Where the Carretera Austral ends in the water.

Giant chilean Gunneras, with leaves averaging over one meter across, rule the open spaces between the road and the woods. At times it tends to compete for airspace with equally giant bright green tree ferns, or hugged by the neighborly fine leaved bushes of fuchsias, sparkling with tiny red flowers. Here and there, tall stalks of pink foxgloves triumphantly poke through the oversized foliage. Then a bouquet of flaming orange crocusmias steals the show, while bright yellow parasols of flowers – I don’t know the name of – try hard by sheer volume. The gunneras however, not to be outdone, are raising their own rust- brown blooming stalks, growing solidly from the bottom crown upwards.

After our visit to the marble caves, we rattled northwards to the largest town along the Carretera Austral: Coyhaique. Here we could stock up on groceries and check in at a campground to clean up ourselves, the camper, and our clothes. It was a busy campground where we even met some fellow travelers that we last saw in Uruguay. They came from the north, where we were planning to go, so they pointed out some interesting must- see locations. Soon we were off to see for ourselves.

Creek with a view adjacent to the Coyhaique campground
Along the Carretera Austral
Lupines, still in magnificent bloom
That long and dusty road…has so much beauty to offer.

The road brought us through the damp mountain side forests of Queulat National park, where lichen, mosses, and flowering vines decorated the tree trunks. We stopped at a short trail to a waterfall – where for a moment I lost my balance on an uneven slippery rock above a cliff, after Thijs urged me to come up just that much further than the official end of the trail – to where the water splashed into a deep pool. It gave me a scare, but I survived the challenge without a scratch!

Just one of the trees along the road.
The trail head to the waterfall.
This is where the trail ends….

Before we knew it, we arrived in the quaint fjord side village of Puyuhuapi. Many Germans had settled here, which was especially visible by the street names and one or two houses with distinct building style. Most other houses drew their charm from wooden clapboard and tin roofing, pretty typical for this region. We found a grassy camping spot overlooking the mirror flat water of the fjord (no wind!!) where a few seals and dolphins played within sight. Occasionally a weathered looking man with his dogs walked by, handling a crooked wheelbarrow, which he proceeded to fill with grass sods selected from the waterside. He greeted us and didn’t seem to mind us as temporary neighbors.

The road was getting from bad to worse. Unbelievable, but we preferred the washboard road to this.
Looking over the fjord of Puyuhuapi. On the mountainside on the left is one of the first (German style) houses built here.
Clapboard houses are the most common here.
Big trees are cut lenghtwise with a chainsaw. But the chainsaw was too short, so the last bit was split apart with wedges, which were made on the spot.
In this town they either loved – or received an good deal on yellow paint
View from our campsite
A quiet day on the fjord

After a few relaxing days we continued on our way north through landscape that increasingly looked more developed, with green meadows, more homesteads and a perfectly paved road – you don’t know how much to appreciate smooth pavement until you’ve gone a while without. So here we could focus our attention on the beauty around us: the turquoise rivers and lakes, the ancient forests and roadside blooms, the views of the snow topped mountains… It all looked so idyllic, until we reached Villa Santa Lucia, where in the morning of December 16, 2017, after torrential rains followed an extended period of drought, a large chunk of a nearby glacier collapsed, causing ice, rocks, mud, trees and debris to race down the mountain and bury half of the village. At 72 km/hour, it took the mudslide only five minutes to run eight kilometers from the top of the mountain down to the village, surprising people in their houses. Four years later the evidence of this disaster still makes an impact. We stopped to visit the small museum established by the inhabitants of the only house that withstood the inundation (though they had to remove meter-high mud in- and around their house, and restore a collapsed side) The one room museum showed photos of the disaster and the rescue that followed, samples of items found in the mud, and pictures naming the 22 victims that did not survive. Seeing this record in the actual disaster area made a deep impact on us and proved how fragile the beauty of this part of the earth is…

Finally a smooth road!
Villa Santa Lucia, still covered in mud (now dry)
In the distant mountain one can see the collapsed glacier that caused the mudflow
One Saturday morning, we were all surprised
by a strange and extended rumble,
an overwhelmingly cruel silence.
Twenty two lives ended on that sad day”.

The carretera remained smoothly paved, so it did not take long to reach Chaiten, the last town before the end of the road – although one can actually continue some more when you take a couple of ferries across the water that separates the developed northern mainland from the laid- back patagonian land frays. We did not want to leave Patagonia yet, so we turned around at the ferry landing. But before returning to Villa Santa Lucia, for the turnoff back to the Argentinian side of the Andes mountains, we found a pretty beach outside of Chaiten. The weather was quiet, sunny and pleasant, the people we met here were friendly and approachable, and the sunsets just gorgeous. Again, we could not resist staying for a few days. Life is good when living on the beach.

Playa Santa Barbara, just north of Chaiten, allowed us a few days of camping.

At the land’s end of the Carretera Austral, there was one more great National Park to visit: Parque Nacional Pumalin happened to be the first land purchased by Douglas Tompkins (and the start of land purchases under his name that would turn the Carretera Austral into the Ruta de Parques); this time to protect the primordial forests with trees of up to 3000 years old. We went to take a few hikes here and felt like we were walking through a fairy land, lush with ferns, babbling brooks and waterfalls, and tall trees covered with soft, dripping mosses. It reminded me of a cross between the Sequoia forests and Olympic National park in the Western United States. The park also contains a few volcanos. In 2008 the volcano Chaiten suddenly and violently erupted after 9000 years of dormancy. The sediment flow, activated by rain, covered half of the nearby town of Chaiten with one and a half meters of mud. Fortunately people had been able to evacuate in time. Pumalin park however, was seriously damaged, and needed to rebuild it’s infrastructure as a National Park. That setback took several years. But the volcano – still letting off steam- added one more element to the feeling of walking through ancient history.

Trail to the upper waterfall
The upper waterfall
To get us through the the mud, over creeks, and rocks, these kind of steps and walkways were constructed
Often the bare roots kept us from slipping
A short review of the birth of this park
At the end of the road, one can still continue the Carretera Austral by taking a few ferries, to bring you into the developed world. For us, this is where we leave it for now.

Marble Caves, and why I dislike tours

When on Saturday it was clear that Sunday remained the best day to visit the marble caves, we walked over to one of the waterfront kiosks and reserved a spot for a ride. We knew what we wanted and made that clear: 1. for the best light, when the low sun would shine deep into the caves, we wanted the earliest as possible ride, 2. A boat with at the most 10 people, so you wouldn’t have other people (faces) in your photos when looking over the other side, and 3. We wanted to see just the caves… We were assured that would be no problem and we signed up for the earliest at 8AM ride (still, in our opinion, on the late side). Sunday morning at 7:30AM we walked over to report our presence. No-one was there yet, but other kiosks were opening up. At 7:45AM the organizers were there, but no other customers. At 8:00AM, while at some other kiosks customers were all ready in life vests walking to the boat landing, a volume of customers showed up – way too many for a 10 people boat. Only then were we told we’d have to wait until there would be enough people to fill a smaller boat for the “caves only” ride – maybe by 10:00AM… Annoyed, we cancelled our ride with this company and I ran over to another one that seemed to be ready to depart, and yes, they could add us on their ten person boat, but it would be the full tour (whatever that meant, we’d find out) We signed up and left right away. So, the full tour meant that first we went to the other side of the lake to admire a boat wreck, followed by a stop in a village that used to have a marble mine (not interested in either one- been there, done that similar stuff before) So I sat and waited along the beach, which I must admit, was peaceful and pretty.

