Exploring Patagonia: Chile and Argentina

13 – 22 January 2017
travellingross rating: 7/10
Wow they speak fast Spanish in Chile! I cannot even pick up the occasional word to follow the sentence.  When I booked a connecting flight to Puerto Montt via my already booked flight to Santiago, I had not realised that because Montt is not an international airport, I would need to clear immigration and customs in Santiago, bag drop, then clear security as a domestic passenger. Which all up takes 2 hours and resulted in missing my connecting flight. So, I got to know the Santiago airport for 6 hours. Arriving in Montt near midnight, sped to the hotel by what I think was an unregistered taxi, then straight to bed. However, I was able to sleep in since check-in for my ferry to Puerto Natales was not until 12:30pm and I could then be free of my bags for 5 hours until we departed on a shuttle bus to the ferry terminal. Very very conveniently, check-in was at the Holiday Inn which is attached to an unexpectedly enormous mall. Walking to the mall, I was struck by how this simple small town is far more scenic than Mendoza. My free time enabled me to buy some hiking boots, weather proof pants, get my Big Mac fix and continue the seemingly endless travel planning.
The cargo ship masquerading as a passenger ferry was everything I expected and served the purpose I was searching for. 3 nights of no internet, no alcohol, no pressure to go tour. Just sleep 12 hours a day, listen to audio books, sort photographs on my laptop and of course look at the fjord scenery that you can only witness on these waters.
Torres del Paine is not that remarkable to me. Sorry, don’t hate me all you Patagonia lovers. I have seen more profound and jaw dropping landscapes. I think instead the attraction is the isolation. But now it’s become such a tourist hot spot that there are people everywhere. The glaciers however are inspirational. Grey glacier in particular is a 3 hour boat trip, which sounds ridiculous, but the scenery and view points are out of this world. The mountains and fjords are otherwise nothing I haven’t seen in other parts of the world and in my opinion not worth the hassle to come all this way unless you are coming to camp and hike the W or O trails. Which 80% of the people no doubt come for that. It’s just the crazy ones like me who come to see the views, tick the Patagonia box and sip a beer while literally looking down on the camp sites from my stupidly expensive with terrible WiFi, but comfortable, hotel.
Departing Torres was a mission made complicated by my plan to cross into Argentina and go straight to my next sight seeing destination. After researching many options (including the very handy website www.bussur.com and my friend Madison), I concluded that taking a risk of getting a shuttle to the national park entrance and attempting to hop on an unbooked bus to El Calafate was worth it. Cause I really didn’t want to spend another night in Natales having already been forced to spend 1 there when the ferry arrived 8 hours late. Through a bit of haggling, begging, and money, the driver let me on the bus! And helped me print my Argentine reciprocal fee receipt at the Chilean border. We swapped buses 3 times, and finally I was dropped off at a hotel that lucky for me had vacancies, an open restaurant at 10pm and a big fat scotch whiskey. Couldn’t wipe the smile from my face – I did it!!
El Calafate is a nice large tourist town. The Argentines do tourism better than the Chileans and the infrastructure is a higher standard. The main reason people, including me, come to this particular town is to see the Perito Moreno glacier. I had a full day trekking tour of this monster booked for 22 January and was the motivation for coming down to this part of the world. Now, this is jaw dropping and well worth the effort. Makes me want to go to Antarctica!
Torres hotel was booked directly at their website http://www.lastorres.com and was $368 USD a night! Getting there was a challenge and I ended up getting a lift with a man I met on the ferry. At the time I thought he was being generous, but when he dropped me at the hotel asked for $60….hmmmm. I guess I failed my first hitch-hiking experience.
Perito Moreno glacier Big Ice trek booked through http://www.hieloyaventura.com for $4000 Argentine Pesos ($260 USD). Take food, good shoes and a back pack to carry your crampons. There are lots of papers to fill and they don’t accept e-signature.

Malbec in Mendoza

7-12 January 2017
travellingross rating = 5/10
Mendoza is hot, rough and loves the fact that they are a developing wine district of the world. I did not realise that their claim to wine fame has only been the last couple of decades or so. But it was famous enough for me to be here. On a whim. One of my randomest yet. Thinking that I would do a January ski trip, following my Perth break, I had to scramble for an alternate plan when that did not come to fruition. It’s the time of year to visit Patagonia, so I thought why not and I’ve wanted to see this epic glacier down there. How hard can it be? But first I need somewhere to chill. Easter Island. But it was impossible to find a flight to the island. Lots coming back but none going in. Ok. Mendoza. Who doesn’t love a wine region?? So after a quiet, productive, ‘New Year, New Me’ work rotation, I left site relaxed and completely unready for what I was about to do.
It took ages to get to Mendoza, via Guyana and Panama and Santiago in Chile. The latter I was shocked that I had to pay a visa fee of $117 USD just to transit through the country. Not a good 1st impression Chile. Especially given that I already had to pay $100 USD for the privilege to enter Argentina thanks to Australia charging these 2 countries a fee for their nationals to enter ours. All leaving a bad taste in my mouth and this was the first moment of many during this trip when I questioned “why I am here?”
I jumped into what I’m sure was an unregistered taxi and we sped across town to my Airbnb apartment that I had booked 2 days ago. We got lost. Yep there are two Lamadrid streets in Mendoza. And Mr Taxi took me to the wrong one (no Uber here yet unfortunately). Once I did get to my apartment I was happy that it was a passcode entry and I did not have to talk to a single human being to check-in. A bottle of wine greeted me on the table and I was impressed with this loft apartment.
Over the next few days, I went on two different style of wine tours. One to Luján de Cuyo where we visited Dominio del Plata, Matervini, Caserena (lunch) and Mendel (for $170 USD through Trout and Wine). And another bicycle tour to the farther out Valle de Uco (for $150 USD through Mendoza Wine Bike Tour). The first could’ve been done by anyone and nothing amazing. The bike tour was memorable and I highly recommend for something different and to immerse yourself in the region. But it is for the fit who don’t mind the sun.
All the wineries give very long tours of their fermentation and process. 45 mins. Before you do the tasting. Boring when the process is all the same and they act like their winery is unique. Or maybe I just found it boring cause it lacked the awesome people who I normally do wine tours with. The lunches though are incredible and they do not hold back on the wine or the food. Pairing the wine with food is what they do best. I also learned something new – rinse the glass between tastings with a cheap table wine, not water.
Overall, Mendoza is not a very attractive city, quite dirty and chaotic. I think when the mountains are visible it might be more scenic. Out at the wineries it can be pretty, but not jaw dropping. And Spanish speaking would change your whole outlook. I tried to call a taxi and they only speak Spanish; that’s when I realised my Spanish is so pathetic I can’t even order a cab. Luckily I was able to message the Airbnb host to ask her to order a taxi to my dinner reservation at 1884 Francis Mallmann, which was rated as one of the best restaurants in Latin America and it was deluxe. So personally, I would not recommend it compared to the great wine regions of the world. And I got a terrible head cold a day after arriving (thanks 24 hour airline travel!), which I could not shake even with copious amounts of wine. I realise this prolonged it. I just like to point out that I am a trooper who does not let a head cold get in the way of a travel experience.
I would not recommend the Airbnb apartment. Lovely place with everything you could need and perfect host all for $77 per night. But the location is a bit boring. Sure… it’s an 8 minute walk to a street full of restaurants, but no shops or hotels to grab a cab. And the loft bedroom was hotttttttttttttttttt. Not in a good way, just sweaty and stifling.