Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Croeso i Cymru - Welcome to Wales

After an 18 hours bus trip north from El Chalten we were still within the northern reaches of Patagonia, just south of the Argentinian lake district. We stopped here for a very special visit so Chris could go and practice his Welsh in the small town of Trevelin. Settled by Welsh immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century who were escaping the persecution of Victorian Britain that was trying its hardest to eliminate the Welsh language and culture. 

Large numbers of Welsh people settled on Patagonia’s eastern shores and valleys. By 1860 all good pasture land on the east had been settled, so they looked further inland for fertile valleys. The Mapuche Indians with whom they traded promised a rich fertile valley in the foothills of the Andes and so an expedition set out to find the promised land. The first Welsh families settled into Trevelin in the early 1860s and slowly turned the fertile valleys into rich pastures for crops and the surrounding hillside for grazing sheep.

Trevelin translates as Mill Town. The mill was built in 1889 and has recently been refurbished as the region’s museum. We spent a fantastic few hours exploring the early history of the local tribes, the arrival of the Welsh and the agricultural and household displays. The chap in charge looked like a fiery welsh man, with red hair, blue eyes, a pasty complexion and bristling red moustache. He spoke a little welsh and his faltering English was delivered with a wonderful welsh lilt to his accent. He has family in Conway and has visited Wales once and is planning to go back. His Father and Grandfather have both been Director of the Trevelin choir (one Jones and one Williams obviously) and he sang with Gwyndaf Jones at last years local Eisteddfod.

Trevelin holds an annual Eisteddfod and has close ties with its counterpart in North Wales undertaking exchanges and sending performers.

Unfortunately most of the rest of the town’s attraction were closed down for the off season, so we missed out on a Welsh tea at Nain Maggies (Grandma Maggies) but we did manage to visit the old Chapel Bethal and see the Welsh language school.

Diolch yn fawr Trevelin.

The sign outside the Trevelin tourist office

Their emblem combines the blue and white flag with yellow sun of Argentina, the pointy yellow mountains of the flag of Patagonia, the sheep, the crops and of course the red dragon

Unfortunately closed this morning

Passion for traditions and culture are very strong in this valley

A young Welsh goucho and his Mapuche Indian friend - drinking matte together is a sign of friendship - a culture that thrives still throughout South America

Had some great stuff in the old Mill Museum - Fordson tractor

Case steam engine

Used to drive the thresher on the right

The hills and valleys of a new home from home in the 1860s

Local artwork

The restored Mill museum

A picnic lunch at Capel Bethel where we were shown around by an old gentleman who also works at the language school teaching the next generation Welsh and keeping the language, culture and traditions alive in this small outpost in the Andean foothills

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Travelling through Patagonia

Many prolific words have already been written about the allure of Patagonia. For hundreds of years it has drawn men and women to its barren, bold beauty. Travellers from Darwin onwards have noted how the bleakness seizes the imagination. It is a harsh place, battered by winds and snows, scorched by the sun, carved and shaped by ice and smothered in glacial deposits and volcanic debris. Oh, and its huge, seemingly endless as you sit looking through the bus window for hour after hour, day after day gazing at the same landscape of flat arid steppe with sedimentary hills and distant blue mountains topped with cloud.

Patagonia’s dimensions are not exact, it exists on maps and charts and in books but has no absolute boundaries and multiple definitions. Some say south from the Rio Negro others say from the Rio Colorado. Either way it covers over one million square kilometres, most of them taken up by a coarse grassy shrub. At higher altitudes rainfall is more abundant and there are forests of sub-antarctic beech, rich soils full of wild flowers and huge lakes fed by silt rich glacial rivers. But higher still it is just a world of rock and ice, cold, harsh and desolate.

The view from the bus window changes little over hundreds of kilometres. In the small towns, squat single storey houses with small windows and flat or tinned roofs. Only the main streets are paved, streets branching off are dirt roads. Old farm machinery and horse-drawn carts displayed on verges. Barren, wide open spaces stretching out like a film background on repeated loop, the monotony is endless. Grey soil with round grey pebbles, dotted with small grey bushes and hummocks of straw yellow grasses, which blend into a yellowy-grey dusting upon the distant hills. Occasionally a feature appears to catch your eye, often the sun-bleached bones of an ex-cow litters the dust-laden road side. Poplars often denote an abandoned farmstead, slowly crumbling back into the plains.