At around 9:30AM, when the sun was already high in the sky, we reached the caves. The first ones turned out to be around the corner from the village, and had multiple entries to reach by boat. The marble was grey with white stripes and yellowish growth coming out of cracks. The boat and its people both shaded the caves as well as bounced off its colors on the marble surfaces. There were many caves we floated into, enough for many other boats to join in the fun without being in each other’s way. Only at the very end we reached the marble cathedral and marble chapel (which resembled a big rock on marble stilts) Here, one had to accept a large gathering of boats and canoes crowding the site and I wondered if maybe only these last two places would make up to be the “caves only” destination we initially had in mind.

Once we reached the caves, it was selfie time! There and then it dawned on me why the magic light of the morning didn’t seem important to the majority of the visitors: most were not even admiring the caves, but only themselves through their phone cameras. Selfie sticks poked out from every side for faces grimaced in posed smiles, and fingers held up with peace signs. The tour leader volunteered to shoot pictures of groups that crowded out the views we came to see. I was glad to be in the front row seat, with Thijs a way back on the other side. The other front row seat was occupied by a young guy who must have made at least a hundred pictures of his same overly happy face, only looking over his shoulder to make sure he would not get hit by a protruding marble point.

Despite the crazy tour experience we didn’t regret waiting for that one sunny day or taking the tour…unless you have your own boat, there is no other way to see this natural phenomena. We enjoyed the beauty of the lake and got to see and touch the natural marble sculptures from up close. It is a unique sight to see. After the tour, I spoke to the woman who registered us. She informed us that we could have taken a sunrise canoe tour, or hire a whole boat for a private tour, which would cost a small fortune…a little late, and yes, we can only blame ourselves for not shopping around.

From Route 40 to the Carretera Austral: The Patagonia National Parks

From our departure point of el Chaltén, we drove to, and then over the legendary route #40 (stretching north to south across Argentina, from its southern tip all the way to the Bolivian border) Just like in eastern Patagonia along route #3, settlements along route #40 are spread thin: with a 400km stretch between the turn-off near Tres Lagos and the one to route #41 past Bajo Caracoles, it takes a good detour to reach the gas station about halfway along, at the town of Gobernador Gregores. In the hamlet of Bajo Caracoles, we found a large gathering of motorcyclists and a couple of cars waiting to be serviced at the sticker-plastered fuel pump. The guy first in line turned around, throwing up his hands in despair: they’d run out of fuel, and it would be a day or two before a new supply was expected. The next fuel station would be at least 200km either way… Caracoles had just a few buildings and one hotel with, from the looks of it, maybe five rooms … The (only) store/restaurant- half of the building had an overload of sodas and alcoholic beverages, as well as sweet and savory snacks, but little choice in nutritious food. We still had a comfortable amount diesel to get us to the next town, but I wonder about all these people waiting to fill up…

Stickers along the southern highways are the traveler’s grafiti. Tags everywhere, like on fuel pumps. (Note: This was not the Caracoles station)

The road stop at Baja Caracoles: not much in descent food to get here
Ruta #40: the famous Argentinian North-South highway is not always a smooth road.

Ruta 40 had gradually deteriorated from perfectly smooth for the first half, to a few potholes and sinking pavement, and finally unpredictable stretches of dusty corrugated gravel. And we decided we wanted to have more of this! Route 41, which connects the #40 in Argentina with the just as (in)famous # 7- Carretera Austral in Chile is a generally rough gravel road. But what a beautiful road it was! With that I mean the scenery. The land around us turned from desert grey-green, to a sparse spring-green in the wide riverbed of the Rio Blanco and, once we crossed the Paso Roballos and the border to Chile, a jubilant range of yellows, whites and greens welcomed us. Argentina’s version of Patagonia National Park is divided in several parts: we drove the part along old sheep farms (where we spotted more guanacos and rheas than sheep) between foothills of the Andes mountains, and up along the river valley of the Rio Blanco. Here, we thought it peculiar that green and wet land sits right beside desert ground. Maybe because the road cuts through it, the park had no entry fee and, since no wild camping is allowed within the boundaries of the park, we had to spend the night at the park’s (also free) camping area -with basic but clean facilities. It was nice to have trees for wind protection, to see a puma warning sign but no puma, fruiting bushes along the trail to the river, and grass to sit among the free roaming horses.

Route#41, the road that connects Argentina’s #40 to Chili’s #7, the Carretera Austral. It’s a rough road but it leads through the increasingly beautiful Patagonia National Parks via Paso Roballos

The first signs of (bright) green in the Rio Blanco river bed in the Argentinian Patagonia National park.

Near Paso Roballo the land gets wetter

The next morning we continued our rattling drive towards the Paso Roballos, where a tiny border post let us out of Argentina. Soon, even before the Chilean border post, we passed a signpost announcing the Patagonia National Park of Chile. Only there and then we learned that this is one of the parks that Kristina Tompkins (former CEO of Patagonia brand outdoor wear) and her husband Doug Tompkins ( founder of The North Face) purchased as a Tompkins Conservation project, restored and developed it as a nature park, and donated it to the Chilean National Parks system to be enjoyed by the world. The initiative started years ago, when this couple hiked and camped there and saw the potential of this beautiful land, though at the time most of the Chacabuco valley still consisted of overgrazed sheep farms. Now most of it is rewilded, with undulating grass lands, wildflowers, fruit bearing shrubs, and stands of indigenous trees; an environment that encouraged the proliferation and comeback of guanacos, rheas, chinchillas, hares, foxes, armadillos and pumas. Although the connecting Argentina-Chile road runs straight through there, driving by car when visiting is discouraged – hiking encouraged. Only one of the pristine campgrounds is accessible to camper cars, the others are walk-in, tent camping only. Most trails are for foot-traffic, but from our camper-site there was a rare track that one can drive or walk: it leads up to the Doug Tompkins lookout. Of that 6km track, one can drive up, and walk the last 500m (a ridiculously short hike) or hike the whole way, and as a third option, drive halfway, park your car and walk up 3km. Nearing the top, there are other, longer walking trails veering off in a several directions. The bottom half cuts through flowering shrub lands, with vistas over the valley, while along the top half of the trail, trees shade the path. Once we reached the lookout, we found a well-built shelter with sturdy benches and tables inviting us to take a lunch break, while gazing at the distant snow peaks and the blue Lake Cochrane below us.

Just across the border to Chile, the desert turned colorful.

Historic Lucas Bridges’ house on what formerly was an overgrazed sheep farm in the Chacabuco valley. Now lush grass moves with the winds.

As opposed to the well-known parks we recently visited, there was no-one else on the trail. We had the whole place to ourselves. The low park attendance may be due to its difficult accessibility, which is by rough corrugated gravel and dirt roads with steep inclines and descents: beside the Paso Roballos road from where we entered, there’s also the north-south artery, the Carretera Austral, which is a mostly unpaved dirt road. Plus, this park, especially in comparison to the Argentinian parks, costs a small fortune to visit and camp. But nature is so beautiful and peaceful, and the area so well managed, that it is worth the money.

The stages of this strange bloom on the patagonian beech tree. First we thought we were looking at a miniature type of mistletoe, but the yellow bunches are the budding stage of the whitish bloom fluff.

View over lake Cochrane

At the headquarters we stopped to pay our dues, and visited the excellent museum.  There are three permanent exhibits: the world’s environmental history and state, the history of the park and its inhabitants past and present; and the Tompkins Conservation initiative.

A few things however were disappointing in this park: when crossing the Chilean border, no fresh and raw food can be kept, so with the little food we had left, we wanted to splurge on lunch at the park’s restaurant – reported to be expensive but excellent. We couldn’t. Twenty-four hour advance reservations were required, and nothing could budge them, even when the grounds looked sparsely populated (mostly staff there). We were directed to the coffee shop – which we found in the administration building (the buildings were re-assigned after the handover, but the name plaques weren’t) where we could choose a prepackaged sandwich or salad. We opted for the salad and, while the weather outside was gorgeous and inside was dark and gloomy, we looked for a table or at least a seat outside…nothing there, so we ended up eating from our laps on the steps. Sometimes stupid little things like that can sour an otherwise great experience.

