Patagonia: the land of glaciers, lakes & condors

Patagonia was one of those destinations that was really high on our “must-visit list”. We even decided to skip Australia in order to arrive here in time (read: before it gets too cold). But no regrets for that as we are definitely rewarded with thè most fantastic landscapes.

And let’s say we just arrived “in time” (as “just too late” would sound like a failure 😉 ): the weather is getting rougher, campgrounds/hostels/restaurants/refugios are closing, hiking tracks are getting inaccessible, …

On the other hand, the benefits of “just in time” are that we could still do everything we came for, without the crowds, and saw nature covered in insanely beautiful autumn colors and snow.

We made our way to the south on Argentinean side through 2 iconic routes:

 

Ruta 7 lagos

Along this road you pass 7 lakes (no shit, Sherlock!). They are all very beautiful and very big so – with some stops to enjoy the scenery, have a picnic at the lake, … – it took us a day to reach the town of Bariloche.

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In Bariloche, we were happy to share some beers with Lien & Julien, whom we know from Belgium. Always nice to see some familiar faces and as they are already making their way up, we also received a handful of tips for the south.

The next day, after some car sightseeing we arrived at a fantastic camping spot: at the border of a lake, surrounded by mountains. The owners of the campground were just closing down the place (end of season) so we could stay there for free and were just in time to buy a bag of their fire wood. You gotta love this end of season thing!

An amazing place, some red wine, good food, a campfire, marshmallows and the company was not so bad either. What more do you need in life!?

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A good night of sleep in the car and we were ready to enter Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, where we wanted to see Monte Tronador. This “thunder mountain” got his name because of the continuously falling pieces of glacier. So we heard a lot of its thunder sounds, without any bad weather in sight.

On day one we watched the glacier from the bottom, on day two we hiked all the way up to see it from above. We were rewarded with great views and seeing condors from up close. Impressive, knowing that they are the largest birds in the world!

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After 8 hours hiking & 8 consecutive nights sleeping in the car, in cold temperatures, we deserved a warm hostel room and an Argentinean parilla (BBQ). Buen provecho!

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Ruta 40

This is claimed to be one of the best drives in the world and yes, it is very beautiful but also extremely desolate: 1000 kilometers of flat dry landscapes and a handful of towns (let’s say every 200-300 km you have a few houses which makes you wonder what the people are doing there).
It was a real event if there was somewhat of a turn in the road or if a guanaco or ñando crossed the road (at least the first ones were 😉 ).  In the dark you could see headlights of another car and then it took another 15 minutes until you passed that car. Just to show how endlessly long the roads are!

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In between the towns, there is NOTHING! Not a single house, not a gas station (even in the towns you had to be lucky to find gas), really nothing. Seemed like the perfect road for me to have my first drive with our car :-) . The road soon turned into gravel for the next 100km. But no problem, nothing that our beast couldn’t handle!

When we were driving back on asphalt I noticed that I really had to adjust the steering wheel to drive straight, so I said to Benjamin: “Oh yes, I can feel it also now, the wind is really crazy here!” (as they even have signs to indicate wind). Still not a problem, so we thought…

A few kilometers later, there was this awful sound that came straight from under our car, so we stopped and Benjamin got out to check. Oh-oh, problems ahead: a flat tire… He came to my side of the car, oh-oh, more problems ahead: another flat tire… There we were, literally in the middle of nowhere, with 2 flat tires (which were also completely unrepairable because we drove so long on it) and only 1 spare tire (which was already a repaired one from our previous flat tire).

Did you know?

Always believe the Lonely Planet!
While we were driving Ruta 40, I was reading to Benjamin that you had to prepare well to drive this road: fill up the gas tank, stock up on water and take 2 spare tires. He was really laughing with that and at every car we passed with a second tire on the roof, he was saying: “Look, they have also read the Lonely Planet!”.
Another of my favorite Benjamin quotes: “I am more the empirical type, I have to experience it, before I really believe that it is useful”.
Karma!?

 

While Benjamin already changed one tire, I started packing our valuables and some essential stuff in a backpack (after videotaping our misery!), ready to try to catch a ride. We had to wait for about 20 minutes, until the second car that passed stopped to help us. A friendly German travelers couple, who had a pump and some kind of foam to repair small punctures. Needless to say that this was not a miracle foam, regarding the condition of our tires.

But luck was on our side, we were only (!) 17km away from the next town (=50 houses or something) so the German couple offered to drive behind us while we drove very slowly to the town. Even more luck, the second house in town was a gomeria (a mechanic with tires) and he had exactly 1 tire of our size (a used one with almost no profile of course, but it was better than nothing). An hour later, 40 dollars poorer and without a spare tire we were back on the road.

We decided to go straight to El Calafate (a bigger town in Argentina another 250km away) and do El Chalten (a smaller hiking town) on our way back. In El Calafate, we bought another overpriced used tire to use as a spare tire (auxilio in Spanish, good for our Spanish vocabulary!). As this was already our third flat tire we didn’t want to risk it to drive without one.

Did you know?

Tires are twice or three times as expensive in Argentina than in Chile. As, in the South of Argentina, they all buy their tires in Chile, it would have been even impossible to find new tires.

 

El Calafate is the town where you need to be to visit Perito Moreno, a very famous glacier and we must say, it was indeed very impressive. This was one of the images that Benjamin often googled while we were preparing this trip and of which we had seen many jaw-dropping Instagram pictures before. And now, we were here, CHECK!!

Did you know?

The front face of Perito Moreno is 5 kilometers wide and rises 60 meters above the water. Great masses of ice crash into the lake with resounding roars. The glacier continues 30 km deep into the mountains.

 

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After these 2 iconic roads and another problem-less border crossing it was time to head to our most southern destination: Puerto Natales, again in Chile.

 

Did you know?

The very south of Chile is only accessible with a ferry or driving through Argentina, like we did, as the Chilean roads don’t go all the way South, because a lot of national parks & especially glaciers are in the way.

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We took a day to check for new tires and to prepare for our 6 day hike in Torres del Paine national park. We opted for the famous W-hike with an extension of 1 day to see glacier Grey from more up close. The scenery on the trek was really impressive, even with different types of weather: sun, rain, snow… Seeing all these autumn colors in a snowy landscape made it very special.

We carried our tent, big warm sleeping bags, food, … so the heavy backpacks made it a strenuous hike! The last night we could use the facilities of a refugio, which were very welcome: a warm stove and plenty of wine made it a fun night together with other hikers that did us forget about the snow and wind outside.

 

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Did you know?

The towns where you have to go to to visit the national parks are often 100 kilometers away from the national park itself. Living in a small country like Belgium, this seems quite silly. In Belgium this would literally mean that, if you were going to visit the coast,  you would have to look for a hotel in Brussels.

We ended our days in Puerto Natales with meat, beers, wine, pisco sours, piscola’s, … together with our newly made hiking friends. We deserved it again :-)

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So what’s next?

We are currently in El Chalten, the hiking capital of Argentina. This will be our last destination in Argentina for now. After this we drive 600km more north before we cross the border again and make our way up north through the Carretera Austral, another iconic drive: insanely beautiful but all gravel road, so fingers crossed that our new tires guide us all the way through :-) !

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