Despite the conditions life survives, wild guanacos, ancestor of the llama and alpaca, roam the steppe, along with hare and rabbit. These are all prey for the puma that rules the Andes, followed by the grey and red foxes. The bird life is prolific from geese, ducks and flamingos to parakeets, eagles and the enormous Andean Condor.

As stated by Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia, “the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks; the devout prays; the lonely grows lonelier, sometime fatally! … Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness.”

Despite the harshness it is a truly beautiful and unspoilt place. There are dozens of national parks, reserves and wilderness areas. There are still unexplored regions, two huge icecaps, thousands of glaciers and a seemingly endless coastline of fjords, islands and inlets. I think we’ll be back for more!

The endless flat steppe plains

Only broken by rivers, lakes and the sea to the east

...and the mountains to the west

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Cerro Fitz Roy

El Chalten is allegedly Argentina’s trekking capital, however when we arrived we found this small, quaint town almost deserted - Argentinians obviously don’t trek in the autumn! Most of the town is set out on two streets and many shops and restaurants were closed for the off season. We found great digs with our own en-suite cabin and shared kitchen. 

The weather was great but looking to deteriorate so we headed out next day under azure blue skies to explore the gem of this region – Cerro Fitz Roy. This 3359 metre high rock spire dominates the valley and was another impressive monolith on Chris’ must see list! 

We caught a bus 7km north of town into the northern end of Los Glaciars National Park. From here we hiked trough beautiful beech forest in towards the base of Fitz Roy. The last hour was a killer stomp up the steep valley walls, through the snowline and up the moraine to a fabulous view over Fitz Roy its glaciers and glacier lake. Our 20km stomp brought us back into town at dusk in time to meet up with our new friend Jeff for another well deserved pint!

What a welcoming sight!

Our gentle stroll along the river towards Cerro Fitz Roy

A former river bed or maybe an old trail through the forest, this cutting reminded us of the old trails through the woods in the UK

These amazing knarled beech trees grow into tortuous shapes

Battered by high winds they eventually fall but if their roots are intact they don't die but just sprout new limbs and continue growing

 Our first close up of Cerro Fitz Roy

and its impressive glaciers

Not much further

 Not sure what this sign means...any guesses?

Our route back to Chalten lies straight ahead...once we've finished the climb!

The road where we started in the distance beneath the blue mountains

Snow line = suck time, very hot in this Andean sun!

There she blows

Spot the difference

Made it!

Looking back to the start - nearly home

Our cosy home on the right

Celebrating with Jeff and the gang

 Fancy a Penguin anyone?

Monday, 13 April 2015


It sounded like a gun firing at a range too close for comfort. The bang echoed and we swung our head from side to side. Where did it come from? We scanned the horizon intently. Suddenly we heard another crack this time louder and a great pillar of ice collapsed, crashing into the lake with resounding roars.  

A white giant, the Perito Moreno Glacier is situated 50km west of El Calafate. It is one of the few icy tongues in the world that is still advancing. It was 5km wide at the face and went back as far as the eye could see, some 20km or so. This river of ice had carved out the wide steep sided valleys of Lago Argentino, this country’s second largest lake. The ice warmed by the afternoon sun turned blue as it became more saturated with water. Peaked features and encapsulated dust layers provided excellent photo opportunities from the promontory of land, which reached to within 100 metres of the glacier's advancing face.  

Like watching a 2 pence arcade game where the coins are just on the lip of the step, you were sure that a piece would carve off next, that overhang surely would go.... but it clung on.

Three times in about two hours we saw a towering ice pinnacle cleave, toppling into the lake and creating a large splash as new icebergs were released. We were captivated, watching nature's self destruction was enthralling. There was no interpretative information at the observation point, which was a shame as I was intrigued to know how old the ice was that had now been pushed to the front. And how long did it take for the front line to fall? As a pillar crashed down revealing a fresh surface it was exciting to think that we would be only a handful of people to ever see that frozen azure blue surface before it melted away. Such is the transient nature of life.

 Our first glimpse of the imposing Perito Moreno glacier

The ice reaches so close to the azimuth of land opposite the face that over 30 people have died by being struck by missiles of falling ice

Almost close enough to touch

See the tourist boat for scale

The low cloud and changing light created wonderful effects on the ice field

Even the condors came in for a closer look

When nature gets this big it can be pretty humbling!

Will this piece fall next?

Oh no I think its this one....here it goes....(see the boat again for scale - top right)

Amazing ice formations

Simply beautiful