Sunset view from our campsite.
Our campsite in the park.
Is this a sign of clean air?

Before turning north on the Carretera Austral, we detoured south to get fresh groceries and Wifi updates – except for a few slow 3G moments, we had not been linked to the world for a while. We needed to update our phones and download photos to the cloud. The town of Cochrane – adjacent to the park – was laidback and just big enough to get your necessities. The camping we chose was the size of someone’s backyard, but with clean bathrooms, excellent Wifi, and near the shops, so we stayed for an extra day to wash the dust off our bodies, and catch up with the world. On the map we spotted our next destination, north along the bone-rattling Carretera Austral: some years ago I saw pictures of grey/white marble caves, elegantly shaped by blue water. They’d be about 114 km up the road. It took us half a day to get there, driving over the dusty road along the bright blue Baker river canyon and past pine forests, so neatly planted, they looked like an army of parading soldiers.

Carretera Austral

Baker river valley, driving towards Cochrane
The main building of the campground in Cochrane. Maybe you wouldn’t think so, but it was clean and had excellent internet. That’s what counts.
Along the Cochrane Plaza de Armas, cherries were sold off the truck. Most people bought four whole kilos!
Flowers along the road made us stop several times. This time we discovered we had a flat tire, which we wouldn’t have noticed if we had not stopped. (One of the rear dual wheel tires) Fortunately it was just the valve that must have unscrewed by the rattling road.
Big tall bushes of wild hardy fuchsias grew everywhere along the road, like I’ve never seen them before!
Carretera Austral, on our way to Lago Carrera and the marble caves.
Lago Bertrand along the Carretera Central seemed to be a popular place to spend a vacation.

The huge lake of General Carrera looked invitingly blue, even under overcast skies. Puerto Rio Tranquillo was bustling with visitors: it was a Friday afternoon during summer vacation, so of course… The weather forecast gave us just one windless sunny day on Sunday. We had time, and decided to wait, no problem. At the town’s beach, overlooking the lake, we were good.

Waiting for sunny weather at the beach of Lago General Carrero, so we can visit the marble caves under the best light. (We thought we were big, but look at our neighbors!)
Cloudy skies give beautiful sunsets

I will tell you everything about the marble caves in the next blog, coming soon.

Cute little houses in the area
Cute little houses in the area

The famous Patagonian parks of Torres del Paine and Glacier National Park.

It was full summer in the Patagonian Andes. Chilean and Argentinian vacationers were up and about, many of them like us in campers, even more backpacking, and others enjoying hotel luxury. In addition, there were the international travelers. In other words, the Patagonian Andes were packed with tourists. The best way to visit these parks while avoiding the crowds, is to start as early as possible. Under blue skies and low winds, we entered Torres del Paine at opening time, after having spent the night at a pretty spot overlooking the river valley and Paine mountain range just outside the park. We decided to start by hiking the most popular trails first. The first one led us through lush woods, over a long isthmus of moraine gravel, to a rocky island covered with flowering shrubs and plants. The island was surrounded by a grey glacier lake (hence the name: Lago Grey) where the distant glacier left a few bright blue icebergs floating around. The crisp Patagonian summer air felt like spring. Patagonian barberries already showed off their blue fruit. A shrub, covered with bright pink flowers took part in the palette of greens, yellows, reds, purples and blues. Along the mountainside, the smaller beech trees had grown pointing eastwards, resigned to bend with the westerly winds.

Early morning along the riverbed in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Entering the trail from Lago Grey, one first enters a forest
The gravel isthmus to the island in the glacier lake. Do you see that bright blue iceberg in the distance?
That ice blue is real!
Trees bending and growing eastwards with the eternal western winds.
So much color!

On our return, we crossed paths with a multitude of people. To enjoy a sense of solitude, we had to strategize our route a bit. We admired the blue waterfall but waited till next morning to continue the hike. Again, we walked undisturbed through a burst of colors with mountain views over blue lakes. I have a habit of gently touching mosses and grasses, in order to feel their textures. The patches of big yellow-green cushions that looked like soft moss from a distance, turned out to be tough and sharp, with yellow flowers. Bees busily buzzed from flower to flower. An occasional tiny black butterfly fluttered by in front of us. At the end of the trail, we enjoyed a breathtaking view over snowcapped Cuernos del Paine mountains.

Salto Grande, the thundering blue waterfall
These yellow-green cushions look so soft from afar…
…but the green spike leaves feel like thorns!
Even these fuzzy looking flowers were hard to the touch.
Fascinating cloud formations were taking shape above the snow peaks.

At the end of the trail, this beautiful Cuernos view was worth a break and a picnic.

Torres del Paine – the tower-like monoliths that brough fame to this area, had to be reached by driving around the range, through dry grassy hills over dusty, washboard roads. We reached the crowded basecamp by noon, had lunch there, and decided against taking the four-hours track up. Instead, we continued to Lago Azul, where, in my opinion, the view over the Torres is better, albeit not as overpowering as from up close…

Around the eastern sides of the mountains, the dry Patagonian landscape prevails.
Along the way, at Toro lake, we were struck by the clear and blue water
Pretty grebe in the water
The Torres del Paine as seen from Lago Azul, which was not very blue at that moment.
The Torres del Paine as seen from Lago Azul.
The Torres del Paine
Very peculiar cloud formations developed off the snowcaps
Very peculiar cloud formations developed off the snowcaps

Having traveled the park south to north, we left the next day, and crossed the nearby border from Chile back to Argentina, to reach Calafate; the jumping-off town for Glacier National Park. Since the weather had turned windy again, we decided to stick around, wait for another sunny day, and explore the town a bit – and found a bakery with great sourdough bread!

Finally, a Gaucho with his dogs. We missed seeing them in Argentina
There must have been a dead animal around, which we didn’t see, but about ten condors, plus some other birds were gathered.
There must have been a dead animal around, which we didn’t see, but about ten condors, plus some other birds were gathered.
Thijs in the Lupine flower field

The biggest attraction of Glacier National Park near Calafate is the very accessible Perito Moreno Glacier. Knowing how many people were there to visit that same site, we started driving the 70 kilometers on the day before, and found an unbelievably beautiful spot in the fields, about 2 kilometers before the entrance of the park. Here we enjoyed stillness of nature, a babbling creek, blooming wildflowers, a tentative visit from a rhea – the South American ostrich, and a warm sun on a windless afternoon. At quarter to eight the next morning, we drove to the park entrance, where we were the first in line. By the time the gate opened at eight, we were already part of a long line of visitors, all eager to beat the crowds. In hindsight, the anxiety was not necessary, since the access to the glacier had a multitude of (steps and) walkways to get there, so most of the time we found ourselves alone with a glacier that loudly protested the warmer than usual weather with cracks that broke off large pieces of ice, which loudly thundered into the water below…even relatively small pieces sounded like explosions when they hit the water.

The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the few advancing glaciers left. It is also one where you can hear the glacier crack and explode.
Notice the protruding piece of ice, with the brown stripes? That piece broke off while we watched.
Off course the break started while we were walking away through the woods when we heard it starting to rumble, but the actual break- off we saw from this distance. It’s scar shows dark blue, near the darker trees on the left.
Our beautiful overnight camp spot, with nothing but serene solitude.

After our glacier visit, we returned to last night’s campsite for another stay, where once more we enjoyed the serenity of the blooming desert. I found and tasted some calafate berries- the blue Patagonian berries that grow on a particular barberry bush- and decided they are not really tasty off the bush: tart and full of small seeds, but once you’ve tasted the calafate jam, you’re an addict. So delicious! There were not enough berries around for me to make a jam, so we settled for a store-bought version, to go with a great sourdough bread we bought, to take along on our drive through the dry Patagonian country side to the northern mountains of Glacier National park, and the peaks of El Chalten. (= Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre).

