Argentina

A week with the (Argentinian) fam.

This week, three cheers, a pat on the back, full credit and possibly some kind of medal should go to our adoptive Argentinian family: Sergio, Maria and Juli. These were the three who rescued us from the near possibility of falling back into the doldrums last week, and in order to fully mend our wounds invited us on their holiday. And so it was that on Monday morning, we merry five began our pootle up towards Bolivia, remaining in each other’s company until an emotional parting on Friday afternoon.

We’ve said goodbye to our favourite four-year-old and at the same time to Argentina: we’ve made it pretty much halfway up the length of South America!

The most striking difference between Argentina and Chile was the landscape, and now having arrived in Bolivia it is the people. Suddenly it feels as though we’ve stepped into a poster of how South America is supposed to look, primarily because of the older women: bowler hats, mega-long plaits, sandals with socks, incredible frocks. The ‘Miss Potosí’ contest we stumbled across last night (the winner gets to be a contender for Miss Bolivia!!!) with the requisite strutting in skimpy swimwear was an uncomfortable contrast.

And now for our week in pictures…

On Monday:

...swam in thermal baths

… we swam in thermal baths

... bought 'his and hers' llama jumpers

… we bought ‘his and hers’ llama jumpers

... Steve then felt a bit bad about eating llama for dinner

… Steve then felt a bit bad about eating llama for dinner

On Tuesday we:

... noticed that someone had spilt their paint pot on the hills

… noticed that someone had spilt their paint pot on the hills

... wondered which way up the world was

… wondered which way up the world was

... found out what we're going to look like when we're old

… found out what we’re going to look like when we’re old

On Wednesday we:

... scrambled up the Devil's Throat

… scrambled up the Devil’s Throat

... tried to count the alleged 14 colours, and decided it was dubious

… tried to count the alleged 14 colours, and decided there were four

... switched drivers for a bit

… switched drivers for a bit

On Thursday:

... Steve was able to drive AND drink maté, making it one of the best days of his life

… Steve was able to drive AND drink maté, making it one of the best days of his life

... hung out in Humahuaca

… we hung out in Humahuaca

On Friday:

... made the most of final moments

… we made the most of final moments together

And:

... Steve bought a poncho

… Steve bought a poncho.

Total number of lifts: 53
Week Seven distance travelled: 855 km
Total distance travelled: 7589 km

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A night in a police station, and other stories

Well, it couldn’t be easy forever, could it?

This week marked a new experience for us: the Long Wait. Or, rather, the Looooooooooooooooooong Wait.

The day formerly known as ‘Wednesday’, but now renamed ‘The Abysmal Day’, began in a regular fashion, and indeed part of the abnormality of the situation was how normal everything else had been. On Monday we had managed a superb leap from Cordoba to Tucuman, despite a lull around lunchtime followed by a spectacular storm that lasted about four hours and included a lightning bolt almost tickling the car we were travelling in.
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By this time a new Pablo had come into our lives, and happily our acquaintance lasted longer than the six-hour drive to Tucuman; we had dinner together both that evening and after a day’s chilling in the town, and on that morning he drove us to the edge of town to help us on our way.
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So far, so normal. We had three short lifts to take us on our way to the mountain route between Tucuman and Salta, recommended to us as unmissable and most definitely preferable to the direct autopista. By this time we were outside a little settlement called Santa Lucia and landed on what we felt to be a suitable spot, shifting up and down the road a couple of times just to be sure we were in the right place.

At first we remained chipper, trialling different expressions to see if they might prompt greater success.
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As the four-hour mark approached, however, the atmosphere was rather less buoyant.
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By the time we had smashed all prior records (around four-and-a-half hours later), it was 6.30pm, and so we stopped. That’s right, we gave in to the situation and slumped towards Santa Lucia, which was clearly to be our resting place for the night.

The problem was, as we ascertained on our way into the town, there weren’t actually any hotels, hostels, hospedajes or any type of habitacion in Santa Lucia, it not being a magnet for tourist types. We checked out the church first to see if we might find assistance there, but although open it was empty. Next, a group of truckers informed us we could camp outside the town hall, which seemed like a Plan B kind of suggestion. This is how we ended up in the police station, drinking mate with the local force and kipping on a spare bed.
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They couldn’t have been more accommodating (well, maybe the blaring music could have been lowered, but seriously, we were grateful).

