Liz Brash of Cape Town, South Africa writes:


West Patagonia Trip – February 2012

In February of this year my training partner, Sandy, and myself travelled to South America to participate in a 3 day trail run from Puerto Fuy in Chile to Lago Lacar in Argentina. This was an awesome experience and is the subject of another story.

During our planning, we decided to capitalize on the fact that we would be in South America (and get value for money for the air tickets!) and take 10 days after the race to explore Patagonia as we had never been there.

This details where we went, what we did and some details and tips about travelling in the area.

South America is one of my favourite destinations. It is relatively cheap, it has a myriad of wonderful countries each with their own amazing destinations and unique beauty and the people are really friendly.

  • South America is  third world, so people used to travelling in first world Europe need to be aware of this and look beyond the first impressions. Go with an open mind and wallow in the experiences!
  • Despite tourism being a major part of the income in South America, only a small percentage of people speak or understand English. It is useful to work with a phrase book or online translator as hand signals can only go so far!
  • As far as money is concerned, travellers cheques are very expensive to change. Credit cards are not widely accepted. It is better to take dollars and to change these as required at the Cambios (Foreign Exchange offices). Some hotels/hosterias and travel agencies will accept dollars as payment but few, if any, will change dollars for you. Always check to see if the town you are going to has a Cambio (some smaller places don’t) and change enough money before you go. In bigger cities such as Buenos Aires, tourist shops will accept payment in dollars but the rate is not good.
  • Siesta time is adhered to all over Argentina. From around 12:30 – 16:00, many restaurants and shops close. Restaurants open again around 20:30 so one has to get used to eating late at night. However, it doesn’t take long to slot into the siesta routine!

In Feb Malaysia airlines were still flying direct to Buenos Aires from Cape Town so we landed in a hot, humid Buenos Aires after a 9 hour flight. Climate here in February is very like Durban. We had pre-booked overnight accommodation via the travel agent as well as transport to save hassles when arriving in a big city, so that was easy! I am not a big city person, but it is interesting to walk around the BA and explore the parks, pedestrian avenues and historical buildings. Flying over BA it is amazing to see how flat the city and surrounding areas are – there are no hills or even bumps! Runners here do hill training up stairs and over bridges!

From BA we flew west to Neuquen to meet the race bus. Neuquen is a scruffy town that is the capital of Neuquen province. It is dry, windy and dusty, but it is the centre of dinosaur excavations so if that is your interest then it is worth going.

From Neuquen the race bus took us on a 7 hour trip to San Martin de los Andes where we were going to register for the race. The scenery en route is a combination of karoo-like grassland with flat topped Free State-like hills. The difference being the snow capped mountains and volcanoes in the distance and the volcanic soil and flat-bottomed glacier valleys we were travelling through. As you go further west towards the Andes, the climate becomes drier, windier and colder.

San Martin de los Andes is a picturesque little town on Lago (Lake) Lacar. In winter the biggest drawcard is skiing, but in summer the climate is good and there are many water sports and hiking activities on offer. Many Argentineans have summer houses here. Wool is the biggest industry in this area and there are many shops with wonderful wool products. Just remember to shop around as the touristy type shops can be quite expensive. Down the smaller streets the same item can be found for much less. There are many hosterias, cabanas and hostels here so there is a wide choice. San Martin is quite close to the border with Chile so is also used as a departure point for people travelling  to Chile by ferry.

To get to the start of the race, we took a 1.5 hour bus trip round the lake to Hua Hum border post and through to Puerto Pirehueico where we took the ferry for a beautiful 2.5 hour trip across Lago Pirehueico to Puerto Fuy in Chile. The ferry is a working boat so is not luxurious, but the trip is well worth it.

Just remember that you cannot take any plant, animal, nut, fruit or vegetable products into Chile – even if vacuum packed. Even wood products may be confiscated if there are any cracks in them. Always declare anything you are not sure of, as the fines are extremely heavy and you will spend the day filling out forms!

After the race, we caught a bus from San Martin to San Carlos de Bariloche in Rio Negro province from where we would fly south to El Calafate in Patagonia. The 4 hour trip from San Martin to Bariloche is via the Seven Lakes drive which is beautiful. The glacial lakes are enormous and surrounded by mountains. The road is challenging at times and the busses take it slowly. There is one stop at Villa la Angostura, which is another picturesque lakeside town – definitely a journey worth doing.

Bariloche on Lago Nahuel Huapi is the skiing resort in Argentina during winter and used to be quite a pretty little town. It is growing too fast now and has lost its pretty status so when you arrive, it looks scruffy and haphazard. However, when you explore it, it is bustling, does have some picturesque buildings and the lakeside is worth a walk although the perpetual wind is cold!  However, it is the centre of the chocolate industry, which makes up for everything! There are many chocolate shops selling handmade chocolates by the kilo; Mamushka chocolates being my favourite – if a bit pricey and touristy.

From Bariloche we flew to El Calafate in Santa Cruz province in western Patagonia to start our real holiday.

Climate in western Patagonia is determined by the presence of the Southern Continental Icefield which lies in the Andes. It is the biggest continental icefield after Antartica and Greenland.

