Unscheduled service interruption

You’ll all be very excited to discover that I haven’t actually dropped off the face of the world.  The last two months haven’t seen any updates here, obviously.  I guess it’s about time I came up with an excuse…

Our beachfront bungalow for a week on Koh Lipe

One of the places I’ve been spending my time over the last couple of months, too busy to communicate with you all: our beachfront bungalow for a week on Koh Lipe

You could call it a change of priorities, I suppose.  But really, basically, I’m going to blame the French.

You haven’t read anything about this here, yet, because I haven’t even got up to writing about Guatemala (yet).  But – sneak preview – that’s where, back in July, I met my now-girlfriend, Marion, a French fellow traveller wandering around Central and South America with a friend of hers.

The last post I put up here was in early September, a few days before my round-the-world trip with Chris came to its scheduled conclusion.  The end of that trip was a bit hectic, and from there, I was heading back to South-East Asia for some well-earned r & r time.  About that time, too, Marion and I had started thinking that maybe we’d like to see each other again sometime in the foreseeable future.  More specifically, we started thinking about interrupting her South America time so she could come visit me.  Buggered if I was changing my plans!

So all the time I had set aside for some busy laying about in Thailand maybe catching up on a blog post or two kind of turned into some busy laying about in Thailand planning her trip over to come join me.  And, to keep me occupied in the meantime, some time planning my own trip to Myanmar for before she arrived.

Visiting the Grand Palace in Bangkok

My second visit to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Now with foreground!

Then I promptly spent some time ditching all those Myanmar plans (and I’d bought two guide books that I hadn’t read and everything!) and re-planning her trip to get her here three weeks earlier than we’d booked it, on a few days’ notice, really just on a whim.  And then, y’know, suddenly she was here.  Is here.  Has been for more than a month now…

So, right now we’re sitting around having a rest day on the internets in Chiang Mai.  And in the intervening time I think I’ve opened up a draft for a blog post on maybe one other occasion.

Young monks release a lantern for the famous Yee Peng festival in Chiang Mai

Young monks release a lantern for the famous Yee Peng festival in Chiang Mai

Like I said:  a change in priorities.  For the couple of months during which we’re located in the same hemisphere as one another, my time is pretty much all spoken for.  Any leftover moments tend to be spent drilling some basic French into my brain, rather than tapping away here.  (Est-ce que vous pourriez parler plus lentement, s’il vous plait?)

And that’ll almost certainly continue for the next few weeks, I’m afraid.  If you’re very well-behaved, you might just get another post or two in early December.  But don’t hold your breath.  Seriously, we wouldn’t want you all going purple.  Especially not just before Christmas.  It’s really not a good Christmas-y colour.

Sunset from the nearest beach to our hostel on Koh Lanta

Sunset from the nearest beach to our hostel on Koh Lanta

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Florianópolis

This is going to be one of the shortest posts I’ve ever bothered with here, I think.  Because I don’t really know what to tell you about Florianópolis.

I hardly took any photos.  In fact, much of my time was spent not even having left our fantastic hostel.  Over five days, I went for one run on the beach, one post-midnight swim, and one hike over the hill to a beach on the other side.  (That last was actually a bit of an adventure, involving a couple of hours of bare-foot trekking over what’s perhaps most generously described as a ‘nature trail’.  Slash stream, given the deluge that commenced its descent from the skies about twenty minutes in.  But still, entertaining as that experience was, our stay on Florianópolis overall was substantially less than my usual levels of out-and-about activity.)

The view from the deck/bar of Barra Beach Club, Florianópolis

The view I spent most of my days in Florianópolis in front of: from the deck/bar of our hostel

I spent most of the rest of the days on the deck-by-day, bar-by-night in the hostel overlooking the sea and beach, in front of either a Kindle or a laptop.  And pretty much all the evenings in that same bar chatting away and enjoying the reasonably priced beers and daily free caipirinhas.

It was fantastic.

It was relaxing.  (Although not in the sense of managing to get anywhere near adequate levels of sleep:  somehow those beers and caipirinhas always managed to extend fairly late in the evening, followed by more hanging around chatting, or heading down to the beach, when the bar closed.  And waking with the natural light in the rooms not long after sunrise each morning meant that the week, while enjoyable, was also somewhat sleep-deprived.)

It was a chance to be in one place for a while, and do an awful lot of not much.  It was a chance to meet some great people who were actually then still in the same place as me for several days in a row.

There’s a lot going for Florianópolis, most of which I didn’t experience.  But the point of the place is to have a holiday.  And I’m perfectly happy with having achieved that, even if I did it in a way that makes for the most boring reading possible in a blog post.  Although in fairness, as far as contributions to this blog go, Florianópolis is actually way up there:  most of what you read about Myanmar, Thailand, Chile and Perú back in April and May was typed up over a few days of enjoyably productive writing from that very same hostel deck.  So I guess you’ll have to take the ups with the downs, and hopefully you enjoyed some of those posts even if there’s not much to enjoy in this one.

