A Travellerspoint blog

South America - Week 7 & 8

Patagonia (Chile & Argentina)

sunny 14 °C

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From Ushuaia, we headed towards Puerto Natales in Chile to climb Torres del Paine. The journey was once again chaotic, in particular crossing the border with Chile. We waited 4h00 at the straight of Magellans to catch a ferry. We eventually arrived at destination at around midnight. We stayed at hostal Cecilia and enjoyed the homemade bread at breakfast the next morning.

We did not know how to organise the hike to Torres del Paine. The idea was to do the” W” circuit, which is the most famous trail and takes about 5 days. We wondered whether we should book a tour, which is quite expensive but without the hassle of carrying all the equipment (tent, sleeping bags, food...) or be brave and do it ourselves. After a quick chat with Kelsey and David, our new friends from California, we decided to be adventurous. We rented the tent, sleeping bags, mats, a stove and some gaz. We then headed to Unimark, which is the local supermarket, and bought some food for 5 days: mainly dehydrated soups, cereal bars and chocolate. I managed to stick some fruits and yogurt in the bag without Franck noticing. We spent about 3h00 organising the backpacks to end up with two bags of at least 15kg each...and then we started to panic and question our fitness.

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The next morning, we headed to the starting point of the “W” by a bright and sunny day. We walked the first day from about 1pm to 7pm to reach the camp Las Guardas, which was located above the glacier Grey. The trail was hilly but not difficult. It was windy as it usually is in Patagonia but the weather was overall pleasant. We walked along a lake with a blue milky colour, which is caused by the sediments of the glacier. The lake was surrounded by red and dark mountains. The wildlife was almost inexistent although it is said that deer and pumas can be found. We were lucky and saw a few condors, which were cruising and diving occasionally to catch a prey.

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We were also amazed by the small icebergs that appeared as we got closer to the glacier Grey. The end of the hike became steeper and harder but it was worth it. We spend the night in a small camp with a view on the glacier. We watched the sunset, while hearing the ice cracking. Priceless.

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On the second day, we explored the area around a bit more and went down. We completed the first part of the “W”. At dinner, we met a fascinating couple from Scotland in their sixties, who did the “W” from East to West and told us about the fantastic sceneries of the Valle Frances that we would see on the third day. He also told us how he recently met his wife on the internet. They spent their life not far from each other and remembered meeting on few occasions. She did not seem very comfortable and called bedtime. We woke up on the third day with wind and rain.

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We walked in the morning to the camp Los Italianos and left our heavy bags before climbing to the mirador, where we were supposed to see a spectacular view of the valley. The weather started to clear up a bit and the view was magnificent. We saw the three peaks, i.e. Torres del Paine, for the first time. Then it became cloudy and rainy again and we could not see a thing from the top. We went down, took our bags and headed to the next camp, where we spent the third night. The equipment we rented was not appropriate for this type of weather. I woke up in the middle of the night quite confused as I am freezing cold despite adding up all the clothes I brought. We realised the next morning that water infiltrated the tent and we slept in a puddle.

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We packed and headed to the Torres. On the way, we passed a group of elderly Koreans; the eldest being 75 year old. We arrived at the camp Chileno by mid day. We left our heavy bags and started the climb to the Torres. It took us about 3 hours to reach the highlight of the “W”. It was cloudy and snowy but we could still see the three peaks with the lake on the foreground. A fox was wandering around, which made the scenery even more magnificent.

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The last day was dedicated to going back to Puerto Natales. The wind was really strong with sometimes peaks at 140km/h. Kelsey and I were struggling to keep our balance. We hanged up to Franck and David in order to avoid falling in the drop off. We thought about the elderly Koreans, who were half our size and left the same morning to climb the Torres. After few hours of physical pain, we eventually reached the bus that drove us back to civilisation...all dreaming of a hot shower and a good night sleep.

