We arrived at 7.15am in Pucón after a 10-hour night bus from Santiago and casually strolled across the street (it's a very small town) to our hostel. Luckily another guest was awake to let us in, as no staff arrived until 8am and we would have had to wait outside in the cold. Other than that minor issue, the hostel was one of the nicest we've stayed in. Like all the buildings in Pucón it looked like a pretty, rustic, cosy ski chalet - almost entirely made out of wood with a stove that was kept burning all night. The staff were really helpful and gave us a lot of tips as to what to do in the area and the price included towels. If you've ever used a camping towel (and I have, for almost 4 months) you'll understand what a luxury this is!
We had a relaxed morning - I read and caught up with people and Sophie slept, having not got much rest on the bus. In the afternoon we set off on a hike that was recommended to us by the hostel, with a 'treasure map' to lead us there. The walk was very picturesque and the scenery almost looked British. Compared to everywhere else I have been on the trip so far, Pucón was very green! The only difference was the snowcapped volcanoes in the background. We found the trail with no difficulties and were almost at our destination (a waterfall little known about) when we took a wrong turn and found ourselves scrambling down an incredibly steep, muddy hill. We reached the river but the vegetation was so dense that we couldn't find a way out other than to very reluctantly turn round and climb back up. Luckily we made it back to the path, just glad that the search parties didn't have to be sent out for us.
The next day we set off at 8am for a full day's trekking in the Cañi reserve, half an hour away from Pucón by bus. The trail was absolutely beautiful from the start. For the first hour we walked past endless farms and little huts with lambs, pigs, goats and cows and then we carried on into the forest. It was a stunning day but it stayed cool all morning, which we were grateful for, particularly as the vast majority of the walk was uphill. Every so often there would be a gap in the trees giving us a breathtaking view of the surrounding volcanoes. After a couple of hours it started to get surreal. Despite the spring sunshine, the path was covered in snow. We were glad we had listened to the advice to hire poles for the day, though we'd been thinking they were useless all morning. It didn't take long until my boots were soaked through, especially as every other step I seemed to sink in half a metre. Progress was slow and got even slower when we hit a steep hill and were constantly in danger of sliding down, but it was beautiful. The snow was still untouched in places and there were monkey puzzle trees everywhere. Finally we reached the summit and weren't disappointed by the 360 degree viewpoint of the whole region. We could even see into Argentina from where we were. Heading back down was much quicker, though we had to hurry to make sure we were back in time for the bus, and my legs felt pretty battered afterwards.
On our final day in Pucón we enjoyed a relaxed morning and planned to go kayaking in the afternoon. Unfortunately it was too windy and would have been dangerous so we took a walk by the beautiful lake instead and soaked up the sunshine on the black (volcanic) beach.
Pucón is such a lovely town that it was sad to leave, but we were still excited to be on our way to Argentina the next morning. Sadly this meant spending the best part of 12 hours on a bus. We arrived late at night in Bariloche and went straight to bed when we made it to the hostel. Following on from the trend we set in Bolivia, we found out that the Argentinian presidential elections were the next day. Having expected everything to be closed like in la Paz, we were pleasantly surprised to find at least some things open. We wandered around town admiring the alpine chalets (the town could be a ski resort in Switzerland or Austria) and enjoying the fresh air. Due to the incumbent president's policy of severe restrictions on foreign currency, dollars and pounds are like gold dust and are worth a lot more than the official rate on the black market. We found this out before crossing the border and made sure we had plenty of dollars with us. Though there had recently been crackdowns, it really wasn't difficult to find somewhere to change the money - you just have to walk down the street and people approach you offering 'cambio?'.
That afternoon we managed to get a fairly cheap private tour around the 'circuito chico' not far from Bariloche. We learnt a lot about the area - about the architecture, the fact that most hotels are owned by powerful trade unions and occasionally burned to the ground, that a prominent former nazi had been running one of the best schools in Bariloche until he was finally prosecuted in Germany a few years ago. We were also constantly reminded of the fact that Brits aren't always particularly welcome in Argentina. There are many streets and businesses with the name Malvinas (their name for the Falklands) and the map in our hostel quite clearly labelled the islands as belonging to Argentina. Still, we had no problems and everyone seemed very friendly so we weren't too worried. The circuito chico was stunning. Our guide took us to several lakes with beautiful views of snowcapped mountains and pine forests. We also stopped off at the Swiss colony which looked like a year-round Christmas market.
