Exploring Patagonia – Argentina & Chile

The W-trek (see previous post!) was our baptism of fire into Patagonia, and over the course of the two weeks we’ve really come to know this region well. We’ve criss-crossed the Chilean-Argentinian borders more times than I can count, with each destination offering something new and beautiful to explore.

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Take the Perito Moreno glacier, which we visited from El Calafate. This enormous valley glacier is renowned for giving visitors great spectacles of ‘calvings’ – where the ice crumbles from the front of the glacier. I’d seen a version of this already in Antarctica, but I was looking forward to seeing it from even closer up. We’d actually missed the biggest calving (where an entire ice bridge collapses and the glaciers starts receding again for a bit) by only a week – bad timing that seemed to haunt us all the way to Pucon.

Luckily, Perito Moreno didn’t disappoint. We started out with a boat trip, which enabled us to get really up close and personal with the ice. We saw a couple of small calvings from the boat, but what was most impressive was how blue the ice was. I’m not sure that we expected such a rich colour.

Off the boat, we walked some of the catwalks on land that offered several view points of the glacier. We stood and watched in anticipation, our eyes scanning the huge wall of ice. It’s not enough to wait until you hear the thunderous ice cracking – by then, it’s too late. But after a few minutes, there was a little crumble of ice that seemed to open up a waterfall – like the glacier had sprung a leak. We trained our cameras on the place: something was definitely afoot. The ice creaked and groaned. Then, finally, a piece the equivalent to a three storey-building broke off and plunged into the water, directly in front of us. Epic, epic, epic.

From El Calafate, we moved to El Chalten, home of Mount Fitzroy at the top of Los Glaciares National Park. This was where we could get even closer to the ice, but unfortunately for me, my knee was playing up after the W-trek and I didn’t want to aggravate it any further. Still, Lofty got to go ice-climbing on Argentina’s largest glacier – Viedma – abseiling down into crevasses and picking his way out. Me? I wasn’t jealous at all. Of course not.

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Lofty climbing a crevasse in Viedma glacier

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I mean, please don’t feel too bad for me. While in El Chalten, I did a small walk to a viewpoint of Mount Fitzroy, ate an enormous banana-and-chocolate covered waffle and spent two hours in an amazing spa having four different types of treatments. Not too shabby whatsoever!

Mt Fitzroy viewpoint

 

 

 

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Doing the W – Torres Del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

Let me preface this blog post by saying that I am not a hiker, and neither is the other intrepid #alwardsontour, Lofty. But still, there was something about tackling three days of the world-renowned W-trek really appealed to us both, even though it meant diving in at the deep end: carrying our tents, food and clothes on our backs for over 60km. Call us crazy but it ended up being a great experience, and a real accomplishment to boot.

After the flat, monotonous scenery of the Chilean/Argentinian Steppe, driving into Torres del Paine was something of a shock to the eyes and the system. We drove past stunning glacial lakes, milky blue in colour, and huge granite peaks that seemed to pierce the sky.

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We only had two-and-a-half days to do the W-trek, which most people do in four. While a few very hardcore members of our group managed to get around the entire thing, the group I was walking with made the executive decision to cut back on one arm of the ‘W’ – so I suppose technically we did a cursive ‘U’ shape! We missed the trek to Glacier Grey as we knew we were going to see some very impressive glaciers later on in El Calafate and El Chalten.

The first stop was to pick up all our gear in Puerto Natales. We decided to rent a two-man tent (possibly the smallest tent known to mankind), a stove (which we shared with another couple), a cooking set (small pot, forks, spoons and bowls) and waterproof trousers. We also carried our sleeping bags, thermarests and lots of food and snacks! As for clothes, we brought one set for hiking and one for sleeping (a tiny bit gross, but hey – we were glad not to carry any extra weight! Underwear being the exception, of course!) We would pick up water along the way from glacial streams and otherwise camp at designated stops along the way. Tuna and rice would provide the mainstay of our meals – not the most exciting, but definitely nutritious.