The little beach nearest our hostel, complete with spotlight to light it up at night – well, except that one night when the power went out – giving the night owls somewhere to go once the bar’s closed

The little beach nearest our hostel, complete with spotlight to light it up at night – well, except that one night when the power went out – giving the night owls somewhere to go once the bar’s closed

Getting a Brazilian visa in Puerto Iguazú

This is an especially boring advice post, even by my standards, but I’m putting it up in the hope it saves someone some trouble figuring out what they need to do in order to travel to Brazil – or, better yet, that it convinces someone that actually it’s not so hard to get the visa which would allow them to include Brazil on their South American tour after all.  Unfortunately, that means it’ll be largely useless and uninteresting to most people.  C’est la vie.

Another Iguazú Falls photo.  Just because.

Another Iguazú Falls photo. Just because.

Brazil is one of only two countries on this entire round-the-world trip for which my passport has needed a visa stuck in it before I turned up to immigration.  Brazil doesn’t work that way for many passports – for example if I’d managed to get around to realising that I’m theoretically entitled to a New Zealand one many years ago, instead of, say, in the middle of last December, then I would never have needed to discover the information below, since I would have been waltzing across the border visa- (and fee-) free.

But for us Aussies, as for the Canadians and Yanks out there (and obviously some other countries as well), a pre-arranged visa is required.  This is slightly annoying, as a quick bout of Googling will reveal that Brazilian embassies around the world (much like their population in general) do not have a fantastic reputation for getting the necessaries done quick-smart.

My initial expectation was that I should try to organise the visa while back in Australia last December – but the timeframes didn’t really seem likely to work out given that I was already replacing my passport at the time, and given that Christmas holidays were involved.  I don’t know whether Brazilians are big on Christmas or not, but I kind of assume that the existence of any sort of holiday period is unlikely to encourage speed and diligence.

So instead I got my Brazilian visa in Argentina.  I expected that this would be easiest to do in Buenos Aires – the point of my bothering with this post, though, is that that expectation turned out to be wrong.  Much easier – at least in my case – to sort it out in Puerto Iguazú.

Apparently the Consulate-General in Buenos Aires is actually not bad for visa turnarounds:  two to four days, instead of the multiple weeks typical of embassies elsewhere in the world.  But as it happened, there was a public holiday in the way when we would be in Argentina’s capital, so I looked for other options.  Thus to the rescue the embassy in Puerto Iguazú, which turned out to be faster in any case, and also happens to have a reputation for involving a bit less hassle.

(If nothing else, getting a visa from Buenos Aires is more hassle because you have to have an appointment to go submit your documents.  There’s a nice handy online appointment tool to schedule this for you, thankfully, but it has a minor drawback:  it flat-out doesn’t work.  To get yourself an appointment, phone or email the Consulate-General.)

Obviously I’m not the authoritative source for what’s required when you apply for your visa – you can find what the Brazilian government says about the matter here.  But in addition to the filled-out and signed form, the 2”x2” passport photo, the proof of travel to/from Brazil (telling them I planned take a taxi or bus from Puerto Iguazú seemed sufficient for “proof of travel to” in my case), proof of a hotel/hostel reservation, bank statement from the last ninety days, photocopy of a credit card and fee in exact change, be aware that you will be required to provide a phone number at which you can theoretically be contacted while your visa is processed, or they will turn you away.  So I suggest you bring the phone number of your hotel or hostel’s front desk.

The Puerto Iguazú embassy is at Avenida Córdoba #264, and it opens at 8am in the morning each weekday.  Get in early – right when it opens, if not before, to get in line.  They only accept applications in the morning, apparently;  you can’t turn up even at 1pm to try to get yourself sorted out.  Once you drop off your application and passport, you’ll still have plenty of time to visit the Argentine side of the Falls for the day, before you enjoy a relaxed final evening in Argentina and then return to pick up your visa whenever you’re told to return (sometime the next morning).  Then cross the border, visit the Falls from the other side, and head on into Brazil.

Easy.

Iguazú Falls

The Iguazú Falls, seen from near the boat launch on the Argentine side

The Iguazú Falls. Devil’s Throat on the left, Isla San Martin in the middle-right, and some other miscellaneous cascades on the right.

According to this perhaps disturbingly inevitable Wikipedia page, the Iguazú Falls are the third biggest non-submerged waterfall by mean annual flow rate.

(In case you, like me, are wondering “what the hell is a submerged waterfall anyway?!”, from what I can tell it means “it used to be a waterfall but then we built a lake over it, so actually it’s not in any way a waterfall any more, but I just want to put it on this here list of waterfalls on Wikipedia because it makes me feel clever”.  Mystery solved.)

