Week 35: The Carretera Austral & beyond!

Impressive view from many angles
Camera: SM-A715F Aperture: 2.2 Focal Length: 1.74 Shutter Speed: 4916 ISO: 50
Impressive view from many angles

Week 35: The Carretera Austral & beyond!

Queulat National Park

We arrived nicely on time in the area of Puyuhuapi after a small ‘closed road’-scare, and thus have all the time in the world to find a campsite (first one immediately good enough) and set up our camp. The site is again a rural site, with 5 pups, chickens, turkeys, cats, the entire animal farm. And a little bit of mud so the boys are entertained while we unpack our tent again for the first time in a few days. The weather coming here was lovely, but clouds seem to gather so we may be up for our first rain in the tent as well.

The next day we had the Ventisquero Colgante on the plans, but unfortunately the rain has arrived (well, a proper drizzle, but still) and with that low hanging clouds in the valley. The point of the Quellat National Park is a hike to a viewpoint, but with low clouds that viewpoint leads to seeing nothing at all, so we decide to sit it out. That means we finally get on with some homework of the boys again and enjoy the fact we have a big tent with a front space we can stay dry and snug in.

Early afternoon the clouds seem to clear a bit, and it suddenly gets dry against the predictions, so we decide to still give it a go. Now it is a race against the clock, as the viewpoint closes and the hike up is at least one hour. Obviously our hiking practice now comes into play, but in a muddy uphill trail speeding up is not that easy. Close to the end we see people coming down telling us to make a run for it as the park guard wants to close up shop, and thus we take a last sprint to the majestic view of the glacier and its many waterfalls. It is absolutely breathtaking and although we are rushed to take pictures, it was totally worth the exercise up.

Coming down we take our time a bit more to enjoy the beautiful green scenery and the hanging bridge you have to cross to even start the hike. As we almost round the corner of the hill, the dry spell has come to the end and it starts to drizzle again – talk about perfect timing! Satisfied with our afternoon, we head back to the tent, eat our pasta and call it a day. Long drive ahead of us tomorrow so an early night!

A proper day of carretera driving

We have 450 kilometers on the plans today, which seems an easy stretch, but with the unexpected in mind (punctures, no gasoline, roadworks, gravel roads) we leave as early as possible. Around 7:45 we are on the road and almost immediately are surprised by a roadwork that could give us our first delay. Interesting traffic lights to manage the traffic coming through :-). We cover some 35kms of ‘ripio’ (= washboarded gravel) including a very challenging mountainpass, but really start to get the hang of the gravel road driving. First important stop is Villa Manihuales, because we are running low on fuel. Thankfully they have 95, so we fill up our tank and head out to Cohaique, on paved road this time! With a delay of 30 minutes we roll into the town and do our necessary final shoppings (no supermarket for the next 5 days), fill up the gas once more and score some fresh sopaipillas for the road.

The second half of the journey we drive still another 90km on paved road, the landscape changing from alpine-like to tundra-like scenes. There is a choice to go across the Lago General Carrera by ferry as a shortcut to Chile Chico, and with that avoid 300km worth of ripio, but that would mean missing the ‘cavernas de Marmol’ PLUS a lot of gravel fun! We are pleasantly surprised by an extra 13km of freshly paved road, and the news from fellow travelers that the daily road closure on this stretch from 14:00 to 18:00 is not in the weekend. And thus with our grown experience and some luck (no punctures nor roadworks) we manage to take some time off the scheduled time. All in all it took us 9 hours door to door to get to our destination, meaning we have enough time to find ourselves a campsite and set up the tent. With this long drive today we win one day in our travel towards the south of Argentina, giving us some slack crossing the borders, so we are very pleased with our progress!

Cavernas de Marmol

The reason for the detour, beyond the fun and beautiful drive, is mostly to go see the Cavernas de Marmol aka the Marble Caves. The plan was to go with a kayak and explore them from up close, but like our last stop we get unpleasantly surprised by the weather. With a wind that almost always blows east, the southern wind today causes quite some waves around the caves so kayaking is not an option. Plan B is a normal boat, and thus for us the way to go. With a short dry spell in a day of downpours, we hit the jetty and find a boat ready to go and take us with them.

The ride out is fantastic, high speed and jumping the waves (good practice for later boat journeys), but the choppy water makes it difficult at the caves themselves to hold still. The captain does a great job in trying and the caves are a beautiful sight, so it is most certainly worth going, but we can only imagine the extended beauty with blue skies and flat water. The Lago General Carrera being the second largest lake in South America (knowing the largest got me a candy on board of the ship – Lake Titikaka) it acts like a sea with windy weather, creating waves of up to 4m in this area! The highest we caught was a little over 2m, but enough to test our sea legs, and still have a great experience. The last 10 minutes back to the harbor – story of our lives – it starts to rain, our que to go back to the tent and warm up with lunch. The rest of the afternoon is filled with showers and thus we sit around and chill – and in a dry spell fill up another bucket of blackberries for the road!

On to the Argentinian border!

