Argentina, South America – highlights, landscapes, tango for two and the best lamb you’ll ever eat!
By Mike Pedley
Be prepared for a head-spinning whirl of spectacular sensual contrasts on a journey through the highlights of Argentina. You can ricochet from cattle-herding cowboy gauchos in the plunging terracotta canyons of the High Andean northwest, to elegant European style in Buenos Aires, before pushing on to the thundering falls of Iguazú in the steamy jungles on the Brazilian border. Next follow in the footsteps of David Attenborough in ‘Life on Earth’ territory in the steppeland wastes of the south, where whales wave their tails and grotesque elephant seals battle savagely in a melee of battering-ram blubber for their slice of beach, against the primordial backdrop of Patagonia. To the west in the High Andes, condors wheel above frosted peaks and electric blue glaciers. And then you must continue to the end of the world – Tierra del Fuego – and follow in Darwin’s wake along the Beagle Channel.
Planning a Trip to Argentina
How much spare time do you have? The vastness of Argentina dictates what you can do in the time available. The country is roughly the size of India, and its must-see places are sprinkled thinly from top to bottom and side to side. Unless you’re a gap-year backpacker with time to burn, count on three or four weeks to see all of the highlights at a sensible pace – and that means using internal flights to cover the big gaps between Salta, Buenos Aires, Iguazú, Patagonia, the Lakes and Tierra del Fuego.
On the other hand, you could opt for a shorter trip and concentrate on seeing one or two places in more depth; in a couple of weeks you could spend a few days in Buenos Aires, then fit in a couple of the other highlights that appeal most. I was there for a month, but still didn’t manage to visit the wine-producing area of Mendoza – wine buffs may consider this unmissable, and it’s certainly all the excuse I need to go back again.
Getting around independently is easy but slow, so if you’re cash-rich but time-poor let a tour operator tailor-make an itinerary – including fly-drives as necessary – to fit your requirements. Gregarious types who don’t mind the company of strangers as travelling companions could save a bit by taking an off-the-peg group tour.
It’s important, too, to bear in mind the reversed seasons of the southern hemisphere and be prepared for huge variations in climate. When I travelled to Argentina in our autumn, things were just warming up for their springtime. Salta was sweltering, but things got decidedly nippy up at 4000m when I drove over the high passes of the Humahuaca Gorge. I strolled around Buenos Aires in a t-shirt in October and got drenched to the skin in tepid torrential rain at Iguazú. A couple of weeks later, I was back to shivering again as I travelled down in Patagonia and among the glaciers of the Lake District. Tricky, then, to pack light when you have to cover all these bases.
Argentina’s summer runs from December to March, but this is also when Argentinians hit the Lake District, bumping up prices and making it essential to book accommodation in advance. On balance, the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn months are a sensible compromise.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NORTHWEST
Argentina has some startlingly well-preserved 19th-century colonial-era cities tucked away up in its north-western corner. Salta is one of the finest, and is the top choice as a base to explore the jaw-dropping melodrama of the high Andean desert landscapes. This is a world apart from the tangoing city slickers 1600km away in Buenos Aires. The faces all around ressemble a cast that has just walked out of a Spaghetti Western, and the indigenous features are a reminder that Bolivia and Chile are a short distance away.
On the palm-spiked main square, the ice-cream-pink façade of the cathedral faces the 18th-century Cabildo (town hall) – it must be the devil’s job to paint all that filigree stucco on god’s house. Check out the quirky museum inside the Cabildo, brimming with colonial knick-knacks and religious art. Back on the colonnaded square, take the weight off your feet at one of the cafes and watch the shoeshine boys working the bustling terraces, then wander at random, making sure to track down the rococo façade of the San Francisco church, as gaudy as a general’s epaulette, and the Museo de Bellas Artes, an elegant colonial mansion that houses an interesting collection of contemporary art.
