Patagonia: Sian Lloyd crosses the Andes to find a Welsh connection
Sian Lloyd, writing for the Mail on Sunday.
'But how on earth can you cross the Andes by boat?' We were sitting in a jumbo jet on the icy tarmac at Heathrow and this was my first opportunity to get my brain round the 'adventure of a lifetime' trip we were about to embark upon. At least the three-hour delay meant I could at long last swot up properly on Chile and Argentina.
My husband Jonathan patiently explained that the crossing involved a day-long magical mystery tour, involving boats and buses, beginning in Bariloche in western Argentina and ending on the Pacific side of the Andes in Chile. Wow, this was going to be some trip.
High pleasure: Sian Lloyd during her crossing of the Andes
I knew a little about Patagonia - a sparsely populated and loosely defined geographical area encompassing most of southern Argentina and Chile - because of the Welsh connection. A group of Welsh migrants successfully settled there more than 150 years ago, so this land at the end of the world has ever since held a very special place in our hearts.
But, although I'm understandably sentimental about Patagonia, for most people the name conjures up images of enormous isolated spaces, peaks where condors soar, incredible wild beauty and windswept pampas.
All spot on. When it comes to summing the place up, the indigenous Indians hit the nail on the head: they call it Land of the West Winds. I have never known such relentless winds, blasting at speeds that can knock a gaucho off his horse, and making for some interesting hairstyles. there is wild and then there is Patagonia.
It was high summer in Argentina, a welcome contrast to freezing Britain. I'd filmed a programme for the BBC there two months earlier, so felt like an old hand in Buenos Aires. Our hotel, the Costa Petit, was a real find, with just four chic, old-style Argentinian bedrooms and great personal service.
It could not have been better placed. the Palermo district is grassy and treelined, home of foreign embassies and the impressive, white, sleek, modern MALBA museum. It's also next to the historic Recoleta area, with its spectacular cemetery where Eva Peron is buried - a city within a city, full of huge, ornate, marble mausoleums, making for some of the most extraordinary architecture in the capital.
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Buenos Aires is a cross between Paris and Madrid, but much bigger and busier than either. An open-top bus tour is a must. We also walked and walked, down sweeping avenues, from tango houses to sculpture parks, fuelling ourselves with gallons of coffee and lots of inexpensive but very good food. It goes without saying that the steaks are great, but the Italian food is also amazing.
After two very full days in Buenos Aires, we flew down the east coast to Trelew, where we were met by Jeremy Wood, aka Mr Patagonia. He could do Mastermind on the subject of Welsh Patagonia and, happily, we were to spend a full week in his company.
Head of steam: The Old Patagonian Express visits craft villages
Over drinks in the magnificent Touring Club in Trelew, once the haunt of legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy, Jeremy sketched out our tour across the desert towards the Andes, following in the footsteps of the Welsh pioneers. We would explore canyons, volcanic craters, ancient cave paintings and petrified forests, see flamingos, chinchillons and armadillos, and share wonderful scenic picnics and succulent lamb barbecues, meeting some fantastic people along the way.
After a fascinating visit to the El MEF museum, a showcase of the best dinosaur fossils in South America, we dropped into the successful Welsh school in Trelew and then headed for Hosteria Plas y Coed, the oldest tea house in nearby Gaiman. It's run by the lovely Anna Chiabrando Rees, fluent in Welsh, Spanish and English.
There, we had the first of many delicious Welsh teas - home-made bread, butter, jams and gooey cakes - including Anna's famous torte negra fruit cake.
We were honoured to be joined by Luned Gonzalez and Tegai Roberts, the grandes dames of Welsh culture, whose grandfather was murdered by former members of Butch Cassidy's criminal gang.
The Welsh immigrants went to Patagonia because the Argentinian government offered them land. The idea of owning their own farms, coupled with the chance to preserve their language and culture, was a dream. When they arrived at Porth Madryn on the east coast, they discovered that the promised land of milk and honey didn't exist. There wasn't even fresh water. Many perished, but after they developed irrigation, the towns of Rawson, Trelew and Gaiman grew, and a few decades later the Welsh were offered more acres towards the Andes.