  • The prevailing westerlies from the Pacific hit the Andes, deposit most of the precipitation over Chile as rain and the rest on to the icefield as snow. This then becomes ice due to low temperatures and perpetual cloud cover. There are 300 glaciers going into Argentina from the icefield. There is little rain on the Argentinean side. The winds don’t stop there and blow down into Patagonia ensuring that the year round temperatures are cold! Although El Calafate lies at the same Southern latitude as London in the North, the climate is very different. We were there in summer and the average daily temperature was between 7 – 12 degrees Celsius without the wind chill factor. Wind in summer is strong and persistent! Warm clothes and dressing in layers are essential.

El Calafate is on Lago Argentino and is an interesting little town whose prime function is tourism. There are many things to do and it is an ideal place to use as a base. We had booked 2 nights (again via internet) in a really great hosteria (smaller than hotel but bigger than B&B) called Posta Sur just 5 minutes from the centre of town. We decided that we would play it by ear after that. When we decide to extend our stay, the hotel helped us as they were fully booked as were most places in town in our price range. They found us a really sweet little hosteria Patagonia Rebelde just up the road – excellent value for money. Both these places are highly recommended.

There are many travel agencies – not so much for booking planes but for organising trips to the various activities round the town. We used Eurotour as they offered a wide variety of tours. Most of the tourists spoke or understood Spanish so we were often the only pure English speakers.

 Things that we did – all of which are worth trying:

  • A visit to an estancia (farm) where the history of the population of Patagonia is explained, plus a walk around the old sheep shearing and dipping facilities, a demonstration of manual shearing and rounding up sheep and then dinner! The farmer takes you around.
  • A trip across the lake to Estancia Cristina (a farm that is now part of the national park) from where you are taken on a 4×4 drive to visit Glacier Upsalla – a cantilevered glacier. The huge icebergs that one passes on the lake trip come from this glacier. We had to book this trip as the Cristina group has the sole rights (for another 3 years). Guides take you around and give you great history and geography information. Talks are done in Spanish and repeated (in not so much detail) in English.
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  • A trip to Glacier Perito Merino – a huge glacier that is still moving and calving huge icebergs into the lake. We did this trip by booking the bus at the bus station which seemed cheaper than an agency trip although the exhorbitant park fee changed our minds… This is a spectacular glacier and well worth the money. There is also a restaurant and tourist shop at the car park.
  • A day trip to Torres del Paine in Chile. We had planned to hike and stay in this park but injuries from the running race prevented this.  The guide was excellent and gave us lots of information. We were driven around the south eastern part of the park and taken on a short walk following a river. A beautiful area – definitely on the agenda for a hiking holiday. We also visited the part that had recently been burnt by a fire started by a camper’s stove. Sadly that will take years to recover due to cold and plants not geared for fire like our fynbos.
  • A visit to Estancia Alice near the town where one could choose between ziplining, horse riding or being taken on a 4×4 drive. We did horse riding – a slow walk with a guide up and down the hills on the farm – beautiful views!
  • Laguna Nimez near town is a bird sanctuary and for a small fee one can wander on the paths round the wetland, dunes and lake. The pamphlet is very well done as are the information boards on the walk. Binoculars can be hired at the information centre.
  • The dinosaur/history museum is also worth a visit as it is also well done. It is hidden in the side streets of town but we found it on the way to Laguna Nimez. After walking through the museum, the young guy at reception showed us how to make Yerba Mate (the Argentinean tea) properly and explained all the rituals and traditions. Everyone in Argentina has their flask of warm water, their tea gourd and silver straw. It’s a national pastime and social activity.

From El Calafate we took a 2 hour bus trip round the lakes to El Chalten. This is under the Fitzroy range of mountains and is the trekking/climbing centre of Patagonia. It was founded in 1985 so is very new and is still in the process of growing. There are many campgrounds in town and hostels catering for the young trekkers and climbers. New hotels and hosterias are being built, which hopefully won’t affect the quaintness of the town. The campsites out of town next to the lakes and rivers are much prettier than those in town – worth the walk.

There is no Cambio in town but the travel agencies and tourist shops accept dollars. The weather here is much colder and the wind is really strong! We were here for 3 days and only saw the mountains as we arrived and as we left; otherwise they were under cloud!

It is a very peaceful place to be. It is in the Parque Nacional des Glaciares and all busses stop at the park information office so that rules and regulation can be explained to visitors.

 Activities we can recommend:

  • There are many hikes that start from town – some one day, some multi day and some guided long hikes. Most are well marked. The hikes are free, but hikers need to register for the longer ones for safety reasons. We did a beautiful walk up to Laguna de los Tres which took around 6 hours; cloudy and cool but awesome.
  • We booked a boat trip to Glacier Viedma – the biggest glacier (out of the 300 in Argentina!) – to do some ice trekking across the glacier with crampons. An amazing experience. The guides were great and ensured the trip was fun for all. We had an English speaking guide all to ourselves – everyone else spoke Spanish!

(There is also a full day ice trekking and climbing trip that can be done.)

  • We hired mountain bikes and rode along next to the river, exploring waterfalls and lakes – bumpy but fun!

(There is an adventure centre out of town that offers cycling, canoeing, etc.)

On our way home, we spent another night in Buenos Aires due to flight times. This time it was hot, humid and raining! It was also a Sunday. Most places only open at 12:30 in the afternoon, so we went into a huge mall to look at the leather work that South America is famous for. It is not cheap but relatively cheaper than SA. They use unusual leather such as Capybara, and the quality is excellent.

The flight home was on SAA and we had to go to Cape Town via Johannesburg; 9 hours to Jhb and then 2 hours to Cape Town.

 We had done so much but there is still so much to do in Patagonia….next time!