Shopaholics can get a hit of retail therapy along two frenetic pedestrianised streets, Florida and Alberdi – the array of tat is quite amazing! Where Florida meets Avenida San Martín, the indoor market offers a colurful slice of local life and cheap-as-chips snacks in the form of empanadas (little pastie-type pies) and humitos (steamed parcels inside a corn husk). You could even score a big bag of coca leaves to put a spring in your step – they are openly on sale in the market despite being technically illegal.
North of Salta the road climbs towards the Bolivian border, starting from San Salvador de Jujuy (just Jujuy – pronounced ‘Hoo-hooey’ – to its friends). This lovely colonial town is worth killing a couple of hours in to visit the 17th-century Baroque cathedral.
The magnificent route pushes on northwards into the Quebrada de Humahuaca (Humahuaca Gorge), a place of arresting beauty: bursts of lilac jacaranda and incandescent orange flowers of coral trees burn bright against layers of rugged foothills rising towards the ghostly spine of the Andean cordillera separating Argentina from Chile to the west. In the fields you’ll see the indigenous Quechua people scraping a meagre living from this harsh world – their cemeteries are perched on hilltops in order to raise the dead up closer to heaven than the ramshackle mud-brick villages where their hard lives have been spent.
One of the obligatory pitstops along the way is Purmamarca, to see the famous ‘Hill of Seven Colours’ marbled with tiers of verdigris and ivory, purple and copper. The colourful craft market in the central square of the village makes nature’s palette pale into insignificance. The scenes are a photographer’s dream, and you’ll inevitably haggle for rainbow-striped blankets, silky soft llama wool socks and those hippyish woollen hats with ear flaps that everyone wears at Glastonbury. Next to the kaleidoscopic market is a dinky 17th-century chapel built of adobe mud bricks and spongy beams as porous as a Swiss cheese – they are cut from the cardon cactus that spikes the hillsides all around. At Tilcara, primitive huts built of stone and cactus wood perch in a fantastic spot on a bluff with soaring views over the Humahuaca Gorge. There’s a pre-Columbian fortress – built by native people rather than European invaders – that dates from 1450. The real highlight, though, is the museum down in the village, which has mummies preserved by the freeze-drying effect of high-altitude air. Their skulls are deformed by compression bands in what must have been an excruciating ordeal for the young, in order to produce the fashionably swept-back foreheads once admired by the indigenous people. Outside, black-faced guanaco llamas wander around craft stalls in the square selling semi-precious stones, woollies and cactus wood curios.
The final stretch to Humahuaca takes you across the Tropic of Capricorn, amid a landscape that is a surreal mash up of desert and Andean peaks. Cowboy Colorado meets the Himalayas in shattered badlands scarred with rainbow layers of minerals and spiked with huge organ-pipe cacti. The Chapel of San Francisco de Paula at Uquía has an unlikely art collection – rare paintings of the Peruvian Cuzco school depicting tooled-up military angels brandishing conquistador weapons.
In Humahuaca, the effects of altitude creep up on you – simply exploring the narrow cobbled alleyways can make you pant for air as the village is at an altitude of 3000m. Everyone gathers at noon on the square to see the kitsch figure of San Antonio Solano emerge cuckoo-like from the belltower to bless the assembled crowd. Otherwise, Humahuaca is just a great place to wander at random, maybe grabbing a dish of locro – a local soup of meat, potatoes, beans and garlic – and ambling past local ladies with faces of burnished leather hawking trinkets and bags of coca leaves.
The Train to the Clouds and the Quebrada del Toro Gorge
The famous ‘Train to the Clouds’ (Tren a las Nubes) is one of the world’s finest rail adventures. It climbs from Salta for 220km along the Quebrada del Toro gorge towards the Chilean border, wheezing steadily uphill at 20mph to hit an altitude of 4,220m at its highest point. But the bad news is that it only goes on Saturdays between April and November, so you’ll need to make plans in advance. There’s a dining car onboard, as well as interpreters and medical care for anyone who succumbs to altitude sickness – which is no joke.
