Bob & Lynne Douglas's Great
Chapter 3 - Patagonia
By Lynne Douglas
how much better a place looks when you have had a feed, a sleep and a shower. Chile Chico
didnt look half as bad as it did when we arrived tired, dirty and hungry. It was
another cloudless hot day when we crossed from Chile to Argentina. It took less than a
hour to clear out of Chile, cross 2 kms of no-mans-land and enter Argentina. Again, we
managed the process without using our carnet.
Argentinian Patagonia is completely different from the mountainous Chilean side. Yes, it has the Andes, but the leeward side is in the rain shadow of the Andes. What this area lacks in rainfall it makes up for with wind - it doth blow. Relentlessly.
The terrain looks like it started off life as undulating and then some huge mega-corporation came along and indulged in relentless, comprehensive, haphazard, disorganized opencast mining with a few explosions thrown in for good measure. Vegetation is technically known as sparse, barely a tree anywhere and prickly, ground hugging drought-resistant bushes covering about 25% of the surface area.
That leaves a lot of bare ground, ranging from sand to rocks in a riot of colours - ochres, siennas, umbers, blacks, greys, greens and that strange red that you get in outback Australia. There is that same smell of burning rock common to hot and barren areas of the world, and the same pin sharp clarity of air and bright, bright blue sky. And like traveling through similar terrain, it has an other-worldly beauty about it but after 5 hours in the saddle, you feel like youve had enough of a good thing.
The animal life - guanacos, rheas, lizards, hares, skunks and armadillos - seem to manage to live on nothing. As do the sheep, the stock in trade of huge estancias that divide up the land and give us the iconic guachos, the men seemingly born in the saddle.
Patagonian hares have a problem. They have hundreds of square kilometers to be going at, the surface area covered by roads is miniscule, the amount of traffic is small and yet you see so many flattened on the road. Does the hare community have a problem with pubescent youths playing chicken on the ripio, or are they just "burro", a lovely word that means stupid.
Routa 40 heads roughly south from Lago Buenos Aires (Lago General Carrera on the Chilean side) down to Punta Arenas; some of it is tar sealed, most of it isnt. It is ripio again. Where there were regular stops on the Carretera Austral, on Routa 40 there are very few. Perito Mereno, one gallon of petrol east of the border crossing, is the last place to fuel up before Bajo Caracoles. After that it is 365kms to the next petrol station. We must fill up in Bajo Caracoles.
We camped at an estancia 25kms into the first gravel section. 50kms further along Routa 40 are cave paintings, now a World Heritage Site, but up a diversion 92kms there and back. By this time we were back to the rough stuff; we went through the pros and cons (we have seen the Lascaux caves, it will take up to 4 hours just to get there and back) and decided to carry on and leave the caves in peace. Good call.
Pulling up to the pumps in Bajo Caracoles there seemed to be a lot of people milling around and a sign on the pumps "No Hay". Aint got none. People were waiting for the petrol tanker to arrive. Our tank holds 14 gallons so a quick calculation meant we had just about enough to get to Tres Lagos, the next petrol down the line. Good job we didnt visit the cave paintings or we would have also been hanging around for the petrol tanker, with no shade, in soaring heat, slowly going mad.
Then things got worse. The road surface deteriorated further, we hit roadworks that stretched on for 56kms while a new Routa 40 was being built. Some of it was already tar sealed and the rest of it had a much smoother surface than the temporary Routa 40 which ran beside it. Sometimes you have to be opportunistic, so at every chance we nipped onto the new road, dodging earthmoving machinery and surprised workmen. Most of the time they waved us on or through obstructions, once we were told to get off but we got back on once out of sight. We saved hours this way.
Two possible stops had been obliterated by the road works so we soldiered on until nearly dark. With another 75kms to Tres Lagos we stumbled across an Agritourism estancia down a 5km long dirt road so we took that and camped in the grounds. Several of these estancias actively encourage visitors and those that dont usually allow people to camp on their property.
Driving on ripio redefines everything you have learned about distances. We stopped thinking in kilometers and switched over to hours. 100kms becomes 4 to 6 hours for us, depending on the state of the ripio. We judged how far we could get in a day by writing the estimated hours on the map between each junction. We did 485kms by the time we reached Tres Lagos and had a couple of gallons left in the tank. A tankful of petrol cost £12. Thats about a quarter of the price in the UK.
The closer Routa 40 got to the Andes the more spectacular the scenery became. Our first stop was El Chalten on Lago Viedma, an azure blue lake fed by glaciers, with a series of jagged peaks dominating the town. El Chalten is a magnet for serious climbers worldwide, backpackers and tourists who like walking in general. It is a boom town, mushrooming with cheaply and hurriedly built hostels and cabanas by opportunists who want to put more distance between themselves and the poverty line. The whole town is one great big construction site with unfinished roads, access drives, footpaths and buildings. It is in desperate need of a town planner.
It is the Argentinian version of a gold rush town, only this time it is black gold that has brought prosperity. In other words, they have tarmacadamed the 90kms from the tar sealed section of Routa 40 right up to El Chalten and the locals are making hay. If it hadnt been tar sealed, we would have given it a miss and so would a lot of other people. It was well worth the detour just to walk some of the trails at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy, one of the steepest granite peaks and one of the most difficult to climb. It is here we saw our first condors, 2 circling at great height so we couldnt read their name tags but they couldnt have been anything else.
