Patagonia

Patagonia, one of the two main peaks of our trip. Everyone talks about it in superlatives only and we were more than excited. Our time budget was about a month and a half, non binding.

We entered before the end of the year, near the Atlantic ocean. The main road n.3 (in unusually good condition) lead us into constant Patagonian winds. At least for the first month, until norther Chilean Patagonia. Sometimes the wind was average, quite often it was quite fierce. A bit off the shore it was usually from the west as nearly always in Patagonia, by the coast it was changing, but never to nothing. The roads are long and straight so much (so long not so precisely, don’t worry) you hardly imagine in Europe. The landscape changes only slightly and basically is pampa again, just a bit different. Smaller bush than further north and sometimes grass instead – again, usually no turf as we know it, just separated bunches and between them bone dry sand/gravel/dirt mix and as far as you can see. Sometimes this land of nothing was fenced (poorly) for tens of kms and you could see there sheep, rarely. The southern the more we also saw wild lamas – guanacos. Sometimes you could see a corpse of a guanaco but much less than closer to the mountains. Only in the south near Rio Gallegos the landscape got even drier so you could barely see some vegetation. The south though has got a lot of oil and gas so there is people and there is money, not that they would make the towns look better. Quite ugly but from time to time the landscape gets interesting due to a river and its valley or when the flat landscape suddenly drops down and makes nice slopes or even cliffs. A lot of Patagonian plains are some hundreds meters above the sea and near the Atlantic or right at it they drop down quickly and you can watch all the millions years old sea sediment layers. Interesting and nice but can’t compete the Andean layers at all.

There are a few great beaches on the coast but the ocean isn’t very warm. Some beaches are occupied with penguins or sea lions or sea elephants, we saw colonies of sea lions and penguins – those small and not so nice ones but it was still amazing. They really have no shame and could come to you. The penguins used to camp only on islands near the shore, not mainland. On mainland they would be hunted down by pumas or foxes. But when white man came, he hunted the whole island down within a day or few and ran them near to extinction. Just like the sea lions or elephants. Some survived only because they hid on the beaches of the mainland, which were much longer and often well hidden. Only because white man also hunted down most of the pumas and quite most bigger animals, they could survive until their protection was enforced. Sea lion colonies often accommodate colonies of some birds. They always camp at a respectful distance above them and keep intruding for leftovers I guess.. The shore indeed offers a variety of interesting and sometimes even scenic bays, cliffs, peninsulas etc.

If I remember one town from this stretch it would be Trelew. It is an area of significant Welsh descent, in this province Welsh is even declared as the second official tongue. They do try to seduce tourists on that heavily but we were certainly not bothered. Instead we drove there with a hitchhiker – local cop – and looked for two mechanics as our car was striking. It was fairly difficult task because that day was the hottest day we experienced ever. Not in the north, here. The wind was strong but it was so hot that it didn’t help at all, nor the low humidity. Like, what the hell do the Welsh do there? Otherwise there is nothing to see, except for paleontology, as the area (and not only there) is super rich for dinosaurs and other fossil finds. We weren’t in.

For about two days we picked up a Czech couple hitchhiking half of the continent. It was a nice company. It was the only Czechs we have met on the road for months although others claimed to meet many. We said good bye near Tiera del Fuego where we left the car and hitchhiked ourselves too. 450km to Ushuaia and more or less back as there is no other way except crossing wild mountains on foot or taking long and expensive ferries. Hitchhiking Patagonia generally is told to be the easiest and also the safest. Seems like it is no secret as we saw more hitchhikers on the road than in Europe in our (adult) lives. Sometimes you really need to stand in lines for a spot. It took a while but starting after lunch with a ferry we did get to Ushuaia the same day.