The rest of the week has passed on a steady uphill slant, credited to two wonderful families. The first was Jorge and son-in-law Fecundo, who rescued us from our unfavourable situation early the next morning and proceeded to give us an excellent tour of the first stretch towards Salta.
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The second comprised Sergio, Maria and their utterly delightful four-year-old Julietta, who were on their holiday from Buenos Aires and decided we were welcome for the ride. This led to us travelling with them both to Cafayate, an exquisite vineyard-surrounded town, and then on to Salta. The scenery has been mind-boggling, and our spirits are much revived.

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Our hearts have been further gladdened after Sunday lunch with Maria, wife of Pablo (ref: San Luis to Cordoba) and their two children: chicken ‘n’ chips, chocolate ice cream, coffee, chatter. Perfecto.

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Important notice: after visiting the toilet, be sure to wash your hands. Just be sure to check what’s in the sink first, too.
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Total number of lifts: 52
Week Six distance travelled: 976 km
Total distance travelled: 6734 km

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¿Si usted al mundo vino y no toma vino, para que vino?

(Meaning, ‘If you came into the world and didn’t drink wine, why did you come?’.)

That’s right, we are so proficient at Spanish now that our new acquaintainces feel confident enough to involve us in wordplay, including this one, wittily mixing the word for ‘wine’ and the past tense of ‘to come’.

This newly acquired lingo came into its own this week as we made our way to Mendoza, Argentina’s wine capital. Indeed, a poster proudly informed us that Mendoza is ‘The International Wine Capital of the World’; we wondered if a few other places might have something to say about this, until an expert later clarified that there are indeed five wine capitals. We felt the poster should have been clearer.

Mendoza has some 950 bodegas (wine producers) in the surrounding countryside, and while we weren’t able to visit any of them in person, we sipped a few samples in town and tried to make the most of the sheer variety available. Thankfully there was the option of the single glass of wine, otherwise we could have been there a while.
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Our arrival in Mendoza marked the end of our yo-yoing back and forth across the Andes. We took a day to position ourselves away from Chile’s capital and in reasonable distance of the border; a slightly casual start on Monday left us hitching out of Santiago in the baking midday sun, but in the end it was achieved and our third driver, Vayron (below), treated us to giant ice-creams (photo taken after at least 10 minutes of scoffing) in San Felipe, followed by a tour of the vineyard where he works preparing grapes for exportation.
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Our “farewell Chile” route afforded us more than just a quick peck goodbye, as the exit across the mountains lasted several hours and wooed us with its gigantic rock faces, multicoloured sands and a view of the highest peak in the Americas, Aconcagua. This we enjoyed with Hugo and Yolanda, a couple from Santiago who were heading to Mendoza for an Easter break.
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We joined them again in Mendoza for dinner on Wednesday, Steve taking advantage of the opportunity for a flambéed pancake. Obviously.
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We are not really city types (yes we know, we live in London), but having entered the most populous strip of this part of South America we’ve accepted that they are the most straightforward stepping stones for heading north. This being the case, we made for Córdoba on Thursday, our destination for the Holy weekend.

Arriving in Argentina’s second largest city (though eight times smaller than Buenos Aires) on Thursday evening, we were grateful to our driver Pablo for shuttling us straight to a new type of accommodation for us – a residencial. “Great,” we thought, innocently, “shabby but cheap; that’ll do fine,” and off we pottered for a bite to eat.

The fact that Steve had needed to squash six or so mini cockroaches before we left should perhaps have served as some kind of warning, but at the time we weren’t feeling too sensitive. However, our threshhold for cleanliness compromise was spotlighted upon our return, with the discovery of a veritable stream of critters clustered around the doorway. The mighty flip-flop found its calling for a second time, but when Jo spotted three more of the creatures having a fiesta on our bed, our spirits were broken. Surrendering their kingdom back to them, we bid a swift retreat to the seventh floor of a tower block hotel called “Hotel Grand Bristol” – it seemed like some kind of sign.

Cordoba – not hot on cleanliness.

We have made the most of activities going on in the city relating to Easter, including a service at the cathedral on Good Friday. We were momentarily confused as to whether this was going to be in or outside the building as there seemed to be crowds heading in both directions, but when we noticed ‘Jesus’ chatting idly to one of his persecutors on the steps up to the church, we realised that this was the dress rehearsal for a later skit and headed indoors. We returned this morning for an Easter Sunday mass, and didn’t even have to try too hard to find a chocolate egg.

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Felices Pascuas!

Important advice: when coming to a new place, it is important to read up on what’s good to see.

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What about the non-concentrated pedestrian?

Total number of lifts: 43
Week Five distance travelled: 1138km
Total distance travelled: 5758km

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Sunny in Santiago

Welcome to Santiago, and our first hitch into a capital city during this adventure.

