As I have been very amiss in keeping you up to date with my travels (as has been pointed out to me on a regular basis recently), I am treating you below to a bumper edition covering nearly 2 months of travelling in Argentina and Chile.
When I left you last, Ben and I were on our way to Buenos Aires. Most of our time there was spent doing Spanish lessons (sorely needed after 2 months in Brazil which had put paid to any smattering of Spanish I might have had originally).
After Buenos Aires we headed down to Torres del Paine, the famous national park in Chilean Patagonia. 5 days of long hard trekking ensued - but worth every blister. We had blue skies with no clouds throughout the 5 days rather than the torrential rain and cloudy skies for which Torres is renowned.
Back over the border by bus to Argentinian Patagonia to see the Perito Moreno glacier (until recently one of the few advancing glaciers in the world). As (once again) we had blue skies and sunshine the day we visited Perito Moreno, we were treated to some pretty spectacular sights and sounds of large sections of the glacier breaking off and crashing thunderously into the lake below. This was even more impressive during the 30 minutes that we were in a boat cruising along the front wall of the glacier - the huge chunks of the wall tumbling down creating fairly large waves in their wake. And to say nothing of the underwater icebergs which would randomly pop up from below the surface of the lake requiring expert steering on the part of the skipper.
We next made our way up to El Chalten (still in Argentinian Patagonia) where we did a glacier hike which involved trekking up to the glacier at the foot of Cerro Torres (including pulling ourselves horizontally across a river with the help of a harness attached to a rope). Once at the glacier, we donned crampons, learned how to walk with them and then walked across the top of the glacier. The colour of the glacial ice appear to the human eye either white (where air bubbles have entered the ice) or a beautiful deep blue (which is pure ice with no oxygen). Walking across the glacier, we passed by ice canyons created by water flowing through the glacier, with spectacular hues of blue where the canyon tapered off and continued as a little tunnel under the ice. Having walked precariously across the top of the glacier, our next challenge was to scale, with ice picks, an ice wall of about 12 metres. It didn t sound or look very high but I had underestimated the effort involved in ramming each ice pick into the ice wall, hauling my weight up a few inches, ramming the front of the crampons on my feet into the wall (resulting in very sore toes afterwards), pulling the ice picks out and starting all over again. Just as I was about to reach the top, my strength gave and crampons and ice picks together lost their grip in the ice - fortunately I was roped to the guide so it just meant I hung around in mid air for a few minutes until I got my grip on the ice again. The way back down was infinitely more pleasant than going up - I just sat back on the rope harness and abseiled merrily down to the bottom.
Feeling a bit trekked out at this stage, three of us (Ben, Donal (of Donegal fame) and I rented a car at our next stop, Cohayaique in Chile (with the intention of driving to and trekking up a mountain to see yet another glacier). We got a bit sidetracked (or, more accurately, lost) on the way there - not having a road map didn t help matters! We were on a deserted dirt road (admittedly very scenic, but night was falling fast) with no idea of how to get back onto the main road other than turning around and driving back the way we had come for 2 hours. Getting out of the car to review our pretty hopeless situation, we spotted headlights coming towards us (the first sign of life we had seen since hitting the dirt road) - the driver was a French man (who seemed quite amused at our plight) who told us that 2km further down the road we would come to Alfredo s and Pati s house and they would be happy to put us up and feed us for the night.
Not quite knowing what to expect, we drove the 2 kms, spoke to said Pati (who, on us enquiring about the price of food and lodging, asked us how much we wanted to pay!). On entering their little farmhouse, we felt like we were transported back into another century. No electricity (instead, a gas lamp hissing on the wall), no running water (4 huge buckets of water from the river stood on the kitchen counter, from which Pati intermittently filled the 3 or 4 kettles constantly on the boil on the range in the middle of the kitchen), and therefore, obviously, no bathroom. The toilets were out in the (very dark) yard next to the house and consisted of a wooden box with a hole over a pungent pit in the ground. However, when Pati took a huge sizzling tray of roast lamb out of the range, we knew we had come to the right place. We were fed on homemade bread and homemade cheese while we were waiting for the dinner of succulent lamb. Yet another anchronistic touch became evident during dinner - the women in the kitchen (Pati and her sister in law) did not sit down and eat with us. We ate with the men and the women hovered around waiting on us (and I think ate by themselves in a separate room afterwards). As time for bed neared, we went out to the car to bring in sleeping bags (convinced we would be sleeping pretty much on the floor); I was taking no chances so I also brought my hat, gloves, fleece and an extra pair of socks. We were then led (by candlelight of course) up a ladder to under the eaves of the house where we found 3 beds made up for us, piled high with all manner of blankets and even a puma pelt on one of them (the puma having been killed by Alfredo).