If you’re not around on the right day, however, all is not lost. I hired a car in Salta to get a taste of this legendary journey and set off to drive route 51 to the mud-brick village of San Antonio de los Cobres. It felt like more of an adventure than the train trip as I tackled a rough unsurfaced ribbon of road plastered against the crumbling hillsides with only the odd car for company. That, and the leviathan trucks that emerged from billowing dust clouds to push me worryingly close to the void between the so-called road and the bed of the Toro River a long, long way below.
I counted on a full day for the 350km round-trip, took food and water and steeled myself for the complete lack of other people’s road discipline – not that there were too many others along the way – and the potholed, unsurfaced sections of the road. The adventure was worth the discomfort and effort: I simply had to stop again and again to take in the surreal colours and weirdly-eroded hills, warped into curtain folds and buttresses – this is the sort of muscular scenery that oozes drama and is easily as stunning as the Humahuaca Gorge, but with none of its daytripping tourism. On this almost deserted route you have the superb colours of the earth to yourself.
I made a pit-stop at the hamlet of Santa Rosa de Tastil to wander the ruins of a pre-Hispanic settlement and drop in at a great little museum displaying artefacts from the site. If you ask, the guide will entertain you with a few incongruous bars of Beethoven’s Für Elise on a primitive wood and stone xylophone. Beyond Santa Rosa the lonely road climbed relentlessly through remote wilderness, peaking at the 4100m-high Abra Blanca pass, the gateway to another world stranded up on an endless high-altitude plateau ringed with lofty peaks. This is a stark, melancholy place, empty but for the odd herd of llamas tended by children in stripy jumpers. The road disintegrated into a loose sandy piste which made for trickier driving on the last section to San Antonio de los Cobres. Hard work, nerve-wracking in parts, but certainly one of the most memorable days I spent in Argentina.
This is one sight you should definitely not skip on an Argentinian tour. Approaching the falls hidden deep in the steamy jungles of northeast Argentina, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s a bush fire raging away beneath the plume of cloud boiling out of the rainforest. This is the immense vapour cloud rising from the waters of thirty caramel-coloured rivers as countless tons of water funnel over a horseshoe precipice in a roaring curtain of around 300 individual waterfalls. Iguazú – the name means ‘Big Water’ in native Guarani – is an awe-inspiring, world-class spectacle that dwarfs Niagara. Tours often hop over the border to see the falls from a different angle on the Brazilian side. I saw Iguazú from both sides and can say without hesitation that if your time is limited, give the Brazilian detour a miss – the National Park on the Argentinian side wins hands down. While you get an admittedly impressive wide-angle panoramic view from the Brazilian side, it can’t hold a candle to the up-close-and-personal experience you get across the border. The majority of the falls are inside Argentina, after all.
When I turned up to see Iguazú on the Brazilian side I was really turned off by the relentless commercialism too: tickets are priced according to nationality, you’re herded onto buses in order to enter the park area, and a hulking great Sheraton hotel over on the Argentinian side intrudes into the view of one of nature’s wonders.
Back in Argentina, an open train delivers you to a metal walkway over the raging Iguazú River to emerge at the highlight of the whole Iguazú experience – the ‘Devil’s Throat’, where you’re a few metres from death, staring a thundering wall of frothing water in the face. Vertigo suffererers – don’t even think about it! You emerge stunned, deafened, soaked and rather glad not to be going over in a barrel. The sheer volume of water hammering down all around is simply stupefying. Swifts dart in and out of the awe-inspiring cataracts with impunity, while rainbows form and dissolve continuously in the mist.
Don’t let the falls blind you to the nature all around – I spotted toucans in the trees and caymans posing on the rocks. A couple of short walking trails through the jungle give loads more photo opportunities to see the falls from different angles. The Circuito Superior takes you along the top of various falls to get a feel for what the view might be for barrel pilots just before they go over the edge into oblivion. The Circuito Inferior – not ‘inferior’ at all, it means ‘lower’ in Spanish – takes you on a steep, sweaty descent to the river’s edge. It gives you the best angles for taking shots of the falls framed by the lush rainforest canopy. Finally, if you’ve not had enough of getting drenched already, take a joyride on one of the high-powered rigid inflatable boats that bomb through the rapids to the foot of the mighty falls.