At this precise moment, we are sitting rather shell-shocked at the BBC news report on a massive forest fire threatening the beautiful coastal city of Valparaiso.  So many people have insisted that it is an absolute “must see”, and as it is only 110km from Santiago we were anticipating a straightforward hitch there. It is difficult to keep up with the news, being on the move so often, and without keeping to our weekly Sunday internet appointment we presumably wouldn’t have found out until trying to get there on the morrow. The pictures are a very sad sight indeed, and it leaves us with a very odd sense of skirting these natural disasters.

Of course we will now change our plans and most likely head back to Argentina, from whence we came on Tuesday. We had stayed three nights in Bariloche, it being Jo’s veintisiete-eth birthday on Monday. This was a most enjoyable and decidely British event: it was as wet in Argentina as it was in England, and thus the day was spent wearing full waterproofs and striding forth. One of the choicest highlights was taking a chairlift up a nearby cerro to view what was rated by the National Geographic one of the top ten views in the world. As you can tell, we were not to be disappointed.

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We duly undid the benefits of a three-night rest stop by embarking upon a border day on Tuesday. There is something in the switch between currencies and accents, alongside the formalities and the occasional threat of a $200 fine for a very innocent orange that you’d forgotten was in your rucksack, that is completely draining.  Furthermore, once we had passed through the customs point on the Argentinian side we were hitching in the rain for well over an hour, looking steadily more pathetic, before a couple of other hitchers advised us (much to Steve’s chagrin – us needing advice? Pah!) that we should go back to the building and approach drivers. This was instantly succesful, and the next Miguel to enter our lives took us all the way to Valdivia.

Miguel and his lucky apple - luckier than my orange, certainly.

Miguel and his lucky apple – luckier than Jo’s orange, certainly.

Of all the quirks we encountered during our two-night stay – feeling like we were in Berlin, for example, because of the German heritage; the crazily sloping floors in our hostel caused by an earthquake in the 60s – the best by far was the enthralling presence of a squadron of sea lions. Having not had the pleasure of previous acquaintance, we can summarise that they are, well, truly disgusting, and yet delightful in equal measure. We spent a happy hour or so laughing childishly at their grunting, flopping, snorting, sneezing, sun-bathing figures. How evolution allowed them to be so incredibly ugly is a matter we will ponder for a while yet.

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With this part of Chile being endowed with something that Patagonia is yet to be bequeathed – a motorway – our progress to Santiago took only two days. The first night was spent with new friends Hugo, Kahrin and Rodrigo in a flat they were decorating in Chillán (chee-yan). We shared a giant pichanga together, whilst being serenaded (/squawked at) by a local musician, and disturbing the other punters with our screeches of laughter as Steve confused a statue of a country bumpkin with national hero Bernardo O’Higgins.

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Our ambition to get to Santiago for the weekend was dealt with by a trucker called Rodolfo and we shared the ride with three Chilean hitchhikers. With a recommendation from Walter (of Chile Chico-to-Cochrane and Puerto Aysén fame) of a hostel that is located in a really lovely part of town, we have done our best to get a flavour of the capital over the weekend. This has been with the help of our next friend-of-a-friend connection, Miguel, and his pal Joaquin, and also Federico from the hostel, who have been wonderful hosts. We’ve ascended no less than two viewpoints, went to a service in the cathedral, tasted mouth-watering seafood in the central market and had a close encounter with rock-throwing football hooligans, who were chucking large stones for laughs following their team’s league victory. Football fans: the same the world over.

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Did you know?: The concept of ‘elevenses’ has made it to Chile! Just don’t be caught out by the serving time.

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Total number of lifts: 32
Week Four distance travelled: 1294km
Total distance travelled: 4620km

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From Bariloche with chocolate

Having not yet spent more than a week in one country before switching, this week we have continued the pattern by swapping back from Chile to Argentina – from chilly to balmy, slang-filled Spanish to slurred Spanish, pisco sours to Malbec.

The week began by taking up an offer from Walter, a driver from week 2 who had suggested we join his family for an asado at his house in Puerto Aysén. (TRIVIA ALERT! ‘Aysén’ allegedly gained its name after Darwin reached there in The Beagle and declared that it was ‘where the ice ends’. Ice end. Aysén. Brilliant.)  Never ones to pass up the invitation for delicious repas, we duly took the short hitch from last Sunday’s stopping point of Coyhaique and enjoyed a marvellous feast. There was also the rather unfortunate incident of the turtle that looked asleep but in fact was not – but the less said about that the better.