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The ferry dropped us off on the evening of our first day at 7pm. We set up camp for the night – and truly found out just how small our tent was – and treated ourselves to our only cooked meal of the hike at Refugio Paines Grande. Already the scenery blew us away – as did the wind. The wind howled all night, threatening to blow us away in our teeny tiny tent! Not the greatest sleep start to the hike, but somehow we managed to get up in the morning bright and early with big smiles on our faces, ready to start our big adventure!

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Hiking with heavy packs is hard. Especially when you don’t wear the packs correctly! I hiked the first hour with my shoulders burning – once I readjusted my pack so that the majority of the weight sat on my hips, the shoulder pain instantly disappeared. Magic. Thankfully it was only 2.5 hours to the next stop, Campo Italiano, where we could dump our main bags and just take lunch up to the top of the middle arm of the ‘W’ – the Frances Valley.

The Frances Valley was definitely the most beautiful hike of them all, and if anyone else out there is short on time in the W, I would suggest doing this over Glacier Grey. For us, it was the most interesting hike – taking us through thick forests, past hanging glaciers that occasionally carved – creating miniature avalanches that thundered through the valley, and all the way up to a stunning view point called Mirador Britannico. We ate salami and cheese in front of huge granite cliffs, under a bright blue sky.

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We then had to hike back, to the unwelcome sight of our big packs. Although we’d already been walking for a little over 6 hours, we still had 2 hours to go until we could rest. Those last two uphill hours were definitely the hardest! We’d done over 20 miles (according to my Withings watch) and, having not done that much exercise for a long time, I was drained and emotional and in pain by the end. Arriving at Refugio Los Cuernos was a revelation, and a glass of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc/Riesling mix later, I was one happy girl once again.

Waking up the next day was… interesting. I don’t think there was a leg muscle that wasn’t crying out in pain! And we had a 4.5 hour hike to start off our morning. Joy. Still, because we had done so much walking the day before, we had saved ourselves a lot of time, and the walk was a beautiful, (mostly) flat stroll next to a stunning blue glacier lake. We really lucked out with the weather.

Waking up the next day was… interesting. I don’t think there was a leg muscle that wasn’t crying out in pain! And we had a 4.5 hour hike with full packs to start off our morning. Joy. Still, because we had done so much walking the day before, we had saved ourselves a lot of time, and the walk was a beautiful, (mostly) flat stroll next to a long glacier lake.

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Our reward for finishing the first part of the hike was a picnic lunch by the Hotel Torres, a posh hotel that would be our final destination the next day. We had made really good time so there was even a chance to grab a power nap in the sunshine on the grass. All I can say is that it was so necessary before the next part of the hike, which was undoubtedly the hardest: a 2 hour straight uphill scramble, with packs, to the Refugio Chileano.

And we still were not done. From Refugio Chileano, we had 3km to Campo Torres, our campsite for the night. That may have been the longest 3km of my life! Carrying packs all the way, for 23km, after having hiked far more than that the day before, was almost too much. The scenery on this part of the hike was also a lot less interesting than the Frances Valley.

However, there was going to be a pay-off… we just had to get to Campo Torres. From there, we ate dinner and hit the hay early, ready for the MAIN EVENT the next morning: sunrise at the Mirador Las Torres.

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Scrambling up rocks in the dark, in the cold, is not the most fun, but this was the event we had all been waiting for. We huddled together on our thermarests, waiting for the sun to hit the Torres and turn them fiery red (p.s. if you’re doing this, I thoroughly recommend bringing a sleeping bag up too! It gets reallllllly cold up there!). At first, it looked like we had the weather on our side. We had bright stars and a cloudless sky, and gradually that sky lightened to reveal the Torres. But as soon as the sun came up over the horizon, our luck changed. Thick bands of cloud remained stubbornly fixed on said horizon, blocking the rays, and then a fog descended over the Torres themselves, so that when it came for us to take a group selfie they were almost totally obscured! Boo. Still, we couldn’t control the weather: we could only control the fact that we’d made it up there in time to have a chance to see it, and we were proud of ourselves for accomplishing that. Maybe next time!

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Thankfully the way back was downhill, downhill, downhill, all the way to a hot lunch and a cocktail. It was hard on the knees (one knee in particular is still suffering a bit!) but a 30-minute leg massage sorted my muscles right out.

We’d done it! 2.5 days, over 60km, boom.

