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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 42, January 3, 2003
Peachy Glaciers, Arse Mountain, Bar Kamikaze, FBI Cat
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S'no borders

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.

Felicez Navidad

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.

Food Fright

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.

Arse Mountain

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 asbestos roof.

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.

Club Kamikaze

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 with rhythm.

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.