South America - "El Pinguino", Guanacos, and Torres

Ahh the joys of having a vehicle. It has been 10 days since Jodie and I left Punta Arenas and we are overwhelmingly thankful to have our own vehicle and the freedom that it brings. We always feel sorry for alll the poor suckers that we pass on busses between the well beaten backpacker stops. Now whenever we want to stop and take a picture, we pull over. Or if we see a cool side road, we don't hesitate to see where it leads. Or, if we need to go to the bathroom... well you get the idea. All things that can't be done when travelling by bus. We also get to hand pick some beautiful places to camp, usually out in the middle of nowhere with no sign of people in sight. We feel very blessed to have a car and we are trying to make the most of it.
Shortly after leaving Punta Arenas, Jodie and I christened our car "El Pinguino" (the Penguin) after both the first drive when we took in it out to the penguin colony and the name of the local newspaper. It just seemed fitting. So if our car is El Pinguino, then the coffin-like space we sleep in must be "La Cueva del Pinguino" (The penguin cave).

We are now adjusted to sleeping in the confined space, but the first night proved to be a little clastrophobic as we awkwardly tried to climb up and slide in onto our bed being careful not to elbow each other in the face or bang our heads on the roof of the car. It is quite comfy, we are using our camping mattresses, sleeping bags and our newly purchased pillows. Definitely more comfortable than some of the questionable hostel beds that have ancient mattresses shaped like canoes. The platform that I built is working quite nicely at keeping us from falling through onto all of our food and the stuff stored underneath. Jodie even added her touch by making some curtains out of a sheet that she hang up so that people can't see in at night. Another added benefit of the bed platform is we can make a table out of it by sliding half of it out of the back and resting one side of it on the bumper and hanging the other side from a rope connected to the tailgate. El Pinguino has become our little home and we love it.
Our first stop with our new wheels was Torres Del Paine National Park about five hours North of Punta Arenas. The Paine Massif is a group of mountains that contain some spectacularly shaped peaks. The most unique of these are the "Cuernos" or horns and the "Torres" or towers. The Cuernos are beatifully colored mountains with the bases of them almost white, and then close to the tops they suddenly turn very dark so they almost look like a vanilla ice cream cone dipped in chocolate. The Torres are three huge granite teeth that rise out of their bases and turn fiery colors when the they are first hit by sunlight at sunrise. All of this is surrounded by glacially fed aquamarine lakes that add to the splendor. We were originally planning on doing a 4-6 day trek in TDP but when we arrived the weather was not great so we opted to do a short day hike and wait and see if it cleared up. We hiked along one of the lakes to get views of a nearby glacier and some of the iceburgs that had broken off the glacier and floated down the lake. This part of the world is famous for its wind and crazy weather and this day was no exception. We stood on the lakeshore and couldn't believe how strong the wind was. We were getting blown side ways as we walked so we had to lean real hard into the wind to keep from blowing over. It was crazy and the beginning of our interesting relationship with the Patagonian wind. We camped that night and awoke the next morning to more bad weather so we nixed the hiking plans and decided just to drive around and maybe get some nice views if the weather decided to clear. We drove around and watched guanacos (lama looking creatures),
condors and nandus (flightless emu type birds) as we took in the scenery. We camped next to a beautiful lake where the Torres were masked in the clouds behind. Over night the weather cleared and we awoke to a spectacular sunrise.
The Torres glowed pink then red then orange as the sun made its way over the horizon, it was amazing. We ate our breakfast of cereal and yogurt as we watched the show. Having our fill of the scenery we drove the two hours to the Argentine border on our way to our next destination.
The whole buying a car in another country was very nerve racking, and with that process over my next fear was that we wouldn't be able to cross the border with it. Even though I had done my research, I had a fear of the Cabineros at the border sifting through our pile of papers and saying "Sorry gringo, but you can't take the car out of Chile". Thankfully this was not the case, and other than my near drowning in the sea of Spanish, the border crossing was uneventful at both the Chilean and Argentine side. I thought the Argentines would want to rumage through our car and make sure that we weren't smuggling drugs, dogs, fruit or Mexicans, but they didn't even bat an eye. Maybe they wanted to get back to the exciting game of Nintendo they were playing when we walked in.