Calafate berries are ripe. They are best as a juice or a jam (just like black currants)
One more time at our wide open camp site.

The village of El Chalten is really too small to accommodate the numbers of people that come to walk the trails of the mountain range in the northern end of Glacier National Park. Since free range camping in one’s vehicle is not allowed anywhere around the National Park, including El Chalten, over forty-five camping cars had to be packed on the one small, designated riverside parking lot at the entrance of town (and two small, fully booked commercial campgrounds) Just one pit toilet had to serve around ninety people: imagine the impact on the environment, when most people want to avoid that stinky hole in the ground and rather go in the bushes – on a daily basis….this place really grew too fast, and I wonder what it will look like in a couple of years.

El Chaltén (the indigenous name for Mt Fitz Roy) in evening light.

Hiking is what you do here, and the trail to the base of Mt. Fitzroy, and the one to the base of Cerro Torre are the most popular, so again it made sense for us to start early. We walked up to Laguna Capri, where we arrived in time to see the majestic peaks mirrored in the lake water. An hour later all was shrouded in clouds. I know I huffed and puffed to reach our goal, but going back down, I felt so sorry for those people in questionable condition struggling to catch their breath working their way up, only to get to a viewpoint and see clouds… At least the winds were gentle that day. When two days later the winds picked back up, we let ourselves be blown away – north over Ruta #40, until the next pass over the Andes mountains, back to Chile.

The Patagonian Beech grows these funny looking things as flowers. They feel downy soft.
The eternal western winds do a job on these poor trees. Frequent storms have them falling all over each other and prevent them from growing straight; makes for an eery looking forest.
Mountains mirrored in Lago Capri. This time we did not have sunny weather.
Is it fungi or lichen that paint the designs on this rock?
Lunchtime, looking at el Chaltén over Lago Capri
El Chaltén, or Mount Fitz Roy in Glacier National Park, Argentina
The ground under the trees around the lake got restored to it’s former natural state.
Beautiful little waterfall along the road, just past El Chaltén

The mystery of the roadside soda bottles

We first noticed them in Tierra del Fuego after we had crossed the Chile to Argentina border: discarded plastic (and sometimes glass) bottles, half filled with a liquid of a color ranging from diluted Mountain Dew yellow to apple juice brown – nicely sealed with its bottle cap. Why would people throw away half finished drinks? Maybe these were offerings to some travel saint, like the water bottles we see at the shrines of la Difunta Correa (= a lactating mother, sanctified by Argentinians after (legend says) she was found dead along a road, while her live baby was still drinking the mother’s milk…)? We could not make sense of it and decided to ask about it at the Ushuaia tourist office. She could give us no answer, so it remained a mystery, until just now our guess work was over: after we crossed the border once more from Chile to Argentina, we noticed the road side bottles again, but this time, a stopped car along the road gave us the clue: a guy alongside the car was peeing in a soda bottle! Now we can imagine the embarrassment of the tourist office lady when we asked about the bottles! It still leaves us wondering why. Why put the top back on, and why even pee in a bottle and leave it along the road, while just peeing alongside the road would have been so much cleaner…and how do they think that trash will disappear?

Ushuaia to Puerto Natales

Early in the morning, after leaving the Antarctic vessel, we retrieved our camper at the airport. It was time to explore this legendary Tierra del Fuego…but that was not meant to be, yet. On the way to Ushuaia, the (automatic) transmission started slipping until, right at the entrance of town and in the middle of the highway, it refused to go any further. The gas station across the road could not help us, and all businesses were still closed. After Thijs came back from the gas station, and after discussing what to do – not believing what happened- he gave it another try… The truck moved again, although just for two kilometers. We limped to the Mercedes garage on the other side of town, pausing and going. At the garage, the people were friendly but not very helpful: with the World Cup Soccer finals coming up, they were not planning to take on any work, but suggested we’d search ourselves for transmission oil and filter, and maybe a new transmission, all of which, they assured us, would not be available in Ushuaia, but maybe in Commodoro Rivadavia (1350km), or Buenos Aires (3100km) or the USA (?!). It did not sound very promising. We limped back – stopping and going- to the waterfront parking lot, where at least we could camp out for a while in the company of other campers – many of them also in MB Sprinters, albeit the Argentinian (manual) version.

Here we are, at the end of the ever-growing row of campers along the Ushuaia waterfront. We were counting on being there for a while until we’d figure out what to do with our camper’s transmission.

From our location overlooking the Beagle Channel, we watched the Argentinian soccer league win the World Cup, followed by two days of partying. And what a party it was! Everything, except of course for the bars, was closed. Our friendly South American Sprinter neighbors however did their best to contact their Sprinter dealers to find our necessities, but all of them were far away, with expensive and time-consuming shipping involved…

Argentina won the World Cup! Viva Argentina!
It’s Christmas time at the Mercedes garage, this in addition to Argentinia winning the soccer World Cup (party!), so no work could be done for a while

Downtown Ushuaia; we had enough time to explore

However Thijs did not sit still: he contacted our US Sprinter angel Dr. Andy, who has helped us brilliantly several times before, and then heeded his advice: our battery was old and did not give enough voltage anymore, so replace that first. (Thijs did that) Then find MB certified 236.15 (top grade) transmission oil, and a new filter. That was a challenge to find, but after a few days of searching, Thijs walked into the local Jeep/Chrysler/Dodge dealer and found the right filter and a local address for the oil. But of course: MB Sprinter in the US used to be sold by and as Dodge! (Why didn’t the MB dealer know this, while one of the people there drives a Jeep!?) We got our appointment at Mercedes for the Friday before Christmas. They serviced the transmission with our locally found oil and filter, and all was good again. In hindsight, maybe the battery was all we needed to exchange, but it felt great to see that the filter was showing no signs of transmission damage.

At El Marinero Viejo, a restaurant across the street from where we camped, we saw every night a long row of clients waiting for a turn to eat. We went for lunch there: king crab pasta, and delicious mariscos!

We left town, and drove to a non-functioning and therefore free campsite adjacent to a pretty creek called Rio Pipo and the touristy railroad station that runs into Tierra del Fuego National Park. Here we met several of the waterfront camper neighbors again and celebrated a bit of Christmas together.

Camping (non serviced) at Rio Pipo was good enough for us, even without any toilets or showers

Rio Pipo

The little train that can bring tourists to the end of the world (kinda), with it’s station adjacent to the rio Pipo camping site. They had Wifi and toilets

On Christmas day we visited Tierra del Fuego National Park, where the mountains meet the sea. We drove through forested mountains, along bogs, and lakes where black-necked swans and pairs of patagonian geese drew our attention. Then we reached the end of the road, route #3. We walked the trail that continued through flowering bushes. Moss-like ferns and yellow buttercups carpeted the forest bottom of multi trunked trees, adorned with lichen. We passed beaver-chopped trunks along an overgrown riverbed but saw no sign of a dam or fort. We continued along a pebble beach and passed outcrops that marked the next beach, until we could go no further. Clear water with kelp fields filled the bays. Snow peaks rose above the horizon. On a quiet sunny day like we had, it looked truly idyllic. Unfortunately, those days are rare in these southern lands…

Flowers in Tierra del Fuego National park

Beautiful lakes

We drove to the end of the #3 Patagonian road. The end of the world?….not really . From here, we hiked to the end of the trail.

Old sign of beaver presence

Where the mountains meet the sea

Christmas cheers with some fellow overlanders.
In Tolhuin there is the fantastic Union bakery, where we had to stop for some bread and coffee with media lunas (croissants)and hoping for some Wifi – since my Argentinian phone data ran out… but no luck: ” no Wifi, just talk to each other” is the slogan here

When we wanted to explore more of the island, a violent storm with heavy rain and gale-force winds came over us. Nights were restless, with howling winds shaking our truck, even when we sheltered behind buildings to protect us. In driving rain we crossed the Chilean border, where at least the rain stopped, but the winds continued. On the other side of the island we took the last (wild) ferry ride from Porvenir to Punta Arenas. We arrived there late at night, just before the winds picked up to a true storm and the ferries canceled next day’s rides.