The next day we set off early on a tour to 'el tronador' (thundering), a volcano set in a beautiful national park. It was a long drive but worth it for more beautiful views. The water in the lakes and rivers around Bariloche is the clearest I've ever seen. You can see everything metres below the surface. It makes you want to jump in, but the icy temperature of the water all year round puts a stop to that. Despite the changeable weather we were finally convinced that it was spring by a bed of daffodils that we saw on the way. This was surreal, especially as everyone at home is now getting used to dark evenings and cold weather. Our tour finished at the so-called black glacier. The ice looks like rock at first sight, as the wind blows so much dust into it that it is no longer white (hence the name), but you're reminded that it is a glacier by the ice floating on the lake below. It was a bleak landscape but beautiful, though it was a shame the peak of the volcano was in cloud.
On our third day in Bariloche we decided to do a hike without a tour and were given advice by the local trekking association. We had to take two buses but it was absolutely worth it. Though short, particularly as we had to stop before the top where the path was blocked by snow, the trail had some of the most breathtaking views we've seen all trip. We also had perfect weather and it was wonderful to be out in the sun. We were followed for the whole walk by a dog. Normally I wouldn't mind this, but this dog jumped up on us, clipped our heels and slobbered all over us for the whole journey. We just couldn't get him to go away! There was a nervous moment too when we were approached by a curious cow and were worried the dog would cause problems. In the end we found someone who knew the owner and he came to get him. We weren't sorry to say goodbye!
The next morning we got up in the dark to catch our bus to the island of Chiloé off the coast of Chile. This meant another border crossing, the first vaguely serious attempt at customs checks we'd had all trip. We made it to Ancud, a small town on the island, mid-afternoon and set off in search of a hostel. In the end we settled for a rather strange place (kind of like us just staying in a strange lady's house) because there really wasn't much on offer. Given how much we had heard about Chiloé before arriving, there really isn't much tourism there, the economy mainly based on fishing and agriculture. We wandered round the town a little but settled in pretty early, as there wasn't much else to do! The next day we had another private tour, this time to see the penguins in the north of the island. The drive was stunning and we were struck by how similar it looks to Britain, particularly the Lake District. If I'd have woken up there, I'd have thought I was at home. We boarded a small boat with a few other tourists to go and see the penguins that live on the rocks just off the coast. There are humboldts and magallenicos. They come there to lay their eggs in spring and in summer apparently there are thousands. We were happy to have seen around 20 and we also managed to spot a sea otter which was exciting. In the remainder of the tour we climbed up the cliffs for a spectacular view of the beach and we also tried a local fruit that looks like rhubarb but is more savoury in flavour and grows wild all over the island.
After the tour we headed to Castro, the island's largest town (around 55,000 people). It certainly had more going on than Ancud but it's still pretty small and quiet. One interesting feature is the rows of palafitos, or colourful huts on stilts that jut out into the sea. We were lucky enough to stay in one for our two nights there. Though expensive, the palafitos are homely and we enjoyed the home comforts after so long on the road. From Castro we took a day trip to the Chiloé national park. The bus dropped us off right outside and we completed all of the short trails in the area. There was a surprising variety of landscapes, which is perhaps why this was designated a protected area. We walked through marshlands, forests and dunes while learning a lot about the fragile ecosystems there.
Our plan after Chiloé was to head down south as far as possible in Chile (buses are far cheaper there than in Argentina) and then to cross over into Argentina and head to El Calafate and El Chaltén, but this was much more difficult than we thought. There was only one bus a week from Puerto Montt (near Chiloé) to the border town of Coyhaique and we were slowly running out of time so couldn't really afford to wait for that. Instead we found a boat from the south of the island to take us to Puerto Chacabuco, near to Coyhaique. It took 28 hours but was really worth doing, just for the incredible views of the Chilean coastline. However, even when we arrived, getting across the border wasn't plain sailing. We had to take a minivan to a tiny port on the Lago General Carrera, the largest in Chile, then take another 3-hour ferry to Chile Chico. By the time we arrived another day had passed and it was already dark, but luckily we found accommodation with a man named Jaime who essentially took us into his home. We decided to have one day off the road and had heard there was a lot to do around Chile Chico, but were disappointed to find that no tour agencies were open and there was no public transport to take us to the national park nearby. Jaime offered to drop us off at his farm, only 15km away from the park, and told us it would only take us a couple of hours to get there by horse. He didn't really understand why we were so bemused by this offer (we quite clearly didn't have a horse) and seemed almost offended when we didn't take him up on it. We started to panic, thinking we were stuck in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing to stave off the boredom, but we eventually found a guide who agreed to take us and we actually had a really great day. We went on a 5-hour hike and saw some really fascinating rock formations (formed under the sea) and cave paintings from civilisations that had been there thousands of years ago.