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Final Antarctica Post – Days 6-9 – Time for the Polar Plunge

Our last day in Antarctica dawned misty and foggy. Kind of perfect for a voyage to a place known as Deception Island. Deception is actually an active volcano, and we sailed straight into the caldera, to a place known as ‘Whaler’s Bay’. It was particularly creepy as a lot of the old whaling paraphernalia still stands on the island, including the ominous blubber ovens.

Deception

For me, it was like something out of the old computer game Myst. Does anyone else remember that? Great sea stacks rising out of the mist, turquoisy-green water pounding at the rocks, the lithe forms of seals slipping in and out of the waves. From our zodiacs, we waved at the few souls who had dared to climb up to ‘Neptune’s Window’, a vast gap in the rock. It was pretty out of the world.

seal at Deception

Less other-earthy and more why-on-earth-are-we-doing-this? Was the Polar plunge! Finally, the day had arrived that most of the ship had been talking about. Yep, a dip in the Antarctic ocean. Why not? (or more to the question why???!!!!) But it had to be done. I stripped down to a bikini in temperatures just slightly above freezing and dove into water that was just slightly below freezing. Getting in actually wasn’t so bad! It was getting out that was the problem! Although they had towels waiting for us, we still had to get back into all our gear. Brrrrrr. I thought my toes would never warm up!

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Thankfully, back on board the boat there was a sauna! And a shot of whiskey. I’m not sure which worked first, but not long after I was toasty warm again and ready for our last port of call.

Our final stop was Half Moon Island and, wouldn’t you know it, but the sun came out again. Thanks Antarctica! We also got to see our final species of the cruise – a lonely Macaroni penguin. What a sweet little guy.

Macaroni penguin on half moon

And then that was it for us and Antarctica! We’d managed five whole days of stops, which was one more day than we expected, so we were feeling lucky. Of course, we still had the infamous Drake passage ahead… and boy, did it live up to its other nickname, the Drake Shake, this time around! We had Force 10 winds (just for the record – that’s STRONG) and at one point I almost came flying out of bed (along with the rest of my cabinmates). Thankfully I didn’t get seasick, but the Drake laid probably half the boat out to rest. For those of us still surviving, we got to listen to some fascinating lectures and, of course, watch Happy Feet.

I haven’t really talked much about the Expedition itself, and it’s worth a mention. The ship was really well appointed, with a fully stocked reference library (let’s face it . . . I spent a lot of time in there), internet on board (for a price, but some ships don’t even offer it!), a great bar (the Polar Bear Pub), live music entertainment, unlimited tea, coffee and hot chocolate (that’s like my idea of heaven), afternoon tea every day, three extravagant meals and lots and lots of fun. Because it is such a small ship (well, relatively – about 130 guests on board), you really got to know people. I should have brought more books with me because I probably could have made a few sales! That aside, everyone who was on the ship really wanted to be there, and that feeling was palpable. We were all determined to make the most of every moment, and it was truly a joy to be on board, even as someone on their own. I was always made to feel welcome.

Inside the cabin

We arrived into the Beagle channel a day early, and anchored down. It’s nice to have this time to reflect on the journey before I jump back on the Oasis truck again. This experience has, for me, been life-changing. A chance to see a part of the world I never dreamed I would. And now, all I can think about is how I can get back here, and take as many people that I love with me as possible.

Any openings at G Adventures?

Amyx

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Days 4-5 – Having a Whale of a Time

The next day, we experienced a little bit of ‘autumnal’ Antarctica. March is the end of the season (as evidenced by the Penguin post office having already shut down for the winter) and as such, the weather can be a bit more variable. We had a ‘plan A’ of sailing into Booth Island, a place situated in a bay with a ‘graveyard’ of icebergs. But by the time we arrived there in the morning, it was far to windy for us to land.

Hike on Peterman Island

But no worries for our crew! They luckily had a plan B (and C and D) and weren’t afraid to implement it. We headed down to Peterman Island, which was thankfully much calmer. It’s amazing how you can ‘turn a corner’ in Antarctica and experience some totally different weather. It was still grey and snowy, but at least the wind was manageable. Here, we saw a new species – Adelie penguins! (they’re the ones with Mexican accents in Happy Feet) – and fur seals fighting on the beach and one dared to attack a passenger who had lain down on the ground to take a photo! Luckily, a passing expedition member helped to fend him off, but it was a close call.