Within two minutes of crossing the border we were lost. Apparently road signs are not any sort of priority in Argentina. There was no town to get lost in, just a couple of intersections that we managed to drive through about five times before we figured it out. Part of our confusion came from Ruta 40 which is the main artery that runs North and South along the Andes from the top of Argentina all the way down through Patagonia. I have heard that it is not a busy road, and is pretty remote in places. This particular section of Ruta 40 was nothing more than a one lane dirt road. Sure it was wide enough for two lanes, but when about 10 cars pass on it per day, everyone drives in the middle of the road so it looked like one lane. I said to Jodie "THIS can't be Ruta 40" but sure enough it was and we were on our way.
Although Patagonia has some spectacular scenery, about 90% of it is pretty barren, consisting of dry rolling hills with short grass and tough looking shrubs. Its not ugly by any means, its rather pretty, just not all mountains and glaciers like you might see in pictures. This is what we found ourselves driving through most of the time, everyonce in a while broken up by a herd of guanacos or nandus sprinting off the road. The scenery reminded us of Arizona and even made us a little homesick.
Since I had been in Patagonia four years ago, I knew a bit about the places to see and where to hike. Our next stop was the town of Calafate where we would stock up on some groceries before heading to the Perito Moreno glacier. While leaving the grocery store we were stopped by a parking guy who said we needed to pay two pesos (about 50 cents) to park on the street. I had spent my last pesos on some gas earlier so I told him I needed to run to the atm while Jodie packed the groceries into the car. Five blocks later I found an atm that was out of order so I kept searching and shortly found another one. After taking my money out, the ATM decided to keep my bank card. The bank was closed for the weekend, so I tried everything I could think of to get it back with no luck. Now I had a dilema. Jodie and parking meter guy were waiting back at the car for me, but I didn't want to leave for fear of someone else coming to use the ATM and it spitting my card back out at them and then they decide to go on an ebay shopping spree courtesy of myself. I decided to go get Jodie and the car and hope that no one would use the machine in the meantime. I sprinted down the streets back to our car, paid the parking meter guy, jumped in the car and quickly drove back to the bank. We stopped the first person who used the ATM, they got their money and card no problem but no sign of my card. I copied down the help phone number and went to the nearest tourist business to find someone who could help me call the bank and translate. I found a guy who got ahold of the ATM company who said to call my bank and cancel my card. Because there was nothing they could do until Monday. Bummer. I called up my bank and luckily they could put a hold on my card without cancelling it, so we would have to come back in two days to see if the bank could get my card back.
We decided to go to the glacier the next day and then come back through town on Monday to stop at the bank.
The Perito Moreno glacier is a huge river of ice that slowly inches its way down to the lake Lago Argentina where it breaks off (called calving) in house size chunks violently splashing into the water below. The face of the glacier is three miles wide and over 150 feet tall. The glacier causes a very unique phenomenon as it moves forward. Every couple of years the glacier advances enough to cut off one arm of the lake from the other. This causes an ice dam that makes one side of the lake rise faster than the other side. Eventually the water melts away at the ice dam until a pathway is made through the ice for the water to run, creating an ice bridge. The huge bridge slowly erodes until finally the whole thing collapses into the water below creating a spectacular scene. When I was at the glacier four years ago, that ice bridge had collapsed 2 days before I arrived. This time the bridge had not yet formed again but the glacier still managed to amazed us with huge chunks of ice calving off every 10-15 minutes. It was addicting watching and trying to predict where the next piece would fall from. Every time a piece fell you would hear a load cracking sound like thunder, then you would have to quickly turn in the direction to try and see it before it hit the water. It was hours of entertainment.
We found a spectacular free campsite that overlooked a beautiful lake and some impressive mountains. The next day we went back into town to stop at the bank. I barely had said anything to the teller when he asked for my passport then pulled out a stack of about half a dozen bank cards that the ATM had eaten. A moment later I had my card back, and was very relieved. We then headed North to one of my favorite places, El Chalten to do some hiking. El Chalten is a dinky little tourist town that sits right in front of some unbelievable mountains.
Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre are my favorite mountains because they are so steep they almost look fake. Snow can't even stick to them they are so steep. We arrived in El Chalten in the afternoon and within an hour we were on the trail with our packs to spend three days hiking in the area. We camped at a campsite near the base of Cerro Torre.
We ate our dinner not to far away at a glacial lake that sits at the foot of the mountain. It was stunning. There was a full moon that night so I got up and walked to the lake for some more great views. I tried to take a few pictures but my trusty little camera doesn't take long exposures well so they turned out a little out of focus, but still cool. The next two days were plagued by cloudy weather so we could not see the tops of the mountains like we had hoped but it was beautiful none the less. On the trail we ran into the German guy who had stayed at our hostel in Punta Arenas the night we had the big dinner and drinks.
It was good to see him again and its always funny running into fellow travellers that are heading the same direction as us.
We got back on the now paved Ruta 40 heading North to cross back over into Chile. Before too long the pavement ran out and we found ourselves bumping along on the dusty and increadibly windy road. At some times the wind would blow so hard that the car would actually slide sideways towards the ditch as we were driving. Good thing we would only pass a car about every hour. I felt really bad for the crazy group of people who decide to ride their bikes down Ruta 40. We saw one poor lady going the opposite direction who was walking her bike, because it was too windy to ride. Actually the bike looked like it was walking her as she fought with it to stay standing. We asked her if she needed any help but she said she was fine so we kept on going. At the intersection of our road into Chile we stopped at a gas station. We were warned by our friend Annibal to always gas up whenever we could along this section of road because there weren't very many gas stations. Nobody came out of the store when I pulled up so I went inside and soon found out that they were out of gas. Now we had to make a decision. We could either head North and make it to the next town in Argentina, then cross at a different border, or take our chances and cross into Chile from where we were and hope our 3/8 of a tank would last us. Being the optimistic under-estimator that I have discovered that I am, I said "Sure we can make it, no problem". Jodie had her doubts but trusted my judgement. Little did I know that the road we took was pretty bad and we could only drive about 15 miles an hour. Not good for gas mileage. From our map we totalled up the kilometers between where we were and the next town in Chile that had gas. It was about 100 miles and the only thing between us and the next town were a few remote "estancias" (ranches). We slowly made our way towards the border with some beautiful lakes and mountains all around us. After about 2 hours I decided to count the cars we passed along the road, so far zero. We camped for the night and at about 8 o'clock the first car passed us going the other way. One car in about 5 hours. Then one more in the morning. We crossed the border with no problems and we thought the border police must get pretty bored out there, 100 miles from anything and maybe three cars per day passing through. As we crossed the border we were about half way and our gas gauge was a hair above the E. We had thought ahead and bought a spare gas tank that holds about two and a half gallons, which I had figured we would have to use at this point. Miraculously we made it to the next town about 2 hours later without using the spare fuel. We couldn't believe it.
We were now in Cochrane Chile, along the Carratera Austral which is the Chilean version of Ruta 40. Except in southern Chile, its the only road, your options are the CA or boat. We were happy to be in a town again, after twenty four hours of slow bumpy dirt roads. We decided to make camp early so we found another breathtakingly beautiful lake, parked, cooked some hamburgers topped with avocados, watched a movie then went to bed in the Cueva del Penguino.
Originally we were going to head South further down the CA before heading back North but we were getting tired of the horrible roads so we decided to start heading North. The scenery was different now that we were closer to the pacific, there were trees and lots of mountains, rivers and lakes, and no wind. It was all very beautiful. We kept to our 15-20 mile per hour pace as we climbed steep roads around cliffs and lakes. By lunch we had made it to Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca. Its kinda funny, in Chile its Lago General Carrera, but part of the same lake also lies in Argentina where it is called Lago Buenos Aires. It took us 3 hours to drive its windy southern shore, and it has been one of the more beautiful stretches we have driven. We stopped in the small border town of Chile Chico where we lucked out and got there just in time to catch the ferry across the lake so we could continue on the CA without backtracking the three hours back down the lake.

From here we will head North and continue up the Carretera Austral before crossing back into Argentina at Futaleufu.

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