In Patagonia

MY A-Level English reading list featured a lot of the usual suspects – Shakespeare, DH Lawrence, EM Forster and some Philip Larkin poetry we perhaps did not take as seriously as we should have done.

Somehow managed to cobble together a decent grade without reading all the books in full – could not begin to tell you anything about Lawrence’s The Lost Girl – but one more modern addition to the list had me hooked.

Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill, the tale of twins spending their entire lives together on a Welsh hill farm through much of the 20th century, was devoured and pretty much guaranteed to be my choice of essay come exam time (although had some pretty exhaustive answers worked out for Hamlet and Passage to India which suited most questions).

And while ignoring the stuff which would have come in handy to pass exams, went searching out more of Chatwin’s work.

Which took me to his travel book In Patagonia.

Sorry to say, remember very little about it except its unusual structure – a series of sections, some just a single paragraph – and could not find my copy when moving out of my flat before this trip.

But it did plant Patagonia in my head as a place that needed visiting.

And having spent most of the last fortnight heading south through its amazing landscape spanning the Chilean and Argentinian borders which we have been criss-crossing, it begs the question of how it took me so long to get here.

It is increasingly remote (averaging two people per square kilometre across the southern extremes of the continent) and wild as we have battled bouts of torrential rain and cold, but it is spectacularly beautiful.

The sheer distances involved have meant some long drive days, often on some less than user-friendly roads which at least have served to shake us awake to savour the extraordinary scenery passing by the truck windows.

Every corner seems to open up another remarkable view of snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, lakes and rivers while the most recent border crossing carried us back into Argentina and an instant change to an arid, rocky desert landscape. 

At least it was dry.

Well, it was arid right up until we stumbled across another vivid blue lake, complete with icebergs – the source of which is next on our places to visit – and we found ourselves face to face with more towering mountains above the town of El Chalten which has seen us exploring its trails, bars and waffle houses.

But that’s what’s happening now. What have we been up to since dodging the anti-government protests in Santiago?

Eyes cleared from tear gas and opened to the extent of unrest which has left huge scars on the Chilean capital – and would continue to pop up as we retreated to the countryside – we got out of town early in the morning, the truck rather fuller with the arrival of five new inhabitants.

Their first experience of truck life was one of the longest drive days to date, albeit on some of the smoothest roads as we headed to the lakeside town of Pucon.

Anyone not paying attention could easily have awoken from a nap to think we had emerged in Switzerland, courtesy of the alpine scenery and the type of tidy little town you would expect to find in ski resorts. Sort of a smaller version of Banff in Canada.

The one thing you could not miss – bar the ice cream parlours and cake shops lining the main street as it swept away from the lake near our campsite – was the snow-capped volcano looming over us which meant various photo stops for anyone out hunting for that night’s dinner.

A group of us got as far as the supermarket, loading up on wine, cheese and probably a bit too much meat – we were finishing it for breakfast – for an impromptu barbecue back at camp.

The onset of the cold which had been threatening for a few days prevented me from spending the next morning throwing myself down rapids on a body board and an evening hot springs visit, but was not enough to stop a trip into town which yielded cake, hot chocolate, ice cream and a pair of Homer Simpson Havaianas which just refused to stay on the shelf.

The cold did not stop me joining the hike up the volcano the next morning. A decision based on common sense ruled that one out, although those who made the journey and slid back down through the snow came back glowing. 

Literally in many cases, courtesy of a few missed patches with the sun screen.

Not that it looked like the sun was going to be a problem from our perspective back in town with the entire volcano blanketed in cloud and invisible from down below.

Right up until we wandered into a coffee shop, came out again half an hour later and it was bathed in clear blue sky.

Not that we were looking too closely, our attention taken by what was going on at ground level as the protests which had been such a key part of our Santiago stay crossed our path again.

This one, however, was on a slightly different level.

The march of maybe 900-1,000 people through the main street, stopping outside the municipal offices for 10 minutes before heading off on its merry way, was more akin to a carnival than the running battles of the capital.

There was little shouting or signs of trouble – police either applauded or videoed, filming me at one point, but kept their distance as the crowd kept up a relentless, catchy beat on whatever they could find to hit.

It made for an interesting way to while away some time following the crowds.

They have a series of demands but the uniting call seems to be Dignidad Para Todos – Dignity For All. Which seems a fair request.

They were back in the evening, blocking the junction with the main road near camp. We wandered up and into the crowds for a closer look as they let cars through if the driver got out and danced for them.

And who can fail to appreciate that as a way of solving unrest?

Especially in countryside this beautiful.

  • Will get some photos up as soon as WiFi is good enough not for it to take ages.
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