The time has come finally to pick up our 4×4 campervan and head off on what promises to be the road trip of a lifetime.
Later today we pick up this beautiful van, a few miles from the furthest south it is possible to drive on mainland South America. We will then spend a month working our way North, following the Andes, crisscrossing between Chile and Argentina, through Patagonia and then the Chilean lake district, before dropping the van off in Santiago, 4000+ km later. And that’s if we stick to the ‘direct’ route…..
I’ve been told to ignore the google maps estimates of time. Much of the route will be on unpaved roads, apparently ranging from ‘good’ gravel to ‘terrible’, including an area only just cleared after devastating landslides, and there will be a number of mountain passes and remote border posts to negotiate. We will pass mountains, glaciers and lava fields, crossing straits and rivers on local ferries. We are likely to see flamingos, rheas, guanacos, and other local wildlife – unlikely to see a puma, but you never know, our eyes will be peeled, there are apparently many around.
We plan to do the full length of the (in)famous carretera austral, a ‘highway’ (unpaved road) pushed through by Pinochet to connect the communities in southern Chile previously only reachable by boat or through Argentina. It took 20 years and many lives to make, and goes past some stunning national parks. We will be stopping and visiting many of these, and fitting in some hiking along the way.
We will mainly wild camp, as the van is fully self-sufficient, but will stop off at villages and towns along the way – it is very remote, but not uninhabited, and there are many hardy travelers who do the full panamerican route from Alaska to Ushuaia – some on bikes or motorbikes, many in converted vans or more luxurious vehicles such as we will have for this month.
To say we are excited is an understatement, but it’s quite an undertaking so there are nerves too. Much of the way doesn’t have mobile signal, and in Patagonia we have been told to always expect the unexpected. We will have plenty of food and as long as we fill up with fuel at every possible opportunity, we should be OK. We will have additional fuel tanks as reserves, as well as snow chains. We have time, a decent vehicle, the right clothes, good maps and decent insurance. Should be quite an adventure.
The blog will get updated occasionally when we come to places with mobile internet.
While I don’t really like tours, this is the only way to visit the penguin colony on Isla Martillo, as the island is heavily monitored and only 20 people are allowed to land at a time, and only twice a day. We paid an extortionate amount to be part of those 20 people. All the other more reasonably-priced tours pull up alongside the beach but are not allowed to disembark. While we are travelling on a budget, I know when its worth paying top whack. This was one of those times, and I don’t regret a penny/peso.
While there was no real need to travel in a monster truck, this vehicle turning up to take us off to Estancia Harberton for the boat over to the island did add somewhat to the adventure…
The roads were rough gravel but would have been perfectly doable in an ordinary minibus.
One the way there we stopped at a couple of viewpoints, with admittedly stunning views of the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, across the Beagle strait.
Next stop was a museum of local marine wildlife at a research station – to be honest, I was just thinking COME ON, SHOW ME THE PENGUINS!!! but the woman giving the tour was a student marine biologist, very enthusiastic, and Lauren in particular loved learning the differences between dolphins and porpoises and all sorts of Attenborough-esque stuff. We also got taken to the lab, with lots of cool bones…
Eventually it was time to catch the boat over to the island, and we jumped at the opportunity to sit at the front, despite the freezing cold wind. Couldn’t understand all the others huddling inside. This is Patagonia for goodness sake, it might be a bit chilly! We were later joined by a young lad from London who was having a ‘quarter life crisis’ at 25 … made me feel ancient.
Soon we were approaching the island, and even from the boat we could see the hundreds and hundreds of penguins, all pottering about the beach, sitting on their nests and making their way into and out of the water.
The tour guide gave us a very stern warning about ‘controlling our emotions’ and reinforced the two-metre rule (no body part or technology within 2m of a penguin) before allowing us to disembark from the zodiac. Luckily no one was watching my undignified descent as they were all too enraptured by the penguins on the shore.
It truly was amazing to be so close to these funny little creatures, who clearly couldn’t care less about us snapping photos. Poor Lauren looked stricken and delighted all at once as one curious penguin came right up to her – breaking the 2 metre rule by a good 1.9 metres.
In fact, penguins often weaved in and out of our group, and at times it was impossible to maintain a 2 metre distance from them all. With the exception of one stupid woman trying to get a selfie who got soundly told off by the tour guide, everyone was very respectful and behaved impeccably.
