Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Esquel and PN Los Alerces

Having landed at Puerto Madryn in 1865 to establish a New Wales, the settlers headed inland following the Chubut river. At Gaiman, they established a small town with brick chapels where Sunday service is still observed in Welsh. The first few years of their existence in Argentina were tough and it was only with the assistance of the local Indians, whom the Welsh befriended rather than fought, that they managed to grow crops and survive.

The tourists don´t flock to Gaiman for the lively nightlife, rather for the tradition of Welsh tea - a plate of seven or eight different types of cake and a huge pot of tea served by women who wouldn´t be out of place in a Welsh farm kitchen. We both felt sick by the end, but awarded equal first place to the apple pie and bara brith. As we waited for the evening bus, a tray of cherries caught Albane´s eye and we rounded off a day of eating with a bag, spitting the pips into the river and wishing them luck in making an orchard downstream.

The next day, we arrived at Esquel, 8 hours in a bus to the east, and, in the glorious first light of dawn, saw snow-capped mountains. The air was fresh and I felt excited to be back in the Andes. We spent the day buying food for our planned trip to the nearby national park and, in the evening, stumbled on a concert by Gruff Rhys, lead singer of the Super Furry Animals. In a Welsh Sunday school with 50 other people, we drank beer and relied on the Spanish translation of what he was saying in Welsh. Slightly embarassing for a Welshman! A cross between Jim Morrison and James Blunt, he looped sounds and his voice to create multi-layered songs, some of which challenged the musical tastes of the Welsh-speaking Argentinian grannies.

Los Alerces naional park is, as the name suggests, renowned for Alerces, a native tree which can grow to an age of 3,500 years old. Access to the remote regions of the park where these monsters grow is restricted due to the high fire risk in the region, but there are a number of trails open to walkers and, having registered our destination as Playa Blanca, we headed along the shore of Lago Futalaufquen through fragrant woodland.

The last time we had carried full rucsacs was on the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca two months ago. Since then, we have eaten far too much ice cream and red meat and exercised far too little, so the steep 2 hour climb to the windy pass at 1,500 metres was tough. We slipped into silence and our own little worlds as we put one foot in front of the other and ascended through forests of bamboo. High above us in the main canopy of the forest, we could hear the screaming wind and when we reached the top, we had to put on windproofs as our sweat cooled and we started to shiver. It had taken almost 5 hours of walking to reach the top and Albane admitted to me later that she had wondered to herself why she was doing it.

However, when we crested the pass and the land started to drop away, we found the explanation. As simple as the huge vista in front of us was beautiful. As far as we could see, there were ranges of jagged, snow-capped mountains, dark lakes whipped into white horses by the wind, swathes of dark green forest cloaking the landscape and not a sign of human existence. We huddled behind a boulder and stared at the view until the cold got to us and we were forced to descend down a viciously steep path for an hour, our toes slipping uncomfortably to the front of our boots, to reach a small beach.

To our joy, Playa Blanca was the dream destination - a perfect campsite on flat ground amongst the trees, a log to sit on while we cooked and a pebble beach. We were hot and sweaty after the descent and stripped off before diving into the clear water. It was cold, but refreshing and, when we could bear the temperature no longer, we lay on the hot pebbles to dry. There was no one else within 5 hours´walk and it was an unforgettable moment of the trip.

The next day, with bamboo staffs in each hand, we climbed back to the pass and ran screaming through the scrub when the wind dropped and swarms of large, ravenous horseflies bombarded us. We arrived back at the trailhead in the late afternoon and walked to the bus stop where, after an ice cream (some habits die hard), we bounced back to Esquel.


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