Leaving the Carretera Austral behind was a bittersweet moment. It had been an amazing experience, but also an exhausting one. The diverse landscapes and breathtaking scenery captivated us, but the endless potholed and washboarded roads had frayed our nerves and left El Cóndor dusty and disheveled.
Reaching the pavement of Ruta 40 was a glorious moment. It felt as though the van was floating through clouds on tires made of marshmallows. Seeing the speedo needle creep above 80km/h was almost surreal. Soon we passed a foreign road sign that read “Zona de Baches.” Before anyone could ask out loud “what’s a bache?” we found out the hard way. We hit a pothole so hard it was as though a hand grenade had been tossed under the fender. Thankfully no damage was done and a lesson was learned! The remaining “Zonas de Baches” would always be approached at greatly reduced speeds and the concentration of a professional rally driver. We’re carrying a decent kit of spare front suspension parts with us for exactly this reason, but we would really rather not put any of it to use. In addition to the beautiful pavement, we were also very excited to spot our first Armadillos and Rheas!
We made the decision to backtrack about 80km to the North in order to reach the larger town of Perito Moreno (not to be confused with the National Park, mountain, or glacier of the same name) in order to stock up on Argentinian cash, gasoline and food. Once we were sufficiently stocked we turned South again towards the famed anthropological site of Cueva de las Manos Pintados. We gritted our teeth and turned off the butter-smooth pavement onto another gravel road and found a campsite at the top of a desert plateau. We also managed to have our very first campfire of the trip with some scrap wood laying around the area and played an entertaining game of 20 Questions with our French hitchhikers until the sun set.
We arrived at the Cueva information centre just in time to join the 09:00 tour with a group of Euros who rolled in on a giant overland bus. The tour and the experience was amazing. Even the kids were captivated by the multitude of 12,000 year old cave paintings, still so vivid they could have been painted yesterday. The canyon itself was also so picturesque it would have been worth a visit on its own.
The next day on Ruta 40 we learnt how straight and long a stretch of road can actually be. We have driven across the Great Plains of Canada and can report that there are no sections of the Trans-Canada Highway that are as seaslessly straight as those on Ruta 40. If it wasn’t for the strong cross winds we could have stepped away from the steering wheel and made a sandwich in the back of the van between kinks in the road. That night we stayed in the municipal campground of the town of Gobenador Gregores, where Liam and Averie were happy to practice their Spanish on the kids at the local playground.
Our following morning we were dismayed to watch the pavement of Ruta 40 dissolve into rutted gravel as we left the city limits of Gobenador Gregores. The next 100km were another jolting and tiring experience. However, we counted ourselves lucky to be driving this section in dry conditions because it was clear from the depth of the dried mud ruts that it would have been a horrendous and filthy affair had there been any recent rain.
Outside the village of Tres Lagos we gratefully rolled back onto pavement and increased our velocity towards El Chaltén. This was another highlight that we had been envisioning for many months. If the weather was clear, the road into the little town of El Chaltén would treat us with views of the impossibly picturesque peaks of Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. And lo and behold, the weather was clear! We stopped no less than 3 times on the road into El Chaltén for picture stops. Each time thinking that there is no way the scene could look any better, until we rounded the next bend…
Our French hitchhiker friends, Olivier and Léonore, from Un Petit Tour, must have thought we had gone a little crazy. Eventually we regained our dignity and completed the drive into town. Upon our arrival in El Chaltén we exchanged contacts, said au revoir to our new friends and made our way to our rented apartment.
We met our host Merlin (also Rob’s climbing guide from Mountaineering Patagonia) and settled in for a 1 week stay. It felt like lavish luxury to suddenly have amenities such as a bathroom with a door, and a kitchen table that did not need to be folded up every day. It was actually a cozy little apartment and worked quite well for our purposes. The kids were more impressed that we also had access to the trampoline in the back yard!
We enjoyed El Chaltén from nearly every perspective. It’s just one of those towns with a “good vibe.” Maybe it’s the beautiful mountain setting. Maybe it’s the dearth of like-minded travellers bustling around the streets in puffy jackets and hiking poles. Maybe it’s the positive attitude of the locals, who seem genuinely happy to see you in their shops. Regardless, we enjoyed it there and are certain we will be back again some day. It reminded us of an “Argentinian Canmore.”
The main reason for our extended stay in this town was for Rob to try and fulfil a long-time dream of his; to climb on the legendary granite of the Fitz Roy massif. And thanks to our timing, he might get to accomplish that on his 38th birthday no less! The weather in Patagonia is notorious and the wind can literally lift you off the ground (just look at the reinforcements required on the local shop signs if you doubt it.) By scheduling a full week in El Chaltén it would afford Rob some flexibility in finding a suitable weather window for a 3-day alpine ascent. The weather was actually flawless the day after arriving on the 5th of November, but the short range forecast threatened high winds and precipitation. The climb was delayed, but this provided the perfect opportunity for a family hike to Lago Capri to take in some amazing views of Fitz Roy, as well as some time to catch up on school and play on the trampoline. By the 7th (Rob’s birthday) the weather forecast looked promising so Rob set off in the late morning with Merlin and two very heavy backpacks.
Click on the link below to watch the video of Rob’s ascent of Guilaumet Spire.
Of course, while Rob was away Liam developed a sudden fever requiring two full days of bed rest. Averie also took the opportunity to behave badly while there was only one exhausted parent available to fend her off. This is typical when Rob is away for a climbing trip. Somehow, despite the chaos, MJ managed to find groceries and bake an amazing cake for Rob’s birthday! By the morning of the 3rd day the kids were all sorted enough to do another short hike to the Chorrillo del Salto waterfall just before Rob returned in the early afternoon. With only one more night before having to depart El Chaltén we decided to blow the budget one more time and go out for some real Argentinian parilla (BBQ) to celebrate Rob’s birthday and the success of his climb. The steak did not disappoint, nor did MJs homemade cake!