More to the point, as far as lists people care about, there are three truly great waterfalls that seem to pop up on people’s lists of must-see sites around the world.  Niagara Falls, between Canada and the US (duh);  Iguazú Falls, between Brazil and Argentina;  and Victoria Falls, between Zimbabwe and Zambia.  Weird – it’d never occurred to me before that they’re all on country borders.  Guess the fact that they’re all necessarily on decent-sized rivers kind of makes that reasonably more likely.

Anyway, regardless of how the lists all stack up, you have to admit once you’re actually at Iguazú:  there is a serious amount of water tumbling over those cliffs, and it’s fascinating and worth the effort to go see.  Even if it is a slightly unfortunate poo-brown sort of colour.  (That, I’m assured, is entirely due to sediment and not do to any unsanitary conditions upstream.  Apparently a decade or so ago it was quite different, and the water quite clear and blue and pretty.)

Quite a lot of water in this picture, no?  Especially given that this picture doesn’t even include the main part of the falls – the Devil’s Throat.

Quite a lot of water in this picture, no? Especially given that this picture doesn’t even include the main part of the falls – the Devil’s Throat.

So, a visit to Iguazú Falls is one of the staples of many a trip to South America, and we figured that as soon as we were done wandering around Patagonia, we’d head on up, on our way into Brazil.

And thus it was that we found ourselves spending a couple of days – one on each side of the border – wandering around the various vantage points to get a good thorough look at this truly stupendous barrage of falling water.  (Again we were incredibly lucky with the weather:  the two days that we visited the Falls were largely blue skies and sunshine, with just enough clouds to take the heat out and to make for some more interesting skies in our pretty photos.  The day in between – the day I picked up my visa and we crossed the border – it rained.)

There are lots of recommendations plastered all over the internet telling you which side you should see first, and how you should do this bit and then that bit and get the best photos from over there.  Personally, I don’t think it matters much.  We did the Argentinian side first because we were coming from Buenos Aires and heading into Brazil after – and also because it was while I was waiting for the local embassy to process my Brazilian visa.

The Falls from the Brazilian side – the Devil’s Throat is in amongst the spray in the middle

The Falls from the Brazilian side – the Devil’s Throat is in amongst the spray in the middle …

The Brazilian side gets you a better overview of the Devil’s Throat – the biggest, most impressive part of the falls.  I guess if pressed I’d say the Brazilian side’s better, and if you’ve only got time to see one, see that one.  But the Brazilian side consists of only a single path running up to the Devil’s Throat, so you don’t get quite so much variety.  (And of course it’s that much more maddening because a single path is that much easier for the inconsiderate hoards of large – both as in numerous and as in obese – tourist groups to block!)  The Argentinian side lets you get up a lot closer, and has you wandering past a lot of the smaller cascades nearby where the river has split off to find a variety of different paths from top to bottom.

The Falls from the Brazilian side – the Devil’s Throat is in amongst the spray off to the left

… of course, it’s difficult to get a good sense of that from photographs, because as you get anywhere near the Devil’s Throat there’s just too much spray to see clearly from a camera.

From both sides, though, you can see perhaps the Falls’ most impressive feature:  the incredible amount of spray it throws up.  And you can marvel at the pretty rainbows everywhere that the constant presence of temporarily airborne water droplets creates.

Tada!  Rainbows!

Tada! Rainbows!

Both sides do boat trips to get you right up to the bottom of some of the cascades – we did the one from the Argentinian side, having heard it was a little better.  It was an entertaining ride, and you do get to see quite a different angle on the Falls from the water, but the point seemed more to get you as drenched as possible by the spray than to get the best view:  basically it consisted of the boat driver shoving the boat right up as close to the bottom of a couple of different falls as he could.  Gotta admit, the guy’s got a pretty fun job!

An overview of all of the Iguazú Falls from a helicopter

An overview of all of the Iguazú Falls from a helicopter. The Devil’s Throat is to the left, largely obscured by all the spray that it kicks up into the sky and into clouds. Yup, everything from the middle of the photo on over to the right is basically a pretty sideshow. Impressive, no?

The highlight of the whole experience, though, was the helicopter ride from the Brazilian side.  It was short – only around ten minutes – and expensive, at roughly a hundred US dollars each.  But it gives you by far the best vantage point of all to see the whole of the Falls at once.  And probably the most amazing aspect:  seeing how the spectacular mist cloud that the Devil’s Throat throws up into the air is actually a big enough generator of water droplets in the air that it powers a permanent cloud formation over the Falls.  We loved the whole experience, and so did the friendly American couple we’d met on the bus out to the Falls and convinced to join us for the ride.