In comparison to Ushuaia, Punta Arenas looks like a real city with stately stone buildings, and a cemetery that tells history. Here we needed to find a bank to get some Chilean pesos, and a phone company to get a local chip. In town, we fought the wind at intersections, and doors that blew open and refused to close. We did not stay long, but fought our way north to Puerto Natales, through  gusts of western side winds that almost blew us off the road every time a passing truck created a temporary vacuum.

In the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, this farm looks downright romantic
The road to Porvenir, where we will take a ferry across the Magellan strait to Punta Arenas

These kind of shelters are everywhere in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, and offer hikers and bikers protection against the brutal weather, although these building also get a beating: most of the windows and doors have blown out

The wild ferry ride across the Magellan strait to Punta Arenas

In Punta Arenas, we visited the cemetery (“a must-see”, though we’ve seen better)

Here the poor – and maybe the indigenous have been buried/rememberedit is not really clear to see, although it is clear that most indigenous people have been exterminated, but now revered

The family grave of the Menendez family. This family, together with the Braun family owned the biggest sheepfarms in Tierra del Fuego. Together, these families started the Anonima company, which is one of the biggest supermarket chains in southern Patagonia
A small piece of info about the original inhabitants of the southern islands

A small piece of info about the original inhabitants of the southern islands

And since they are no more, images of the original people can be bought as souvenirs

Puerto Natales is the jumping-off point to the world-famous Torres del Paine park, which should be one of the highlights of our Patagonian experience. The weather forecast did not spell much good; only a full week later would the skies clear up, and the winds die down to moderate. We have time, we can wait it out: we have laundry to do, groceries to buy, and a blog or two to write and publish. We wild camped most of the time around a city park, where its trees and surrounding buildings gave us some protection against the eternal wind. Publishing a blog without Wifi is a bit primitive; the local phone plans programs eat gigabites like it’s nothing and that unnerves me. But we still have a few days to make it work.

In Puerto Natales, while waiting for improved weather in Torres del Paine, we went to the small museum of history, to hear about the indigenous people’s sad history.

Today we’re at a campground, where the common room has good Wifi connection. This coming weekend should be top days for the park. We will leave Thursday – today is Wednesday. What will happen… you will hear later.

Why is Tierra del Fuego called Fireland?

When the first Europeans came sailing around these islands, they noticed fires everywhere. We saw one forest fire, and evidence of former fires, but that did not seem enough for a land to be called Fireland. There are no volcanos, there are not even hotsprings….So what is going on?

The first tribes of people of Tierra del Fuego and the adjacent archipelago lived by hunting and fishing. Especially around the coast, people fished and gathered shellfish. Being constantly exposed to the water, they protected themselves against the elements (think almost constantly strong winds, close to freezing waters, rain and snow) by covering themselves with animal fat instead of clothing-which would constantly be wet. For warmth, they always carried fire around, wherever they want, even on their canoes. And just like the North American indians, they used smoke signals to communicate. So it makes sense that, when one or more of them saw these strange looking vessels along their coast, they spread the word all along that coast with lots of smoke signals….and where there is smoke, there is fire – on Fireland, or Tierra del Fuego. So the word goes.

Would you like to learn more about Tierra del Fuego and it’s original people, who have been eliminated, but by now revered? I am reading an interesting book called Uttermost Part of the Earth by Lucas Bridges, who was the son of the first Brit who set foot on and settled at the place they now call Ushuaia, and later started a farm called Harberton. Though seen through the eyes of a missionary’s son, the book has interesting insight about the life, customs and beliefs of the people he grew up with.

Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica

From Rio Gallegos – the town where we dropped off the sailors Daria and Jean-Michel, it was only a hop to get to the border. A World Cup soccer match playing, so the Argentinian officials paid no attention to us. With their eyes glued to the TV, they stamped our passports and car papers, and we were through. On the other side, the Chilean borders have the reputation of being the most restrictive of Latin America: no fresh food, no untreated wood and iteven no honey or raisins are allowed through. Everyone gets searched and given a hefty fine when they find something of the list of forbidden items, sooo… we’d taken one more day before crossing the border to eat and cook everything we had: veggies, fruit, potatoes, onions and garlic, eggs and yoghurt… a big bag of raisins I preserved with pisco- the grape spirit we still had from Peru. Still, we overlooked half a lime in the bottom of the fridge! Fortunately, we had not been able to find and fill out the declaration form online, so the inspector searched our camper beforehand. She warned us to declare this little bit of fruit she confiscated, otherwise we could still be fined. Thankfully, our big chunk of cheese was allowed. In Chile the towns were so small, we didn’t bother to look for fresh supplies, plus we still had two days’ worth of cooked food in the fridge. By then we were at another border – from Chile back to Argentina, who didn’t give us any trouble.

Ferry to bring us to the island of Tierra del Fuego

We made it to Tierra del Fuego! Although it was just a question of persistent driving on the #3 – a pretty good and smooth road, it felt like an accomplishment. The island looked different from what we’d seen so far of Patagonia: it was greener and grassier, with occasional wetlands and streams. Everything looked friendlier; less rugged. Cows made a comeback. And then, trees appeared! Short, crooked, halfdead, and covered with mosses, they looked mysterious and pitiful. When the landscape became more mountainous, they started to look so much better, that when we saw a sign of a nature park, we wanted to stop there, but the park was closed because of a forest fire. We saw the ominous clouds, and later also the glow of a large fire from a distance away. So finally we saw trees, and now they’re on fire… Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Fire is burning; what tragic irony.

Tierra del Fuego landscape

Pitiful trees, but as the mountains appeared, the trees started looking taller and healthier

The forest fire was visible from the town of Tolhuin, where we stayed for the night

The approach to Ushuaia was marked by increasingly higher mountains and dense, black forest. Ushuaia faces the Beagle Channel and is surrounded by mountains on the other three sides, which may be why the Patagonian winds are gentle here. We may have hit a sunny and warm spell but did not stay to enjoy it. We wanted to find room on one of the cruise ships to Antarctica before the start of the busy season.

Tierra del Fuego’s mountains at the southern end of the island.

View over Lago Fagnano, on the way to Ushuaia from the town of Tolhuin, at the far end of the lake.

Welcome to Ushuaia

The camper’s hangout along the waterfront in Ushuaia. This town is lacking a descent campground

Downtown Ushuaia

Downtown Ushuaia

View from our window: There is the ship we will be sailing to Antarctica with

Two days later we sailed south on the 168 passenger expedition cruiser Ocean Victory, across an unusually quiet Drake passage.

Even on level four the waves sprayed against our windows during an “unusually quiet Drake passage”

After two days to develop our sea-legs and two nights of seasickness medication (even a calm Drake passage has six-foot swells) the dark outcrops of the volcanic South Shetland Islands appeared through the morning fog. Not everything was covered by snow here– a fact the penguins seem to like, since their eggs would freeze when laid on snow. We slowly sailed to Halfmoon Island to go ashore and check out how the chinstrap penguins live and love (and poop). They are cute, as expected. In the water, when they chase krill for food, they are fast and limber, and seem to fly in groups under and on water. Once on land they clumsily climb the rocks (or snow) to their nest, where they make a big scene of greeting their mate, sometimes with the gift of a pebble to add to the elevation of their rocky nest. The ones that found their place still covered with snow were out to search their mate and make love. At this first landing we also familiarized ourselves with Antarctic penguin’s krill-red poop. Penguins poop every ten to twenty minutes and it was everywhere on and between the rocks. In the snow, a penguin’s rookery as well as the paths they create to and from the water is colored red – it may make a good anti-slip track on the snow, but for us, the rocks were slippery. Upon our return to the boat, we had to seriously scrub our boots and pants – not only to get rid of the filth and smell, but especially to prevent contagion of avian flu. As half of the participants explored the terrain, the other half looked around the waters in zodiacs. The water was clean and clear. Close to us, two humpback whales decided to come up for air. It was a good introduction to the southern continent.

