It feels like a month has passed since our last blog from Viña del Mar, but it’s only been a couple of whirlwind weeks, packed full of adventures and stories. We’ve driven nearly 3,000 miles, crisscrossing back and forth from Chile to Argentina several times, enjoying fantastic food, great people and scenery that still astounds us. Enjoy this new blog post as we drive to the End of the World and have some fun along the way! Ned and I left Viña del Mar, Chile (North of Valparaiso, near Santiago) on January 10th, hitting the I-5 (PanAm) to make some time getting south. We found Chile’s central agricultural region similar to California’s San Fernando Valley and oddly named the same. Chile’s San Fernando Valley boasts the same I-5 running north/south, is nestled between the coastal range and the Andes and has McDonald’s and Shell gas stations dotted along the highway. It even has lots of fruit stands and highway exits with names like Tracy and Santa Cruz. It was eerie, and we had a hard time believing we hadn’t dreamed the whole trip, ending up back in Fresno.
But then we turned east to cross the Andes into Argentina. Definitely not in central California! I almost want to call this post, the blue water blog. This lake was just the first of many of the most incredibly blue bodies of water I’d ever seen. From azure to turquoise, these last two weeks have been a blue lover’s paradise.
Having exported ourselves from the Chilean side of the border on the Paso del Guanaco, we were in the 20 mile No Man’s Land stretch between Chile and Argentina when we heard a horrible pop followed by metal on metal grinding. Ned got out to take a look, and from somewhere under Charlotte, I heard a stunned, “Holy Shit!” Not a good thing to hear from the driver/mechanic/car whisperer. The left front radius rod had snapped in two. It was a freak (“never seen that before”) injury to poor Charlotte, and Ned said we weren’t going anywhere until we got the broken part to a welder. A welder? You mean like the one we have on board that we can’t use due the alternator fiasco? Yup.
Ned managed to get Charlotte off of the road onto the shoulder with much noise and histrionics from the broken suspension. At that point I took inventory of the situation. We were on a nearly deserted dirt road, 50 miles from the nearest town of Malargué. It was hot and violently windy. Hundreds of huge, biting flies were attacking us with the speed and accuracy of professional snipers. And we hadn’t imported ourselves into Argentina yet. We were in No Man’s land and had no legal papers. Hitchhiking to Malargué would involve getting in and then back out of Argentina.
Then there was a decision to make. Would I stay to watch over Charlotte while Ned hitchhiked the 50 miles to town? Or do we both go, leaving Charlotte unprotected? A horrible choice either way. With no cell signal, no way to communicate and only the vicious flies for company, I knew my wait would be torture. It could be hours or days before Ned got back, and it was too hot to stay inside Charlotte.
While I was pondering our predicament, Ned was busy removing the broken part. I had just grabbed my backpack (having made my decision to go) when, to our utter disbelief a truck pulling a small trailer came trundling down the dirt road…In a stunning display of providence, on the trailer was an arc welder!
Ned flagged the truck down, and two very nice construction workers got out. We showed them the broken part, and with absolutely no fuss or fanfare, they proceeded to do a professional job of welding the piece. The whole thing was surrealistic. There. Fixed. Like it never even happened. All of my worrying for naught. The world never stops amazing me.
With all three of us legally imported into Argentina, we got back on the iconic Ruta 40 and continued south. We drove through beautiful arid country, stopping by a river to barbeque steaks and veggies, eventually finding a camping spot in a dry wash, hidden from the road.
The next day, after breakfast and exercises in our peaceful wash, we continued following the zigzagging Ruta 40, making 400 miles. By dark we found ourselves in a ranching area, still arid and open, but completely enclosed by fences. We had nowhere to camp for the night. We drove and drove, but found no hidey holes, no dirt track, nothing. We were just outside the resort town of San Martin de Los Andes when we spotted a sign for camping. We rarely succumb to campgrounds, but it was 10:30 and we were exhausted. We pulled in, parked in a corner, and fell fast asleep.
We awoke in a cool, quiet forest, surrounded by dense oak and pine. The campground was whisper quiet, immaculately clean, civilized and very…comfortable! It was as if we had suddenly been airdropped overnight and woke up on a different planet. Gone were the mud huts, the dust, the native people, the garbage, the harshness of life. I couldn’t decide if it felt fabulous or flat-line. There was nothing very foreign or exotic, but it was pretty nice.
We had breakfast in the touristy, but charming, San Martin de Los Andes, and continued on following the gorgeous Ruta de Siete Lagos (Road of Seven Lakes).
Clear turquoise water pooled in sparkling streams and tranquil alpine lakes, while stark, snow speckled crags stood sentinel. But gone were the soaring heights of the more northern Andes. Snow at elevations of 4,000 to 6,000ft in the height of summer was a sure sign that we were getting to southern latitudes.
