28 March 2013. It is 4 months since we entered northern Chile from Peru. Today we have been 99 days in Argentina and 21 days in Chile, but in this period we wrote very little text on the blog. We got caught up with the travelling, we did a lot of driving and we had very little access to the internet in the remote southern regions. Additionally, Chile and Argentina seemed so familiar and non-exotic after travelling through Central America and the northern countries of South America, so it was maybe difficult to discover the good stories to write. But in fact we enjoyed our travels through Chile and Argentina a lot. Below we put together a summary of where we went and what we did.
Northwestern Chile and Argentina
We entered the northwestern corner of Argentina from Chile through the 4,200 m high pass “Paso de Jama“. This is a stunningly beautiful route, which we can strongly recommend. The Altiplano (high plain/Andean Plateau) of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of the most fantastic places on earth: At this high altitude the sky is dark blue, there are pink flamingos in salty lakes and there are dramatic volcanoes over 6000 m high.
From the high border pass we drove down to the regional capital of Salta where we had a very tasty, thick and juicy Argentinian steak and a very good bottle of merlot wine. Welcome to Argentina! It was a culinary feast after months of rice, beans and chicken in Central America and more or less the same in Colombia and Peru (actually we loved especially the Colombian variety of the rice and beans but that is another story). The next couple of days we ate around 100 empanadas and a couple of big steaks more. And really, the empanadas of northwestern Argentina are amongst the best we ever had! Especially the homemade empanadas that people sell along the road or from their houses are really delicious. Slurp!
In Salta we went to the Museum of High Mountain Archeology. They have an exhibition on the sacrificed Inca children from the Llullaillaco Volcano with one of the small, extremely well preserved bodies of a girl on display. This is an exhibition one cannot easily forget.
From Salta we drove to Cachi through beautiful mountainous landscapes with tall cactuses. Cachi is a charming small town close to the more than 6,000 m high peaks of Nevado del Cachi. We attempted a 4-day trek but ended up in a big storm so we aborted the trip but the area is great for hiking.
We continued to Cafayate, a small town of top quality wines, especially the white Torrontes. In between drinking good wines, one can sample the numerous varieties of alfajores and the ice cream from the small ice cream shop Miranda where the owner makes delicious sorbets with Torrontes and Merlot wines. Really recommended!
From Salta we drove straight across Argentina from the northwest to the northeast. The road goes straight through the pampa. And really, the road is literally like a straight line for 500 kilometers. There is nothing but huge fields and occasionally a small village. We drove for almost 3 days before we finally arrived in the northeastern most corner of Argentina where the earth is bright red, there is rain forest and the impressive Iguazu Falls are creating a chaos of steam and roaring noise at the border to Brazil. It is a small exotic corner of the country where you somehow feel like you are not really in Argentina anymore. It is a long drive from anywhere but the Iguazu Falls are worth the trip.
We spent christmas in Buenos Aires with our parents; we did a lot of tourist things, we ate a lot of good food, we drank a lot of good wine and we used the washing machine and the shower a lot! It was lovely and it was summer and it was great to see our parents after so many months!
After Buenos Aires we drove to Mendoza where we spent more than one month, first preparing and finally climbing Aconcagua from 15 January to 1 February. The story can be found here:
Patagonia…. The name promises you hundreds of kilometers of isolation, emptiness, and loneliness. If you have read Bruce Chatwin you will be imagining how the descendants after German, Welsh or Scottish emigrants live in their isolated estancias down the long dusty dirt roads, still preserving the old customs of their “home countries”. Patagonia is food for the imagination.
We took the epic Ruta 40 from Mendoza to El Chalten. Actually, we HAD to take Ruta 40, the longest route in Argentina, running more than 5000 km from the northern border of Argentina to the southern tip of the continent along the rocky spine of the Andes Mountains. The road is largely paved now but there are enough sections, hundreds and hundreds of kilometers, of absolutely awful gravel road. After the first 200 km of washboard road we had forgotten all previous romantic thoughts about Ruta 40 and we just wished that they would get the whole bloody thing paved as quickly as possible! But still, we had to drive Ruta 40 for the landscapes, for the views and for the feeling of great emptiness. Even if we saw the same flat pampa for a whole day, this is the heart of South America like the prairie in North America and the steppe in Central Asia. It is grand and beautiful in its own way. Honestly, we would not do it again but we had to do it once!
Actually, it is not true that we took the Ruta 40 all the way. When we got to Esquel, we made a detour into Chile to drive the Carretera Austral, the Chilean cousin of Ruta 40, a 1240 km long road which runs through some of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of Chilean patagonia. Initially it was a much appreciated change. Chilean Patagonia is much greener than the Argentinian side east of the Andes. But….the road was awful! Maybe the scenery was beautiful but it was difficult to concentrate on anything else but the road. Furthermore, it was raining! So instead of seeing mountains and glaciers we saw low hanging clouds and mud. After 3 days we had enough and went back into sunny Argentina!