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There we went shopping for outdoor gear and had little success. Hanna broke her camera lens and only managed to get a second hand one for her camera without any zoom or auto-focus. Then we did some hike for great views over the area and stayed in a hostel for the New Year’s Eve. Expectations were that we meet so many other travellers whom pile up over there around the time and have fun with interesting people. Our hostel looked like it and was pretty cool and surprisingly cheap (not expected in Ushuaia in summer!). Sadly almost everyone there was a Spanish speaker, no gringos and also we were so tired that we slept in anyways. As fireworks are banned and no crowds really went into the streets, only the ship getting ready for Antarctica cruise honked representatively at midnight and that was it. Nice to experience the New Year’s Eve in the world’s southernmost town. It doesn’t feel like it at all. Only after 11PM actual darkness occurs and people just carry on with their daily lives really. If it was 5dgr colder, I could mix it up with one of the recent European winters easily. This place is sure cold. Even though around the big mountains in southwest of the island there is plenty rain, the wildfire risk is eminent everywhere. The wind is the main thread I guess. A bit north and east from Ushuaia you can see a lot of forests half dead and massively covered with lichens. Some local told us the lichens are the deadly reason, whether it’s true or not we don’t know. We did a bit of hikes and rides off the way but not too much as plenty places are either too remote to be worth the detour or typically paid.

We went to one fishermen village which’s reputation exceeds it a lot. It is literally a few broken houses with no extra views and the only place with their famous seafood wasn’t closed in the season, was pretty expensive and our dish of 7 local fish was basically 2 local fish and the rest of the meat was tuna, which was nothing different from tuna anywhere in the world. Although they are so proud over there for good and rich seafood, no crabs, no shells, no nothing was available either.

On the way back we got majorly stuck in the middle of the way by the ugly but rich (oil) city Rio Grande. It is no surprise it was in Argentina, not Chile, but still a surprise considering all circumstances. We arrived around 9PM and took off only the next day around 6PM. The last spot we tried after few hours standing there another couple came to do the same thing. They stood just a little behind us so no car could pull in between us, stole our ride and took off in half an hour while we had to wait some 4 hours more. Bummer! Fortunately we managed to get back on mainland to the car the same night especially because after that ride we were in Chile.

Tiera del Fuego is very big and we couldn’t see a big part of it mostly as it’s very remote, nonetheless big parts of it in the north and east are just semiarid plains or bold pastures that offer nothing. Coast might be interesting though. Around Ushuaia it is much wetter and far more mountainous, it is wonderful but nothing new to us. Kind of a small Norway.

On the mainland we went to Punta Arenas, to shop and see the shore. Punta Arenas is aside of else known for “zona franca” so for cheap shopping. The zona franca is just a couple of blocks at the outskirts whilst in the town there is no duty free zone, nonetheless as it use to be, the prices were equal. But indeed Punta Arenas was good for shopping for us, it was the first place in two months we found actual reasonable outdoor or electronic gear and sometimes even for reasonable prices. Unimaginable elsewhere! Seriously, stock up in your continent before coming! The shore beneath the city is nothing special but you may observe dolphins (we did) or whales (we didn’t) or perhaps other stuff.

Then we went to the famous Torres del Paine. Most people are so all over it. We were deciding a lot whether to go or not but finally we didn’t. I mean, we did, but just drove by the entrance as it was not a big detour and then left. Our feeling is we did the best compromise. The views from the road were stunning, we saw the eastern half of it including an unexpected waterfall and some lakes. Hiking in was not worth the hassle for us. You need to stick to designated camp sites, you need to pay for them and you need to book them in advance (a lot in summer). Then you need to pay the entrance fee but it’s valid only for 3 days and the 2 most famous hikes are longer. Renewing the 3day entrance cost more than the first 3day entrance. Then you need to pay and book a boat to get over a lake. And the hike selection is just so limited. Just like anywhere in Patagonia. It is so limited that each hiking path is told to be “a hike” so while in Europe you simply “go hiking” in Patagonia you “go do a hike” – wrong, you actually “go do that Hike”, they are so scarce that you usually call the particular one. There is no network of trails cruising the mountains, there is just very few (or just 1) paths that lead there and back or if you’re lucky, round trip. Exceptions might be some very long trails through Patagonia ending up often in the other country, meanwhile no alternative detours or shortcuts appear and nothing at all is to be met on the way. The entrance fees, rules, registration are extensive and particularly TdP is very expensive. Some part of the bureaucracy is however needed due to the extreme risk of wildfires. Wildfires in this region are naturally almost non-existent, the humans cause them. The dry and extremely windy conditions can make them devastating and the slow growing forests with no minimal natural resistance to wildfire environment can easily take 2 centuries to recover. Recently each decade though some bloody tourist (one of them Czech, of course) lights up a wildfire around TdP so a few years ago they made this park extremely strict.