We landed in the bustling city of Bariloche with high expectations, but, having sped through two lovely resort towns along the Ruta de Siete Lagos to get there, were disappointed. Gone was the alpine setting, gone was the charm. It just wasn’t our kind of town. We stayed one night and had a nice dinner where this accordion player, who was very charming, entertained us.
By sheer accident (needing gas) we stumbled upon the very cute town of El Bolsón, where a lively festival was in full swing. Street musicians were playing, and the atmosphere was relaxed and uplifting with a decidedly bohemian feel.
Unlike many “Artisan” fairs, where it seems most of the wares are mass produced, the artists here displayed beautiful, hand crafted art. This man was carving lovely designs on gourds for drinking mate (pronounced ma-tay). Mate, short for Yerba Mate, is an herb which is packed in a mate vessel (of choice), covered with hot water and drunk through a straw-like contraption (called a bombilla). Argentineans love their mates and are often seen ambling down the road, sipping on their mates with hot water thermoses (for refills) slung over a shoulder.
We ducked off of the 40 to drive down the RP 71 through the Parque Nacional Los Alerces (named for an alpine tree), but it was getting dark. Just before the park entrance we spotted a small opening in the fence, and followed a dirt track into paradise; a lush meadow surrounded by beautiful trees and craggy mountains. There was also a wonderful, old split rail corral, but it looked like no one had used it for years. The night was star-filled and fabulously peaceful. We read later that Butch Cassidy and Sundance had a ranch very near this area, hmmm…?
Morning in paradise.
Ned, having bought a gourd in El Bolsón, is now our resident mate expert, but still generously makes me my morning coffee. We spent the whole morning in our tranquil cow pasture, relaxing with our hot beverages of choice, eating breakfast and working out, even romping through the meadow like youngsters.
Ah, but we do still love the wide open desert. Another lovely camp down a lonely dirt track off of the 40. Dipping from arid to alpine provided refreshing contrasts.
Another festival, another sharp contrast. In Rio Mayo, we spotted a sign saying “30th Annual Festival Nacional de la Esquila.” We had no idea what an esquila was, but there were lots of people milling around with a totally different feel than El Bolsón. No hippies here. We were now in Argentine Patagonia, sheep country, so we weren’t surprised to find lamb roasting on open fire pits. We had heard that “cordero asado” was the traditional food in this area, but we had no way of knowing…
…just how wonderful it was! We jumped in line for our cordero and sat with the locals to enjoy the tender, crispy, succulent treat. The funny dudes painted on the wall behind Ned were comic renditions of different gaucho personalities.
The locals thought we were amusing but were very welcoming.
Carnivores to the bone.
Walking off our lamb feast, we found, not handmade crafts, but tons of cheap Chinese clothing and plastic crap, items useful in rural and ranching homes. It was a dose of reality.
Then we found the contest and figured out what esquila was…shearing! It was a sheep shearing contest and it was brutal. And exciting. And real. I know for some of you who are vegetarians and/or animal lovers, watching us munch on lamb bones is a bit tough, but this will be worse. We spared you some of the most graphic shots, but these are still pretty harsh.
The sheep were dragged onto the stage, hog-tied by painful looking twine…
…and roughly sheared within an inch of their lives.
It was a contest, and speed was the name of the game.
And the sheep definitely looked worse for the wear.
A Patagonian gaucho.
Another favorite sign…yes, wind has been our constant companion here in Southern Argentina.
At this point we were feeling a bit of urgency. We were around 700 miles from Ushuaia, a town on the island of Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost point we could drive to. But we were somewhat on tender hooks. Poor Charlotte was suffering with coolant leaks and subsequent overheating, a gear oil leak, an exhaust leak, a clacking CV joint, a brake squeaking and tires that kept plaguing us with flats. We were feeling the need to beeline south to Ushuaia.
But there were just so many wonderful diversions along the way. We spotted a sign saying Cuevas de Los Manos (Caves of the Hands) and just had to go look, following a nasty washboard road 30 miles to this canyon.
The Cuevas de Los Manos are actually a big deal. It is a huge archeological site, and we paid to have a tour. There were 20 people in our group, but the energetic guide spoke rapid-fire Argentinean Spanish (which is nearly undecipherable). Juan (or John as he asked us to call him) was not an official guide, but was a youngster proud of his English and working here for the summer. He tagged along to translate, but ended up giving us and two Germans our own private tour.
When asked if he liked his job, he replied, like any 21 year old would, that the 15 day stints without Wi-Fi or a cell signal were torture. John did a fantastic job and had a dry, witty sense of humor. His English was heavily accented but very good.
At one point when the German couple was lagging behind, taking photos, John turned to us, and with absolutely no trace of an accent said, “Oh for the love of Christ,” and tramped off to round up his wayward tourists.
