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Two weeks in Montenegro

After a year of studying in London (with not much adventurous travel) I was in need of a break. I wanted to go somewhere in Europe which would offer a bit of autumn sunshine,  a bit of ocean swimming, mountains, some good food, no Internet connection and a lot of hiking. Without knowing that much about Montenegro, I decided that the tiny Balkan nation (one of the newest countries in the world) was calling to me. I’d seen alluring photos of its magnificent coastline and wild mountains, and the fact that it is half the size of Wales seemed to mean that doing a road trip would entail being out of the car more than being in it.

I also felt like travelling a bit differently to my usual accommodation choices of Airbnb, guesthouses and backpackers, and decided to stay in family-run farms for the chance to meet Montenegrins and eat local food, rather than tourist fare.

Travelling with my husband, Joe, I started off the trip to Montenegro by flying to Dubrovnik in Croatia, briefly braving the cruise ship hordes in this beautiful but overpriced and overcrowded city, before picking up a rental car and driving 17km to the Montenegro border for a quick crossing and then a slow, scenic drive around the Bay of Kotor, where the views got more spectacular around every bend in the winding road as we drove through seaside villages of old stone shuttered houses and terracotta roofs and gardens full of pomegranate trees heavy with fruit. With a semicircle of steep forested mountains tumbling down to crystal clear, navy-blue sea, the bay feels a bit like a fjord or an Italian lake. I kept on thinking we were in Italy (this part of Montenegro was ruled by Venice for four centuries), but the signs in Cyrillic brought me back to the Balkans.

We ate lunch of linguine and garlicky mussels at Perast, a tiny hamlet of churches and old Venetian palazzos perched on the edge of the water, and then took a boat out to the picturesque church on Our-lady-of-the-rock Island, which was artificially created in 1452 after a stone with an image of Madonna was found. Driving on further around the bay, we stopped off at the town of Kotor, which my guidebook described as a mini-Dubrovnik. Kotor is just as photogenic as Dubrovnik, with old Venetian palaces and beautiful churches, lovely little squares and marble alleys and crumbling 9th century stone walls snaking up the steep mountainside, but it was just as tourist-packed as Dubrovnik.

The photogenic little village of Perast

Our Lady of the Rocks island, with its beautiful little church, lies just off the coast from Perast

Our Lady of the Rocks island, with its beautiful little church, lies just off the coast from Perast

The view of Kotor from its old city walls

We were glad we were staying on the rustic and (as yet) largely undeveloped Lustica Peninsula, which was far enough away from Kotor to completely escape the cruise ship tour groups. Our home for our first few days in Montenegro was the Old Mill, a family farm with the most incredible sweeping views over olive groves to the curving bay beyond. Our host, Jovan Stojkovic, who lives with his parents and grandmother, explained that the farm has been in his family for four hundred years, producing olives, wine, goat’s cheese, fruit and rakija – the Montenegrin brandy that we were soon to discover is the equivalent of tea in England.

Sitting under vines heavy with grapes and kiwi fruit, we had our first of many farm-to-table experiences in Montenegro over the next few days, as we drank homemade red wine and cherry rakija and devoured feasts of eggs from their chickens, veggies – tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, aubergines, potatoes – from their garden, goat’s cheese from their forest-foraging goats and olives and olive oil from their groves. After living in London for a year and feeling quite cut off from seasonal produce, with the year-round availability of fruits and vegetables from around the world, I felt a comforting sense of connecting to a place by eating truly homegrown food, some of which had been in the soil that day.

We spent the next few days exploring the Lustica Peninsula by car, driving on tiny quiet roads past sleepy little villages, cypresses and groves of olive trees so old and gnarled that they looked like twisted kitka bread to get to tucked away beaches, like Zanijice with its curve of pebbles and family vibe, Miriste with a lovely restaurant right over the water, and our favourite, Uvala Veslo, which didn’t have a beach (or loungers or restaurants or many people) but instead there were cliffs for jumping off into the turquoise sea. My favourite little village was Rose (pronounced like the wine), a tiny collection of slightly dilapidated old stone villas along a sunny seafront, with just one restaurant, which felt like the kind of place where you’d plan to do a writer’s retreat for a few months and then end up spending all your time swimming, napping and drinking wine.