Most of the penguins were Magellanic – the same type we’ve seen before in South Africa – and as we moved from the beach up to the top of the island we walked through hundreds of their burrows, often with the couple sitting together by or in it. The young from this year had already left for the sea, leaving their parents behind. In another month, the older penguins will follow, as they spend 6 months on land and 6 at sea. We saw a number of adolescents with their fluffy grey plumage giving way to the rather scruffy black and white of the adults.
We spent a good while meandering among the burrows on a man-made pathway; one couple had made their burrow right in the middle of the path, and many others along the side, so that it was impossible to avoid walking right by them. The noise was incredible, with so many birds calling at once.
After plenty of time with the Magellanic penguins we headed to the other side of the island where another species of penguin live, this time the Gentoo penguins – funny yellow feet and slightly bigger, although less numerous and less interested in us. These guys were hilarious, stomping about and going up to the waters edge, hesitating, then turning round, repeatedly – they looked like divers losing their nerve on the big board. Mind you, when some did enter or leave the water, they were incredibly graceful, and we were lucky enough to see some flying through the air in great leaps out of the water before the last leap brought them back to shore as the sun was setting.
All too soon the one hour we were allotted at this stunning place was up and the boat came to pick us up. Cue more inelegant clambering and a high speed retreat back to the island of Tierra del Fuego. We chose to sit at the back this time, alongside the driver, and at one point he gestured for Lauren to climb up on his platform – I thought he was going to let her ‘drive’ but actually he’d spotted a sea lion basking in the last rays of sunshine, and wanted her to see in case the boat spooked it. Hardly – he managed to get us really close without it doing more than lift its head and look at us curiously, before slumping back into a doze. Lovely to see animals so unconcerned about humans.
Once back on dry land we had another 2 hour bumpy journey back to Ushuaia, and a very late dinner, but the long uncomfortable journey, the huge cost, and even having dinner 3 hours late was pronounced by Lauren to be ‘totally worth it’.
I’ll settle for that 🙂
P.S. If the pictures aren’t enough, I uploaded a short video here – worth it just to hear the noise they make! Watch for them coming out of the water at speed right at the very beginning, and see if you can spot the moment I cut the camera off a millisecond before a penguin did an enormous poo in my direction. Just missed.
Finally, we are here, in Patagonia, top of my list for this trip from the beginning.
Even the flight down to Ushuaia was spectacular.
I’d checked in online 2 minutes into the 48 hours check-in window to ensure a window seat up front for Lauren and was so glad I did. She may be less glad as she kept getting told to stay still so I could crane round her at the amazing mountains and fjords below and get some pictures.
The plane stopped en route in El Calafate, a small Patagonian city and as we came into land we could see an enormous turquoise lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. I haven’t put a filter on these photos, the lake really was that colour. A milky greeny-blue. Stunning. Something to do with the minerals in the water.
After taking on some passengers in El Calafate (and luckily getting rid of the passenger next to me who had insisted on listening to heavy metal, loudly, through her headphones the whole way down) we took off again for a short hop over to Tierra del Fuego, a large island shared between Chile and Argentina where our Patagonia adventure would start. The views of Tierra del Fuego were amazing – and endless – it’s a whole lot of mountains, fjords, snow, lakes, glaciers and not much else. My heart was in my mouth as I realized I have somehow committed us to finding our way through this wilderness over the next month.
After collecting our bags in the small arrivals hall and being taken to our hotel by the cheerful taxi driver Roberto (who in the ten-minute drive filled us in on everything we should do while in the area, all of which coincidentally would require hiring a taxi for the day…) we checked in and immediately set out to find food. We’d had breakfast at 8am, our plane had departed at 11am, and we arrived around 5pm (which even by the late-eating Argentinians standards, was most definitely after lunch) and had been provided on the plane with a glass of orange juice and a pack of cereal which proudly proclaimed it contained less than 100 calories. Great if you are on a diet, not so great if that’s your only sustenance for the day. This is no budget airline, I paid over 400 USD for our tickets so I’d have thought it included lunch!
The lomitos (steak sandwiches loaded with an insane amount of extras such as onions, peppers, fried eggs, cheese, bacon, lettuce, ham, tomato…. You name it, you can get it on a lomito) at the place next door soon restored us, and we set to planning the following day’s adventure – a trip to the Tierra del Fuego National Park.
The next morning we got the bus to the National Park, loaded up with suncream and sunglasses, woolly hats and gloves, extra layers and waterproofs. Oh and of course trail food. You can’t go hiking without trail food. Unfortunately, no Kendal mint cake or angel cake here, so we had to make do with raisins, nuts and crackers.
