The frontier between Argentina and Chile on the road to Calafate is one
of those comedy border crossings. In the middle of an utterly
featureless steppe, you suddenly have a little town, a real one horse
affair where the road branches. Then, about 100 metres beyond the end of
town there's the border crossing. Here, they have thoughtfully built a
four foot suburban brick wall along about thirty metres of border; in
the middle of this is a gate. Which you go through, before continuing
along excatly the same road through exactly the same Kazakhstantastic
landscape. This sort of thing does give you a feel for how few people
there are here though. Patagonia was only really settled this century
and even then, it was hardly a top ten immigrant destination.
Splendid though all this isolation was, it had started to worry me a
little: we were meant to be spending Christmas in Calafate and, one of
the towns that merited the same size dot on the map as our destination
comprised one occupied house, one abandoned house and a petrol station.
But I needn't have fretted. Calafate is perfectly nice in a sort of
tourist-place-you-find-in -the-Rocky-Mountains kind of way. Hardly
surprising as it exists only to service the visitors who come to see the
nearby Merrino glacier, which is widely held to be the largest and most
stylish glacier in all of South America. Like good tourists, it was
where we were headed too. Funnily enough, it's OK to be tourists down
here: like Chilean Patagonia, the Argie side is a place where high
achieving types come for their high achieving holidays, not where low
achieving types come to, well, achieve very little.
Glacier - O - Rama
After a lunch in a cafe notable for its menu rigidity - Can I have
onions in my omelette? / No! / You Can't! / Why? / Because it's not on
the menu / Oh, OK - we covered the remaining 80km (a pifling distance by
local standards) between Calafate and the glacier. Actually, near the
glacier the buff sameness relents and it all gets a bit more
interesting. Here you are back in the foothills of the Andes and,
protected by arrestingly spiky peaks, there are sizeable strands of
something called Megellanic forest. They're all gnarled and short and
kind of downtrodden looking, but it's still nice to see trees. But, just
as I was starting to bond with this most southerly of forests, a mike
screeched on. Ladies and gentlemen....your guide...and you really
wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world...
Our guide was called Peachy. Well, she really was called Maria but she
went by the name of Peachy, in English as well as Spanish. She was
English speaking but appeared to have learned her entire English speil
by rote, so while she knew the words, she didn't really understand them.
Anyway Peachy told us about the glacier, which was all very interesting.
Then, like nature, abhoring a vaccuum, Peachy told us again. Then Peachy
told us some more, this time adding, 'It's very nice.' Silence descended
again and Peachy filled it again by telling us how nice the glacier was
and again and again and again, like a broken wind up doll...'Click...the
glacier is very nice...click it's very nice..' and so on.
With only two hours at the glacier, we figured we'd better ditch Peachy
and just as she hit her fiftieth iteration of what nice ice this was, we
snuck off for a closer look. While the whole experience is a bit, as
Owen had put it, 'Glacier - O - Rama' the Merrino is certainly a
fabulous glacier: it is the size of metropolitan Buenos Aries (though
with considerably fewer economic problems); it is roughly sixty metres
deep; and with thousands of jagged shards looks a bit like Superman's
home planet would have if the movie set hadn't been made out of crappy
polystyrene. I resolved, on our return journey, to give Peachy a list of
adjectives better suited top such a top notch glacier.
Nor is the glacier static: it is one of the fastest in the world and
crackles like artillery fire. Bits of ice (bits weighing several tonnes)
were falling off it all the time. And, before they stopped people
walking along its landward side the glacier iced (as it were) an averge
of two people per year. Clearly we were not the only ones who were
impressed: there was a Japanese guy here and he appeared to be
applauding the glacier. I have seen this sort of bizarre behaviour
before in front of a similarly impressive volcano in Indonesia. Actually
there is one thing I would like to see: a volcano and a glacier going
off at the same time. That would be worth a round of applause, though I
rather gather that, for most people lucky enough to witness this
spectacle, it is the very last thing they see.
Calafate turned out to be a pretty good place to spend Christmas. For
one thing Argentinian food is pretty good, although, naturally my meal
still involved several kilos of dead cow. But Argentina is also more
European. Thus you get better service - though only in South America
would your waiter suggest that in between the starter and a main course
'It may be a while, perhaps you should have a cigarette.' For about #20
we also had a stunningly good Malbec. It was one of those boutique wines
- that is, only 40 bottles had been produced that year. It's the kind of
thing that, had it been made in California (which has a near identical
climate to this particular vine's homeland), would have gone to some
silicon valley type for $3000. Or would have two years ago before
investors realised that selling canned dogfood online was a non-starter.
After that we went to a rather more local bar and drank good piscos and
bad Argentinian champagne. Argentinians really know how to party. I
mean, they don't sink eight pints of fighting juice or anything. Rather
they go out at 10pm, eat at 11pm then continue until God knows when. We
left at 3:30am on Christmas day and there were still people arriving. As
in Spain the Argies tend to celebrate on Christmas Eve meaning, rather
weirdly, most of Calafate was open for business on the 25th. My
Christmas lunch was something of a disappointment - another South
American pizza groaning beneath a - but at least the TV in our hotel had
'Dude where's my Car' (a touching tale of two American teenagers who get
so stoned they lose their car and, err, that's it) to watch through our
hangovers one of the non premium cable channels.
