After leaving Ushuaia behind and since we did not want to take the same route on the way back, we picked the route of the Andes that would lead us through Chile’s Última Esperanza, which translates to “the Last Hope” if that can be of any meaning.
This is Chile’s southern province and while it can still be a challenging place to travel, it is no longer so far off the beaten path. The once-remote Última Esperanza fills anybody’s imagination. Storms wrestle the vast expanse and the landscape falls nothing short than breathtaking!!! Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, The Southern Patagonian Ice Field and The Magallanes Straits are just a few of the highlights. Take our advice and come prepared because out here the nature is still the dominant power and the weather is an unpredictable factor. After our quick overnight in remote Provenir, that by the way felt more like the end of the world than Ushuaia did, we took a boat across to Punta Arenas. On the crossing we spotted whales that kept us company almost to the mouth of the port of Punta Arenas. In the city itself now, easy connections to Tierra del Fuego, Torres del Paine and Argentina, as well as good travelers’ services make Punta Arenas a convenient base. Rumor has it that the Magellanic hospitality still pervades local culture, in addition to the nature’s inhospitable weather which caught up with us. Strong winds, rain and the lack of organized campground forced us not to stay (as we sleep in a ‘new’ rooftop tent). Instead we pushed forward only to arrive late at night and still under heavy rain in Puerto Natales, that thanks to its position was much more protected from the notorious Patagonian winds. Puerto Natales sits on the shores of Seno Última Esperanza, 250km northwest of Punta Arenas via Ruta 9, and has some really spectacular views out over the mountains. It is the capital of the province of Última Esperanza and the southern terminus of the ferry trip through the Chilean fjords. The city itself has managed to equally balance between a formerly modest fishing port, that nowadays has blossomed into a Gore-Tex Mecca. Backpackers and tourist groups arrive here first as this is the gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, and the town is reaping the benefits of the park’s world fame. After our first wet late night arrival, followed by another full rainy day here, we were awarded with a beautiful sunny day that ended up with a memorable sunset over the fjord before we took off for one of the highlights of the trip, the “Parque Nacional Torres del Paine”.
As we drove towards the park’s entrance, the first site of the granite pillars of Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine) dominating the landscape of what may be South America’s finest national park, prepared us for what to expect. Most people visit the park for its one greatest hit but, once here, it does not take long to realize that there are other attractions with equal wow power. If you are here in the summer, the days are long. So do not hesitate to enter the park even if it is late in the day,
as the camp grounds surrounding the park would only waste your valuable time inside the actual park. There are azure lakes, trails that meander through emerald forests, roaring rivers and one big, radiant blue glacier that can keep you busy till the sun sets over the mountains. Variety spans from the vast openness of the steppe to rugged mountain terrain topped by looming peaks. This park is part of Unesco’s Biosphere Reserve since 1978 and is home to a large variety of wildlife.
Ostrich-like rhea (known locally as the ñandú), Andean condor, flamingo and many other bird species are easily spotted but the park’s star is undoubtedly the guanaco (looks like a lama), which grazes the open steppes where pumas cannot approach undetected. After more than a decade of effective protection, these large, growing herds didn’t even flinch when the vehicle approached them. On the contrary, most of the guanaco that Rochelle tried to take a picture of gave her an ignoring look full of meaning.”You really think you are the only one who has a picture of us?” Before we called in for the night, we found out from the local rangers that the puma population is also growing and huemul (an endangered Andean deer) was spotted in Valle Frances right outside our first night camp. We were not
sure if the info that at night a puma crosses that same camp site was true or not, but that certainly stopped us from getting down from our tent to go to the toilet at night. When the weather is clear here, the magnificent panoramas are everywhere. Some say you get four seasons in a day here. Luckily enough, this was not our case but we do advise to bring high-quality foul-weather gear, a synthetic sleeping bag and, if you’re camping, a good tent (ours definitely proved its value).