John is hoping to get accepted to a university to become a biologist. I think he’ll do just fine.
There were thousands of hands “stenciled” on the long wall, preserved by an overhanging cliff. The astonishing thing is that they were done 9,300 years ago in a two color process. One color (paint made from local minerals, flora and spit) was put down as a base. The second was sprayed by mouth through a straw over the artist’s own hand.
These ancient people relied heavily on the guanaco. Archeologists believe this was painted during a time of thinning herds and depicts pregnant guanacos with the fertility symbol of the full moon.
Hunting guanaco (local alpacas).
Onward, toward the town of El Chaltén, the “Trekking Capital of the World” and the jumping off point for mountaineering in the area around the famed spires of Fitz Roy.
Driving into El Chaltén, we got our first glimpse of the stunning Fitz Roy. Chaltén is a relatively new town, built only in the 80’s to support the booming interest in trekking. We stayed two nights in the town campground (which was filthy), but enjoyed some really great meals…
…and a fantastic 14 mile hike to the base of Fitz Roy.
Ned’s cousin Charlie had told us, “Fitz Roy is loved to death.” That’s an understatement. We found ourselves on the trail with dozens of hip 20-something Bobby Backpackers. We thought we were pretty cool too, until we saw this photo of Ma and Pa Kettle.
Well worth the 14 mile effort.
Our next stop in Argentine Patagonia was El Calafate, the gateway to the area’s most spectacular glaciers. Here we happily found wonderful hardware and auto parts stores, both with incredibly helpful guys at the counters. Ned was able to get critical supplies needed to work on some of Charlotte’s ailments. We spent only one night, anxious to get out to the park to see the glaciers.
Our first cordero asado had been at the shearing festival where we paid 100 pesos (about 12 bucks). Our second was in El Chaltén where we paid 150, but it was equally as delicious. Now addicted, we had some here in the higher end tourist area of Calafate. The presentation was certainly nicer, but we paid 230 pesos and it was dry and tasteless by comparison. Lesson learned.
Approaching the Parque Nacional los Glaciares, we got our first look at the mammoth Perito Moreno Glacier.
An hour long boat ride gave us an impressive, up close view from the lake. It was cold and rainy, but beautiful.
Perito Moreno (named for an early explorer) marches at its glacial pace to the edge of Lago Argentino, covering 97 square miles in ice. It is 19 miles long, and averages an incredible 240 feet above the surface of the lake.
Looming 25 floors above us, the ice creaked and groaned ominously. From time to time, massive chunks “calved,” falling into the lake, producing a mighty splash and booming thunder.
Once off the boat we took the hike to the northern side of the glacier to see it from a different perspective.
The park campground was accessible only by a 20 mile washboard road. Not really excited about another campground, we followed a faint track in the grass to this abandoned ranch. We parked next to the fence, over a rise and completely out of sight of the road. It was one of the best camps ever.
Ned serenaded me while I made dinner.
And then we went off to explore the old ranch.
Believe it or not, these were taken around 9pm. This far south, it’s been getting dark at 11pm.
A local passerby was startled by our presence.
Crossing back into Chile to the town of Puerto Natales, we finally found new shoes for Charlotte. Unfortunately we had to wait until morning to have them installed, so we stayed at this funky campground for the night.
Never trusting anyone to do the job right, Ned supervised while the guys installed Charlotte’s new tires. The Car Whisperer had also put a new gasket in the leaking exhaust and stop-leak gunk in the radiator. Both fixes, while temporary, appeared to be holding, so tires were the next big relief.
Cool sculpture in Puerto Natales.
The Estancias (Ranches) in Patagonia are gorgeous. Tidy and well kept, each ranch sported uniform colors on the roofs of their buildings. Some roofs were bright red or yellow, some a mellow green like this one.
It’s all about the sheep down here.
Oh no, how did we get here? Am I that bad a navigator?!
From Puerto Natales we took the Ruta 9 south, then the 255 east where we came to this big water way. Looking on our map app, I could see that it was the first place where the waters of the Atlantic meet the waters of the Pacific. It seemed pertinent. And then it hit me. This was the Straights of Magellan! I don’t know why, but this got me very excited. A place we learned about in grade school! Explorers! New world! And we were getting so close to Ushuaia.
Along the beautiful blue waters of the Straights, we came upon this historic Estancia and decided to look around. We were in for some big surprises.
Around the back of the biggest building we found some work going on. Gauchos were herding and separating sheep.
There were fleecy ones…
…and fleeced ones.
Exploring inside the building, we discovered hundreds of huge bales of wool. We thought we were trespassing and crept around stealthily…
…only to walk right into this scene. Instead of being angry, these gauchos welcomed us, and invited us to get closer to the action.
