. It turned out that Danny is incredibly afraid of heights (like REALLY afraid of heights) but he was really up for it and despite nearly having a heart attack (you could actually hear his breathing from 200m away), like a trooper, gave it a proper nudge and absolutely loved it. Shan turned out to be a total natural drifting up the wall without a care in the world and Gareth was both afraid of heights and had regular shoes on (we didn't have a pair that fit) which made climbing pretty much impossible but he gave it a crack, in his bright orange All Stars and all. We only had a day and two nights to be there but we were so glad we made it even just for the beauty of the spot, the rocky desert landscape and blue river running through it, the dry air, the river front campsite, the deep sided canyon, the rope swing into the river and the amazing stars all made Piedra Parada a special place for everyone. We definitely will be back.

A BIG rock, Pepe, Masi and a stary night

Our last stop was especially for our friend Gareth (who, by now we'd come to know better and he is a total legend)- the Welsh town of Trevellin. Yip, Welsh. The Welsh colonised this part of Argentina in the early 1800's and because of its remoteness, the guidebooks declare, that much of the language and culture was preserved. Now, its a little disappointing as its more marketing than reality. There are signs in Welsh and a few tea houses but even the lady who ran the tea house whose grandmother had emigrated and was a native Welsh speaker, only spoke a smattering of the language now. Still, we had a good but definitely not great scone and a nice cuppa tea AND little did we know then that this tea house would be the start of something great... the start of Danny and Shannon's foray into tea drinking - within a few short weeks, thanks to Bridget and a sort-of Welsh town in Argentina they would be addicts but we leave that for another time, the Carretera Austral and remote Chilean patagonia awaits.

Masi on the move

Lakes in the sun, hikes in the rain... isn't it fun to be in Chile again

ChileBridget Boulle1 Comment

As you head even further Southwards in Chile, it goes from very green to even more green until you're in the Chilean Lakes District where it's very, well, lakey as well as very green. But during our first few days in the lakes district, it wasn't entirely clear how all the water got there. The sky was so blue and it was so sunny and nice, it felt like it could never rain (to alleviate your suspense... pretty soon, it would). We met a lovely French couple Laura and Remi who jumped in Pepe and off we went to Huerquehue National Park where we hiked, swam in the freeeeezing but beautiful lake, gazed at the snowy volcano and went in search for the park's famous tree - the beautifully-named 'monkey puzzle tree' (no idea how it got that name) which is indigenous to the area and is just about as crazy looking as it's name.

Volcano Villarica

Monkey puzzle trees

Even with some stiff competition from Monkey Puzzle tree, Laura and Remi turned out to be the find of the day and we enjoyed each others company so much, we decided to spend a few days camping together nearby at a beautiful campsite on a river where we enjoyed more sun, more chats, plenty of practising Spanish and some gorgeous quiet milling about doing nothing of any particular use, as we had the place to ourselves.

2 days of sun and it felt like it would last forever but we left our beautiful spot - after a tour of the incredibly sweet camp ground owners farm -  bid farewell to the lovely Remi and Laura and headed to Pangipulli (also a cool sounding name) where the weather gave us the last of its best rays and we sat around enjoying a perfect view of the lake with the backdrop of perfectly conical Volcano Villarica. So far the Lakes district had lived up to its billing - beautiful lakes, snow capped volcanoes, lush ancient virgin forests and a homely country town feel with friendly locals.

Fireside chats with Remi and Laura

Pangipulli

And then it rained. a lot. It shouldnt have been a surprise down here at 40 degrees south on the "rainy side of the Andes" but somehow it was. We remained positive that the good times would return so made our way to Cochamo - the Yosemite of South America, a climbers paradise with huge granite walls and only one way to get there - a 5 hour hike. [side note: when we say climbers paradise, we mean for REAL climbers rather than weekend punters like ourselves who just enjoy climbing but don't have the skills or fortitude to take on such big walls, we thus left our climbing stuff in the van to enjoy some hiking instead]. We arrived and were met by very puzzled looks by the locals when we asked about the weather forecast, they just chuckled (and probably muttered 'stupid tourists' under their breath) forecast? there is no such thing, it rains.