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It has taken us until this point to discover something all travellers in South America learn in due course: that it is to be expected that, at one stage or another, one will meet most of the youthful population of Israel. They are everywhere! We have found out that it is a very established route for Israelis to travel out here after finishing their compulsory army service, and several of our drivers mentioned it to us before any personal connection.  We have subsequently experienced the phenomenon of the ‘joint hitch’ – according to unwritten hitching etiquette, if there is more than one group of hitchhikers on the road then they should be spaced at appropriate distances, but it is possible that drivers might pick up more than one group at once. This has helped temper our natural feelings of rivalry. Mostly.

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Thankfully far away from Chile’s earthquake in the north on Wednesday, we crossed the border back into Argentina. Lifts remained quick to come by, and on Thursday we easily made our way to spend a couple of days with our next friend-of-a-friend connection Miguel, in Lago Puelo. Here we were able to do some laundry, learn more about the intricacies of the social custom of drinking maté, and laugh at Steve getting slobbered on by the gigantic but docile mutt Tasha.

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Now we have meandered north a little further and have chosen the lakeside spot of Bariloche for our weekend stop. We are staying in a little hostel opposite the beautiful cathedral and but a quick stroll from the lake, and Bariloche itself is renowned for its delicious chocolate. Not a bad spot to be celebrating one’s birthday.

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Jo has decided that her challenge for the following week is to attempt Spanish verb conjugation. We have been confidently sticking to the present tense, getting pretty good at it even if we do say so ourselves, but it turns out that confusion can be caused if in fact we are referring to an event in the past or future. Steve, however, avers that he likes the present tense and feels no particular need to move on.

Wondering what to have for dessert in Bariloche? Look no further.

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Total number of lifts: 24

Week Three distance travelled: 827km
Total distance travelled: 3460km

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Checking into Chile

Greetings, dear friends, from Coyhaique (Coy-eye-key), Chile.

We left Argentina behind on Wednesday, after a successful couple of days heading north up the trusty Route 40. On Monday, we had our first taste of the dusty and vast wilderness of the western ribbon of Argentina: hundreds of kilometres of nothing but shrubs, rocks, and the occasional llama-like guanaco.
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By evening, we had reached the small oasis of Gobernador Gregores, hanging out for so long in the cosy cafe at the local petrol station that we struck up a friendship with the waitress, Margoth, and spent a wonderful evening with her and her husband and daughter.
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Despite the lack of traffic travelling between these remote outposts, we gradually wove our way towards the border, and celebrated with a relatively short day’s hitch over the border into Chile Chico. After a minor panic on Jo’s part at our guide book’s warning that the following section required three days’ supplies due to continuing lack of road use, we had relatively little trouble securing a ride with Walter to Cochrane, wending our way along the second largest lake in South America as we drove. We had been planning to go on to Caleta Tortel, a unique village connected only by floating walkways, but we were intercepted by Sergio, his wife Alicia, their son Mauricio and friend Lenin, heading to their utterly secluded lakehouse retreat by Lago Chacabuco. We stayed with them for one night, drinking in the silence.
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Our drive with Walter had taken us past a fairly large swathe of recently scorched earth, obviously the result of a forest fire, and we stopped for a while to watch a helicopter bomb the periphery with water.
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We wouldn’t have thought much more about it, but Sergio was something of a two-way radio enthusiast, and we received regular updates about the fire’s progress. There was no risk of it heading our way to the lakehouse, but nonetheless it was a little disconcerting to see the clouds on the horizon reflecting the flames after the sun had set.

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Many a firefighting crew passed us as we were heading out of Cochrane – clearly the work was continuing.

Not to be put off by our initial windswept night´s camping in week one, the tent had its second outing in Cochrane on Friday night. The temperature was better than before, the wind insignificant, and the tent proved waterproof in the temporary rain. However, apparently there was no requirement for ‘quiet hour’ for the local stray dogs, and the multitudinous chickens had a ‘roost off’ for about three hours straight. The tent has been firmly packed away again.

Points of cultural assimilation this week:
Ripio – unpaved/gravelly – as in ‘this road will ripio your car windscreen, and any attempts to think normal thoughts, to shreds.
– When agreeing to spend 24 hours with a Chilean family, do not expect to understand more than 13% of what is spoken. Of that, be aware that 90% of what you think you have understood, you haven’t.
– The ‘four seasons in one day’ summary of Patagonian climate is absolutely true. Yesterday we experienced a cool Spring breeze, bright sunshine, settling snow and horizontal rain.

We finish with some useful advice picked up in the loos on the border between Argentina and Chile:
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Hasta luego.

Total number of lifts: 14
Week Two distance travelled: 1313km
Total distance travelled: 2633km

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Tres, dos, uno…. vamos!

