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!

Northbound from Punta Arenas

We didn’t spend more time than necessary in Punta Arenas, and hit the road asap after collecting the camper van. Or Ramone, to use it’s short hand name (the name should be self evident from the pictures). Personally I have no idea who The Ramones were, but we’ve had a fan take a selfie with Ramone, so I guess we could have worse luck as to the décor. But it’s hardly a speed machine, and doing more than 90 kmph is quite… loud. Not the engine of course, more from the wind noise as the car is hammering itself through the patagonian wind.

The wind! Constant. Unrelenting. Wind!
Everyone who’s been to Patagonia says something along the lines of; o-ehm-gee, so beautiful, amazing, nature, llamas, mountains, glaciers, steppes, rain, sun, rain and sun, and _wind_. They are… not wrong. Already in Punta Arenas we could start to get a feel for the ever-present wind, and we quickly learned how important it is to park Ramone nose first into it. And that’s the weird thing about the patagonian wind; it’s always just the one direction, mostly west to east, although you can have local variations depending on the terrain. Apparently the wind is a pure summer phenomenon, and in the winter there is hardly any (according to a seemingly knowledgeable local person).

Anyway, heading out of town, due north. We decided to skip Terra del Fuego, and spend the some 24 hours of driving to/from Ushuaia saved, in the mountains instead. After only a few hours of driving on Ruta 9, due to a late start (lost quite some time hunting down gas canisters for our kitchen stove), we found a nice side road next to a river to park for the night. Lots of anticipation for our first night in Ramone, rough camping it in the Chilean middle-of-nearly-nowhere. And it was awesome! Super comfortable beds, though some refining the technique of the getting in and out of the side door while putting on/taking off shoes and not dropping them is needed.

The next morning we arrived in Puerto Natales. By a real stroke of luck we managed to get on a kayak excursion the morning after, arranged by Hello Kayak. Not a cheap option, but very professional with great personal equipment (semi-dry suits) and the guides were real kayak-bums (maybe I invented this term) and very skilled. The kayaks were the double kind, which can be a challenge for people with different paddling timing, but after some initial cursing and dousing of river water, Lars and I managed to paddle sort of in sync. But not much paddling was needed, where we flowed with the down stream of River Gray, with the quite stately Torres del Paine at our backs, and the absolutely magnificent ice range in the west (I instantly forgot the name after asking, but something with O’Higgins). After some hours of paddling, we drove to a nearby camp ground (Luis the minibus driver was kind enough to slow down enough for Ramone to catch up), where the kayak bums served up delicious salmon and beef for dinner, and we had Australian and north-American help in finishing our boxed wine and Cerveza Austral. They were amazing company and it took an embarrassingly short amount of time before the conversational topic deteriorated into bodily functions and the like… always a sign of quality company!

Waking up with a slight red wine hang over, we took farewell with the rest of the guys who were paddling on for the next stretch, while Ramone and us headed to the main attraction of the park; the Torres del Paine. Pavement has yet to come to the park, and it was a fairly bumpy ride (although, this is just the beginning of the bad roads ahead).

We decided to only walk the day hike to the Torres (towers). Just under 3 hours up, with sun and summer-temperatures, to be rewarded with dipping warm feet into the ice cold laguna underneath the Towers. When sitting by the laguna and looking up, it’s quite mind boggling when you realize the summit is 2000 meters above where you are sitting — the scale of the place is so unfamiliar that I would probably put the summit at just about 500 meters up; this is the sort of stuff I’m “used to” seeing from back home. Properly impressed, we rushed back down to cook some pasta bolognese-ish dinner, and found a super nice camp spot right outside the national park gates, with a sweet view of the towers in the sunset.