Devil’s Throat as seen from a helicopter, generating its own clouds

Devil’s Throat as seen from a helicopter, generating its own clouds

Some other minor recommendations if you’re going:

  • Both sides are easy to get to on local buses from the towns on each side of the border (Puerto Iguazú on the Argentinian side and Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazilian side).  There’s really no need to take an organized tour to get you there.  Nor, for that matter, do you need a guide once you’re there.  If you can’t figure out what it is that you’re looking at when standing in front of a giant waterfall, well, I can’t imagine there’s much that a guide can tell you that would help solve that particular problem.
  • The Argentinian side has the Inferior Circuit, the Superior Circuit, and the path to the Devil’s Throat – you can easily wander them all and have plenty of time to spare in the day.  There’s a train to get to the Devil’s Throat, and it goes about every twenty minutes and often has a long line.  Or you can just walk beside the train tracks, taking about twenty minutes and therefore quite possibly beating those waiting in line.  At the very least, you’ll probably not arrive at the other end at the same time as a hundred or so of your closest friends, so I’d recommend walking.
  • Speaking of the Devil’s Throat and the train, the last train out there goes a while before the park closes, at some time which I can’t remember but which is clearly marked at the train stop.  If you go out there around that time, apparently there are vastly fewer other tourists around.  Given that there’s quite a crush out there most of the time (I’m told), I’d recommend doing that so long as the weather looks like it’ll hold.
  • There’s a path out to another, smaller cascade on the Argentinian side:  the path is the Macuco Trail, and the cascade Salto Arrechea.  Much to our annoyance, we discovered at around 3.30pm that they won’t let you start wandering out there after 3pm, on the theory that you wouldn’t be back before the park closes.  But when we subsequently spied Salto Arrechea from the Brazilian side a couple of days later, I really don’t think we missed much by not doing that trail.
  • There’s a restaurant out the end of the Brazilian side with an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch which is actually really good.  The waiter told me the price was R$45, but when we then hesitated a bit and answered ‘no’ when he asked if we had a guide, he offered it to us for R$38.  It was actually really good, and I guarantee I ate my R$38 worth!
  • On the Argentinian side, there’s also a Bird Park near the entrance to the Falls.  Here, for a not too ridiculous entry fee, you too can wander through and take way, way too many photos of toucans and macaws.  I’m told it’s not worth bothering to visit if you’re going to be heading out to the Pantanal anyway, since you’ll see all the birds in their natural habitat out there.  But if, like us, you don’t have time to visit that area of Brazil, this is a pretty reasonable alternative.
A toucan in the Bird Park, looking remarkably like it just got out of bed and isn’t happy about it!

A toucan in the Bird Park, looking remarkably like it just got out of bed and isn’t happy about it!

Hummingbirds in the Bird Park, feeding out of an artificial feeder

Hummingbirds in the Bird Park, feeding out of an artificial feeder. Surprisingly difficult to get a good photo of these little buggers!

Busing Argentina in style

After Patagonia, we turned our attention to one of Argentina’s other famous natural wonders – the Iguazú Falls.  Of course, since they’re at completely the other end of the country, we had to get there first…

We ended our time down south by flying back up to Buenos Aires at some truly unreasonable hour of the morning (seriously, our flight left at like 3am or something – no doubt that was the reason we could afford the tickets).  We arrived to OK-looking weather which quickly turned into a torrential downpour as soon as we were out wandering around in it.  (This seemed grossly unfair – after all, we were only out seeking a café near the airport to get us some coffee to get us through the morning, knowing that we had a full day’s wait until our overnight bus.  At the very least the weather could have given us a break for some espresso, no?)

So we gave up on the café idea, flagged down the nearest taxi, dropped our bags in a locker at the bus station, and proceeded to find a café near the bus station instead.  And once we were done marvelling at the sheer magnitude of Buenos Aires’s main bus station, an uneventful day of waiting passed.  You get pretty good at whiling the time away patiently after a year or so over travelling.  Then we got on our bus.

And what a bus…

Buses are a big deal in Argentina.  It’s a big country, but South America in general doesn’t have a lot of cheap air travel, and Argentina is no exception.  Nonetheless, Argentina has always been one of South America’s wealthier nations, and its European-descent population, very much like middle classes the world over, likes to travel.  Driving is definitely popular – from what we could tell, there’s nothing a motorised Argentine likes more than to attempt to dispel the myth that Ayrton Senna was the only South American with balls at high speed – and so the long distances are not necessarily a problem for our speed-limit-plus-at-least-50% friends.  Still, Argentina is not so rich, and lots of long-distance car trips can get expensive.  Enter the bus.

I gather it’s only recently, with rising fuel prices driving up long-distance bus fares, that flying has become even vaguely competitive in cost on any routes – and on plenty, including up to Iguazú, the bus is still considerably cheaper.  So the bus has had a few decades to cement its place as the chosen mode of transport for many an Argentine adventure.