The next day we did the half-hour journey across the border to Argentina (Los Antiguos) and spent the day relaxing in the sun in yet another tiny town while waiting for our bus to El Calafate that evening. The bus was delayed by 3 hours, but we made friends in the bus station with our uno cards and learnt various international rules that we hadn't played before! As soon as we arrived in El Calafate we jumped on yet another bus to the nearby town of El Chaltén and finally arrived late that evening. Both towns surprised us in that they were full of groups of older tourists. Up until this point we had only really met travellers like ourselves - young and very much on a budget! But these were different places altogether, clearly cashing in on the wealthy tourists' custom. Despite this, they still had a certain alpine charm, with cosy wooden buildings and fires going everywhere.
El Chaltén is a bit of a hiking Mecca and describes itself as the 'hiking capital of the world'. We were lucky to have beautiful weather and while we were there we went on two stunning day treks in the area. They were long but easy and so well-marked that you didn't even need a map. We walked past beautiful blue glacial lakes, rivers and snowcapped mountains and relaxed with great Argentinian wine in the evenings. After a couple of days we returned to El Calafate in order to see its only real draw, the Perito Moreno glacier. This was an expensive day trip from the town, but absolutely worth it. The glacier is breathtaking. It is 250 squared km in area and up to 50m in height (above the water). In places it is bright blue, made even more striking by the contrast with the cloudy lake it sits on. You are dropped off at the top of the hill overlooking the ice and there are kilometres of walkways and many platforms leading you much closer to the glacier. The most impressive thing about being there is listening to the very frequent cracking noises (it sounds a lot like thunder) as pieces of ice break off and crash down into the water. This glacier is one of only three in Patagonia that is actually growing so we were very lucky to have been able to see it.
After El Calafate, it was time to head back to Chile one last time in order to visit the Torres del Paine national park. We took a very early bus to Puerto Natales. In itself, Puerto Natales is a fairly insignificant town with not a lot going on, except boats that come and go from both the north of Chile and Antarctica. However, there is a huge amount of tourism from the national park and Puerto Natales serves as the base for trekkers. We found a lovely hostel with very friendly and helpful owners who told us where to go to get all the information and kit we needed for the 8-day trek we planned to do. First we headed to CONAF, the organisation that runs the park, as we needed a trekking map and we had also heard that the full circuit (what we wanted to do) was still closed due to snow and general bad weather. They confirmed that this was the case but gave us lots of information on how to do the shorter and well-trodden W trek instead. However, when we got back to the hostel the owner was confused, as they'd had guests who had set off to do the longer trek and hadn't returned, so had assumed it must be open. We then set out back to CONAF where they finally bothered to call the park to check and then told us it was in fact open. Oh, South America! We then had a mad rush to hire all the equipment we needed - tent, sleeping bags, mats, trekking poles (for the snow), a stove and pans and to buy gas and the food we needed for the week. Never having done anything on this scale before, it was hard to decide what to take and what to leave behind, but we were lucky to have met a very experienced trekker a couple of weeks before who gave us lots of tips. In the end we were very strict and only took the lightest food we could possibly find (dried noodles and powdered mash) and our only luxury products were baby wipes and dry shampoo. We didn't regret it though, as our bags were still around 15kg each when everything was packed and ready to go.
We caught the 7.30am bus to the park and met a French trekker on the way who was setting off to do the circuit on his own, but ended up doing it all with us. It was nice to have more company and we felt a little safer with another person there, though he wasn't much more experienced than us. We arrived at around 10am and then had to register with the park and watch a safety video before setting off. Just as we were about to leave, it started to rain. This didn't bode well, but luckily it was no more than a few drops, though it was on and off all day. Far worse was the wind. We knew that it would be bad - southern Patagonia certainly has a reputation when it comes to wind, and we'd seen forecasts for winds between 80 and 90 km/h, but we still weren't really prepared for it. The landscape was pretty bleak - the sky was grey and we walked past endless burnt trees (the remnants of a devastating forest fire), battered by the gale. Thankfully, the walk wasn't too long or difficult and we arrived at our first camp mid-afternoon, just as the sun was coming out. We were already glad to be rid of our rucksacks and weren't looking forward to the much longer day to follow, but we had a pleasant enough evening in camp eating our dried noodles and chatting to other trekkers. The night was less pleasant. The tent seemed to be at the point of blowing away for most of the night, which made it difficult to sleep.
