Ushuaia/AR to Torres del Paine/CL

Rio Verde - Otway Sound - Chile

Tuesday, 3 March 2009, Puyuhuapi, Carretera Austral, Chile
Tomorrow will mark the 3rd anniversary of the beginning of this epic journey. We are both feeling very much as if we are progressing quickly toward its conclusion. At the moment we are driving north on the Carretera Austral in the very south of Chile - a dreadful road in places, but breathtaking scenery. But all that will be told in our next update. This one is for describing the time spent in southern Patagonia, where we crossed from Argentina to Chile to Argentina and finally to Chile again. Confused? Sometimes we start talking about a place we have been in Chile, and then suddenly realise it was actually in Argentina. So, to keep at least a small semblance of order, I will attempt some sort of chronological order in this report.
At the end of our last report we had just arrived in Ushuaia. The town itself is singularly uninspiring, filled as it is with junky souvenir shops and upmarket boutiques aimed at the cruise ship market. The houses are quite remarkable, with the same utilitarian appearance as in the rest of Patagonia, and painted in a wide variety of colours. As I mentioned, the day we drove in was beautiful and totally enhanced our enjoyment of the scenery, which was already impressive after almost 3 weeks of vast, treeless plains with seemingly never-ending straight roads. From that point the weather situation was all downhill. Although there was sometimes - 'rarely' is probably the word Juergen would use - bursts of sunshine, for the majority of our time in and around Argentina's most southerly city it was cold, with vicious winds straight from Antarctica, and very often accompanying rain. Not pleasant, nor inspiring to get out and experience the great outdoors!
Despite this we took a short 2 night trip further south-east along the edge of the Beagle Channel to the Estancia Haberton. This large farm is the oldest in the region, and is still run by the descendents of the British missionary who settled it. Today they offer free camping at designated sites, boat trips on the channel, guided walks through the area and a tea shop serving tea and cakes. We opted for camping, looking for a quiet spot to relax with old friends - Armin and Marisol, whom we first met in Zihuatanejo in Mexico, April 2007, and reconnected with in Ushuaia. The first camping place we chose was not really the one we were looking for - an Argentinean family next to us had brought a chainsaw to more easily feed their fire - the last time I heard it start was after 11:30 at night - and it was going again before 8:00 in the morning. Don't these people ever sleep? The second night was spent in a more remote and much quieter spot.
Ushuaia is a place for meeting people. As you drive south the only road there is leads ultimately to this city. Given that summer is the only time of year that anyone in their right mind would go there, it is not surprising that we met the largest number of travellers in their own vehicles since Cusco. Some of these were old friends like Armin and Marisol. Also in this category are Kathy and Rick whom we finally met, after several months of emails, last July in Ecuador. We met up with them again in Rada Tilly on the way down the east coast of Argentina. Along with these 'old' friends, we also met some new ones - Caspar (Dutch) and the Chavance family (French), whom we had also met on the way south, were there. The day we returned from the estancia, we all met up at the Rio Olivia for a barbecue. Others joined us - a French family who have been travelling for around 7 years, and an Austrian couple, Ernst and Christine, who we have continued to see along the way, much to our never-ending thankfulness - more of that later. It is always fun to meet other travellers and share stories, and this occasion was no exception. It was just a shame that it was so cold that we all retired to our respective houses on wheels before it was very late. In our particular houses you can't really invite all of your friends around for a party!
After one week in the Argentinean part of Tierra del Fuego, on a day when all peaks surrounding Ushuaia were covered in fresh snow, we left for the Chilean side en route to the Torres del Paine National Park. We drove east through this part toward Porvenir from where we took a ferry to Punta Arenas. It was fairly uneventful except for our fourth flat tyre for the whole trip. There were more estancias, which seemed smaller than before - there was much less distance between the entry gates. There were also more lakes with flamingos and other unidentified water birds, and wild flowers everywhere. It was a nice drive along the Bahia Intuil, where rickety shacks have been cobbled together by fisherman on any part of the beach which is not fenced. Porvenir is a very colourful town, once again with houses constructed almost solely from tin, both corrugated and stamped. It is quite something to see the most elegantly designed houses and churches made from metal sheeting! [Towards the end of this update's photos you will find a collection showing tin houses from different places.]