We re-entered Argentina at Los Antiguos and joined again the Ruta 40, which fortunately turned out to be paved over a much larger section than our map indicated. On the way to El Chalten we made just one significant stop at the Cueva de las Manos, a UNESCO world heritage site with hundreds of hands imprinted on the walls of a canyon and caves by the native Toldense people some 9,500-13,000 years ago. They were guanaco hunters so there are numerous guanacos galloping across the walls.
Next stop was El Chalten and the national park of Los Glaciares with the iconic peaks of the Chalten Massif like Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. The area is dominated by these beautiful and dramatic granite spikes which rise above wild glaciers and turquoise alpine lakes. El Chalten in itself has developed into a seasonally busy tourist town but it still retains a rough charm and in summer you can see the climbers passing with their minimalistic equipment to head for Cerro Torre or Fitz Roy. Just knowing that these guys are up there on the vertical rock walls adds extra excitement to enjoying the scenery. The trekking you can do from El Chalten is world class and very accessible. We hiked up to Lago Electrico, to Paso Cuadrato, to Laguna Torre and we made the round trip over Lagune Piedras Blancas to Laguna de Los Tres. All strongly recommended!
Four years ago we visited the Perito Moreno glacier, so this time we only stopped in El Calafate to eat the Cordero Patagonico, slurp! Then we continued to Torres del Paine in Chile, another national park with impressive vertical granite peaks. We managed to get a special permit to go into Valle del Frances so we could camp there, all alone under the stars, it was quite fantastic! And we also made the usual day trip to the Torres del Paine mirador. Beautiful! Torres del Paine National Park is a bit more difficult to visit than the area around El Chalten. Access is by gravel road, there is an entrance fee of 40 USD per person to the park, there are no shops (only a small very expensive kiosk), the trails are very muddy and wet, there are not many day trip options and the camp sites inside the park are either expensive or not very nice. But the peaks are fantastic!
Tierra del Fuego
From Torres del Paine we drove to Punta Arenas in the south. We had planned to take a ferry from Punta Arenas across to Tierra del Fuego but as it turned out we would have to wait 2 days for the ferry and the ticket was quite expensive. So instead we drove north and crossed over the Strait of Magellan at its narrowest point, arriving at the northern tip of Tierra del Fuego.
The text for Tierra del Fuego and our trip up along the Atlantic Coast has already been posted to the blog (below).
5 March 2013. This is the end, the end of the road, the end of the continent, the end of the Americas, Fin del Mundo – the end of the world! Now we can’t drive any further south. There is 3100 km to Buenos Aires, just 1200 km to Antarctica and 3900 km to the South Pole. We are in Ushuaia, in the land of Fire – Tierra del Fuego, and the only road we can take now goes back up north.
It is a strange feeling to have arrived here. And it is even stranger to think that we arrived here by car. We are happy and at the same time melancholic. It feels like the trip is almost over but in fact we are only half way and we still have a lot of km and a lot of adventures waiting for us. The only remedy for the melancholy will be to drive and drive, to go north and to leave this end-of-everything place where nobody would go if it was not the Fin del Mundo, the closest you can get to the South Pole by land.
We are in a big landscape of half naked mountains; half covered with low crooked trees and half bare rock, already with fresh snow on the top. In the valleys we see reddish/greenish/yellowish bogs and meandering rivers. The weather is grey, then a bit of sun and blue sky, then again grey and rainy. It is both beautiful and depressing. On the contrary, the city of Ushuaia is only depressing. Most people come here to make money for a few years or they come just for the summer season. The city is ugly and full of souvenir shops and tax-free shops for the Antarctica cruise tourists. We arrived…..and we left again the same day.
We left Ushuaia to enjoy the only true beauty of the far south, the nature. At Estancia Harberton we spent one night in the woods camping and two nights in the old shepherds house with a view over the bay. The Estancia Harberton is a historic farm from 1886, located on the shore of the Beagle Channel and surrounded by miles and miles of wild forest and bog. It used to be a working farm with cattle, sheep and horses but after the wool price went down and a hard winter killed most of the cattle, the owners of the farm decided to let everything go wild and created a nature reserve. Now you can sleep for free in 3 different campsites or you can rent the old shepherds cabin with a beautiful view over the water.You can get a tour of the farm and visit the nearby museum with skeletons of South American sea mammals – a great experience with lots of touching of bones and teeth and whale bards. And it is especially unforgettable if they take you to the “bone house” where the meat is slowly, slowly removed from the bones of the dead animals! You will never think the same of biologists again!!
After our short but tranquil and contemplative holiday at the estancia, we spent a few nights in the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Nice – but cold! It is now March and autumn has set in. It is time to head north.
13 March 2013. The pampa… We are driving through an almost empty landscape, no trees, only low bushes and tough yellow grasses. The few estancias are hidden down kilometers of dirt road. Sometimes we see sheep or guanacos but most of all it is incredibly empty here and almost flat. We are on Ruta National 3 going north from Rio Gallegos to Peninsular Valdes. It was raining all day yesterday and now it is raining again with grey clouds hanging low over the yellow pampa. Autumn. In the night we end up eating a banana and some biscuits or cheese and honey before we crawl in the sleeping bags because it is too cold and wet to cook anything. But we are still laughing when we are warming our cold hands on the coffee cups in the morning; rather be here jumping the water puddles than to be in the office!