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On the following day, we headed to El Calafate in Argentina to see the glacier Perito Moreno, which is one of the few glaciers that is expending. El Calafate is a small town, which reminds me a ski resort in the Alps, full of tourists. We booked a one day tour Alternative Tour. We left early in the morning and drove through Patagonia. The scenery was flat and sandy fields, bushes and lakes which were surrounded by snowy mountains. On the way, we saw a group of about twenty condors.

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The glacier was bigger than the first one we saw but we were less impressed than in Torres del Paine as the path leading to it was a lot easier and dozens of tourist buses were passing by throughout the day at all time. We wandered around the site, waiting for a piece of ice to fall off the glacier, which produces a deafening noise. We then learnt than about 32 people died from ice projection...We also went on a boat closer to the glacier, which gave us a sense of how big it is.

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On our way back to El Calafate, we stopped to see the flamingos and other birds in the city nature reserve. The wind was still blowing.

We took a bus the next morning to El Chalten, which is a national park and “the hiking capital of Argentine Patagonia”.

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We stayed in hostel Patagonia, with was friendly and still with our two American friends. We walked in the afternoon to Lago Agostini through the valley. At arrival, we saw the lake with another glacier in the background. The main attraction was a pair of buzzards showing off really close to us. Franck took his best shot and showed it to everybody and random people who were passing by.

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n the evening, Franck and David had a big piece of beef in preparation for the hike to Mount Fitz Roy.

We started our walk late in the morning. The weather was just perfect, sunny and not windy. We walked through green valleys and passed streams with really clear water.

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We could see Mount Fitz Roy and wondered how long it would take us to get to the view point. It seemed really close but it took us about 4h00 to get there.

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The last part was steep and rocky but the reward at the top was well worth the effort. The view was stunning. We could see Mount Fitz Roy with the lake, lago de los tres, at the bottom, which was still covered in snow.

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We then decided to climb the rocky mountain on the right, where everybody was going. We followed wondering what next could be seen as we were already amazed by the scenery. We climbed and saw another lake with a turquoise colour right at the bottom of Mont Fitz Roy. This was the icing on the cake.

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Tired of walking, we decided to run back to the hostel. We came back at around 7pm. David and Franck decided to treat themselves with another big piece of beef.

Posted by lebrunfo 10:00 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

South America - Week 7

Tierra del Fuego (Ushuaia, Puerto Natales)

all seasons in one day 10 °C

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On the plane to Ushuaia we soon realised that most travellers were no longer backpackers travelling on the cheap but instead grey-haired 55+ year old rich Northern American and European tourists on their way to Antarctica. Ushuaia is indeed the closest town on the planet from the coast of Antarctica. Cruises of about 10 to 15 days toward the white continent cost from $3000 per person (for a last minute deal, which we would have considered if we didn’t have to travel for a few months afterwards) to an average of I guess about $10000. As we landed, the temperature difference from the previous weeks certainly made us feel as if we were already in Antarctica! It was maybe 5-10 degrees with a chilly wind and the occasional rain fall.

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The town was similar to many Northern European cities like in Norway and Iceland, consisting of colourful wooden huts and painted concrete buildings around a commercial harbour with amazing mountain sceneries in the backdrop. Although the town has supposedly about 90,000 inhabitants, it is hard to distinguish local people among the crowds of gore-tex clad tourists wandering the streets and the numerous mountain gear shops.

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Apart from a few hikes in the nearby national park and a couple of boat trips in the Beagle channel there is not an awful lot of things to do in Ushuaia but we stayed there for 3 nights and enjoyed it very much, especially the visit to the “Pinguinera”, where we were able to walk among penguins colonies for an hour.

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We then left early morning by bus to go to Puerto Natales in Chile, the gateway to the Torres del Paine National Park. After an early start at 6h30 we got first to the Argentine border where we waited for 1h30, then had to get off the bus with our backpacks to cross the Chilean border and after another hour or so on the bus we got to the ferry boat to cross the Magellan straight but unfortunately there was no boat and the bus drivers were unable to tell us when the boat would come! We were stranded there for more than 4h and after 2 other buse rides we finally got to Puerto Natales after midnight! The views from the bus and the boat were similar to what you'd expect from the end of the world.. there was nothing but dirt roads and hills battered by heavy wind, with no towns and the occasional llama grazing on the side of the road.

