The Patagonian mountain escarpment gives way very suddenly to the barren plains of the southern cape. The change in scenery was made to feel even more abrupt by the sudden onslaught of wind. Once we were clear of the hills there was nothing to shield us from the relentless gale. It blows eastward across the plains with the predictability and speed of a Japanese bullet train. We had to drive with the steering wheel cocked to the right at a at an alarming angle just to maintain a straight bearing. We marvelled at the sight of oncoming vehicles leaning over onto their sides as though they were being pushed over by some unseen giant hand. Motorcycles looked downright scary driving leaned over on their sides. We were compelled to remove our roof-top cargo bag and put it in the van to help reduce our drag in the wind.
We maintained a steady pace southward until we finally caught sight of the Straight of Magellan! It was a special moment to find ourselves at the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We continued directly into the city of Punta Arenas, which was much more developed than we had anticipated. It was originally founded as a penal colony but then its importance as a port quickly put it on the map. Nowadays, the Panama Canal has reduced its influence as a freight port, but the development of off-shore oil reserves and the burgeoning tourist trade to Antarctica are maintaining a healthy economy. We spent a windy/noisy night parked at a beach-side parking lot and enjoyed some more adult conversation and beer with our friends from the Wayfairing5. It’s amazing how much we missed something as simple as talking with other adults!
In the morning we collected some supplies, including a hearty bag of bread and pastries from Nanuc Panaderia, one of the nicest bakeries we have found in this hemisphere. Then, we visited the Museo Nau Victoria which includes impressive full-size replicas of one of Magellan’s ships as well as the HMS Beagle (see: Darwin)! Afterward we continued down the final potholed kms of Ruta 9, past the remote village of Fuerte Bulnes, to the very end of the southernmost road on the South American mainland! There, along a picturesque beach on the Straight of Magellan, the road unceremoniously ends at a sign; FIN DE CAMINO.
The only way to drive further south than this is to take a ferry from Punta Arenas to the island of Tierra Del Fuego. In fact, this had been our plan since the conception of this adventure. Driving to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, is the standard itinerary for PanAmerican Overlanders. But suddenly we found ourselves questioning the necessity and motivation for that goal. According to our figuring, it would take another 7 to 10 days to cross over to Tierra Del Fuego and back. The ferry would be expensive, the roads would be unpaved, and we would have to cross the border twice; into Argentina and back again to Chile. All this so we could pat ourselves on our back and buy a sticker saying we had been to Ushuaia? Was it worth it to us?
We enjoyed two secluded, but windy nights parked along the beach at the end of the road pondering our plan. We spent the day hiking further down the beach to spot dolphins and have a picnic at a lighthouse. From there you could continue hiking another 30km through the dense forest to the true geographic tip of the South American mainland, if you were so inclined. The Wayfairing5 joined us on the second night and so the kids got to play again and the adults got to socialize yet again.
After a few dozen conversations and several complete plan reversals, we finally decided visiting Ushuaia wasn’t worth it to us. Don’t get us wrong, we completely understand why Ushuaia is a worthy goal and why nearly every Overlander on their PanAmeican journey either starts or stops their journey there. But for OUR adventure, we decided that we had gone South enough. It was time for us to turn North, towards home. As a consolation prize, we decided that we would spend a week on a warm beach in Uruguay. Everyone in the family agreed that this sounded like a good trade.
We returned to Punta Arenas, confident in our plan, and enjoyed a celebratory dinner at a fantastic little local restaurant. The kind of restaurant where the menu is hand written and the waitress is the chef. We feasted on large helpings of fresh seafood and Chilean hospitality. The next morning, after visiting the Nanuc Panaderia yet again, we began our drive North for the first time.
Our first order of business on the Atlantic coast was to find penguinos. The paltry few we saw back in Chile did not satisfy us. According to our sources there was a large colony immediately across the Argentine border at Cabo Vírgenes. Unfortunately, to get there, we had to go North all the way to Rio Gallegos and then double-back on Ruta 1. Which, it turns out, is THE WORST 100km of gravel road we have yet to find in South America.
The three hours of torturously bumpy driving was thankfully worth the trouble. We had the entire park to ourselves, and even got a personal tour from the friendly resident park Ranger. This colony of Magellan Penguins is made up of nearly a half million adult birds and nearly as many freshly hatched chicks! We all had a fantastic time walking the pathways, literally among the penguins, and learning about their habitat and life cycle. Most importantly, the kids were enthralled with the experience.
Driving North along the Atlantic coast of Argentina is truthfully rather excruciating. The barren plains are endless, the roads are dead straight, and the wind is relentless. Due to the lack of interesting tourist attractions, we decided on an aggressive itinerary that would tackle 2,900km of Ruta 3 all the way to Buenos Aires in 10 days, including a couple of two-night stays along the way to breakup the monotony. This would entail some long driving days and uncomfortable campgrounds. In fact, on our first night heading North we “camped” at a truck stop. Which, despite the noisy trucks coming and going, was comfortable enough with a restaurant, bathrooms, and even showers.
