To the Southern tip of the world
16.01.2015 - 05.02.2015
Re-entry into the civilized world was surprisingly abrupt and far from subtle. While I was working on the ranch, the South American holiday season had begun, and the once quiet town of Puerto Varas had transformed into a bustling tourist village. In fact, most of Patagonia was like this now, and the majority of the travellers I met from this point on were actually South American. After regrouping in Puerto Varas and getting a vague plan settled out, I jumped on a bus to cross back into Argentina, set for the lake town of Bariloche. It wasn't until about five minutes after passing the boarder crossing that I realized I had been stamped out of Chile, but never received a stamp into Argentina. Dreading the logistics of getting this settled out in Argentina, my bus stopped at yet another boarder crossing, about 40 minutes of driving past the first. This turned out to be the entry point back into Argentina. Apparently, the boarder between Chile and Argentina is so vague and imprecise that the official exit point of Chile and entry point of Argentina may be dozens of kilometres apart. Many Chilean and Argentinean towns that are close to the boarder exist solely as a means of making an official claim on the land.
My trip to Bariloche was more or less over before it started. Arriving in the evening, I struggled to find even a single available bed in the whole town (again, height of the summer holidays), and was unable to stay for more than one night. I was forced then to move further down into a town called Esquel, still in Northern Patagonia. The Argentinian landscape here was drastically different from its Patagonian neighbour. Where the Chilean side is heavily forested, mountainous, and scattered with off-shore islands, the mountain and volcano range that separates the two countries (there are about 2,000 volcanoes in Chile alone) produces very dry, almost desertous, grasslands to the east, which are mostly flat except for the striking mountain peaks that mark the introduction into Chile. Esquel is located quite close to Chile, and thus is surrounded by mountains which are, to the discontent of the residents, in the process of being mined. The change in landscape caused by the mining is being multiplied by the growing presence of pine tree plantations. This tree, being a very good absorber of water in the atmosphere, has turned this town from a snow-capped and fairly barren place to live, to a much warmer, dryer environment within the span of 10 years. While some would argue this is a welcome change, the rate and extent of the change is no less than shocking. Regardless, I enjoyed a few days of hiking, and even some rock climbing, in the quiet environment that Esquel had to offer.
The next stop required another 18 hour bus ride through almost entirely uninhabited land, bringing me into Southern Patagonia. I arrived in El Chalten on an uncharacteristically cloudless day, where the famous jutting peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre could be seen easily in their entirety from the front doorstep of my accommodation. To understand the rarity of this, Fitz Roy was originally believed to be a volcano, due to the thick cloud that almost always sits on top of it. Somehow, the great weather held on for most of my stay.
What was originally meant to be a few day stopover in this town turned into 8 days of hiking, rock climbing, and just hanging out (not, of course, without a large cup full of yerba mate, a growing addiction of mine since entering Argentina and Chile). El Chalten, the self-proclaimed "trekking capital of Argentina" (and arguably, South America) is one of those towns that was only established as a territorial claim for Argentina, but is slowly turning into the trademark area of Southern Patagonia. Only recently equipped with the luxuries of internet and phone lines, it was very easy to get stuck here, enjoying each day with a new hike or adventure, all just a walk away from any point in town. The only thing you'd need to worry about in a day is the risk of suddenly changing weather (it can go from sunny to completely miserable within a span of 5-10 minutes) or insane winds. I once heard a local say, "if it's not windy, it's not Patagonia". He wasn't kidding. Some of the winds were strong enough to support my full body weight.
The lack of produce was a bit of a downside to the area as well (the grocery store owner was unaware of the difference between broccoli and cauliflower). But still, this was one of my favourite places in South America, and I've made a mental note to return as soon as I can, fully equipped with adventure gear. My next stop was just a few hours down the road, to the slightly larger and more touristic El Calafate. My reason for coming here was simple: the Perito Moreno glacier. This glacier, though a popular attraction with high tourism traffic, is truly impressive, both in size, location, and activity. If you sit and stare at the glacier front for just a few minutes, you are guaranteed to see a large chunk of ice breaking off and plummeting into the lake below. Every half hour or so, an entire piece of the wall will crack and drop off, with a huge and dramatic boom and splash. It's hard to imagine how there's any glacier left, considering this happens all day, every day.
My final stop in Patagonia was back on the Chilean side, way at the Southern tip, almost stretching into Antartica. Punta Arenas is a surprisingly large city, considering how far removed it is from the rest of the world. Cold enough to warrant a warm jacket even in the peak of summer, this area is not surprisingly home to quite a few penguin colonies. Two hours on a ferry-like boat, and I was able to visit one of these colonies on a chunk of land almost completely filled with birds (both magellanic penguins and seagulls). After a while of laughing at the penguins waddling around (and trying not to step on them), I went back to Punta Arenas for a flight all the way back up to Santiago. With only two days left before leaving South America, I wanted to spend the time in Valparaiso, a trendy costal city about an hour northwest of Santiago. So two more days flew by, and as I checked out the street festivals, beaches, outdoor escalators, and impressive street art that constitutes Valparaiso, I became prematurely nostalgic for what I was leaving behind.
Sure enough, it was a bittersweet moment arriving back in YVR airport, excited to catch up with friends and family, but all too aware that my last 5 or so months were starting to feel like a dream. It felt like I had never left. Well, except for my urges to say "gracias" all the time, or to throw toilet paper in the garbage. Still, it was a journey I won't soon come to forget, and I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity. Thank you all who supported me along the way or even just showed me a good time - the experiences are largely the people you find along the way. Latin America, I will be back.