All aboard the vomit bus (¡a San Pedro de Atacama!)

So, we cheated. I hold my hands up, it’s just not cricket, we’ve let the side down. To the disgust of backpackers everywhere; we took an expensive domestic flight instead of a long distance bus. I can feel the embarrassment, the shock, the naked hatred in the eyes of our fellow travellers when they ask: ‘so how did you get from Patagonia’s southern tip to Salta (in the north) so quickly?’ 

We might’ve been able to claw back a modicum of respect if we had somehow secured a impressively cheap fare, but no, it cost 350 smackeroos per person. 350 smackeroos. A  sum to boast about it ain’t; in fact I must be a masochist to even document this shameful episode. But on the plus side, it cut a journey of 4 days down to around 8 hours, so I can live with the shame.

Salta itself wasn’t particularly interesting, so two nights and the next bus out seemed logical. For some reason, I had no idea that to get from Salta to San Pedro in Chile would mean crossing the Cordillera de los Andes. The Andes is a notoriously high mountain range, and plateaus at something like 4500 metres for the crossing we were doing. This is by far the highest I had been and was not really prepared for it.

First I noticed a slight headache. But I had been feeling a bit ill the day before, so I put it down to that. My stomach began turning a little too, but again, I hadn’t been 100% so I chalked it down to that. Finally when we crossed the Argentine border and were driving at snow level, it started to dawn on me that we were pretty high. I consulted the Lonely Planet. Sure enough, this crossing was considerably over 4000 metres…..

Aaahhh! So that would explain why people had been forming a line to be sick in the toilet! Some unfortunate lad was kept waiting too long and some vomit dribbled down his chin and onto the floor next to me. I gave him a plastic bag and he nodded his thanks, his mouth still being full of his regurgitated lunch. The downhill to Chile was almost unendurable, but thankfully I made it through without revisiting my last meal.

I learnt two things from this trip: firstly, don’t drink beers the night before hitting altitude… and second, for the love of god, never, ever, EVER book the two seats next to the toilet on a south american bus. The smell coming from that thing was worse than all the portaloos in Glastonbury put together!

In Patagonia

I had little expectations before travelling to southern Argentina. I had read some of Bruce Chatwin’s famous piece (from which I have stolen the title for this post), but this had failed to prepare me for the sheer beauty, the rugged desolation of this place.

The first thing that must be said is it is HUGE. Distances are vast, and a 28 hour bus journey is a standard trip. Then there’s the environment. Think endless empty plains where you won’t see a tree for hours, and the ones you do see are bent so close to the ground I’m not sure they still count as trees. The wind blows constantly and it blows hard, battering and weathering everything. In the west the Andes rise and create glacial lakes, chilly pine forests and snowcapped peaks. In the east the steppe stretches as far as the eye can see, with only the occassional llama or rhea admirably battling the elements.

We came here for two things: the Perito Moreno glacier and Torres del Paine’s famous ‘W’ trek. Firstly the glacier. We were informed before visiting that this is one of the only glaciers left in the world that is advancing. But I sure as hell didn’t expect you’d actually be able to SEE it advancing. It is an slightly surreal experience standing in a crowd of people on a wooden walkway watching giant chunks of ice creak and crash from the glacier-face into the frigid lake. The bigger the piece, the louder the sound it makes as it plunges into the water, and the bigger the elation you feel. At first you stand in staggered silence, but after a while you find yourself willing the ice wall to send an even bigger slice to its watery death. There can’t be too many experiences like it.

To South America - Perito Moreno glacier

This was the main face where ice cracked and smashed down into the depths

Secondly I would love to have written about how Torres del Paine was a fantastic and life-changing adventure. Unfortunately some douchebag campers set the park on fire and it closed the day we were due to depart. So we went to El Chalten instead, which was spectacular and a worthy replacement. A small town of about 1500 people (it drops to around 500 during winter as locals flee the freeze) set under the shadow of the jagged sharkstooth mountains of Fitz Roy, Poicenot and Torre.

It is a wet-dream for outdoorsy types, with knee-cracking hikes and free camping in some truly spectacular landscapes (seeing a giant waterfall cascade directly out of a glacier was one memorable part for me). Sure enough the North Face and Gore-Tex brigade were out in force, eating their cereal bars, drinking out of plastic tubes and waxing lyrical about how outdoorsy they had been the night before. We just kept our heads down, stuck to our ham and cheese sandwiches and enjoyed the wilderness.

* * *

Plenty more stories to come as I am now in Bolivia and playing catch-up with the blog. From the Chilean Atacama desert to the Altiplano in Bolivia’s southwest, it’s been one hell of a journey, with plenty of highs and lows… Until then, hasta luego…

Christmas in Argentina, with a generous helping of fireworks

Keeping a blog up to date is hard when you are travelling. Most people won’t sympathise too much with my situation, but it is difficult I tell you. Someone get the miniature violins out…

Much has happened since my last post… these are the highlights (and lowlights):

* Visited Uruguay for a day – and were surprised to discover they do amazing chicken teriyaki
* Got pick-pocketed in Buenos Aires – dont make the assumption that how someone is dressed is any indication as to whether they are a thief or not
* Discovered the joy of chimmichurri sauce on steak. How is this not available in the UK??
* Watched awestruck as hundreds of fireworks lit up the night sky on Christmas eve as Argentinians celebrate with a big party kicking off at midnight
* Took our first humdinger of a long distance bus – 22 hours (with about 2 to 3 hours sleep).

And thanks to that bus we find ourselves in a lakeside town named San Carlos de Bariloche, in Argentine Patagonia, somewhere around 41 degrees south of the equator. This is the furthest south I have ever been, and I have to admit it’s a relief from the relentless humidity of Buenos Aires’ clogged streets. The views here over Nahuel Huapi lake are spectacular, only occassionally obscured by the spectre of the ash from the Chilean volcanic eruption across the nearby border.

Tomorrow we are heading out on the Circuito Chico: 60km biking and bussing around the lake. Edit: Having now done the excursion I can share a photo (it was awesome!)

To South America - The lakes of Bariloche

We cycled around those lakes in the background, about 25km of uphill and downhill but well worth it

Finally I’d just like to say have a Merry Christmas/Happy holidays to all of you, and thank you for reading!