Volcanic rock on Half Moon island

Old volcanic cores show dark against the snow

The “chinstrap” stripe makes the penguins appear to have a broad smile

A whaler’s boat-wreck on Half Moon island

Mother and child humpback whale

When we woke up, we saw icebergs floating by our window. Our ship quietly moved through a dreamscape of dark water, white mountains and blue skies. Icebergs of pristine white, based on a turquoise underwater float silently greeted us when we passed them. A spread of glistening ice jewels in between them vied for attention. A school (or is it a flight?) of penguins rapidly dove and surfaced alongside the boat. A seal looked up from a slice of sea ice. All looked peaceful…clean… serene…otherworldly.

The first morning felt like being in a dream…so quiet, so serene

This breakfast setup was created by some on-board influencers. They were not planning to actually eat outside (!)
How beautiful can ice be…

In the afternoon we set foot of continental Antarctica  – where a walking trail was beaten through the snow, with orange perimeter flags to ensure a distance from the penguins (though the penguins didn’t respect that distance keeping much) and to protect the fragile nature we came to enjoy. Again, to keep our presence on land low, we were divided between landing- and boating groups – and switched halfway through. From the zodiac we saw leopard-,  crabeater-, and weddell-seals…it takes a few days of observation to know the difference between them. The floating ice was amazingly varied; from glasslike with crazy shapes, to glossy faceted white, or soft snow-topped blocks with bright blue sides, or flat ice-sheets.  The water was so clear, one could see an entire sunken whaler ship, or penguins flit through the rocky-bottomed water.

Ready on the Zodiac

Penguins always have the right of way here. You have to wait, and keep a distance

When the highway is too narrow, you simply turn around and go with the flow, right?

Hiking on Antarctica

Two sailboats were anchored beside the whaler’s shipwreck

Leopard seals can be recognized by their lizard-like face. They are the only seals that eat – besides fish, squid and krill – warm blooded animals, like penguins.

Weddell seals are large, fat and easy going. They like to live in groups. They eat fish, squid and krill.

Crab-eating seals actually don’t eat crabs, but crustaceans, like krill. You can see this one ate krill by the red poop. They can be distinguished from leopard seals by their snout, which bends up

On Gouldier Island, we landed at Port Lockroy, the British research station/ turned museum and Antarctic post office, where we could get an impression of how researchers lived – a couple of decades ago. Newer quarters for the crew now manning the station were off limits, but two of our ship’s expedition crew worked there for four months, fell in love and got married later on. They gave us more details about the work they still do there, like counting the island’s penguin nests and their eggs, and see how many return next year; clean the penguin poop off the rocks, man the museum and post office, and clear the snow around the buildings, and probably much more that I forgot… Every day there were lectures about everything concerning Antarctica, like about it’s wildlife, explorer’s expeditions, photography tips, and recaps of the places visited.

Port Lockroy

The museum and (British) post office had to be dug out of the snow this winter. Now the penguins can move under the building to make a real mess!

These are Gentoo penguins, by the way.

This big Weddell seal almost blocked one of the penguin highways.

Port Lockroy kitchen

Port Lockroy sleeping quarters

I believe this is a skua cleaning up a dead penguin.
The zodiacs are coming to pick us up for the exploration of the bay
Can you believe this little tern flies from the arctic to the antarctic, every year?

We saw around four sailboats, two super yachts, and two other cruisers while we were in Antarctica. With the upcoming Holiday season and southern summer, it will be a lot busier.

The canoe team is going out for a separate tour.

For four days we meandered through the chain of islands that hug the coast of Antarctica, with stops around two times a day. One of the last days we landed in snow so deep, that despite the snowshoe team having beaten a path, we’d sink in thigh-deep at times, mostly, but not always, when passing or overtaking someone and just stepping one foot to the side. At one point I had both legs to above my knees in the soft snow and had to crawl out- I guess it was the hardest for us since we were the first group after the snowshoers and the snow had not settled completely yet. (The way back already was easier) Anyway, that night my knees hurt, I had trouble taking the stairs up or down, so the next morning I skipped the last outing and stayed on the ship. But even from aboard there is enough to see: one night while sailing through the Gerlach Straight, we were called out of bed by the bridge, when they’d spotted a pod of orcas. We ran outside in our pajamas, as not to miss these majestic animals in their natural environment.

Slushing through the snow
Single trail through the snow
Swimming penguins

This shows a good view of a penguin rookery and the highways to and from the water
Ceremonial greeting

In the left front there are a few penguins that built their elevated rocky nests right on the beach.

Ready to go for a swim?

Imperial cormorants taking off. Sometimes they get mistaken for flying penguins. But penguins only fly in the water.
Beautiful imperial cormorant (also called imperial shag)
Imperial Cormorants build their nests on top of the snow, using seaweed. As the snow melts around them, the nests sit on a snow tower – until it collapses…
It was such a warm and sunny day, that a BBQ was organized on the top deck.
Orcas spotted in the late evening sun.
Almost midnight…

Antarctica has the world’s most glaciers

Along towering mountains and glaciers, through the Lemaire’s channel

The sheathbill is Antarctica’s only non-seabird. It likes to take rides to the South American continent.

Before turning back to Ushuaia, we were surrounded by glaciers and floated through packed icefields, then Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage (could not believe at first that the ship could fit through, and it felt like moving into a giant sluice/lock) where on both sides tall mountains loomed over the ship. As soon as we hit open water, the Drake Passage made itself known with wild, high swells, and wind that broke the balcony partition between us and our neighbors. The floor of our cabin flooded, and we asked for sea sickness pills, which gave us a good night sleep despite the shaking and bouncing. The following days at sea were better: the swaying lessened somewhat; Mark, our cabin’s steward offered free laundry service and a bottle of wine to compensate for our remaining wet floor; last day’s lobster dinner was the best food we had on the voyage, and the recaps and entertainment made everyone feel like we had the best Antarctica trip ever. Too soon we disembarked and returned to our camper, waiting for us at the Ushuaia Airport parking lot.

Home again!

Patagonia

While looking to exchange money in downtown Bahia Blanca, we met a small group of campers, guided by an organizing entity. When we planned to go to the mountains, they were heading to Balneario El Condor, further south along the coast. We figured that an organization like theirs may know some of the better places, so we looked it up and found that this location is especially attractive because of the largest colony of cliff burrowing parrots, right along the beach – easy to reach and see, plus the beach itself is also nice. So, about a week later, after the Sierra detour, we found an overnight spot on top of these cliffs. The howling winds don’t seem to bother these parrots, who ride the wind to shoot up the cliffs to the grasslands for seeds, or they fall straight down to reach their nest among the 35,000 others in the 18 km of cliffs along the Atlantic coast.

All these little holes in the cliffs are parrot nests. When they fly out in the morning, their screeches are deafening.

A little more south, Las Grutas as a coastal town is closer off the main road, and larger and more popular than El Condor. Here, the cliff dwelling parrots nest just a meter or so over the heads of sunbathers. The promenade stretches luxuriously on top of these low cliffs, and a wide choice of hotels, bars and restaurants along the seaside offer a degree of fun for everyone. It was a long weekend, so the place was packed, even on a Monday. We found a great seafood restaurant, another campground with WIFI (to stay in touch with our homebase) and a place to have our laundry done. Rested and satisfied, we drove to the peninsula de Valdes, which was the southernmost South American point we’d reached in 1978. This time we plan to drive all the way to the end of the road, but first we want to revisit Valdes, since it gave us such good memories…

In 1978 we saw our first major South American wildlife in Valdes. As soon as we took the peninsula road back then, a nandu (the South American ostrich) ran zig-zagging in front of us, wings fluttering… (For our then-dog Linda, that was the first time the ride became exciting. Adopted in Brasil until then, she used to just sleep during the drive. No more: now every animal, be it a bird, rabbit, dog, horse, or wildlife would pique her interest.)