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We are now preparing our trip to Torres del Paine national park, where we will be hiking and camping for the next 4 night and 5 days. We hired all the equipement we needed, bought some food and are praying for the weather to be kind to us for the next 5 days!

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Posted by lebrunfo 11:36 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

South America - Week 6

Buenos Aires - Argentina

sunny 26 °C

Buenos Aires

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On our way to Argentina, we stopped first at Colonia del Sacramento for a couple of hours and spent one night in Carmelo. Colonia del Sacramento is a small town with Portuguese-influenced architecture, which has been named UNESCO World Heritage. It is hence very touristic with many restaurants and tour buses. Despite all these, it was nice just to walk around but I will not recommend spending the night there. We decided to go to Carmelo instead before crossing the border to Argentina by boat. Our first impression was OMG, where are we? Carmelo is a very small and dusted town. There are a historical centre and a main plaza where people gather around on a Sunday evening, eating helados. We could not really distinguish the historical centre from the rest of the city but tourist information was very proud to circle the places to see on the map, i.e. the lagoon and the historical centre. It turned out to be lovely. We found another dog, who kept us company during the touristic tour of Carmelo, which lasted a good hour.

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The next day, we took a ferry along Rio de la Plata to Tigre in Argentina. Tigre is a town in the outskirt of Buenos Aires. The guide book described it as a magnificent maze of rivers and streams wrapped with flora and fauna. Sounds nice. We arrived late afternoon and being not quite sure anymore whether we should stay or not, the first argument bursted! We hence headed straight to Buenos Aires (BA), which takes about 50 minutes by train for the modest price of 20p. Finding a hostel was not too hard. We stayed at Ostinnati in San Telmo, which is the artistic barrio of BA with a lot of antique shops. BA is Spain mixed with Italy. Obviously people of BA, who refer to themselves as porteños, speak Spanish but they borrow a lot to Italy. The names of the barrios are Italian such as San Telmo, Palermo and Recoleta... Men are also very Italian in their behaviour, which is quite flattering.

On the first night, Franck treated himself with a big “bloody” steak, like we French people like them. I am on a diet of mixed salad, empanadas de verduras and bread...this is gonna be hard. The next day, we headed towards the Centre and Plaza de Mayo, where Evita Peron used to talk to the people of BA from the balcony of the Casa Rosada.

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In the afternoon, Franck kindly invited me to see a football game (lucky me! ): River Plate vs. Boca Junior. This turned out to be very interesting. The game was “bof” (even me can say that) but it was fascinating to see so much passion for these two teams, which were competing for the 13th position of the championship. River Plate won and it really felt they won the world cup. At some point, I really thought, the stadium was going to collapse.

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The following days, we moved to Palermo, which is the trendy place to stay in BA. I think I prefer the not so clean atmosphere of San Telmo, and its small cafes. We also went to see the colourful houses of La Boca, which is also full of tourists and fake tango dancers.

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We wandered around the parks. I had the pleasure of receiving a gift from the trees, a big gob of spit full of insects. This is very common and does not seem to bother the locals. We eventually found the cemetery in Recoleta where Eva Peron Duarte is buried.

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We then decided to explore the nightlife with my new friend Ignacio. Whoa! This is nothing like London. Happy hour is until midnight and things do not start to heat up until 1am. The entrance fee includes a few drinks and ladies drink beers for free on week days until 10pm! I would not recommend Fernet and coke, which is the local alcohol and taste like anaesthetic (Franck says: “pure Fernet is not better ...“). We headed to the hostel in the early hours of the day, with great hope of stopping leading a dissolute life!

On our last day, we decided to go back to Tigre. Our second impression was way better than the first. The city was not particularly pretty but I recommend taking the local boat and spending the night in one of the streams of the canals.