The view over the groves of fig and olive trees at the Old Mill

Our favourite swimming spot on the Lustica Peninsula: the rugged cliffs of Uvala Veslo

The lovely but busy Zanijice Beach

Leaving the Lustica Peninsula behind (and having one last cherry rakija with Jovan as we left), we drove south down the coast, passing through flashy Budva, with its high-rise holiday apartments and casinos and packed beaches, feeling glad that we’d had our Montenegrin coastal stay on the low-key peninsula instead. We stopped for a swim at the lovely Sveti Stefan beach, and had lunch up the hill at Pastrovica Dvori, where we picked grapes off the vines hanging above us, and ate grilled fish and olives and vegetables from their terraced garden. A bit further down the coast we turned inland followed a winding road (Montenegro is all about winding roads – and nerves of steel to battle the drivers who take the corners at considerable speed) up a mountain and down the other side, where it felt like we were miles away from the developed coast, to get to Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans.

A short way away from the lake and from the surprisingly busy village of Virpazar was our next farmstay, Skadar Lake Đurišić Family Estate. Our host Marko Đurišić welcomed us to his family home, telling us how they’d owned it and grown wine there for the past 500 years. His parents were smoking fish that they’d caught in the lake while Marko showed us around the garden, with its 30-year-old vranac vines (Marko makes his own wine in a vat in the garage), fruit trees and veggie patch – watched over by the sweet honey-coloured dogs Fluffy and Hector.

We had just one day to explore the area. Following a breakfast of priganice (fried fritters) with cheese, cucumber, tomato, ajvar (a piquant red pepper paste), honey and jam, we found a perfect lake beach on Marko’s suggestion, and wandered around the atmospheric hamlet of Lekovici, which was partly abandoned during the 1979 earthquake: crumbling buildings overgrown with fig trees, and a few houses left exactly as they were inhabited as the earthquake struck, with crockery still on the table, like a scene from Chernobyl. Marko took us out on an afternoon boat cruise on the vast mountain-fringed lake, navigating us through channels of water lilies and pointing out monasteries (there are over 300 around the lake, one of which is inhabited by just one grumpy monk who hates tourists and only lets you visit if he likes the look of you) and black cormorants. Marko studied politics and was a fount of knowledge about Montenegrin and Balkan history and politics. As we cruised around the lake, he told us about the break up of Yugoslavia, the complexities of determining national identity in the Balkans and the warrior culture of Montenegro, tying history in with stories of his own family. By the time we’d eaten a dinner feast prepared by Marko’s mother of smoked trout and marinated carp from the lake, potatoes, grilled aubergine and pepper, ajvar, feta and stewed aubergine and onion and pepper washed down with homemade wine, we felt completely at home and wished we’d planned to stay longer.

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

Lake Skadar, Montenegro

Super host (and boatman) Marko Durisic

Super host (and boatman) Marko Durisic

Hanging out in the hammock under the vranac vines at Marko’s house

Breakfast of priganice (fried fritters), tomatoes, cucumber, ajvar, cheese, honey, hazelnut spread and jam

The road beckoned on: our next drive took us through the dramatic Moraca Canyon, with steep cliffs plunging into the river far below, past the Morača Monastery, where the church frescoes were intricate and fascinating, and the smell of honey lingered in the air from the monks’ buzzing beehives, and through the capital of Podgorica, which had some startlingly unusual sci-fi like architecture. We stopped off in the alpine-ish town of Kolasin (where I felt tempted to pick the pink apples having heavy on all the trees) to stock up on snacks for our hiking days ahead, and then took a rather white knucklely narrow road that switchbacked its way up and down a mountain – amazing views and beautiful villages where everyone seemed to be chopping wood for the fast approaching winter but some stressful driving trying to get past timber trucks – as we headed northeast towards the Prokletije Mountains, which border Albania and Kosovo.

The Prokletije (“accursed”) Mountains are among the least explored mountains in all of Europe, and we certainly felt like we were way off the beaten track after we paid a euro at the national park entrance and then bounced our way up a rocky road through a dense and dark conifer forest to reach our mountain hut – with not another car or tourist in sight. The forest suddenly opened up to a clearing with a two wooden bungalows and two A-frame cabins looking out over a deep valley view. Ermina Redzemetovic was our host at Bungalows in Prokletije, and she greeted us with tea made with fresh herbs and a bowl of Turkish delight. Ermina didn’t speak any English and our Montenegrin was non-existent, so over the next three days, with the help of the phrase translation at the back of my guidebook, we found out that Ermina had taken over this disused katun (traditional shepherd’s mountain hut) from her husband’s family and had turned it into tourist accommodation. While her husband worked in Plav – the village at the foot of the mountain – Ermina stayed up in the 1700-metre-high katun with her two cows and a couple of chickens, making cheese and hosting guests. She told us that many katuns have been abandoned as families have emigrated to places like the US, and this was her project to revive this one, placed in such a scenic spot.

