In December 2012 I flew to Santiago in Chile for the start of a 3-week road trip with Dragoman into Patagonia. We met our guides and Gus the truck who would be taking us to some very remote locations. I'd always wanted to travel to Patagonia to experience one of the most remote locations on Earth and I wasn't disappointed!
We left Santiago and headed south towards Patagonia. The first few days were fairly civilised but we had a lot of rain which made it a challenge as we were camping. We spent a few days in Pucon which was in the Chilean Lake District. Very pretty and our plans to climb the Villarrica Volcano were dashed by some heavy rain. Instead, we did a day walk in a nearby national park. As the rain fell and we climbed higher it turned into sleet and snow. We were walking through a semi-alpine environment which was stunning and very atmospheric with the low clouds. Being in the clouds and trees meant lots of different turns looked the same and we managed to get lost. Fortunately we found our way back to the start of the walk and awaited other members of the groups to come back before we headed to the nearby hot springs. Unfortunately other members of our group also got lost and returned much later than the agreed time so we missed our chance to visit the hot springs which would have been much appreciated after spending a whole day in the rain, sleet and snow. A warm dinner helped and we returned to our campsite to attempt to dry all our soaked clothes.
We awoke the next morning to sunshine. Finally! As we left Pucon we could finally see the Villarrica Volcano we were supposed to climb the day before. We continued our drive south and officially entered Patagonia. Our plan was to catch a ferry leaving at midnight but unfortunately it was delayed until around 8am the next morning. Not many of these ferries run so we had to make sure we caught it! Olly managed to arrange staying at a nearby campsite where the rain returned. A disco scheduled n the camp kitchen meant we had to cook in the owner's kitchen, helped by the resident cats. We sheltered from the heavy rain on the front porch before an early night.
Our plans for an early start changed when we returned to the ferry terminal the following morning to find that the ferry had been delayed. Again. Boredom had set in before we finally got underway in the early afternoon. There was a sense that we were entering a very remote area as we left port into the Chilean fjords. And rain.
The ferry pulled in to a very small town to pick up a few more passengers and we could see plenty of birds, penguins and seals. The clouds broke up and we were treated to views of the incredible wilderness surrounding us. An amazing sunset greeted our arrival into Chaiten at around 10pm. Finally we'd reached our destination about 12 hours later than we planned.
Although that wasn't the end of the day. There was still a 4 hour drive along the rugged Carrera Austral to our home for the night. We were all very tired and grumpy but our drivers did a great job along the rough road in the darkness to our destination. Only about 4 hours' sleep before we had to get up continue driving south. Daylight brought incredible views of the surrounding fjord and mountains. We drove up to the Colgante Glacier and had a well-earned breakfast. An hour's walk up to the lookout was across a large river and forest.
We continued on the rugged Carrera Austral towards the Argentinian border. Stunning landscape as we crossed the Andes into the windswept plains of Argentina. We crossed the border late in the afternoon and camped in a large cow shed so we would be protected from the strong winds.
It was another early start to get to Perito Moreno, the last major town before a large uninhibited area. There wasn't much open since it was Christmas Eve. Not many of us had Argentinian dollars so we had trouble finding a cash machine. The only one available only could be used after 10am so everyone (including the whole town!) had to queue up to get the local currency. Our cooking group struggled to buy much with their budget as food prices had gone up significantly since the last trip.
Fortunately we managed to get ourselves organised before heading south towards Mt Fitzroy national park. There were plenty of miles to cover before we reached our destination for the night. We reached the end of the bitumen road and it was on to the gravel road for a "South American massage": the truck bouncing around on a corrugated gravel road for hours and hours.
Then the road turned muddy. Our driver Olly was worried as he'd got bogged here on a previous trip. Gus the truck slid all over the place as we slowly progressed along the road. There were hardly any other cars around. We came across a big German tour truck which was badly bogged. It was a much heavier truck than ours so it was much deeper in the mud plus they had a large trailer. We stopped and offered to help but there wasn't much we could do so we continued. It was painfully slow progress but Gus kept going and finally we made it to the bitumen road to everyone's cheers. There was still a long way before El Chaiten but at least we could start enjoying Christmas Eve since we knew we'd actually make it to our destination. We could see the sun set across the snow covered Andes, providing an awesome view for the last couple of hours in the truck.
El Chaiten campsite We arrived in El Chalten after 11pm. Everyone was relieved to arrive safely before Christmas Day. There was only time for some soup for dinner before we set up camp. The notorious Patagonian winds did not arrive and we had an awesome view of the moonrise across the Fitzroy mountain range.
Christmas Day was a slow start for everyone after the previous day. The weather had cleared up to offer sunshine and temperature in the mid 20's. Smaller groups went on walks around El Chalten and some of us walked up to a lookout offering views of Cerro Torre and Mt Fitzroy. It took most of the day but was well worth it after many hours travelling on the bus and sunny weather. We arrived back in time to eat a whole roast lamb for dinner, an Argentinian speciality. A very memorable Christmas!
The next day, most of the group headed up to walk the loop past Mt Fitzroy. The weather was still stunning so we had awesome views as we came closer to Mt Fitzroy. There was a steep climb up to a glacial lake. We stayed up there for lunch in the cold winds off the mountains. The walk continued back down to El Chalten. We walked around 25km, well worth it for the scenery.