In 1978: Guanacos, those large wild llama- relatives, kept an eye on us from a distance and the weird looking mara’s almost froze into place when we drove by them… I don’t remember how far we drove on the peninsula, but at one point we encountered a French couple in a Landrover, who told us they were there to study the sea elephants. They asked us if we wanted to join them on a boat ride, for a closer look. Of course, we said yes. It was dusk when they led us cross-country to their landing site, and doing so, thorns punctured two of their tires. The next morning, we were able to get so close to these impressive animals, it drowned out all other memories of the peninsula. When we returned this time, everything felt regulated, organized and disappointing. The distances between one viewpoint to the other were so much longer than I remembered, land animals -except for sheep, were scarce, and the land was contained by fencing. Overnight camping was only allowed at the campground in the town of Pyramides. We could only see sea lions from a clifftop, looking down. A scattering of guanacos and one group of faraway nandus stayed contained behind the eternal fencing. We loved the Magellan penguins, who nested in small burrows close to the viewpoint. We had not seen them previously. We probably were too late in the season back then. One penguin approached me, so close, you could touch them. I held the back of my hand close and let him touch me. He hammered at my ring with his strong black bill.

The town of Pyramides looked pretty from above.
Pyramides was a quiet and comfortable little town, but far removed from the places you come here for.
This is as close as we could get this time… Not very exciting…
The penguins were cute and accessible.

When, this time, we drove back to the highway, we remarked that in our memory the vegetation was also different; more like what we saw on the narrow strip of land between the main land and  the reservation. Realizing that back then we had no GPS, and the paper map may have shown only one way on and off the island…. It could explain why the road did not seem as long, and the terrain was the way it was…and we never noticed a settlement called Pyramides back then …maybe in 1978 we had not even reached the actual peninsula!

Back on the #3 south, we were now definitely in Patagonia, with an endless expanse of windswept shrubland, and towns or gas stations were at least 300 km apart. Our eye fell on Playa Isla Escondida when we looked for a place to spend the night. To get there, we needed a stretch of dry weather, so the dirt road would not turn slippery on the steep inclines we’d have to take when returning to the main road. We did not regret our decision: Down at the beach, we had multiple choices of flat, grassy campsites. We chose one with a view over the sea lion colony. About 30 animals played in tidal pools, or relaxed between the dunes and on the road that continued over the beach. They didn’t seem to be intimidated by us, though we still kept a respectable distance from them. On land, moving around seemed to be such an effort for them: after they caterpillar their fat round body for about five to ten strenuous hobbles, they plop down, exhausted, to catch their breath…no wonder they refuse to get out of the way when the occasional car or ATV wants to pass – those will just have to wait or find another way around them. Once in the water, however, they moved quickly and invited the others for a playfight or a race through the surf. That day on the beach turned out to be sunny and beautiful, without much wind, and still peaceful without many other campers. We decided to stay a couple of days. We took a walk along the beaches (+picked up a bag full of plastic bottles and beer cans), stopped to watch green lizards do their quick runs, and tried to get a good look at some black guinea pigs when they ran from one bush hideout to the other. We tried to decide what birds we’d seen lately, along the road south, and now here: with their curly feather crest, were they quails, or were they partridges, or something else? We had no internet connection, so the research would have to wait a bit.

After a few days, our supplies started to run out, and the weather looked a bit threatening, so we decided to move on. We took the dirt road back up and soon reached the #3 again, with its endless dry brush land, which was slowly turning dryer. We stopped for lunch at a roadside shrine location, where multiple saints were kept supplied with offerings, like Difunta Correa with (many, many!) water-filled bottles; Gauchito Gil with (many) red flags and beer or wine offerings, and several new saints with miscellaneous gifts. Thijs was tempted to leave our bag full of bottles collected from the beach, but we decided they needed to be full and left with the right intentions, so we took that bag along to the next town to be deposited in their recycling bin.

The shrines of Gauchito Gil are prominent in red. They are everywhere along the Argentinian roads!
Gauchito Gil – times four
This picture of the shrine of Difunta Correa shows only a fraction of the bottles surrounding the shrine.

Puerto Deseado was our next destination. From here, we wanted to go out to Isla Pinguino, where the coolest of penguins hang out. However, when we signed up for a boat ride to the island, we were the only ones so far that week. The boat would not go out with less than six passengers – so we needed to either hope and wait, or look for other passengers ourselves. We left a note on an Argentinian camper that we’d spotted before in Valdes, but to no avail. We’d overheard some English-speaking tourist in a restaurant the previous day, so we went on a search for them…why else would they be in this town, but for the Rockhopper penguins? Puerto Deseado is not a large town; we soon stopped them along the road. It turned out they’d arrived by sailboat and were waiting out a storm that blew across that day. As soon as the weather would improve, they’d be heading south, no time for a penguin tour. (We would meet up with them again later down the road.) While waiting for the one good day to go out, we visited the town’s railroad station museum. This elaborate station was built over a hundred years ago as the start of a railroad that should go all the way across the Patagonian desert and the Andes mountains to Chile, for freight to avoid the wild seas of the southern cape. The railroad never got finished and only reached a couple of hundred kilometers inland where it fizzled into nothing. A movie was produced around this railroad, and that was it. Now there is a beautifully preserved station left as a local attraction.  

..Quite a nice station for a railroad to nowhere…

In the station’s waiting room, we had to pose with a bottle of dutch gin: De Kuyper Oude Jenever. Cheers!

We still had one more day before our window of good weather would come and go. The expedition company would let us know when other people signed up. We spent the afternoon on the bank of the beautiful Rio Deseado, a clear, blue water sea arm – home to a multitude of sea birds. In the evening we made one last stop at the agency, hoping for good news…They did not get any more passengers, but told us that their competitor did. If we would rush over before closing time, we could still come along on their tour. We had our ride! Departure time would be 7:30 AM. Since we spent the night next to their office, we were ready to take the 1 ½ hour ride as soon as they were.

Our overnight camp along the beautiful Rio Deseado.

It was a beautiful morning, with sunshine and low winds. On the way to the island, a pod of cute black and white Commerson’s dolphins accompanied us, circling and racing along the boat in the clear blue waters. Upon landing, we had to pass a large colony of male sea lions, who made it clear we were not really welcome there: one step too close in their direction, and alarm was raised among these impressive beasts. Different from those we’d seen in Playa Escondida, these sealions used their (fused) hind legs to lift their bodies off the ground, so they could gallop! But with our great guide we followed the path up the hill toward the lighthouse, along a colony of Magellan Penguins who had their eggs hatching. Big, brown skuas sat perched in the middle of the colony, waiting for an opportunity to rob one of their nests from either an egg or chick. Over the hill we went past the old lighthouse to the bare rock side, were we reached the stars of the island: the Rockhopper penguins. Smaller than the Magellans, they rock black mohawk head feathers, yellow old-men’s eyebrows, and fierce red eyes and beak. They nest on the bare rock, building their nests with pebbles that the partners gift each other. Pebbles are such a precious commodity, that stealing -and squabbles over- pebbles from a neighboring nest is not uncommon. Usually the female lays two eggs, the first one much smaller than the second (priority) egg, which is expected to be a survivor. The first egg -or chick- should be seen as a sacrifice to the skua nest robbers. Skuas themselves lay their eggs loosely in the grass, and with their camouflage color it is easy to come too close or even step on them. The skua parents will nosedive attack to make you flee – hands over head. On our way down, back to the boat, we passed a relic of the past: the old blubber boilers, where seal-fat was turned into the oil that would keep the lighthouse fire burning. Now a solar panel and LED light do the same thing, without pain or labor, and little maintenance. We made some progress, although the sealions there still don’t like us.