It was mid-September – the end of the season – and a week after we left Ermina would move herself and her animals down the mountain to Plav before the heavy snows started in October. The weather was already turning, and we were a bit underprepared clothing wise for subzero nights and days where the temperature didn’t rise much above 5 degrees. In our beanies and jackets, we felt a million miles away from the coast, which was only a few hours’ drive, where we’d swum in the sea. The benefit of being in an area that hasn’t been developed much for tourism yet – and at the end of the season – was that there was no one else around at all. We were Ermina’s only guests for the four days, and on our day hike from the bungalow up to Lake Hrid and beyond, we didn’t even hear a distant human sound, let alone see another hiker. It felt like a special treat to be in such a beautiful place, in eerily quiet forests and at the mist-wreathed lake, all on our own, despite having frozen fingers from picking wild blueberries as we hiked.

Our best day was spent on the other side of Prokletije National Park (about an hour’s drive away) in the Grebaje Valley. We parked the car just beyond the park entrance and embarked on a two-hour relentlessly uphill hike through a still, silent beech forest and then over a grassy cirque with the old ruins of a katun, up to the peak of Volusnica, where we had a truly staggering view of the Karanfili massif: dramatic jagged peaks still dotted with patches of snow from the previous winter. We couldn’t have asked for a better lunch spot to tuck into the pancakes with homemade strawberry jam and cheese that Ermina had made us as a packed lunch. We hiked on, over a narrow ridge covered in wild blueberry bushes, till the top of Taljanka (at 2057m), where we could put one foot in Albania and the other in Montenegro. On this whole day-long hike we only passed two other hikers and three wild horses.

After days of hiking in the cold and misty drizzle, it was a treat to get back to Ermina’s delicious hearty cooking: huge hunks of homemade bread, potato stew, bean soup, cheese and squash pita (pie), savoury polenta cake and roasted peppers – all made in her wood-fired oven. We consumed dairy in all its forms, all milked by hand by her and fermented in her bungalow – warm glasses of milk, kaymak (salty clotted cream), kiselo mljeko (a sour milk drink on the verge of becoming yoghurt) and, of course, slabs of her moreish salty white cheese. We quickly learnt the Montenegrin word for “eat up” (uzmi), as Ermina, like a very temporary surrogate mother, seemed to want us to eat enormous quantities of food, probably to fatten us up for the coming winter.

Moraca Monastery, Montenegro

Morača Monastery

Bungalows Prokletjie National Park, Montenegro

Bungalows Prokletjie National Park, Montenegro

Lake Hrid, Prokletjie National Park

A hike to Lake Hrid (and confusing map situation)

Hiking Grebaje valley, Prokletjie National Park

The start of the hike up Volusnica

View of Karanfili Massif, Prokletjie

The staggering view of the Karanfili massif from the top of Volusnica

Hiking Prokletjie National Park

Hiking Prokletjie National Park

Montenegro food

A packed hiking lunch of Ermina’s delicious cheese and squash pie with roasted peppers and more homemade cheese

We said our goodbyes to Ermina on a sunny but crisp day, when ground was dusted with frost, and drove down the mountain and northwest to Biogradska Gora National Park, for a short ramble in the forest. Biogradska is one of the last three remaining large virgin forests in Europe (that fact alone is hard for me to get my head around) and many of its trees are over 500 years old. I wished we’d had longer to do some multi-day hikes in this beautiful forest, but that’s for the next trip.   

We thought Ermina’s place was going to be the most scenic of our farmstays, but the next one was serious competition. Not too far from the national park, we turned off the main road onto a tiny road that led us through the very pretty Lipovo village, whose inhabitants on a Saturday afternoon were all raking, picking and chopping wood. On the edge of the village we found Dulovic Farm, where the whole family was hard at work in their field of vegetables when we arrived. The farm – a large old stone house, a small wooden hut as the kitchen and a barn of cows and pigs – was in an idyllic spot in a green valley surrounded on three sides by soaring forested mountains. Gordana, the family matriarch, after spending the day tending to the farm, managed to whip up a lavish feast for us of home baked bread, bean and vegetable stew, spinach and cheese burek (a dense pie), pickles and a big plate of lisnati cheese, the special cheese made only in that area. Gordana explained via her daughter, who spoke fluent English, that absolutely everything was from their farm, including the pickles. By this point in the trip, after eating so much farm-to-table (or sometimes garden-to-table) food, I was still so impressed with the quality of Montenegrin produce, which by default was organic and seasonal.

