Chapter 4: A Welsh celebration
Monday, February 22
Almost three weeks into my travels and I still hadn’t tasted mate, the herbal tea tradition of Argentina. It was something to look forward to as I bade farewell to El Calafate and journeyed onwards 300 kilometres north west to El Chalten, a popular little mountain resort and top hiking destination in the Fitzroy range. I was beginning to get some momentum and sweet equilibrium in my travels. The scale of my experiences were increasing by the day. As I broadened my horizons I sensed there was more time to play with.
Along the way up to El Chalten, the bus stopped at the Hotel La Leona for the passengers to enjoy a lunch break and a revealing bit of history. Legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out for a fortnight in this dusty old building so camouflaged in a dry, bushy landscape. Wanted posters were plastered on the cafe walls. After fleeing from the United States in 1901 the leader of the Wild Bunch and his sidekick settled for five years in Patagonia and bought a big ranch on the banks of the Rio Blanco in Cholila, Chubut.
The bus driver dude, sipping his mate tea and sharing it with a young passenger, continually pointed out the majestic Cerro Fitzroy summit we were travelling in the direction of. Fitzroy’s huge throne-like slab of grey rock spectacularly soared out of its icy base to a height of 3,441 metres in the western, blue sky. Motoring along Route 40, made famous by the young Che Guevara in his motorcycle adventures, brought us to a stop point to admire the towering peaks. Meanwhile, radio reports on the bus kept mentioning the Malvinas row over British oil drilling activities. Apparently it was starting to dominate the news and I felt uneasy about it for the first time. However, taking the Fitzroy backdrop photos, just before our arrival in El Chalten, I felt a welcoming nature’s embrace in this stunning location.
Before parking up in the resort’s plush new bus station we were shepherded in to the Los Glaciers National Park Visitor Centre for a pep talk about the do’s and don’ts during our stay. All very officious but reassuring as El Chalten was quickly becoming a most visited destination and the wardens were determined to keep good relations with visitors. It remained a free to enter park and the message got through about keeping it all litter free and also smoke butt free.
Chalten Travel buses were few and far between and this reminded me to book a departure ticket as soon as I arrived but I hadn’t booked a place to stay in El Chalten. Searching online the night before there were no HI vacancies but I had the urge to go further up into the mountains, especially with the weather being so fine. Being a single traveller also meant it being easier to slot me in. Single spaces often became available due to cancellations or whatever. I was still smoking roll-ups but just a few. They calmed me down and helped me to focus.
The risk paid off as a tourist information officer soon sealed a bed for me at the Rancho Grande Hostel, again HI-affiliated. A stroke of luck as the next bus out was Thursday morning so I also bought my ticket. I felt well chuffed and my confidence boosted. It was getting rather cold at night up in these parts. I made my way a few hundred metres to the small, red brick hostel. The town’s streets were still largely dust tracks. After a visit to the minimally provisioned local supermarket I struggled to open a can of tuna with these strange tin opening devices I was quickly becoming wary of. A nice woman from Leeds sat opposite me in the dining area and we chatted away. She was a keen rambler and two days in the enchanting beauty of El Chalten had really seduced her. The dormitory was rather cramped but the bed was well comfortable.
Tuesday, February 23
A stunning, sunlit day blessed El Chalten and I covered almost 30 kilometres in my well-gripped Gore-Tex shoes. I was on the lookout for some decent hiking boots but the town’s stores seemed a bit overpriced. The ascent to the base beneath Fitzroy was a real joy. It quickly became the highlight of my travels thus far and began with a ramble along a prairie like path up into a dense pine forest.
Up beyond its richly scented atmosphere and into the fresher air above the tree line I felt a giddy sense of pleasure seeping through me. I encountered my first llama, a big white woollen mass with a clanging bell, as a mountain guide accompanied her down past me on the path. Stopping to take a breather I rested at the Poinepoir mirador viewpoint when a good-natured Canadian called Ben took my photo with the rocky mountain backdrop. I felt meek and awestruck in such mighty surroundings. Ben reassured me the Lago de Las Tres was easily achievable as I’d set out early enough. I had food provisions and suitable clothes, a waterproof and micro fleece in my rucksack, so dramatic ways seemed to be within reach, but taking the not easily defined route from the base campsite was a different matter.