We did actually make it to the mountain we wanted to climb the next day, but, as we were once again without a proper map (as we had expected there to be a trail - there was not), we got lost about half way up and, defeated, we decided to forego the glacier. We then proceeded to get lost on our way back down and ended up squelching through some very smelly marshland (which even Doanl s aftershave could not counteract). Our mountaineering experience came through when we admitted that the only landmarks we recognised on the way back were a herd of cattle and some horses that we had (we thought) passed on the way up. We were dismayed to find, looking around, that there was more than one herd of cattle on the mountain side (which was ours?) and that the horses had very inconveniently moved since we had seen them last.
Deciding that we definitely needed a break from trekking, our next stop took us to Futaleufu in Chile, on the border with Argentina. From there we planned to cross the border, bus it up to the lake district in Argentina and rent a car (with a road map this time).
Before we managed to leave Futaleufu though, we were accosted by 2 Americans looking for people to do a rafting trip down the Futaleufu river (we had been unaware that the Futaleufu is the 2nd best white water rafting river in the world (second only to the African Zambeze)). I had never rafted before and had visions of careering down waterfalls in a rubber dinghy (not the case) but decided to give it a go anyway. I didn t regret it and actually ended up being disappointed that we didn t have to descend any waterfalls but merely had class 4 and 5 rapids to deal with (which admittedly provided a great adrenaline rush).
We made it out of Futaleufu across the border to Argentina by hitching. Ben and I ended up in the back of a pickup driven by 3 Argentinian gauchos, complete with cowboy hats and pointed-toed, high-heeled boots. The pickup would only start if it was pushed (the starter had gone), the door only closed if slammed vigorously about 5 times, the back window was completely shattered and held together with pieces of packing tape and the trailer at the back (in which Ben and I were precariously perched with our backpacks) was made of extremely dusty planks of wood pretty much held together by blue cord (to which we hung on with death grips as the gauchos sped us across the border on a very bumpy dirt road at about 100km an hour).
On arrival in Bariloche, in the Argentinian lake district, we rented a car for a week (again with Donal, who had agreed to stop wearing aftershave) and drove around the beautiful lake districts of Argentina and Chile. We also visited the island of Chiloe in Chile for a night, Chiloe (incredibly green) bearing a striking resemblance to certain parts of rural Ireland. For the first time since arriving in Chile and Argentina, the weather turned against us and prevented us from climbing the Villarica Volcano in Pucon (Chile) - the trek up to the crater takes about 6 hours and the "trek" down about 2 hours, as you slide (on on your backside) rather than walk back down. Howewer, plans are afoot to get back to Santiago for a week s skiing sometime in August and as Pucon is only a 10 hour bus-ride away from Santiago, we may slide down Villarica yet.
Back in Argentina, next stops were the northern cities of Mendoza (famous for its wine) and Salta (very close to the Bolivian border). Deciding that I needed one more Argentinian and Chilean stamp in my passport, I crossed the Argentinian-Chilean border for the last time to visit the weird and wonderful landscapes of the Atacama desert where I witnessed a sunset at the top of a sand dune in the Valle de la Luna, the frothing and steaming Tatio geysers and the startlingly blue altiplanic lakes surrounded by salt flats and desert mountains of varying red and brown hues. Some of these places are located at altitudes nearing 5000 metres and, as a result, at one point, I was hooked up to an oxygen mask to ward off the dizziness and nausea I was feeling. Rather than eliciting sympathy from my fellow passengers in the minibus, they thought that this was a great photo opportunity so I am now gracing the holiday albums of random Chilean, English and French families.
Before I leave Chile, a word of warning to all tea drinkers - NEVER order ""te con leche" (tea with milk) in Chile as you will be presented with a teabag in an empty cup into which the waitress will then pour a jug of steaming milk. To avoid this traumatic experience (I was caught out twice and am still recovering, slowly), ask for tea WITHOUT milk and then (only when your teabag and boiling water is clearly visible on the table in front of you), politely request "un poco de leche fria".