Peaking in Patagonia
Though not known for her love of the great outdoors, the beauty of Argentina's Patagonia region had Rowena Crowley climbing mountains, traversing glaciers and, somehow, playing bingo on a bus
It was only when we had skidded down the mountain, making full use of all our limbs along the way, that we saw the sign warning that only very experienced climbers in good physical condition should attempt the Laguna De Los Tres hike of Mt Fitz Roy.
We missed it because we had opted to do the 700-metre ascent in southern Patagonia in the dark at 4.30am without headlights and armed only with a phone torch.
Desperate to catch the sunrise over the dramatic snow-covered granite towers, we had stumbled quickly up the steep exposed mountainside, using our hands to claw over boulders dotted along the jagged terrain.
There was light rain that was a welcome respite from the tiring climb. Unfortunately, it made for a slippery surface. Combined with the constant wind, the weather seemed determined to carry us off the mountain.
"This better be worth it," panted my travelling companion as he knocked back the remainder of our water and pressed his chest, unsure whether he was more likely to vomit or have a heart attack.
We need not have rushed. With heavy cloud cover, the mountain range was not lit up with golden orange hues – it was just grey. "Did we miss the shining?" asked a fellow camper. Yes, it would appear we did.
Patagonia will do strange things to you. This region of glaciers, desert, endless snowy mountain ranges and glittering lakes is so startling that it is impossible not to embrace outdoor living.
Over 10 days, I found myself voluntarily doing all-day cycling trips, hiking and camping for days on end. This was not the tango dancing, mate drinking, football-crazed part of the country I had seen in Buenos Aires and it served as another reminder of how vast and diverse Argentina is.
The failed climb to see the sunrise was not the first time we had been caught out unprepared and unfit on our travels.
Prior to the hike, we arrived in the compact town of El Chalten, situated in Los Glaciares National Park. From the town, you could see Mt Fitz Roy's soaring peaks, each of them dusted with snow.
It may have been because of the blinding sun overhead, but on a whim, we decided to rent camping equipment. We trailed up and down the one main street of the town (it didn't take long), only to discover that as we were not alone in chosen pursuit, every outdoors shop was out of equipment.
Half hoping we could scrap the plan and stay in a comfortable bed, we tried one last rental shop on the outskirts of the town. It had gear. The die had been cast – we were going camping.
With enthusiasm levels high, we set off on a trail towards Poincenot base camp carrying more wine than water, one muesli bar and what would later become overcooked, slimy noodles to sustain us.
In two hours we reached Laguna Capri, an invitingly pristine turquoise lake surrounded by hillocks. With Mt Fitz Roy as the backdrop, it was a classic Patagonian landscape sculpted by the force of the glaciers.
While captivated by the scenery, I kept on my guard. We had been warned by the park rangers that pumas skulked around the area and I was not convinced that our noodles or muesli bar would be much use in fending off any unwanted attacks.
En route to Poincenot, we hiked for five hours through terrain snaked by rivers but ranging from dense forest to shrubland. On arrival, we set up camp and begrudgingly ate 'dinner' while surrounded by smells of stir-fry and steaks. The other campers could spot that we were amateurs – as they had an early night, we had wine.
Although it was late summer, we slept in all the clothes we had carried with us because the temperature dropped below freezing. Luckily, due to our plans for an early start, we did not have to endure the uncomfortable sleep for too long – the alarm went at 3am.
Early-morning rising became a feature of our travels in Patagonia. To get to the Perito Moreno Glacier, we had to be on a bus leaving the town of El Calafate at 5am.
After two hours' travelling, which marked our shortest bus journey by far, we came around a bend. As the glacier came into sight, the driver played the theme song to 'Chariots of Fire' in case we were in any doubt of the spectacle we were about to see.
Covering 250 sq km and standing 70 metres tall in the middle of Lake Argentina, Perito Moreno is a beast of a glacier. We attached ice-spikes to our shoes and struck out, battling rain and wind.
The glacier seemed without end and the heavy cloud descending on the ice gave the impression that we had reached the end of the world. The glacier had all shades of blue peeking through the cracks and crevices. Every so often, a thunderous clash could be heard from what sounded like a distant location – it was huge shards of ice breaking off and falling into the water.
Our guides were deft of foot, jumping like mountain goats as we crunched through the ice. Exhausted at the end of journey, we were given shots of Jameson, served on glacier ice. The alcohol in no way helped my balance and I proceeded to slip twice afterwards.
Bleary-eyed and aching after the hike, we climbed on board our long-haul bus, revelling in the fact that it would only be a 'short' 18-hour trip as opposed to the 32-hour ride we had experienced beforehand.
As the delirium set in, the booming voice of the bus driver's assistant could be heard through a microphone. We were to play bingo. Paper and pens were doled out and locals and tourists alike showed their competitive edge, hushing other passengers so they could hear the numbers being read out.
The assistant was a born showman, making for a lively game. But unfortunately for him, he had to compete with an altogether more startling spectacle as the sky lit up in those purple and orange colours we had searched for at Mt Fitz Roy.
While sitting on the luxury bus with our seats fully reclined was a more comfortable viewing point than freezing on the top of a mountain, we somehow felt that we had not earned this 'shining' as much as before.
You'll need to first fly to Buenos Aires, where you can transfer on to Patagonia. Trailfinders (trailfinders.ie) currently has flights from Dublin to Buenos Aires from €739 return with Delta. You can also fly with KLM (klm.com), which currently has flights in November for €830 return. You then fly to Puerto Madryn with Andes Lineas Aereas (andesonline.com), which takes 1hr 50m and costs from €196 one way. You can also fly from Buenos Aires to El Calafate with Aerolineas Argentinas (aerolineas.com), from €405 return. The bus from El Calafate to El Chalten takes three and a half hours.
Many opt for the ease of an arranged tour. G Adventures (01 697 1360; gadventures.com) has a 15-day package called 'End of the Earth' that includes Torres del Paine, the Perito Moreno Glacier and hiking in the Glacier National Park. Also includes internal flights from Buenos Aires, where the trip begins and ends, and costs from €2,399pp.
South American experts at Nuevo Mundo (01 241 2360; nuevomundo.ie) can tailor a package to suit you, such as the 15-day Patagonian Adventure package, from €3,295pp, including flights from Dublin, hotels, transfers and selection of tours.
Tips for the Top
* The supermarkets close in the middle of the day until 3pm so do a food shop beforehand in El Calafate if your bus gets into El Chalten in the early afternoon. That way, you won't have to delay your hike until the shops open.
* If you have big bags, try to leave them at one of the storage facilities in the hostels along San Martin Ave and rent a smaller backpack for the hike.
* Get a heavy sleeping bag. While it adds a lot of weight to your bag, you will really appreciate it when it gets chilly late at night.