Argentina & Chile,

7th March - 28th March 2010

[1 - Buenos Aires]



San Telmo District, Buenos Aires

If there is a region on this planet that has captivated the imagination of adventurers with its unique yet diverse landscape whilst retaining a sense of the unknown, that area is Patagonia, characterised by its dense rain forests, stunning glaciers, emerald green lakes, vast snow-capped mountains and wild rivers in stark contrast with the windswept wilderness of the steppes. Patagonia is a geographic region containing the southernmost portion of South America. Located in Argentina and Chile, it comprises the southernmost portion of the Andes mountains to the west and south, and plateaux and low plains to the east. The name Patagonia comes from the word patagón used by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to describe the native people whom his expedition thought to be giants. Patagonia has always had a reputation for being a remote and lonely place, windswept and wild.

I had always wanted to go to Patagonia. The adventure we were about to embark upon would allow us to explore a fraction of its vastness and beauty, requiring a lifetime to explore the whole. Scanning on Google Earth the Andean area we would be traversing, I tried to imagine the terrain and the routes we would be following. What physical demands would we be up against when we got there? I therefore found myself left with a sense of foreboding coupled with a sense of excitement. What one sees on the map is a vast area of green interspersed with snow-capped mountain peaks.

Looking back on our adventure, I can say now with conviction that in all my travels to date I have yet to encounter a place quite like Patagonia and in particular the Cochamó Valley in Chile, as clichéd as that may sound. The second leg of our cross-border treks between Argentina and Chile through the mighty Andes revealed to us a way of life that extends back in time, in complete contrast to the trappings of modern society you and I are accustomed to. This is the Gaucho Trail as it is romantically named, where, on numerous occasions, we encountered Gauchos though they might indeed have been Chilean Huasos, on horseback, herding their cattle. Gauchos, loosely, are viewed as the equivalent to the North American cowboy and the term is usually used to describe the nomadic residents of the Patagonian pampas or grasslands, the name derived from a Quechua (native American language of the Andes) word meaning 'orphan' or 'abandoned one'. The Gauchos were usually of Spanish/Indian descent and played a decisive part in the bitter internal struggles in Argentina after independence in 1816. Huasos (plural) are generally found in Chile's central valley.

Hilary Bradt asserts in the pages of the Bradt Trekking Guide that the Gaucho tradition is over-hyped, suggesting, instead, that "the historic role of the Huasos in Chile was more utilitarian and had to do with herding cattle than fighting wars, or perhaps because the limited space west of the Andes confined the spirit of these men and failed to ignite the proud arrogance which symbolizes the Argentinean Gaucho".  Elsewhere  she continues with "nowadays, the Huaso survives as a straightforward salt-of-the-earth type". Charles Darwin noted that "the Gaucho may be a cut-throat but he is a gentleman; the Huaso is an ordinary, vulgar fellow". I cannot say with any measure of certainty whether it would have been Huasos or Guachos we had met en route through the Chilean landscape, however, I can say with conviction that our encounters with them showed them to be friendly and helpful.


Ayres Porteños Hostel on the corner of Chile and Peru streets in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires.


Street view, San Telmo District, Buenos Aires.

Here on the Gaucho Trail deep in the Andes, we encountered farmers in their eighties and nineties who have owned and toiled acres of land for at least 50 years. Tito and Soto, whom I will write about, are tangible examples of that. Some farmers have never visited any major city, never owned or driven a motor car in their lives and survived the seasons without the use of electricity within their humble dwellings. Farming sheep, cattle and chickens, their sole mode of transport has been the horse. The Gaucho Trail winds its way through the densest of rain forests across rivers and streams along narrow, muddy dongas or trenches. It is precisely these routes that are used by farmers to transport their cattle to markets of the fishing town of Cochamó on the Pacific.

There are no roads through Cochamó Valley to make this journey easier, though the evidence suggests this is changing rapidly, as the region is driven by the state’s push for development, progress and economic growth. Though the first roads into Cochamó from the north and south were constructed only as recently as twenty years ago and remain dirt roads, close to Primer Corral on the Senda Los Hitos Trail, we witnessed virgin forest being torn down in the face of massive ongoing roadworks. One hopes the day the Cochamó Valley falls victim to this onslaught is long off. The Cochamó Valley is also being threatened by proposed hydro electric schemes, the construction of dams and the flooding of the valley, as is the case further south with the Endesa Project on the Baker and Pascua rivers (discussed in detail later). It is due to the determination of people like Daniel and Silvina (see link) at Refugio Cochamó that they successfully petitioned the Chilean president to block such efforts.

We were indeed privileged to have met people of the Cochamó Valley and to have camped on their lands. Only through the ability of Kelson and Elena to speak Spanish and negotiate skilfully with the local inhabitants throughout, were we able to make our own passing through the valley that much easier, enabling us to buy bread from them or even sit down to a meal with them in the confines of their humble abode. Our Patagonian adventure was indeed a memorable yet humbling experience that will live long in our memories.

What follows is a detailed account of our experience, the anecdotes, the stories.....the stories that will live long in our memories. It begins in Buenos Aires.