I somehow started trailing up over the huge boulders following the course of a big river but soon returned to the camping ground and quickly found the proper route. I sweated a great deal to climb up a near vertical path before skirting around the hillside with a calm, concentrating ease. Any other weather conditions would have put paid to my attempts. However, on this day I reached the tip of the ice glacial action and rested my weary self beside a small lake as a few other climbers were doing. There were signs of the fragile and short nature of this late afternoon weather window. The sparkling sun encouraged lots of little wild birds to sing heartily aloud as they bobbed merrily along the lakeside.
Descending from Fitzroy’s base, the beautiful scenery and distance merged into one vivid dreamscape of rocky routes, tall trees and blue sky bliss. There weren’t too many fellow hikers around. A cool young American walker and her male friend and some young Argentine lads were having a great time revelling in all the space, solitude and freedom. It was a superb place to doff one’s cap, shout Buenos Dias and reflect on what a great world we live in! I relayed the day’s happenings to Laura from Denver later that evening as other sun burnt hikers safely returned from their adventures before darkness fell.
Wednesday, February 24
Startled sensations, even rabbit in headlights moments certainly touched me over these first few weeks. Sudden awareness hit me about the distance from home in a very different environment, being in South America while a little part of me was still up there in the northern hemisphere. I stared into space as the enormity of it all stuck to me and I slowly got to grips with it.
However, taking time out in places like El Chalten certainly helped to free up my thoughts about where this trip would take me. I’d never been this far away from home. In 2001, I spent a good month travelling through the United States on various Greyhound buses but this was radically different. Perhaps radical isn’t the word but certainly different in terms of language, customs and culture.
And little by little, I was reaching a reassuring point. Making connections and the effort to speak in Spanish would enhance the remaining journey. I certainly felt uplifted after the long hike. Indeed, I didn’t suffer too much from the previous day’s exertions. My second day without smoking might also have helped. The weather remained pleasantly fine and warm if rather dusty when the gusts raised the earth. Vehicles, many linked to construction works in the small town, were churning it up.
The dormitory was a bit mad. I had to remember to knock first as suddenly there were five young women and just me in the room. The challenge to use the bathroom became interesting! In the morning I visited the Cambio Centre to use the internet. I uploaded some photos from Gaiman for a Patagonian write-up with a view to submitting it to the Daily Post Wales. Such activity would focus me more to the here and now, getting to grips with an unreal reality, a dream in other words.
In the afternoon I walked four kilometres up to Los Condores and Las Aguilas which have some great views overlooking El Chalten with Fitzroy’s peak behind. There were many serious expressions in the National del Trekking with lots of Swiss and Germans full of promptness and punctuality. I rather liked their sense, their good behaviour and endeavour. I just wished they would smile a little more, because the location was heaven on earth.
My mood lightened and I found the two German girls in my room to be the most pleasant and interesting of people. We shared common interests in hiking and reading. One of them had Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. They were preparing to pack for their early hour departure. My heart fluttered a little more as three Argentine ladies tempted me away from Gandhi’s autobiography later in the evening for a local tipple.
Cecilia and Marilin, nursing colleagues from Buenos Aires, were joined by Marianna who laughed when I firmly shut my book. She commented how funny it was that three lovely women from Buenos Aires could finally tempt me out of my shell! We had a very nice evening in a noisy little pub, enjoying some pizza and local beer. I felt relaxed and happy in such pleasant company.
Thursday, February 25
The bus arrived late but I was in a rather calm state. For most of the day the Chalten Travel bus trundled along through the thick mud, stones and loose gravel of Route 40 to Perito Morino. Various parts were diversions as the newly surfaced route was steadily being prepared.
This pen is a penis, I finally decided! Having replaced the mighty Maes D pen that I lost in Buenos Aires, the latest cheap biro kept running out on me. Eva and Chris, two Germans I’d met in Puerto Madryn, were on the bus. Eva looked over at me and smiled and waved. We briefly updated each other on our travelling exploits. Such a small world in a vast land and I felt warmed by this chance re-acquaintance. Sitting next to me on the bus was Matt, from Surrey. We chatted throughout the journey mainly about sports and his big passion, rugby. Matt was going to be staying in the Hotel Belgrano for the night. I hadn’t booked anything and was even considering roughing it for the night.
We arrived at 10pm through the darkened streets of Perito Moreno. As we finally drew into the stop I realised it was right outside the Hotel Belgrano, a motel type establishment with the burly proprietor, stood there outside the bus door, dishing out the keys for a 60 pesos charge. A very convenient offer I gladly accepted after a long, hot day on the road. I saw Chris, a London lad I’d met in Puerto Madryn. He told me he’d been suffering with suspected e-coli. He was also contemplating giving up smoking and his girlfriend gave him an approving pinch. I was on my third day without a cigarette, and I felt relaxed about it.