Iguazú is not on the way to anywhere in particular, so sort out your visit with an internal flight from Buenos Aires. Aerolineas Argentinas has daily direct flight between Buenos Aires and Iguazú.
THE LAKE DISTRICT
Before he began his posthumous career as a revolutionary poster pin-up and eternal symbol of rebellion, a young Argentinian doctor named Ernesto Guevara explored the Lakes area in January 1952. As he toured around on his 500cc Norton motorbike, he imagined settling down one day in the Andean lakes ‘catching fish from a little boat, making everlasting excursions into the almost virgin forest’. How differently his life turned out.
Not much has changed in over half a century since Ché chugged around on the Norton – if he were to return, he would find the same untainted wilderness where you can travel for hours without seeing another soul – once you’ve escaped the sprawl of the main towns, that is.
In a to-die-for location on Lake Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche is the most popular base for doing all of the outdoors action stuff – walking, skiing, fishing – as well as the gentle sightseeing that the Lakes are so good for. It’s quite a party town, busy, touristy and brash, with plenty of upwardly mobile Argentinians flashing the cash. The main avenue Mitré could easily be mistaken for the global HQ for chocaholics thanks to Swiss and German settlers, who left a legacy of chocolate emporia. The same settlers are equally guilty of inspiring the town’s kitsch chalet-style alpine architecture and profusion of fondue restaurants.
The centrepiece of the main square, or Centro Civico, is a statue of General Julio Roca, whose so-called ‘Conquest of the Desert’ in 1879 won him the top job of President of Argentina. In case you were wondering what happened to the native Patagonian tribes, Roca’s ‘conquest’ is a euphemistic title for the relentless campaign of genocide that wiped out around 25,000 of the 30,000 Tehuelche indians. Why? To clear the way for the powerful beef barons to extend their ranches and cash in on the booming world demand for Argentinian meat and wool.
Boomtown Bariloche may be too big, busy and blingy for your tastes, so consider Villa la Angostura and San Martín de los Andes as more low-key alternatives. Villa la Angostura is a pretty ski resort of posh log cabin buildings tucked among the pine forests on the opposite shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi from Bariloche. San Martín requires a bit more effort to get to, but it’s worth it. The upmarket resort on Lake Lacar in the Lanin National Park is paradise for a spot of hiking and skiing on the nearby slopes at Cerro Chapelco.
The classic tour that everyone and his dog takes from Bariloche is the Circuito Chico (Small Circuit), a half-day trip that’s good for a taste – a relentlessly touristy one, it must be said – of what the area has to offer. Well-heeled Argentinians’ holiday chalets line the lakeshore all the way to the Cerro Campanario chairlift, where the obligatory ride up to 1000m reveals uplifting views over a patchwork of lakes, forest and mountains, including Cerro Catedral, Argentina’s busiest skiing area. The tours usually push on to Llao Llao where the upmarket bolt-hole resort hotel sits on a wooded peninsula jutting into Lake Nahuel Huapi.
There’s no arguing that these sublime landscapes are world-class stuff, but there’s so much more once you break away from the tour group territory around Bariloche to lose yourself among the virgin forests and pristine wilderness that so captivated Che Guevara. The Seven Lakes Route between Villa la Angostura and San Martín de los Andes fits the bill perfectly, and is worth hiring a car to do at your own speed. Allow a full day if you’re starting from Bariloche and be prepared to drive on unsurfaced roads for much of the way. Get ready for the adventure with a picnic of local goodies – stock up with small pasties called empanadas, maybe some smoked trout and lots of Bariloche chocolate – and hit the road.