170km of gravel ahead of us, rounding the Lago General Carrera on our way to the Argentinian border. The border has a 100 person maximum per day, so it will be interesting if we will be able to pass the border today or not. The drive itself is a beautiful one skirting the enormous lake, which with the sun out turns a bright blue. The gravel is very decent, though sometimes not very wide, but the lack of traffic here makes it an easy drive out to the town of Chile Chico. Arriving there (without any punctures, hurray!), we have a short hunt for car insurance for Argentina, but quickly decide to just go for the border crossing and try that first.

The border crossing is always a bit nerve wrecking, as you have the migratory/Covid requirements, AND the car requirements. All the Covid stuff is easier since a few weeks, as Argentina has stopped asking for a PCR for those traveling for more than 14 days in a neighboring country. The car however requires quite a bit of paperwork, as we do not have the official ownership documents yet (this ‘padron’ takes a few weeks and with Covid even months to get) in our name. With several other documents that should cover this we bombard the aduana officer, but he responds we need one more excerpt that we can easily download for 1 euro from the Registro Civil. While we struggle to get the website to work on our phones we get the great news that our padron has actually just come through! So while we happily tell the officer it is being sent, he trusts our progress and hands us the papers.

On to the Argentinian border which is slightly easier. They however check the back of our car for fruits and open food packaging, asking us to eat it on the spot or throw it away. Bo immediately starts to have a go at the big bowl of freshly picked blackberries, but as the officers leave us alone again to drive off, we take the bowl from him again so we have some left for breakfast tomorrow ;-). All in all, the process takes us a little over an hour, but…. WE ARE IN ARGENTINA!!! We drive on to a town some 50km away to find a place to stay, trying to figure out this new currency and realising that Argentina is EXPENSIVE!! But being tired and relieved we are there, we take an expensive option for the night and relax. We will make up for it with some wild camping later in the week :-).

Fine roads and fauna

After a great night sleep and a relaxed breakfast we take a stab at the roads of Argentina. First impression: Beautiful tarmac (but maybe that is somewhat colored by the past 300+km on gravel), lots of animals (we see guanaco, rhea, armadillo and flamingo within the first half hour of the drive) and wide open space (as opposed to the mountainous surroundings of Chile). The speed goes up tremendously – although guanacos are still a force to be reckoned with – and we make good distance this day. We have one stop along the way at the Patagonia National Park; The ‘tierra de colores’, a badlands landscape with colored hills like ice cream, which a fun trail has been created through. Good 2km hike and at the end of it a good place for lunch before we head out for the longer part of the drive.

Granted, as we drive along, some stretches have more potholes than others, which is certainly something to look out for. But those that went before us left their marks on the pavement so we have some headsup before we hit it. We have an overnight stay booked through Airbnb at Gobernador Gregores which turns out to be a fantastic house with all the trimmings! A washing machine for some laundry, full kitchen and a great hot shower. We also find out 2 good things today: 1) We do not have to get a PCR test to cross through Chile on our way to Tierra del Fuego, 2) If you send yourself money through Western Union, your exchange rate is amazing and you avoid the enormous ATM fees of banks! HURRAY!! So our time in Argentina just got a bit cheaper ;-).

We have another day of driving the next day, with 75km of ripio again which is a breeze compared to what we did in Chile and arrive in El Calafate, a sprawling tourist town at the edge of the Perito Moreno NP. In El Calafate we pick up our money at Western Union (it worked! :-)) and do some small groceries before driving further west. Saving on our budget we decide to wild camp tonight for the first time in South America and for the first time in a tent! We find several options through our trusted iOverlander app and decide on a big meadow some 35km of the glacier to set up. A rhea passes by and several hares run away as we make our camp work and after a hearty meal we relax with a view…

Perito Moreno Glacier NP

Waking up to the sound of absolute nothingness will never get bored, and we take a moment to relax and let it sink in with a good cup of coffee and breakfast. Today we have the Perito Moreno Glacier on the plans, a glacier that contrary to many in the world is actually quite stable and you can get close up without a lot of effort. The drive from our campsite is 45 minutes and we decide to park on the outside of the coast so we can have a walk along the coast to the center of the glacier. What makes this place so much fun and worthy of spending several hours is the fact that the glacier continuous to grow and with all that pressure and the influence of the sun parts of the glacier come crashing down in the course of the day.

So as we walk the boardwalks to catch a view from all angles, we get often surprised by a thunderous sound indicating that there is a chunk falling off the edge. It is a lot of fun – albeit also a bit ‘should I walk on and risk missing the next drop on this side type feeling – and we manage to catch quite some good drops along the way. After a few hours of exploring and simply staring at this beast of ice an enormous piece of the wall comes down, not only breaking off the side, but also the ice that is far under water! Spectacular to see as everything seems to go in slow motion and the boys can not keep their eyes off this spectacle. Tired of the continuous staring into the glaring white ice we go back to our tent, satisfied with a fantastic glacier day. Our tent is still there, but the wind has picked up, so we park the car as close as possible and hope for the best.

Next week: Why we rush down south

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