After skipping the glacier Perito Moreno for similar reasons we went to El Chalten and did a 4 day round hike for free with not much of restrictions, just a sign in. Expectation and excitement was in place as it is just under the amazing Mt. Fitzroy and his buddies. The hike was pretty exhausting and mostly not worth it, except: 1. The view over the biggest land glacier outside of Antartica and Greenland, you wouldn’t see it all by no means, only as you see it to get lost on the horizon with occasional white mountains peaking in the middle of it. 2. One of its tails ends up in one of the great lakes down there and we could sleep at the bay where all the blue floes (sometimes 20m or more large above the water) float and gather by the beach, from time to time brake into smaller ones. This part absolutely worth it! And 3. Crossing 2 rivers so deep, cold and fierce that crossing it by foot was almost (one of them) or completely (the other) impossible. So once we crossed it on a zipline as other hikers kindly shared their harnesses. The best mountain view though we saw directly in Chalten as we got lucky to have a clear evening. Fitzroy otherwise is quite shy and hides in clouds around him.

We were warned before the hike that people do get in trouble and just a few days earlier some foreigner broke her leg in the middle of the hike and they had to go rescue her. On the way out of Chalten we picked up an Australian hitchhiker who did the hike a few days earlier and he was with the girl who broke the leg up there. They wanted to carry her but it was too difficult and the rescue team was all volunteers, they came in 28 people and did it all on foot. As they were volutneers, they didn’t want to charge anything. We spend about a day and half with this fella as he was really nice. In the middle of the way we picked up an English woman who roamed the world mostly on cruise ships and hitchhiked only because she lost all her money on the way (cash). So she took our lift as a greater help than it was for us. We also picked up a local older couple who’s car (so much newer and more expensive) broke down and our wreck was still working enough to drive them into town. Especially from Calafate and Chalten up to mid Chile we picked up many more hitchhikers than before in all years. They were all nice.

In some very sleepy hollow I managed to find someone that would sharpen my machete. It was really hard to find a business that would sharpen tools and this time it was again some guy in his garage. The machete wasn’t just a bit dull, it was so blunt the previous guys must have been digging with it, a piece of the blade was missing and on the other side were saw like teeth, super blunt too. I asked in a local key copy and hardware store and he called a guy and the guy picked me up and drove us home. In his tiny garage full of metal crap, from which he was making his life love, BBQ stands, he thinned the blade, sharpened it and even sharpened the teeth. All that he did with a basic small angle grinder, even the teeth, he didn’t even put it in any stands to be solid, not even on a table, he just held the machete with one hand and the grinder in the other one J I must admit him some sort of skill with that but obviously it wasn’t any marvellous job. Good enough for me though. Then he started to show me how to slice BBQ with the machete and while driving me back, the topic was what meat goes on BBQ in his area.

Before switching to Chile again we stopped at the border in the village La Angostura. The village draws an impression it is a high value tourist stop with this, that, craft goods and craft produce, mainly cherries. They are so proud of their cherries they even have cherry statues and the village hall has walls from cherry looking like bricks. Eventually it was even hard for us to get some cherries – in the season – and we only got a local cherry jam. The jam just like other jams we had in Argentina could have been cherry, strawberry or beetroot, we wouldn’t notice. You could only taste sugar as that is what it essentially was. We had better luck in Chile. Sadly, that is a typical Argentinian picture. They draw a stunning picture of this village as of the capital of cherries. They do it with other stuff too. Eventually there is nothing amazing about it, maybe only that it looks like the only place in the whole country where you can get local cherries. The local produce seems so selective and also overrated.