We got up early the next day and packed up after a miserably small breakfast. We set off on the long but relatively straightforward walk to the next camp. Apart from a couple of moments as we were walking along the side of a hill where we thought we might be blown away, we arrived unscathed at what we had planned to be our next camp by 1.30pm. We didn't fancy the idea of sitting around all afternoon and we had heard that bad weather was on its way, so though we had already walked close to 20km, we carried on to the next camp to give ourselves a spare day in case the infamous pass ('paso') was closed. The afternoon was tough. My back ached continuously from the bag and my legs were about to give up as a lot of this stretch was uphill. I was checking my watch a lot of the time, trying to carry on until we could justifiably stop again. Having said that, the landscape was wonderful. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and we walked through luscious green forest with views of the snowy mountains in the background. The national park seemed to outdo itself with very bad signs. At different parts on the same stretch of trail it would tell us a different total distance to walk and would inform us we had only 5km to go but then increase this on a later sign. We wondered who had made these signs, as we could have done a more accurate job by simply guessing the distances by our walking speed. Anyway, after a frustrating last '2km' we arrived at a stunning laguna and then followed the trail round to the next camp, set in the forest so at least a little more sheltered from the wind than the camp the night before. It was already fairly late so we pitched the tent and cooked quickly before heading to bed.
A large guided group was setting out to do the pass at 7 am and the ranger advised us to leave at a similar time, for safety in numbers on the trail. When we actually made it to the trail, it was easy to see why. But first we managed to get lost within 5 minutes of leaving camp. We had missed one of the orange markers and had set off on what looked like a path but was more of a product of our hopeful imaginations. Luckily we followed our instincts and turned back after around 15 minutes so no search party was needed. The actual trail wasn't much better, to be honest. Though clear, it was a mud bath, full of branches and other obstacles. It took all my concentration not to get my shoes soaked through before we had even reached the snow. After around an hour we reached the first patches of snow and were almost immediately trekking across entirely white, icy slopes. The wind was so bad that both Sophie and I were blown to the ground at one point. This was the most difficult and dangerous bit of trekking I had ever done and our adrenaline levels were pretty high the further we got. It was blowing a gale and snowing after an hour and a half, but I didn't even want to stop to put on my gloves. We just powered on, glad that at least there wasn't a white-out (an Italian had got lost and strayed off the path the year before and frozen to death). The remainder of the ascent alternated between plodding through snow and up patches of rocks. It was truly bleak, but we were reassured by the fact that there were a few others on the trail and that there were clear footprints for us to follow. It was too cold to stop at the summit so we headed straight down the other side, hoping for slightly more shelter there. The conditions were much the same, but on the other side we had intermittent views of the awesome Glacier Grey, which we walked alongside for several hours during the rest of that day. Just when the 'path' seemed to be easier going, we hit a section where there was just no way to stay on our feet. The only option was to slide. I was so grateful for my waterproof trousers at that point! Eventually we hit the more sheltered forest again, which was precarious and steep and brutal on our knees, but at least we weren't scared. We stopped quickly for lunch at the Paso camp before carrying on for a few more hours to the much more luxurious camp Grey, where the longer circuit trek meets the W trek and civilisation starts again. By the time we arrived the rain was torrential. We put our tent up as quickly as we could then rushed to the refugio where we had somewhere to dry out and cook. It was hard not to be jealous of all the tourists staying in proper beds, enjoying the bar and the restaurant meals there, but at least we had the satisfaction of having done the trek 'properly' (that was all we really had!).