The San Telmo district of Buenos Aires, with its many bars and restaurants, possesses a Bohemian charm.




In the heart of Buenos Aires's CBD, I wandered along the pedestrianised Florida Street.


Saturday 6th March


It was with some relief that the Patagonian trip had finally got under way, as I slipped into the heat of Buenos Aires (abbreviated to BsAs in later text) at 10h45 local time after a lengthy 15-hour flight that included an hour-long stopover at Sao Paulo airport. Having been seen off at Heathrow the night before by my friends Marek and an on-duty Renata at British Airways, I was leaving behind the drama in the wake of proposed redundancies within our company, which had been hanging over us like a sword of Damocles. Trip organisers Kelson and Elena of Treksa had flown out to Argentina from their base in Scarborough in Cape Town the week before. I was equally pleased to finally meet Kelson for the very first time at BsAs airport. He had arranged to meet me there and transfer me to the Ayres Porteños  Hostel on the corner of Chile and Peru streets in the San Telmo district of the city. Kelson's friend Pablo, who was driving, practically flew down the highway and I fast gained an impression of BsAs's improvised, ad-hoc Latin driving styles.

As the hostel room was still being cleaned, I was left to my own devices and went on a walkabout to draw some Argentinean pesos. I had been on the streets of BsAs not even half an hour when I had my first taste of a mugging (con-trick) BsAs style - this is how it works - on the sidewalk, I saw this guy behind me talking very loudly to someone but making as if to cross the road. Upon reaching the corner, a woman called out to me, gesticulating wildly. She approached me, took out some tissues and began to wipe what looked like paint dribbling down my rucksack, shirt and trousers. Whilst she was encouraging me to remove my rucksack, the rather shady looking fellow mentioned earlier miraculously reappeared, now trying to separate me from my rucksack too, as a tugging match ensued! Eventually they both lost interest and marched off, leaving a rather perplexed and bewildered tourist behind. I returned to the hostel, cleaned up and showered.





The tango theme adorns the walls and doors of Ayres Porteños Hostel in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires.


I discovered to my delight that Ayres Porteños had free Internet access via three PCs. I found its rather funky Bohemian tango-style decor rather appealing. Leaving around midday, I traipsed the vast city of BsAs until around eleven that night, exploring the waterfront area of Puerto Madeira with a small harbour and the converted packhouses, moving on to the pedestrianised CBD shopping area along Florida Street, where I acquired a filter for my new Nikon lens. Crossing Avenida 9 de Julio, a sprawling highway that cuts from south to north straight through the city centre, named in honour of Argentina's Independence Day -  July 9, 1816, I moved west into a leafier and more affluent area near La Recoleta and reached the flea-market on the grass slopes of a park just below the cemetery. Informal arts and crafts markets are scattered throughout various parts of the city. I caught up with a string quartet by the name of Aqualactica playing outside La Recoleta, their style reminiscent of Windham Hill / World music. The quartet are in fact all family members and their music contains works composed by Gato Urbanski when his sons were children. By this time dark had fallen, I had worked up a reasonable appetite and settled for a pizza at a corner restaurant a few blocks away, exchanging pleasantries with the waiter whilst a local football match played out on the screens above - just the perfect environment to relax!


View of skyscrapers from the Puerto Madeira waterfront area of Buenos Aires.



Informal flea markets along Florida Street.


As my first day in BsAs was drawing to a close, I was hardly prepared for what happened next, as events took on a somewhat spicier tone. Back in the CBD, I had stumbled upon an impromptu tango demonstration by a group, which had just ended. Just then a girl in a short skirt and pink top appeared directly in front of me and looking me directly in the eye, enquired as to whether I would like the immediate pleasure of her company. Whilst I wasn't quite sure where this was leading to and being somewhat caught off guard, she then asked whether I would like to go for coffee, which seemed an easier question to answer; this we did, as we were directly opposite a shopping mall. Manuela seemed rather sweet but it transpired that she more complex social arrangements on her mind, so over the course of the next hour or so, I learnt that not only did she know quite a bit about the inner sanctum of certain hotels in BsAs, but that her every intention was that I should be granted an extended guided tour, so to speak. Still having our coffee, I had a rather interesting conversation with her and learnt quite a lot about her, that she was the youngest of eight children and of Indian descent, if what she told me was in fact the truth (I had no reason to doubt any of it). About an hour later, we left the shopping mall and despite her candid attempts at that point to lure me into parting with my pesos, I declined her proposition firmly and returned to Ayres Porteños. Despite the noise from the streets below, I was able to sleep soundly, having kept the shutters in the room closed.



News stand and apartments in the San Telmo district early Saturday morning.



Plaza de los Dos Congresos (left).


Sunday 7th March

Up early, I returned to Recoleta via an alternative route after concluding breakfast in the Ayres Porteños dining room, during which time I sampled mate, also known as chimarrão or cimarrón, a traditional South American infused drink, prepared from steeping dried leaves of yerba mate (a species of holly native to subtropical South America) in hot water. It is the national drink in Uruguay, though Paraguay and Argentina also happen to claim nationality over the beverage, and drinking it is a common social practice in parts of Brazil, Chile, eastern Bolivia, Lebanon and Syria. The drink contains caffeine and for the uninitiated western taste, surely an acquired taste. Mate is served with a metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd.

