Arriving into a freezing airport in Rio Gallegos at the very tip of Argentina was a jolt to the system. Pedro had been valiantly looking to organise us a good value rental car and had done a bank transfer to ‘4×4 Gringo Rentals’ (seriously!). Needless to say we were astounded when Guillhermo from the company met us at 3am upon our arrival and everything was in order.
We then sped off into the Patagonian wilderness – for the 3 hour drive through the morning sun-rise we just passed barren scrub landscapes for hundreds of kilometres, occasionally punctuated by squat, windblown settlements with nothing open bar a petrol station. Patagonia is just space and lot of it.
Pedro convinced us to try the local ‘Yerba Mate’ herbal drink which one samples through a straw but is so bitter as to be completely unpalatable. Somehow due to a bump in the road I ended up wearing much of the mate leaves on my jeans and faintly smelling of bitter herbs for days after.
As we got close to the border the paved road gave way to gravel track up to a lonely border post. We were a bit early for them as the sole barrier doesn’t get unlocked before 7am. It would have be perfectly possible to drive around the side of the barrier but we needed a nap regardless.
The border formalities were all overseen by the ever watchful gaze of the outgoing president Christina Fernandez de Kirchner whose anointed successor had that very night lost the presidential election.
Heading on toward Chile we progressed on snow-capped mountains along with herds of wild vicunas (small llama type animals) and some emus scrabbling around. Our ultimate destination was Torres Del Paine – a set of vertiginous mountains with glaciers and lakes around them – for 5 days of trekking and some camping.
The main trek is called the ‘W’ as you ascend up multiple valleys and then back down to lake and is around 60km total.
The extraction of money in Chile started with a 24 euro per person entry to the national park and we didn’t even get a paper map! We were suggested to take a photo of a map on our phone.
Our first day was something of a grind as we climbed up with little sleep to towering grey pinnacles around a milky azure blue lake – the minerals from the melting glacier water give it a distinctive hue.
As we grappled up loose scree the winds rose and the temperature dropped meaning we hung around just long enough to take a few photos while trying not to be blown over.
Our rest that night was in a tent at the base camp which was more than welcome when it came! The next day, even after a night’s sleep, some of us were given to falling asleep whenever we stopped for 5 mins.
Our second day was a relatively short one as we went alongside the various lakes before re-arranging our accommodation for another night in a tent at Camp Frances.
Unfortunately our late change of plans meant that our dinner plans involved a bottle of Chilean wine, some pot noodles and chocolate bar for dessert outside on a patio table as it started to rain. Glamourous camping it was not.
At night we could hear the faint sound of what sounded like thunder-claps in the distance. On our ascent up the next day we realised that this was actually the sound of bits of the glacier carving off the side of the mountain and tons of ice crashing into each other.
Pedro had been trekking in his city trainers for two days at this point and one of the trainers reliably overpronated such that his ankle and knee were in bits. I swapped him one of my shoes which immediately helped but it wasn’t long before my ankle and knee were worse for wear and the two of us looked like right clowns walking around with mismatched footwear.
Tim and I did the final climb up while Pedro headed back. The middle part of the W brings one past the glaciers falling off the mountain into the middle of a valley with soaring peaks surrounding on 3 sides with lakes and volcanos in the distance on the 4th – a stunning vista in all directions.
Our reward that evening was dinner booked well in advance, no more pot noodles thankfully.
On the final day we had a relatively sedate trek to the Paine Grande Lodge – the only thing grand about it was the price. With few other options in the area we ended up paying around $70 each for a bed in a 6 bed dorm with surly service! At points we did notice that the scenery and temperature were very like Scotland which didn’t go down all that well given how far we had travelled to be here.
Given the amount of trekking done would soon visit the Perito Moreno glacier we didn’t hike all the way up to see Glacier grey but instead decamped to the bar where a few cocktails in we were hitting the jenga.
To get back to our car involved a ferry ride and us dispatching Pedro off on a bus back to our start point to retrieve the car and all our things and then back across the emptiness of Patagonia to Calafate in Argentina where we said goodbye to Pedro and his gammy knees as he went back to family in BA.