Patagonia: Road Trip Edition
It was simple enough, go to one of the most beautiful places on Earth, hike, rent a car, hitchhike, take a bus, who knows. My wife has wanted to visit this part of the world for the better part of 10 years, and for whatever reason, I was interested, just not very interested. We put it off for other, better places (or places I thought would be better); hindsight would tell me that I should have acquiesced earlier.
My wife was turning a certain age and decided she was not going to turn that age without seeing Madagascar or Patagonia. Madagascar was, and still is, very expensive, so Patagonia was where we ended up going. The plane tickets were a four flight plan: Baltimore to Miami, Miami to Santiago, Santiago to Puerto Montt, Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas.
We landed in Punta Arenas after a grueling flight path and a very windy touchdown. The airport is some ways out of town and about the size of a regional airport. We were instructed to wait for our rental car, which took longer than expected. With everyone from our flight leaving, the airport was empty and we were left waiting and nervous we would be stuck. Our rental car was just a fella who drove our car to the airport and was behind schedule. After going through all the paperwork in the now empty airport, we got in the car. I offered to drive him back to town, as his partner was coming to get him. He was pretty happy about that.
We went to our hotel/hostel which was in Punta Arenas, set all our stuff down, and then headed off to the grocery store to get supplies for the next few days, as we would be on the road and in hostels for the next few nights. To reduce costs, we usually buy food at markets and grocery stores and just make our meals where we are staying; lots of pasta, bread, and fruit. Back at the hostel we made food and tucked in early so we could get on the road early.
El Chalten and Fitz Roy
Early to rise and early to the road was the plan and luckily we stuck to that. Carmen had the map with our route planned out and we mostly stuck to it. The scenery in this are was beautiful, long stretches of road laid out before us and open country to our sides. As I recall it was about two or three hours to the border crossing out of Chile and into Argentina. The border crossing out of Chile is a building that spans the road, you are required to stop and go in with your paperwork and passport. Taking a rental car from one country to the next requires what looks like a car passport for stamping both in and out of each country. We spent about 20 minutes with this procedure and off we went, it is about a mile down a gravel road into Argentina. In Argentina it is the same process. Both border crossings had a dog, which I really got a good chance to play with, one a black mutt and one a German Shepard. I brought my old passport as it had my previous Argentina visa in it, but they stopped using them so there was no need for me to have it, 20 minutes at the crossing as we were back on the road.
We encountered a slight rain for the last hour into El Chalten, which is the town we were staying in for the night. We picked out a hostel, Condor De Los Andes, which was comfortable but disappointing. The wifi did not work and the “breakfast” was just bread. We do not usually expect breakfast nor zippy fast wifi at a hostel but, it advertised both and delivered on neither.
We got up early the next morning and drove to the other side of town to start our hike to Fitz Roy, the parking lot for which is right at the base of the hike. With my cameras and water bottle and her bag and water bottles all packed up, we started our hike. The beginning of the hike we encountered quite a few people, both on their way up and their way down. The start of the hike was many switch backs wide enough for two people to walk abreast that opened up towards the top of the first hill. The views of the town to one way and the views of a beautiful valley split by a river on the other.
One hour into our hike we encountered fresh snow on the ground and some wonderful puddles to soggy up our shoes, all of which were worth it at the end as Fitz Roy was stunning, with its tips (there are three) shrouded in mist. We did not hike all the way to the base, only getting far enough that we felt happy with. We stood for twenty minutes just watching the mist slide up and over and around the mountain.
The hike back to our car took two hours, give or take, at which point we started up the old cruiser and headed out of town, however we did stop to get food; the most expensive waffle I have ever eaten. It had apples and ice cream, melted chocolate and cinnamon drizzled all over it, worth every penny. The establishment is called La Waffleria, if you happen to be in this area do yourself a favor and spend a few bucks to eat here.