Lake at Biogradska Gora National Park

Biogradska Gora National Park

Forest at Biogradska Gora National Park

Lake at Biogradska Gora National Park

Dulovic Farm

Dulovic Farm

Montenegro breakfast

After a breakfast of fried fish, eggs (from the truly free-range chickens running around the farm), bread, beetroot pickles, cabbage salad and lisnati, we were on our way again, this time to our last destination of Durmitor National Park, close to the Bosnian border, which nearly completed our circular journey around Montenegro. Our farmstay home, Above the Mountains Katun, was right inside the national park, in a tiny hamlet surrounded by conifer forests against a backdrop of dramatic mountains. Host Zoran Obradovic welcomed us with sweet fig rakija and coconut cakes made by his octogenarian mother, and with our now growing repertoire of Montenegrin phrases, we were able to talk about life in this beautiful spot.  

We spent a sunny, warm afternoon exploring Crna Jezero (Black Lake), which looked turquoise from some angles, and navy blue-black from other, along with dozens of other tourists, many of whom visit Durmitor on a day trip in a coach from the coast. It felt a bit overwhelming to be surrounded by selfie-snapping tourists after several days of quiet hiking and we were glad to head out on a proper hike the next day, even though the ominous clouds promised rain. We started from the car park for the Black Lake and headed up the mountain, passing glimpses of the lake’s jewel-like blue through the trees as we huffed up the incline through a conifer forest. The dramatic views came past the tree line, when we walked through a gully to reach a valley with a lonely hiking hut surrounded by soaring mountains on all sides. It wasn’t an easy hike up to the ledena pecina (ice cave), tucked away after a mountain scramble, but things were made a lot worse by the rain which suddenly started and then didn’t stop for the rest of our three-hour return hike. Sodden and frozen we returned home, to Zoran and his mother fussing over us to make us tea and cake and then warm us up with fried trout caught in the nearby Tara Canyon, cheese pita, vegetable soup, stewed potatoes, and cabbage salad – all from the garden – all washed down with several glasses of rakija.

After dinner, sitting in the warm kitchen with Zoran and his mother and watching the local news, getting political commentary from Zoran (which involved a lot of charades-like explanations), I realised how special our Montenegro trip had been because of the incredibly welcoming and generous families we’d stayed with. We’d eaten the most delicious food wherever we’d been (and been inspired to grow our food one day when we live somewhere a bit more spacious than London), slept in cosy wooden cabins and old farmhouses in off-the-beaten-track places where you’d never find hotels and felt like we’d had more of a cultural immersion than in many places we’ve travelled to around the world. Instead of just learning the words for please and thank you, we’d learned Montenegrin phrases and untouristy vocabulary, and from English-speaking hosts like Marko, we’d got an education in Montenegrin history and politics. For half of our trip, we’d also had no Internet connectivity, giving us a rare chance to properly disconnect from the world (and work) and focus on exactly where we were, in the rugged mountains and valleys of beautiful Montenegro.

Joe enjoying rakija outside our wooden cabin at Zoran’s home

Black Lake, Crna Jezero, Durmitor National Park

Crna Jezero (Black Lake)

Hiking in Durmitor National Park

Hiking in Durmitor National Park

Finding farmstays in Montenegro

We booked our trip entirely through Meanderbug, a website that offers a range of farmstays across Montenegro, from eco-camping to mountain cabins, all at really affordable prices. All of the farmstays we stayed at offered meals (including packed lunches for hiking days) as part of the price or as an extra, and we’re glad we opted for meals with the families, because the food we ate was a big highlight of the trip. While half the hosts that we stayed with didn’t speak English, we didn’t have any communication problems as all of our meals were pre-booked and already paid for, and when we booked we left a note for hosts to tell them that we don’t eat meat (and we ended up being very well catered for with vegetarian and fish options). I loved the fact that by staying on farms, our tourist money went towards helping to support families’ incomes rather than going to big hotel companies (which there are a lot of along the Montenegrin coast). 

