We had two options for returning to Chile – keep on trekking north on the ruta 40 – boring but tarmacked and well trodden – then enter through the major border post of Chile Chico, or attempt to cross on local roads (marked as the lowest category of road in both Argentina and Chile on the map, and not even recognised by maps.me or google maps) through the mountains, with a turn off just 20km north of where we spent the night.
Guess which I fancied.
There was very little information about the second route – I found a blog post from a cyclist in 2016 saying it was passable in dry weather, and it was marked on the tourist information map we’d been given previously. I decided to ask the local policeman his opinion, and as we were ambling over to the police post, he was heading our way, so much to his surprise I accosted him and showed him the map. He said he hadn’t been to the border (?!), but ‘they should let us through’ and that the road should be passable in our vehicle.
Not a ringing endorsement, but we agreed we’d check it out, and could always return and go the ‘normal’ route if necessary.
It turned out to be one of the best drives of my life.
In the whole day, we saw 2 other vehicles. They looked as surprised to see us as we were to see them, and we all waved manically as we passed.
We spent the day surrounded by incredible views, as we rounded mountain after mountain, plunged into deep valleys and climbed seemingly impossible, twisty inclines. We passed beautiful azure lakes, bubbling streams, bizarre rock formations, herds of wild (?) horses, condors circling above ….
It was certainly challenging driving, bumpy single track with the edges often steeply inclined and no concept of camber, but it was good fun – we had the music on, the sun was out, the surroundings were incredible. I wish my photos could do justice to just how huge this place is, and how ‘big’ the scenery. It just goes on and on and on. Mountain after mountain, mile after mile.
The track was fine – mainly gravel or dried mud. I was grateful for the good suspension though as we rattled and bumped our way towards Chile. On the ‘ups’ I just had to trust no one was coming, as I could barely see over the bonnet. On the ‘downs’ I’ve learned not to brake, or we just swivelled about.
We saw a lot of guanacos, weird llamas related to camels, and many rheas, who are the most ridiculous-looking creatures, especially when running – they can move very fast on their long legs, with a tottering kind of run that makes me think of indignant secretaries in too-tight skirts and too-high heels. Sorry, not very PC, but there you go. I still haven’t managed to get a photo of one, as they run as soon as they see us. We also saw a herd of horses… just roaming free, and some cows, also just roaming, some of which were stood in the middle of a pond eating the grass growing in it.
For lunch we stopped by a river and sat on the rocks.
The air was so incredibly pure, as was the water, and with the sun out and sheltered from the wind, it was almost warm….
We went for a bit of a walk, and Lauren attempted to climb some rocks, but I was anxious to get the border crossing out of the way, so we jumped back in the vehicle and headed off up the final pass before the border.
Its such a remote region, and so uninhabited, that one feels genuinely away from it all. I’ve been to plenty of remote places in Mozambique, but they have always been inhabited by someone – in fact, often you will think you are miles out in the bush totally alone, but if you stop long enough, someone will be along, if only to check you out. Here, if you got into trouble a few metres from the road, I reckon you’d stay there! There must be a few estancias in the area, but I imagine they are fairly self-sufficient and inward looking. There are certainly no villages or communities. The border was literally the first sign of human activity apart from the cows and the 2 cars we’d passed.
As we finally approached the border, a tiny wooden cabin at the bottom of a valley, with ducks and geese wandering about outside, a border guard came out of his hut to greet us. He ushered us inside, where there was a desk and 2 chairs (no computer), a radio, and a kitchen. He asked for all the documents, and this was the first border crossing where I’ve been asked to produce Lauren’s birth certificate and authorization from the ‘other parent’. I explained it was just the two of us, the birth certificate confirmd this, and we were soon on our way. He told us we were the first car through that day (it was by now mid-afternoon) and some days there are no cars at all. He spends a month on duty at a time, along with 4 other border guards. It’s a pretty lonely place, but he seemed happy enough.
We then had about 11km of ‘no man’s land’ before reaching the Chilean border. Here we met a German overlanding family who had parked up there the day before and were staying until they had consumed all their fruits and vegetables as Chile is very strict on not importing these. Knowing this, I had made a rather odd concoction the night before of all our vegetables, so we thought we’d only lose a few onions.
However, we discovered at this border post that the prohibitions also refer to dairy and any animal products that are not sealed. When the very friendly border guard inspected our vehicle, he told us we couldn’t keep our eggs and milk, and, most critically, my Irish cheddar cheese that I had stocked up on in Punta Arenas and rationed for the last few days. After my wailing protest that it was hugely expensive, from ‘my homeland’ (well, close enough) and that after all I had bought it in Chile, just the other side of the southern ice field, and it really wasn’t my fault nature made us leave his beautiful country and come back, he opened up our fridge and replaced it without a word……. We saw him a couple of days later in the nearest town, and Lauren shouted ‘gracias por el queso!!!!’ at him across the aisles of the minimarket… I’m not sure who was more embarrassed, him or me!
We had planned to stay the night in the town about 90km from the border, but the valley we were passing through was stunningly beautiful, it had been an exhilarating but utterly exhausting drive, so when we saw a sign for camping, we agreed to stop. This turned out to be an inspired decision, as we ended up spending a couple of fantastic days in the beautiful Parque Nacional de Patagonia.