Our next stop will be Ushuaia, the southernmost town on the american continent where we will be flying to on Sunday morning.

Posted by lebrunfo 17:52 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

South America - Week 5

Uruguay

sunny 20 °C

Don’t follow the lonely planet recommendations. That would be our recommendation for Uruguay. The journey between Tacuarembo and the coast was described as the best “off the beaten paths” journey so, although not the quickest way to get to where we wanted, it was the most direct way on the map so we decided to try it. From Salto, we found out on Sunday evening that there were only 3 buses per week to get to Tacuarembo. Luckily one was on Monday but unfortunately it was at 5 in the morning! So we arrived in Tacuarembo at about 9am, under 40 degrees heat with nothing to do but to wait for the next bus to Melo that was not leaving before 5.30pm. We spent the day walking around, watching the locals with their berets, leather belts, boots and horses. The town wasn’t pretty but there were some genuinely interesting characters to watch.

Locals in Tacuarembo:
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We finally made it to Melo – another uninteresting town - at 9.30pm. For those of you who are lucky enough to have been to Mulhouse in France, well... most of these towns so far in Uruguay reminded me of it. Not really pretty, not much to do, but still not too unpleasant with their provincial atmosphere where time seems to have stopped many years ago. On the next day we took 3 more buses to Treinta-y-Tres, Chuy and eventually Punta del Diablo (total time 9 hours with connections). On that day, the weather took a bad turn and went from 40 degrees and sunny to heavy rain and 10 degrees! With this rain, we couldn’t see anything from the scenic bus journey described in the lonely planet.

Punta del Diablo:
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So to summarise, we spent about 4 days travelling from Paraguay to the coast in Uruguay to end up not seeing much and being in a ghost town with bad weather where it seemed that there were more dogs than inhabitants. That being said, Punta Del Diablo was a nice place to relax for 2 nights despite the cold and the wind. In a few words, it is some kind of fishing-surfing village with beautiful beaches, small wooden cabins and dogs everywhere... Had it been sunny and warm, it would have been the perfect place to relax for a few days as we had planned but we decided to go to another fishing village, Cabo Polonio, further down the coast and speed up a bit towards Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

Punta del Diablo:
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Cabo Polonio lies inside a national park where there was neither electricity nor running water and cars. There were only fishing cabins and very few people live there permanently. It was quite picturesque and – still without any signs of warmer weather –the main draw to this village was the sea lion / seals colony near the lighthouse.

Seals:
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We stayed in a tiny 4-bed dorm with an English guy and a Belgian girl we had met a couple of hours before getting on the bus from Punta del Diablo. We stayed at Cabo Polonio hostel and we’d like to say to everyone reading this blog not to go there. The accommodation was basic, like anywhere else anyway in this village – so that is not the point - but the owner was dishonest and totally fake (an Argentinean who speaks French by the way).

Hostel:
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We left the village with a bitter taste in our mouth after paying these extra 3 pounds (!) on the room rate and got on a bus to Montevideo with high expectations for the Friday and Saturday nights in this bigger city. Let’s say it now, Montevideo could be worse to the smaller towns we’ve been to earlier in Uruguay because it has all the inconvenience of big cities (street crime, poverty, dirtiness ...) and none of its advantages in terms of things to see and places to go out. The old town is okay with some remains of colonial occupation from the Spanish. We went for a run along the coast and it seemed that the suburbs 4-5 km away from the centre by the beach were a bit less run down and attracted quite a bit of crowd on Saturday evening. We are glad to be leaving tomorrow if we can, as we have spent most of our Saturday trying to find an ATM that works (and still haven’t) so we might be stuck here with 10US dollars until we manage to get some money out!!

Montevideo:
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Hasta la vista...