The first interesting stop along Ruta 3 was the Petrified Forrest National Reserve, located in a picturesque desert east of the highway. We spent one night camped at a lagoon on the outskirts of the park before venturing in to hike around the impressive petrified logs. These multi-millienia old trees originally towered over 40m high before being blown down by the explosion of the nearby Volcano Madre E Hita, and then buried by the ash.
Our next notable stop was the beach-town of Playa Union, located next to the larger center of Trelew, which was rumoured to have an interesting palaeontology museum. The campground was expensive but comfortable and the museum was actually really good! It’s showcase piece was the leg of the Argentiniansaurus, the largest dinosaur ever discovered. It also had many other fantastic fossils from various geological epochs. We also got a giggle out of seeing a “Royal Tyrell Museum” poster hanging in the workshop. (The Tyrell is a world-class palaeontology museum located a few hours drive from our home in Calgary.)
Only a short drive out of Trelew is the Valdez Peninsula. This large, flat expanse is famous for watching Southern Right Whales and for being the home of the worlds only continental Elephant Seal colony. It is also one of the only places where, if you are extremely lucky, you could possibly see Orcas launch themselves onto the beach to grab Sea Lions and pull them back into the water. We were NOT that lucky. However, we had a great experience watching the gigantic Elephant Seals roll and grunt on the beaches. We were particularly impressed with our campsite, which was perched on the most picturesque ocean side cliff! We wished we’d had at least one more night, if only to sit on that cliff and watch for whales until the sun set.
We kept up our northward momentum and within a few more days found ourselves on the outskirts of La Capital Federal; Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, a few dozen kms outside of the suburbs, the freeway was suddenly blocked by police, and we were forced onto a congested secondary highway. This was where the going got tough. The highway quickly deteriorated into a chaotic stop-and-go nightmare, with cars and trucks and buses all rushing to impede the forward progress of El Condor. We attempted to improve our situation by zig-zagging to other, hopefully less chaotic freeways, but it was to no avail. We were locked in the afternoon rush-hour in of one of South America’s largest cities in our lumbering American vehicle. At one impossibly busy roundabout we thought a collision was inevitable, yet somehow we emerged at the correct exit unscathed.
Eventually, what seemed like days later, we pulled off the major thoroughfares into the narrow cobblestone streets of the old San Telmo neighbourhood. Although we were now only blocks from our destination, the narrow oneway streets and impatient afternoon commuters were not very forgiving. We located our hostel easily enough, the next trick was to find secure parking that could fit a vehicle of our size. The attendants at the first few lots we drove past gave us a looks of complete astonishment that needed no translating. With our nerves now completely frayed and our hope fading we stumbled into lot only 2 blocks away which agreed to take us in for the hefty sum of 450 pesos ($30) per day.
Our chosen accommodation, the “award winning” America Del Sur Hostel, was a charming place with friendly young staff. Although it was not extremely cheap, it had what we were looking for; a room that could sleep four (in two bunk beds), and a shared kitchen where we could transfer the complete contents of our refrigerator and cook the majority of our own meals. It was also located in the historic old San Telmo neighbourhood, which is where we had stayed for a week during our first visit to BA eight years ago, and loved it. We had some fond memories of that visit which we were hoping to share with the kids on this visit.
We had planned only to spend four nights at the hostel. We thought this would be enough time to see the city highlights and to receive a package of supplies which had been mailed to the hostel from our family in Calgary. Sadly, this was not to be the case. Despite waiting for an extra two nights, the package never arrived. Only the day after we departed did we learn that it was being held by Argentinian Aduana (customs) and they had arranged many hoops for us to try and jump through if we wished to retrieve it. We sought advice from several locals, but even they all said it would be a losing battle, especially if we were not residents.
Regardless of the stress, we did get the opportunity to show the kids some highlights of this amazing city, including the beautiful Recoleta Cemetery and the vibrant San Telmo Sunday market. We also purchased some (extremely expensive) tickets to watch an Argentinian futball match through the hostel. This was something Liam had been looking forward too for as long as we had been planning this trip. The day of the game we even purchased him a jersey of the local soccer hero Lionel Messi. But, in typical South American fashion, the event did not go as planed. To make a very long story short, we spent the late evening sitting in a tour bus outside of the futball arena waiting for our tickets, which never materialized. We returned to the hostel past midnight with one very exhausted 5 year old and one very very disappointed 7 year old. The hostel was apologetic and provided a full refund, but it was still a big hit to our moral.
Leaving Buenos Aires was slightly less aggravating than arriving. Once we found a ferry service to Uruguay which could fit all 2.5m of El Condors height, the only other hurdle was to navigate through downtown to the terminal for our early morning sailing, while dodging a series of military roadblocks installed to protect a diplomatic summit!
With a strange sense of relief we watched Buenos Aires disappear across the Rio Del Plata. Sitting in our hostel for a week had not relieved our tension from the long, hard drive up the coast. The city, although charming, felt too congested and confined. The disappointments of not receiving our package and missing the football match did not help. We were not sure yet what to expect in Uruguay, but we had heard it was more laid back than Argentina and that was what we were all craving.
To see more photos from our journey up Argentina check out the link below.