Undeterred, we hiked to the base campsite (truth be told we were actually quite deterred and very nearly didn't go) and while it was grey, it was really beautiful as we hiked through the damp and dense but enchanting forest, so we were hopeful we could do a few hikes. The clouds remained stubborn and the rain held off so we did go hiking the next day but this rain is a very sneaky type of rain, just when we were at the very furthest point from the campsite, about 3 hours trek away, the heavens opened and then they opened a bit more. Later, a friends in the camp would claim that this must be the World Capital of Water which is pretty apt. We were soaked and ever so slightly miserable. But what Cochamo may have lacked in weather, it more than made up for by the people- all of us soaked, but full of laughs, we hung up our clothes and huddled around the the fire in the Refugio and chatted the night away as we avoided the inevitable run through the rain back to the tent (which turned out to be not so bad as the tent was, much to our surprise, dry).

Cochamo after a bit of snow

We awoke after the torrential rain to granite peaks covered in snow. It was beautiful and the non climbers oooh'd and aaah'd at the overnight white transformation but the (real) climbers were bereft and their ooh's were quickly followed by a faaaark - more snow meant no climbing for a week or more so even the Cochamo long-termers made plans to cut short their month in the valley. As the old saying from the sea goes, all snow has a silver lining and for the long term climbing residents this came in the shape of the end of their strict toilet paper rationing regime. Silver lining and all that...... With pretty much everything wet, we left for the long hike out with two awesome worldly Spaniards Adri and Eduardo and offered them a lift in the van back to town. Adri is about the most excitable person either of us had ever met and his excitement levels went to 11 when he saw Pepe, it was so contagious, it put a huge smile on our faces all the way to Puerto Varas where we bid them farewell over a few local artisanal ales, well earned burgers and a final dose of Adri's effervescent excitability. (BTW thanks to large number of colonial period German immigrants the beer in Chile is EXCELLENT). Incidentally, Adri is about to move to South Africa where he is going to live in (wait for it, South Africans)... Upington (non-saffas, there is a reason you've never heard of it - just imagine the respective middle of nowhere town in your own country) and you have literally never seen someone more excited to move to Upington. So, for someone so excited about Upintgton, you can only imagine just how excited he was about Pepe, pretty much exploding. It was awesome.

Adri and Eduardo with their new favourite friend, Pepe

And then we ran out of drivable land in Chile - we had no interest in taking the costly ferries - so we said a brief "see you in a bit" to Chile pointed Pepe to the Andes and crossed into Argentina to meet some friends and start the longer and cheaper way south together.

Back to Chile (but so much greener than last time)

ChileBridget BoulleComment

The thing with Chile is this... its very skinny and hellava long (Chile has the longest latitude span of any country in the world). So, when one says 'Chile', it's hard to conjure up a picture in your head. Our first experience in Chile gave us the picture of clear, dry other-worldly northern deserts. But this picture was not to last long - we entered Chile again in early November over the most incredibly beautiful snowy mountain pass, and ski resorts down 32 perfectly constructed switch backs and into what seemed quite a lot like, well, England.

Green and lush with the notable exception of the snowy peaks in the background and vineyards in the foreground. So it was a bit different but so green. The contrast between this entrance into Chile and our previous one, 1000km further North couldn't have been starker. Welcome back to Chile, the land of a million landscapes.

