Sunday, March 04, 2007

Travel Log One: Patagonia

So I´m looking out the window and i see, in this order: dirt road, wood lodge, scrubby canyon and jagged grey mountain peaks.
I´m in Argentine Patagonia. In writing about this place in my journal I´ve struggled to describe the contrasts...this is the best i can do. Stunning, beautiful, desolate. In one direction you´ll look for miles and only see flat, dry steppe, guanacos (native llamas) and sheep. In the other direction you´ll see a jagged run of mountain peaks that look like shark incisors. Next to this will be a milky-blue-turquoise glacial lake. Then a condor (carrion bird) flying overhead with a 9-foot wingspan. it´s a little bit crazy.
and that´s just the southern end of Patagonia! My first introduction to this continent was through Santiago Chile (hot, crowded and muggy in the middle of summer) and the bus station and then an overnight ride south through the lake district to a lakeside town called Pucon. I was lucky to meet some other travelers on the bus and we all meandered our way to a hostel in town...since it was still 7am, we had to wait 3 hours for check out to see if they would have space. An Aussie girl, Kate, and I set up camp in the breakfast nook and drank coffee con leche until we were assured a space. We quickly hit it off with eachother and with the other half dozen travelers packed into the dorm next to our room. We all shared a deck just off our rooms which was a great place to lay in the sun, read a book and share a beer after hiking.
Kate and I wandered around that day, checked out the lake and the beach and gaped at the volcano. Yes, volcano. There´s this ridiculous volcano that lords over this town, so close you feel like you could touch it. You´re in the middle of summer, everyone in bikinis and shorts and then there´s a snowcapped, smoking volcano as the backdrop! A lot of the travelers made the trek up the volcano, probabaly the most popular thing to do in Pucon. I opted out of that one and caught a bus with Kate and a couple of other guys to the national park for a hike up to the alpine lakes. We´d all been out dancing the night before so our 7am start was not a friendly one, but we made it--seriously a feat against nature--and 11 hours later we could all be found sleeping beneath the Huerquehue National Park sign, waiting for the bus to come back and get us...;) /( we were told that a few departing tourists took pictures of us passed out beneath the sign ;)
An afternoon beer, an empanada and a bottle of malbec wine later we were all lounged on the deck trying to figure out our various travel plans for the coming days.
I decided to head to Argentina next--to a town called Bariloche. This is the northern end of the region called Patagonia. Gorgeous, gorgoues place. In a alot of ways it reminds me of the northwest--mountains, lakes, forests--but everything was a bit bigger, more extreme i guess you could say. I hated the town--SUPER touristy (as are many of the places down here) but the surrounding country side was really amazing. I spent 4 days here, met another great Aussie girl, Joanna, ate a lot of beef (steaks, hamburgers, sausages, never ends--help!) danced to latin music all night in an irish pub, met a fly fisherman from montana, stayed in a penthouse hostel with panoramic views of the lake and mountains (for $10 a night!) and listened to live folk music in the central square. i also took an all day boat tour of the islands where we were able to get out and hike a bit...what a trip. i was the only non-argentine person on the entire boat of 300 people. Every time we got onto an island, they herded in one direction and i went in the opposite one. after that experience, i decided to rent a car for my last day there and get out of dodge. There´s a really popular 7 lakes route that takes you through all the countryside. I set out on that but then got caught at this little beach i found--turqiose blue lake surrounded by green plunging mountains faces. it was pretty amazing. i spent the day there reading and getting very sunburned.
From there I flew down south to nearly the end of the continent--a town called El Calafate. This again is very touristy, but smaller so I liked it better. MY first day I went on an all-day trek of the Perito Moreno glaciar. It was a whole other world out there--really cool to see. My camera battery died, i forgot sunglasses and sunscreen, but i still had a great time and came home exhausted. The next day I took it easy, went to visit a wildlife sanctuary/estuary and hung around town. I met back up with an Aussie friend from Pucon that day and we went out for a 4 hour dinner that night--more steak, trout, salad, wine, more wine and strawberries. easily my best meal so far (La Tablita--thanks Josh).
The next day we headed out for Chile again--puerto Natales and the torres del paine national park. This is the big daddy of trekking and hiking in the region--a lot of you have probably seen pictures of this place, even if you dont know thats what it is. Puerto Natales was my favorit town so far--a big expat community that´s concerned with local issues, environmental stuff, growing local produce. etc. and the locals were really great. I really like Chileans.
We geared up that first day and then took a 7:30am bus the next morning to the park. Neither of us had ever led a backpack before so we were winging it a bit, but it all worked out well. In 5 days we got snowed on, rained on, sunburned and windswept nearly off the trail at times. It is so windy here that when we were in the park, we heard about a guy who got blown off the trail and broke both legs. it´s that windy. We saw llamas, condors, flamingos, sheep (most of this was on the way to the park)...
The terrain again is really stunning and very dhard to describe. Jagged mountains, turquoise blue lakes, scrubby steppe, massive glaciars, glacial rivers (that we could drink from) green leafy woods...really beautiful. It was a tough 4/5 days of hiking but well worth it. The night we got back to Puerto Natales we definitely gorged ourselves at dinner and took long hot showers ;)
So that´s about it so far. I´m back in argentina for a few days more before i fly up to Buenos aires to meet Yana. I´m in El Chalten right now--a little town that reminds of the wild, wild west with dirt roads and log cabins. the whole thing is set at the base of a canyon with Mt Fitz Roy in the backdrop.
Looking forward to having a friend with me for the next 3 weeks! I´m missing you all--of course--and wish I could be sharing this with all of you in different ways. you´ve all come up in conversations i´ve had or thoughts of which of you would love which place...
and before i go--a disclaimer: all of this is amazing and great to see, and i´m thankful and lucky to be here. but. nothing beats being with all of you in seattle.

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