Onwards to El Calafate, another more popular growth town that has already benefited from tar seal. God bless Mr Macadam. This town is more established with organized roading and most places finished, a tourist town but very pleasant. The big draw here is the Los Glacieres National Park, and particularly the huge Mereno and Upsala glaciers, both over 5kms wide and 60m high where they discharge into Lago Argentina, and importantly, easily accessible now that the 80km access road has also been tar sealed right up to the glacier complete with car park and facilities. Boom time folks.
The road up to the Mereno glacier is where we decided to settle this misfire problem once and for all. By a process of elimination it came down to the lead to plug 3 not carrying a charge. A bit of brutal surgery to the lead end and bingo, no more misfire. It took many stops and several changes of plugs to get to the bottom of it but worth it. The TC ran smooth as silk after that.
The Mereno glacier is spectacular; weve never seen anything like it before. People sit there quietly listening to the glacier groaning and wait for huge or small chunks to fall into the lake and cause a big rolling wave. Boats full of tourists try to get close but no closer than we were from viewing platforms. Thirty-eight people have been killed by flying ice blocks in 20 years. There are tourists from all over the world here looking in awe. There is a boat trip to the Upsala glacier, even bigger than Mereno but one glacier is enough.
El Calafate was where we met other long distance travelers. A Dutch couple in a converted long wheel base Land Rover had been on the road for over 8 years. Another German couple toured in a huge lorry-like vehicle with wheels over a metre high. We got to know another German couple quite well Rolf and Bettina. They toured in a large truck that looked like a security bullion wagon. They spend the summer months in Europe and the winter months anywhere else. This year its South America. We exchanged tips on road conditions, good camp sites, places to see etc.
Our next target was the Torres del Paine national park in Chile so we headed south, most on gravel again, to the border at Cerro Castillo and then east and north in a raging wind. How the hell are we going to get a tent up in this? The 3 iconic cerros appeared in view and what a sight. Camping was easier than we expected but still challenging. The site is full of really serious walkers and climbers, many dragging their feet back from a 6 day walk around the cerros with fully laden backpacks. Not doing that!
Next day dawned clear to start with then clouded over in the distance. This didnt look too promising. The rangers said theyd had 10 days of clear weather and it was expected to break. We set off in shirts and shorts but prepared for a change. We decided on the Chileno track up to a refuge and then to continue on to a simple camp site where we could do an hours steep climb for the best views and then make our return in the day. It was hard going and steep but we reached the first refuge OK. We carried on into a strengthening wind and then showers. We stopped for lunch, by which time the wind was getting to be a problem. The sky was ominous so we decided to get off the mountain fast as others carried on up.
At first we thought we were just wusses but the wind then became unmanageable to walk in, the rain got worse and the temperature dropped like a brick. We made it back to the campsite just before it really turned nasty. Lord help those stuck up there. It was a rough night but the next day dawned absolutely crystal clear with fresh snow on all the mountains.
There is a lot to see and do in the Torres del Paine national park but we left that day, unwilling to submit the TC to the dreadful roads in the park. Whatever the park authorities spend the entry fees on, it isnt the roads. They were the worst we had encountered; this is real four wheel drive territory. Our top speed was 8kph, so it would take us all day to make it to the Lady Grey glacier and back out of the park.
That same day we headed south for Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas where the ferry left for Tierra del Fuego. I spent most of the day hanging on to my side screen while Bob struggled with the legendary crosswind. I had been dreading the ferry crossing of the Magellan Straits. There are too many stories of huge seas and rough crossings. I downed enough seasickness pills to stun a horse. The crossing was flat calm and hence one hour shorter than normal.
On this ferry you cross to Porvenir; it will never be a tourist destination but the clean, warm, cheap hotel was great. The temperature had been falling steadily from El Calafate and now it was freezing and raining. The morning drive to yet another border crossing did not bode well. It was flat, barren, boring and extraordinarily windy. Why do people live here?
We were heading for Ushuaia at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world and the end of drivable roads. We had visions of a small settlement, bunkered down against the wind, clinging onto rocky ground by the fingernails while raging seas battered a ragged coastline. After the border crossing into Argentina we drove into wooded areas, then hillier country and then mountains. Mountains? Then Paso Garibaldi and ski resorts. Are we in the right place? Then a drop down into Ushuaia, a good sized town, bustling with the trade from cruise ships leaving for Antarctica, cosmopolitan, good restaurants, a golf course. Golf course!!!
We found an apartment for 3 nights, and drove to the Lapataia peninsular, the end of the Routa 3 and the official most southerly point of drivable land and the closest to Antarctica. It was a fabulous day, sunny, clear skies, wonderful scenery through Southern beech forest to the bay and views out to islands and to the most threatening seas in the world, currently calm and quiet. This cannot be Tierra del Fuego but the signs tell us it is.
It looks like we made it in one piece. I could have stayed there longer, it was a charming place. Tomorrow we turn this ship around and head back for the mainland via a shorter ferry on the north of Tierra del Fuego and on up Routa 3, a tar sealed road that takes us up to Commodoro Rivadivia on the way to Bariloche in the Argentinian Lake District.
© 2008 Lynne Douglas