En route I was experienced my second attempted mugging in broad daylight, this time by a woman using a tube of mustard, some of which was squirted on my back to convince me that I had just been targeted by a bird suffering from acute bowel syndrome! The stuff was in my hair, on my rucksack and shirt. I suppose it's the price I should have expected to pay for walking around a city brandishing a Nikon camera. But I'm a tourist and I want to take photographs, as my inalienable right. So the initial approach, attempted distraction, wild gesticulation towards the sky and the brandishing of a handful of fresh tissues once again formed the con artist's strategy, before she gave up. Another woman who saw what had happened came over to me. Warning me in Spanish, she articulated her message in a clear and forthright manner, conveying to me that she had actually seen the woman squirt me with the mustard. Her finger raised and wagging as if to make a point, she impressed upon me in no uncertain terms that I should guard my camera closely, clearly incensed by what had happened.


The magnificent interior of the Pilar Church at Recoleta.


Mausoleum of Rufina Cambaceres, who was buried alive.


Recoleta and the mausoleum of Eva Peron (Evita).

Recoleta includes graves of some of the most influential and important Argentineans, including several presidents, scientists, and wealthy characters. I bought an entrance ticket and explored the cemetery and adjoining church. The entrance to the cemetery is through neo-classical gates with tall Greek columns. It contains many elaborate marble mausoleums, decorated with statues, in a wide variety of architectural styles. The entire cemetery is laid out in sections like city blocks, with wide tree-lined main walkways branching into sidewalks filled with mausoleums. The guide at the entrance was a tiny though friendly woman who spoke with a rather refined, almost exaggerated Oxford-English accent. I remarked to her that my impression was that the grid structure of Recoleta seemed to reflect the actual structure of the city of BsAs. She warbled on in her hot-potato accent, eyes fluttering, though I didn't really have the faintest notion what she was talking about.

And so I began to formulate my impressions of this vast, bustling city, mega-huge, supporting a society of social extremes. Whilst the areas around La Recoleta are obviously elitist, the have-nots in other parts of the city attempt to scrape together a living. I saw people pushing large street trolleys in the CBD, laden with recycled goods, cardboard, glass and plastic scavenged from rubbish bags left on street corners throughout. Police maintain a presence on almost every street corner. Up until that point I had failed to figure out where the city's outstanding landmarks that I would necessarily have described as significant focal points were located, such that one might link them together in some way. Instead, I was left with a perception of a sprawling city with all areas fused together without clear, definable boundaries, only that it was dissected by Avenida 9 de Julio. It's therefore hard as a tourist to formulate a distinct route through the city, compounded by its unquestionable vastness. It's a city of obvious mixed ethnicity, many of the people with Indian roots. I noticed very few blacks on the streets. The traffic is manic and relentless, as we were to discover to an even greater extent later at Ayres Porteños, our hostel. It is a city that pulsates and breaths life, whether by virtue of the odour emanating from a multitude of coffee shops or the sound of the tango from its bars and nightclubs.


The Duarte family name dominates the mausoleum of Eva Peron (Evita) at Recoleta.



Recoleta and the exterior of the Pilar Church.


I returned to Ayres Porteños and freshened up for the impending arrival of the South African contingent around 17h00, all of whom, apart from my friend Ralph, I had never met before. Given the resultant gender balance, I was, for practical reasons, then moved from room 202 one floor up and in with the rest of the guys. We were collected and taken to Pablo and his wife Sue (the driver from the airport) where we were wined and dined and introduced to Asado, a South American tradition of cooking cuts of meat, usually consisting of beef alongside various other meats, on a grill (parrilla) or open fire, similar to a South African tradition of barbeque or braaiAsado, the traditional dish of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and and southern Brazil, is most likely to appeal to staunch carnivores. A few vegetarians in our group missed out though I have to admit, I drew a line when it came to tasting achuras (offal), whilst Ralph baulked at the sight of morcillas (black pudding)! The unassuming Pablo produced yet another surprise. Not only is our talented asador a qualified architect by profession but a talented photographer, producing an album of photographic prints of real quality for all to view.

Additional photos courtesy Ralph Pina, Harald Weber & Andre Greyling.

Peru Street, Ayres Porteños Hostel, in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires; Pablo, asador extraordinaire, architect, photographer - his driving style is also distinctly Latin.



View looking down Peru Street from the Ayres Porteños Hostel balcony; Our first group walkabout in Buenos Aires.


Patagonia, Argentina & Chile

[Intro-Pre Trip] [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [GPS Tracks]

Other Tour Group photos (Picasa):  [1 - Kelson & Elena]  [2 - Ralph]  [3 - Harald]

[South America - Index] [Home Page]


Links to map locations and maps in general:

Links to other websites:


Copyright © Peter Groves unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.

Contact me via e-mail or add a comment on my personal blog