Warning – this post contains images of gratuitous scenery!
Having put the delights of the wine region behind us we picked up Ruta 40, again and headed for the Argentine Lake District, the best part of another 1000km south. The region is renowned for its charming towns, picturesque lakes (of varied colours) and scenery. What we encountered unfortunately was more reminiscent of the UK Lake district on a bad day – low cloud, overcast and rain. Those lakes were all the same colour as the sky – grey. Consequently, we decided against waiting around to see if it cleared and pushed on, maybe we’ll try to return on our way north. One surprising find was the delightful town of Trevelin, which is decidedly Welsh in character and famous for its tea shops. Now I’m not a big tea drinker (2 cups a year) but when its served with more cakes than you can finish in 1 sitting, (we took the rest away with us 🙂 then I’ll have a cup!
After a simple border crossing at Futaleufu we were back in Chile and joined the Carretera Austral. This road, the lasting legacy of Pinochet was built in the 1980s to link the remote south with the rest of Chile and stretches over 1200km through more stunning scenery, though it can be a bit hard on cars and their passengers. Our first stop of note was outside Quelat NP, where previous check-ins about the roadside ‘camp’ talked about seeing dolphins going by in the fjord, 5 minutes after stopping sure enough there they were. The next day, needing to stretch our legs after a few days of driving only, we hiked through a lovely rain forest to view a hanging glacier then on to an ‘Enchanted Forest’ full of mosses, ferns and lichens.
It seems that round each bend and hill crest we are rewarded with yet another stunning vista, snow capped mountains, clear streams and trees in glorious autumn colour. After a stop in Coyhaique, for laundry and to treat ourselves to a huge mixed grill, we arrived at Cerro Castillo. There are many wonderful stretches of road but frankly on a sunny day , with the hills snow capped and the trees a riot of reds, amber and yellows I can think of none as good as this one.
That we got to see the peaks of the Castillo surrounded by blue sky was an added bonus as the following day they had disappeared in the rain scuppering our hiking plans after 6km. Our arrival in Rio Tranquillo on the banks of Lago General Carrera, was slightly marred as the rough road finally took its toll and we got a puncture just outside of town, but we’re experts at this and a slick tyre change later we were at a garage getting it fixed. That it is our first puncture since Alaska isn’t too bad either!
Lago General Carrera/Lago Buenos Aires – depending on whether you are in Chile or Argentina is the 2nd largest lake in South America and within it are the unique marble caves only accessible by boat. This trip is best undertaken on a calm day, not when there are squalls tearing down the lake and a 2-3 foot swell being generated and you are in a small open boat, but who dares wins right? After that excitement we pushed on to Chile Chico just short of the border.
Back in to Argentina and the scenery suddenly changes, it is flat, empty, endless and extremely windy. With a tailwind we suddenly realise we are doing 130km/hour – didn’t know the car went that fast! Our wild camp spot just outside Gobernador Gregores was good for 2 reasons, it was sheltered and we met Bill and Julie @ourpangea, an Australian couple also heading south. A warm fire and bottle of red and good company – perfect end to a long drive. The next day we refueled in GG with the intention of getting to El Chalten by evening, but we should have paid more attention to the battery warning light as 35km out of town the car died. Out came the jump pack and we headed back to town, but only 10km closer it dies again, after another restart we make another 1km before rolling to a stop. Since leaving town we have seen 1 other car, the wind is howling, and I don’t fancy hiking 15km back into town, so we connect the solar to the battery and sit down to contemplate our predicament. Luckily for us 2 kind Brazilian bikers stop and after some poking about under the bonnet conclude like us that the alternator is likely dead and promise to send a mechanic out when they get to GG. At this point the solar has done sufficient and we manage to get back to town just behind them where we locate the 1 and only auto-electrician, Ariel, who finishes his ‘day’ job at 3pm. Ariel frankly is a genius, by 6pm he’d removed the alternator, stripped it, identified sourced/manufactured the necessary part and had us up and running again- who needs a Toyota garage? One day later than planned we arrived in El Chalten, the gateway to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and hiking capital of Argentina.
Having seen the forecast of severe gales for the next 48 hours we opt for a nice cosy hostel – we don’t want to risk damaging the tent- that’s our excuse! After a day of relaxing and avoiding the rain, we set out to hike the 24km to Laguna los Tres where on a good day you are rewarded with stunning views of Mount Fitz Roy. I did say good weather – it was snowing when we set out and by the time we got (according to the gps) within 200m of the viewpoint we were in a whiteout, we could not see the path markers as they were buried under the snow and I had already sunk up to my waist in a snow drift. Needless to say we beat a hasty retreat back to the comfort of the hostel and a well earned beer.
The following day it was a little brighter so we tried for Laguna Torre, another 22km hike but easier going, and no drifting snow and this time were able to make it to our intended destination. Arriving back in town we bumped into Wayne and Katie of @Dondevan so, you guessed it, a few beers ensued. Leaving El Chalten we headed to Perito Moreno Glacier, and spent a number of hours watching it calving into the lake.
Back into Chile – are you seeing a pattern here?
The weather reports for our arrival in Torres del Paine threatened us with rain and low cloud for the best part of the next week. More prospective hikes scuppered – or so we thought. Having arrived in the park in the dark and rain the only bonus was no wind – living in a roof tent we are more obsessed with wind than anything else, especially when Patagonia is notorious for winds up to 120kph+. The morning dawned (at 8.45 now!) somewhat grey, but dry enough and breakfast was interspersed with photos of bits of mountain appearing out of the gloom above us. A very soggy hike later that day led to an hour or 2 drying out in a cafe and deliberating whether it was worth staying and hiking for the next few days. We decided that a 3.30am start to see the Torres at dawn was a non starter and therefore left the tent at 7am… before dawn eventually arrived, although icy, the sky was clear as a bell… we reached the snowline by 10am and were fortunate to have the most wonderful clear views of the Torres. By the time we got half way down the hill the weather had closed back in again and we were back in the rain. We had another beautiful morning the next day, a short hike to the Cuernos Mirador and some fantastic views in our rear-view mirrors as we drove off towards Puerto Natales. As we left the park we spotted a Huemel (deer) crossing a river – very exciting as they are (apparently) harder to spot than a puma. Still want to see a puma though!
Having made vague plans with @vueltamerica, a couple that we first met in Mexico, to celebrate Jose’s birthday in Ushuaia we spend the next 2 days heading that way. Via the random little town of Cerro Sombrero that provides immaculate hot showers and the fastest wifi we have had for months all for free. After a brief pause to see a king penguin colony we crossed back into Argentina and arrived in Ushuaia – the most southerly destination on our journey. We treated ourselves to a warm night in a hostel and some celebratory ‘Beagle’ beers with Jose and Lindsey.
Over dinner we decided that we needed to get to the ‘end of the road’ so the next morning we set off to Estancia Harberton, where the first missionaries settled in 1870. A stunning drive along the Beagle Channel and some fun celebrating when we could go no further. Yes, that’s a Puerto Rican flag – in case you wondered!