The trail winds through the heart of the Nahuel Huapi National Park with its emerald forests of ancient coihue beech, jungly thickets of bamboo, and a series of silent secretive lakes. As I drove this route, concentrating on keeping the car from slithering off the snaking mud bath that passed for a road, I pulled over to watch a poncho-clad gaucho on horseback herding his cattle along the trail, and reflected that this place really hadn’t changed all that much since the fugitive Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid passed this way.
Patagonia. The very name conjures images of the end of the world – soaring peaks, glistening glaciers, jewel-like lakes, and a Life on Earth cast of whales, penguins and seals
Well, the good news is that it’s all true, but the rather crueller reality is that this vast region consists largely of mind-numbingly endless tracts of flat, featureless wind-lashed steppe. Think Australian outback, then subtract about 30 degrees. Travelling overland is definitely the way to go if you have time: nothing else rewards you with a sense of the sheer scale and remote frontier feel of this wilderness. But then again, I’m a bit of a deserted wilderness freak. For most sensible people, hour after hour of travelling through unchanging nothingness soon wears thin. If you have limited time and stamina for the rigours of surface travel, you’ll no doubt fly between the top things to see – the Valdés Peninsula, the Glacier National Park and Tierra del Fuego.
The Valdes Peninsula – a South American wildlife safari
David Attenborough’s unforgettable film of killer whales driving up onto the shingle beaches to snatch a seal meal was pretty visceral stuff, showing nature in all its red-in-tooth-and-claw brutality. And those riveting scenes were shot in the wildlife reserve of the Valdés Peninsula. You’d need to be a bit hardcore – and plain lucky – to wait for day after day to catch the orcas in action, but the feast of easy-to-spot wildlife is unlikely to be a disappointment.
Go from June to December for the best whale-spotting window, when southern right whales turn up to breed in the sheltered waters close to the layered coastal cliffs. Puerto Pirámides is the epicentre of whale watching trips. The best operate using small launches that can take you close enough to these magnificent creatures. They acquired the name ‘right whales’ in the days of wholesale whaling slaughter as they were slow, trusting and easy to kill – hence the ‘right’ whale to hunt. Their trusting nature now allows us to approach close enough to their great white-calloused heads to look them in the eye and get showered with plumes of spray. Believe me, whale breath is not a thing you will forget in a hurry.
Atlantic foam pounds against black gravel banks coated in a velvety layer of ugly elephant seals as far as the eye can see in nature’s battlefields at Caleta Valdés and Punta Delgada. Leviathan males with their bizarre trunk-like noses that only a mother could love keep jealous guard over their harems, bulldozing aside the fat black pups in vicious blubbery fights with rivals. Visiting Patagonia is one long South American safari, where you can expect to see a fantastic richness of wildlife – Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo, sea lion colonies, long-legged emu-like rhea, or choique, black-faced guanacos, Patagonian hares and millions of birds to keep twitchers on their toes. Make sure to pack the binoculars and have them ready to whip out and make the most of the spectacle.
PATAGONIA’S WELSH SETTLERS
We’ve all seen the primordial wildlife of Patagonia thanks to Mr Attenborough, but the region’s Welsh settler heritage is a rather less well-known fact
On July 28th 1865, the ship Mimosa brought the first Welsh settlers to the inhospitable Atlantic coast of Patagonia. The early pioneers came on the promise of a land of milk and honey in which they could build their little Wales unpolluted by English influence. The bitter cold, empty wilderness they found didn’t quite match up to expectations, but they did at least survive – just – and thanks, in part, to their willingness to learn survival skills from the local natives.
Puerto Madryn – it even sounds Welsh, except for the ‘Puerto’ bit – is where the Mimosa landed, and it has morphed over the centuries into a buzzy seaside resort full of trendy shops, bars and restaurants alive with porteños and foreign tourists – it’s easily the most appealing base for seeing the area. The black mass of the Valdes Peninsula glowers to the north, and is the reason why the town has prospered.