We also had a big problem to get some gas for cooking. Nowhere were we able to refill our Argentinian bottle. Because they don’t usually refill them, they just swap them for a full one. And that is only in 10l or a big one. Our 5l was just left out. As we were approaching a remote part of Chile where we could end up with no gas too, we rather bought an extra 10l full bottle and since then we didn’t know where to sell off the smaller one. So now we carry 3 bottles like complete idiots.

In Chile there was the very famous stretch of it spined with the road Carretera Austral. Only superlatives are told about it. We were majorly disappointed. Half of the road is a dirt road in a horrible state, our car still shakes looking back. The dust really can come into anywhere. Dishes, clothes.. Even though the wettest non-tropical part of the continent, somehow a big chunk of the road was constantly bone dry. Endless mountains are mostly inaccessible and if not, the trails are almost always paid. And sometimes for nothing. Just mountains, nothing really special, if you’ve seen Canada, New Zealand, Alps, Scandinavia.. Views similar or worse, trails much much less giving. The views from the road are amazing but not out of this world as we would have expected.

What is something you won’t see anywhere else is their temperate rainforest. Literally the only temperate rainforest in the world. If you’re into forests you’ll be amazed. It is a wonder. It goes from there north to the Chilean Lake District and a bit beyond. Love it. A huge part of it, although not indigenous, is bamboo. From here on to the north any wet and wild habitat is flooded by bamboo. A nice change for us was around Chaiten, where for a change (from the south, it starts here and goes north) are some volcanos. One of them is accessible by a free hike and it is the one which blew up 12 years ago and flooded half of the town underneath. The whole surrounding is a NP Pumalin, it’s all free and it’s all great. We picked there up the eldest hitchhiker I have seen, a local grandpa going to the next town. Was probably too inpatient to wait for the bus, looked like 85. All Carretera Austral was flooded by hitchhikers, like young backpackers, some stretches had literally less cars than hitchhikers.

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The Argentinian Lake District is very beautiful but overall nothing new for us. Mountains, forests, lakes, rivers as we know it. Couldn’t tell the difference from each other. Perhaps the trees, all the time trees that we don’t know. A speciality is a kind of redwood-look-alike trees that have leaves (allerces) and that grow huge and slow (up to 3000years).

As anywhere else in the dryer (Argentinian more or less) parts of Patagonia we saw a lot of lamas – guanacos and sheep. Sometimes the sheep herds flooded the roads so you had to wait. We expected so much local produce to be sold on the road or in small shops. Nothing! Really nothing. There was some guanaco exception as a poshy product and later we saw sheep meat in Argentinian butcheries here and there but always chicken and beef, even though you never see any. In Chile in the mountains you would expect sheep all the time, but no, rather cows. And never any other cheese but from cow milk. Beef simply dominates the whole Southern Cone without exceptions it seems.

In the Chilean Lake District we saw some nice volcanos (Osorno namely) and also a lot of dead forest killed by the volcanos’ eruptions. We wanted to go back to the last part of Carretera Austral, Hornopiren, but our car failed us this time. Our alternator died in the middle of a few fishermen houses and nobody could repair it for sure. So we spent half a day and a morning to get over 50km and one short ferry to Puerto Montt to get it fixed. Because jumping the dead battery was good for about 4km of a ride. Twice we had to ask locals to charge it at home. Once it died when we tried to board the ferry so we had to wait for the next one. After we successfully offboarded we started searching for someone to charge our battery for the second time, overnight, as it was getting dark. Some initiative locals were so kind to call some friend in another village that could charge it. It was very nice of them however they set up the meeting for the evening so we had to drive there in the dark, without lights on a hell of a bendy road. Wasn’t funny. There we went to a store which might have been our contact, I asked her if she’d got the call about it and she said yes but then she did not understand what the hell do I want. So some other locals standing in the store (10pm, classic) started asking what’s the problem and then a bunch of guys waved us that they help us. I really explained it 5 times that we need to charge the battery, not jump the car, yet they started jumping it. I said it could take an hour, they said ok. They gave it like 2 minutes and tried to jump it. Finally when they realized jumping it does not help, they jumped it the last time to drive it 1km to another guy that has got a charger, finally. Instead of me, they let the by far youngest of them to drive the car and we walked. I thought he would be an expert but maybe they only wanted him to practice because he was super clumsy, took ages to turn around and obviously had to turn the lights on so the car did not drive even the bloody 1km and we had to push it on a bus stop where we slept and carried the battery the last few hundred meters. Funny business with these guys, they did understand me but I could not understand them as they had the worst accent ever and would not even attempt to slow down or clear down at all. I wasn’t sure what’s up like that in the dark but everyone just wanted to help us at the end of the day.