Well, dear friends, we have begun! We saw the start line, we approached it, and we’ve left it 1300km behind. Not bad for one week’s effort.

To recap: our final week in England was spent in sunny Salisbury, sorting and consolidating boxes of belongings to be stored in the attic, picking up final bits and bobs to add to our adventure kit, and finally, packing. (That bit didn’t take long.)
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Saturday 15th saw us heading off to the airport in a blaze of springtime sunshine; the first of three flights took us to Madrid, from whence we flew overnight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for a 36-hr stopover.

It seemed like an auspicious sign when, after striking  up a conversation with an American-Argentinian chap called Stephen in the queue to leave the airport, he and his girlfriend Maria then gave us a lift to our first friend-of-a-friend connection Paul, who was putting us up for the night. We were there in time for Sunday lunch with his extended family. Muy, muy bien!

Our pit-stop in Buenos Aires was a mere dip of the toe into South America, ahead of our final flight down to Ushuaia (Oo-swhy-a), the most southerly city in the world: the full deep-end dive. We were welcomed by a panorama of snow-capped mountains, a lift with lovely northern Brits Dave and Judith, and a seafood supper – you can’t say fresher than mariscos from the local South Atlantic Ocean.
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We allowed ourselves a couple of nights’ recuperation for the sake of energy levels and making the most of the glorious surrounding landscape. On Tuesday afternoon we took a short bus ride to the local national park and undertook an 8km walk (it’s kilometres from here on in, folks) of woods, lakes, blue-pebbled beaches, and wonderful, beautiful silence.

And then – then – to Wednesday: the true beginning. We arose, breakfasted, and left (with more than a little apprehension on Jo’s part, but enough excitement on Steve’s to cover us both) to seek our first hitch.

Jo shouldn’t have worried. When we reached the end of town, it took us roughly three minutes to get our first lift – Fabricio, 22 – 10 mins out of town. Another 5 min wait and Daniel, 29, rocked up, and drove us 2 hours to Rio Grande. A brief rest stop was followed by a lift from Federico, 23, a second short ride of 10 mins or so.

After Federico dropped us off to head to his estancia, we had a bit of a longer wait due to a reduced flow in traffic. This would have been absolutely fine, had it not been for the FEROCIOUS WINDS punching us from every angle, particularly when trucks thundered past. It wouldn’t have taken much more for us to go cartwheeling across the plains like a piece of mere tumbleweed.
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Mercifully, before that could happen, Flor and Marta stopped by – a 28-year-old chica going on holiday with her mum. It was such a blessed relief to get out of the wind that it took us a few moments to appreciate that Flor was actually a fluent English-speaker; our nascent Spanish had been serving us fine up until then, but at the moment we can only get so far. We knew, then, that we were onto something of a winner – we just didn’t know then how right we were.

First of all, they drove us across the rest of Tierra del Fuego, which involves crossing into Chile and then taking a ferry in order to re-enter Argentina. Due to those aforementioned gales, earlier ferries had been cancelled and we had a two-hour wait, but what did we care – we had music, maté (a rather bitter but very popular tea-like drink) and Marta, Steve’s new adoptive mother (bringing the global total of Steve´s Overseas Mums to around 69).
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After the ferry we drove to Rio de Gallegos (Ga-jay-gos) and Flor’s Aunt Monica’s, arriving at about 12.30am and pitching our tent for the first time. Noting that we ourselves were almost blowing away whilst putting it up was slightly unnerving, but we persevered. In retrospect, we have learnt that sleeping in a tent being buffeted by gusts of around 30mph isn´t entirely conducive to actual sleeping, and the tent has been packed away for the time being.

The next few days saw us being firmly ensconsed into the Moreno family, and further wowed by spectacular sceneries. We continued on with Flor and Marta to El Chaltén in the west, where we spent two nights, also meeting Flor’s brother Facundo, who works there. On Friday we trumped our previous trekking effort with a 25km hike to the menacing but magnificent Mount Fitzroy – by the end the thighs were burning, but it was worth it.
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Yesterday we journeyed south to El Calafate (a slight regression in terms of direction, but we were invited, so why would we say no?) and peered through miserable rain at the Perito Moreno glacier – no less grand because of the weather.

Here we are, then, in El Calafaté, spending our first Sunday catching up with ourselves and gearing up for hitching to begin again tomorrow. Last night we undertook the new challenge of eating a parrilla (par-e-ja), grilled meat enough to feed a family of four.

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Today we visited a church round the corner from our hostel, understanding very little but appreciating it all the same.

Until next time…

Total number of lifts: 4
Week One distance travelled: 1320 km

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