Named after Lewis Jones, one of the first Welsh settlers, Trelew lies 65km south of Puerto Madryn and, although it lacks the latter’s seaside cheer, it is also worth considering as a base for exploring the area. It is logistically the most convenient place for visiting the huge colony of Magellanic penguins 110km away at Punta Tombo, and the town of Gaiman at the heart of the Welsh heritage region. Try at least to fit in an overnight stay in Trelew, if for no other reason than to prop up the authentical spit-and-sawdust bar of the faded old Hotel Touring Club. The magnificent old bar has a whiff of the cowboy saloon about it, and legend has it that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once drank here on their South American tour. At night, there’s enough of a cluster of lively bars around the delicate old Victorian bandstand in the central square Plaza 9 de Julio to keep you entertained.
The Chubut River at the heartland of Welsh Patgonia was the other crucial element in the settlers’ success. Without this watery lifeline to irrigate the land and transform it into fertile pastures, it is unlikely that they would have survived. After travelling for mile after mile over melancholy, featureless steppe, the Chubut Valley materialises as a green slash of lushness. Cherry and apple orchards blossom, wheatfields sway in the wind and meadows are grazed by cows and pigs. Red brick farmsteads present an incongruous image of a bucolic idyll holding out against the barren steppe.
This is a remote area where the gene pool has hardly been diluted over the years, a fact which becomes apparent when you sit down for a gut-busting ‘Welsh Tea’ at one of Gaiman’s tea houses. The ladies who serve in their traditional pinnies all look like they are named Blodwen, but Spanish is their native tongue. Don’t miss this unavoidable, if rather touristy, treat. One of the best Welsh tea shops is Ty Te Caerdydd, where the Welsh flag flies outside and the homesick can indulge in 7 types of cake, sandwiches with the crusts cut off and homemade jam.
If you have Welsh family ancestry or merely want to delve deeper into the Welsh heritage in Patagonia, the museum housed in the old railway station is a valuable resource for research.
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
El Calafate is the gateway to the Glacier national Park. It’s a remote spot with something of the feel of a frontier outpost that sprung up yesterday. Whipped by raw, bone-numbing winds driving in off the iceberg-studded expanse of Lake Argentina, dust-devils spin along the main street. In the daytime, it feels abandoned while all of the visitors are off seeing the glaciers, but it’s a different story in the evening. When everyone is out on the town giving the plastic a workout in the shops, or digging into great platters of roast lamb in jam-packed asador restaurants, there’s a real buzz to Calafate.
Make sure to round off your evening with the local liqueur made from calafate berries – according to local lore, downing a shot of this firewater means that you will return one day. I had calafate berry ice cream too, just to be on the safe side.
But to be honest, Calafate is a pretty functional, soulless sort of place, so you might prefer to stay at an estancia, the local ranches that double as classy accommodation. If your budget doesn’t stretch to an estancia, you could at least visit one on a day trip while you’re in the area to see sheep-shearing demonstrations followed by a feast of barbecued lamb.
It’s takes about two hours to drive the 80km from Calafate to the Perito Moreno glacier. This vast river of ice has an awe-inspiring beauty that speaks for itself. And with a loud voice. The noises that echo from within the impenetrable folds of turquoise ice resound like volleys of gunfire and rolling thunder. The next time you see a mountaineering documentary, you will have a better appreciation and respect for the adventurers who take on these roaring beasts. And while you’re there, why not have a go yourself by strapping on a set of crampons on a guided walk into the heart of the glacier. If that sounds a bit full-on, you can still get close enough to the deeply fissured 60m-high cliffs on the tiered walkways to contemplate the glacier’s immense power and wait for the next turquoise buttress of ice to shear off into the lake.
Perito Moreno may well be the top billing star that pulls in the crowds, but it’s not the biggest glacier in these parts. The daddy of the Southern Patagonian icefields is actually the Uppsala glacier, a mighty cliff of electric-blue ice that plummets into the opaline waters of Lake Argentina. Full-day trips on fast-cats take you on an unforgettable cruise across Lake Argentina, brushing past wind-sculpted azure icebergs to the 4-kilometre wide wall of the glacier. Just don’t mention the Titanic!