In this fishing region we did not get any nice local fish as it seemed like all they do there is salmon farms. At least we saw a few more dolphins. In Puerto Mont we spent 4 days. We came Friday morning and it took us a couple of hours to find a place to fix it. Some were busy, most couldn’t do it (why?). At the official Toyota dealer they offered a quote 120e. For diagnosis, not the fix! Finally we found a place and they looked skilled and serious. They claimed they can do it the same day, good. At the end of the day they said they are so busy, let’s do it Saturday morning. We slept in the car in front of the garage and in the middle of the night the main mechanic knocked on the car, drunk, and asked me to loan him some cash. He asked 2000 (a bit over 2e) so I spot out no bad intentions but I only had 20k bills so I ended up giving him 20k just to get rid of him, to get back to sleep and to be a friend with someone at who’s mercy I am to whether he can fix it the next day, whether he can do it good and not overpriced. Next day he didn’t come at all and the owner was like “I don’t know what’s up with this man, where is he..” So we waited until Monday, the mechanic was back, in shape, fixed it easily, quite expensive (still less than the official dealer diagnosis only quote) and at the end when I asked back the 20k he didn’t know what I’m talking about. So the owner said that he is there 2 weeks (I though 2 decades, ok) and he already asked customers for money for himself instead of the shop and ended up giving me a discount 10k. This is Latin America as we were told J.

Later on the way north we kept skipping a lot of places and kept having issues with the car, but we managed. In the south it was bad but here it was even a lot worse to find a place to stay overnight. All country is private and everybody has its own fenced, it was sometimes pretty desperate. Yet we stayed on the Chilean side as the other one did not attract us by anything. From here until Colombia all the Pacific coast is desperately dry, and hot. But the sea is really cold so we haven’t even tried it once. Probably better chances are even in the fjords when the sun heats the closed bays up, they were kinda doable.

We did not enjoy Patagonia by far as expected, still it was a great adventure. We were rather lucky for weather, just a few rains, no major winds or long rains although it was windy all the time and driving through the wide planes of southern Argentina could be challenging. We only once experienced snowing and somewhere you wouldn’t expected, dry and warm Argentinian valley where is almost no precipitation all year round. We were somewhat unlucky for little annoying things here and there. Sometimes it makes you think who governs the roads. Paved highway suddenly turns into a dirtroad for an hour and then back. Or an unpaved road suddenly gets pavement for a few km (or even meters) and then ends again. The unpaved roads were really pain in the ass as they were so bumpy and dusty. Here and there you can see amazing places you couldn’t see before but the distance between each other can be hundreds of kms and between is either landscape nice but familiar or simply nothing. Pure nothingness for hours, that is a common thing. Patagonian people are generally richer than in the rest of the countries, especially south (Punta Arenas, Tiera del Fuego, Rio Gallegos). Reasons certainly oil, mainly Argentina, possibly water in Chile, and possibly dense descent of more organized people from central or northern Europe. Yet they have their long siestas! Even in Ushuaia where the hottest summery days are like 20dgr. Overall we are looking forward the north where things simply cannot be the same as we know from Europe.

Video here, here, here and here.

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