It’s funny how people will do things when they are on holiday that they would never do back home. I think that one reason why we travel is to escape the routines of our daily lives. For example, Ol and I would never pick up hitch hikers (ok, maybe near a trail head). However, while we are traveling in Patagonia, we have rented a 4x4 SUV and we feel guilty if our backseat is empty.
It might be that when we see young backpackers standing by the road we envy their bravery and sense of adventure. Or, maybe it’s just their youth. I know we both wish that we would have traveled and seen more of the world when we were young. Or, maybe we just want good karma if we ever find ourselves in need of a ride.
It’s funny, everyone that we have picked up never hitchhikes back home, but here they are in Patagonia and living completely different lives.
We decided to rent an SUV when we found we had some time before the start of our big “O” circuit hike in Torres del Paine National Park. This past year the park required hikers to have reservations for each segment of the trek. The sites quickly got booked up and this caught a lot of hikers off guard including us. When we found out about this we were hesitant to commit to any dates as we didn’t know the exact dates that we would be in the area, but this new policy made us commit. We were lucky to get the dates close to our requested start time.
Fortunately for us, that gave us time to plan things in the region around our “O” hike dates. At the top of our list was a visit to Los Glaciers National Park in Argentina. We could drive back and forth between Chile and Argentina and visit the crown jewels of Patagonia.
We had one night in Puerto Natales before we were to pick up our SUV. Getting there was an easy two and half hour bus ride from Punta Arenas. On the way, we passed more of Patagonia’s beautiful lakes in varying shades of blues and grays, some with beautiful pink flamingoes and black swans. The roadsides exploded with pockets of wildflowers, lupines, and daisies.
Puerto Natales is the gateway to Patagonia’s famed Torres del Paine National Park. Patagonia is known worldwide as a land of adventure and outdoor activities such as trekking, kayaking, rock climbing, ice hiking, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities. The town’s main street was bustling with backpackers, travel agencies, and outfitters.
Puerto Natales is also a quaint fishing village. It is home to ferries, cruise ships, and all sorts and sizes of fishing boats. There are wonderful hotels, hostels, and restaurants for every budget. We loved every meal, especially the fresh Chilean sea bass and king crab. Ol especially loved that they top pizza with king crab.
We rented the car for eight days and seven nights. We would only have a few hours between returning it and catching a bus into the park before our hike. So the night before we picked it up, we went grocery shopping as we would do a lot of hiking over the next 14 days and needed supplies. We also purchased all of the bus tickets we would need pre and post hike.
Since Ol lugged all of the groceries back to our hostel. I spent the evening making trail mix and ziplock bags with dried foods for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Taking things out of their containers and repackaging everything would make it easy on the trail to just add hot water. For example, I added dried milk and brown sugar to oatmeal, dried milk to soups, and seasoning packets to instant potatoes and pastas.
Surprisingly we got everything done and were on time to pick up our car. The agency was great, they had all of our paperwork ready for our border crossings and added me as a driver with just a copy of my license (I renewed it before we left for our trip, but it didn’t arrive before we left). Ol was happy he wouldn’t have to do all of the driving.
Our first stop was just outside Puerto Natales at Cueva del Milodon National Monument. It is formed by three caverns and one rock conglomerate the “Devil’s Chair”. In 1896 fur, bones, and other remains of an extinct animal, the Milodon were found in the cave. 11,000 years ago the area was home to the primitive Patagonian man and animals such as the saber tooth tiger. Today, it is an important archeological dig.
The cave had a great overlook of the wind swept plateaus and steppes of Patagonia. It included a view of snow capped glaciers, ice fields, and rivers and lakes colored pure Tiffany blue. This is what the rest of the world must have looked like thousands of years ago, at the end of the last ice age when the glaciers retreated. We were in awe of Patagonia’s raw beauty.
We decided to be adventurous on our road trip and wanted to see as much of Patagonia as we could. We decided to take the one road that the tourist information office had crossed off of our map. Old route 40 is a rough dirt road which is now used primarily by backpacking long distance bicyclists.
If we wouldn’t have had our GPS set we would have easily missed the border crossing. There were really no signs on either side of the border, apparently neither country wants tourists to leave.
We passed through the town of Cerro Castillo where the Chilean border guards stamped our passports and our paper work for the car. The whole process took less than five minutes.
We then drove a few minutes down another dirt road and were welcomed into Argentina. This was also an easy border crossing. There were no forms or car checks. The smiling lady simply stamped our paperwork and then ran outside to open the gate. The buildings looked more like run down houses, than government buildings. The guards were all very friendly and welcoming.