We drove pretty much directly to Valparaiso to catch the semi finals of the rugby (defeat for SA, victory for Aus but thankfully for the health of our marriage, not against each other) where we found a hostel and set about exploring the lovely 'Valpo'. It didn't take long before it was firmly lodged within our hearts as one of our favourite Latin American cities. The town has a long history as one of the most important ports in the world then its steep decline into a virtual backwater after the construction of the Panama Canal made it redundant and then its revival both as a port town and as a place where artists, musicians, poets and writers congregated & a refuge of sorts for creatives during the Pinochet dictatorship. It is this last piece of history that gives Valpo its current edginess and flair. It is just full of art and music and we loved it from the off. Our very first night in town, we walked around to find a great 8 piece Ska/Reggae band playing (full PA system & all) in a small local park with Uni students, adults (some with kids) all drinking, all dancing & all enjoying the first class vibes on offer. When they were finished (early enough to respect the neighbours even on a Saturday night), a full marching band came marching down the street, trumpets a blasting towards the central plaza to play some jams to add to the revelry. When the street level festivities winded down around midnight, the bars filled up more great vibey live music, more beers and plenty of dancing. It was a night, we will not forget in a hurry partly for the amazing vibes and music and partly for the confident grown-up nature with which the locals use public spaces without going overboard and as a result, the police treating everyone with respect too (in fact we didn't see one cop the whole evening). It all seemed a small slice of utopia and we lamented that this was a not a more common scene around the world. We continued to enjoy Valpo over the next few days through walks, amazing food (and some dodgey food too), a visit to the old house of one of Valpo's most famous residents Pablo Neruda (Chile most famous poet) and lots of time taking in the zillions of amazing bits of street art. In case you hadn't picked it up by now... We loved Valpo.

But we eventually did move on to Santiago where we dropped Pepe in at the mechanic for a checkup, watched rubgy (Australia lost) and caught up with an old friend for a great day. Pepe was generally fine but we wanted to take him to THE T3 specialist in South America, Don Alberto who turned out to be lovely and his German Pointers had just had puppies so there was even more reason to hang around (and day dream about how we could bring one with us). The rugby was, well, New Zealand. And the friend, Pablo, was a friend we met 9 years ago in Breckenridge, Colorado (the 2 of us also met there). We hadn't seen him since but it was great to catch up in his home city after all those years as we chatted away with a few beers in the beautiful park North of the city.

From Santiago we headed Southwards to the famous surf break of Punto de Lobos in Pichilemu. It was probably going to be the last time to surf and although Bridget wasn't too interested in the chilly water without a wetsuit, Brendan made hay while the sun sor tof shone (with a wetsuit) and even got in a birthday surf. There isn't much else to do in Pichilemu but surf, buy delicious fish, walk along the beautiful cactus-covered headland and beach and have a few chilly dips. We spent Brendan's birthday drinking wine, celebrating an Arsenal win and eating cheese and a bit of cake with the other people at the hostel. We also met the insanely chilled American Anton who runs a hostel but is also an ex snow board pro, has lived in Chile for 17 years, but still speaks some of best Spanglish (mainly English really) we have ever heard and yet has friends wherever he goes. The most chilled out person one could meet, he doesn't even have anyone at the hostel running reception, if he goes on holiday or for a surf he leaves an honesty box out and the hostel open, he's been ripped off a few times, he said, but for the most part people are honest and he's happy.

We continued to bumble along middle Chile taking in the pleasant green landscape, vineyards, plenty of spring flowers and coastline. It's not a 'must' on every travellers list as most head for the deserts of the North or the glaciers of the South but its so quiet, green, friendly and pretty that we really enjoyed it. Bumble bumble, ooh a lovely clear river and a national park... bumble bumble... oooh yummy crabs on a deserted beach... bumble bumble... delicious wine etc. etc. etc.

With some difficulty, we found the small national park of the Seven Cups, named due to the basalt gorge and the seven huge holes that have been carved out of it over thousands of years where we camped, walked and started to feel the magic of Chile's vast forests. We headed back to the coast and grabbed some crabs even though we weren't entirely sure what to do with them (so we released one and cooked seven) but at 4 for $2, we just had to. After a bit more wine tasting and our little bumble around middle Chile was done and our mental picture of Chile was filled with a few more diverse bits – snowy mountains, lively cites, great wine, crabs, great waves, waterfalls and some friendly people.