With the images still in our heads (as well as in almost all of our camera’s memory full cards) and since our 4-day tickets had expired, we left Torres del Paine behind and crossed the border to the Argentinean Patagonia.This is South America’s southern frontier, wild, barren and beautiful with spaces as large as the silences that fill them. For us who had just arrived to that scenery, such emptiness was as impressive as the sight of Patagonia’s jagged peaks. In its enormous scale, the Argentinean part of Patagonia offers a plethora of experiences and landscapes. There is no better way to enjoy them than driving the infamous lonely RN 40 that no longer is a dirt road. This route remains the iconic highway of the solitude of the steppe that led us together with other travelers to the spectacular sights of El Calafate and El Chaltén, before it makes its way through the rest of the Andes. Star attraction and the major reason for us to stop in El Calafate was the Glacier Perito Moreno, 80km away in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The city’s strategic location between El Chaltén and Torres del Paine (Chile) makes it an inevitable stop for the majority of overlanders in transit on Route 40. The glacier is a magnificent must-see, but its massive popularity has encouraged growth and rapid upscaling in the once-sleepy El Calafate, which flanks the southern shore of Lago Argentino. Except the main strip that is dotted with souvenir shops, chocolate shops, restaurants and tour offices, the streets beyond that melt away quickly into muddy roads as the city fades out.
We took with us memories from the town’s delicious ice-cream and moved on, into Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. This park is home to Earth’s most dynamic and accessible ice fields, Glaciar Perito Moreno, which is the stunning centerpiece of the southern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Its impressive measurements are 30km long, 5km wide and 60m high, but what makes it exceptional in the world of ice is its constant advance – it creeps forward up to 2m per day, causing building-sized icebergs to collapse from its face. When we first got there and although packed with people, in some strange way we were magnetized by its beauty. After almost four hours, we were awarded with a thrilling experience as a size of an almost 5 story-high building piece of the Glacier detached itself and collapsed in front of our eyes. If that was not enough to watch, a couple of minutes later, an almost the same size piece of ice emerged from the bottom of the Glacier, as it broke off from its underwater part and surfaced in front of our once more astonished eyes. We were amazed!!! Not sure if that happens every day or if it was a small present from the glacier just for us, we left the park’s southern part with a “We were the lucky ones” type of feeling. Except for Rochelle’s bee sting! Ouch! P.S. Even the bees look stunning here.
Our visit to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares ended in El Chaltén. This colorful village overlooks the stunning northern sector of the park. In the summer months, almost all types of trekkers come to explore the world-class trails that start right at the end of the village. Founded recently in 1985, El Chaltén is still a frontier town, featuring constant construction, hippie looks and packs of crazy roaming dogs that kept us awake at night. The world has now heard about this place and every year more and more tourists come to see what the fuss is all about. Most hotels and services here are still targeting to the budget traveler and we were very happy to find out that there was an area at the end of the village dedicated to campers. According to our guidebook, El Chaltén is named from Cerro Fitz Roy’s Tehuelche name, meaning ‘peak of fire’ or ‘smoking mountain’ – an apt description of the cloud-enshrouded summit. Perito Moreno and Carlos Moyano later named it after the Beagle’s Captain FitzRoy, who navigated Darwin’s expedition up the Río Santa Cruz in 1834, coming within 50km of the cordillera. After a long day of trekking, we failed to see the Fitz Roy peaks as the clouds were constantly hiding them, but that was about to change the following day. On our off road attempt to follow a riverbed into the valley, strong winds kicked in and made the peaks reveal their beauty. Although from far away, the sight was more than rewarding. That night and as the strong winds insisted, we tried to protect ourselves and the tent so we camped in the wind protected streets inside the city. However at 3am the police had a different opinion about free camping so we were told to pack up and return to the designated site. The following day we decided to move on and leave this really gifted place with the promise that one day we will be back.
After a long drive and always following the Route 40 and the empty spaces of the steppe that crown it, we reached Los Antiguos, the fruit garden of Argentina. It was our last stop before we crossed again the Chile-Argentina border for the fourth time and headed to Caretera Austral. You will read all about that part though in our next post. So long for now.