With a fairly extensive network of far-flung destinations (bus trips of 24 hours or more run on daily schedules on multiple different bus lines on a good handful of routes around the country), with substantial competition, and with Argentines liking nothing if not to travel in style and comfort, the buses are not just convenient – they’re also exceptionally well-appointed.  There are a variety of fares available – with government regulation ensuring that each seat sold is precisely categorised into a set of standardised classes, so you know exactly how comfortable you can expect to be.

The most comfortable standard class is ‘cama ejecutivo’, and you can expect a fair bit:  leg room and a leg rest, a seriously impressive level of seat recline-ability, blankets, food, etc.  It’s pretty good.  Hell, even the ‘semi-cama’ ordinary class is better than what you’ll get on any bus in most other countries.

But apparently it’s not good enough.  Because some companies have introduced their own super-luxury seats.  And, well, on the way up to Iguazú, after a long day and a long night, why the hell not?

‘Tutto Letto’ on Via Bariloche

Tutto Letto’ on Via Bariloche

So it was that we found ourselves on the Via Bariloche ‘Tutto Letto’ bus.  In seats one and two, on the top of a double-decker bus, above the driver, looking out in the pouring rain that had once again descended on Buenos Aires.  (Actually when we got to Puerto Iguazú we felt a little bad that we’d complained about getting wet while in search of coffee:  it turned out that by the time we arrived at our destination, half of La Plata – basically the poor side of the greater Buenos Aires area – was under water.)

Not only were our seats especially comfortable.  Not only did we get a privacy curtain to wall ourselves off from the other guests and from each other.  Not only did we get a little 175mL bottle of wine with our TV dinners.  And not only did we get our own personal TV sets.  (Much of those you get with the other classes too, by the way.)  But when it was heading towards nap time, the nice man who’d brought the dinner and wine asked if we wanted a whiskey nightcap before sleep – and promptly poured me a Styrofoam cup full of Jamesons.

I’m not really sure, if I’m honest, where I’m going with this blog post.  But it seemed like the unreasonably high standard of comfort that you get out of your blue-dollar-funded bus travel deserved at least some mention.  This particular 16 hour bus trip cost us a whopping AR$530 each, or around $US95 at the official exchange rate, or less than $US80 at the blue dollar rate.  (The blue dollar, since I haven’t written about it here yet, is a reference to the US dollar exchange rate you’ll get from illegal street money-changers, evading dollar capital controls to get their hands on dollars, for which they’ll pay much more than the official exchange rate.  More on that later.)

So, point and purpose aside, if you’re going to be bussing around Argentina, here are some handy tips:

  • You can book your tickets online at Plataforma 10 – it’s kind of like Argentina’s Kayak.com for bus tickets.  Alternatively, obviously you can buy them from the bus company offices at the bus station.  Even if you’re doing that, Plataforma 10 is still worth a visit to check routes and times – it seems pretty universally accurate.
  • The main bus station in Buenos Aires is called Retiro – that’s the source/destination you’ll want when you’re searching timetables and fares to and from the capital.
  • We went with Via Bariloche twice – once to Iguazú in their luxury ‘Tutto Letto’, and once from Mendoza to Buenos Aires in ‘semi-cama’.  They were great and very comfortable both times.  There are tonnes of companies, and generally you get what you pay for, but I also found it quite helpful to search TripAdvisor for advice on the company we were looking at booking before I hit the ‘purchase’ button.

Also, no matter what you get, bussing around any other country will never be the same.

Patagonia, part two: El Chaltén

El Calafate had been about the Perito Moreno Glacier, pretty much.  El Chaltén is about hiking, and about Fitz Roy – a particularly famously picturesque and – for climbers – difficult mountain in the southern Andes.  (It may also have been a bit about cheap sugary pastry things from the bakeries, and about the DVDs of live rock concerts favoured by our host at our excellent hostel, Albergue Aylen-Aike.)

Mount Fitz Roy (right), seen from the end of the hike out to Laguna de los Tres

Mount Fitz Roy (right), seen from the end of the hike out to Laguna de los Tres

Hiking is a big deal in Patagonia.  Trekkers come from far flung places, armed with The North Face this, Kathmandu that and Colombia the other, bearing tents and sleeping bags and walking poles and sturdy boots, and sporting more layers of clothing than I have pairs of socks.  (I saw one couple pause in the sunshine to shed some of their skins at one point:  they each took off two jackets, a tshirt and then a long-sleeved tshirt, to get down to their innermost tshirt, before putting one of the jackets back on.  I was wearing a thin woollen tshirt at the time, and had only just stopped sweating from the climb up the hill.  I have no idea how they weren’t drowning in a sea of their own perspiration.  Seriously, someone from some deodorant company needs to get in touch with these guys and sign them up as advertising models.)