Adelie penguins

It was a worthy reminder of the dangers of Antarctica. So, too, was a cross planted on the shoreline. It was put up in honour of three British scientists who, on one of their days off, decided to climb Mount Scott on the opposite shore. They were never seen again. Just like the weather, the ice and the glaciers can turn on you in a second – crevasses opening beneath your feet, and sheets of ice shifting and carrying you away.

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But still, so much good scientific work is being done down here. And it was nice to get a real reminder of that, as our next (and very unexpected) stop was at Vernadsky base – a working Ukrainian research centre, and the most Southerly stop of our cruise. They welcomed us with open arms, and gave us a tour around their work and living quarters. It was fascinating to think of these men (and it is all men) working here all winter long. The Vernadsky base (previously the British Faraday base) was where the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was discovered. It’s also the home of the most Southerly pub in the world! It has a really great story – a carpenter who was sent wood to build a boatshed, instead built a pub. He got fired for his ingenuity, but his legend lives on. They will exchange a shot of vodka for a bra. Hey, when in Antarctica!

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The next day, we headed back North again – this time, to Paradise. Antarctica threw us another curve ball, which was snow (this is actually pretty unusual for Antarctica as it’s the driest desert in the world). The water was too cold to melt the snow, but it was perfectly still, giving us our first experience of ‘pancake ice’.

weddell seal Minke whale in paradise glacier at paradise

There were loads of seals lazing about on the ice – crab eater seals and Weddell seals – lazy buggers! But you really got a sense of the scale of the glaciers from the zodiacs here. The landscape was just stunning, and exactly what you would expect from typical Antarctica.

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We then moved on to Danko Island, and the sun came out again! Hurrah! It is really something else when the sun comes out in Antarctica. The light is just so incredibly beautiful. Even looking through my pictures (and I stress, I am *NOT* a good photographer by any means) I’m amazed by how they came out.

Yet the most amazing experience was still yet to come (I do apologize for how the superlatives are flying left, right and centre but I cannot stress how much this trip has changed my scale for ‘amazing’). As we settled down for yet another delicious dinner (the food on this trip has been unreal), we heard a call from the bridge: Whales at 1 o’clock. I rushed out onto the bow in just my ballet slippers and the liner of my parka (no… not warm enough by any means!) and thankfully had my camera with me. Humpback whales surrounded the boat.

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Okay, okay. I’m not describing this well at all. I mean, humpback whales surrounded the boat. I’ve been on whale watching-specific cruises before, and I’ve spent a lot of time scanning the horizon for those tell-tale blows. There was no need for scanning here. Blows were going off like fireworks in the water, everywhere you looked – on the horizon or close to the boat, on the starboard or port side. There must have been hundreds of whales in the water.

I ran inside once my fingers began freezing in that permanent ‘shooting’ position and the camera had to be practically cracked from my hands. I went up to the dining room, which has panoramic views out over the bow. I loaded up my plate full of South American buffet. But the show wasn’t over yet.

Just in front of the bow, a playful humpback started slapping the waves with his flippers and tail, jumping up out of the water in front of us. Everywhere I turned my head there were whales, and the sunset was staining the sky rosy pinks and dusky purples. As corny as it sounds, I couldn’t help the tears that welled up in my eyes. It was honestly something truly special – and I will never, ever forget it.

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Days 2-3 – Antarctica the beautiful

Early in the morning, about 7am, something ghostly appeared on the horizon. At first, it was just a white smudge against the grey fog. But as we drew closer, I knew what I was seeing . . . my first Antarctica iceberg.

first iceberg

We’d had a surprise the day before: a perfect Drake crossing. The ‘Drake Lake’ as they call it. Although I’d felt a little bit ill in the morning, by lunchtime I had perked up in time to hear the good news. The Drake had been so good that our ship had made unprecedented time across the passage. We were going to arrive in Antarctica a whole day early. Amazing! Two landings that we didn’t expect suddenly appeared on the itinerary. This is when I have to give another shout-out to G Adventures, and their expedition team, who did everything in their power to make sure we had the best experience possible. They pulled out all the stops (and the zodiacs), made sure we had all our safety and biosecurity briefings down in good time, so that we would be ready for our landings.