The drive out of El Chaltén was bitter-sweet. It felt good to be on the move again after sitting still for a week, but we also felt a little sad to be leaving such cool little town. We did not have far to get to our next stop, El Calafate. If El Chaltén is like “Argentinian Canmore” then El Calafate is the “Argentinian Banff.” It’s bigger, busier and the main strip is wall-to-wall restaurants, souvenir shops, and tour agencies. We stocked up on gas and groceries (and our new favourite Dulce de Leche liqueur!) and spent the night in a “campground” which doubled as a busy restaurant parking lot.
Our first stop the following day was the Glacierarium, a modern and entertaining science center about glaciers just outside of town. All of us really enjoyed the exhibits and learnt a lot. We also decided to splurge on a separate ticket to visit to the Ice Bar, which is like a small disco club built in a freezer in the basement. It was a bit expensive but we all got a kick out of sitting on the ice-furniture and drinking from ice-cups while the dance music blared and lights flashed.
After the Glacierarium we made our way west towards the Parque National Los Glaceirs and found a fantastic free campsite next to a beautiful lagoon full of exotic birds. We were very happy to string up the hammock and just take in the view.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is yet another crown jewel of Patagonia. This massive glacier, the second largest in South America, is still advancing at the astonishing rate of 2m per day! Which is fantastic for several reasons, the best of which is that it is constantly calving huge chunks off into Lago Argentino. The plethora of viewing platforms provide unlimited angles for spectating this natural drama. Watching the pieces crack off and plummet into the water was a strangely addicting spectacle. It even held the kids attention for an entire afternoon.
We backtracked to El Calafate after another night at our free camp, to sleep in the restaurant parking lot again, before continuing South. The drive towards the border crossing back into Chile was mostly paved except for a 60km gravel “shortcut” around the town of Esperanza. We decided to take the shortcut because the GPS said it would save 1 hour and 90km of driving. Unfortunately, the gravel deteriorated quickly and we spent an hour and a half regretting our decision.
Crossing the boarder back into Chile was a little more stressful than we had anticipated. We knew that Chile had strong restrictions against the import of food so we tried our best to rid our fridge of all fruit, vegetables, and dairy. We certainly weren’t going to be suffering from scurvy after eating 4 oranges, 3 apples, and a grapefruit that morning! Unfortunately we forgot about a half of a lemon in the back of the fridge and an onion in the pantry. Nor did we know that honey was prohibited. The customs against who searched our van was not impressed with our efforts to be compliant. We pleaded ignorance about the lemon and onion and argued that the honey should be allowed because we actually purchased it in Chile. She confidently retorted that she can’t be certain that we hadn’t filled an empty Chilean honey container with forbidden Argentinian honey! There is certainly no arguing with that logic. She threatened us with a $250 fine, but thankfully took pity on us and let us off with a warning.
We rolled into the little sea-side town of Puerto Natales to once again stock up on gas, groceries, and water. We picked the biggest supermarket in town and Averie was stoked to find pickles and Nutella! We camped in a windy inner-city campground overlooking the mountainous fjord. Rob tried in vain to find a level spot for the van, eventually giving up and drinking wine instead.
The drive into Torres Del Paine was unfortunately overcast, rainy and windy. After paying our enormous gringo entry fee we rumbled up the gravel roads towards our campground wondering what amazing view was being shrouded by the clouds. We found the Poehu campground and settled in to play some card games in the rain. Eventually Rob walked to the bathroom but returned in rush, incoherently shouting about the clouds lifting and needing the camera. And then we saw it…
It’s hard to describe the vista that is the Cuernos Del Paine, so we’ll just have to use this picture:
The next morning, after the rain/snow cleared, we drove a short way to the Salto Grande (big waterfall) where we were stunned to find a camper sitting on the back of a Ford truck with Alberta plates! We noted the sticker on the side saying “Wayfaring 5” and said we’d have to try and make contact with them later.
The short hike to the lookout over Lago Nördenshold was perfect for a quick afternoon jaunt and to our delight the clouds lifted just enough to unveil the Cuernos Del Paine again. Some massive Condors made a fly-by just to cement the grins on our faces.
On our hike out we are stopped by a couple who immediately ask; “are you the family from Alberta?!” We met Dave and Trish, who are an Australian/Canadian couple with 3 boys aged 9, 12, and 18. They had been travelling 10 months from Edmonton (shipping around Central America from Florida) and were very near the end of their journey. We shared some stories and introduced the kids and then had to part for dinner after making some tentative plans to meet again in the next few days.
The following day was glorious sunshine! We made a break for the north side of the park to catch a glimpse of the Torres Del Paine, which are the trio of massive granite towers that give their name to the park. We drove to Lago Azul and were very content to spend the entire day sitting in the sun, picnicking, and generally absorbing our surroundings. A large eagle even landed and walked around right around us.
We departed the park in the same rainy conditions we arrived although we chose a different route out the southern gate. We did this to take a more direct route to the Cuevo Del Milodon. For thousands of years this huge cave was a home to some of the first people to arrive in Patagonia and is also where the remains of a large extinct ice age sloth, the Milodon, were found. Once again, we did not appreciate the extra high “special gringo pricing” to enter the site, but we were all surprised and impressed with the massive cave.
We retreated back to a visitor center parking lot in Puerto Natales where we were happy to be joined by the Wayfairing 5 that evening. This time we got to know each other a little more over a glass of wine while the kids happily played a board game.
We had now completed our Patagonia overlanding journey. Something we had been dreaming about for so long. We went to sleep extremely content with our experience.
Click the link below to watch our Patagonia video.
Video: Overlanding Patagonia