4

A jungle trek to Colombia’s Lost City

Colombia's Lost City or Ciudad Perdida

Sweat ran in thick rivulets down my back, soaking through to my heavy backpack. My face felt as hot as a pizza oven. My thighs burned and my dodgy knees were aching. My breath came out as an unpleasant sounding rasp. I was less than two hours into a four-day trek through the Colombian jungle and I was on the verge of giving up, turning back and heading for the beaches of Caribbean coast, an hour’s drive away, to do nothing but drink cocktails.

What kept me going was the thought of reaching the Lost City – the reason I was on this tough trek. Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu, the Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida in Spanish, is a 1200-year-old city that was abandoned four centuries ago when the Spanish arrived in Colombia, and remained a secret to the outside world until it was discovered by gold hunters in the 1970s. There’s no way of accessing the ruins other than by hiking 23 kilometres through the steep, muddy, mosquito-infested jungle of the Sierra Nevada.

Once I’d conquered that first gruelling hill on the first afternoon of the hike, I’d like to say that it got easier, which it didn’t. The rest of the hike was tough (mentally and physically) – brutally hot, humid and endlessly hilly. There were lots of river crossings and slippery rock clamberings and fitful sleeps in tiny crammed together bunkbeds at the rustic camps along the way, and scorpion sightings and sore legs.

River crossing, Lost City trek, Colombia

Despite all of that, the Lost City hike was spectacularly beautiful, a lot of fun and a pretty adventurous introduction to Colombia. We walked over ridges above misty green valleys and through stretches of dense forest, with parrots and butterflies flitting between trees. To cool down, we dove into the clear water of rivers and jumped off waterfalls, and ate strips of juicy watermelon and slices of oranges as pick-me-ups after sweaty hill climbs.

From our knowledgeable guide, Wilson, we learned about how the area had been full of marijuana plantations of a strain called Santa Marta Gold 25 years ago. When cocaine became popular, the marijuana was replaced with coca plantations. The cocaine was manufactured in laboratories deep in the jungle, and transported in bags on mules to the coast, where it was sent by speedboat to the Caribbean and the US.  A few years ago, as part of the US’ War on Drugs campaign, the coca plantations were destroyed by the Colombian government. According to Wilson, there used to be 900 people living in the area, but after the crackdown, only around 50 remained. The rest moved to the city of Santa Marta to look for work, but with the decrease in cocaine smuggling, the whole city’s economy was depressed. Wilson’s insight certainly gave me a new perspective on Colombia’s drug trade and how many peoples’ lives it affects.

Scenery on Lost City hike, Colombia

The cocaine trade is an association many people make with Colombia, and the second is with guerrillas and kidnappings. In 2003, a group of tourists were kidnapped from the ruins and held hostage for three months by Marxist rebels. After that, visits to the city were suspended for a few years, but since the route was re-opened in 2005, there haven’t been any incidents. For the protection of the area there are now two army camps – one on the hiking route and one at the city –  filled with gun-wielding, cigarette smoking recruits who all look about 16, and love posing for photos.

Army camp, Lost City hike, Colombia

I had begun to really enjoy the hike by the time we reached the Lost City on the morning of the third day, after the thorough workout of a climb up 1200 narrow steps, and the trek had become as much about the beauty of the scenery, the meditative experience of walking for hours every day, and learning about Colombia as it was about actually reaching our destination.

The ruins themselves are undeniably atmospheric, although not nearly as dramatic as Machu Picchu (though, on the plus side, there were about 30 people in total at the ruins at the same time as us, as opposed to the thousands at Machu Picchu). Surrounded by mountains streaked with cascading waterfalls and flanked on all sides by trees, the series of stone and grass terraces rises out of the jungle like something from an Indiana Jones movie. We had arrived early in the morning, before the sun had risen behind the peaks, and stood on a hill, watching in silence as the light went from blue to golden over the lilypad terraces.

While gold hunters introduced the Lost City (which was originally called Teyuna) to the world in the 1970s, indigenous local tribes had actually known about the ruins all along – the site is sacred to them, and they wanted to keep it hidden from outsiders. Much of the city’s history remains unknown (including the meaning of a boulder etched with carvings which may be an undecipherable map to the area’s concealed gold mines), and sadly, many of its treasures were looted by gold hunters to be sold on the black market. It’s believed to have housed between 2000 and 8000 people, and may have been a political centre. The site is spread across 86 acres, and is one of the largest pre-Columbian settlements discovered in the Americas. Most the city, however, is still covered in jungle, and there are no plans to clear it.

