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One of the several woode n signs along the W Circuit

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A day for lenticular clouds - these clouds are most regularly found near mountainous areas

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Hotel Las Torres which is one of the starting points, east of the W Circuit

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Hotel Las Torres which is one of the starting points, east of the W Circuit

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Today's holiday cottages used to house the seaweed farm workers

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Today's holiday cottages used to house the seaweed farm workers

Distant Worlds

It will take over a day of flying time, but both Patagonia and Argentina reward stout-hearted travellers with utopian sights unlike any other. Cheah Ui-Hoon survives to tell her tale.
Dec 24, 2016 5:50 AM

Take A Hike

A trekking route in Patagonia is drawing nature-lovers with its scenic views of glacial lakes and mountain ridges.

For avid hikers, the W Circuit is like the holy grail for the strong-limbed - the ultimate hiking route in Patagonia in the southern-most part of the South American continent.

It's so-called because the 70km route in the Torres del Paine national park is shaped like the letter w, and hikers spend four days continuously hiking from one end to the other, walking either from the east to the west or vice versa. Along the way, the more hardcore or intrepid of hikers set up camp overnight and cook their own meals. Others will book room and board at any of the four lodges, called refugios, along the route. The reward is four to five days of being right in the middle of the youngest mountains in the world, sky blue glacial lakes, snow-capped mountain ridges and gushing rivers of pure water.

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The W Circuit has become more popular by the year because it's one of those trails that can be self-guided, yet is also demanding enough to be a challenge. Although it's no walk in the park - asians will find the hard, rocky ground and the up-down terrain a surprising challenge - it's not a far reach for first-time hikers either, as long as you're willing to put in at least two months of training before you head over there.

Summer (Dec to Mar) is a good time frame to plan a hike, mainly because it is less windy - it's no fun hiking for six to eight hours a day in capricious winds of 70kmph and above. Starting from the east is also recommended, because you get to climb to Torres del Paine (the three granite towers that stick out like needles) on your first day - one of the toughest hikes in the circuit. The gradient is also more gentle from east to west.

The popularity of the w circuit has grown so much in the past few years that the trail was swamped with trekkers and camping sites overloaded in the past summer. Four days of trekking in the untrammeled wilderness without the interference of modern technology - like mobile data - can be counted as one of the rare luxuries these days.

Of course, one can also experience Patagonia and the park without doing the W Circuit. There are several top-notch hotels in the national park and all will run daily excursions for guests which include day trips to Torres del Paine park. Some do it better than others, of course. The 10 year-old explora Patagonia, built by Chilean architects German del Sol and Jose Cruz is a designer property which marries rusticity with modern lines. It also has one of the best locations with its amazing view of the three towers from the dining room and the suites. The other thing we enjoyed were the guides' talks in the evenings which introduced the history and geology of the area to guests.

It's a different world out there in Patagonia - and once you've been there, you can better understand why and how that name conjures up a magical utopia for nature lovers.

The explora Patagonia is represented by Lightfoot Travels in Singapore, www.lightfoottravel.com

Seaweed Village

A small town on the Atlantic coast of Argentina is fast gaining cult status as a romantic edge-of-the-world getaway

IT was our second straight day of driving north on Argentina's seemingly endless National Route 3 when we finally got off the two-lane highway into the gravel road that would lead to our destination - Bahia Bustamente.

Apart from the kilometre marker - 1674 - we had no way of knowing we were on the right track. We were supposed to continue driving for another 30km, but after half an hour of vigorous jostling in our 4WD at 20 to 30 km per hour, uncertainty set in. Sunset was an hour away and all we could see was the vast blue sky ahead and the dry, flat land of the Argentinian steppes, covered with small prickly bushes leading right into the horizon.

Should we turn back, we wondered in uncertainty, until we caught sight of the shimmering sea - growing bigger as if we would drive up to the tip of the earth and be swallowed by it - and there it was, the wooden gate that kept the outside world away from the quaint seaweed village of Bahia Bustamente

In 1953, Spaniard Don Lorenzo Soriano arrived in the seaside locale of Bahia Bustamente in search of seaweed for his signature Malvik hair gel. He saw potential in the tonnes of algae he saw rotting by the beach; he moved his family there and lo - the first 'seaweed village' in Argentina was born.

At the height of its seaweed production, the village housed up to 400 people. As the industry changed, the town dwindled down to its present population of 40. In 2009, Bahia Bustamente became part of the Austral Patagonian marine park, providing protection for all species found within one nautical mile of the shore and some 50 islands from Cabo Dos Bahías southwards to Caleta Malaspina.

But a few years before that, travellers had already been trickling into the area and Soriano's grandson, Mathias, decided to open the village to visitors. He's since hosted Japanese and other international visitors drawn to the seaweed farm. Although seaweed production continues, along with sheep farming, tourism is a growing business, thanks to a 2011 New York Times feature on it.

Bahia takes up to 18 visitors at a time, and the stay comes with a daily nature activity. For about nine months out of the year, six two and three-roomed cottages built in the 1950s are up for rent, each facing the Atlantic Ocean. The furnishing is vintage and rustic, but neat and clean. One wakes up to bird calls and the ball of sun rising from the horizon. If you sleep in, you'll miss the trundle of tractors ferrying the seaweed pickers out to the marshes by the coastline.

We were the last guests of the summer/autumn season earlier this year, before the lodge closed for the harsh winter, and reopened in September. The Magallenic penguins were moulting then, Mr Soriano took us on a boat ride around the Malaspina Cove to see the penguins, cormorants, steamer ducks, seals and walruses. It wasn't the season for Orca whales, unfortunately. Our nature outing ended with a trek through the 65 million year-old Petrified Forest, a desert-like landscape with trees that had turned to stone.

Bahia is raw and rugged, and the draw is its remoteness and time-warp feel. The accommodation is simple, but we feasted like royalty on gourmet meals made from local produce - seaweed, lamb, fish, cheese, bush plants and home-grown vegetables - in the old storehouse of the town, now transformed into a homey Patagonian dining room.

Getting to Bahia Bustamente requires steely determination, but the Patagonian coast's raw beauty and warm Argentinian hospitality makes it an unparalleled experience.

The writer's stay at Bahia Bustamente was hosted by the hosteria, www.bahiabustamente.com. In Singapore, Bahia Bustamente is represented by A2A Safaris, at www.a2asafaris.com.

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