The night was another tough one. I was so worried about not touching the sides of our frankly minuscule tent (and so not getting my sleeping bag wet), that I didn't get much sleep. It was all pretty pointless anyway, as everything was soaked through by the morning. We woke to yet more rain and were pretty miserable as we faced the prospect of walking through the wet all day with sopping equipment. The wind was unbelievably strong yet again and we had a few nail-biting moments on some of the narrower and steeper paths where we were clinging on for dear life. Thankfully, by the time we arrived in the next camp for lunch, the sun had come out a little and we jumped at the chance to dry out our things. Given how strong the wind was, our tent was dry within a few minutes and we set off in slightly higher spirits on the much shorter walk to the next camp. We had assumed that the W trek, given its popularity and the number of very unprepared people on it, who looked like the longest walk they had done before was from their hotel to the taxi, would be much better maintained and easy in comparison to the first half of the full circuit. However, the paths were in complete disarray and the bridges were just horrifying. We walked past countless bridges that were in pieces scattered all over the river they had formerly crossed. This didn't inspire much confidence when we walked over ones that were still 'standing' but looking rotten and creaking a little too much. It became a running joke - how dodgy can a bridge actually be while still remaining crossable? Despite this, we made it to our next camp for the night. It was very basic and involved a 10 minute walk to the bathrooms in the pouring rain.
Our kit was soaked through again by the morning and we weren't able to go up to one of the more spectacular viewpoints as we had planned due to the bad weather. Luckily this meant that we only had a short walk that day to our next camp. We arrived, again in the rain, and found a spot to pitch before Sophie realised she had left the tent poles and pegs back at the previous camp. We were so fed up by this point that we could have given up, but good on Sophie, she just got on with it and headed straight back for the poles, thankful that it was the shortest stretch of the trek that she had to repeat. Meanwhile, I cleaned and dried our kit by the stove in the camp and made friends with the Chilean porters, who insisted on giving me piles of their food and mate, a traditional herbal tea drink (with its own rules as to how to drink it in a 'mate session') very popular in Argentina and certain parts of Chile. The rain was still torrential by the evening but at least we had somewhere warm and dry to sit and we shared stories with some other travellers from the UK and Australia. The next morning I woke up feeling like the cheekbone below my right eye was a little bruised. My sleeping bag was full of toggles and other things that got in my face while I was trying to sleep so I just assumed I had been lying on one of those. I rolled over and asked Sophie if it was bruised and her response said it all. 'Not bruised, no ...'. The look of horror was enough for me to realise it was a little more than that. I could now feel that my eye was swollen to around the size of a tennis ball and I could barely open it. We scrambled out of the tent to try and find some medical help but there was no one to be found. Even when the refugio staff finally turned up, they said they couldn't give me any medication in case I had a bad reaction to it. How ironic ... It was a response we might have expected in Europe but not there, where health and safety doesn't really seem to exist as a concept. Luckily lots of the other trekkers had antihistamines. None of them had the boxes with them so I ended up just taking a cocktail of various pills and within two hours my eye had gone down enough for me to be able to open it, but I still looked like I had been punched.
The stares on the walk that day were not enjoyable but I just tried my best to ignore it and focus on getting to where we needed to be. It wasn't easy to stay positive when I then went and stepped in a river and could feel the water running between my toes for the rest of the morning, but we made it to our final camp and the knowledge that it was the last night kept us going. We managed to get our kit dry again and went to go and enjoy a rare moment of sunshine in the afternoon. The night was cold. It snowed on and off and I got into my sleeping bag wearing everything I had, including my full set off waterproofs. We got up at 5am the next day in order to head up to the famous 'torres' from which the park gets its name. We were incredibly grateful to have a completely dry set of kit to pack up and we left our bags at camp to collect afterwards. The walk up to the torres was short but difficult. After half an hour we hit sheet ice and resorted to hopping from rock to rock in our determination not to get injured at this point. The air was biting but it was worth every moment for the view we had at the top. It felt like all of the trekking had finally paid off to be able to see that landscape. We couldn't stay there long in the cold so we carefully made our way back down and picked up the bags before completing the circuit on a pretty easy stretch. We ran across the 'finish line' and spent a few relaxed hours waiting with the other hikers we'd met along the way, just enjoying the fact that we had finally finished, and survived. Given how some of the other circuit walkers looked, it seemed Sophie and I had almost finished in style, despite everything that had gone wrong! I slept most of the way back to Puerto Natales and had the best shower of my life when we got back. The last few days have involved us trying our very best to put back on the weight we lost (eating a lot of chocolate), sleeping and just generally lazing around. It has been amazing! Tomorrow we're off to Ushuaia, the southernmost city on the continent. After Tierra del Fuego, we're heading back up to Buenos Aires where my flight leaves from in only two and a half weeks. It's hard to believe I'm almost at the end of my journey and while I'm really looking forward to going home, I am trying my best to make the most of the last part of my adventure. There'll only be one more post after this. Can't wait to see you all soon!