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Flying penguins accompany the ship

And ready we were.

Dressed up and ready

Our first excursion was a zodiac cruise around Barrientos Island in the Aitchoo (H-O) islands. Bundled up in my brand new G-adventures branded red parka, waterproof trousers and new socks, I looked a bit like the Michelin tire man.

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We got off to a great start – not long after we left the ship, we saw a curious leopard seal pop its head up and say hello to the zodiac. He went on later to kill a penguin right in front of us. Well . . . we did ask for nature in all its gory glory!

The zodiacs were another pleasant surprise. The thought of heading out into the middle of the ocean in a tiny blow-up boat was not exactly enticing, but once inside, they feel really stable and comfortable. They held about 10 passengers at a time, plus a driver, and you really felt like you could get up close with the wildlife. They were also absolutely fine to take pictures in, and zodiac cruising became one of my favourite activities.

Barrientos

But what we really wanted was to get up on land, and we had our opportunity after lunch. We stayed in the same region, visiting Barrientos Island and nearby Cecilia Island, this time on foot.

And the first thing that struck me? The stench. Oh boy, the stench of the penguins! It really punches you in the nose. Thank goodness for nose blindness that sets in after a while. That, and the antics of the Gentoo penguins really distracts you. They’re far too cute to be that smelly.

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As part of the IAATO (the only somewhat governing body of the Antarctic region) regulations, we were advised to stay about 5-10 metres away from the penguins at all times, especially the older adults who were moulting. But there was nothing to prevent us from sitting down on the beach and letting the curious penguin chicks come to us. That was fine. And what fun! The moment you sat down, you had little penguin chicks arriving, pecking at your gloves and nipping the camera. It was a great first day introduction to Antarctica – and, to top it all off, we had our first whale sighting in the evening.

first whale first whales

But is it strange to say it just kept getting better? It did. Every day, it got better and better. Especially because the next day, we had beautiful bright blue skies – the kind you dream about seeing down here. It put our grey South Shetland Islands day into perspective. Now we were heading onto the continent itself – and Antarctica laid out the red, or should I say blue, carpet for us.

Neko Harbour. It still stands out to me as, I think, the most perfect day of the whole cruise. At Neko, we took a hike up to the viewpoint – where I brought with me my copy of The Potion Diaries. So TPD has made it all the way to the Antarctic peninsula! I’m not sure too many books can say that!

TPD at Neko Harbour

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As I stood on the top of the hill we’d climbed, I closed my eyes and just listened. Antarctica does that to you sometimes. Your eyes are seeing so many incredible things, and in such stark, contrasting colours – the bright whites and the bright blues, the dark ocean and the black-and-white penguins – that it often becomes overwhelming. And the noises of Antarctica are just as incredible. The ice creaks and moans, it goes off like a rifle and thunders like cannon blast. That last noise, the cannon fire, was actually ice calving off the glacier and tumbling into the bay. It set forth a tidal wave – a tsunami – of water that rocked the boat (and the poor kayaks) and crashed into the beach below. Thankfully, we were high up. But what a thing to witness! It was, quite simply, unforgettable.

neko harbour ice

Our second landing site was completely different – but also very cool (pun not intended… sorta). Port Lockroy, one of the British bases in Antarctica, and the home of the Penguin Post Office (there was a BBC documentary on it not too long ago, that was shown on the ship). We were all desperate to send out postcards, of course, but unfortunately the postal workers had left not two days before our ship arrived! That means our postcards are going to ‘over winter’ in Antarctica, and be sent when the crew arrives again in November. So we might see them around Christmas time!

They also have a little museum there, that’s been preserved so we can see what life might have once been like overwintering in Antarctica. They still don’t have running water or many facilities there so not much has changed!

Penguin Post office

We ended the day with an outdoor barbeque on deck – so much fun! If extremely cold. I chickened out by the time we got to dessert and headed indoors.

I was going to try and fit ‘Day 4’ in here too, but it’s been too much already. There’s been so much to see! I could go on and on for days. But for now I’ll leave it here. More soon!

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