Mysterious boulder that could be a map at Colombia's Lost City

Teyuna is certainly not lost any more, especially as tourist numbers increase every year, but the air of mystery that hangs over the site, its isolation and spectacular jungle setting, and the fact that you have to sweat and toil for three days to get there (and then return on the same hilly slopes) means it still feels gloriously adventurous.

How to do Colombia’s Lost City hike

There are a number of different tour operators offering four, five and six-day hikes to the Lost City, starting in Santa Marta, a two-hour drive away from the start of the hike.
We chose Expotur (based on the good reviews), and paid $380 for the four-day trek, which included a guide, accommodation in bunk beds in camps on the route, three meals a day (the food was tasty, plentiful and healthy – fish, salad, rice for dinner, eggs and arepas for breakfast) and fresh fruit as snacks.
You need to carry everything you need for the hike (other than food) in a backpack so try and bring as little as possible. Keep in mind that with the humidity and frequent rain, nothing dries properly, so keep the clothes you want to keep dry for sleeping in a plastic bag. Bring a travel towel for showering – there are cold showers at the camps – a first aid kit and some energy bars to keep you going when you hit some low spots.
There are a lot of mosquitoes on the hike. If you wear shorts, you will be bitten. I used my eco-friendly baby-safe citronella insect repellent cream on my legs, which did absolutely nothing to protect my skin. I was feasted on every day, and by the end of the four days, my legs were covered in dozens of bites. (My boyfriend sprayed himself liberally with DEET multiple times a day and only had a few bites.) Two weeks later, when I was in Costa Rica, I came down with either dengue fever or chikungunya (the blood test was inconclusive). Both are horrible mosquito-borne illnesses where you have high fevers, severe joint pains and headaches. I felt terrible for nine days, and learned my lesson about the kind of insect repellent I should be using.
Sarah Duff Lost City trek-3 Sarah Duff Lost City trek-5 Sarah Duff Lost City trek-6Sarah Duff Lost City trek-8 Sarah Duff Lost City trek-10 Sarah Duff Lost City trek-11 Sarah Duff Lost City trek-12 Sarah Duff Lost City trek 13-1

 

9

In Patagonia

The reward at the summit of the Las Torres hike in Torres del Paine National Park

The reward at the summit of the Las Torres hike in Torres del Paine National Park

For years before I even knew exactly where it was, the word Patagonia conjured up a magical idea of the unknown, the untouched, the wild. When I found it on a map it seemed so remote to be the kind of place I thought I’d never get to. It was my fantasy travel destination – a seemingly unreachable fabled land at the edge of the planet.

So when my plane from Buenos Aires started descending into a vast blanket of brown with a lake as the only splash of colour in the otherwise monotonous spread to land at the tiny El Calafate airport, with no sign of life other than a few sheep and cattle sprinkled on the plains, I started to wonder if I’d built Patagonia up too much (excitedly reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia just before the trip didn’t help either). Maybe it was true what Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges had said (to discourage travel writer Paul Theroux from heading south of Buenos Aires) “You will find nothing there. There is nothing in Patagonia.”

But then I landed, decamped to a lodge on top of a hill overlooking the plains that looked so dull from the air (but were, in fact, as serenely scenic as a landscape painting), and the snow-capped Andes and iceberg-studded Lake Argentina in the distance, sipped on a cocktail made from sparkling wine and the liqueur of the calafate berry (after which El Calafate is named) and declared that Patagonia is not a good place to be viewed from the air. Nor is it, as Paul Theroux discovered on his 1978 trip in The Old Patagonian Express, a good place to view from the windows of a train. He couldn’t wait to get to the last station on the line so he could fly home out of the “nothingness”.

All Theroux needed to do was spend a day in this landscape. I had two weeks – and by day three had decided Patagonia was the most beautiful place I’d ever been to. Each day brought with it a new adventure, a new landscape, and things I’d never experienced before: ice trekking with crampons on the groaning and rumbling Perito Moreno glacier, which moves two metres a day (downing whisky and glacial ice at the end), sailing on a catamaran through a lake of impossibly blue ice bergs and up to glaciers taller than skyscrapers, horse riding in icy winds to a lake populated with pink flamingoes and hiking up to snow at the top of a hill and finding puma tracks. And that was just El Calafate.

