Patagonia's wintry wonderland; skiing at Bariloche: Travels through Argentina
Sandeepa and Chetan describe their travels through Argentina and Chile in the third part of their ongoing South America travel diary for Firstpost
Everything we had ever dreamt of was there. The vast ocean. Tall mountains. Nature, unadulterated nature.
But we had to be brave. Very very brave. For us (meaning people from Mumbai) even the Sahyadri winters are a bit too much — forget the Himalayas. We’d have to face the full onslaught of the southern hemisphere winter at kissing distance from — Antarctica!
Were we crazy to even think about it? What if we couldn’t manage to get our heads out of the blanket?
But “when’ll we get another chance?” has the power to overshadow all doubts. The prospect of hurling ourselves, into the far corner of our planet, was too enticing to ignore. There was something alluring drawing us into Patagonia. It was something more powerful than the (valid) rationale that “Patagonia is too far and too cold to visit in winter”.
We knew we had to experience Patagonia — winter or not.
One step at a time — we chose Puerto Madryn, the northernmost point along coastal Patagonia. Whales, penguins, dolphins and sea lions: the calendar is divided according to their sightings.
Winter is when the Southern Right whales visit the Atlantic coast — particularly Peninsula Valdes (a UNESCO world heritage site), 90 km from Puerto Madryn. The name “Southern Right” has a rather cruel origin. These whales are calm docile creatures. Which made them just “right” for hunting. They’re now recognised as an endangered species and are under protection. These whales have now become synonymous to Puerto Madryn.
To stay away from the deadly Orcas (which are also sighted in these waters, albeit the sighting is extremely rare), they stay close to the shore. Which makes them easy to be spotted.
The mating season was on. We saw the “guys chase the gal, gal refuses to give in” show of the Southern Right whales. Because many males go around a female in circles, it has the look of a whale dance. They show off their prowess by the funnel of water that they spurt out. The funnel is inevitably followed by a jump. Seeing them form an arch, jump out of the water and back in — it was a sight that made us fall in love with them.
“Snorkelling with the sea lions” was another activity on during our visit. The Galapagos was the only other place where you could do this. We had never seen sea lions until then. A snorkelling date with them sounded all exotic. We decided to give it a try.
“Gringo” was the name of the guy who conducted these snorkelling sessions. He gave us a no-nonsense rundown of the activity. Water would be cold (6 degrees C) so we would need a dry suit. We were given a booklet explaining all the manoeuvres to study overnight.
The next morning started with dressing us up in the dry suit. The suit not only made us watertight but also robotic. We were again given instructions for turning vertical, horizontal and flipping over. It all sounded exciting. We couldn’t wait to get down in the water and start playing with the sea lions.
The boat took us to the sea lion reserve, in the middle of the ocean. Armed with our snorkels, Gringo threw each of us down in the water. That’s when we realised how robotic those dry suits had actually made us. The stiffness didn’t make those manoeuvres come easily at all. We struggled with trying to turn at right angles to the water. In this struggle, the salt water of the ocean entered our mouth through the snorkel. When all of this starts happening, you suddenly realise that you are in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. And that’s when panic strikes.
We went back to the boats. Gringo was saying, “Tranquilo Tranquilo, it’s only water ” (calm down!). We went back in the water, this time under Gringo’s personal guidance. And saw those sea lions warm up to us. They were the friendliest creatures there could be (The lion in their name is such an oxymoron!). They came up to us, wanted to play around.
Our fears had cut short the time we spent with them, but it was enough to make our hearts fuzzy.
After Puerto Madryn — which though Patagonia was on the coastal side of things — was the real test. We were now headed to El Calafate, the official “deep Patagonia”. Our first encounter with the Andes. The winter that we had encountered so far, was like the summer for deep Patagonia.
As we entered Santa Cruz, the state that El Calafate belongs to, the sight of the police guy petrified us. He was covered from head to toe, only his eyes visible through the thin slits between the huge muffler and cap. Even at 2 PM, he was puffing out clouds of mist with each word he spoke.
The lower we went, the colder it got. We reached the El Calafate bus stand at the unearthly hour of 1:30 AM. The stillness of the night elevated the cold. The wind sounded like the devil of a horror movie.
A glacier called Perito Moreno was the main reason we had ventured down to Patagonia at all. We had first heard of it from a Couchsurfing guest we were hosting in Mumbai. They had shown us a photo of this glacier. It hadn’t looked like any glacier we had ever seen. In fact, it didn’t look like anything we had ever seen. The image had stayed with us since then.
The only growing glacier in the world resides in Patagonia — the largest cover of snow in the world after Antarctica and Siberia” — our research on Perito Moreno had come up with these glorious findings.