Day trips to the Uppsala Glacier usually come with the bonus of a visit to Argentina’s highest glacier – the jaw-dropping Spegazzini glacier. Its 160m-high cliffs rise from another branch of the lake, dwarfing three smaller glaciers and calving a never-ending supply of icebergs into neigbouring Lake Onelli. The trip across Lake Argentina to Uppsala and Spegazzini doesn’t take you as close to the glaciers as the Perito Moreno trip, but the icebergs and the sight of the great ice cliff glaciers meeting the fjord-like lake make for more spectacular scenery. For the best views and photos you need to stay out on the deck as much as possible, so that’s when the Antarctic survival kit and sunblock need to come out. And be prepared for the scrum of photographers as the boats approach as close as they dare to the ice cliffs.
A CHILE DIVERSION TO TORRES DEL PAINE
It’s not often you find yourself down in Patagonia. So while I was in the neighbourhood, relatively speaking, I couldn’t resist the temptation to hop over the border for a couple of days and dip a (shivering) toe into Chilean Patagonia. After all, who could pass up the chance to visit one of the world’s great natural wonders, the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park.
I took the red-eye bus out of Ushuaia at 5.30am as the sun ignited craggy peaks streamered with the glistening tongues of blue glaciers. Before long the Atlantic coast came into sight, then faded out again as we headed across an icy wind-ripped khaki steppeland towards the Chilean border. Nothing to see but long-suffering sheep hunkered down in their woollies and the odd weather-crippled tree. A touch bleak, but accept no substitute if you really want to come away with a feel for the sheer scale and emptiness of the tail end of South America. As I boarded the ferry to cross the Magellan Strait – the name alone made me feel like an explorer! – signs warned me off entering the minefields, planted after a ridiculous territorial scuffle between Argentina and Chile. This whole area is a wilderness, so what’s to fight about? Well, oil and vast mineral deposits, for starters…
Several bum-numbing hours later, via a change of bus in Punta Arenas, we pulled into Puerto Natales. This is a cheerful, compact town of log cabin-style buildings and a nicely convivial vibe in its bars and restaurants. Most people stay here as a launch pad for visits into the Torres del Paine park as there’s a good range of accommodation to suit all pockets. But for a really unforgettable trip, make sure to stay at one of the hotels inside the park itself – I stayed at Hosteria Pehoe – and woke up to all-time great views of the granite towers of the central massif glowing pink with dawn light. At lunch I ate conger eel with a zingy Chilean chardonnay and one of the world’s best views from a hotel. It might cost a bit more, but for a once in a lifetime experience, you won’t regret it.
On limited time, short guided tours whizz you in comfort around the highlights of the Torres del Paine National Park area, but serious hikers might want to linger longer in this mecca for outdoors adventure sport. The ‘Paine’ bit is pronounced ‘pee-nay’, incidentally, and comes from the Tehuelche indian word for ‘blue’.
You run out of superlatives here. The soaring cathedral spires of the clustered peaks are too steep for snow to settle on, so stand out in pristine contrast to the frosted crags and neon-blue glaciers beneath.
Just when I thought that things couldn’t get better, we pulled up by Lake Grey, where titanic icebergs shear off Glacier Grey and float across milky blue water that is pure enough to drink. Over the weeks and months, the elements sculpt them into eerie abstract art forms that wash up metres from the shore.
In the wildlife department, herds of guanaco are so numerous you practically take them for granted, condors soar high overhead on the thermals, and I spotted emu-like rheas and yellow-headed ibis fossicking about in the scrub.
As I discovered the next morning, another good reason for staying in the National Park is that you have it to yourself – well almost – before the daytripping minibuses turn up. I sat in silence as the sun set fire to the soaring towers of the massif, glinting fiery pink off the black granite peaks, and as the slopes warmed, the condors spiralled up on the thermals for another day in heaven.