I briefly wandered down the lively streets, full of barking dogs and youngsters on motorbikes. Accepting some sweets rather than the exact change for the snacks I bought at a roadside kiosk I returned to the room share with Matt. A Japanese guy called Daisuke, from Tokyo, was also staying in the room. He enthusiastically introduced himself and began to describe his ongoing worldwide tour. I stayed up a good hour to listen to entertaining tales of times in New York, New Orleans and Mexico City. Daisuke was a genuinely lovely character.
Friday, February 26
The same bus was leaving at 7.50am. We were back on Route 40, for a few more stops. I bought some chocolate, water, grapefruit juice and toasted bread. Nearing Esquel, Patagonia, the co-driver signalled it was time for me to disembark. The Americans on the bus were curious and amiably enquired where I was off to. Going far from the maddening crowd, I laughingly replied with my mind already on the Friday night Six-Nations match between Wales and France. A pre-arranged taxi waited on the opposite side of the road for me. There was an increasingly good chance I could watch the match on television.
From Esquel, it was a further 30-minute bus ride west to Trevelin, home to more Welsh speaking communities. There were some gorgeous looking women about, on the bus and on the streets. It was sultry kind of evening which encouraged a relaxed pace rather than a race to find an elusive television. Finding the Hostel Casaverde became a challenge but I stopped to ask at a corner shop and butchers and I was kindly directed to a couple of streets off the main road and up a small hill.
The timber framed hostel was set in a secluded place with lovely views of the big mountains above the pine forests to the west. Spending a little more than usual I took a single room. I needed to stock up on stuff and at sundown wandered a couple of miles down to the La Anomina supermarket to buy fruit, nuts, bread, water, chocolate and some slices of ham, again taking my phrasebook with me. Supermarket atmospheres were slightly noisier than the average British store. There were rather more animated expressions, lots of shouting and the music was accordingly at a higher volume.
Back at the hostel, I gave up on finding any televised rugby but came across the first guitar of my travels. It was an old Yamaha. I soon realised how long my fingernails had grown. To seal the unique nature of this ambient place I met the proprietor Vivien later in the evening and we had a nice chat in Welsh. A massive earthquake struck southern Chile about 300 miles over the border during the evening. I would have to reassure friends and family that I was safe. To be honest, I slept soundly and never felt a thing. The next day, others in the hostel said they’d felt quite a shake.
Saturday, February 27
There would be a St David’s Day concert on Sunday night. In the meantime I’d had some toilet issues since Monday, not in terms of struggling to find one but somehow when I cut out the smoking my movements weren’t the same for a few days after! I finally bought nail clippers in a pharmacy. They weren’t too expensive. I moved into a dormitory with Darryl, from Canada and a French cyclist called Patrick, both of whom I’d been introduced to the night before. Looking back over the first month I felt greatly heartened, a bit renewed even.
I finally got onto the internet at a corner shop booth. Wales lost 20-26 in the rugby. A close, but disappointing, result. Paul, my former housemate from Cardiff emailed about a commune recently set up in the Scottish Highlands where a friend of his had visited. I liked these ideas to discover a stateless kind of mind.
For just five pesos I entered the Museo Regional Molino Viejo, housed in an old mill. It was by far the best museum I’d visited so far. A vast array of artefacts and engineering items, musical instruments and old furniture gave a real deep sense of Welsh connection. I had to return with a camera. The stories about the first settlers were startling and very sad, as in the case of the fatal encounter for a little boy, attacked and killed by a puma and how the little boy’s father wreaked revenge on the big cat by laying out a dead sheep as bait. Hard times in the early days have led to a resolute Welsh-speaking community in these parts.
The hostel could have been the best yet. I had a couple more bottles of Quilmes and decided it might be better to start drinking wine especially as I travelled northwards to Mendoza. I wondered about trekking in Trevelin. The snow capped peaks on the western skyline looked tantalising.
I joined up with Patrick for dinner. Patrick had been to the butchers and bought more steak than he wanted so he kindly insisted on me having some. I cut a few garlic cloves, added a little oil into the frying pan and prepared a rare to medium meat within minutes. I shared some red wine as Patrick, a retired electric board worker, explained in broken English and Spanish about his upcoming cycling trip over to Chile. He’d already travelled 2,000 kilometres and developed strong leg muscles and a dark tan. He looked like he had less body fat than Bruce Lee. His next day’s climb over the mountains would be a hard slog. I embarked on my first guitar practice since arriving in South America, following the excellent blues tuition notes provided by my teacher John Rogers.