Commerson’s dolphins made the ride to the island fun!

Big old male sea lions observed our arrival on the island with suspicion.
The Magellan penguins just ignored us.
They were too busy with their chicks
It may not look like it, but this old lighthouse still works.
The colony of Rockhopper penguins on the bare rocks.
Don’t they look cool?
The big egg on top of the pebble nest
This one looked so relaxed
The Skua is waiting for an inattentive moment by the penguin parents. Just leave the nest for a moment, and the baby is gone!
Skua eggs…they just lay there, but watch out!
Skua attack
One more pass around the sea lions

From Puerto Deseado we took a dirt road shortcut back to the #3. Most of the road was smooth and fast gravel, but about one third was terribly uneven – in anticipation of the new road constructed alongside it. Still, we had no regrets: we drove through what looked like a game park. First, hundreds of hares scooted from everywhere to anywhere, then clusters of nandus and enormous herds of guanacos wandered around the fenceless lands. At times the little crested birds (quails, they turned out to be) fled into the bushes. Maras topped off the list; we had not seen them since our first trip in 1978. Happy to see them again, they made it even better by standing still for a picture.

Rheas, or nandus…two names for the same bird
Guanacos
Guanacos, with young ones
Strange looking maras: is it a rabbit, a guinea pig, a deer, or all of the above?

A little delayed we arrived in the town of Puerto San Julian, where we’d arranged to meet our sailing couple from Rio Deseado (who turned out to be French and Russian) and take them to Rio Gallegos in our camper, where they were supposed to take a flight back to Paris at a date that the sailboat could not make because of the weather. They’d just arrived an hour before us and introduced us to their capitan Christopher and mate Carolina. We had a nice dinner together, and after we spent the night at the waterfront, we were able to drop off Daria and Jean-Michel in Rio Gallegos the next evening. With that we reached the gateway to Tierra del Fuego. The beginning of a new chapter!

In Puerto San Julian we spent the night near the Marina’s restaurant. The sailboat’s in the distance.
Left to right: Capitan Christopher, Daria, me, Jean- Michel, and Thijs. Before leaving the capitan and his sailboat behind.
Just a reminder, which is posted everywhere along the Argentinian highways. (The Falkland Islands are called Malvinas in Argentina, and they still claim them as theirs)

Argentina: The Pampas

The title page on top shows how we remember the Pampas, the picture below shows the contemporary Pampa.

Decades ago we crossed the pampas from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata via the center of beef country, Azul; a town’s name that also stuck in our memory because Thijs’ younger brother later lived and worked there for a while. From what we remembered driving towards and away from Azul in 1978, the pampas were wild, bushy fields with cattle – impressively managed by the South American cowboys and their herding dogs. It is no more. Just like last year coming from Cordoba, we now drove through endless, perfectly even fields of wheat, corn, alfalfa and beef pasture. Beef country has been industrialized. I’m sure it is good for the economy. The road offered no reason or opportunity to stop, except for in the occasional towns. We stopped for lunch in quiet, provincial Azul, and made it to the town of Tandil before nightfall. Tandil is inhabited by many Dutch immigrants, which may explain the extensive dairy industry. Here we visited the historic Epoca de Quesos establishment, where we were so overwhelmed by the choice of cheeses, that we picked some most interesting varieties: one with orange infusion, one pine needle cheese, and a hard, parmesan type cheese. Then we looked around the old premises, which was displayed like a museum and used as a restaurant. From what we heard, they serve a good home style dinner, but as I cannot get used to Argentinian dinner times: eating at such a late hour makes my stomach feel as if I just swallowed a rock -keeping me (regretfully) awake all night- we stick to nice lunches instead. The next morning, we explored the town a bit: we admired the pretty European looking houses and the shopping streets. We enjoyed a good cup of coffee with the best media-luna (which is the almost obligatory breakfast coffee-accompanying croissant around here) in the most elaborate ice cream store/pastry shop in town. Then we headed out towards the coast, but not before one more stop at Quesos El Holandes, a truly Dutch cheese store, where the Gouda cheese indeed tasted like Dutch cheese at home. We bought a quarter round.

Central Plaza in Azul
This historic old building in Tandil houses the Epoca de Quesos, a famous cheese store, and restaurant.
The store feels like a cheese museum
The restaurant feels like a museum as well
It feels like stepping into a lost age
This Tandil patisserie/ icecream parlor however is up to date!

Along the coast I picked a beach side campground that promised clean bathrooms and WIFI (just about the only two things we require of a campground) for a week’s stay to update our blog and take a few walks along the ocean. We arrived in Balneario Orense looking for a reprieve from the 28 degree heat. We got it the next days, when the temperature would not rise above 18; we’ll have to get used to crazy temperature swing like this. We looked for a quiet beach, and got that, too. Balneario Orense was so quiet, that we were the only campers poor lonely Martha, the camp manager, could talk to, outside of her two dogs, two cats and two kittens. The little town was basically shut down: just one little general store was open, the emergency station was manned by one person, and the one-student school looked closed…the hotel hosted a noisy ATV group, but was otherwise closed for business: come back in the summer! After a few days, we were ready for more action in Bahia Blanca.

All is quiet and sleepy in the campground Medano 40 in Balneario Orense
We were the only camping guests…
The beach was also deserted…
….Until these guys came…..then tranquility was gone.

Bahia Blanca: such promising name…. somehow Google directed us through the port side: The road was worn out and shattered. Thousands of pigeons descended upon the terrain around us, attracted by the spilled grains off the many tractor-trailers ready to unload their cargo for shipment to the rest of the world. Recent rains made everything look filthy and messy. We only stopped to get some money and food supplies. Then we headed for Sierra de la Ventana in the nearby mountains, with fresh air, fragrant spring blooms and rustling trees. A charming resort town, this place had enough people to feel lively, but still without the summer crowds. We walked over the railroad bridge to town and admired the old railroad station. Although there still are a few trains coming through, no passengers will be able to use this train stop anymore. Nowadays everyone comes by bus or car. The road through the Sierra brings one to a few more vacation towns, plus to the park where the Ventana – the window- can be seen and reached by an hours long hike through fragrant blooms of yellows, purples, pinks, oranges and reds. Down at the visitor’s center, gray foxes come out begging for food. People happily accommodated for a photo-op:  something not-done anywhere else, but here it seemed to be tolerated…

In the mountain resort of Sierra de la Ventana, we took the railroad bridge over the river to reach the village from the campground
And so we reached the center starting from the railroad station. The prominent building on the right is one of the oldest building in town, now turned into a Casino
Once or twice a day, in the evening, a train comes by. To play it safer, one can use the walkway on the right, but not all the boards look solid there
Along the way we saw this brave little owl who stood his ground and didn’t fly away.
On the campground, they knew how to improvise. The mighty 2CV does dual duty.
Such beautiful, fragrant spring blooms along the roads
Sierra de la Ventana landscape
Entry to the Sierra de la Ventana park
A little fox was on his way to beg for food

For our last night in the mountains we found the best place Overland campers like us could imagine: Outside the tiny town of Saavedra – maybe an hour west of Bahia Blanca- there is a municipal park that offers just about everything: Wifi, toilets (reasonably clean) running water, electricity, flat grassy fields with picnic tables and BBQs, and a friendly, curious police coming by every now and then. This was just unbelievable but true. There should be more of this in the world – but then again, I know abuse by some would spoil everything….We made sure every piece of stray garbage got deposited in the trash cans.

The best free campsite…ever!
The green contraption on the left looks like it takes care of hot water, but it actually provides solar electricity, and has USB hookup to charge your phone