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

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