Again the GPS came in handy as Route 40, a dirt road, was not marked. On the drive we were treated to a beautiful landscape of twisted trees, fields of flowers, and grasses of all colors. Animals were also abundant. We saw wild guanacos (llamas), Nandus (big ostrich like birds), and lots of free range sheep. The roads were rough and deserted and we were surprised to see more than a few bikers making the extremely long trek. There were no buildings, houses, or towns along the road for hours at a time. The winds were so strong at times that it was difficult to keep the car on the road. A bicycle would seem to be extremely uncomfortable at best, and impossible at worst.
When we reached the paved portion of Route 40, the scenery again changed. The road opened up to giant plateaus and steppes. The sky was big (and I was born in Big Sky Country, Montana). But, unlike Montana, the sky appeared to have a low ceiling that followed the curvature of the earth. The clouds, shaped by the winds, were mesmerizing and unlike anything we have ever seen before. Patagonia has some of the strongest winds in the world due to the Antarctic, Pacific, and Atlantic Ocean currents and these winds make for the unusual cloud formations and the rapidly changing and unpredictable weather.
After stopping for too many photos, we arrived in El Calafate, our favorite Patagonian town yet. The town reminded us of an upscale ski village. We had to put away our Chillean pesos and find a bank machine to get Argentinian pesos for our park fees to Los Glaciers National Park. Ol was excited when he saw a brochure at the welcome center for pulled pork sandwiches. We had to pull out our App to figure out the USD conversion fee. We would be going from Chilean pesos to Argentina's currency, Ol's mind is sure to explode! We then went in search of our first barbecue sandwich in five months.
With 18 hours of daylight, we keep losing track of time and we probably stayed too long exploring the town. We were tempted to get a hotel and just enjoy the town, but I was too excited about camping at Lago Roca, a campground run by the Los Glaciers park service.
The drive should have only taken an hour, but with the lakes, sunset, and animals we kept stopping for pictures. We finally pulled into our campsite at 10:30 pm and still had enough daylight to set up our tent and enjoy the beautiful view of the glacier lake and the glacier Perito Moreno that we would visit in the morning. We were surprised to find only a handful of campers.
The park opens at 8:00 a.m. and we had planned on getting an early start. Unfortunately, our private little camp, perched above the lake was too mesmerizing. All the giant jack rabbits with their little horns were also captivating. We finally packed up around 9 a.m. and headed to the Park.
As we drove along the canyon wall, we stopped to take pictures of the many hawks. I was surprised that they didn’t move when approached. We also stopped to watch about eight condors flying along the rock cliffs. I can’t believe that we made a special trip to see the condors in Peru when we see them almost daily in Chile.
Just as I was commenting on the fact that there are an abundance of condors in Chile I was startled by a loud noise and something across our windshield. “Smack!” A condor had incredibly flown up from the valley and smacked into our vehicle! Yes, the giant endangered species condor! It was as big as the car with an eleven foot wingspan!
Thankfully, Ol was driving. He quickly pulled over. We both got out. We looked at the staggering condor, who was as shocked as we were. He appeared to shake it off, gave us a funny look and then flew back up the side of the mountain. We looked at one another, the side of the car (it was also unharmed) and then started to laugh uncontrollably. That is simply Patagonia!
We got back in the car and continued to the glacier. Los Glaciers National Park covers 2,807 square miles and was established to protect a significant portion of the southern Andes, glaciers, forests, and steppe. It is the largest National Park in Argentina. There are over 48 major glaciers and more than 100 minor glaciers.
After Antartica, the southern Andes is the largest area covered by ice in this hemisphere. Within this area is an ice field of 4,826 square miles which is shared by Argentina and Chile. It is named the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and Ol and I would be hiking along, above and around it for the next few weeks. These ice sheets and glaciers are the remains of past ice ages that took place over one million years ago.
The Glacier Perito Moreno is one of the most famous glaciers in the world as it is one of the only advancing glaciers in the world. It is impressive and beautiful. It is 3 miles wide,19 miles long, 560 feet thick and covers 97 square miles.
We hiked around it’s more than two miles of stainless steel walkways and just sat for hours watching huge chunks of glacial ice crash down around us. The noise was deafening and the huge waves from the breaking ice, caused more cracks, and the process repeated itself.
As the afternoon wore on we opened a bottle of wine, ate some cheese and crackers, and sat on a bench to enjoy the show. We spent the afternoon watching the glaciers changing hues and visiting with a young French couple who were hitchhiking through Patagonia.
The park closed at 6:00 p.m. and we all stayed until the last minute. We offered the couple a ride back to our camp as we were all headed to the the town of El Chalten about two hours away and located at north end of the park the following day. We also offered them a ride to there as well. Our first hitchhikers!