The Perito Moreno glacier is part of the Los Glaciares National Park. The towering Andes follow the road, on one side they are the Chilean Andes. Fresh snow greets us on both sides.
The landscape transitions to a thick coniferous forest. Once we reach the Las Glaciares National Park.
Before getting off the bus, we need to dress up. Gloves, caps, socks. Jackets pulled up to cover the nose. Only our eyes are seen, just like the policeman we saw on our first day in deep Patagonia.
We step out and “acclimatise”. Breathe in the incredibly cold yet incredibly fresh air. It cuts sharply through our nose and lungs. But we can feel the lungs feeling happy. They are being supplied with the cleanest material they have ever had!
We then take the boat to take us to the glacier. No one’s bothered taking off their caps and gloves, we notice. All eyes are glued to the windows. The boat moves ahead steadily.
Suddenly there is a collective gasp. For a moment no one moves. Just as suddenly, everyone makes a dash for the door. The Perito Moreno glacier has presented itself in all its glory.
The cold is forgotten. The frenzied activity defies the sub-zero temperature or the kilos of warm clothing that exists on the deck of the boat at that moment. There is an onboard photographer. Everyone wants to pose for a picture with the Perito Moreno.
Quietly, we moved away from the crowd. Found an empty spot on the deck. And just kept looking ahead. Filled our eyes up with the Perito Moreno. Every shade of blue imaginable was rising tall in the sky. As far as we could see, there’s the glacier, glacier and only the glacier. (Presently, the Perito Moreno glacier spans over an area larger than the city of Buenos Aires.)
It is a massive moving mass, defying all odds, fighting a losing battle against global warming. A lone warrior. As if telling you, taunting you, warning you, “I have stood tall so far. I have fought hard. Don’t let me cave in.”
After the boat ride, we went to the walking ramps, built through the forest, to see the Perito Moreno from different angles. We had the entire day now, to gawk at the glacier.
We could now see the different shades of blue. The darker the blue, the older is the ice. Which meant what we were seeing was actually witness to a large part of earth’s history!
Every once in awhile, the Perito Moreno glacier gives proof of its growing nature. As it moves ahead and hits a barrier, parts of the glacier come tumbling down and hit the lake with a thud. The sound we heard was louder than the loudest fireworks we had ever heard. The ripples caused took a long time to pacify, making the lake around resemble the sea!
We felt enamoured and dwarfed by the Perito Moreno glacier. We had witnessed the most glorious representative of nature’s ultimate supremacy.
Coming to the far corner of the earth also meant we were in a far corner of Argentina. Which meant, going anywhere from here was going to be a long long journey. We booked ourselves in the fully reclining cama seats (they are us in the first class of the flights!) for a 30-hour bus journey to a town called Bariloche. It is on the northern end of Patagonia, but this time on the Andean side.
By the time we got near Bariloche, the scene had changed completely. Rolling hills had taken the place of snow fields. The adjectives stark and rugged changed to beautiful and charming. The barren brown mountains were suddenly covered in tall conifers. Reds and yellows were in the midst of the greens. More sheep and cows. Villages that looked like were made for the hobbits.
Bariloche is the ski capital of South America. The peak of winter was obviously the peak season for Bariloche. Our hostel, a cosy little wooden cabin was filled with a wide group of people — from winter vacationers to serious skiers. Heavy duty equipment was everywhere. Snowboards, skis, huge ski boots and their jackets — we realised practising winter sports was a lot of investment (and weight!).
Cerro Catedral is the name of the ski circuit here. We tagged along with the serious skiers from our hostel to take us to Catedral. As we started climbing the mountain to Catedral, huge chunks of snow started lashing the car. We were in the midst of a snowfall — the first of our lives.
It was a perfect day to ski, we were told by the serious skiers. What did we know? We were just too engrossed in seeing the snowfall. We’ve never skied before, neither have we been trained. It became the perfect excuse to just spend the day playing in the snow like little children: making snowballs, sliding down the snow, helping people make the snowman.
When all the playing tired us out, we headed to a cafe, had piping hot cups of hot chocolate with the dulce de leche sandwiches we had packed. Fortified, we resumed our snow play.
Bariloche is also famous for its lakes. We went for a short trek along Cerro Chico. A snow covered volcano was peeping through the look out across the lake. The lake itself looked blue and green, fresh and lively.
What difference a couple of thousand kilometres had made! How the distance had made the exact same physical formation reflect such a contrasting character!
While the lake and the snow in El Calafate had been awe-inspiring, here in Bariloche, the same felt friendly and warm. And yet, it was all beautiful and magical — the kinds that only nature can make.
All we had to do was be there and absorb it with all our senses. And feel grateful.
Sandeepa and Chetan are full-time travel bloggers and photographers. You can follow their work here. They've been travelling long-term since 2013.
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