By another stroke of good fortune, we had arrived at this Estancia’s shearing time. But this was no contest, this was the real deal. The guys worked so fast that all of the photos of hands are blurry. I felt guilty being in their way, as they had obvious deadlines to meet, but they could not have been kinder.
The sheep were also treated much more gently. They were not tied and quietly submitted to the shearing. The whole time we were there, we saw no bloody cuts, but the work still got done fast.
The gaucho behind me thought it would be fun (or funny) to see if I would hold a fleece (yes, this is an entire sheep’s coat). I knew the fleece was filthy and greasy with lanolin, but I couldn’t resist. It was really dirty, but sooo soft!
More manual labor. These guys were hand (and foot) packing the wool into bales.
Another visual treat on the Estancia…two shipwrecks!
Both ships were in use in the Straights in the late 1800’s, wrecked in the early 1900’s.
Getting closer! We were on the Ruta Fin del Mundo…the Road to the End of the World! This was also the first sign pointing to the island of Tierra del Fuego.
We arrived at the Puerta Delgada and boarded the ferry to the island. It was an efficient 20 minute crossing of the Straights of Magellan.
Tierra del Fuego? Land of Fire? Really? It looked more like Nebraska. But it was still very exciting to be here.
After nearly 100 miles of torturous washboard roads, we drove back into Argentina for our final push to Ushuaia. But it was getting late when we made the border crossing, so we had some dinner at this fine hostel in San Sebastian, a dusty, border outpost. The gal at the counter said they had Chicken Suprema or Bisteca Milonesa. “What’s the difference?” we asked. “One’s chicken, the other’s beef.” Ok, we’ll have the chicken. We waited an hour and half, finally eating our mystery chicken and fries at 11:00pm (have I mentioned that these people eat late??!!). We were so tired, we drove around to a road construction site a couple of hundred yards from the hostel. We bedded down, thinking that tomorrow was Sunday and no one would show up at the site.
Wrong! We woke to the sound of tractors firing up. Oh crap! We scrambled to get dressed and out of there as the grader worked back and forth right in front of us. But the guys were cool, smiling and waving as we drove away. Ned grinned and said, “You want to drive to Ushuaia today?” How cool is that? That’s exactly what he said the day we left home 13 months ago. 13 months ago we were 27,000 miles away. Now we only had 170 miles to go to get to Ushuaia!
Looking more like the Land of Fire.
Ushuaia!! We made it! All three of us still kicking after 27,000 amazing miles.
Ok, getting to Ushuaia was cool, but, checking the map, we found it was not the farthest point we could drive. We needed to go another 20 miles into the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, where the Ruta 3 would finally end at the southernmost point. We weren’t done yet, and neither of us was ready for a city.
“Turn around Charlotte, there ain’t no more road!!” Driving through the park we finally arrived at the Fin del Mundo…
…the End of the World!
A happy moment for Ned, Kat, and Charlotte (and Vaca Muerta too, who has been our good luck charm since Baja Mexico).
“Here ends the Ruta 3”
Note the reference to Alaska…that’s our Charlottamiles goal for this June!
Holy Sh*t! We are the blue dot at the bottom tip of the continent.
Straights of Magellan, Cape Horn. Wow.
Note the low elevation and the southern latitude.
Exploring the park, we found it gorgeous, but very cold and drizzly, even now, the warmest time of a southern hemisphere summer.
Beautiful horses seemed to have the run of the park.
Ushuaia was infamous for its brutal prison in the early 1900’s and this historic train that runs through the park was the prison train. Now it carries happy tourists through the lovely park.
As I was trying to get this great photo of horses grazing peacefully with the train going by, the horse behind ruined my shot by nagging and pushing the other one into action. I swear it was a dare because he finally got the other one going and I watched in amazement as they raced over the tracks right in front of the train.
Our entrance fee included two free nights in this incredible, primitive campground. Our only neighbors were very quiet (and four legged).
They did want to know what was for dinner, though…and they would have liked it! Not being well provisioned with fresh food, I scrounged up a vegetarian dish:
Sautéed onion and garlic in olive oil
Can of lentils
Hot curry powder
Dash of cumin
Salt and pepper
Splash Balsamic vinegar
Not bad for a veggie meal!
The next day we did a wonderful 5 mile hike to a lookout over the Beagle Channel which lies south of the island of Tierra del Fuego. The forest had a mysterious, quiet feel, aided by the fact that we saw no one else the whole hike.
It felt wonderful being here at the End of the World. The three of us have driven 27,000 fantastic miles together, and it’s not over yet. We still have to drive 3,000 miles back to Santiago, Chile, the closest port where we can feasibly ship Charlotte home to the west coast. We focused on southern Argentina on the way down. On the way back north we plan to cover southern Chile. Still to come…exploring Chilean Patagonia and the famous Carretera Austral!