The wrong way to El Calafate

Leaving the Torres del Paine national park behind, we steered Ramone towards the Argentinian border. After many kilometers of ripio, unpaved, dirt roads (The spanish word for gravel roads is ripio, which i find to be a very fitting word as the stones and washboards try to rip poor Ramone apart), we ended up at Cerro Castillo, where we almost forgot to stop and get our stamps at the border control (the gate was just wide open, you know?). Not much english spoken here, as usual, but we managed to get our passports stamped by one guy, and Ramones papers stamped by the other, and off we went. In like, 30 kmphs, due to lack of asphalt.

We hadn’t realized beforehand, only because we didn’t look very closely on the map, how much of Patagonia was actually in Argentina, and so we now had a distinct lack of travel-mojo for the next stretch, to El Calafate and El Chalten, primarily.  Mostly money wise; Visa is not that common (luckily, we have MasterCard as well, though Lars has forgotten his PIN, of course); roaming apparently doesn’t exist, not even for our Norwegian mobile provider; the most prevalent ATM wont give us money; and the exchange rate to Argentinian pesos is horrible, except if you bring USD or EUROs, cash, and make exchanges on the black market.

But this we found out after the very first blunder; namely choosing the shortest way from Cerro Castillo to El Calafate, along Ruta 40 ( which i guess is Argentina’s route 66 or something, except with a lot less services along the way). We knew there would be plenty of buses carrying tourists to El Chalten, and seeing none of these along the way, it got pretty obvious that we had picked the “scenic route”… In hindsight i asked the GPS for an alternate route, and sure enough; there was one of twice the distance, but still with less time than the one we chose. The upside was a pretty damn quiet camp spot along the way!

The main high light of El Calafate, and possibly the only one, is the Perito Moreno Glaciar. This one was a must see for me. It is quite spectacular and incredibly active, and although we weren’t fortunate enough to see a big calving, ice the size of large boulders was constantly falling off, hitting the water with a loud gunshot like noise. The front of the glacier is some 4 km in width, 50-60 m above the water line, and 14 kilometers deep. And this is just one tiny arm of the ginormous Campo de Hielo Sur, the southern Patagonian ice field. It completely boggles the mind!

As an aside note, we asked a park ranger to pretty please, let us camp in the parking lot over night, but I think those days of leniency are long gone. We were politely directed to a free camp site, at Estancia Rio Mitre, which of course, isn’t free anymore. Though, at 60 pesos per person, it was the cheapest, and much, much nicer than the ones in town (and also preferable to the night before where we learned a new spanish phrase: “no puede campara aqa”, with “aqa” being an informal, friendly “aqui”). With a baby llama guarding the door. To pass, you had to pay the toll of cuddles, Lars of course was happy to oblige.

Then, onwards to El Chalten. This is the main spot in Argentina for hiking, but being march and the shoulder season, the town was pretty quiet. Or it may have been the Patagonian wind, with some rain added for variation, chasing people inside.

We had some okay weather, but with a low cloud cover, so we didn’t really see neither the Fitz Roy, nor Cerro Torre. We got to see a few glaciers though, again these are arms of the Campo de Hielo Sur. There is no free camping inside the park, but we found a charming campsite just a few kilometres past  El Chalten heading towards the Laguna del Desierto. 60 pesos per person, and hot showers. Also, with two sheep who thought they were dogs. Also, we learned that Ramone will completely drain his battery if we forget to turn of the headlights before going hiking.

Time to get back to Chile, and cellular signal, or even just usable wifi. Again, some 80 km of ripio, but then all asphalt, all the way to the Chilean border town, Chile Chico!