On Boxing day we headed back into Chile, to the agreeable Puerto Natales
and thence the less agreeable Punto Arenas from where we flew to Peurto
Montt. PM is at the very bottom of the Chilean lake district. Actually
first impressions are not that stunning: it all looks a bit seedy. But
on closer inspection, it's actually kind of nice - all sligtly windblown
colourful wooden houses spilling down steep hills - and probably looks a
bit like Seattle did before Microsoft and Starbucks agreed to divvy the
place up between them.
It also has a McDonald's. It was sitting there in its natural habitat,
the tasteless shopping mall. It was weird seeing a McD's when you
haven't seen one for so long. Their relative rarity is a reminder
McDonald's are doing appallingly in South America (Jane was one of the
La Paz branches last customers), though not for the reasons you might
imagine. Chile has good sea food, served rather unimaginatively in
unimaginably large portions and good meat. But it's not a fine cuisine:
one of the best known national dishes is the 'completo' a hot dog with
so many sauces on it that it looks like a brain haemorrhage in a bun.
The problem for McDonald's is that Chile excels at hamburgers and
related stuff, steak and cheese sandwiches and the like. I mean, you
might not want to eat this sort of thing all the time, but the greasiest
spoon in Chile will make a burger that will have Ronald McDonald crying
into his fries. Their pizzas suck though, so we ate in Pizza Hut.
The next day we headed up to Pucon, a town that is constantly referred
to as a faux rustic extereme sports mecca. True it is very faux rustic,
but the extreme sports tag is a little silly - it is merely a place that
happens to have nice lake and hot springs and volcanoes and all that
sort of stuff. Queenstown, NZ is an extreme sports mecca and Pucon is
nothing like as butt headed. Mainly because it's full of South Americans
who usually can't see the point of doing bungee jumps.
Actually the Chilean Lake district is beautiful, sort of like Wiltshire
but with volcanoes. Which makes you realise how much better Wilstshire
would be if it had volcanoes. In fact, Pucon's crowning glory is Mt
Villarrica. Although it is only 2,800 m high, it wears a permanent snow
cap and in December (the Austral equivalent of June) is still covered in
the stuff, with little lacy bits like Mt Fuji at the bottom: it is
reckoned to be one of the world's most handsome volcanoes. In a
pleasingly clicheed way, this winsome volcan is at once the reason the
for the town's prosperity and will likely also be the reson for its end.
Villarrica is one of the most active volcanoes in South America and is
due to blow its top. When it does it will almost certainly flambee the
whole place. As the local joke goes, don't buy a condo unless its got an
Nonetheless, after a day on the black, volcanic beach, which looks a
little like a craprak, we (and the Ainesleys) decided to climb the
volcano. Because of the snow, most of which is melting in June, you have
to get togged up in the most ridiculous gear. We'd rather hoped it would
all look a bit cool and extreme. In fact our orange and black kit and
plastic hiking boots made us look like bin men. From the bottom of the
snow it's a four or five hour climb, to two - eight. (It is an unwritten
rule of the extreme community that heights must always be referred to in
this format. Nobody under the age of 35 says two thousand eight
hundred). Anyway all this extreme activity, while not exactly strenuous,
is not much fun in plastic trousers when it's a sunny 20C outside. In
fact, it was disgusting: the trousers make you sweat so much that you
create a sort of turkish bath in your pants. Then you get to the top and
its absolutely freezing. After 20 minutes at the crater my strides were
so sodden I was worried about getting trench sack.
Having eaten lunch and admired the schmokin' fumurole, we were faced
with getting down. Not much fun, I though, my damp grundies beginning a
savage chafing. But get this, because it's covered in snow and a near
perfect cone, you just sit down and slide down the whole thing on your
arse. How cool is that? Although by the end you do feel a bit like
you've been given a glacial enema.
Having given myself a filthy cold, we spend the next day in some
extremely hot springs and, after dehydrating ourselves fully, kicked off
New Years Eve with some local Champagne that tasted a bit like like
Campari and soda. Then we went to a posh restaurant - more beef, but
good quality - and, then, suitably drunk, we went to a crap nightclub.
Once we'd sussed that the nightclub was rubbish, we went to another, one
that we'd seen days earlier. When we first saw it, Owen and I
instinctively knew that we'd wind up there at the end of New Year's Eve.
It was called Bar Kamikazee, flew a rising sun flag and had a fake WWII
fighter crashed into its roof. Inside was the theme continued, with the
DJ booth done up to look like a watchtower from a POW camp. Although
kind of amusing in a butt headed sort of way, when you think about it,
this is a bit like doing your club up to look like the Killing Fields or
Dachau. Then again, I don't suppose many survivors of the Japanese POW
camps go clubbing.
The drinks were equally tastless: having been quite excited by and paid
a small Chilean fortune for an open bar, we managed one pisco sour
apiece, which tasted like battery acid. Though I suppose it may have
helped me get over my embarassment at being surrounded by 800 people
Though miles from home we managed a pretty authentic British New Year's
Day. That is we sat around feeling dreadful and watching dreadful TV. A
special prize for underachievement goes to Jane for finding (and
watching) a film on the Hallmark Channel called FBI cat. It was a
feature length presentation about a cat that joins the FBI. That's true,
it really was.