Punta Arenas is the largest city in these parts and so we made use of it for what it could provide. After the flat tyre we decided that we needed a couple of new ones, since we had a lot of 'ripio' (gravel) roads ahead of us. In what seemed to be a major miracle in our experience, we found them (correct load rating and size) and had them fitted (several kilometres away from where we bought them) in just one hour and fifteen minutes. Considering the difficulty we normally have with tasks like this, we were most impressed. We also found a mechanic to repair our parking brake, which hasn't been functioning properly since leaving Brazil. It is a little disconcerting to stop on a hill to take a photo and have the truck continue to roll! The mechanics were very friendly and helpful and, although it seemed expensive by South American standards, they did a good job. We had a nice experience while they were working on the truck in the street (since it doesn't fit into too many garages). A pickup truck stopped and a woman and her daughter got out and asked us in near perfect English if we needed some help with translating or anything. It turned out that she is a local who lives just around the corner. She also owns an estancia on the way to Puerto Natales and invited us to spend the night there when we head in that direction. When we asked, she recommended a restaurant in Punta Arenas to eat fish.
We took Josefina's advice on the restaurant and had a nice dinner that evening. When we left the next day we took her up on her offer too, and spent a very quiet night at the Estancia Rio Verde, which is right on Otway Sound. In the morning we attempted to take a walk to the water's edge, but were turned back by a much too ferocious wind that was blowing. We had slept quite well because they had us park right behind a substantial windbreak. Our next stop was Puerto Natales, which is basically a tourist town, catering for visitors to the Torres del Paine National Park. We spent a day and a night using the town exactly for the purposes for which it exists - getting laundry done, using the internet, obtaining new reading matter in the book exchanges and stocking up on food, fuel and water. We had a bit of a problem with the latter, so went to the tourist office to get a suggestion. They called around and eventually sent us to the local fire station, where they filled our water tank directly from one of the fire trucks. A unique and interesting experience.
Torres del Paine National Park is over 180,000 hectares of snow and ice covered peaks, which in good weather provide amazing views. Unfortunately most of our time spent there was marred by overcast and rainy weather, but we did manage to see some nice vistas, and when the weather did clear we noticed that the rain had left a fresh layer of snow on the peaks. On the drive into the park it was relatively clear and we saw the Cuernos (horns) del Paine from a distance, only minimally covered with cloud. Our first stop in the park was at Grey Lake in the very south of the park. From the lodge on the lake it is possible to see the Grey Glacier only far in the distance, but the lake has many beautiful blue icebergs floating in it, and this lovely sight can be seen from behind the protection of glass in the lodge's bar. We attempted to take the boat trip to the glacier so that we could see it up close. Half an hour out it started getting quite rough, due to the strong wind whipping up waves which were crashing over the top of the boat, but the guide kept saying 'don't worry, this is normal' in both Spanish and English, while people around him were screaming and throwing up. About 5 minutes later he was telling us that the captain had decided to turn back! It was plain sailing once we turned around, with close up views of lots of incredible blue icebergs. Not a pleasant experience, but it saved us ~$200 as we were given a complete refund.
We drove on northwards through the park, having minimal success with seeing the Torres (towers) after which the park is named, but good success bumping into friends along the way. It is so special to come around a corner and find a familiar camping vehicle somewhere in view. We also saw Condors seemingly floating on the wind as they followed a great spiral around the mountains. In the northernmost part of the park, where there are huge meadows of windswept yellow, green and red grasses, we came across the largest herd of guanacos in one place that we have ever seen. And Laguna Azul really is blue. So, the weather wasn't very kind, and the wind was merciless, but the peaks with their clothing of glaciers are a sight that impresses and is not easily forgotten. This National Park is quite famous as a trekking destination and I'm sure that we would have seen more spectacular parts of the park if we were prepared for a 5, or even 10, day trek along the trails. But that is not the purpose of this particular journey.
road towards El Chaiten

Continuation on > Page 2 > !

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