There's something very special about your first glimpse of the Andes. We got ours just outside Gualjaina - a town occupied by the indigenous people of the region, the Mapuche - and found our eyes drawn to the mountains all along the 60-mile route from there to Esquel. Jeremy lives in this small city between the mountains and the plateau, so our three-night stay was full-on.
We silently thanked tour operators Last Frontiers for providing us with Jeremy Wood, possibly the only person in Patagonia who could take us for tea to the house of the man who supplies cherries to M&S, set up a picnic, complete with eagles and condors overhead, at a gin-clear river on the land of one of the big investors in farming in the area, and arrange for Argentina's top chef to create the mother of all meals at the famous Cassis restaurant in Bariloche.
On top of that, he put us on the Old Patagonian Express steam train for a journey to the Indian craft village of Nahuel Pan, walked with us in the fabulous Los Alerces National Park and guided us around lovely old Welsh museums, from flour mills and chapels to schools, beautifully restored and preserved. And, of course, there was the lively conversation over another massive Welsh tea with the good ladies of Esquel.
Pampas pals: Sian befriends a horse amid Chile's great outdoors... and a dashing gaucho
At their urging, we went to Trevelin, passing the spot where, because of a border dispute with Chile, a vote was taken in 1902 by the locals, Welsh included, to remain in Argentina - the first time either women or Indians were allowed to vote in all the Americas. The event is now marker by a public holiday on its anniversary, April 30, which is also the date that triggers the Trevelin Eisteddfod. This really is a piece of Wales preserved in amber.
So the time had come to to cross those lakes in the Andes. And, boy, were we lucky with the weather, with glorious sunshine allowing us to enjoy some of the most stunning views I have seen. This extraordinary journey over the Andes consists of cruising across three separate lakes, linked by short minibus rides. This has to be one of the most spectacular travel days anywhere in the world, as you float past volcanoes and jagged mountains.
The waterfalls on the River Petrohue near the end of the journey, close to the final lake of Todos los Santos, were magical, with rainbows and the towering, snow-capped Osorno volcano in the distance.
We celebrated our arrival in Chile with the national brandy cocktail made from Muscat grapes, fresh lemon juice, egg white, caster sugar and plenty of ice. This was to become our preferred drink at the Explora, the much anticipated hotel highlight of the trip.
After crossing the lakes, we flew from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas airport where we were picked up by the Explora's minibus for the fascinating five-hour transfer to the Torres del Paine National Park, where magical chiselled granite peaks rise from the Patagonian plain. They soar 6,000ft above the Hotel Explora and each guestroom window overlooks them, as well as the turquoise Lake Pehoe - one of the best hotel room views in the world.
The hugely stylish Explora does the back of beyond in minimalistic style. The real drama happens outside with Mother Nature. It's not cheap, but it is in fact good value for money when you consider it's all inclusive - covering gourmet meals and all alcohol, afternoon tea, spa, treks with superb expert guides, steamer trips to the base of the sparkling Grey glacier, and a chance to ride with dashingly cloaked gauchos across untamed landscapes - I did all this and more. Who said adventure and luxury don't mix?
After four days of pampering, we journeyed by bus back to Argentina and Los Sauces in Calafate, a delightful hotel on the edge of Lake Argentino, based on the old Patagonian estancias of the beginning of the last century. This time it was the Land Of The Glaciers meets five-star style and service, with fine food and feather beds after a day's icetrekking on the awe-inspiring Perito Moreno glacier. This is a huge, creeping monster of blue and white ice, the size of Buenos Aires, continuously shedding chunks into the lake below with an incredible thunderous crashing sound.
Patagonia is a one-off. There are probably more shaggy, llama-like guanacos than people and more Welsh spoken on the streets of Trevelin than in Merthyr Tydfil. It's a place of extremes, beautiful and haunting, windy and wonderful, and I can't wait to go back.
Last Frontiers (01296 653000, www.lastfrontiers.com) offers a range of holidays to Patagonia. A 12-day holiday costs from £3,968, which includes all flights, three nights in Buenos Aires, two in Gaiman, three in Esquel and two in Bariloche, as well as all transfers and some excursions.
A four-night extension at the Explora Hotel (www.explora.com) in the Torres del Paine costs from £1,840, all-inclusive with transfers from Punta Arenas.