Getting around the vast expanse of Argentina has been easy so far, thanks to a series of very efficient flights with LAN Argentina, one of two domestic airlines in this enormous country.
But at last, after several weeks of relative luxury, we are hitting the road on our first bus journey of any considerable length: five hours from El Calafate in southern Argentina to Puerto Natales in the foothills of the Chilean Andes.
El Calafate – named after a local berry used to make beer and spirits – sprawls down a hillside to the banks of Lago Argentino, one of the largest in this southern corner of Patagonia. It has a remote, frontier town feel, with low-rise buildings battered by bitter winds. When the sun shines, the lake glimmers in a milky-blue colour, but fades to steel grey when clouds cover the sun.
As we begin to roll across the landscape in a comfortable coach, the wide-open plains outside of town are covered by tufts of wiry yellow grass, black clumps of shrub and thickets of green, thorny bushes.
Fences and iron gateways indicate the boundaries of vast estancias, whose whitewashed walls and slate roofs can be see amid stands of tall trees.
The wildlife is sparse but ever-present. I think I see an armadillo but it turns out to be a rock, then I see a group of rocks that turn out to be a herd of sheep, whose dirty grey colour helps them blend in with the landscape.
There are a few caracaras – scavenger birds that look like eagles – sat alone atop fence posts, or occasionally wheeling in groups of three or four. Larger flocks of small ducks build nests on lagoons and lakes, bobbing for long periods looking for food.
A group of long-legged wading birds hunt for grubs in patches of marshy soil, and a pair of flamingos stand in a shallow lake fringed with a white salty crust.
From time to time, small shrines appear on the side of the road: some, at crossroads, seem to be tributes to the Virgin Mary, asking for safe passage; others featuring wooden crosses, flowers and photographs, appear to indicate the site of an fatal accident.
The barren and arid landscape around El Calafate gives way to sparse forests of skeletal lenga trees, their erratic shapes suggesting a life spent tormented by fierce winds.
The bluish outline of mountains on the horizon reveals the southern stretch of the Andes. The Paine massif eventually comes into view, it's granite towers shining in distant sunlight.
Between us and it, low bands of clouds appear to hover not more than 50 metres above the ground, but distances can be deceptive in this wide landscape.
As we approach the frontier, the road is lined with big clumps of daisies, dandelions and other wildflowers and grasses in hues of red, yellow and green.
Eventually, the wilderness turns into the border town of Rio Turbio, notable for its mineral extraction industry and a sad-looking mineral museum. The crossing is remarkable only for its inefficiency, which is entirely unremarkable in South America.
Shortly after we cross the border, Dean Martin sings 'Let it snow' over the crackling radio of the bus. It seems a dangerous thing to wish for in this desolate wilderness, where the winds blow so strong they can knock a man off his feet. If this is summer, winter must be a cruel and bitter affair.
Guanacos, smaller, orange coloured relatives of the llama, appear every now and again, usually in small herds of 10 to 30. Occasionally we pass piles of bleached bones, a sight that doesn't bode well for a lone guanaco calve sat in the scrub, apparently far from his herd.
Huge boulders appear in the middle of flat plains otherwise free from geological formations, perhaps rolled along the seabed millennia ago, or pushed along by glaciers.
Above, Andean condors circle on warm currents in a valley between two small hills, looking out for a carcass to feed on.
We pass the occasional flock of rheas, Patagonian ostriches with round little bodies covered in dirty grey and black coloured feathers perched on spindly legs. They look ridiculous, like sheep on stilts.
The Paine Massif remains in view for the remainder of the journey, and we seem to inch nearer as the road rolls on. Finally we reach Puerto Natales, which spills down to the waters of Last Hope Sound, the mountains looming in the distance.
Tomorrow we will spend the night at the foot of the rugged massif, after attempting to trek up to the base of the Torres (towers) in the afternoon. I recall it being gruelling 11 years ago, and I fear that the passage of time may have taken its toll. We shall see.