We weren’t quite so thoroughly outfitted as many of the travellers around us.  (Including one Eastern European group who’d also been on our Big Ice tour in El Calafate, and whom I took great pleasure in naming the “Poles with poles,” in a joke that was apparently much funnier to me than to anybody else.)  In particular, we weren’t set up to do any camping, so absent a strong desire to go hire a whole bunch of stuff to allow us to sleep less comfortably than we otherwise would in, y’know, a bed, we were restricted to the day hikes.  No five-day ‘the W’ Torres del Paine trek out of El Calafate for us, nor the two-day trek to Laguna Torre out of El Chaltén.  (Though in fairness, we confidently assured ourselves that we probably could have quick-marched the latter in a single day had we anticipated seeing anything particularly interesting at the other end of it.)

But nonetheless, El Chaltén offers a fair number of day hikes, and some beautiful scenery for them, so having lazily used up a whole day for the three hour bus ride from El Calafate (it’s alright, the weather was shit that day anyway), we set about planning how much of the area we could traverse in the time we had available.

A slightly more distant – but cloudless – view of Mount Fitz Roy, from partway along the trail out to Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

A slightly more distant – but cloudless – view of Mount Fitz Roy, from partway along the trail out to Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

Nearly all the treks in the area focus on getting a good view of Fitz Roy and/or its glaciers.  The problem with this is that Fitz Roy is, like Everest, quite often entombed in cloud.  Thankfully, Sebastian, the ever-helpful rock-DVD-loving owner of our hostel, was armed with weather forecasts and excellent advice.  Don’t do the Laguna de los Tres hike first, he said (this is the hike that is most specifically pointed to a front-and-centre prime viewing of Fitz Roy), do the Piedras Blancas one instead (a hike that ends over a lot of large boulders – the piedras blancas, or white rocks – to a nearby glacier, Glacier Fitz Roy East, aka Glacier Piedras Blancas).  The weather’s supposed to clear up in the afternoon, so if it looks clear once you’re done, then you can whip up to Laguna de los Tres.  And if it doesn’t, you can do that tomorrow, when the weather’s better.  Anyway, almost no one goes to Piedras Blancas, which is a pity, coz it’s cool.

So Piedras Blancas it was.  And it was cool.  First, we got to climb over big rocks.  And because we’re apparently about nine years old on the inside, that was fun just by itself.

In front of Glacier Piedras Blancas

Look, ma! Check out this picture of me on this big rock I climbed!

And second, the glacier was really awesome.  It’s on a rocky mountainside, and so rather than just being a big wide flat sheet of white, it’s carved out in a more interesting shape by the protrusions of the rock beneath.  And more than that, it has waterfalls.  There were several, but the most impressive was a huge cascade running down the right hand side of the glacier.  I don’t know why, but to me the fact of a glacier having a huge gushing waterfall is in itself very cool.  But cool was not sufficient.  This waterfall was alive.  Every ten or fifteen minutes we’d hear crashes and quickly look up to the waterfall.  Sometimes you’d just see a little more water pouring out, or watch as the waterfall changed course slightly, reminding you just how dynamic a glacier really is.  But sometimes you’d look up to see a cavalcade of ice tumbling down, the waterfall doubling or tripling in size and ferocity, sending large chunks of previously immovable glacier down into the lake as well as a torrent of water.  You’d see the waterfall seek out new, additional courses downwards, as the normal route filled and overflowed around the frozen barrier under which it normally fitted just fine.  And you’d sit and watch as everything slowly returned to normal, waiting for the next several tonnes of ice to break off a little later, just as thunderously, leaving just as little visible impact on the imposing façade that remained behind.

Glacier Piedras Blancas, with awesome waterfall on the right hand side

Glacier Piedras Blancas, with awesome waterfall on the right hand side

It was impressive stuff.  And Sebastian was right – almost no one else ventures out to Piedras Blancas (at least, not the whole way out – quite a few turn back once the boulder-bashing begins), and so we had the whole spectacle to ourselves.

The weather forecast was right, too.  The cloud cleared up some in the mid-afternoon, so by the time we were heading back from our glacier-watching, Fitz Roy was clear, and the climb up to Laguna de los Tres would be worthwhile.  Excellent.

Admittedly, it was an energy-sapping climb:  normally I’m the annoying git eagerly suggesting that whatever random direction has a bit more uphill is probably the more entertaining option, but this one had my legs a little tired, especially after the boulders at Piedras Blancas and the scramble up the ridge thereafter.  But while it might have been steep and long, it was also straightforward, and we made it to the top in about an hour.  Which meant were there for some good photos before and after the sun disappeared behind a mountain at 6.15pm.

The view from Laguna de los Tres

The view from Laguna de los Tres

Laguna de los Tres is apparently thusly named with ‘los Tres’ referring to the three peaks in front of you at the top:  Fitz Roy, Poincenot and Saint-Exupéry.  We got our fill of viewing those before we started our descent and turned for home (finally leaving the trail by the light of a brilliant full moon, just after the sun had set).  It had been a good day, all up – 36km walked, in about ten or eleven hours – and we felt satisfyingly tired.  We also felt not a lot like making many decisions for dinner.  So we went back to the same place as the previous night – La Brasería – and I enjoyed exactly the same meal I’d had roughly 23h earlier:  an awesome steak, topped with bacon, and with a side of eggs fried/poached in half a capsicum.  (Don’t worry Mum, there was a hearty salad in there too, as well as the plate of French fries.)