El Calafate and Perito Moreno
Leaving El Chalten we had a very empty gas tank and had to stop at the information center to figure out where gas was; turns out the gas station was just a shipping container as you left town. I have been to many small stations in my time, this one was the smallest. El Chalten was the northern most point on our drive, which meant we had to head back south for our next stop, El Calafate. We did make a few stops along the way at scenic overlooks for photos and we still made good time to our next stop. El Calafate was a bigger town, so we drove in to get food and walk around the shops that night. My wife chose this town as it was a middle point between El Chalten and Puerto Natales with no real plans other than stopping over. However, this is also the town closest to Perito Moreno, my favorite part of our whole trip. Perito Moreno is a massive glacier that actually splits a lake, causing one side to be about 30 meters higher than the other, at which point the pressure builds up too much and fractures the glacier only for the whole process to start over.
Perito Moreno is set up very well, with walking paths and bridges all along the face of it with various lengths and times for every level of person and time constraints. We ended up doing all of them even though it was snowing and very windy the whole time. It was all worth it for how absolutely massive and gorgeous Perito Moreno is. We did witness some small calving of the glacier; there are huge chunks of ice in the lake floating away from the glacier itself. Overall we spent about two hours around the glacier before starting our drive back to our hotel and an early start for our drive to Chile again.
Puerto Natales and Torres Del Paine
Our route back to Puerto Natales saw us covering the same roads, petting the same dogs, and crossing the same border stations out of Argentina and back into Chile. An hour after entering Chile we were in the city of Puerto Natales at the nicest hotel of our trip. We had tasty delicious pizza and plans to drive into Torres Del Paine in the morning to do an eight hour hike in the park. What our plans did not include was a drive half way to the park only to turn around and get gas in the city as there was none on the road. We arrived at the park too late to do our hike, it was a huge upset for my wife, as this was the whole reason she wanted to go the park. We decided to drive around the park and see as much as we could instead. The roads all over the area had flocks, gangs, groups, or whatever a gaggle of guanacos is called.
Throughout the day we stopped at various roadside parking spots to do shorter hikes into the hills as well as a much longer hike to a gorgeous mountain scene. This hike started at a parking spot for Salto Grande, a waterfall at the bottom of Nordenskjöld Lake. Our hike followed this lake for an hour or so until we reached the end of the trail where we were greeted with a panoramic view of Cerre Paine Grande. It was beyond windy though, we still spent about an hour on the gravel beach enjoying the blue waters and amazing scenes.
The final hike of the day was out to an island to see yet another glacier, Grey Glacier way off in the distance. It was overcast and we could barely see anything but the icebergs that had calved off it were massive and stuck right on the beach and on both sides of the island we happened to be on. It was absolutely amazing to see. The island has quite a few paths on it and is easy to get to from a very easy to find parking lot. We hiked up one side, all the while paying attention to the icebergs on the beach we came from. When we reached the top of the island we realized that the lake continued on the opposite side and even more icebergs were floating past the island. We spent about two hours here before deciding we needed to get on the road and back towards Puerto Natales.
We had a muddy and rainy drive back to our hotel in Puerto Natales after a day that saw our plans drastically changed, disappointment turned into excitement though, because we were able to see more of the park. We took a different route back on what we would consider back roads. We watched the sunset over an enormous lake whose name I do not know. We drove through the woods on dirt roads, winding roads, up and down hills.
I will add that if you intend on visiting Torres Del Paine you should make sure you have a great map, it does not have good signage. We ran across many forks in the road where guessing was our best path forward. More than once we guessed wrong and had to backtrack.
After many early mornings and no sleeping in, our last day in Puerto Natales gifted a nice rest and a meander back into Punta Arenas. We had enough time that we were able to drive very far south of Punta Arenas to Faro San Isidro and walk along the beach for a few miles to the lighthouse. We did not make it the whole way, it was over two more miles out and another three back, but the hike along the beach was wonderful and relaxing.
Our time in Patagonia had come to an end, we saw some of the most amazing scenery the world has to offer, drove over hill after hill with stunning views at the crest of each all with a woman who had wanted to go for years. Looking back I do not know why I was so hesitant to visit this part of the world but I do understand why she had wanted to go for so long. As with most amazing places, I feel like we only scratched the surface even though we saw so much. I would not hesitate to go back to this part of the world. If you have a chance to go, jump at the chance.
Above is a small gallery of photos from the trip.
We had a three-day layover in Santiago on the way home which you can read about here. You can also read my wife’s account of the trip here.