Uruguay highlights:
Chivitos al Plato: 5000 calories on a plate that consists of a steak with melted cheese, bacon, mayonnaise, French fries, ketchup, potato salad, mayonnaise, 2 fried eggs, mayonnaise and some carrots and tomatoes to make it look healthy)

Chivitos al Plato:
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Lowlights: Argentinean crook in Cabo Polonio, most towns, no ATM that works in Montevideo

Oh.. and just to remember that Uruguay is not Brazil:
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Posted by lebrunfo 16:21 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

South America - Week 4

Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay

sunny 39 °C

We were originally planning to get on a 2 days boat trip down the rio Paraguay from the Brazil-Paraguay border to the town of Conception in Paraguay but all the information we could find was for the reverse journey so, although it was theoretically possible to do that trip in the direction we wanted, we decided not to get on the 8h bus to the river and wait indefinitely for an hypothetical boat. Instead we decided to go to Foz do Iguacu in Brazil to visit the famous Iguacu falls. The journey there from Bonito took us about 20h and 3 different buses. The highlight of the journey was possibly a stop in the town of Dourados where - while waiting for our connection - we ended up at the local bar/restaurant near the bus station where people had never seen a tourist before. The waiter didn't seem very impressed by our Portuguese but we still managed to order some food as well as the cheapest beers ever found in Brazil!

On the first day in Foz do Iguacu we visited a bird park where we got very close to Toucans (could they be cuter than puffins?).
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We then wandered near the waterfall in the national park on the Brazilian side of the border. On the second day we visited the Argentinian side of the falls and had our first glimpse of Argentina and our first taste of empanadas.
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Back in Brazil in the evening we stopped in a shady restaurant in search of a cheap meal but we got offered a special tourist menu in english where all the prices where extortionate. The waiter was quite insistent that we order some food but we managed to leave after a few Caipirinhas that we paid twice the normal price.

On the third day we crossed the border to Paraguay by foot - over a 1-2km bridge - to the city of Ciudad del Este.
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The town was chaotic and the traffic hectic. We easily walked accros the border without being stopped by immigration officers and had to look for them in order to have our passports stamped. The town is apparently famous for cheap electronics items but we didn't stop there for shopping. We went straight to the bus terminal to get on a bus to Encarnation in the South of the country and it is with a bus loaded with TVs, DVD players and other laptops and mobile phones that we started our painfully slow 6h journey to cover about 250km! "Entertainment" was provided on the bus by vendors selling all sorts of goods every time the bus stopped (very frequently!).
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We spent 2 nights in Encarnation and on the second day we went to visit some ruins of Jesuit settlements about 1 hour out of town (Trinidad and Jesus).
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Getting there and back was quite fun and challenging but people were very friendly and helped us get to where we wanted.
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There doesn't seem to be much tourist infrastructure in Paraguay but this is what makes the charm of this country where, as a tourist, you feel like you are the first "outsider" to step into the country. Paraguay has a lot of national parks and remote areas that would have been nice to explore but this would have required a lot of time and energy to get to these places and a lot of money as well to arrange trips with private guides and transportation.

When leaving Paraguay for the Argentinian border town of Posadas, we missed the paraguayan exit stamp and are a bit worried about any implication this might have in the near future. We then went on a 11h bus trip to Concordia in Argentina where we where hoping to be able to cross the border to Uruguay by bus the following day - on Sunday - but we found out upon arrival in Concordia at 10.30pm that no bus was operating on Sunday and that we needed to get a cab. We decided to get on the 1h cab journey accross the border straight away and got to Sallto in Uruguay just before midnight.

We have spent one day in the hot springs near Salto (it sounds more glamourous than what it actually was: 40 degrees in the water and 40 degrees in the air..) and are now preparing for an early start (5h30) bus accross the country but we now that we will have to stay one night somewhere before we can get to the coast...

I, Franck, have a few regrets about our short visit in Paraguay:
1. I would have liked to visit the Capital, Ascunsion, where the familly of a friend lives and they could have given us some tips and maybe showed us around
2. I wished we had gone on that boat down the Rio Paraguay from the Pantanal in Brazil
3. I wished I had found a Paraguayan football jersey but they apparently all sold out before the world cup (unlike the french jerseys which I managed to find in a shop in Encarnation!)

Posted by lebrunfo 15:16 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

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