Ice Age - Driving south through the wilds of Argentina
PUBLISHED: 11:56 19 November 2009 | UPDATED: 16:33 07 September 2010
The Ham&High s Ben McPartland heads to the edge of the earth to check out the ice bergs, glaciers and the unforgiving mountains of Argentina s awe inspiring Patagonian wilderness.
The Ham&High's Ben McPartland heads to the edge of the earth to check out the ice bergs, glaciers and the unforgiving mountains of Argentina's awe inspiring Patagonian wilderness.
Our friendly guide handed me a pen and gestured towards the dotted line just below the small print which was unhelpfully written in Spanish. Speaking a little bit of the lingo I could just about understand the meaning of what was spelt out in front of me if not the actual words. Basically it read: "If you die during this white water rafting trip then it is no one's fault but your own and if you do cark it then don't even think about blaming us. We have nothing to do with any possible undiscovered heart defect that might end your life so prematurely today when your boat over turns and throws you into the freezing cold rapids of the Rio Mendoza."
Ah what the heck, when you come to discover the great outdoors in a place like Argentina, which thankfully has not yet been colonised by the spoil sport health and safety brigade, then you have to be prepared to sign a few forms like this.
Even three weeks is never enough to discover a country as big as Argentina but our aim was to get as far south in this continent as possible. But that was immediately thrown of course by a visit to the mighty Iguazu Falls in the far north. I was told this series of eye-watering giant cascades on the Argentine-Brazil border just cannot be missed. And the advice was spot on.
The sight and sound of millions of gallons of water tumbling over rainforest cliffs will stay with you for a long time.
You can also take a boat trip up into one of the falls for the best power shower you will ever get. But be prepared to sign one of those indemnity forms.
From Iguazu we headed to the Andes in search of cooler weather and after a few days in the delightful city of Mendoza on the Chilean border it was off south to the Lakes.
The Lake District is the playground for Argentina's upper classes. The hundreds of wealthy gated communities around Buenos Aires empty out in the winter as their inhabitants head for the ski slopes. In summer the same folk come down here for trekking, cycling, rafting and other adventure sports.
The area, for which the hub is the ever expanding town of Bariloche, is incredibly beautiful but it felt more Alpine than Andean and can get a little overcrowded. But if you fancy a ski with a Latin twist then skip next year's beach holiday and down here.
On we went. Without doubt the best way to get further south from here is to take the famous Route 40 road, if you can call it that, which runs parallel to the Andes down towards the tip of the continent.
Various guidebooks told us that after years of wrangling the Argentinian government had finally agreed to stump up the cash and pave the southern stretch of this 3125 mile long road. But the money must be running out. For most of the two day journey we bumped along a stony track journeying through the most barren landscape imaginable. With the Andes out of sight to the West there was nothing to look at but tufts of grass stretching out as far as the eye can see across the flat deserted plains. This truly is an empty land and left you with no doubt you were heading towards the end of the earth.
Late on the second day, with bums aching and sciatica playing up, our target crept into view. The giant Fitzroy Mountain range which kept the southern ice fields at bay appeared in the distance. The toothy peaks, normally shrouded in cloud, loomed large in the distance like Tolkien's Mountains of Mordor.
El Chalten, a burgeoning town at the foot of Mount Fitzroy, is Argentina's newest pueblo and was formed only back in 1985 when the government moved people in to stave off a claim for it from its neighbour Chile. It has been given the title of Trekking capital of Argentina, a slightly cocky claim considering everything else the Andes have to offer but it won't disappoint you.
Hikers come here loaded with cash, not just because you get less for your peso or to eat in one the swanky restaurants but because the town's recently installed cash point is rarely full. Stories abound of frivolous tourists having to survive for days on biscuits and water until the cash man arrives.
The weather is so unpredictable in Patagonia they say you can get four seasons in one day. But our luck was in as for the next two days as the sun shone and the winds that can apparently drive a sane man mad stayed away.
Trekking possibilities include heading up to Glacier de Los Pierdras Blancas (glacier of the white stones) which plummeted out of the mountains into a milky coloured lake complete with its own ice bergs.
The beauty was too much for one man that he ended up proposing to his girlfriend. You couldn't blame him I guess. If you are ever going to sign your life away then this was the place to do it.
Four hours further south from El Chalten is the town of El Calafate, the southern most point of our journey some 15,000km from London.
From here it is just a short bus journey to the jewel in the crown of the southern ice fields - Glacier Perito Moreno. Standing at 30km long, 5km wide and 60metres high this ever moving mass is a monstrosity that takes some time for the senses to take in. No guidebook description or photograph will ever prepare you for it.
It's bigger than the province of Buenos Aires and noisier than your average thunder storm. The pressures of thousands of tonnes of compact snow shifting down at a speed of 2metres a day causes cracking and chunks to break off, the sounds of which range from cars back firing, to gun shots to bombs exploding.
Nevertheless it was a sedentary experience and was without doubt the highlight of the trip to Patagonia.
> Chalten Travel is a well run tour company, which offers reasonably priced excursions throughout Patagonia. The ice trek on Glacier Torre starting out from El Chalten is highly recommended but not for the fainthearted.
> Chalten Travel also runs coaches down the Route 40 through Patagonia between Bariloche and El Chalten or El Calafate. Tickets cost around £80 each including two nights accommodation. For more information visit www.chaltentravel.com
> Taking the bus is only recommended one way so the best way to get back up to Buenos Aires is to fly. Aerolineas Argentinas sell regular cheap flights offering a smoother route back to the capital city. Visit www.aerolineas.com.ar