The next day we had a bit of a rest:  only 16km of hiking, to the two lookouts named Los Condores and Las Águilas, plus a waterfall a bit north of town (Chorrillo del Salto).  Nice and easy walks, although there was nothing particularly fascinating about them (we saw neither condors nor eagles at the lookouts, although you’ll be pleased to know that we did indeed see a waterfall at the waterfall).

Chorrillo del Salto

Chorrillo del Salto

On our final full day, we had another long hike:  this time out to Mirador Loma del Pleigue Tumbado.  This is the go-to panorama site for a view of all of Fitz Roy and its surrounds.  Pleasantly, this one delivered at least one condor.

A condor flying high on an updraft over the mountains near El Chaltén

A condor flying high on an updraft over the mountains, seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, looking towards Mount Fitz Roy (which is out of the shot to the right of the photo)

And it was a very pretty hike through the woods to get there, too, and a rewarding vista at the end.

Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounds, here seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

A view we were getting used to: Mount Fitz Roy and its surrounds, here seen from Mirador Loma del Pliegue Tumbado

After that hike, all that was left was to head back and try another recommended local restaurant.  And to try a bit more of the local wine – including a sample of the local Tetrapak-encased fare, ‘Termidor’.  A sample which had us wanting our £3 back.  We were particularly unimpressed to discover that Sebastian had been very accurate in describing it as uncannily like gasoline.  Thank god we had back-ups:  a couple of much more palatable bottles of the local good stuff.

Then, although we had a couple of days to spare before we flew out of Patagonia, it was back to El Calafate:  the internet is better there, and we had millions of photos to sort through and back up.  That and a few pairs of very smelly socks to wash.

Patagonia, part one: El Calafate

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in Las Glaciares National Park near El Calafate

The Perito Moreno Glacier, in Las Glaciares National Park near El Calafate

Arriving from La Paz into Argentina, we spent all of one night in Buenos Aires before catching an overnight flight down to Rio Gallegos, way down south.  I say ‘overnight’, but actually we arrived by 1.50am, and most of the night was in fact spent waiting, reading, napping, waiting and reading in the airport (we figured it was likely to be slightly nicer there than the bus station).  Eventually the sun came up and we headed off and get on a bus to our actual destination, El Calafate.

Argentina is richer than Bolivia.  Hell, most countries are richer than Bolivia.  El Calafate, in Patagonia, is better off than your average Argentinian town, too.  The contrast with Bolivia was, well, stark.  The bus that got us there was capable of speeds over 60km/h, for a start, and not only that but the roads were good enough to mean that that wouldn’t be an “adventure”.  And we didn’t even have to worry about whether our driver was about to fall off the road.

Where Bolivia had me thinking back to our time in the poorer parts of South-East Asia, El Calafate – which is very much a tourist town, its one real claim to fame being the beautiful Perito Moreno Glacier – reminded me of the South Island of New Zealand:  it’s basically half Wanaka, half Queenstown.  But with Argentine steakhouses galore.

As nice as it is, as I say, El Calafate is kind of a one-horse town.  The Perito Moreno Glacier is somewhat world-famous (as far as glaciers go, anyway), and that’s what everyone comes to see.  It’s slightly hard to explain exactly why it’s famous, to be perfectly honest:  I gather it’s a combination of things.  First, for a giant hunk of ice, it’s remarkably easy for tourists to get to:  you just bus out of town, without having to hike your way through snow fields or anything like that.  You don’t even have to climb up anywhere:  it’s only about 250m above sea level.  Second, like many glaciers, its face forms the edge of a lake (Lago Argentino) – but in a stroke of good luck, the part of the lake it abuts is close enough to the other side for a fantastic view from the shore just at the end of your one-hour bus trip out from town.  Third, it’s one of the few glaciers in the world that’s not receding – it’s in equilibrium, staying roughly put from one year to the next.  Fourth, although it’s in equilibrium, that’s not to say that the ice doesn’t move:  it does, and fast.  About 2m per day in the middle.  So there’s plenty of ice heading on down the valley to then melt or fall off into the lake.