TIERRA DEL FUEGO
The tail-end of the Andes kicks up into an untamed wilderness of saw-toothed peaks, lakes and glaciers in the ‘Land of Fire’. In some ways, this island really is the ‘end of the world’ – any further south and it’s next stop Antarctica.
Ushuaia (pronounced ‘oo-swaya’) revels in its status as the world’s most southerly town, a tag that its shops, bars and restaurants milk mercilessly. These days, however, the orderly grid of chalet-style houses in child’s paintbox colours is hardly a frontier outpost. If Charles Darwin and the Beagle’s crew dropped anchor now, they could hit the main drag of party bars, then load up on mouthwatering king crab or barbecued lamb in a waterfront asador before blowing their wages in the casino in the early hours. Buenos Aires city slickers cling to their creature comforts in ‘the uttermost part of the earth’, insisting on getting kitted out in full Antarctic expedition gear for a bit of window shopping. You can’t knock the unforgettable location though – ringed by snaggle-toothed mountains at the edge of the Beagle Channel, it’s impossible to be immune to a frisson of excitement when you reflect on where you are.
Scenic boat trips along the Beagle Channel are de rigueur. Touristy? You bet, but how else do you see landscapes of frosted peaks soaring above thickly-forested shores, and come within nose-wrinkling distance of the extremely smelly colonies of sea lions and cormorants living on guano-caked islets.
The ‘End of the World Train’ is an entertainingly cheesy way to see the unmissable Tierra del Fuego National Park. If you’re travelling with kids they will love the ride, but the herding on and off with a melee of tourists takes the shine off this otherwise empty and heart-rendingly beautiful wilderness. The shiny new steam train runs on tracks that once stretched from Ushuaia’s prison into the forests where convicts once felled trees for heating and building.
Of course you don’t have to do the tourist train thing. You could just go one way and walk back to escape the crowds, or, better still, take a taxi to the park entrance and do your own thing – bearing in mind that this is seriously remote country where you could die if you get lost! Pull on your walking boots and take on the network of marked trails following the silent shores of the Beagle Channel. Walking deep among timeless beech forests festooned with wispy streamers of green lichen I was lucky enough to spot Magellanic woodpeckers – the very image of Woody himself with their scarlet punk-rocker crests.
The main interest is, of course, out there in the great outdoors, but a couple of museums in Ushuaia are worth a look to learn a bit of background and history to what you’re seeing. The forbidding galleried cells of the old Alcatraz-style prison building now house the atmospheric Museo Maritimo. Until 1947Argentina dumped its worst criminals down here, including ‘el petiso Orejudo’ (‘little big ears’) – a psycho arsonist and child murderer, as well as political prisoners, trade unionists and anarchists. They lived relatively freely: after all, what was the point in escaping? How far would you get before dying of exposure or starvation? That was in the good old days before political prisoners were dropped into the Atlantic from aircraft. Its engaging displays also tell the story of the four Fuegian native Yamana indians known as Jemmy Button, Fueguia Basket, Boat Memory and York Minster who were taken to England by the explorer and Captain of HMS Beagle Robert Fitzroy in 1830.
Check out also the Museo del Fin del Mundo for fascinating tales of early english missionaries and Fuegian native indians, explorers, adventurers and shipwrecks that were engineered in insurance scams. The dreaded Cape Horn area and Southern Ocean were once a favourite spot for shipowners to ‘lose’ old sailing ships, do a dodgy insurance claim and replace them with shiny new steam ships.
Did you know? Ushuaia is the end of the Pan American Highway, a network of roads that runs for 29,800 miles from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska all the way across the continents of North and South America. Travel writer Tim Cahill and professional long-distance driver Garry Sowerby hold the record for driving the whole way from Ushuaia to Alaska in 24 days – a phenomenal feat recounted in the book Road Fever.