From El Calafate a bus trip through the desolate overexposed-yellow steppes took us three hours north, to El Chalten, a tiny hamlet known as Argentina’s trekking capital, which has surprisingly made it onto Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities for 2015 list (alongside the likes of Washington DC, Milan and Vienna), we trekked for days. The jewel on the hiking crown was Laguna de Los Tres – an 11-kilometre trail to the base of Mount Fitz Roy, a mountain with a sheer granite peak that’s only summited once a year, which rises above the Lago de Los Tres, but which was entirely snowed over. As condors swirled in the sky, we ate cheese sandwiches and watched a cross-country skier traverse the lake – a tiny figure under the massive mountain – as thunderous sounds echoed around the mountain from pieces of ice crumbling off a hanging glacier behind Fitz Roy. The handful of other hikers, also tucking into their plastic-wrapped lunches, fell silent and I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing – I can’t believe I’m here.

Patagonia stretches across Argentina and Chile, with the Andes mountains forming the national boundary. Chile gets a lot more rain than Argentina, so the Patagonian landscape to the west is markedly different – and we didn’t want to travel all the way to Patagonia without seeing it. Bussing back to El Calafate, we rented a car and drove southwest (through a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-tiny border post on a dirt road) into Chile and Torres del Paine National Park. Here were green hills populated by guanacos (untamed cousins of the llama), rhea (ostrich-like birds) and calm deep-turquoise and navy blue lakes reflecting cloud-wreathed jagged mountain peaks like glass. It was astonishingly beautiful – a different landscape to Argentina’s more bleak expanses.

We spent our days driving around the park, stopping at every view point and curve in the road to take photos and drank whisky with 700-year-old ice from the glacier in Lago Grey, a grey lake with floating ice bergs, sleeping in a geodesic dome and a lakeside yurt but the highlight was the full day hike to the base of Las Torres, three granite peaks after which the park is named. It was a lot of uphill, up the side of mountains, on muddy paths through southern beech forests, over mountain streams where we filled up our water bottles (the water in Patagonia is the purest I’ve ever drunk) – but all of it incredibly scenic, and a different view every half and hour. A rocky scramble to the top, over deep snow and treacherous icy patches, brought us to one of Patagonia’s most famous views: the slate-grey towers looming over a half iced lake the artificial-looking colour of a topaz stone.

At this point, by the end of our trip, we’d run out of superlatives and adjectives to describe Patagonia. We could merely gape at this view, so beautiful to the point of surreality. Like so much that we’d seen in Patagonia – the other-worldly glaciers, ice bergs, mountains and wide open spaces that inspired a deep sense of calm – it was going to be etched in our memories forever. Two weeks in the “nothingness” was one of the best trips of my life.

 

How to plan a Patagonia trip

I don’t usually do these trip planners in my blog, because I feel like there’s usually an overwhelming amount of information out there for almost any destination, but I struggled to find a lot on Patagonia.

 

El Calafate

Eolo lodge, El Calafate, Patagonia-2

Our first stop in Patagonia, and what an introduction it was. We stayed four nights at Eolo Lodge, which is honestly one of the best places I’ve ever stayed at. The lodge is set on top of a hill on a huge estancia (cattle ranch), surrounded by acres and acres of rolling fields dotted with fluffy Hereford cattle and horses, and each of the rooms has huge windows to take in as much of the view as possible. When we weren’t out hiking, ice trekking or horse riding, we were sitting in one of the lounges (where we were served high tea – a choice of tea from a two-page menu and a cake stand full of dulce de leche pastries, sandwiches, cheese and cakes), decompressing in the sauna, taking dips in the indoor pool and drinking Malbec gazing out at Patagonia.

El Chalten

Mount Fitz Roy, El Chalten, Patagonia-2

From El Calafate’s bus station, one snowy afternoon, we took a bus three hours north to El Chalten, known as Argentina’s trekking capital. We stayed in the warm and cosy Hotel Destino Sur for three nights, spending our days on hikes (all the trails we did were within walking distance of town) – the spectacular 22-kilometre Laguna de Los Tres one day, and the much shorter Laguna Capri and Mirador de las Condores and de las Anguilas the other days. In the late afternoons after hiking we relaxed our sore muscles in the hotel’s sauna and Jacuzzi, and refuelled each evening with locally brewed beers and huge bowls full of homemade pasta in cheesy sauce from the tiny Alpine-like restaurants in town.

Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

We headed back to El Calafate on the bus and hired a car from Dubrovnik Rent a Car. Car hire is extremely expensive in Patagonia, and all the car hire companies charge pretty much the same prices. You can take a bus from Argentina to Chile, but we wanted the freedom of a car to be able to stop off where we wanted to. The car hire company was fine, but the Ford Focus was a little crusty (the wing mirrors shook like they were going to fall out, one light didn’t work and the air conditioning knob broke on day one) – nevertheless it held up on the 1000 kilometre trip, most of which was on gravel roads. From El Calafte we drove south towards Chile on empty roads where we only passed a few other cars. The border crossing at Cerro Castillo was the easiest and quickest one I’ve ever done – five minutes in Argentina and about seven minutes on the Chilean side, where they have to check your bags to make sure you’re not bringing in any fresh produce. We drove slowly to the entrance to Torres del Paine National Park, stopping to take photos of lambs, guanacos, rheas and a dead armadillo along the way.

EcoCamp, Torres del Paine, Patagonia

For our first two nights in the park we stayed in a geodesic dome at EcoCamp Patagonia – one of the most memorable hotel rooms I’ve ever slept in! Our dome had a wood fire, an ensuite bathroom and a massive bed where we drank tea and watched the rain falling on the dome’s plastic roof. The camp is very close to the start of the Base de Las Torres hike, probably the most famous hike in the park – a 9 kilometre trek up to the base of the striking granite peaks called Las Torres (the towers). After a day of rain, we had sunshine and very little wind – perfect conditions to make the calf-burningly steep hike up to a truly spectacular view.

Patagonia Camp, Chile, Patagonia

Our last night was spent in a yurt on the shore of the beautiful Lago Toro, just outside Torres del Pain National Park, at the Scandi-cool Patagonia Camp. We sipped pisco sours and talked about Die Antwood with the barman, hung out with a friendly fox who scouts around the camp looking for food, drank the delicious Cerveza Austral beer infused with calafate berry, went on a hike to Lago Grey, had a picnic of sandwiches, brownies, soup and more Cerveza Austral in the sunshine and slept under a skylight where we could watch the night sky.

Budget for a Patagonia trip

Patagonia is expensive, but it is possible to travel on a budget. Flights to El Calafate from Buenos Aires are an unavoidable cost (of around US$300 return – more during peak season), unless you want to take a really long bus trip. There are a fair number of bus options from El Calafate to El Chalten, and from El Calafate to Puerto Natales in Chile, from where you can catch buses to Torres del Paine National Park. We saw a lot of people hitchhiking, so if you’re really cash-strapped, there’s that option.

In terms of accommodation in Patagonia, Argentina is a more affordable than Chile. In El Calafate and El Chalten there are many hostels to choose from, where you can cook your own food and save on eating out.

In Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, all the accommodation options are pricey, apart from camping in your own tent, which costs US$12. Choose from hotels or more rustic refugios, which are mountain lodges located on the hiking trails and offer beds from US$48 (you book the refugios and campsites through this website). There are limited dining options in the park, and food has had to travel a long way to get there, so eating at the refugios and hotels is expensive. You may want to stock up on provisions in Puerto Natales (the closest town to the park entrance) before heading into the park.

When to go to Patagonia

Almost everything is closed in Patagonia during the winter months (May to September). December, January and February are the peak months when it’s warmest. We went in October, which was perfect as we got low season rates, there weren’t many tourists, and we mostly had hiking trails to ourselves. We were very lucky with the weather though – we only had one day of snow and two days of rain and the rest of the time it was sunny. It was still cold though – at night it dropped below freezing.

How long to go for

Because it’s fairly hard to get to, I wouldn’t suggest that you travel to Patagonia for anything less than a week. Two weeks was a good time for us to have seen the Argentinian and Chilean sides, but I could have easily stayed for a month.

 

Mount Fitz Roy, El Chalten, Patagonia

Perito Moreno glacier trekking, El Calafate, Patagonia

Spegazzini glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina, Patagonia

Eolo lodge, El Calafate, Patagonia

Sailing to the Spegazzini Glacier

Sailing to the Spegazzini Glacier

Horse riding in Patagonia Crossing the Chilean border

Guanaco spotting in the Torres del Paine National Park

Guanaco spotting in the Torres del Paine National Park

Patagonia Camp, on the shores of Lago Toro

Patagonia Camp, on the shores of Lago Toro

Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park

Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park

Whisky at Lago Grey, Torres del Paine National Park

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