Uncharted territory

Bariloche, Argentina

Where was I before I was so rudely interrupted? (Resorting to logging on during more social daylight hours now.)

One thing that struck me as I approached Uruguay was that, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t know anyone who’s ever been there. A great part of the thrill of this trip is turning out to be getting to those places one wouldn’t ordinarily reach. I don’t mean this in a stamp-collecting kind of way (to do that here, you have to visit Paraguay, which as far as I can gather has almost nothing to offer except a stamp in your passport, and were not going there.) But realistically, Uruguay is not somewhere I’d have been passing through otherwise. And it’s such an unexpected pleasure when you get there. Similarly the Pantanal before it, and the Valdes since.

Valdes was mind blowing. Apart from the whale watching (read Marisa’s journal) the peninsular was such a vast, remote, diverse place. Its about 14 hours by bus from Buenos Aires to the nearest town, then another few hours to get out to the furthest side of the peninsular. Needless to say, not that many people get right out to the edge. As a result, you can walk down on to beaches where elephant seals are breeding (noisily and inelegantly), and there’s no fence, no postcard stand, no McDonalds. I could have sat and watched them lumbering about the beach forever.

The east of Argentina is a huge rain shadow created by the Andes, so it’s very arid – sandy and scrubby. Stark but beautiful, with wild flowers. Its really never been settled, hunted or mucked about by man. The wildlife stare back at you rather than run – we sat and watched 3 Patagonian hares chasing each other’s tails around the bush. I couldn’t help comparing it to the fleeting (if ever) glimpses of a hare one might get in England before it fled.

This place is protected by its inaccessibility. If they extended the Northern Line this far it would change forever. But that’s the privilege of travel – we have the time to get there (and nothing more productive to do!).

The settlers in that part of the country were… Welsh. How weird it that? Teahouses and red dragons in the middle of all this. Gave it an extra air of the unusual to say the least.

We’ve turned in land now and hit the mountains. Again, taking the luxury of time, we stopped in a small national park not often visited by outsiders – turned out the only hiking trail in the park has been shut for 2 years and we had some difficulty getting in to it at all. But we managed, and discovered that it’s full of a kind of tree (the Alerce) that grows less than 1mm diameter a year but can live for thousands. Saw a 2.2m tree that’s 2600yrs old. But the weirdest thing was the thing that looked like saplings but were in fact 10 years old, and those that looked like young trees but were hundreds of years old. This kind of ecosystem couldn’t really withstand significant contact from man – far too easy to break something considerably older than you are.

Its only spring here – snowed all day yesterday. We’ve just arrived in Bariloche, centre of the trekking region, so some more hiking ahead for us. Seems this country is best seen from a tent, at its best when at its most remote.

Thanks for your thoughts on the people of South America. I must admit I was a bit nervous coming here – an Englishman in Argentina. But the people have stunned me. Incredibly friendly, and incredibly passionate.

In Buenos Aires last week we went to River Plate Stadium to watch the football. Mad, crazy. We mistakenly bought away-fan tickets, and sat with the San Lorenzo fans. But they beat River 2-1 so it was for the best. The noise, the singing, the flares and confetti in the stands was phenomenal. And you wouldn’t think such a huge concrete stadium could be made to move under the supporters’ feet, but when 30,000 people jump up and down at once, anything would shudder. The singing after the match carried us right out of the stadium and up the street. It was one of the more skin tingling experiences of my life.

Everyone here seems really friendly – and the warmth towards the English is great. Its a shame, for my generation, that a stupidly thought out war has totally coloured our perspective on a whole country.

Think again.

Fortunately for those of us whose Spanish is flaky, they don’t mind how bad you are at communicating. And fortunately, for a couple of relatively inexperienced carnivores, such as ourselves, the steak is at least as good as its reputation!

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