The face of Perito Moreno Glacier, forming a narrow channel between the glacier and the land edge of Lake Argentina

The face of Perito Moreno Glacier, forming a narrow channel between the glacier and the land edge of Lake Argentina

Which brings us to the most special thing about the glacier:  the spectacular calving off of giant chunks of ice at its face.  The fact that it’s so close to the opposite shore of the lake means that every so often, it actually makes it across to the other side and forms a natural frozen dam, blocking off the lake’s access to the Santa Cruz River.  When this happens, the lake rises (up to 30m, apparently!) and the pressure slowly erodes away the glacier, leading eventually to a massive crash as it gives way.  Ice and water go everywhere, in a grand cacophony of H2O.  Apparently it’s quite the event.  Perito Moreno would probably be a famous tourist attraction anyway, but this much-anticipated natural extravaganza brings TV crews and spectators from all over, ensuring real worldwide fame every time it happens.

Anyway, we didn’t see any of that – there’s no ice bridge at the moment;  the last one crashed into oblivion early last year.  Nor did the glacier oblige us with one of its more frequent and regular calvings-off of big hunks of the ice face (the last one of them had happened about eight weeks ago, we were told).  So we simply had to admire the largely static face of the ice, and the creakings and groanings that promised that things were still progressing inside, even if they weren’t to come to a head during our visit.  We did hear and see a couple of ice blocks fall, and saw the power of the waves they created, so I guess we could get by with just imagining the rest.  And admiring the ice wasn’t exactly difficult in any case:  it makes for a pretty spectacular vista, even when it’s not doing anything exciting.

From there, it was over to the glacier itself:  we’d booked a ‘Big Ice’ trek, which meant we wandered up the side of the valley a bit, donned crampons, and trekked out over the ice into the middle of the glacier for a few hours.  This was a cool excursion.  We wandered along the ridges, admiring the variety of terrain around us:  the lagoons (all of which were a particularly beautiful blue), the crevasses (some of them tens of metres deep, others shallow but growing;  some of them full of water, some of them just hollow and begging to have rocks thrown down them to test their depth), the streams, the caves, etc.

A brilliant blue lagoon on Perito Moreno Glacier

A brilliant blue lagoon on Perito Moreno Glacier

The fact of walking in crampons was entertaining – even if one of mine broke on the way back and had to be repaired, once I’d half-hopped, half-slid my way along to catch back up to the group first.  It was easier than I’d expected (and I presume the same was true for most:  I overheard a few people asking before they booked the same trek whether the guides thought they’d physically be able to cope OK).  So I guess that’s one more experience I can tick off the list as having achieved on this trip:  trekking across a glacier in crampons.

At the end of the day, though, all you’re doing is walking across ice, and so once we’d got used to the crampons it became just another wander around a picturesque locale in search of pretty views and good photos.

Perito Moreno Glacier up close, just before the beginning of the ‘Big Ice’ trek across the ice

Perito Moreno Glacier up close, just before the beginning of our trek across the ice. Note the cool blue-ish tinge to a lot of the ice.

And once we’d done that, it was back to the bus, back to the hostel, and a second shot at the all-you-can-eat meatfest of a BBQ that our accommodation put on for Ar$100 per person.  Mmmm, food…

We were in El Calafate for two full days, not including the somewhat written-off first day in after our stupid-early morning flight into Río Gallegos.  So having glaciered on the first day, we struck around for things to occupy the second.

There’s a decent-looking hill nearby town, and it seemed like it’d have good views.  And on our first night in town, we’d run into a group who’d climbed it and confirmed its suitability for scenery-admiration purposes.  So we thought we’d do that.

The hill next to El Calafate – a good climb for a good view, but, err, slightly tricky in parts

The hill we climbed next to town. We climbed up the side that’s facing towards the left of the photo. Looks nice and gentle at the bottom, no? Yeah, about that… You want to go with the side right over to the right of the photo.

We queried our new friends for more detailed information on how to get up there, and utterly failed to follow their advice.  Result being that instead of a slightly-difficult climb with some scrappy bits, we spent two and a half hours scrabbling up a substantially more vertical than necessary hillside.  After a good fistful of effort, a hearty pinch of whingeing about the wind, and only a very restrained dabble of swearing, we made it to the top.  At which point we let loose with some more whingeing about the wind.  Because by jeebus was there a whole lot of air buffeting its way over that ridge.  Enough to nearly blow you sideways, if you weren’t paying careful attention.  I was grateful that it at least had the courtesy to be blowing you away from the edge.

We admired the scenery:  you can get a great view of the lake and the town from up there, although admittedly neither is particularly featureful.  And then we scouted about for a way down that looked less shit than the way up.

El Calafate, seen from the top of the somewhat arduously-climbed hill next to town

El Calafate, seen from the top of the somewhat arduously-climbed hill next to town

Eventually we found one, and we powered on down the hill, slapping ourselves on the back and noting condescendingly how easy it would all have been had we only come up this way.  And six hours or so after we’d set off, we returned to the hostel, heading for the beer fridge, and congratulated ourselves on an effort well expended, if not well planned.

Then, next day, to El Chaltén, where hopefully we would have the sense to follow the established trails rather than walk straight up the bloody side of shit.