Mt Fitzroy Most of the group organised day trips to the nearby Viedma glacier. We had to take a boat ride up the glacial lake. Only then could we see just how big the glacier was. We stopped to get all our ice climbing gear and spent the day climbing on a small part of the glacier. To finish, we were treated to Baileys with glacial ice.
The weather closed in the next day. We walked up to Laguna Torre but unfortunately the clouds had come in so we couldn't see the view. Crepes and icecream back in town helped lift our spirits.
>We drove to El Cafate the next day. We had a stop at a ranch where apparently Billy the Kid had stayed in his exodus. We stayed in a hostel and went out for dinner for our first Argentinian steak. Awesome!
We had a day trip to the Perito Moreno glacier. I have never seen a glacier so big! The mouth of the glacier was around 3km wide and it was several hundred metres high. We had a few hours on the viewing glaciers so we could watch parts of the glacier gradually fall off. We were lucky enough to see a large part of the glacier come off which generated some large waves across the lake.
Torres del Paine National Park We were back on the truck the next day for a long drive into the Torres del Paine national park. There was another border crossing back into Chile. The blue skies were back and we could see views of Torres del Paine as we came closer. We stopped in the last town before the national park, Puerto Moreno, to stock up on supplies for the next few days. As it was New Year's Eve this included plenty to drink! As the weather was perfect, we could open up the roof seats on the truck and see views across the mountains as we drove to our campsite. It was a brilliant location, right across a lake with views of the Torres del Paine massif. We were treated to an awesome sunset to see out 2012 and welcome 2013.
The group separated into smaller groups for different activities over the the next few days. I joined a handful of people to do the "W" walk over the next 4 days. We were dropped off at the base of Lago Grey and caught a boat up to the top of the lake to start the walk. As it was peak season I couldn't stay in any of the huts so I carried a tent. We walked up over a ridge which had views of the Grey Glacier. We came across other people on the trip who were walking in the other direction to go sea kayaking at the base of the Grey Glacier. Fortunately it was a relatively short day to get used to carrying a full pack. The good weather continued.
The next day we walked though the area of the national park which had been badly damaged by a fire only a couple of years ago. We left our heavy packs and headed into the French Valley which was a steep climb into a valley surrounded by rocky cliffs. We headed back down and reluctantly put on or bags to get to our next hut. The hut was full so we had to wait for our dinner slot but we could appreciate the surrounding mountains. There was only one tent spot left which I was fortunate to find. The notorious Patagonian winds had finally appeared and it was an interesting night as I hoped my tent didn't rip or get blown away!
Torres del Paine National ParkFrench valley lookout We were getting into our stride and made good progress around to our last hut for the "W" walk. Yet another steep climb with full packs. We reached our destination around mid afternoon and it was still relatively clear weather. The forecast was for it to close in the following day so we decided to climb up to the Torres del Paine lookout where we could make the most of the view before the weather closed in. It was close to a 1000m climb up a rocky valley. The towers only came into view at the top and it was one of the most amazing views I'd ever seen. We didn't stay long due to the cold winds but took plenty of photos!
The next morning was clear but the forecast was still for the weather to close in. We decided to walk up the valley the most of already being relatively high rather than climbing all the way up from the carpark where the rest of our group were coming from. We got to the path to the Torres del Paine lookout and I decided to climb up there again as the morning sun was shining on the mountains and it as too good an opportunity to miss. We were able to spend more time at the top and enjoy the view than yesterday.
On the way down, we saw more members of our truck group who we hadn't seen for a few days. They had climbed all the way up from the hotel carpark to attempt to get to the lookout before the clouds came in. They continued upwards while we returned to the hut and ate a big lunch. We had plenty of time to get back down to the carpark and meet the rest of the group and have a well-earned rest on Gus the truck. We cooked dinner and shared stories of our adventures over the past few days.
The next day we said farewell to Torres del Paine and it was back though Puerto Moreno to drive down to Tierra del Fuego. We had a lunch stop by an abandoned sheep station on the Straits of Magellan. It was a straightforward crossing on a car ferry. We had our best "South American massages" for the trip as we travelled across some very rough roads. It was such slow progress that we had to camp right next to the border crossing back into Argentina. Not the nicest campsite but convenient at least.
Overnight it started raining very heavily. We quickly packed up our tents and drove south first thing in the morning. We didn't want to hang around in the cold and wet! Unfortunately we couldn't see much but we made good progress. It was very cold and we were struggling to keep warm. The rain started to clear as we descended into Ushaiua, the southernmost town in the world. We had arranged to stay at a hostel and could see fresh snow on the surrounding mountains. I arranged to go on a boat trip on the famous Beagle Channel. There was lots of wildlife and the boat stopped to see some seal colonies on the way. We celebrated our last night as a group.
My flight to Buenos Aires was delayed by 6 hours the next day so I had some bonus time to look around the town. Overnight in Buenos Aires then I was lucky enough to get a free upgrade to premium economy for the flight back to London :-)
It was an incredible trip. I had signed up so I could see the wilds of Patagonia and we certainally saw our fair share. We were also very lucky with the weather. After a very wet start to the trip, it cleared up for the most spectacular parts of Patagonia we visited.
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