Most of the visitors to the national park go on guided tours that drive from one viewpoint to another and barely scratch the surface. Lauren announced this was ‘stupid’ (and I agreed), so after lecturing her about not judging people and how it may be all some people can manage, and aren’t we lucky etc etc, we instead opted to be dropped off at one of the viewpoints and then hike to another by the end of the day, where hopefully we could get the bus back to town.
Naturally, Lauren skipped and danced her way across approximately 12km of trails, uphill and down, through mud and rocks and over massive tree roots, while I lumbered behind with the bag, but we had a fantastic day. Some of the trails were well maintained and signposted. Some were barely visible. The map the NP provides is fairly rudimentary and hasn’t been introduced to the concept of scale. But figuring it out and getting pleasantly lost was all part of the fun.
It was wonderful to be out in the pure air, and despite coming across the occasional other hiker, we were in the main completely alone, which was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires. The scenery was spectacular – snow on the mountains, those weird green-blue coloured lakes and rivers, and the vegetation just starting to show some autumn colours.
It was also great to be in the cool – Buenos Aires had been hot, at times stiflingly so, but here we could stride out with the (intense) wind on our faces and really move. Of course, we were incredibly lucky it wasn’t raining, as with the strong winds Patagonia is famous for, that would have been an altogether less pleasant experience.
This is one of those places where no amount of photography skill can do it justice. Certainly not what I can do with my little point and shoot. What is most impressive is the sheer scale – a feeling of genuine wilderness and being completely at the mercy of nature. We are literally at ‘the edge of the world’ – beyond the water is just Antarctica. It’s a wonderful feeling but also sobering, and photos can only capture a hint of what this place is like.
At one point I stopped to rest and allowed Lauren to clamber across some rocks to the other side of the river and explore. It was amazing to be able to just let her roam. She came back covered in seed pods and mud and declared “I love Patagonia’. Not bad for day one 😊
The highlight of the day was the chance to watch a fox making its way along the opposite bank of the river we were walking along – it stopped and had a good look at us before heading on its way. It seemed bigger than urban foxes I’ve seen in the UK and was a wonderful addition to a brilliant day.
By around 3.30pm we had reached the visitor centre where we were due to catch the bus at 4.40 pm – we had some soup and empanadas and then while I slumped over a coffee Lauren took herself off outside to play in the freezing wind, clearly still full of energy.
So how do you end a day in beautiful natural surroundings, a day of digital detox and solitude, of quiet communing with nature, of physical exercise and wonderful peace?
You go to Hard Rock Café for some stupidly loud music, horrifically unhealthy food and immense desserts of course!!!!!
Balancing work, school, fun and trip planning in Buenos Aires.
I know I’ve been a bit silent in the last couple of weeks, and in part that’s because I haven’t had that much to say, and in part because I’ve actually been really busy. Lauren has been focussing on her schoolwork, and was absolutely delighted to receive her next set of books (Thanks Denise!!). While she works her way through french grammar, Roman invasions of Gaul, and electrical currents, I am focussing on customs reform, international trade and local economic development in Africa.
When it all gets too much, we retire to our local cafe (selected after much market research across a broad range of criteria including quality of coffee, selection of ‘good things’, friendliness of staff, strength of wifi…) and pass a pleasant hour or so with our kindles. Lauren is currently obsessed with the David Walliams books.
Lauren has been attending a local dance school three days a week, and we are both working our way through the Spanish duolingo app. We are both very good at saying different people are eating apples or not eating apples in Spanish by now. Not sure how useful that is, but its a start. In the meantime, my portunhol has served me well.
Of course, after a couple of weeks we started getting itchy feet again, and I’ve been putting in the hours in the evenings planning the next stage of our trip.
This will be a road trip from the Patagonian ice fields of the deep south, up through Argentina and Chile to the desert and salt pans of the north. It’s not an easy thing to plan, especially as no one is used to a single mother and child (and some frankly think I’m mad) – I thought I’d got it all sorted and had reserved a campervan when we found out that in Argentina children must travel in the back seat until they are ten (this rule exists in most countries but normally has an exception for vehicles like campervans if they only have front seats). Even though we will be mainly in Chile, parts of the route will pass through Argentina, and my notorious obsession with actually following the rules means I’ve had to settle for hiring a car with a roof top tent, so that Lauren can be strapped in the back. She’s delighted, but I’m just thinking about those below-freezing patagonian nights and needing a wee at 2am…..