Sunday, February 28
It was the best hostelling experience yet, with lots of friendliness and relaxation. The mornings were cool, even cold. The hot sun then cleared the afternoon streets. Patrick continued his epic cycling voyage over to Chile. I enjoyed a fruit breakfast and went out into the hot and dusty streets. I returned to the museum to take photographs and took in more of the Welsh history and culture in the Andean Mountain Range and the integration with the indigenous peoples.
Vivien told me a Lois Jones from the Ruthin area would be attending the St David’s party. Yes, I knew her, and when Lois Jones arrived I immediately recognised her. Lois, from Pentrecelyn, had been working as a translator for North Wales Fire and Rescue Service but was on a Welsh Assembly-funded stay to teach Welsh in the Chubut Valley communities. What a small world! All these miles from home, and I used to play football against her brother Edwart in the Llandyrnog and District Summer League in North Wales. She was in school two years below me. How wonderful and unreal it felt to see a familiar, friendly face from back home!
The party was hugely enjoyable if a little overwhelming at times as I felt the pangs for home. I played the guitar and performed some songs. My Welsh repertoire wasn’t lengthy but I managed a decent rendition of my song Gwybodaeth (Knowledge), and I finished off with the Welsh National Anthem, albeit in a rather high key! However, we had other musicians, including a bagpipe player, to keep the spirits flowing. We later moved indoors where the party continued as the night chill descended outside.
My Welsh was weak compared to the almost 19th Century grammatically sound structure of the locals around Trevelin. I was astounded, even a little intimidated by characters like farmer Charlie, whose proper grasp of the Welsh language spoke volumes. Many of the guests spoke Spanish and Welsh but hardly any spoke English. It was a very unique and mind-blowing experience.
Monday, March 1
My ears were still buzzing and my body shaking from the night before. Had there been too much reminiscences of home? The urging endorsements of the Welsh speaking Patagonians were ringing in my ears as were the sounds of the older people with curious questions about life back home. Vivien told me a South Walian visited Trevelin a few weeks back and was apologetic about his lack of Welsh speaking. These old world speakers were a hard act to follow though. Darryl reassured me saying, from a Canadian perspective, what a damned fine night he’d had and how enjoyable it had all been. I knew that deep down I defaulted to English during the party but venture further into the soul and I would revert to Welsh. To dwell in such a reality is a reawakening. My four years of night school classes back in North Wales provided some euphoric moments, a sense that my Welsh would feed richness into my life.
My good fortune with bus timings continued. I arrived in Esquel at 11.45am, in time for an Andesmar bus leaving for El Bolson at 12. The driver paid one last visit to the station desk and found myself and two gorgeous German dames purchasing tickets. We were bang on time, I was almost Germanic with efficiency!
The two hour trip up to El Bolson brought us into a deep, tree-filled valley, which houses a community of hippies according to the guide books. I was certainly looking forward to an alternative experience. The German ladies were preoccupied with their own mission and rather dismissed me when I asked where they were headed for. They were urgently looking for a farm, and an internet cafe would help their quest, so I let them be. The town didn’t have a central bus station. So, I carefully consulted my Lonely Planet town map and headed for the tourist office. Some very helpful people advised me where to catch the local bus from for the four kilometres up to El Pueblito, another HI-affiliated hostel.
There was room for two nights in this very young joint. Despite it being the low season, places were quickly filling up. The heat of the day was catching up with me following the concentration and exertions to find this out of town place by the river. I opted for a four-bed room in a detached cabin. There was a wacky sense of teasing fun about El Pueblito, with a real rustic charm and lighting, reminiscent of the old Hippo Club in Ruthin!
I later followed the arrows for the riverside beach and arrived alongside the fast flowing white water of the River Quem Quem. The home cooking seemed a good choice that evening. I tucked into Milanese and enjoyed a nice bottle of Marcus James Malbec at a table occupied by a cool Buenos Aires couple, a suitable match from first impressions and very considerate and gentle as I struggled with the Spanish. I had to be careful how I pronounced some words like anos (years), emphasising a heavy ‘n’ to utter anyos. Otherwise, a flat pronunciation would be translated as arsehole! We had a fair chuckle about that one.