About four days into this trip, my first to South America, a beautiful young German backpacker asked me what was so funny.
I was standing on the deck of a cargo ferry, gently heading south through the Patagonian fjords, and I realised I had a big stupid grin on my face. The sun was out, but the wind was fierce, and most of the other passengers were cosy in one of the lounges inside. I had on a layer of merino, and another of Goretex, and yeah, it was still a little brisk.
“Um, nothing. I mean…. I’m just happy. Like, look at this.” I nodded to the vista of calm seas leading to dense green islands, with the snow-capped Andes poking up from behind them. We both stared at the view for a couple of minutes, and an albatross chose that moment to seemingly hover next to us. Neither of us reached for our cameras, and I noticed Marina had the same stupid grin that I had.
“I feel ‘little kid happy’, you know? So simple, so happy, but no real reason. Just genuinely so happy to be here, doing nothing.” She nodded, and she understood. We had the best weather in two years apparently, dolphins, sea lions and bird life made regular appearances, the crew were great, and our fellow travellers were lovely. It would have been nice if the orcas reported in the area showed up, but I guess they were busy elsewhere, the little monochrome bastards.
To make the ferry sailing I had raced through Santiago, Pucon and Puerto Varas. Volcanoes, lakes, and super comfy busses all blur into a bit of jetlag and a new found appreciation for stray dogs. Chile has the best looked after strays, and the hostel I stayed at in Santiago told me how the barrio (neighbourhood) had all chipped in to get surgery for one of the dogs – he had the cone of shame on after his surgery, so they put out special water containers for him, so that he could still drink. Aside from cute strays, there is a stack of outdoor activities down this coast, rafting, trekking, even a volcano hike where you put on an oxygen mask and enter the crater after using crampons and ice picks to get there. (Pucon)
We were on board the MV Evangelista, travelling from Puerto Montt, to Puerto Natales, both in Chile. She is a 120m long ferry, (Evangelista, not Marina) that can carry up to 200 passengers, but the priority is cargo. The trip is roughly four days, depending on tides and weather, with just one stop – if that – scheduled. The remote outpost of Puerto Eden relies on Evangelista to supply everything the town needs, except for seafood. That, they load on to the ferry when she is moored off the coast.
A small armada descends on us at dusk, and the crew rapidly transfer seafood on, and a huge range of other goods off. Two policemen have just finished a posting of several months, and they proceeded to celebrate by completely ignoring the no alcohol rule on board the boat. I can’t blame them, and they may not have been the only ones who smuggled booze on board 🙂
One extremely happy looking gentleman puttered away from us with nothing but a massive grin and a boxed 50 inch flat screen TV that was half the length of his boat. I’m guessing movie night is every night in Puerto Eden. I reckon he was little kid happy at that moment too. Maybe even little kid on Christmas morning happy.
There were around 100 travellers on board, mostly Europeans, Antipodeans, or Brazilians. We had daily talks from Percy, the on board naturalist. I think that’s the term. He didn’t get nude, but he did tell us about the flora, fauna, history etc. Percy, whatever he is on, deserves a raise. Each talk was done in perfect Spanish, then in perfect English. He would clarify in Portuguese for the Brazilians, and make fun of the Germans. In German.
Those talks were the only daylight hours I spent inside, except for meals. For once jetlag was a good thing, I would wake up at 5am, and be out on deck pre-sunrise. The cold doesn’t bother me, one of the few good things about being raised in Invercargill, so I became somewhat famous for always being on deck. And I mean always. I got sunburnt on cold days, and was in shorts and a t-shirt on sunny days, one particularly lovely afternoon even getting around in bare feet, much to the horror of the mostly middle aged Europeans.
As I’m trying to escape the fact that I turn 40 on this trip, (today in fact in NZ/Aust, tomorrow in Peru) I hung out with the two beautiful Germans, a lovely couple from France/Morocco, and Mederic, an impossibly tall and good looking French lad who had hitchhiked and camped his way south down the west coast. FROM ALASKA. I really wanted to hate him, but he was too goddamn nice.
When he asked how I was traveling, I was literally embarrassed to tell him how easy I was doing it. “Well, there’s this company called Bamba Experience, and they book everything for me. Yeah, in English. No, I don’t speak Spanish. Everything gets emailed to me as I go. No, actually all the busses have been great, they only book the good ones. Hitchhike? Why the hell would I do that? Camp? I have friends who are, but I’ll be sleeping in a real bed thanks very much.”
After four beautiful days of scenery, conversations, wildlife, and really, really, cold wind, we docked at Puerto Natales. The town itself is mostly used as a base to tackle Torres Del Paine, a stunning national park. The most famous trek is the ‘W’ but you can always try for the big “O” if you’re feeling frisky. Both can be accomplished on your own, but it’s always more fun with company. Ahem.
In fact, as of 2016, you are now required to book in advance, even if camping, to ensure that each part of the circuit doesn’t get overcrowded. There are some pretty lux refugios (hostels) in the park, some of which greet you with a cocktail, and have hot tubs. I’m guessing Mederic camped, and probably carried humanitarian aid supplies and three elderly people on his back too.
I had decided to skip a trek in the park, which I will admit I regret, but the weather turned to shit, so, winning. Instead I bussed through to El Calafate, a lake side town in the Argentine part of Patagonia. The big, and I do mean BIG, attraction here is Perito Moreno glacier. I’ve trekked on glaciers before, I grew up in the South Island, so I’m sure it can’t be that impressi……. wow.
This is a monster, and you get right up close on walkways built beside the glacier at the edge of the lake. It’s almost constantly calving chunks of ice into the water below. It really is amazingly beautiful, and yes, you can trek on it. Perito Moreno was an explorer who mapped a lot of Patagonia, and helped draw up the complicated boundaries between Chile and Argentina. There are streets, a town, an airport and a glacier named after him. These things are not necessarily close to the others, so if you fly into Perito Moreno airport, you’re still over 4ookm away from the glacier – a very common mistake. Fly into El Calafate – one of many reasons to use a travel agent!! There’s also a great bird sanctuary near the lake in El Calafate, Laguna Nimez, with a 3km loop where you can see flamingos, hawks, ducks and other things with wings and long names. The far side has gates where you can walk out onto the shore of the lake. Unmanned, two way gates. Entrance through the front is around $13 AUD.
The border procedures are pretty easy, if slow. KEEP THE PAPER THEY GIVE YOU AT THE BORDER. Sounds obvious, but a lot of people hadn’t, which is maybe why it was a bit slow. Toilets are basic or non-existent, so as always in Latin America, carry some loo paper with you. Paperwork is important sometimes.
Right, it’s beer o’clock, or in this case Champagne o’clock, as Vanessa and the lovely crew I work with at V Travel surprised me with a bottle when I arrived in Cusco yesterday. This may be the first time Veuve Clicquot has been opened in a hostel. And since that gave away it was my birthday, Melina, Melissa and the rest of the amazing staff here at Milhouse have been looking after me ridiculously well. Milhouse has two hostels in Buenos Aires (more about that in another post, which will need to be HEAVILY edited) and a gorgeous old monastery in the centre of Cusco which is one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in.
Keep smiling 🙂